Small is Beautiful
To Avignon for a meeting. Now Avignon, capital of the “département” (or “county”) in which I live, is a tremendously historic town. It has a world-famous bridge, which suddenly crumbles to nothingness part way across the broad Rhone river, the absent sections washed away in the great floods of 1668, leaving only 4 of its 22 original arches standing. The bridge has since become the subject of an equally renowned song with a rather annoying little tune. Even more importantly, Avignon was the rebellious centre of the Roman Catholic Church for almost a century, back in the 1300s, when a series of French Popes challenged the supremacy of Rome. Their imposing Papal Palace still dominates the old town.
So plenty of stimulus for a real reporter to explore doggedly the historical nooks and crannies, the places where waters crashed against mortar, the wood-panelled chambers in which treaties were signed, and the great halls where nationalistic pride reigned supreme, and then to serve them up in mellifluous prose for his readers.
But I never claimed to be a real reporter.
To tell you the truth, historical tours bore me, the endless snaking behind a fatigued, umbrella-wielding guide, the straining to hear, the threadbare jokes. And besides, my morning meeting was long and complex, and I felt like doing little other than having a long and simple lunch. So I found an elegant restaurant whose shady courtyard stretched out below an ivy-clad building, and two hours and a few glasses of Provence's finest wine later, could face nothing more challenging than a stroll through the winding streets of the old town, going round in circles for all I knew and cared. Either way, I managed to spend the whole afternoon in Avignon without seeing either the crumbly bridge or the pompous palace. Perhaps I should have a tee-shirt made in honour of this considerable achievement.
However, conscious of my writerly duties, I did at least succeed in keeping my eyes open and saw, just perhaps, a few things which the earnest explorers of marvelous museums and splendid sights may have overlooked.
Big events make history, but small details make lives.
There's a scene in the iconic 90's film American Beauty in which an intense young man shows his girlfriend a sequence he's captured on camera, in which, against a background of haunting music, a white plastic bag dances in the breeze, falls amongst autumn leaves, throws itself against a brick wall, rises again and seems to frolic on buffets of air. Watching this simple but undeniably entrancing scene, the man says: “Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in”.
Alas, Avignon is far too clean and tourist-conscious for balletic carrier bags, and in any case that one's been done now. Luckily, however, little and captivating events and sensations are never that far away.
I walked for a while down a gleaming cobbled street, alongside a couple laughing out loud. The man turned to his wife and said “It's true, I'm telling you. Here in France it's illegal to name your pig “Napoleon”. She smiled broadly, revealing perfectly even white teeth, stretched over, and kissed him on the forehead.
At a café on the next corner sat four men, each at his own table. All had that worn, melancholic look sported by elder members of the Arab community. Each sat cross-legged, lost in thought, in silence. And each held a cigarette, whose smoke curled luminously upwards.
A leaf fell to the ground from a cherry tree in a sunlit square.
Five girls playing at running a grocery shop in the street. A little plastic till was enough to set their imaginations alight. Totally engrossed with their game, they were only momentarily distracted by my camera, which set them off into peals of unexplained laughter.
An old Vietnamese woman shuffled down the street on flat shoes. She had two full bags, perfectly balanced in her hands. Her face was calm as a lake: the shopping was done for another week.
A fashion boutique window, with three plastic female mannekins. Waiting for the window-dresser to adorn them, they were naked, and also bald. What was strange is that the manufacturer had designed them all manically laughing, their heads thrown back in silent hilarity.
There was, from a plant box on a windowsill, the sudden heady scent of thyme.
A dog followed its master down the road, paused, sniffing around. Then it looked up, saw its master disappearing in the distance, and bounded off towards him with a happy yelp.
My leather briefcase. Italian, bought beside a glittering canal in Venice. Its aroma of quality; its suppleness in my hand.
Up on the second floor, a woman in a bright floral dress, her grey hair neatly done, looked out on the scene below. Then she started to clean the windows. She polished methodically, round and round, until she was satisfied. Then, spotting a final smudge, with a surprised tut of disapproval, she moved in for the kill and it was gone for ever, leaving nothing but bright transparency in its wake.
I bought a bar of chocolate at a chocolatier. It had precisely 16 squares. They were all delicious, but I think, on reflection, that squares 9 and 16 were particularly outstanding.
At street level there was a studio in which a couple pored intently over their work. They were sculptors, making strange shapes out of stone which served no purpose other than to add beauty to the way things are.
I stepped into a church for a few minutes. Darkness, stillness, and the lingering scent of incense. The sun dripped through a stained-glass window scattering red and blue shapes across the flagstones. I closed my eyes, not so much to pray as to drink in the sudden coolness, the five-hundred-year-oldness of the place.
As I headed for the bus, a pregnant Romanian gipsy put out her hand for money, saying she had no job. Seeing my ice-cream, she mischeviously asked for one too. I wondered aloud whether she wouldn't be better off getting an apple from the greengrocer next door. “No”, she countered. “What I really want is a strawberry ice cream.” Unable to find any rational argument against this, I bought one for her. As I looked back she was sharing some of it with her boyfriend. Or husband. A moment later, they were kissing, eyes closed, in the middle of the street, oblivious of the the golden dusk.
Thank god I had my notebook, because by today, a mere two weeks later, I, like everyone else in the story I'm sure, had forgotten every single detail. Before I thumbed again through its cream pages, this day, like thousands of other days, had turned to dust in the archives of my mind.
The palace remains unexplored, the historical echoes unheard this time, but having survived for 700 years, there's a fair chance it'll still be there next time I pass. What I saw, on the other hand, will certainly never happen again in the same way: this series of inconspicuous little events belongs only and for ever to that one early summer afternoon.
Photo Credit: Andrew Morris
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