Thursday, May 22, 2014

van gogh goes missing


The very word sounds alluring.  Arriving in an exotic port with a crowd of polyglot companions and climbing onto a bus tour to dip into the Whitman’s sampler that is the south of France.

But it can also be another round of Russian roulette.

Sometimes the bus tours can be as exhilarating as a fireworks display.  Other times, you get a damp squib.

We were in Marseille yesterday (or as the American sitting next to me has just announced loudly to someone on his mobile telephone – Mor-sellas, Fraaance).  Marseille serves as the gateway to transition tourists from their cruise ships to the villages of Provence.

My choice was St. Remy -- as part of my art hook for this European visit.  The brochure promised we would discover “the classic village of St-Remy-de-Provence, birthplace of Nostradamus and the magical setting for some of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings.” 

Before we set off, the tour coordinator promised us we would see several plaques throughout town showing a specific Van Gogh’s painting and the scene that inspired it.  It sounded like a perfect mix to let me see a bit of picturesque Provence while feeding me some obvious material to share with you.

The trip should have been advertised as “Spot the Famous Celebrity – Historical Edition.”  In our very brief walk through about three blocks of St. Remy, we saw exteriors of the birthplace of Nostradamus and the home of the Marquis de Sade.  It was a bit like driving past Jeane Dixon’s house and Jeffrey Dahmer’s jail cell.  (No.  Dahmer’s jail cell would have been more interesting.)

But our guide served up a smattering of French history and plopped us down at or third (and last) stop.  This time at a church that had been leveled during the Revolution and rebuilt in the 19th century.  It now looks as if it had not had any maintenance since then.  Even some of the neglected Mexican churches are in far better shape. 

We stopped to see it solely, according to the guide, because it is “large” for the size of the village.  I guess, in the same way that the largest artichoke in Sioux Falls must have some sort of inherent interest.

And that was it.  Other than mentioning the asylum where Van Gogh was institutionalized as we sped by, Van Gogh was as absent from the tour as challenging writing is from American television. 

What about those vaunted Van Gogh placards?  Our guide said he only knew of one and pointed vaguely where he thought it was – adding with a Gallic shrug that it was too far for him to walk.  It was disappointing.

I forget if it was Gary Denness or Kim (it was one or the other) who commented that the traveler can find beauty in any of the places he visits.  And that was true of St. Remy.  I decided to turn the goose entrails of disappointment into a nice terrine.

We arrived on market day.  Now, market day in St. Remy shares a lot of the same traits of market days throughout the world.  Tarps stretched above tables displaying local wares.

But this is France.  And the goods on the tables emitted that sense of French style that leads consumers to seek them out.

Here is a simple example.  I bought a baguette.  It was mediocre compared to other baguettes I have eaten in France.  But it was ten times better than any bread I have eaten in Mexico during the past six years.  (I know.  The hurdle is set rather low.)  And I was eating it in the south of France.

I had come seeking Van Gogh.  I knew his paintings would not be here.  But, at least, I walked in the same area where he walked before he carted himself off to some hell-hole loony bin in one of his absinthe-induced bouts of insanity.  And before too long he would be dead at his own hand.

I am not dead at my own hand.  I am on my way to Monaco where I had planned on joining a tour to Nice for the Matisse and Chagall museums.  Apparently, not enough people had the same idea.  The tour has been cancelled.

So, I am looking at alternate methods to get to one (or both) of the museums.  I understand there is a train that takes about an hour to get there.

And if I miss Matisse and Chagall?  I have seen their works before.  I will see them again.

Something interesting will happen.  After all, wherever the traveler is, there will be things of beauty.


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