The sun has left Provence. The air is chilled by a chugging cold wind. We don't know what to think and ask the monsieur at the desk of our hotel what to expect. He shrugs, sends his lower lip out and raises his eyebrows - all this indicates, "Who knows," but in a way that also indicates we are all in the dark and will just have to wait and see.
After our petite dejeuner including delectable grapefruit and ginger preserves to spread on our bread, we regroup in our room, make a plan for the first part of the day and emerge into a blast of cold air from the front salon of the hotel. It sure looks like rain. But, I feel optimistic after my breakfast, and I want to see our little town, St. Remy.
The plan is to enjoy market day in St. Remy. Similar to the market in Isle sur la Sorgue on Saturday, this market occupies many winding streets in the heart of old town. Scarves are selling well; it's really cold when the wind gusts hard.
We buy cherries, apricots, bread, candied peanuts and some gifts. Vendors look chilled, and they are gritting their teeth, hoping for brisk business to take their minds off their discomfort. A few are ready to bolt for the warm interiors of bistros or wherever home is. We duck into a cafe and warm up with an espresso. Back to the market for one more look.
The stalls are a riot of color, hands reaching back and forth across piles of olives or heaps of fruit. In the market streets, the crowd is dense, alert for deals, restless in its quest for goods and good prices. The young man selling candied peanuts speaks with me in halting English, asking me where I am from. His mother smiles but looks embarrassed for not speaking much English herself.
"Thirty years, New York. I was," she waves her hand over her shoulder. "Good," she also says. "He is pretty good English, very good English." She is trying, and I am trying to speak French. We agree that the weather is misbehaving badly, uncharacteristically, and we wish each other bonne journee. Then I am on my way.
The rain has begun, but now we are in our car again driving to the Monastere St-Paul du Mausole, an ancient monastery where Vincent Van Gogh stayed for a year after cutting his ear off. While he was at the monastery, which was built in order to treat the mentally ill beginning in the 1500s, he was able to regain a sense of stability, optimism and even excitement about his work. Sadly, after living for a year at the asylum, he was discharged and committed suicide two months later.
We drive down a pretty lane bordered by a stone wall alongside which stand reproductions of Van Gogh masterpieces. He was at his peak of skill and productivity while living at the asylum, influenced by its remarkable calm and serene setting. We look at the inner gardens from his window just as he would have seen them. It's really remarkable. The colors of his paintings are exactly what you see in San Remy and the surrounding area. He was always taken with what most people call ordinary objects, captivated by the detail of form and color, and he painted them in a way that has changed everyone's appreciation of them ever since then.
The monastery still treats the mentally ill; the gift shop sells their art. The place is peaceful; we are both struck by. It is one of the most remarkable places I've ever been before.
We return to our hotel, which is very close by, to eat our fruit and to make a new plan. This is San Remy Day for us, and we want to explore close to home. After our break, we go to the Musee des Alpilles (Alpilles is the name of the rocky short mountain range south of town), housed in a 16th century stone house in the center of the oldest part of San Remy.
The museum has a collection of farming tools, goods and images from the town's early days when the population was almost all agricultural. Displays tell us about bee keeping, wool gathering, seed production, cicadas (a favorite local bug that lives for years underground, coming out into the open long enough to make its buzzing song, mate and lay eggs before dying), and a photography exhibit of local town scenes from the late 1800s to early 1900s.
We walk around and window shop, finger a few cute things, debate buying or not, stroll on. We work up an appetite again, but it's too early. In the States, we eat at 6 PM or so, usually earlier if we can. In France, you get no attention whatsoever until after 7 PM. No such thing as Happy Hour here unless you are at a bar. Places open for service at 7 PM and most diners begin to show up at 8 PM and later.
We are ready to eat tonight at our usual hour and have to kill some time. What we really want is to go put our feet up, be slobs and eat pizza while watching TV. You know, be American. There is a magazine and curio shop across from the restaurant area. The racks are long and filled with maybe 500 kinds of magazines. I pick one up on bullfighting and look at it. Every bullfighter is striking the same pose: A graceful arch of the back, a lowered cape, and a bull rushing past with its horns lowered. Apparently bullfighting is popular in southern France, but we have not seen a ring anywhere. I wouldn't go watch, but since it's part of the local culture, I'm curious to know about it. It's gruesome and cruel though, so I put the magazine away.
I choose some postcards, look at them for awhile, and then put them all back. Dinner is too close, and I'm too hungry to make any decent decisions. I have found no post offices open, by the way. Even with posted hours on the doors, they are closed for some mysterious reason. Strike? Who knows.
We locate a darling pizza place on a dead end street (10 foot wide street) and finally get to eat. It's good and we are happy at last. Then, home and sleep. Tomorrow will be our last day in Provence.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way