I want to know the conversation the French have that prompts this kind of day.  And then, I want to have that conversation every day with the people I love.

“The weather is beautiful.  Let us forget anything we must do and go do the things we want.  Let us get food and wine and beer and sit together on the banks of the river.  And that is all.”

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Five beautiful French children are playing with sticks.  The people to my left are drinking Hoegaarden.  The people to my right are smoking weed.  Ah, the French.  There is not an overstressed person for miles.  Or kilometers.

But, then again, maybe I am projecting.  I need ice cream like an addict needs cocaine.  And I’m ok with that.

I arrived in Lyon with a flourish of activity.  The train station was buzzing.  It was Penn Station during rush hour, minus the English and the smell of hot dogs.  Chaos!  And I panicked.  I kept telling myself to wait and watch Lyon become my friend just as all the other cities had.  But we were not off to a good start.

I got on the subway, after an awkward encounter by the ticket machines with a woman begging for money.  She was smart, waiting for a tourist like me to come by and not know how to operate the machines.  Then, she stepped in and started pressing buttons.  I tried to decline her assistance politely, confident that I could figure this out, but she insisted, took the coins from my hand, and handed me a ticket.  Then, she asked for money.  The whole encounter was awkward and frustrating.

I exited the subway at the location I thought was correct and started to head up the hill toward my hostel.  Though I got lost for a while, I had the help of a few very kind French people who noticed that I was struggling, and I finally got checked in and claimed my bed.  The hostel is sketchy at best.  It has the delightful smell of a basement and feet, but it’s not nearly as lonely as a hotel room.  In fact, I almost immediately made friends and had a wonderful night yesterday, eating dinner with Jane, a traveling Australian grandmother, and Hannah, an American teenager of a “gap year.”  We chatted a bit and all decided to have dinner together at Les Lyonnaise, complete with a grumpy French waiter.  I so enjoyed the company of these women, and I was once again amazed at how easy it is to bond with fellow-travelers on the road.  We are strangers one day and soulmates the next.

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After dinner, we walked around the floodlit city at night.  It was so beautiful, and Rick Steves might be on to something when he says that Lyon is truly France’s City of Lights.  Utterly dazzling under a clear night sky, especially with a little French wine in the system.

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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…

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.

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.