Monday, February 25, 2008

Oh Van Gogh!

Starry, starry night
Paint your pallette blue and gray...

If you are about my age, you'd probably remember the song Vincent made popular by Don MacLean when we were in our early teens. At that time, I didn't know who this Vincent was nor cared about the fine arts, paintings in particular. I was not even a fan of Don McLean. But I memorized this song without knowing what it meant.

Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Years later, at the university, I learned a little about Vincent Van Gogh--and different art styles, too--in my Humanities class. I say a little because the only thing that stuck in my head about Van Gogh was his self-portrait with a bandaged ear. Because of this, I would remember him more as a mental case rather than as a brilliant artist.

Fast forward to last November 2007. So when Gino booked a Van Gogh half-a-day tour that would take us around 3 towns of Provence outside of Avignon, I was not too excited about the Van Gogh part. I just wanted to see places.

First we went to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Vincent Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum here after signs of mental illness began to manifest themselves in the form of delusions and psychotic attacks. Once he pursued fellow artist Gauguin with a knife, then later in the day he mutilated his ear and offered it as a gift to a prostitute. That's the story behind the bandaged ear.


Although we did not enter what used to be the asylum, we saw the olive grove outside the building that was the subject of one of Van Gogh's paintings.

It is in this asylum that Van Gogh painted Starry Night that became Don Maclean's opening line in his hit song Vincent. It is one of many that Van Gogh painted in this hospital.

Starry Night

Next we went to Les Beaux de Provence, a small village in the Alpilles mountain. It is set on a rocky outcrop surrounded by rocks and cliffs. I don't know if Van Gogh ever went there, but it was on our itinerary.

View from Les Beaux de Provence

We were at a high altitude with the mistral pounding from all directions. It was verrrry cold. Even Gino, who can withstand the cold, was shivering.

Les Beaux de Provence was used by the Celts as a hill fort in 2 BC, according to Wikipedia. Now it is a mere tourist area with a population of 22.

Back to our Van Gogh tour, we headed for Arles where the artist planned to put up an art school that did not happen. It was very interesting to see structures that became the subject of Van Gogh's paintings.

That building was the yellow house in the painting below.
The bridge (partially seen at the right) is still there.

The Yellow House

The yellow coffee shop was the Cafe Terrace. According to our tour guide, it was painted yellow to match Van Gogh's famous painting shown below.

Cafe Terrace on the Place de Forum

I don't think Van Gogh painted this arena...

...but he made a painting of spectators inside it.

We capped our tour with a trip to the market, which was just as exciting for me, maybe even more. I couldn't wait to finish the guided tour so we could dash off and check out local products.

Olives! Lots and lots and lots of olives.

So that ended our tour. Looking now at the many works of Van Gogh on the Internet and reading about his life, I feel bad that he died a very sad man. According to the Van Gogh Gallery website, he "viewed his life as horribly wasted, personally failed and impossible" that he shot himself "for the good of all". Tragic.

Now his works are highly regarded though he was only able to sell one painting in his lifetime. His art is a gift to the world. Too bad he did not get the recognition he deserved while he was alive.

How you suffered for your sanity, and how you tried to set free
They would not listen they do not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now.

Don Maclean wrote Vincent after reading a book on Van Gogh's life. Now I understand why the lyrics were so sad and the melody so melancholic.

Here's a video I saw on youtube that you might like to watch.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Memories of Avignon - the good, the bad and the ugh!

Here are some more of my recollections of my short stay in Avignon. Just preserving them here for my brood. But go ahead and read along...

The good

In Avignon, I was finally able to lay back and relax after a hectic week of traveling from Paris to Venice to Florence to Provence. Avignon was home.

After Gino left for school in the morning, I enjoyed the peace and quiet. No TV, no radio, no emails (oh, this one I missed). I took that opportunity to spend a mini-retreat, read the book The Sabbath Rest of God (very fitting), and Psalm 121. That was all the Bible passage I meditated on.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber...

Traveling is always an occasion for me to look up to God for protection.

The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

Anything can go wrong during a trip -- vehicular accidents, lost luggage, stolen passport, traveler's diarrhea, food poisoning, mugging, natural catastrophe, name it. God spared us from them all. We came and went with no incident. Thank you, Lord! The worst that happened to me was sore legs and blisters on both feet.

Another good thing about Avignon was its beauty--both man-made and natural--and its ancient history. You can read about this in one of my previous blogs. Or simply google it, if you want to know more information.

The shops! I never got tired of checking out the shops. I am not a shop-till-you-drop kind of person, but I enjoy window shopping a lot. I visited the same shopping areas in Avignon like I watch my favourite TV shows -- over and over. Towards the end of my vacation, I knew it was time to do some real shopping that I would not be able to afford in Paris on the way back to Vancouver. So I bought some clothes and accessories for my family from Celio and H & M. Good stuff! For myself, I got a black top on sale and a nice sweater, also on sale, that Gino insisted I get for myself. Sometimes I need that push, you know.

The food - Gino and I bought a yummy donair wrap, or kebabs, one night as we were walking along the Rue de Republique. 5 euros per wrap that was so huge we saved some for lunch the next day. Baguettes, or French bread, were very good and cheap at a nearby bakery. Crepe was sold everywhere. I enjoyed watching how this was done. One time, I bought a crepe with nutella on it. The nutella made it more expensive by about a euro. Too sweet! I should have asked for a plain one. Our daily food at home included baguettes, cheese (so many choices at the grocery store), cold cuts, and lettuce. Sometimes I cooked eggs and ramen or miso soup that I brought from Canada.

The grapes, ahh the grapes in Avignon were perhaps the sweetest I had ever tasted. I did not eat lots of them though until we had water in the toilet. Just being careful...

The wine--this is Provence where some of the best wines in France were produced. Red and white wine were sold in nice bottles at the grocery store and they cost less than bottled water. Gino said they tasted okay. I wouldn't be able to tell because I don't like wine that much. I didn't have any in Avignon. Again, just being careful.

The bad

Gino's water had been cut off while he was away. We had no tap water at home for more than 2 days. It was reconnected only after Gino contacted the water company. So for 2 1/2 days, all we had was bottled drinking water, and the 1.5 liter of water that I collected from the laundromat. I used up lots and lots of baby wipes, baby powder and hand sanitizer.

We simply laughed off our predicament and lived with it. It brought back memories of our early years in our house in Fairview, Quezon City, Philippines when we had running water for less than an hour a day for months and months and months. Those days, we, including Gino and Mickey, used to fetch water from a nearby subdivision. They were only 6 or 7 years old and I could still imagine them carrying jugs of water under the midday sun. I was rather amused that I would once again experience how it was to live with scant water, and in France at that! But with the 1.5 liters of water, I was not only able to wash two sets of dishes and a pan. I was also able to wipe clean the sinks by recycling used water. Very Third World!

The ugh!

My hair at the end of the day.

Because it was the mistral season, winds were very strong in Avignon. I could hear it howling on our rooftop at night. During the day as soon as I stepped out the house, my hair, which was cut short for this trip, was blown in all directions. It was always so messed up, I wondered why I bothered brushing my hair at all. Warning: Avignon is not a place to wear wigs or toupees at that time of the year.

My French.

I know very little French, mostly greetings and public signs and some words that I read on food labels here in Canada. But I wouldn't be able to carry a conversation with the words I knew. So it was quite a challenge for me to go around Avignon when Gino was at school.

I observed that every time I entered a store, salespersons would say Bonjour. The right thing for me to do was to say Bonjour too. As I left the store, they'd say Merci. Au revoir! to which I should reply the same. Easy? Well, not for me. Sometimes, I got stumped and confused about which one of the three greetings to say. Merci? Or bonjour? Awkward pause. Mere smile. You have to pardon my French--or the lack of it.

Bonjour, merci, au revoir! Whichever of the three.

Villeneuve les Avignon

Villenueve les Avignon is a very charming village across the bridge from Avignon. I think it is also known as Avignon's twin town. Gino and I were reminded of the movie Chocolat as we walked around the village finding the way to Fort Andre. This Gino, he said it wasn't that far. Yeah right, if you zoom in on your camera. But it was an enjoyable walk because of the ancient village feel. He sent me an email later saying, "Mom, I found a short cut. I took you to all the long cuts. Hahaha.."

Here are some lovely shots from Villenueve where cardinals lived in the 14th century.

That's where we are going. Le Fort St. Andre, built in the 14th century to protect the Benedictine abbey and the town of St. Andre.

I liked the architecture.

It didn't feel like you are in the 21st century.

Almost there! We deviated from the asphalt road and hiked up a trail. For a moment I thought the strong winds might blow me downhill.

Then we saw this olive grove. We imagined the Mount of Olives Jesus frequented to pray.

Inside the fort.

Gino. Behind him is Avignon.

It was already dusk when we headed back home. Before we left the village, we bought some French pastry from a store. But no chocolat!