Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sightseeing Trip

Alain is one of Bill's oldest friends. They met back when Ronald Reagan was in office, and then campaigned together last fall for Barack Obama. Together they have shared college dorm rooms, death-defying hikes, heartbreaks, fatherhood, and a ten-week trip through Europe. Alain has loomed large over this trip in part because he's tall (the two men's actual height is a constant source of discussion, but Alain's excellent posture means he has a good 1/2 inch on Bill.) But mostly Alain is so ever-present with us, even when he's not here, is because he and Bill visited most of the places on our itinerary first.

So if we loved Nice, they were there first, whooping it up in a Communist League Youth Hostel on the beach all night until sunrise. If we loved Paris, they had been there first, attending a debauched graduation party with the city's etudiants. Of course we loved Florence, but for twenty years in Bill's parents' kitchen there has been a photo of Bill eating gelato on the Pont de Vecchio. Taken by Alain, almost twenty years ago. They were always there first.

(Not that I am seriously jealous. I mostly wish I had been able to come along.)

We were pretty excited when Alain and his family, (the stellar-and-talented Mary, and his superkids Alexandra and Miranda) made plans to visit us. Over the course of their week here, we did our best to make them feel at home, and watched as they luxuriated into the slow amble of France. Alain, a total health nut, gradually succumbed to the pleasures of new cheeses and wine in the middle of the day. He and Bill lounged around in the comfort of their decades-old friendship, finishing one another's sentences and regaling our girls with tandem-told stories of their near-death hiking experiences.

Mary, a total Francophile anyway, let her inner Frenchwoman rise to the surface like bubbles in champagne. She lived in Paris for years as a young woman, and later worked with a French theater troupe, L'Elephant Vert, where she honed her exceptional grasp of the French language. If this were a wedding rather than a sabbatical, and if there were a bouquet for us to throw at the end of this trip, to the family most likely to follow in our footsteps, I would chuck it straight at her.

Alexander and Miranda are pretty much too little to care awfully much whether they are in Florence, Mass or Florence, Italy, but all four of the kids fell into a lovely symbiotic pattern of wrestling, play, reading together and laughing hysterically at one another's jokes. There is something magically comfortable about children's friendships that are rooted back in genrations. Our kids seem to prefer hanging out with the children of people we knew before they were born. Together the kids made paper-maché piñatas, filled them with candy, and smashed them to little bits out in the garden. The gummy worms and marshmallows went flying into the flowers and the greenery of the yard, under all the flowers that are blooming us towards summer.

(Mary, you should know, was fully responsible for this arts-and-crafts project, just as Toni was responsible for the cool egg decorations at Easter. I could not craft my way out of a paper-bag puppet.)

During their time here, we took a road trip to Arles, one of the few cities of Provence we had not yet seen. The main purpose of the trip was so that Mary could see her friends from L'Elephant Vert. Pierre and Claire live just outside of Arles, in a giant estuary known as the Camargue, a watery lowland inhabited by bulls, flamingos, and white horses, and planted with local varieties of rice. They have re-purposed several buildings of an old fruit plantation (a "domaine"), turning them into a theater rehearsal space, a home for themselves and their two grown girls, and a space under an old fruit barn for their outdoor dining table. We spent several long, lazy hours sitting around that table in the open air, making our leisurely way through multiple delicious courses and finishing up with an apple pie made from Nona's recipe, Gerard's honey, and France's magical ready-made crusts. Not surprisingly, Pierre and Claire turned out to be exceptionally fun, interesting, and generously kind to us, we complete strangers at their family table.

(Once again the baguette theory of French social life turns out to be true: from the outside, the French are so crusty you can barely make your way in. But once you've broken through the hard exterior, it's all mushy and welcoming and extra bisous coming and going.)

In the afternoon, we climbed into our cars and took the world's shortest ferry trip (it couldn't have been more than 200 yards) to a vast wide, sandy beach totally devoid of any houses, shacks, or even signs. Instead, the beach was dotted with cars and campers and little clusters of families enjoying a lazy day by the water. The nearest family on the beach was about a hundred yards away from us, wearing no clothing whatsoever.

No signs. No snack shack. No rules. No permits. French beaches kick butt. Bare butt.

Mary and Alain spent the evening with their friends in the Camargue, then Bill the girls and I spent the night in an ancient hotel in Arles. I say "ancient" because there were literal ruins of Roman baths in the lobby, which you could view through the plexiglass floor.

At homeschool the day before, Grace and I had gussied up the trip with a little historical and cultural research, which I will now share with you. If you already know more about France than I do, and are reading this for the food porn, skip ahead to the magrets de canard.)

Arles grew up around a Roman theater and amphitheater, then gradually rose to engulf its own ruins, repurposing the ancient stones and building houses on top of where the stage and the arena had been. In the nineteenth century, the people of Arles decided to excavate their history. They found the money for this enormous undertaking very slowly, and are only now doing a major cleaning and repair job on the amphitheater.

Arles was also the town where Van Gogh so famously discovered the powers of blue and yellow, and then cut of his ear in a fit of fury either at or near his friend Gauguin, who then fled France forever. When he was painting Arles, the Roman buildings were still in shreds and pieces, awaiting the future that would restore the past. But the colors and the light, presumably, have been the same for millennia. On the day we were there, it was as though Arles had reinvented the colors of sky, stone, and sun. In the city center, you can drink your morning coffee or swig your late-night wine at a café restored to look like the one in his painting Le Café de Nuit. Before we went, Grace spent a morning ostensibly researching the Roman history of Arles, but she kept being drawn in by Van Gogh's lurid colors and even more lurid personal history.

(Weird things are total Grace- magnets. Other girls her age might like Miley Cyrus. She's spending the morning reading about Van Gogh's ear. Boy does she make us proud.)

That night, we found a restaurant that served a magret de canard that made Abigail claim in total earnest, "I am now in heaven." Grace ordered a stew made of Camargue bulls. That dinner was one of the rare nights when every single one of us was in a terrific mood. We giggled our way through dinner, polishing off every single bite of our dinners and desserts.

The next morning we visited the ruins, and I will just post photos rather than try to describe them. The kids clowned around on the same stage where Romans performed in the year 350. Although the lawn was piled with old bits of broken stone, the structure of the back of the arena looked a whole lot like the entrance to a contemporary ballpark. Only the hotdogs and Yankees caps were missing.

We spent most of the afternoon in the park. Although we had planned a lot more sightseeing, we discovered that it always works best when the people seeing the sights actually want to look at them. The kids only had eyes for ice cream, snacks, and one another, so it seemed wiser to let them enjoy one another's company rather than dragging them from one ancient place to another. Lesson number four-twenties-seventeen of this trip: when traveling with children, keep your eyes on things very close at hand.

Abigail gave out free backrubs after our picnic, and all of the kids enjoyed following a stray yellow lab around the park. It was enormously gratifying to watch Grace play with Miranda, as she reprised all the games we used to play with her when she was small. The kids found a pigeon leg in the grass, and arranged twigs and dead leaves into models of walls and crumbling ruins. Mary got to catch up with her friends, and Bill and Alain spent some time reprising their big European trip of ages ago. I mostly just lay on my back and looked up at the pattern of the sunshine in the branches of the trees.

Another great day. Twenty-four to go.

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