Sick in Bordeaux, recovering (just like Van Gogh!) in Saint-Rémy, and high in Chamonix. Life is (mostly) good here in France.
IS THERE EVER a more wretched feeling that lying sweatily on the tile floor of a strange bathroom in a strange city, and awaiting the next wave of nausea to splash into Lake Toilet?
I was the victim of an under-heated petrie dish of pumpkin soup at an adorable restaurant in Bordeaux’s centre ville, and spent much of the night reliving dinner, in reverse.
It’s the not-so-great pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
The next morning, still recovering, I settled in for a therapeutic sit in the main botanic garden in town.
As my stomach calmed, so did I, to simply take in the scene in front of me.
The town’s bicycle commuters had places to go, and refused even to stay in the frame of my drawing.
Bicyclists in the States dress like extras in a Mad Max movie. In Bordeaux, it’s be-spoke’n fashion all the way.
On another bench in the same park, I spotted this spindly little crabapple, with a few wan fruit dangling at the end of its gangly branches.
Well, I guess the birds have to eat, too.
Among the many things French designers do well: the little fences that protect gardens. Small touches add up to big things in France.
When my stomach finally settled, we were off to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. That’s where Vincent Van Gogh spent a recuperative year (1889–90) healing his left-ear wound, remaking the landscape in swirls of blue, green and yellow, and turning himself into one of the 20th century’s essential humans.
My right ear was intact upon our arrival in Saint-Rémy, and my stomach was again ready to tackle anything, including pesto ravioli swimming in a cream sauce along with an entire ball of buffalo mozzarella. Butter therapy beats a year in an asylum, with your fellow inmates incessantly asking, “Hey, what happened to your ear, anyway?”
We were staying in an Airbnb with a little stone porch, on a pedestrian alley not far from the center of town.
This is what I was looking at as I had my morning coffee, with a side of croissants and pencil sketching.
Rosemary was growing wild and fragrant against ancient stone walls, and nearby olive trees were laden with ripening fruit. Right next door there was a patisserie selling the crunchiest, flakiest, butteriest pains au chocolat that ever accompanied a café crème. Talk about your mental health boosters.
I’ll go more into my Van Ghost tour in another post.
But after three days of sunshine in Provence it was time to head for the French Alps. If it was good enough for Hannibal and his elephants, it was good enough for me.
As I sat with my Paulaner beer in the Place Balmat, in central Chamonix, my wife arrived to point out that L’Aiguille du Midi was making the nearby, puny buildings look a little ridiculous.
It was autumn in town and winter up above. Bring your passport: You can ski in three countries in a single day.
When the sun hits L’Aiguille, it’s noon. Time for a beer, at least in France.
We rode the téléphérique up near the very top of that promontory, then took an elevator to summit. I’d like to thank the structural engineers and tram engineers and tunneling engineers and elevatoristes and brave construction workers who made it all possible. Also, thanks to the kind woman working in the cafeteria up there, who apologized profusely and comedically that she had no mustard to go with my ham-cheese-butter-on-a-baguette sandwich.
I made do by ordering a beer and crunching my lunch while looking down on all of Europe, far below.
On the way down from L’Aiguille, we hopped off the téléphérique at the mid-station to watch the paragliders run down a sloping grass field and launch themselves off a cliff.
The ravens were pissed about the competition for airspace.
Those are my legs, stretched out bottom left, as I took my most adventurous nap ever. As for those cliff jumpers: People say Van Gogh was nuts?
I can tolerate extreme beauty and high peaks and buckets of fondue and beer glasses like bathtubs only for so long. So we lit out for Dijon, home of Barack Obama’s favorite mustard.
No wonder Republicans called him elitist. It really is the best mustard. Especially the grainy kind.