It is hard to believe we are only here (in Avignon) for another two weeks. How is that possible? Of course, I look at the girl who is so much more . . . everything than she was six weeks ago. Her long strong legs and chunk-a-chunk thighs, her baby chick hair that now needs to be combed after a shower, her head swiveling around to see what’s over there, what’s over the other way, hey, what was that? Her eyes gazing up at the canopy of rustling leaves during a picnic. Her grumpy eye-rubbing and mouth grimace when I open up the window shade to let in the light in the morning, followed by an enormous grin when she realizes it’s me and it’s up-time (read: breakfast). And she’s started flipping from her belly to her back, much to her and my continued amazement. So, yes, this three and half month old is not the same baby who flew out six weeks ago. But by any other measure, I am dumbfounded that the time has flown by so quickly.
Avignon is a gorgeous medieval city (really, a large town, particularly in just the walled old-city section), with narrow, cobblestoned streets and Romanesque churches around every bend. Unlike Paris or Nimes, it hasn’t really been Haussmann-ized, so there are few wide, grand boulevards for promenading, and only a handful of large public squares (Palais de Papes, Place de Horologe etc.) that can get a little overrun with the day tourists and the ubiquitous accordion players. Instead, it is a city of meandering, for letting your whim dictate your walk – turning left down a little side alley to look more closely at a painted door, then an immediate right to look at that church, then over there to see a small hidden courtyard. The Rhone runs immediately outside the city walls, and there is a small island (Ile Piot) between Avignon and the adorable village of Villeneuve with a path along the water that we run along in a four mile loop and picnic with Eme at least once a week. The market is in an enclosed building, but once inside, is full of treasures with some of the kindest smiles we’ve encountered: from the guy who sells the world’s best olives and roasted nuts, to our favorite grocer and his wife who slipped us two perfect figs and some purple potatoes this week, to the slightly crusty woman at the fish market who melted at the sight of Eme in her sun hat and offered to clean the mess of calamare we had bought (THANK GOD). Every side street and bend offers a small restaurant, a boulangerie, an antique bookstore. It is a city to get lost in.
But there are really some total asshats that live in it. No surprise, Avignon is a real city, not some tourist’s picture perfect Provencal village out of Peter Mayle’s books. But wow, French tools are some of the biggest peacocks you can imagine. Without any trace of irony, the guys wear these ridiculous oversized glasses and gold chains and all white Adidas tracksuits with these haircuts . . . oh man, these haircuts. Think faux cheesy mohawks or the 1988 slow fade. They all seem to belong to the “Club Prive” that is happily located directly across from our apartment. For a while, I was convinced Club Prive was a strip club, as only these trying-to-hard young men would knock at the door (mirrored, bien sur) to be quickly ushered in while pounding French rap spilled out. Few, if any women, ever entered; most of the girlfriends in tragic black getups hung around outside talking on their phones and chain smoking. But we heard them on Saturday nights, around 3 am when the club let out, squealing the high pitched yelps of the very drunk. And they weren’t the worst, not by a long shot. The worst is the jerk who lives in the building next door. For the first few weeks, we heard nothing, but then, suddenly, three weeks into our stay, during lunch out on our balcony, we were confronted with pounding loud music, bad, bad music, music so loud the whole narrow street seemed to pulsate. Hair band of the 80s bad. French rap bad. French DISCO bad.
So, we moved lunch indoors that day and I contented myself with a few glares at the third floor apartment when we walked by. But then Friday night hit and the music started up around midnight, a loud party with people literally screaming off the balcony, fistfights breaking out. I got so upset (Eme having woken up a third time) I called the woman who rented us the apartment and she called the police. They came, we heard arguing and the music abated . . . for an hour. Then started blaring again. DK got out of bed, went out to the street and shouted up in French for him to shut up, to turn down the music. Through the walls, I heard the guy start running down the stairwell to the street. DK was already back inside our building, but for the next three hours, this maniac roamed up and down, screaming diatribes of obscenities at DK, threatening him, challenging him to come out and fight. It was terrifying, actually. It was beyond reason; it went on for hours. I finally called the police directly again at 4 am and when they came, I tearfully explained in haltering French what was happening, that our little baby was asleep upstairs, that we were frightened. They went next door to talk to him and things quieted down. Until the next weekend. And we called the police again. And again. The violence is what shocked me – we’d hear these fights, bodies bashing against the buildings, screaming. One night, DK went out to the balcony and saw four guys carry out another guy and start kicking him.
We went away last week into the countryside and it was so blissful. Up in a hill town called Crillon Le Brave, we settled into one of the nicest hotels I know and tootled around in our rental car from gorgeous vista to gorgeous vista. We drove up Mont Ventoux, we took Eme for her first swim, we got a babysitter for our seventh wedding anniversary and ate dinner looking out over the valley and drinking lots of delicious wine.
I wondered what it would have been like if we’d decided to rent a house out there, perched up in a village and sighed at the “next time” promises. But now that we’re back in Avignon, writing this on a Saturday night, I’m glad we’re here. This is real. This is not sugar-coated living. This is the good and the bad. Overall, living in Provence for two months has been pretty magical, but it’s good to remember to scratch the surface of a place, to feel our expectations challenged. I cooked dinner tonight: stuffed ripe tomatoes with a mixture of shallots, garlic, parmesan, bread crumbs, lemon zest and topped with a slice of the most awesome, stinkiest goat cheese imaginable that browned and bubbled under the broiler. I sautéed fresh turkey breasts in butter and parsley and ground mustard. A salad of crisp, spicy arugula and haricot verte with tomato dressing. Some cheap sparkly Vouvray. A chocolate cake I baked this afternoon with some coconut glace. Candles.
Magical, yes, but it’s a Saturday night, and I hear the sounds of the city, of the people who live here.