Lately my traveling alter ego Mangeot of the Nordlands has chronicled expeditions through Norway, Quebec, and now France.
Try not to judge him too hard. He means well.
13 April — Tours
We arrive among Les Français (meaning “They who put sauces on anything”) at their chief aerodrome of Paris. It is a grand city of Statuary and much stone and plentiful macaroons. It is neither clean nor particularly well-lit.
There is Much Strife among the trainsmen. We journey forth regardless as far as they will convey us, into the Touraine. We stop at the drizzle-swept outpost of Tours, pronounced “TWO-er” and meaning in Old French “Why are you not smoking?”. The country folk greet us in a State of Ennui until we demonstrate means of payment. Then fine chefs serve us their Kir and Martini Rouge and treat us to feasts of savory pies made with chicken egg and salted pork. They show us all manner of chateau. Over local wine in which the townsfolk take Great Pride, they ask if I have read the writings of their noted author Balzac. “Some,” I say. “Oui,” they say, “you must be forgiven. You possibly from the Nordlands.” I nod. “Perhaps less so,” I say. “But still there is this,” they say. “Why are you not smoking?”
16 April — Bordeaux
We cross the Loire and sally forth into the hinterlands. Onward we venture, beyond the cloudy gloom and Lordly Manors, beyond the Signals of Wireless Service under what our quartermaster tells me is an International Roaming Plan. Our party presses into the Aquitaine, which I translate as “We wait until after the nap.”
In these Darkest Wilds we arrive among the cheery Bordelaise. These are a river people who barter their expert wines with Many British aboard their cruise liner fleet. Here there is sun and cheese and wine, ah the wine, and the river turns the brown of a cobbler’s boot. They show me their winemaking techniques and allow me to sample their supplies. Each village has its particular vintage and folk story of a local Ferocious Beast. In the hilltop settlement of St.-Emillion, it is Le Beagle Errant, a floppy and slobbery thing which tromps through the vineyards. We see the very beast, and the winemaker tells us to encounter it is bad luck. Later, she says it is good luck. The precise luck quotient depends wholly on the teller and Amounts of Spirits Consumed. Later we dine on Lamprey Eel as black as the polar nights of my somewhat home. Or as black as that cobbler’s boot again, if that cobbler muddied his feet at the battlements, say in defense against Le Beagle Errant. In Bordeaux, truth and metaphor are as fluid as the wine.
18 April – Arles
We provision ourselves and bid our goodbyes to the Bordelaise and make our way eastward. These are dusty lands, and to cross them we must depend again on the trainsmen still in their State of Agitation. Provence, they call this wilderness, meaning by my translation “Toga Party.” Fields of blooming mustard and wildflowers stretch as far as the bluest sky. And yet there is danger! There are bees and at times scarcely a Proper Sandwich seller for kilometers, and soon we are dangerously low on tapas and diet cola.
“To Arles,” I tell our party. There I have braved the Mistral Winds and shared the Pastis and made many friends among the townsfolk. The damnable trainsmen will not take us there. “You must go first to Marseille,” they tell me. “On what route?” I ask. “It is the same route as usual,” they say. “Through Arles to Marseille. There you change trains and return back to Arles.” Limited bar service is available. We meet their demands but steal off their train on the first pass through Arles.
Arles! It is a place of clearest light and studied shadows and a variety of iced creams, served either in Sugar Cone and Paper Bowl. In the afternoon we have the ice cream, and in the evening we dine among the Arlesoise. When they are not worshipping their cattle, they are eating Meatballs and Salamis made of them. We have the potatoes bravas and the croquettes, and we wander the narrow streets of yellow and dirty stone. Some Dutchman or other has apparently painted Scenes of This Place, the townsfolk remind me. He must’ve come when the trainsmen were not so difficult. I wonder if this Dutchman enjoyed the iced creams as much as I, and in this good light how he might have painted them.
20 April — The Camargue Wilds
The Arloise share legends of a Ferocious Horse People who live south in the Rhone delta swamps. More ferocious yet are their cattle. “The Camargue,” they say of this land, and in a tone so hushed one hears ghostly Roma guitars played at Incessant Tempo. So fierce is this tribe, so formidable their swamps, the Arloise only journey there on weekends to sun themselves beside the sea.
We leave for the delta at once, as soon as we finish lunching upon Savory Crepes. I am struck first by the beauty of Many Rice Fields not yet submerged for harvest. I am struck next by a distinct Pong of swampwater and finally I am struck repeatedly by Almighty Hordes of Savage Mosquitoes. We press forward to where streams ribbon through the grasses and arid pasture. Glasswort and salt cedar thrive where the lands turn brackish. There are ducks and terns and herons of all varieties, including hoary-white Flamingoes to which I take a dislike. These are wastrel birds, too lazy to turn a Proper pink.
Near the Mediterranean we arrive at the ranch of an elder among the Camargue people. He has lodging for our party and ample Sangria. He and his family are from a line of expert chevaliers, and he grants me use of a Steed, the majestic Quippo. Strong and white and boasting a Fine Shag of mane, Friend Quippo. “Allez,” I ask him, and mount and I traverse the delta shallows, where I catalogue the abundant wildlife in these glittering flats: warblers, spoonbill and cormorant, hare, turtle. Lizards bask in the unrelenting sun, and water-dwelling coypu rats eye our party from the reeds. Only later am I informed of the grassland’s many asps and adders.
A guide take us out among the bulls that stomp and snort among their legends. This man is of the cattle, and he carries a trident that adds him a Definite Gravitas. The taureaux camarguaise are small as bulls go, which is to say the beasts remain quite capable of Severe Trampling and a Running Through of Horns. “They are nimble,” our guide asserts. I choose not to test his claim.
Afterwards we share Poultry of Some Sort and gazpacho served by our man Didier. We drink a liquor made from gentian root. It is a radioactive yellow and has all the bitterness I feel for the Camargue flamingoes. These Horse People eke out livelihoods in such a wonderland that my words do it Scant Justice. At night we watch the bats swoop upon the mosquitoes and listen as the men play their guitars, and I feel the bowlegged ache of my time with Quippo and the warmth of fine Sangria and Nagging Dread a nimble bull could barge in any moment.
23 April — Avignon (Final Entry)
Our supplies are spent. Our means of payment have dwindled such that we must begin our return. With heavy hearts and our load of Exotic Curiosities we leave the salted delta wilds in the Off Chance of hiring cooperative trainsmen. En route we sandwich at the fortress town of Avignon (meaning, “I want my, I want my, I want my papacy. That is not working, that is the way to you do it.” I am told later this would adapted for cable television slogans and in a popular song of the same era). In Avignon there is some Playing of Saxophones and a hill that rises to where another hill begins and finally there is a steeper hill upon which there is finally a Semblance of Flatness and a Castle of Notable Crag. It seems to protect the town’s Plentiful Stocks of Shortbread Cookies. I seek not to judge. The cookies are excellent.
The trainsmen remain recalcitrant to the last. “We can take you to Paris,” they say. “Mostly. We take you as far as the Left Bank.” “And thence?” I ask. “Exactement,” they say, perhaps darkly. In the end I bargain from them a route requiring Three Changes of Metropolitan Train. At the aerodrome we have the celebratory potatoes and a final Martini Rouge with our friends the Français. “You can keep your trainsmen,” I tell them. “And though your foods are fine, your flamingoes are terrible.” “Yes, this is the way of things,” they say, and I see now they are correct. We depart dusty and the wiser for the dust. Sadly, our Exotic sausage is confiscated.