June 14, 2015

Arles

A month has passed since my plane left the Marseille airport. That morning in the courtyard of an airport hotel, nondescript, international, but efficient and oh so convenient, I carried my breakfast coffee to a table where I  sat in the warm Mediterranean sun and hoped to soak in enough sun, and to embed enough memories of Le Sud, to last me until my return, and not to be too sad. Well, truly, not to weep. Odd, because I love it here in New England. I also love it there, in Le Sud.

Spring has truly arrived here, lilacs gone by, peonies in bloom. Though the threat of frost has disappeared, the cold weather continues to take its toll, with beans and squash just germinated. Hillsides are lush, covered with multiple shades of green, the forest full of birds returned now from the south, the sky sometimes blue, more often grey, with nights in the 40s. After all, this is New England, with our frequent rains and cool temperatures. Late spring is lovely, and a good time to put in miles on a bike. Also, spring here is short, can be heart-breakingly beautiful, and is always fleeting.








I missed Arles from the minute I was sitting in its train station, waiting with Papillon, my bike, to travel to Bedoin. Bedoin turned out to be a fabulous place to ride a bike, surrounded by beautiful, often challenging cycling, including most notably Mont Ventoux. For me most enjoyably, Gorges de la Nesque. Still, it is Arles that I miss.

Just now I remember the patina of color and texture that 2000 plus years of history have encrusted. For it is an old city, settled before the Greeks arrived, hundreds of years before the Romans. A UNESCO world heritage site, internationally known for its historic Roman ruins, the town retains also its medieval flavor and character, with narrow, curving streets, and 3-story homes. I don't see the influence  of Hausmann here, see no broad avenues lined  with 5-story residences linked by terraces. Instead, everywhere there is color, texture, variety, attention to detail.

Color and texture and sunlight, for it is a southern city, near the Mediterranean. The colors are similar, but without the garish quality that newly painted, prosperous seaside towns can have. The Rhone passes through Arles, and its waters have preserved untold numbers of Roman artifacts. Within the past few years an entire Roman river boat, now on display in the Museum of Antiquities has been found and brought to shore. Those extraordinary antiquities have a patina of their own, which, safely housed in this wonderful museum, both reference ancient history and enrich life here.










This house facing the river and these boats is eccentric, beautiful and atypical. What a place!










To describe the rain that day, in English, I would say something like "the skies spit," I have no idea how to describe that in French. Help, anyone? Perhaps made more poignant with the intermittent rain, the wisteria blooms were lovely.



And that French blue. Except in the Basque Country, where household shutters and doors are a dark rich red, I see this blue across southern France. It derives from woad, a common plant, a brassica, which is to say related to broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbage. Though now largely replaced by chemical dyes, Pre-hellenic tribes used it to make body paint; since, then it has also made textile dyes and paint. Woad was so common, in fact, that the word is the origin of our word weed.








This color might be a younger, less faded version; I don't know.






This corner makes the elbow of rue de Pilotes, where (my sources are good) rumor has it that my friends here at Cafe Bizalion will be renting their house sometime before too many months pass. Just how is it that these colors sit together with such ease and grace?




Many years ago, when a much younger woman, I returned home from visiting my brother in Coconut Grove, Florida, where the colors are not unlike those in Arles, and inspired, I tiled and painted my bathroom in similar colors. Let me be the first to tell you it doesn't work in my climate. Colors, textures, patinas, are deeply embedded in their own place and cannot simply be picked up and moved around.





I am not telling you that all is a medley of pastels or bright colors, but that so much has a rich, provocative patina, built by human hands, the sun, and centuries.



Embedded memories of such a different place enrich my world here, with its diverse green forests and fragrant peonies.