To get to Avignon from Mannheim, Germany, you take the high-speed train from Mannheim to Paris. There, you may or may not spend 8 euros on a bottle of water and cold Coca Cola, while ineffectually looking for the Bastille in your two-hour layover. You will see large priests in large cassocks billowing through Gare de l’est. If you are going to Avignon, this signifies the beginning of the transformation from Paris to Avignon. From Paris, you get on a less speedy train, which will take you to both of the stops in Avignon. There are two rail stops for Avignon in the French province of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure.
On the way, the landscape blurs past as the setting sun illuminates the sky, the deep lavender encroaching on the fading pink. The range of mountains in the distance is dark, and so is the broad flat valley through which the train speeds while passing through the province of Rhône-Alpes. Or maybe we were already in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
One of the two stops for Avignon is about four miles outside of the town proper. The other is directly in front of the entrance medieval walls. For the city is, as it was a millennium ago, a medieval city. The sense of the middle ages pervades the city, but not in a kitschy, Medieval Times dinner theatre way. When you walk through Avignon, it is not difficult to imagine the people in medieval hoods and vestments who strode in the same streets generations ago. It’s not far fetched to imagine hearing lyres and troubadoric lyics of longing.
We, my travel companion Jon and I, got off at the first stop that we heard the train conductor announce, among a slur of French, “Avignon”. Neither of us spoke French, and neither of us had bothered to check our tickets against the plaque identifying the station. Immediately after consulting the map, we realized that we were in the wrong place. The sun had already set, and I think I had Avignon confused with Marseilles because I kept expecting to see the sea. We wandered up a freeway ramp and began following directions that we knew were wrong but hoped somehow, if we followed them, they would lead us to the right place.
After following a van past the electric gates, we entered a Holiday Inn. The fellow behind the counter spoke to us in heavily accented English after I announced “Nous sommes perdus”. Once again, my mix of European languages betrayed that I, in fact, spoke no French— not only were we lost geographically, but I suppose linguistically, as well. Our French Uncle, as he came to be known, called us a taxi and made us espresso while we waited. Perusing through pamphlets, I decided that we needed to see the lavender fields. Jon took the lead on this and asked our French uncle “how to get to the lavender”. “To get the lavender,” his English was almost comically accented, but not strained, “you must go to God!”
Jon and I reacted in the only way one could react upon being told that the must go to God for lavender. God, we asked. God, he repeated. He pointed at the map, Gaurdes, we understood this time. The French town is a homonym to the English word. It was a fitting introduction to Avignon, former seat of the papacy, the seat of God’s representative on Earth, perhaps the centre of medieval culture and society from 1309 until the papacy returned to Rome in 1377. Avignon, on a summer night, in the midst of the annual theatre festival, is everything you would romanticize it to be. There were lights draped through the trees. The streets were crowded, but not in an obnoxious, dirty way, as can be the case in, say, Rome. These people reveled and gamboled and laughed and ate and drank, all with such joie du vivre. It is clear why those suffering some nineteenth century bourgeoisie Parisian ennui would sally themselves forth from the Seine and the increasingly urbanized city to the south of France. The poets, for the most part, allowed themselves this ennui and died and were buried in Peré Lachaise or Montparnasse. I guess some of them did yearn for Avignon. Petrarch certainly did. But he was before ennui and before the Haussmannization of Paris destroyed the Medieval walls and streets. And he was Italian. It is fitting that Petrarch’s Laura grew and blossomed in Avignon.
“Enchanted” is too saccharine a word for the weekend I spent in Avignon. Neither Jon nor I would spend the 16 euro to enter the Papal estate, so we wandered through the streets within the walls. We strolled, but we were not of the flâneur culture. That was abandoned hundreds of miles away in Paris, in Berlin, even, maybe in Mannheim. The crowd in Avignon consisted of mostly European tourists, actors and locals. Don Juan and his nemesis fenced through the courtyard in which Jon and I had dinner for three consecutive nights. I regret this only because we did not allow ourselves another experience. Announcing his play, Le Histoire du Dom Juan, with times and locations, he and his company sprang off, as quickly as they had come. I deem the next night “the most beautiful moment of our lives ever”. I made Jon agree with me. It was a halfhearted accordance. As we sat that evening for the second time in a row in an outdoor restaurant, whose name I do not recall, a violinist began to play. On a nearby wall, was a 19th century advertisement for pianos, well-preserved. The violinist played several unrecognized bits—I admit to knowing nothing of classical music—but when the first few notes of Con te partirò began, that was it. To be young, a student abroad, for the first time alone in France, while terribly tragic romance was professed through a violin under the warm French night sky, this was the most beautiful moment of our lives. I am sure this designation of superlative beauty will be usurped, and usurped again, throughout my life, but for a while, it can stand.
That night, we walked around the pope’s palace. My skirt blew above my knees while I was standing over a grate, and some Italian tourists took pictures. Jon laughed at the impropriety and irony of this happening in front of the pope’s house.
Posters for various plays plastered the wrought iron fences throughout the city, and any other surface to which a poster, or many layers of posters, could adhere. I took one. The background was pink, with Death from The Seventh Seal upon which a pink clown nose had been superimposed. I found out later that the sun had faded it, and that the background was supposed to be crimson red. The street vendors vied for our patronage. And there were many, selling everything one could imagine.
After having briefly considered renting a car to go to God and see the lavender, we decided to take the train to Orange instead. Standing on the Roman ruins of the amphitheatre, what seemed liked the entirety of southern France’s proventiality spread before us; we were elated.
To return to Mannheim from Avignon, it should be a simple trip from Avignon’s main Hauptbahnhof, or gare as the case may be, back through Paris again, to Mannheim. We missed our train and lost the connection from Paris to Mannheim. It was as if we were meant to remain in Avignon. We switched trains in various French and German towns throughout the night. There is a chance we may have entered Switzerland. After the conductor of the train, which was filled with what I discerned to be the German equivalent of frat boys, announced around 4 in the morning that “this train don’t go to Mannheim”, we boarded a bus in Heidelberg. Jon and I walked from our Mannheim Hauptbahnhof to class a few blocks away having not slept that night. Some classmates asked us where we had gone that weekend. To God, we said.
– EMERSON STORM FILLMAN RICHARDS
Emerson Storm Fillman Richards is currently an MA candidate working with Professor Terry Harpold. In Spring ’11, she graduated the University of Florida with degrees in English (summa cum laude) and Medieval and Early Modern Studies (magna cum laude) and a minor in Geography. Her academic interests include Arthurian legend, medieval and celtic studies, Jules Verne, Dante, Shakespeare, 19th century French and English literature and cultural diffusion (all of which she considers related interests). She teaches writing courses for UF. When she is not researching and writing, she is in the Film Suite, making experimental films with 8 & 16 mm celluloid.