Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Arles, one last time

Ah, how the French have signed onto politeness! Enter a store, a restaurant, a gallery with a bonjour, leave with at least a two, preferably a three or four part soliloquy: Merci beaucoup, au revoir, a bientot, bonne journee (thank you, good bye, see you soon, have a good day). When these are absent, it's jarring. Visitors from countries without such norms stand out. Honestly, the French must know that there isn't an intended slight and yet you can see the shock, the subtle shake of the head when someone comes and goes without acknowledging the people in the room.

Perhaps all the expectations of politeness would wear on someone born to a different protocol. The French -- they're used to it and it comes without hesitation. We teach our kids "thank you," they teach their kids "bonjour" (and au revoir, a bientot, merci, bonne journee).  Personally, I would be very happy with so many greetings and salutations. After a while, I'd think anything less is barbaric! And visiting here is quite calming to anyone whose sensibilities are frazzled with all that troubles the world. It's as if this gentility, this politeness allows us to at least aspire to a nobler way of life.

This morning, I look out my window and find that the clouds have returned.

France December-1.jpg

I linger at breakfast. The proprietor, Nathalie (I think she is my age, but French women always look so great that it's hard to tell; another thing that they learn in the womb) tells me about her fascinating professional life -- she is a theater actress and for the past 30 years, she has been in charge of a school for acting in Rouen. Wait, Rouen? That's in the north.  I ask why she and Vincent are here, in Arles. Ah, it's her husband chasing that sunshine! After living in wet Normandy, the south must be to the French what Florida is to Minnesotans.

She talks, too about their travels. They've been up and down Europe, parts of Asia, some Africa, huge swaths of South America and yet they have no great desire to visit the States. I am curious about this. Most French people say the opposite, singing the virtues of New York and especially California and yes, sometimes Texas. She shrugs her shoulders. Maybe someday. But she doesn't sound convincing.

When I still considered myself more Polish than American, I never expected people to claim a desire to see my homeland. If and when I admitted to being Polish, I would wait to see if the recipient of this information would slightly recoil. Coming from Poland didn't buy you status. There is the issue of the communist past, but, too, the perception -- not incorrect! -- that most Poles do not have money to spend abroad. We were considered cheap (rather than frugal). Things have changed somewhat, as a few Poles now have gobs of money and I'm sure they rival the nouveau rich and cash heavy Chinese visitors in their spending habits. But a far greater number travels on a shoestring budget. Perhaps this is a sign of the fact that Poles will travel abroad, even if they can't really afford it (as opposed to Americans, who often wont travel abroad, even if they can amply afford it).

So now that I have made the leap to being American (more than Polish), I assumed, like most of us have, that there are interesting things to see in this vast country of ours and it didn't strike me until today that perhaps whatever it is that we have to show others may appear to some to be uninviting.

France December-2.jpg

After breakfast, I pack my bags (remember? I'm in Arles for only two nights) and leave them in the hallway. Nathalie offers me an umbrella for the day, but I politely decline. If I do not take it, then it will not rain.

I want to do one more sweeping walk before heading out for my 2pm train. It's the best way to really consider the town and the Arlesians who live here.

So, over the river!

France December-5.jpg

It's a brooding kind of day. Cloudy, with gusts of wind. I'm not cold, but I have all my layers on. I walk at a brisk pace.

France December-7.jpg

France December-21.jpg

France December-23.jpg
(so many colors!)

France December-19.jpg
(so many!)

France December-22.jpg
(long scarves, too)

France December-9.jpg
(even on a cat)

And I go further still -- toward the outdoor market. Nathalie told me it's not so interesting today, but actually it feels big and bold and full of life's necessities.

France December-16.jpg

France December-13.jpg

Arles, like most towns and cities in France, has a significant immigrant population. I don't sense that there is a great divide here, but I don't really know the politics of it in this particular town. (As opposed to the next place I'll be visiting, where the politics are really in your face.)

France December-8.jpg

At around noon, a gentle rain starts to come down. I could use some warm food before my trip. I stop at the Jardin des Artes -- a Provencal/Italian bistro -- select a homemade pasta with truffle cream sauce (yes, my eating habits have changed here!) and dig in.

And then it's time to hurry out. Nathalie gives me the name and number of her Parisian sister. Call her! You can meet up and practice your French! (Nathalie herself was superb, because she corrected me each time I made a word usage mistake. Most would politely ignore that, leading me to repeat mistakes that I'm unaware of again and again.) Maybe. I'm pretty shy about imposing on strangers, but this family is pretty special.

The walk to the station is a scant half hour. It's along the river, but I take no photos. I've said my goodbyes to Arles. I'm focused now on Orange.

If you don't know the geography of the region of Provence, Orange is a bit more inland, just north of Avignon. My Arles innkeepers were a bit surprised that I should choose it as my next stop. It's sort of like Arles! -- they protested. Ah, but my innkeepers are not aware of my peculiar selection criteria! I point out, too, that Orange may be a good base for exploring northern Provence.

Now, Orange has a stellar tourist reputation. It's another Roman city, it's located just steps away from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, it's a wee bit smaller than Arles, but it has a grand history. So, a real winner, no?

Well, for the French, Orange has had another kind of notoriety in recent decades: in the 1990s, it was the first city to elect a mayor from the Front National ("FN") -- the nationalist, socially conservative political party in France. You know -- Le Pen's party, with an anti-immigration, law and order platform that many on the outside regard as racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic. In recent years, the FN has moved closer to the center-right and in any case, Orange's current mayor resigned from the FN and aligned himself with another group -- a far right, conservative one that still does take a stand against what it calls the "islamisation of France,"  but it hasn't quite the venom of the FN.

I step off the train trying not to think about politics. I have visited many countries (let alone cities), where political transformations have moved a people into an anti-democratic, sometimes anti-secular governance. So, ignore politics. I am ready to be charmed. But as I walk toward my hotel, I realize that I don't really like what I see that much. It's that mysterious thing called the vibe -- it's like the router that's just not connecting to your internal operating system. Orange and I are just not communicating smoothly.

I come to my B&B: L'Apropos. Oh dear. I see a big for sale sign on the building. I'm staying at a place where the innkeepers, after buying and renovating it just five years ago, want out. There are big photos of the inside posted outside. But what's missing is anyone to answer the locked door. I'm in a town about which I am at best feeling neutral and the B&B looks deserted and it's windy and cold outside.

Well, at least I don't have a lot of luggage to weigh me down. I continue toward the center hoping I will have a change of heart.

I do not. There's more commerce here than in Arles, but there are fewer people. Maybe it's a more seasonal town, because there are very many cafes, but most of them are closed.

I find the tourist office. I collect some information for possible excursions, but in my head I'm calculating my losses if I just tally ho and leave.

No, I cannot. I really got a good deal on my overnight -- and it includes breakfast and a home cooked dinner. I have to stick this one out. If the hotel people ever return.

The Tourist Office woman tries to call them. No answer. I decide to hang out at a cafe and give them some time to return. This is when I find most places to be closed and the ones that are open have no WiFi (I rely on WiFi to make calls as I do not travel with a cell phone).

I come back to the Tourist Office. Ah, madame! The owners called me back! They just didn't hear the doorbell!

I retrace my steps to the B&B.

In fact, the owners are quite good people. They have given me a suite of rooms that is so large that I could be traveling with four kids and we would not be in each others hair. They will bring my meals up to my rooms. The WiFi is faster than fast. The view is onto their gardens -- pretty and peaceful.

So I ask them -- why are you selling it?
Five years is enough. We want to try something else.
Another B&B?
He shrugs his shoulders. We want to go to Brazil.

Well okay. So be it. Maybe I will be their last guest (to my commenter who noticed the last guest theme in my life -- the trend continues!). Maybe their search for a new life is also tied to the fact that Orange just hasn't the vibe for them.

Madame brings up my meal. It's a chambre d'hotes arrangement, so you get whatever the family is eating -- tonight it's cauliflower soup, veal shank with veggies, pumpkin cake, clementines.

I settle in for my four days here. Not everything is great in the best of places, not everything is awful in the places that don't exactly match your vibe.