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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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.

Carcassonne.

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I was right to remember France so fondly.  The stereotypes of the snobbish French who refuse to help Americans are so ridiculous, and I imagine that, nine times out of ten, the American comes at the situation with that characteristic American assumption of entitlement.  I do think the French are right to be proud of their language.  It is so beautiful, melodic, and full of a kind of quiet passion.  I have to learn it.  Soon.

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Carcassonne is an astonishing place, amazing in its continued existence and regality.  It was even magical as I walked away from it this afternoon, over Pont Neuf being showered with more rain.  Yesterday, I decided to venture out into the cold and rainy town, first stopping at the Vinothéque across the street, Comptoir des Vins et Terroirs.  There, I had the best glass of wine I have ever tasted in all of my life and all of my travels—a strawberry-infused rosé native to the region.  The woman working there was very kind and patient with me, even when I broke the characteristic French solemnity that seems always to accompany food by ramming my daypack into a metal sign.

I watched the rain fall outside on the slick cobblestone streets, as I sipped my wine and ate two cheeses with a biscotti-shaped herb bread, an olive tapenade, and a jam.  It was so beautifully presented that my raging hunger was the only thing that kept me from just enjoying its presentation for long.  Still, this is something that I would probably not have thought to eat in the U.S.  There is something about traveling that brings out a kind of courage and adventure in me that I normally don’t feel.  Maybe it is necessary to survival or maybe it’s just a silly romantic wanderlust.  I tend to prefer to think of it as the former…

After a wonderful time at the Vinothéque, I decided that I just had to take a walk around this town, even if I ended up with pneumonia from the rain and cold.  The theme of my last trip to Europe seemed to be something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll figure it out.”  So far, figuring things out doesn’t seem to be nearly as much a concern for me as does just living life to the full as opportunities present themselves.

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I walked and walked and even climbed the slippery wall a bit.  I took tons of pictures, tried to spot everything in my guidebook, took in the church and the posh hotel, and decided to head back to the hostel, soaked to the bone but feeling good all the same.  When I finished resting, I met another hosteller, Maartje, from Holland.  It’s always nice to make a friend in a rainstorm.  And she made me feel less insane by sharing that she had done basically the same thing I had in the horrendous weather, walking from the train station and meandering through the rain-soaked streets.

After our conversation, I decided to get some dinner at the Auberge des Lices down the street.  My dinner was incredible—a salad of romaine lettuce, slivers of meat and parmesan cheese, quartered tomatoes, and walnuts; Cassolet, the regional specialty stew with white beans, thick broth, and meat; and a “chocolate cappuccino,” which was utterly amazing and served with a perfectly round scoop of almond ice cream and a cinnamon-and-sugar stick of toast.  All of it was amazing, and the restaurant itself was beautiful and quiet.  So far, the best meal I’ve had in Europe.

Afterwards, I started wandering the spooky night-lit streets of Carcassonne, around 11:00 p.m.  Alone, I wasn’t brave enough to make the entire circuit around the town, but I got some wonderful photos nonetheless.  I was walking the first main road when I heard a clicking sound behind me.  But when I spun around, no one was there.  So I started to walk again.  Again, the sound: “click, click, click.”  I turned around again, sure that I was as pale as the lights that were shining in the town walls.  No one.  But then, a voice from far away on the wall.  “Bon-jour!” said a non-French speaker, snapping photos.  “Bon soir,” I replied.  It was clearly time for bed.

When I woke up and showered, Maartje and I decided to go to the Chateau Comtal together.  First, we wandered around town and found a place for a quick breakfast.  She told me that she was hoping to study to become a doctor and maybe work with Doctors Without Borders or some other non-profit agency.  Maybe it’s just our idealism, but I feel, when I meet someone like Maartje, that there is something special to our generation.  I hope we continue down this road, idealistic or not.  This world is in desperate need of some leaders with some actual ideals.

The Chateau offered some incredible and unique views of La Cité and the surrounding area.  It was nice to have someone to talk to after several days of solitude.  And it helped tremendously that she spoke some French.  While we were handing our tickets to the ticket-taker at the Chateau, he said something that made her laugh.  I just smiled and asked her later what he said.  “He told me to be careful with my head on the low ceilings.  But he said that you didn’t have anything to worry about.”  Nice.  Short jokes in French.

Sounds better than in English, at least.

I am sitting in my hostel in Carcassonne, and my bones are still shivering from the dousing that they received courtesy of the rainy weather on my 45-minute hike from the train station to La Cite.  But at least I am settled into my hostel, which is quiet and being gently serenaded by the rain pattering against my window.  It’s supposed to rain the whole time I am here, which is a major disappointment, considering that the greatness of this city is what it has to offer outdoors.  It is pretty spectacular, though, even in the rain.  The cobblestone streets surrounded by this incredible medieval walled structure… slippery, to be sure, but spectacular.

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The hostel worker here is a cheery French man who wanted to talk to me at length about my opinions on Barack Obama, Turkey joining the EU, and France’s purity.  (Note: Racism is everywhere…)  At least he was kind and hospitable and did not laugh at me for too long when I came in looking like a wet dog.

My train adventure getting here was rather interesting.  I drifted to sleep listening to “Hem” on my iPod, and then I woke up in a panic because the train was stopped, new people were all around me, and I had no idea where we were.  I turned to the man sitting next to me and practically shouted, “Town?!  This town?!  Here!”  I was too panicked to remember any French at all, and so it all came out in idiot.  Still, he understood.  “Narbonne,” he said.  Crap… this is where I need to get off and change trains.  So, I grabbed my bags and headed out, my earbuds flying out of my ears in the process.  I walked up to an official with a hat.  “Um… Carcassonne?!”  “Oui, Carcassonne,” he replied and pointed to the train the front of us.  I looked behind me at the train I had just disembarked like a lunatic.  It was still there.  Peacefully waiting.  Several of my train-car-mates were looking at me, alarmed.  Not that I blame ’em.  So, I gave ’em another show.  Unintentionally.

As I walked to my car (7), a gust of wind came by and blew my ticket right out of my hand… and underneath the train.  On the tracks.  Without thinking, I jumped– pack and all– down onto the tracks to retrieve my ticket.  And as quick as I was down, I was back up on the platform.  No one said anything to me– maybe no one else on the platform saw me– but I was mortified when I turned and saw my former fellow passengers looking upon me with horror.  Way to be an ambassador to France.

In any case, I think I will venture out into the rain and the cold.  You only live once… I think.  And I can smell the French food to be had… Ooh la la.

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–  Buildings should be beautiful.  No matter how uniform the raw materials, each one should have its own personality.  Windows are like the eyes of a construction.  You can tell a lot about a building by its windows.

–  Don’t trust a hostel or hotel by its website.  Trust a good guidebook or a good friend.  If it says it’s “ideal,” it probably isn’t.  And it’s important to stay in a cool part of town.  Next time in Barcelona, look for a place in Barceloneta or the Barri Gotic!

– Drink more wine.  Drink more, period.  Eat better food in smaller portions.

–  Don’t hold a steaming hot glass of coffee in your hands for very long.  You will burn the crap out of yourself and have traveling blisters to boot!

–  The Pyrenees are beautiful– and surprisingly so.  Lush and splotched with yellow flower bushes.

–  Take a siesta each and every day.  Otherwise, you will be busy hiking all around town, and everything else will be closed.  Don’t beat ’em: join ’em.

–  How to outsmart thieves: wear a jacket with inside pockets only, secure your pack to your person, and watch the suspicious people in touristy areas.  They give themselves away.  Communication is only 10% language.  Make eye contact with intrepid approachers.  Say hello.  Or “Boo!”

–  Lying topless on a beach isn’t really as big of a deal as it sounds.  Just boob-bumps drooping to the side a bit.  Meh.

–  Don’t meander around town looking for a restaurant while your stomach is growling.  Just be bold, dammit!  Go in!

–  When you hear an American, pretend not to understand them.  It’s much more fun to go incognito this way.  😉

–  Don’t go into non-(insert country of current location) restaurants when you’re in (insert aforementioned location).  Except, I hear, for Italian restaurants in Germany, which are supposed to be pretty good.  But, avoid Indian food in Barcelona, for sure.

–  Spanish guitar might be the prettiest kind of guitar.  Get lessons someday.  Or get your man some lessons (it is much nicer to be serenaded).

–  Dogs are generally better behaved in Spain than in the U.S.  They just trot alongside their masters, even without a leash or lead.  Thus: teach your dog Spanish.  I think that’s the key.  “Sientete, perro.  Muy bien.”

–  Develop your own style and be ye not ashamed.  Gaudi did it.  So did Picasso (eventually).  And Dali.  Also, you should probably get more into art.

–  If a map isn’t being helpful, get a new map.  I think this can probably apply to all sorts of situations.