His Royal Pope-iness: In Avignon

28.04.09

I’m listening to Over the Rhine while sitting on a bench atop the hill overlooking the Rhône in the park behind the Pope Palace in Avignon.  (A string of prepositional phrases!  I think I’m losing the ability to write or think in proper English.  Which is ok with me…)


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The view from here is so beautiful—I can see for Provençal miles and miles—and I feel like I have to wear my sunglasses to protect myself from this vision, sort of like how God has to turn his back to Moses when passing by.  The clouds are beginning to build around me, and I feel a few drops of refreshing rain on my arms.  I’m actually watching the shadows recede and come back over a vineyard in a valley situated along the winding Rhône between the hills, towns, and mountains.  Tourists are swarming around me, taking pictures and giving money to a telescope next to me.  I don’t know why they are bothering.  JUST OPEN YOUR EYES, I want to shout at them.  But they sound as if they are having fun, and isn’t that what this is all about?

I finished my time in Arles and moved on to Avignon yesterday.  I am discovering that my orientation to a new town is a lot like getting to know a person I find interesting.  At first, it can be overwhelming.  When I lose my way or don’t know my next move, I get nervous and a little frightened.  The townspeople seem less like friends and more like strangers.  Eventually, though, if all goes well and I push through that awkward phase, the town and I become friends.  It intimidates me no more than I intimidate it.  I learn the people and their style.  I learn how to move like one of them, how to do what they do.  It is amazing how human language separates us—but not completely.  We can still communicate.  We can still grow in affection.  We can still co-exist and enjoy life together.

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Back in Arles, my morning consisted of an excellent breakfast at the hotel and a stroll through the city.  I stumbled upon a wonderful little coffee shop and ordered a cappuccino.  I sat and listened to the barista speak French on the phone and to the other customers.  I told her that listening to French is, for me, like listening to someone singing.  She said she understood, but I don’t think she possibly could.

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Then, I made my way to the Van Gogh tribute museum, wherein artists have recreated some of Van Gogh’s masterpieces in their own style, paying tribute to him as an inspiration.  Clearly, the fact that Van Gogh had some serious and troubling mental problems did not stop his creativity.  In fact, for all we know, the two could have been two sides of the same coin.  It reminds me of an excellent essay I read in seminary about how Abraham Lincoln was known to plummet into what was then called “melancholy” from time to time.  The writer of the article argued that, without this thorn in his side, Lincoln may not have been so deeply disturbed by the war going on under his leadership—he may not have been so convinced that the American system of slavery was atrocious, he may not have written and spoken the words that continue to inspire leaders.  I don’t think that mental illness is something we should romanticize, but I also am not convinced that people who suffer mental illness ought to be manipulated into thinking that there is such a thing as “normal” that they have to become.  In the museum in Arles, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way that Van Gogh’s art had so deeply affected generations of artists following him.  My favorite painting was the one that paid tribute to Van Gogh’s painting of himself in his room with his head in his hands.  The tribute painter placed himself in the same chair, head in hands and room modernized.  It was as if the artist was trying to enter into Van Gogh’s solitude, to retroactively assure Van Gogh that he was and is not alone in his suffering.  Certainly, this is a lesson we all must learn and teach others.

I took a train to Avignon and settled into my hotel before making my way to a charming little restaurant for dinner.  I sat at a wooden table for two in a dark and candlelit backroom.  My waitress was so adorable—probably 19 years old or so—and was so patient with my horrible French.  When I asked if she spoke English, she smiled shyly and said, “Uh leetle.”  I ordered a tartine with mozzarella, pesto, and basil with a glass or regional white wine.  Deciding against dessert (for once!), I asked the waitress to bring me an after-dinner drink, anything she wanted.  She seemed nervous by the request, but I said that I didn’t know what most things were anyway and that I trusted her opinion.

And so I finished my first night in Avignon, basking in the glow of candlelight at my wooden table, listening to the melodic French spoken all around me, and sipping a cool glass of mead.  I think I’m moving here…

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