Memories of Arles

We left Avignon that summer and took a bus to Arles, saying we were going on a Van Gogh pilgrimage. Van Gogh had spent a long time here, accompanied by Gauguin, and left behind many works.

The summer in the south of France is very beautiful, unlimited supply of daylight, the sky and white clouds are so bright that one will never get bored of seeing them, always reminding me of Kunming in my childhood, when the grass was more luxuriant than then, and when there were fewer people than then.

We first went to the Colosseum, a huge ring-shaped building. After climbing up to the stands, there was nothing around but silent black stones, the texture very rough, and the sun made them hot, and a lot of bird droppings fell on the back of the chairs. We just squinted down into the daylight, there was nothing, no gladiators, no chariots, no lions or tigers, everything was just legend and history. Reality is a ruin of abandoned buildings, some stands have scaffolding, probably in repair.

Stretching my neck from the bleachers, I probed to see the pitch-black gladiatorial exit below. The living used to walk out of here in formation and then turn into corpses and drag them back with horses, leaving a winding line of blood on the ground. However, I could only see the passage and the iron fence above it, and the reality was far less exciting than the drama. In raising my head, I saw a small white shell inlaid on the black stone in front of me. To say inlaid is not right, it should have been inside the stone a long time ago. That's when I suddenly realized that it might not be a stone in front of me, but some kind of ancient cement mortar. The presence of the shell made the whole empty silent colosseum start to breathe, just like a fingerprint found on the surface of a naked rock after man landed on Mars.

We later went back to the Place du Form, where it was hard not to notice the Van Gogh coffee, its colors were just so bright and eye-catching. Sitting there waiting for our appointment time at the Van Gogh Gallery, we each ordered a hot cup of coffee. By this time the sun had risen very high and it still felt hot sitting under the awning. I don't remember the taste of the coffee at all, I just remember that I wanted to order a large glass of iced water instead of hot coffee.

As I sat there taking in the Southern French sun baking, I smelled food on the wind. Turning my head to look, I found it was the restaurant next door making paella at the door. It was a huge pan sitting on the stove. The rice was laid flat in the pan, seasoned to a golden brown, and surrounded by many different vegetables, shells, and shrimp. Along the side of the pan, a row of fried duck legs was neatly placed. The stove was burning below, the rice was steaming, and the duck legs appeared in the steam, golden and crispy. I asked my friend on purpose, pointing to the pot: What is that?

That's not cooked yet, we still have to go to the exhibition later, my friend replied. A few steps along the Place du Form and turn into the alley, is the Van Gogh Museum. There should be a lot of real Van Gogh paintings there, and I should have looked at every one of them carefully. But I had no memory of anything in the museum, it was as if I had never been there. Because I was distracted throughout my visit, I kept thinking about the question: how closely do we need to look at these paintings to get the paella just right after we leave the house? And: if we look too closely, will the paella be sold out after we leave the house? So I didn't look at any of the paintings, didn't say a word of dialogue seriously, and only had the golden pot of paella in my head.

After the tour, we passed by the paella once again. I stopped and said to my friends: Look, these duck legs are beautiful. My friends hesitated for a fraction of a second, and in the dozen years we spent together, there was a 98%+ probability that they would say: Why don't we try it? On that Southern French summer day, it was exactly the remaining 2%. No, my friend said, the meal was not yet cooked and we had to drive to find the bridge of Van Gogh's, which the driver said was not easy to find.

Van Gogh's bridge, known in full as the Langlois Bridge in the city of Arles, from which Van Gogh composed Bridge at Arles (Pont de Langlois). I had no idea where the bridge was or why we were going to see it.  The driver drove us back and forth from field to field with a Google map for 45 mins. Then that Frenchman turned his face back, shrugged his shoulders, spread his hands and said, "Gentlemen, I'm sorry, I can't find the bridge. I asked him what he meant, what did he mean I couldn't find it. He said he just couldn't find it, he didn't know where the bridge had gone, it should be around here, but he couldn't find it. He also said that it was getting late and we had to get back to Avignon, so we had to leave now.

For a moment I felt my chest explode, my heart was roaring:  bridge? The fucking bridge! My paella! The second I thought about it I fell into a deep self-loathing, ’what was that?'  You really have the guts to ask such a question. What's the point of keeping your face in that situation? What's the point of a veiled hint? Look at my mouth, I-want-to-eat-paella, just five words, how hard can it be? Sitting in the car, my heart kept going back and forth between anger and chagrin, hoping that a bridge would suddenly appear at the next intersection. Then a bridge did appear, but on the edge of Avignon's old town.

That's all I remember of Arles, a white shell, and a pot of paella that never made it to the table, leaving little room for Van Gogh. Years later, my friends and I passed the paella in a restaurant and I pointed to it and said in a choked voice: Van Gogh. They nodded heavily and replied to me: Yes, it would have been nice to stay and eat.

Memories of Arles

We left Avignon that summer and took a bus to Arles, saying we were going on a Van Gogh pilgrimage. Van Gogh had spent a long time here, acc...