Saturday, March 03, 2007

Seeing Arles

What's odd or just plain wrong about this signage? (Responses will vary according to temperament and personal biais.)

From our doorstep we were a few paces from just about anything you might need in the way of food, groceries, bakeries, shops, bookstores, galleries, gardens, and monuments. All of it accessible on foot, all of it offering a pretext (if you needed one) to walk about and enjoy the interplay of color and light that is one of the signature characteristics of Provence in general and Arles in particular.
There was a very nice bookstore just around the corner along the river. Beth and I took turns spending some time there. Both and Beth and I have been intrigued by the subject of translations, she found the Larousse Gastronomique , a weighty tome with pretensions of being a Bible of cuisine. Beth, who has a long standing love affair with the cooking arts, found herself wondering whether, if she were to buy one (they're not cheap), if she would prefer the original collector's edition or the English translation.
I checked out the names of English language novelists featured in translation in the bookstore just to continue rounding out my sense of how the French define the contours of English/American letters. I saw about 80 different author's names, of which I recognized about 20. I don't have much awareness of English writers beyond the annual pubicized short lists of Booker Prize nominees so perhaps that explains it. I was pleasantly surprised to find Wallace Stegner's novels featured prominently on a display near the front of the store though I didn't see Angle of Repose my favorite Stegner novel.
Another wrinkle in the translation subject - I'm currently reading a French translation of Milan Kundera's L'insoutenable légèreté de l'etre (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). I've read it in English and adored it, but the original was written in Czech. It's lovely in French as well.

There are impressive Roman ruins in Arles, there are, among other things, Roman baths, an amphitheater and a collosium built in 90 AD along the same lines as the one in Rome though not quite as big, practically identical to the one we visited last spring in Nimes.
Posters all over town advertise bullfights coming there in March, evidence of the strong Mediterranean influence here. In some places they only run the bulls which is to say young men take turns risking their necks seeing how close they can come to being trample or gored before they leap over the fences but here in Arles and in Nime they still do the real thing, I think.
The arena has just been restored, one result being that certain sections of it look more like they're two years old rather than two thousand years old. Tess loved the opportunity to count to one hundred several times as we walked past the numbered seats inside. We explained to the kids about the Romans and pointed out the arches named after them. It's a little's not like you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, today we're going to learn to count from 1-100 and we're going introduce the Romans and the concept of an arch...and then we're going to play on a merry-go-round, but that's sort of the way it works out.

We climbed to the top of the tower from which we got a nice panoramic view of the city. Whether you are up high or down on the street level, there is a lot for the eye to linger pleasurably over. The intention to look carefully, to try to see what is before you, is one that serves you well here and is rewarded.

There are any number of discoveries to be made, like this point where two roads diverge, the collosium lurking in the background... or this trompe l'oeil painted on the wall (see if you can find for a better view).

Van Gogh came to Arles to live on Feb. 21, the same day we arrived. Coincidence?... maybe. There is a Van Gogh walk that features reproductions of plein air paintings he did at the very sites where he made them. The cafe painting is my favorite among these and it is the site most like the original that he painted.

At the fountain in front the Hotel de Ville I introduced Colm and Tess to the idea of making wishes and pitching coins in the water. They thought it was a great idea though Colm struggled with the part about keeping the wish a secret. Tess made sure to inform him that his wishes most assuredly would not come true since he had uttered them aloud. This meant redoing the wish thing...fortunately I had plenty of small coins in my pocket. When we went inside the church, Colm spotted the votive candles and asked if we could go blow them out. I explained that these candles were also about wishes but unlike birthday wishes, these wishes were made by lighting a candle not blowing it out. Both kids took that one in stride; I was impressed.

The market in Arles is amazing, the biggest one we've been to yet. It stretched the length of the city center practically. Beth was in heaven here. The offerings were bountiful and varied. It begins on one end with produce, spices, meats, breads, cheeses, specialty items of Provence like olive oil, there are chickens roasting, pizza vendors, pastries, fresh clementines and pink lady apples, at the end you cross the street and work your way back. You begin with the live poultry in crates, then there are crafts, clothing, flowers, toys, books and so on...

The people too represent a distinctly southern mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The provencal accent sings and while it is not always easy to understand it is delightful to hear.

The kids loved the nearby public garden. Tess and Colm are usually pretty tight, they play together, keeping the other kids at bay. Colm is very wary of strange kids, but every so often Tess risks communicating with them. One day she surprised us by going to two different mothers seated on benches and complaining to them about their sons. It was completely on her own initiative (she didn't even warn us that she had a complaint to make) and it was all conducted in French. Suddenly we saw her standing in front of a mother, speaking and gesturing. In each case the mother listened attentively, spoke with Tess until she seemed satisfied and returned to play. As soon as she left, the mother would call her son to her and scold him. In one case, the poor boy was obliged by his mother to seek out Tess, apologize and kiss her on the cheek. The parents and us all had a good laugh about it, but Beth and I were frankly amazed at her daring and her linguistic abilities.


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