Both Colum Gallivan and I had always found the information office at the train station locked and deserted when we tried to visit it. Seeking directions to the bus station I walked over to the ticket counter. In front of me I found an American couple complaining to the saleswoman that they're missed their connection to Barcelona because of the train strike. Her command of English was perfunctory and I assumed the role of mediator. Once the couple was gone she pointed out the bus station to me , separated from the train station by a parking lot and visible across the road.
Save for a row of benches protected by a metal rain roof, an empty ticket office and some billboards holding schedules and other information , the gare routière is only a large open lot dotted with street lamps and partitioned by concrete barriers. Next to these one finds signs indicating various destinations. I sat down near the sign reading "Aix-en-Provence" and waited.
A bus pulled into the enclosure around 9:45 and parked at the far edge away from the barriers. Ihurried ovr to it and tried to get the driver's attention. He totally ignored me; the bus was operated by a private company. A municipal bus marked "Nimes" arrived in front of the row of benches to let off some passengers. I therefore proceeded over to the driver; he advised me to continue waiting by the "Aix-en-Provence" sign .
Soon afterwards a groundskeeper showed up and began hosing down the roads and watering the plants. It was his impression, he told me, that the bus to Aix took up passengers at the front of the train station. We looked in that direction just in time to see a bus pulling away!
It remains unknown to me to this day, if this was my bus, or if my bus was late, or if there is indeed no Aix bus leaving from this part of Arles! I hung around until 10:45 before giving up. Another bus was scheduled to leave at 11:35 on the other side of town, from the Place Clemenceau near the Tourist Office . In a bitterly disgruntled mood ( rather "French", indeed) I carried my luggage two miles across Arles, up the hill to the left of the Coliseum, past the entrance to the Roman theater, down steep labyrinthine ways to the ancient Forum, onto the Boulevard Victor Hugo and into the tourist office.
The young woman at the desk apologized; the connection at the train station may have been eliminated without the tourist office being notified. It was too late to catch the 11:35. My best bet was to head to the Place Clemenceau, just 3 blocks away. Another bus would be leaving from there at 12:35! What's a two and a half hour delay to someone without schedules, appointments or deadlines ?
With some lunch items from a local grocery I went to the garden of the Espace van Gogh . The municipal theater is nearby, and it occurred to me that I might take in the matinee and head for Aix much later than evening. But the theater, like the ons in Montpellier, was closed for the rest of March.
Some useful information to pass along: the Place Clemenceau is the present location for the Arles' gare routère , the former one by the train station being something of a side trip. Arriving at noon I found dozens of tourists and students lined up and waiting.The bus to Aix pulled up, as scheduled, at 12:30 and the passengers piled on. One of the few positive benefits of my college education is a compulsion to read anything coming into my field of vision. The official fare was 10 euros; luckily I noticed an announcement pasted on the side of the bus stating that seniors with proper ID were charged one 1 euro!
I grabbed my passport and thrust it before the driver. His glare was followed by a guffaw ( What won't they think of next? ). Then he let me climb aboard at the senior rate. Missing the morning bus had saved me 9 euros ($12). It was a theme suitable for an extended meditation on the interlacing of merit and fate. I was too sleepy for that sort of thing and walked back to relief from luggage and a window seat. Soon afterwards a mischievous young lycéean, delighted by the bizarre antics of foreigners, walked through the bus to hand me the receipt I'd neglected to take from the driver.
In my experience public transportation in France is smooth, cheap and uncomplicated. The principal drawback is the cheap tinny music projecting loudly from public address monitors. ( Radio Soleil, Radio Monte-Carlo , etc. ) Complaining would be useless; I'm certain the drivers insist on it. Nor is this intrusion nearly as obnoxious as the crappy movies one is obliged to endure on the Peter Pan buses that navigate the Northeastern seaboard in the U.S. To my conspiratorial mind this phenomenon is evidence for a connection between the bus companies , the Mafia-run gambling casinos and the Mafia-controlled movie industry. Ridiculous, no doubt; though paranoia has been defined as heightened common-sense.
The street, bordered with high-rises and shopping centers,soon turns into a wide highway covered with industrial soot, a dull spectacle interrupted only by a few bridges and tunnels. Finally one arrives at a grassy Rotary of generous diameter. A short stretch of road off to one's left meanders up a steep hill before leveling out to a plateau with the museum of the Vasarely Foundation stationed at the far end . From that distance the museum looks like a giant nut searching for its bolt, painted in alternating shades of black and white, lowered by crane from a flying saucer.
The youth hostels at Aix and Montpellier stand in sharp contrast in almost all respects: almost everything functions at Aix ; at Montpellier almost everything malfunctions. A redolence of Bauhaus pervades the Aix establishment, a kind of narcotic bouquet distilled from the austere technocracy of the Vasarely Foundation. Passkeys actually open doors! The toilets flush on command: the water gushes forth, abundant and strong, soaking the nether regions with a salutary bath!
Wood drawers for storing clothing are inset underneath all of the steel and plastic double-decker beds. So meticulously have their slides been fitted to their grooves, the drawers are impossible to open without pinching one's fingers. There has to be somebody with the job of replacing the light bulbs in the corridors as they burn out; one never has to stumble in the dark. The snack and soda machines function; the microwave oven in the cafeteria really works! Hey! Is this France?
The interior of the hostel is painted a monotonous mix of blue and chrome. The overtones of Morphology recapitulates Morphism (Form follows Function ) pursue one around the building like a squadron of the Eumenides.
Speaking to the ticket clerk at the Vasarely Foundation a few days later I was assured ( without being reassured ) that the museum had had no say in the architecture of the hostel. It can stand on its own merits, he felt, as a paradigm of modernism.
The one really serious defect of the Aix Youth Hostel is its location. Excepting the Vasarely Foundation, it's a good two miles from every reason one might want to vacation in Aix-en-Provence: restaurants, cafes, theaters, people, art galleries, the post office, train stations, stores.... The least errand requires a bus trip or a long walk into the downtown.
Furthermore the hostel's daily schedule frequently produces difficult situations. The dormitory rooms are off-limits from 10 AM to 5 PM. Between 1 to 5, one can't even get into the building. The grounds seemed totally deserted when I showed up at 2:30 PM . A search around the courtyard yielded only two workmen doing repairs on the plumbing. The buildings themselves were locked solid; there was no place to store luggage. Carrying my suitcase and shoulder bags with me back into town was out of the question. At the same time the hostel wouldn't be opening for another two and a half hours. I sat down on a bench to figure out what to do next.
As if in answer to non-existent prayers, two girls suddenly appeared on the horizon! (No, they were neither naked, nor swaddled in robes of velvet or silk. ) They were Canadians from Vancouver, both very Chinese, and very very naive. Both wore black tee-shirts and shorts, and carried enormous back-packs. From the moment they laid eyes on me they attached themselves to me as guide, guru and universal problem-solver.
I'd found a place to hide my luggage, at the back of the hostel, facing an open field and invisible from the road. They didn't think it was safe; for the rest of the day they toted their overstuffed backpacks everywhere . Together we walked back onto the street and waited at the bus stop. The buses run frequently in Aix; we were on our way back into town without 20 minutes.
The Cartesian coordinates of Aix-en-Provence have a well- demarcated origin: the fountain, surrounded by baroque statuary, at the Place deGaulle . A spacious boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau , takes its departure from there and goes several long blocks. Galleries and bookstores give it a Parisian allure. Essentially a pedestrian walk-way, it also holds a pair of narrow cobblestone gutters for people who insist on driving their cars along the boulevard.
The girls wanted to find a place to eat and I needed to visit the tourist office, a large building close to the Place deGaulle. We agreed to meet at the bus stop in one hour. Adjacent to the bus stop and near the tourist office one finds some benches, a newspaper kiosk and some fenced-in greenery which barely qualifies as a park.
With the waning of sunlight had come chilly air , followed by a fine drizzling rain. I wasn't properly dressed, and would normally have gone right into the building of the tourist office, had not a miraculous transformation delighted my eyes! Like apparitions in a mirage dozens of school-children, all costumed as if for Halloween or a masquerade party, began showing up at the intersection . Some of the teachers who accompanied them had set up a table to dispense cider and cookies. Others organized the children into units to await school buses taking them to their destination.
I watched them for awhile and took several photographs before continuing on to the Bureau de Tourisme .
The staff were extremely helpful. Half an hour proved sufficient to lay out plans for the places and events to see and attend over the next 3 days. Meeting the girls at the bus stop, I took them back to the tourist office. Though Canadians they didn't speak 3 words of French between them. (I'm not a de jure Canadian separatist; however de facto separatism already rules there.) I found someone for them who spoke an acceptable English.
The more talkative of the two was very talkative, the more taciturn very taciturn. It was their first trip outside of Canada. They'd spent a few days in Paris before coming to Aix. By mistake they'd sat down on the terrace of a cafė on the Champs-Elysées and were charged 6 Euros ($8) each for a cup of coffee! The talkative young lady also the annoying habit of saying "dollars" when she meant "euros" . It's not surprising they were always being overcharged, the more so given the exchange rate between the American and Canadian dollar.
We returned to the hostel shortly before its opening at 5. My reservations had been made in Montpellier a few days before and I passed rapidly through the check-in procedure . The girls had not only not made reservations, they didn't even have Youth Hostel membership cards! Luckily for them, it was the off-season. In summer reservations are essential to be certain of a bed. Even in the off-season there are those scholastic field trips which may reserve all the beds in a hostel for several nights. In keeping with standard youth hostel policy, the girls were charged a few extra dollars per night for their beds. Ah youth ... isn't it wonderful?
The street in question
As a general rule, neighboring museums and theaters provide discounted tickets to youth hostel residents. I asked the young man if the hostel had a discounted ticket for the Vasarely Foundation: "No, there's nothing like that.", he said. Whereupon the young woman beside him picked up a pack of tickets from the counter, clearly visible in front of them, and gave me one. The saving was substantial, about $4.00
After a visit to my dorm room to lay out my things and take a nap, I returned to the desk and inquired about a community center name the Salle de Bois de l'Aune . (Alderwood Center ). The road map in one of my brochures indicated a Rotonde de Bois de l' Aune located about two blocks away. The desk clerks were unable to read the map. A college student standing by the counter gave me instructions for walking there. The desk clerks were amazed: they knew nothing at all about the neighborhood.
I left the hostel and walked back down the hill to the highway. Standing at the street corner waiting for the light to change was a muscular man of about 30 . I asked him if he knew how to get to the Salle de Bois de l'Aune . He thought about it for a moment before replying: "Yes;I know where that is. You'll never find it on your own. Come with me."
He walked me swiftly through a park of many branching roadways, then back out onto and across the highway, down another 4 streets, through a housing project and across yet another highway. Keeping up with his pace was difficult but exhilarating. Standing there I made out a dull red building in the shape of a large octagon. To its left beamed the red neon sign of a pharmacy . "That's it, over there."
By a conservative estimate he'd walked a mile out of his way ! His extraordinary courtesy had entirely mitigated my state of depression. Among other things, the possibility of heading back to Paris the next day had been considered. Now I was determined to stay three days as originally planned, a decision I would not regret. This was not the first time that a kind gesture by one person had reversed my negative impressions of an unfamiliar environment.
For the benefit of my local audience, the Salle de Bois de l'Aune resembles the new Green Street Arts Center in Middletown, Connecticut . A center for the arts located in a working class neighborhood, it provides facilities for theater, photography, film making, arts and crafts , meetings of neighborhood organizations, and other activities . No performances were scheduled for that evening but I enjoyed looking around. The literature on the tables indicated that the Communist Party of France has an important say in its administration, not surprising in view of the large membership of this political persuasion much persecuted in the United States .
Another bus into town to pick up some items for dinner. By 10 PM I was in the hostel cafeteria again , chatting with the two young Canadians . Bedtime at 11.
North of the Cours Mirabeau esplanade lies the historic center of Aix-en-Provence. It can be reached through helical and beguiling streets, their turbulent groins crammed with shops, restaurants and antique residences. Coming onto a plaza one finds several churches, the old university faculties, the proud facade of the Hotel de Ville and other municipal buildings. The large oblong plaza before the Hotel de Ville is the venue for a farmer's market. From the early morning until noon it bustles with activity. Shoppers can rest up in the cafės that perch on the rim of the market. Street musicians varying greatly in musical styles and competence are a fixture of the colorful ambiance.
The Farmer's Market
Sign in the courtyard of the Hotel de Ville
Lunch assimilated, it was time to set out to my next goal: the Atelier Cézanne . Up to the very day of his death Cézanne had plodded up the same steep road, to work alone in this studio, in total indifference to the city that would never understand him or his work. The museum is reached up a steep hill, about a kilometer to the north of the ring boulevard defining the border of the Old City; ( as a general rule such boundaries trace the orbit of the medieval walls.) Unfortunately I scrambled about a mile up the wrong street before realizing my mistake. I had to return to the boulevard, walk over a few blocks, then recommence my climb along the steep incline. The experience helped me understand what Cézanne had gone through.
An inconspicuous sign marks the normally bolted entrance to the Atelier Cézanne; it states that the museum opens at 2 on weekdays. This gave me half an hour to rest up in a bus stall. I returned to step into a charming garden of paths, ponds, bushes and trees. The house and studio stand to one's right. Enriching the grounds one finds pieces of sculpture by several contemporary artists. This sculpture garden is something of an outdoor museum all by itself. The price of admission to the house and studio was too high, nor was I interested in gazing out over the distant mountains that Cézanne had painted them. ( Will future visitors to Middletown pay $15 to sit in the same chair at which I once worked in the Russell Library?) After half an hour's walk through the unkempt brush, neither woods nor gardens, I went back to Aix.
(Footnote: Since this travelogue was written I've had the opportunity to see the DVD of a PBS program entitiled "Cezanne and the Provence". It shows the interior of Cezanne's studio. I now realize that I was very mistaken in believing that a visit to his studio had nothing to offer. It was built to Cezanne's specifications and is well worth the visit. My apologies.)
Sipping my cup of Colombian coffee at a comfortable Adagio I reveled in the gloomy state of mind that had taken possession of me. This delicious mood of melancholy was much enhanced by the efforts of a street guitarist across the way, struggling to get round the chords of the Romanco Anonymo , ( a piece made famous as the theme song of the film Forbidden Games ) . Needless to say, the artist received a generous tip from me when I left. For several hours I strolled through the Old City, visiting historic sites and taking pictures.
Around 5 o'clock I made my way over to a library/cultural center complex named, somewhat pretentiously, the Citė des Livres .
In the street outside the library one finds a cafeteria and a free art museum; its exhibition bore witness to the rather exaggerated respect the French accord to the cartoon comic strip. I bought a soda and sat for awhile on the terrace of the cafeteria to study the impressive installation that forms the entranceway of the library:huge 3-story high replicas of the covers of French classics: L'Etranger by Albert Camus, Le Petit Prince of Antoine de St. Exupéry. and Le Malade Imaginaire of Molière.
Various levels of cultivation, not all of them lofty, are simultaneously present in the precincts of the Cité du Livre. The photograph below bears witness to the evil effects of Americanization as it has developed around the world:
For two weeks I'd tramped about the south of France in the same pair of sneakers. Another pair had been left in Paris. Their odors were beginning to permeate the confined space of the compact dormitory room holding a pair of double-decker beds and 3 other tenants . Mindful of them, I'd placed the shoes on a metal shelf on the wall of the corridor which appeared to have been designed for that purpose.
At 7 in the morning I got out of bed and opened the door. The sneakers were gone! I couldn't for the life of me understand why anyone would want to steal them.I'd been using them already for a few years;long use had opened up rips on their sides.
One of my room-mates, age about 25 or so, worked as a waiter in one of the restaurants in the historic district of Aix. He was outraged that anyone would steal someone's sneakers. I agreed with him; it was preposterous. We went down together to the front desk to report the mysterious theft.
"What's the world coming to ?" the woman at the front desk commiserated, "They're even stealing shoes!" The waiter offered to let me use a spare pair of his own so that I could go into town and buy a new pair. We returned to the room to pick up his shoes , and discovered mine lying on the floor at the far end of the corridor!
"It was a joke." I commented. I assumed it had been perpetrated by the kids next door, in retaliation for making them turn off their CD player.
"Yes, but not a very funny joke." The waiter was more upset than I was. Then it struck me: April Fool's Day !! I burst out laughing. The French celebrate the same holiday, which they call the Poisson d'Avril : the April Fish! Taking breakfast in the Cours Mirabeau I treated myself to a Pain Raisin and Croissant d'Amandes : there was cause to celebrate!
In opposition to Vasarely ( and even Cézanne!) Dufy's graphic works are essentially representational, a melange of poetry and coloristic shorthand. Of course, no painting worthy of its turpentine is "about" its objects. A picture of contented cows in a meadow can be a masterpiece; some impressively weird by-blow of Abstract Expressionism can be junk.
The same applies to prose; this is not a recent discovery of Robbe- Grillet's . Familiar words are written only to disguise the author's true intent; there can be no other reason. The opposition of "literature" to "journalism" is quite fundamental: journalists use words that mean what they say: Lewis Carroll's Humpty-Dumpty is their mentor.
(Are these travel reports from literature or journalism? Caveat Emptor).
Examined from this perspective, Raoul Dufy's ideas seem somewhat derivative , his influences right on the surface: Surrealism, DiChirico, Magritte, Matisse, Ernst, Klee . On one of the paintings stands an image of the column in the Place Vendome. It separates two panels of iconic objects : fish, trees, colored patches , the Venus de Milo, beaches, old houses, ships. I may have missed the point. Dufy occupies the territory between painting and poetry. A pose of superficiality may be the best way to convey a deeper intent .
Arriving at the Forum des Cardeurs I discovered that he was right in every particular: Greek, French, Middle Eastern, Italian, seafood restaurants and creperies crowd up against each other to completely cover the upper half of the parvis , the great cobblestone plaza stretching across the northern face of the Hotel de Ville. A contention of purse and palate was resolved when I took up a green plastic chair on the terrace outside the open doors of a Turkish-Lebanese restaurant at 8 Forum des Cardeurs: the Divan d'Antioche .
The tables were arranged in rows of 3 with a depth of about 10 for each column, with many of them concealed from the others by hedges and trellises. The paper acanthus flowers, green with tall stiff leaves, set onto stands among the tables, were exactly duplicated in the flower designs on the white oilcloths.
The terrace was virtually empty when I entered it at 12:30; by 1:15 it had completely filled up . Three wiry waiters went from table to table, filling translucent water canisters beautifully shaped like Greek amphorae . Circling around them came a middle-aged street violinist, soughing conventional melodies such as "La Vie en Rose", and "Lara's Song" from Dr. Zhivago. A fellow craftsman ! He'd more than earned the euro I passed him. Chirping birds peeked out between the leaves and branches as, surrounded by the clouds of rich aromas from this and neighboring restaurants I prepared to appraise the splendors of an Oriental feast.
The meal will be given a thorough description in just a moment; before doing so I want to explain why I've chosen to describe it in such loving detail. The restaurant's manager, his broad nose establishing a judicious barrier between his glasses and a trim moustache, is a heavy-set, jovial, sun-burnished Turk, the sort one immediately identifies as someone who enjoys feeding people. As I was finishing up my meal he came by my table to ask if I was satisfied. I requested a copy of the menu and let him know of my intention to write up his restaurant in my Internet magazine.
A quick glance at me confirmed that I was the real thing. From that moment on he could not do too much for me: ice cream for dessert, a liqueur and coffee were all on the house. The price of the meal was reduced from 15 to 10 euros . Along with the menu I was given a copy of the receipt to pass along to my editor for the refund!
It turned out that I was the beneficiary of a similar encounter he'd had the previous summer. A couple who edit a travel magazine in England had published a favorable review, including photographs of him and the restaurant. They didn't sent him a copy; however one afternoon an English tourist came onto the terrace holding a copy of the magazine. He wanted to know if this was the restaurant described in the article!
The following review has been written in fulfillment of my promise to produce a scrupulously accurate account of my meal at the Divan d'Antioche. Let the reader be informed that I intend it to be totally impervious to all inducements, blandishments, compliments or bribes! Lunch at the Divan d'Antioche
Returning to the hostel I discovered that the juveniles in the adjoining room were playing the same CD's at full strength. Apart from my own desire to get some sleep, there were two of my roommates to consider.They'd come to Aix for nation-wide examinations that would determine which schools they could get into. They had to be up by 5, and out of the building by 6 AM. This time I went directly down to the front desk and complained. The young lady in charge explained that the room was occupied by the son of the hostel's director. The problem was perennial. The night clerks were frequently called upon to go up to their room and make them turn off the noise . We went back together and she knocked on the door . The youngster who opened it was short, curly haired and cheeky. He was also drunk. It was clearly an old familiar game; after a brief, predictable exchange the CD player was turned off. The waiter confessed that he enjoyed such medleys of sound effects, but that if they hadn't ceased immediately he would have knocked on their door and threatened to murder them .
Given that I no longer had anything to fear, it must have been arrant superstition that led me to place my sneakers inside the drawer beneath my bed when I turned in at 11 PM on this, my final night in Aix.