Aix and Nimes, like Orange, Sablet and Avignon are all in Provence. I love this part of France. It feels very French, steeped in history, bathed in the soft hazy sun of the south, spotted with with hilltop villages as if some crazy God just dropped them randomly around the countryside.
It’s the France of Cezanne, of the Dutch-Frenchman, Van Gogh, it’s the France of Spain, with bullfighting rings and bullfighting still scattered around, with Paella served in the markets, and of the Rhône lazily, slowly and corpulently winding its way to Mediterranean, fattened with the rains of recent floods. Arles, the home of Van Gogh for the last years of his life, is just 30 minutes away perched lazily on the Rhône banks.
Most times I come to France, I come to Aix-en-Provence. For all that it is over-run with tourists it still has a certain southern slowness about it. It never makes me feel like hurrying. The roads are lined with honeycomb coloured buildings, matching the colour of Mont Sainte-Victoire. At every turn there are pastry and ice-cream shops and two great bookshops with cafes.
Aix is home to Bernard and Nadine, my two oldest friends in France. I met them in 1998 on Gili Air, Lombok. I had been at a yoga retreat in Ubud and the yoga crew inundated the Safari Cottages where the two of them were staying. In those days Gili Air was a rustic, under-visited getaway for hippies and those escaping the night life and cultural destruction of Bali.
We spent a week there doing the hour circuit of the island, eating pineapples on the beach, sampling every cafe on the island and spending our evenings doing never ending renditions of Beatles, Cohen and other popular songs which were within even my highly restricted repertoire – my singing is sounds much like that of an overenthusiastic hyena; occasionally you get a note that sounds musical but mostly it is the singing equivalent of giving an untrained five year old a violin and saying “make noise.
But my friends are tolerant and at a dollar for each off-key note I only have to buy all them dinner about 1000 times.
Today Gili is an overdeveloped, overwhelmed, over-loved tourist destination full of a five thousand 20-somethings all eagerly getting drunk, stoned and infected with STIs. When you are not tripping over the drunks, you are stepping on the discarded condoms from the party-goers that actually remained sober. The Bali armageddon has long overwhelmed the Gilis.
I’ve spent the subsequent 30 years bumping into Bernard and Nadine in various parts of the world, most notably Paris and Bangkok. Bernard is what is know as a Pied Noir, having been a child of parents who lived and worked in Algeria. Being a Pied Noir is both a good and bad thing. Good in that any bad behaviour can be explained away by a poor (as in lack of style and class) upbringing, and bad because anything that goes wrong for the partner of a Pied Noir is, inevitably, a result of living or knowing a Pied Noir.
Generally the Pied Noirs were conservative. The left disliked them for their support of French colonialism, their exploitation of Algerians and the role of the Algerian wars in the collapse of the Fourth Republic. Bernard suffers the double burden of being a Pied Noir and thus generally viewed as suspect by the left but actually being on the left and this also despised by the right. He is a prophet without honour in his own land.
This, the recent history of the Pieds-Noirs, has been imprinted with a theme of double alienation from both their native homeland and their adopted land.
The relationship of Nadine and Bernard was what might be termed argumentative; no hint of reason shall ever come between the two of them and a good rambunctious argument, as described in my original description of visiting them in Aix “Lunch in Aix-en-Provence“
Bernard and Nadine have long separated. With true panache and timing their separation came just months after they had jointly adopted a young Haitian boy, Nel. Bernard now lives with new partner, Celine and their son, a couple of hundred metres from Nadine where I am ensconced in my normal abode in the downstairs apartment. My time in Aix is apportioned between Nadine and Bernard; I feel a bit like they have been awarded shared custody of me and it is important to ensure each get equal time.
My first night in Aix takes me to the home of Jean-Jaques who I last saw about ten years ago. He is a cross between an archetypal rural Frenchman, who one might expect to arrive at any moment with baguettes and onions, a traditional French agrarian socialist and a West Virginian hillbilly.
He wants me to on his local radio program and talk about Australian politics, ideally anything that is likely to get me arrested on re-entry to Australia. Like how the immigration concentration camps are a genocidal horror sufficient to justify the assassination of any politicians advocating or supporting them. Fortunately I am leaving the evening before.
He has a new wife, an English woman, Louise Vines. Last time I visited he had a New Zealand wife who left shortly after I visited. I’m assured there is no connection between the two happenings, even though half the women with whom I have had relationships have decided immediately thereafter to become lesbians.
Jean Jaques lives just out of Aix on what might loosely be termed a small holding, populated by a menagerie of cats, ducks, geese, hens and various breeds of cars. The cars have bred faster than anything else. Last time I was invited for dinner there were three rusty French cars now there are about eight. He has another “new” car, which is actually a rather nice Alfa but managed to rip a scar down one side only about a week after getting it.
Nadine is off to Marseilles for just over two days to one of the never ending round of summer festivals that exist in the region. but I want to go and visit my ex-colleague, Gregoire, who lives in Nîmes, about an hour away.
I have borrowed Nadine’s brand new car for the purpose and I drive off with her admonishments not to damage her new Fiat ringing in my ears. This is like calling down fate on my head, or putting pins in one of the voodoo dolls which she brought back from Haiti. I have already bulk ordered 40 odd voodoo dolls when she next goes to Haiti, one for each member of the Coalition cabinet and 15 for the England rugby union team.
I arrive in Nîmes just before I am due to meet Gregoire and miraculously find a vacant parking spot right near the station.
I think that I have struck lucky but realise that I am simply the beneficiary of southern mediterranean culture. There is no one parked there because it is lunch-two-hour and everyone has gone off home for the lunch and siesta. Hence not only are the spaces empty but between 12 and 2 pm there are no parking charges; it is the only city I have visited where not only does everyone stop work for two hours but this also applies to the parking charges and the parking attendants.
Nîmes is a city of about 150,000 which, in common with a significant number of European cities, has done what Australian cities should be doing, and has pedestrianised large swathes of the city centre without any apparent impact on retail trade. It is an ancient Roman city and, among other things, contains one of the most perfectly preserved Roman Arenas. Gregoire shouts me
lunch, which, apart from dead duck, mainly consists of the usual uplifting discussions about French and Australian politics, Brexit, the current lives of all the ex-Greenpeace staff with whom we worked and a long dissertation from Gregoire about how I could make my fortune, with my background, working for the UN or other international agencies.
Nîmes also possesses one of the finest Roman temples and the Garden of Fountains, an area of canals and fountains originally designed to support local industry. The highlight of the visit to Nîmes, however, is my attempt to destroy my friendship with Nadine, bankrupt myself and thus end my European holiday due to lack of funds.
This involves, doing $2000 worth of damage to Nadine’s car, even though short of standing on ones head and using binoculars the amount of damage was almost invisible. In reality, as in all situations of this type, it wasn’t my fault.
Or more probably, as a French friend explained to me once “in France it might be your fault but you are never to blame.” Thus I blame Nadine for lending me the car, Fiat for forcing me to refuel, and the petrol station for having an invisible underground bollard that leapt out and scratched the car deliberately.
These events and a range of other brilliantly conceived strategies designed to ensure that no conceivable travel crisis shall go undiscovered are described here in Part 3: “Travelling Idiot Style“
This accident also contributes to further my reputation as a feckless traveller and borrower of cars – an observation which refers back to the two other friends’ cars that I have managed to destroy or damage over the years.
Once in New Zealand, 40 years ago, when, looking through a hedge green hedge, I failed to spot a hedge green car proceeding at high speed with the deliberate intention of destroying my friends Wolseley. Again not my fault. Had the hedge been blue, or the other car red nothing would have happened.
The second belong to Judy Mahon, in the aftermath of the Franklin campaign when, en route to Tullamarine Airport, another driver decided that turning right across oncoming traffic without looking was a good way to enliven the day.
Having borrowed Judy’s car I then showed the high level of personal responsibility for which I am renowned and abandoned the car into the care of Peter Collins (who was accompanying me so that he could drive the car back to Judy) because, had I not done so, I would have missed my flight thus costing me the massive amount of about $200.
On my final night, I head up the road for dinner with Bernard, Celine and their son, Eugene.
Bernard and Celine are teachers but both play in their band, Jim Younger’s Spirit; Jim Younger being a sort of American version of Ned Kelly and a member of the James-Younger Gang. Bernard tells me he bumped into Peter Garrett in the post office in Aix, who he described as “lurching towards me with his huge height and blue eyes”
I ask him if he introduced himself as another rock and roll star, and tell him he could have gone up and said “Hey Peter Garrett, I’m a mate of Chris Harris….”.
I have no idea what Garrett might have replied but I seem to have convinced Bernard. I’m not convinced that I can believe Bernard about much, however, since he also tells me that I have a little malicious smile….which is clearly not true, since I have an open friendly smile with any hint of malicious thoughts or intent.
Casting aside Bernard’s backhanded compliment the evening proceeds as most of our evenings proceed. Large quantities of second rate French wine, endless amounts of food, an examination of the entrails of French, British and Australian cultures, lots of music, many very bad jokes, in an unintelligible mixture of French and English, a ragout of reminiscences largely populated by a surfeit of very large lies.
I have a new victim for some Australian mythologies, Eugene, who is now four. I tell him about Drop Bears, Hoop Snakes, Bunyips and the recently discovered Sand Sharks, that emerge soundlessly from under Australia’s deserts to devour passing tourists. But he is most excited at the discovery that if you eat Kangaroo it will make you hop endlessly for at least six hours after consumption. For the next two hours Bernard and Celine are pestered to buy Kangaroo, so that Eugene can experience this amazing phenomenon.
Too many lies are barely enough….
This is Part 8 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:
Part 1 – Leaving on a Jet Plane to Bologna
Part 2 – Of Maddening Brits and Mad Families
Part 3 – Travelling Idiot Style
Part 4 – Explaining Manspreading
Part 6 – Travelling South
Part 7 – Scribblings from a Trip
The full archive of images of Nîmes used in this post can be found on Flickr here