My daughter and I rented a car in Avignon to go to Arles, a town on the bank of the Rhone River, in Provence. But when we got there, the streets were too narrow for the car. Claire had insisted on a smaller model, and each time I had to reverse, she’d look at me with an ‘I told you so’ look. I later learned that Arles is known for its labyrinth of one-way streets. In fact, drivers are told to leave their cars outside the medieval centre and explore it by foot.
Arles has always been close to arts and artists. One of them was Vincent van Gogh, who shared a house there with fellow painter Paul Gaughin, in 1888. It was in Arles that van Gogh mutilated his ear and gave the severed piece to a prostitute, a crazy story still not very clear. What we do know is that the event marked the decline of his mental health that culminated in his suicide, in 1890.
Arles is a cultured city, and the beauty of its women is well-known., so much so that French classical composer George Bizet immortalized them in a concert-suite called ‘L’Arlesienne.’ Arles is also very proud of its past: the cafe van Gogh frequented – Cafe du Soir, on Place du Forum – still exists. It’s now called Cafe van Gogh, and it was remodeled to look exactly like it did in 1888, in a tribute to the artist.
But I will always remember Arles for a different reason: that’s where we met an older American man called Tom, traveling alone despite his frail health. He was kind and educated, what I call Provencal-American – those Americans so in love with Provence they have to see it every year. He told us he was in Provence for the last time, before going home to Virginia, to wait for the end. We spent the remaining days together, and became friends.
Back in New York, we exchanged a few emails with Tom, then there was silence. I tried to contact his son, but couldn’t find him. Our days in Arles were still fresh in my mind; he had been a great travel companion, friendly and smart. I remember he had tears in his eyes when we said goodbye. He even told us that we had made his last voyage really special. He did the same for us, in beautiful Arles.