In this poor Provençal town…

27.04.09

I think I am in love.  With Provence.

As I was crossing the bridge from the train station into Arles, I knew that the view was familiar, but I could not remember exactly how.  Then it dawned on me.  THIS is exactly where Van Gogh sat and painted his “Starry Night on the Rhône.”  The clouds were hovering in the air from the recently passed storm, but the light was gathering underneath like they had been waiting to give a newcomer a show.  I set my backpack down and watched.

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At the Hotel Regence, I was greeted by a small, kind man who convinced me to have the “simple, Provençal breakfast” the hotel offers in the morning.  He gave me directions to my room, which, though small by American standards, feels like my own chateau after three straight nights in hostels.  It has a TV!  And a double bed!  And a sink and a toilet and a shower!  It’s my most expensive night on the trip, but I couldn’t be more satisfied with this place.

After getting settled, I went out to explore and quickly felt like I was being haunted by the soul of Van Gogh… and figured I might be going crazy, too.  Arles is so confusing.  All the roads are windy and small, and every map I had only made it that much more frustrating that I could not find my way around.  My stomach was starting to feel like a caged animal trying to escape, and as it grew darker, I began to worry about all the perils of being a woman traveling solo: theft, strange men, getting lost forever, starving to death… (Ok, so these may not be your typical woman-traveling-solo fears; Arles makes you go a little nuts).

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Fortunately, I could locate the huge sights—the Roman amphitheater, the forum, etc.  But every time I started down a road I was sure would lead me to my designation—a row of restaurants recommended in my trusty guidebook—I ended up lost and retracing my steps.  I really started to worry when all the whistling started.  My friendly hotelier had assured me that Arles was very safe, and I think it probably really is, but when you are hungry and bewildered by a new place—and all alone—the last thing you want is a bunch of overly-romanced French dudes hitting on you.  First, a man wanted the time.  I showed him my watch (not on Euro-24-hour time) and bid him adieu, but he followed me for a while anyway.  I rolled my eyes and started walking alongside an Asian tourist couple, giving them my very best non-verbal ‘this-dude-won’t-leave-me-alone’ look.  They graciously let me accompany them for a few blocks before he went his own way.  Then I went mine.  Next, I was treated to a chorus of whistles from a passing group of younger men.  I kept walking and shook my head.  As I turned the corner, I had to walk past another group of men, sitting on the steps of a building, and another chorus of whistles erupted.  Finally, I made it back to the Rhône, opened my map once again in a last ditch attempt to find some food, and looked up just in time to see a man standing in his second floor window, staring at me with a big, creepy smile.  And who knows why this was my breaking point, but I suddenly had a resurgence of determination.  “Hell no,” I said to him (in English, mind you).  “I’m not dealing with this anymore until I EAT.”

So, I started down a street.  And, miracles of miracles, it turned out to be exactly the street I was looking for.  I checked out the menus at a few places before making my selection, deciding that Au Bryn du Thym would serve me just fine.  I found a seat and settled in for one of the most interesting nights of my travel so far.  My food was delicious—white wine, smoked salmon atop a pile of steamed and lightly seasoned brown rice, asparagus, and a generous portion of mousse au chocolat.  Being filled with a good meal, I was finally willing to open myself up to the possibility of conversation with some of these strange and overzealous French men.  Just for fun.

My first interaction occurred with the Spanish-guitar-playing minstrel, playing and singing (LOUDLY!) for each table.  When he got to my table, I decided that perhaps speaking to him would prevent him from hammering me for tips and scream-singing into my ear.  So, I asked, “¿Habla usted español?”  Yes, he said, and sat down at my table.  He told me he was from Catalunya and was pleased that I had started my trip in Barcelona.  When I told him I was from the U.S., he told me that it is his dream to go and live in New York City, but that so far, he had only spent time in Nebraska.  He insisted on singing a few songs for me (“La Triste Bella” and “Hecho el Café”), but thankfully, he did not ask me for any money.  When he asked what I did in the U.S., I couldn’t think of how to tell him that I am a seminary student, studying to be a pastor.  So, I just said, in simple Spanish, “Estudio Dios.”  He seemed alarmed!  He asked several other people how to ask me a question in English.  Finally he got the information he was looking for.  “Are you a nun?” he asked.  I laughed, and then considered having to ward off this French-Catalonian admirer for the rest of the evening.  “Yes,” I said.  “Yes, I am.”  Abruptly, he left for a smoke break.  I laughed to myself during the rest of my meal.

By the time my dessert came, it had grown very dark and my concerns now turned to finding my way back to my hotel.  So, I asked my very pleasant waiter if he knew the guitar-playing man.  “No,” he said, “I don’t know him.”  Hm, ok.  A little more to the point, I asked, “Is it safe for me to walk alone in Arles at night?”  “Oui!” he said.  “It’s no problem here.”  I thanked him, ate my mousse, and considered getting a taxi, just to avoid the worry.

A few minutes later, the waiter was back at my table.  “Are you really a nun?” he asked.  I smiled and told the truth.  “No, I am a student.”  He smiled and looked relieved.  I quickly added, “But I am married.”  This time, he laughed.  “Ok,” he said.  “I know if my wife was traveling somewhere and did not feel safe, I would want a good man to walk her back to her hotel.  As you like.”

I hesitated.  On the one hand, I AM married, and I was conflicted about whether or not accepting this offer would somehow dishonor that fact.  On the other hand, I was a little nervous about walking around in this crazy town in the dark.  On the other hand, I had confidence that I would eventually figure it out on my own.  On the other hand, did I want to pass up an opportunity for a native Arles-ite to show me around his town?

As these thoughts were going through my mind, the kind woman who owned the restaurant wandered over to the table.  “It’s ok,” she said.  “He is a good man.  And I know his mother.”

I laughed.  Well, if you know his mother!  “Ok,” I said.  “Oui.”

And thus ends my first night in Provence, walking alongside a kind French man through the labyrinthine streets of Arles, making small talk as we approached the sparkling Rhône, enjoying a starry, starry night.

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