Friday, October 31, 2008

On the Roman Circuit: Arles

Still without water this morning, I washed my hair in a pot of heated water in the bathroom sink, and kept my fingers crossed for water in the evening. We left the house (filled with empty plastic mineral water bottles, which we have been using to cook and rinse dishes, as well as to wash hands, face, and teeth) and visited Arles, which is the city closest to where our apartment is. When we got home tonight, we had water, which was very exciting, but it was freezing cold and dribbled out of the faucets. So I got to take a shower, but did so with a tub of hotpot-heated water at my feet, and the ice cold showerhead spraying sideways. At least there’s water.
In Arles, we went to the tourism office and bought a monument pass (called the Circuit Romain) which allowed us entrance into the Roman theatre, the Roman amphitheatre, the Roman public baths, and also something called the Alyscamps (I don’t think an English word exists for that, but basically it was this lovely walkway lined with Roman tombs. Kind of weird, but peaceful nonetheless). We spent the day visiting these ancient buildings, and exploring the streets of Arles, which is a beautiful little Provençal town on the edge of the Rhône. I am still continually amazed by the age of things in Europe, and I was even more amazed in Arles because the city dates back to Roman times, and the remains of Roman buildings and edifices are everywhere. Even though it’s really just a bunch of rocks piled on the ground, there’s something so awesome about standing and sitting where people stood and sat over two thousand years ago. The steps in the amphitheater were sloped in the middle from the hundreds of thousands of feet that have tread upon them over these last two thousand years. Today, I ran my hand along stone that was carved and smoothed by some workmen two thousand years ago. I just can’t get over that.
Aside from the Roman ruins, Arles is also well known as one of Vincent van Gogh’s residences. It was in Arles that he painted many of his best known paintings, and where he cut his ear off. The city of Arles is very proud of its history with van Gogh, although not one of van Gogh’s paintings can be seen in any of Arles’ museums. The citizens of Arles to whom van Gogh gifted his masterpieces never seemed to like them (a certain doctor used his portrait by van Gogh to block a hole in a chicken coop), and sold them or gave them away. In the evening, we took a walking tour of the city (in French!) which lasted about two hours, and was centered on van Gogh’s life in the city. I’ve never done anything so touristy before, but I feel like it has more merit because it was about an artist! It was really cool to learn more about van Gogh, and the city of Arles, and also to see the actual buildings and vistas that van Gogh painted. I saw the lights reflected in the surface of the Rhône at night, like van Gogh painted them. I saw the wheat fields with the Abbaye de Montmajour in the background, like van Gogh once saw them. I saw the narrow street lit yellow in the night, and the white tables and yellow chairs of the café where van Gogh painted “Café at night”. The tour ended at the “Espace van Gogh” which is now a library and university branch, but was the hospital where van Gogh was cared for after he cut his ear lobe. I also found out, during the tour, the real story surrounding his ear. I had always thought that he cut it off because of the prostitute that he sent it to, because she had spurned him or something. Apparently, two months before his breakdown, Paul Gaugin had come to Arles to share “La Maison Jaune” (the Yellow House, where van Gogh painted his bedroom with the blue door and yellow chairs). Their time together began well, but quickly deteriorated. Gaugin drank often, but van Gogh couldn’t really hold his liquor, it turns out. The two fought often and violently, especially toward the end, and on the Christmas Eve before van Gogh’s suicide, they had the row to end all rows. Gaugin finally told van Gogh that he couldn’t stay any longer, and was leaving. The tour guide said that Gaugin told van Gogh he never wanted to see or talk to him again. After Gaugin left the house, van Gogh chased after him into the tiny streets of Arles, brandishing a straight razor threateningly (is there really any other way to brandish a straight razor?). When Gaugin, a much larger man, turned around and told him to go home, van Gogh returned alone to the yellow house and cut off his ear. It turns out that it wasn’t because of the prostitute, but because of a fellow artist.
We ended the evening in Arles at a lovely little restaurant just across the street from the Roman amphitheatre, where I had bull (Heather! It was delicious! Eating bull right next to the stadium where they have bullfights was ironic, too!), fries, and a salad. Yum! Now, I have to go to bed, because we have a “long” hour and a half drive into Aix-en-Provence tomorrow.

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