Southward As You Go

For the last few days it had been almost possible to forget about the terrible things going on in the world; to push it all, at least, to the back of one's mind. Newspaper headlines, displayed at street kiosks, could be more or less ignored - especially if one's French was not of the best; one could simply not make the effort needed for comprehension - and there was no TV in our room.

At the train station, however, it was no longer possible to forget. The Gare de Lyon was patrolled by squads of armed guards; not cops, either, but French soldiers in combat uniform, carrying automatic weapons. They moved with a swift precision, watchful and ready; they were, in fact, easily the most professional-looking soldiers I'd ever seen, and after the first shock it was a genuine comfort having them there.

It was raining again when we left Paris, and the windows were blurry with raindrops and mist as the TGV snaked rapidly southward; but finally the sky cleared, a little way above Lyon, and we rolled past sunlit fields brown with autumn stubble. A little before noon we were in Avignon.

It felt good to be back. At the Hotel Splendid, Madame La Concierge remembered me from last year; but quel dommage, the hotel was full, there were no rooms. She was desolée. I was desolée too, but not for long; directly across the street (which, this being a typical Avignon side street, meant about fifteen feet away), at the equally excellent Hotel du Parc, we got a fine little room with a great view for a more than reasonable price.

Phyllis loved Avignon right from the start. I'd expected she would; it's an easy town to love. We went up and had a look at the Papal palace and then climbed the hill, for much the same reason the bear went over the mountain.

It was a windy day and the flowers up on the hill were fluttering in the breeze that came down the Rhône valley.

The little park on top of the hill was alive with children, even though it was a weekday. Maybe there was a school holiday or something.

We walked along the the parapet above the medieval walls, admiring the view of the town and the river and the country beyond.

In the evening after dinner we wandered along the main street and wound up at a café eating apple tart and drinking hot tea. (A mistake; tea is not among the things they do best in France.) A handsome young man in a short-sleeved shirt appeared at one end of the room and began fiddling with a microphone and then some sort of tape machine. A moment later he began to sing. He had a pleasant voice, though nothing special; his voice, however, wasn't the main thing he had going for him.

Phyllis said quite firmly, "You can go back to the hotel now. I'll see you later."

Unfortunately he didn't, literally, have his act together; he kept forgetting the words, and he couldn't seem to make his tape machine work properly. Over by the door a couple of local bimbos began heckling him, calling out comments and screeching with half-crocked laughter. The men up along the bar were starting to laugh too. One of the bimbos began trying to sing along with him.

I felt a sudden demented impulse to stand up and do Paul Henreid in Casablanca: the scene where he leads everyone in singing the Marseillaise. But I refrained. It would have been impolite to these people to seem to mock their national anthem. Besides, they might have beaten the shit out of me. Besides, I didn't know the words all the way through.

Next day we went down and had a closer look at the river.

Jacques-Pierre Sanders. I kill me sometimes.

And just what the world needed, another photo of the much-photographed Pont d'Avignon. What can I say?

It had been a rainy year. The debris marks along the banks showed that the Rhône had been running high, and not long ago; and huge fungi grew on the trees along the river.

Back in town, on the square in front of the Papal palace, a Spanish singer was serenading the café-sitters with gypsy ballads. At least I think they were gypsy ballads; they sounded like the sort of thing the Gypsy Kings do. He was damned good, anyway, with one of those slightly hoarse tenor voices, and a big white smile. I think Phyllis forgot all about the lad at the café.

This is Killer (pronounced "Keelair") at his headquarters, our favorite café in Avignon. Killer is quite a prominent citizen; everybody seems to know him and stop to converse with him. A dog of great dignity and reserve; a very French dog, in fact. "Back home," Phyllis pointed out, "some asshole from the Health Department would close them down for having a dog in the place."

That night we packed. "I feel like crying," Phyllis said. "I love it here."

"You'll like Arles too," I told her, hoping I was right.