Wednesday, March 4, 2009

When in Arles

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I lived in Arles full time from the spring before the birth of Leo in 1997, to the winter of 2006. And for a few years on either end, every weekend. Arles is a small city. It is the urban center for the villages of the Alpilles to the East, and the tiny hamlets in the Camargue to the South. As such, small though it is, it has a hospital (where my sons were born), the regional high school, a good-sized library (in a marvelously renovated structure) and a handful of graduate schools and degree programs in photography, archeology, linguistics, and literary translations. Arles is the home of two interesting businesses: the editing and translating house Actes Sud (publishers of Paul Auster and Isbelle Allende in French); and Harmonio Mundi, a classical and world music publisher. There are theaters, concert performances, art galleries and exhibitions on a large scale. It is quite a cultural mecca for such a relatively out of the way place.

Arles has numerous festivals throughout the year, most notably the annual July Photography Festival (now 35 years' old), a Southern Music festival (now about 10 years' old), a harp festival in November, a Nude photography festival in the spring, and no doubt others than I'm less familiar with.

But more than anything, Arles was the historical center of Roman Provincia. Its strategic location squat in the middle of Italy and Spain, on the crossroads of the Via Aurelia and Via Domicia, on the Rhône River, the only waterway connecting Northern Europe with the Mediterranean made it a place of enormous political importance, and a hub of many cultures. Today it is a city built around its splendid Roman ruins, and the subsequent history built in many cases atop them, or inside them, or with their stones. We've what we call an Arena (aka a coliseum) in the center of town, atop the rocky point upon which Arles was founded. It is in great shape, and currently receiving a UNESCO funded make-over to assure its continued existence. But we also have an antique theater that we is still in active use for opera and dance productions, slide shows during the photography festival, and more. And the remains of a forum, thermal baths, funeral grounds, a huge race course, you name it. It was a most complete and extensive Roman city.

When you live amongst these old stones, they are simply part of the landscape. By the age of four, my boys considered themselves too old to enjoy outings to the local park and its minimal playground. So, for a change of scenery, I took them to the monuments (as locals, we have free entry), where they scrambled over toppled pedestals, capitals and more, climbed up the arena steps and stands, and ran through the long dark tunnels hooting. Yes, this behavior did perhaps disturb the tourists, but this is my children's heritage, the playground of their Arlesien ancestors. It somehow seems right that they play amongst these stones as so many generations have before them. I haven't gone so far as to suggest that they might run over the top of the Arena's arches. We'll see if they manage that themselves in some distant future.

Job stability and limited social mobility translate to a crew of cash register ladies at the local Monoprix who've known me now for years, watched my belly grow, heard my toddlers scream for candy, shared tidbits about weather, the Feria bull fights, what-have-you. The hairdresser who arrived back in 1997 has cut my hair (and for the past few years colored it) ever since. I've seen him through a girl friend or two, and now happily into parenthood. He's had my boys under his scissors, first in awe, then fidgeting like fiends, now relatively calm. Perhaps I've also had a hand in shifting his opinions of Americans in general? As I walk down the street, many more locals recognize me as "the American". They've heard me hollering after Leo begging him to slow down on his bike so he won't crash into a little old lady (or two). They've had me as a client (I'm a faithful regular at my favorite boutiques, around my birthday, and during the yearly July and January sales) and in some cases have a husband or cousin who worked with Erick on a house or a roof or...

And the market. Once you start doing the majority of your shopping in such an incredible mecca of fresh, local and superb quality produce, can you ever go back? Even at moments over the years when my home-sickness for friendly faces who truly knew and loved me, who held to our friendship was at a peak; even when my world felt cold and impersonal, I weighed choosing friends and easy relationships over such a market. Add in the gorgeous hikes not too far from the house, and well, I'm still in Provence. Thankfully, I've a richer social life with some wonderful girlfriends now. So, the right balance is slowly coming into place, and is perhaps not unattainable.

Erick's house in Arles is on a tiny side street, perfectly situated easy walking distance between the sites of the two weekly markets. So, Wednesday and Saturday mornings are market days. Days we ate shell fish, days for perfect fresh peaches or melons, days to be tempted by hot samosas or gorgeous hand-picked strawberries. At the market you always run into a few friends and acquaintances, exchange the ritual three kisses, get updates on family and life in general. Though the Saturday market is enormous, impressive and truly world class, I preferred the Wednesday's 'housewives' market' "le marché de ménagère. There I have my favorite organic vegetable seller, Sophie the beekeeper is nearby, and the flea market for second hand clothes is second to none. One egg-seller I've known forever once shushed up an ignorant colleague when they took my chatting with a client in English as an opportunity to comment (not meanly, but...) on us. Others remember in particular my violet summer hat that I wear without fail once the good weather is upon us. When they sight it, their faces light up.

Yes, I'm a known quantity in Arles. Even down to the pharmacy we've frequented since my arrival. They saw us through the illness and death of my father in law, my two births, any and every sickness. Truly a small town life, where if you leave your headlights on, someone will come and knock on your door, knowing your car and your address, even if you've never addressed the man before. Rather surreal for a New York girl... But it has its moments.


Anonymous said...

madeleine, i am so taken back and miss arles and you! this is a great forum for you! i wish i had more money, but alas, my lass! carry on, you are in my thoughts.

La Paz said...

Hello. I very much enjoyed your post. I see from the picture, you have a dog. I am thinking of going to Arles to study art therapy at PROFAC there, and if I do, I would like to bring my two large
dogs. What is it like having dogs in Arles? Are there places where they can run free?

Thank you.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Hello La Paz, There are many dogs in Arles - some always on leash, others quietly trotting behind their masters/mistresses without leash, some roaming/owning the area, street and car savvy, returning home when they feel like it. As a result, well, suffice it to say it's best to watch where you walk. With large dogs, best to keep them with you on leash. You may have difficulty with rentals - that would be your most pressing problem. However, there are little houses outside the city limit with some land attached, I would look towards them for your living arrangements, and enjoy the not too long walks back to town and your courses. For great running free times, head out to the beaches - just 30 minutes south of town - or to walks in the Alpilles. As long as your dogs come obediently when you call to them, you'll find these excursions wonderful.

Take care,

La Paz said...

Thank you very much Madeleine for describing so eloquently dog life in Arles, I really appreciate it. As I remember, attitudes towards dogs are more relaxed than in the US, people take them to restaurants, etc. It seems this has not changed much in the last ten years. I very much look forward to moving back to France in a year's time and, like you, eventually dividing my time between France and the US - a great balance.

Thanks again,