Day 11: Free Time in Avignon
(Relaxed Start) This day is at leisure for you to relax and soak up the atmosphere of Avignon. Why not take an optional experience to Les Baux-de-Provence, one of the most picturesque villages in France with its superb stone fortress and Renaissance facades? Visit an Olive Mill and sample some of the finest olive oil in France. Hotel: Avignon Grand Hotel, Avignon. Buffet Breakfast.
Day 3 in Avignon.
Today we started out by going to an olive oil farm, but on the way we stopped by a bit of ruins on the way. Unlike the aqueduct, these ones I was actually able to climb up and move around on and really feel. They date back to the first century A.D. Who knows what they were originally for, no doubt just a point of prestige out in the provinces, a sign of strength and comfort far from home. But damn I love seeing these things, even more when I can get up real close and touch it with both hands, close my eyes and try to fathom the scope of what is in my hands, the amount of years and people who have passed between us, the permanence of it, and the impermanence of so much else. I mused to Mark about how not much of what we build will be around as long, wondering just how long this would outlast just how much of what we build.
The depictions of Roman soldiers on it were like self-portraits left to us from the past; this is how men two thousand years ago saw themselves. Every one of them had hopes and dreams and fears, each lived and died, each existed, and each had a whole rich and diverse universe in their minds as vibrantly rich and real as my own. And now they are all gone, as are countless generations in between, and as I too will be, and all too soon. The cosmos laughs at us all in our imagined self-importance. If we’re lucky, some piece of us remains just a little longer, like these ruins. I’d like to think my books might. As these structures say of their builders, I hope my books say for me even when I’m gone: I existed. I hoped and I dreamed. I thought and I believed. Remember that you are mortal, and although your time is brief, it is real and it is now, and it will soon all be gone. Make it count as I have tried to. It’s a lot to hope for, but I hope for a lot.
Then, the olive farm. It was interesting. It certainly didn’t change my life, but it was interesting. They harvest the olives from the trees with mechanical shakers, they then go through several sorting and washing machines until they have just the olives left. They then grind them up into a paste, and use a two stage centrifuge process to extract all of the oil. The oil then goes into vats until they are bottled and canned. There is no aging like wine, in fact even sealed it doesn’t last longer than 2 years. We tried a bunch of different things, different flavoured olive oil, lemon, herb, a special oil which was black olive-y that I liked. Joyce tried some olive oil based hand lotion. We tried, and Joyce bought, some olive paste or paté or whatever, good stuff.
I walked out of the sales room outside first. It was an absolutely perfectly clear blue sky. We were still in the grips of The Nistral; a cold wind blows… I marveled at the clarity of the sky and took a picture of blue nothing. A fellow Canadian male traveler followed me out, a man with a severe hump which makes me try to stand and sit up straighter at the sight, and who always wears a Canadian flag pin. At an earlier dinner, possibly our first night in Avignon, the happy idiot ugly American asked me about my Canada wrist band. I bought it before we left, and since Nice I’ve sported a white one which says Nice and has the French flag. It’s kind of a solidarity thing now, plus I wanted a thinner band than my Canada one, but now I’m just wearing both.
He asked me about my Canada one, and if I got it there in France or before I left and asked why I wore it. I was stumped. I didn’t know what to say to him. The reason is so people don’t think I’m one of YOU, so they don’t think I’m American you idiot. Instead I just muttered something about how I was just showing that I was Canadian, trying to avoid having to explain any further. Joyce believed the other Canadians at the table understood without me having to say anything. In any case, when I was alone outside with the other Canadian guy wearing a flag pin, I retold this happening and was able to say the real reason, and he of course completely understood with his flag pin. He said that there had been clear experiences when people treated him distinctly differently when they realized he was Canadian and not American. That morning Joyce told me that when she first started travelling the Americans wore a lot more gaudy American paraphernalia but that this had largely ceased the more they feel like they might be targeted overseas for everything from mugging to terrorism. They should reflect on that more.
We then went to yet another walled city. Les Beaux apparently. Apparently it was once a place where they mined bauxite. Apparently it was originally occupied by a people who referred to themselves as Eagles, as in untamable. They held onto their independence through determination and brutality through everything since the Romans, until some Louis finally conquered them. The remains of the true fortress were apparently at the very top, but we declined to pay to go all the way to the top to find out. Joyce tells me she’d been up there last time we were here and that we weren’t missing anything.
Instead we got some lunch. I wanted to as I was increasingly disillusioned with the breakfasts at our hotel in Avignon, to the point that I just gave up on it altogether and resolved to have lunch when the opportunity came up. The absolute worst egg pudding yet, utterly undercooked bacon, and sausages soaking in grease.
In Arles we’d seen a flea market which was very interesting; it was one massive garage sale put on by twenty or thirty families. There were twenty year old DVDs in French, children’s clothes of various ages… that kind of thing. Anyways, at the end of market there was a sort of food truck style permanent shack where a large older French woman with pale straw coloured hair, and lip liner which looked like it may have been tattooed onto her lips, was making food. I was fascinated by the total absence of food safe sense and I got it in my mind that I wanted to try the food. I stood and watched with Joyce as she made somebody steak frites, which turned out to be a baguette with what at first appeared to be steak cooked in a panini press, but must have been ground beef based on how easily she pushed it apart with her tongs. Along with the beef, she also stuffed into the baguette French fries which she cooked in a tiny little fryer while her little dog ran back and forth in the shack underneath her feet.
I’m not sure if she put it in this particular ‘dish’ but she was also cutting up tomato and tearing apart lettuce in little plastic containers. She used the same knife to cut the tomato as she did to cut the baguette, as well as to plunge deeply into the giant mayonnaise container which was sitting at room temperature (at the coolest) all day, and we considered that when she was done with that jar, however many days it took her to get through it, she no doubt plunged the same knife just as deeply into the next jar immediately after without washing it.
It was about this point that Joyce pointed out to me the quite shabby looking (though not quite homeless looking) elderly French man drinking wine out of a bottle and joking with her. No paper bag or anything, just swigging out of his own wine bottle for lunch. Why? Because this is France, and because we are French. Anyways, I stood in line for five minutes hoping to get one which my phone translated to Moroccan sausage, but at that point it was clear that there was no chance that we would be able to get served before the bus left, and I had to give up.
As I mentioned, in Les Beaux I wanted lunch after giving up on the breakfast at the hotel. I was pretty sure that I wanted some kind of sandwich, and we found an appropriate place, which had about four small tables and about eight chairs. The place looked sparse and iffy, and the guy looked like he was serving what was left from the summer season. Perfect. I ordered the steak frites and Joyce ordered a croque monsieur out of a similar morbid fascination. She was sure it wouldn’t be the dried out one under the glass, but as I figured, he indeed pulled it out of the cabinet and took it into the back with him. The second frying sound she heard was not him throwing the essentially a ham and cheese grilled sandwich with cheese melted overtop (a croquet madame is the same but with a grilled egg overtop) into the deep fryer as she thought, but was instead him throwing my fries into the fryer. The first sound we concluded must have been him first throwing on the meat for my sandwich. He asked if I wanted mayo or ketchup and I said yes. He asked ‘both’? Yes, I nodded. He told me it would take ‘deux minutes’, and I told him I wanted a Leffe blonde beer with it. This was one of the three brands Mark suggested I try while I was there. Mark suggested beers called Pel Porth and Chimays as well, but I never had the chance to try those. I paid for it all in cash (and he wound up having to rummage through his pockets to give me change), and then I went to go sit down with Joyce.
We sat by a couple who I later sat with and talked to a couple days later, but at that point we hadn’t really spoken together so we kept to ourselves. I can’t remember which names they were, but they were a nice older Australian couple.
The man brought us our food. Mine was in a long paper envelope which if memory serves had some sort of beer log on it. It was yellow. It was a baguette cut lengthwise, with burger meat cooked approximately seventy percent and mashed up into it, French fries pressed into that, and ketchup run over it. I didn’t notice any mayo on it, though I concede that it may have been there without my noticing. It was pretty good actually, perhaps something to experiment with at work back home. I’d fully cook the meat thought. Joyce’s Croque monsieur was exactly as described and actually pretty tasty, and not as greasy as Mark had warned us it might be.
The Leffe beer Mark suggested and which I tried I found to be quite good actually, though the more random beer I try here, the more I can tell that they clearly have a taste for a fruity taste to their beer (no tasteless jokes there please). When I want to be sure to enjoy my beer I make sure that they have regular 1664 or Heineken or something. I confirmed with Mark that you say seize-soixante-quatre when you order a 1664 as opposed to mille-six-cent-soixante-quatre as I learned to say the year formally in school.
The last night in Avignon we went to a nice dinner across the river. Not on the island itself where another pope’s palace was (no wonder God always needs money), but on the far side of the other leg of the river. Supposedly though, under where the bridge would have been if it was still standing going all the way from one side to the other and carried on, was where the restaurant was located. It was nice. I wore my nicest shirt, the one that’s uncomfortably tight and which I was fidgeted with it all night long. Joyce thought I looked nice thought.
We sat with Carolinda, a different, much sweeter couple from California, and a couple from Australia. As for the Australian couple, Rajani Srinivasan and Lynton Ireland, he was quite quiet, and we’re pretty sure his wife is originally Indian as she is quite dark skinned and had an appropriate accent though it was muddied a little with Australian. She was the one who spoke about doing this trip for the sake of doing something normal in the face of the terrorist attacks.
Soon into the night, politics came up and the California couple didn’t want to talk politics and it soon became evident why. She said neither one should be there (as in the party’s nominees) and we all agreed. She said one is a crook and the other is a liar. I said yeah, but which one’s which and she gave me an odd look like as though it wasn’t a perfectly reasonable response to what she had said. Soon after that she said that Trump may be terrible but he at least surrounds himself with good people… like Guiliani and Ben Carson. Oh Jesus.
My reflexive though which I avoided actually saying was ‘yeah like George W. Bush surrounded himself with good people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. This is apparently what Joyce’s evangelical ex said in defence of ol’ G. Dubs when it was pointed out what an utter irredeemable moron HE was. Carolinda, who I like more and more, nearly figuratively chocked at hearing this and started hyperventilating about what a batty loon Ben Carson was with all his portraits of himself, and Jesus, and himself with Klingon Jesus all around his home, and at this point we all essentially joined hands and reiterated that this is why we shouldn’t talk politics. We stopped doing so, and congratulated ourselves on our ability to do just that, and to go on to be civil to each other and enjoy a nice meal together.
Of the sweet couple, I never caught what she did or had done professionally if anything, but he said he was a civil engineer (or had been before retiring), and she had kids with a previous husband though the two of them had now been together longer than she’d been with him. She’s from Minnesota while he’s a California native. He avoided the Vietnam War but just barely as a student. He seemed a little too jubilant about that to me, telling stories about how his buddies who were in the navy would get in to San Diego and visit him on campus with all the hot university chicks and threaten him that he’d better not screw up his good thing and their place to visit. I suppose I hoped for a bit more of a reverent thankfulness at not having had to go than such a celebratory spirit… but whatever.
She is originally from Minnesota and you can still hear it in her voice, and she commented to Joyce back at Hôtel-Dieu about hearing a Midwestern note in her accent with how she said something as a Canadian earlier in our tour. Again, she’s sweet, but clearly a republican. It was interesting to meet a republican out in the wild who isn’t a raving lunatic truther Alex Jones Brightbart type. I knew they had to be out there, hell I’ll even go so far as to say there are probably as many well-meaning but misinformed ones out there as the ill-intending, but you sure don’t meet them often when you keep in your own circles, especially living in Canada.
As I said, I like Carolinda more and more, and she had an interesting story. I believe she said she originally grew up in Indiana as a German speaker, and back then (she’s pretty old, as in mid-sixties-ish) Germans weren’t taken to very kindly. She wound up going to university in Virginia and studying French, then went to graduate school for English but didn’t finish, wound up in Washington, D.C., and has lived there ever since. She’s travelling by herself (a remarkable total of three are travelling by themselves on this trip) and soon after we started Joyce observed that Carolinda was like she herself was when Joyce had travelled alone, always with her head up and looking around, trying to absorb as much as she could and always going forth into the wild as much as possible. I keep trying to get around to asking her if she’s religious since I figure she’s not. She’s on the list of half a dozen or so people on this trip with me who I’ll see if I can find on Facebook when I get home. The next day I showed her the Ben Carson losing his luggage video and she thought it was as funny as Joyce and I did. Moron…
Anyway the actual dinner! We had two choices, and as Joyce and I like to do we got the different ones so we could try each other’s and switch if we wanted to. For the appetizer, I got a cold eggplant purée cake which really I didn’t enjoy at all. Joyce had zucchini blossoms stuffed with soft cheese and fresh mushrooms with a wonderful mushroom cream sauce. I ate half of mine and switched with Joyce after she’d eaten half of hers.
Entrée was a lamb cake with something like an eggplant scalloped potatoes and a sweetened carrot purée. I’d joked that I was hoping it would be a regular cake in the shape of a lamb, and the Sacramento guy, whose wife likes to say that people always say he looks like Ed Harris (but he really doesn’t) said that he used to get that for his birthdays, that his sister actually has a lamb cake mould. When I looked up what a lamb cake was on the bus several days earlier, the only pictures that came up were of lamb shaped dessert cakes. What it actually was however, was pieces of lamb meat, mushrooms, and tomato paste/sauce all pressed into a tall puck shape placed in a pool of gravy, and it was SUPER good. Joyce had the same kind of gilthead brean bream fish which we both had a couple night before, again in a basil cream sauce but this time with crushed Kalamata like olives. Dessert for me was a three layer desert, chocolate brownie bottom, chocolate mousse in the middle, and white chocolate mousse on top with triangular shapes bruléed into the top. Joyce had a very pretty strawberry cake.