• Jill

Not Always Just Sun and Flowers

I look down at the shower drain and realize I forgot to remove my blister band-aids before getting in, and they now drift feebly at my feet. That was what I forgot while we were at Lidl earlier, because I was distracted trying to find moisturizing lotion with aloe in it amongst the minimal selection, all labeled in an unfamiliar language, so we're still out. (It turned out the aloe lotion was in a summertime display near the checkout. Crisis averted.) I reached down to collect them--I know myself and will forget them there later--but in doing so my elbow bumps the shower faucet handle (again) and the water pressure is suddenly like that of a fire hose and the temperature jumps to scorching. I shriek and turn it down again, because it's very startling, even though this happens every single time due to the absurd smallness of this shower stall. It was this moment it occurred to me that it's all too easy to make our blog posts about this trip sound almost entirely idyllic, which of course is not the case.

...Okay our South of France Workaway was pretty much entirely idyllic. Even my blisters didn't hurt the same way there. But for the rest of the time, this travel life is a healthy mix of "everything is amazing!" and "human existence is suffering."

A pensive Andrew in Les Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes, France.

Just last week, we were in the city of Nîmes, about a three hour bus ride away from where our Workaway was. We were drawn there for a number of reasons: one, it was once a Roman outpost and has some pretty cool historic stuff; two, it's very close to Arles which is where Van Gogh painted "Sunflowers" (my favorite) and spent some time in the Yellow House; three, the Airbnb prices were considerably cheaper than some of the towns we looked at in northern Spain. We stayed in a little studio just outside the city center, and to get to our front door we had to go through some pretty legit stone passageways where Andrew was at risk of hitting his head. Our apartment had stone walls, too, and some ancient exposed beams. It was just the right size for our needs. Unfortunately, however, there was no Wifi. We actually don't even think to select that filter on Airbnb because it shouldn't be an issue in 2019, yet there we were. It also had no air conditioning.

That last one really had an impact on us, because in addition to being in a region with warm summers, we were in the midst of a European heat wave. It was 101 degrees in Nîmes on Wednesday. Luckily, our thoughtful host left us a decent sized fan. We also have the tiny fan my mom bought in Paris and insisted we take along with us. Sometimes Andrew would put frozen bottles of water behind them, in an effort to cool the air. We mostly did ok, but things got rough when it was time to cook dinner. The only ventilation in that historic studio was via the open windows, but neither of us particularly wanted to open the windows in 101 degree weather, so we had to weigh our options. No matter what we did, after cooking or a shower, the tile floor was damp.

A deliciously spicy, creamy veggie + seafood recipe of Andrew's creation. Not visible in the photo is the humidity level in the apartment.

Neither of us have any intention to complain. A little discomfort is a small price to pay for all the highs we get to experience every day. What I mean to say is, behind every glorious photo of a stunning view are a fair number of blisters and very swampy underwear.

The Thursday of our week in Nîmes was our big Arles day trip. As mentioned above, I wanted to visit because of my love of Van Gogh. A couple of years ago, after seeing "Sunflowers" in person at the British National Gallery, I bought a book about Vincent's time spent in the Yellow House. My quickest summary: he moved to Arles after spending time in Paris and beginning to develop his famous style we're all familiar with today, because the city didn't agree with him anymore. The south is full of sun and color, which you can imagine was a better fit. He wanted the Yellow House to be a utopic communal living and studio space for working artists, to share inspiration and ideas together, but for a long time nobody would join him. Eventually Paul Gauguin gave it a shot. Van Gogh excitedly painted "Sunflowers" to decorate the house before Gauguin's arrival. Unfortunately, their two months as roommates and colleagues wasn't as rosy as imagined; they argued a lot, and Gauguin departed after Vincent's famous incident in which he cut off his own ear. Despite all the tumult, many of Van Gogh's most famous and memorable paintings are from his fourteen months in Arles.

So we made a plan to go to Arles. I had a couple of things on my list that I wanted to see most: the spot where the Yellow House was, the cafe from "Cafe Terrace at Night," and some fields of sunflowers that I'd read are prolific in the area.

We took the 8:00am train, which is quite early for us to be honest, but we didn't want to feel rushed. We also knew it would be something of a walk to get from the train station to any open sunflower fields, and we wanted to be walking well before the heat of the day--remember, 101 degrees. As our brief train ride rolled through fields of sunflowers, we were confident they wouldn't be too hard to find. We even looked up the coordinates of a spot recommended on the tourism website, and began a 51 minute walk.

The walk took us immediately out of town and along some gravel roads, and then along a two-lane highway with no sidewalk. Even though it was morning, the sun was hot. We also realized once we were halfway, and amongst the tractors, that we'd forgotten to pick up croissants after getting off the train, and had no snacks with us because we had a different plan for lunch. We grew more and more unsure about the random point we were navigating to as we got closer and closer and there were no signs of sunflowers, just trees and mowed down fields. Sure enough, when we rounded the corner to our supposed destination, we discovered the field was not vibrant with yellow blooms, but instead was awash with short, crispy stalks of a shade I would describe as "baked potato brown." No sunflowers here.

Misleadingly promising?

We hiked across the crunchy, prickly, desertlike field in the hopes that there would be sunflowers hiding just beyond the line of trees at the edge, but all we found was another highway. An old French man in a red t-shirt came out of his farmhouse to "check his mail," but we knew he was keeping an eye on what the two sunburned idiots in his neighbor's dead field were up to. Andrew went over and asked in broken French where we might find sunflowers. I could tell by the sad shake of his head that our quest would not be as easy as we had envisioned.

The thing is, Google can't just TELL you where sunflowers will be. Maybe it's because growers don't input their field's location as "sunflowers." Maybe it's because you can't grow in the same field year after year, because of a little thing called crop rotation. Maybe it's to deter tourists like us. I don't know the real reason, but I'd seen some girl in a fashionable hat post a photo in a field of sunflowers, geotagged "Arles, France" only 17 hours ago, and we glimpsed them from our train. They were here somewhere.

We walked an hour back into town, stopped at a grocery store and wolfed down a sad and early lunch, and found the tourism office so we could speak to someone in person. The first lady we talked to was shocked we would attempt to find such a thing without a car. "On foot it's impossible," she said, "It's way too far of a walk."

"How far is too far?" I asked. I may have accidentally put my hand on my hip or something determined-looking, because she raised her eyebrows and sent us to her colleague, who showed us on a map the direction we needed to go (opposite from the way we already tried, naturally) and pointed us to a cheap bicycle rental.

On our way to the bike rental shop, we wandered the historic streets of Arles. It really is a beautiful town, and isn't just for Van Gogh enthusiasts. We stopped in a cathedral to take a peek, and right as we entered, a father-son street performer duo started playing the song I walked down the aisle to, "Comptine d'un autre été." The music drifted into the quiet church as we strolled around holding hands, and I think we both got a little misty-eyed.

The aforementioned church. Hidden behind the glasses: some misty eyes.

We also wandered past the famous Van Gogh Cafe. It's been ramped up for tourists, of course, and while the painting from 130 years ago appears to be on a quiet street, the square itself is literally filled to the brim with other cafes, so that it's hard to tell where one establishment's umbrella-covered outdoor seating ends and another begins. I felt a little compelled to get a seat at the actual cafe itself, but there were several greeters/salespeople in their yellow Van Gogh t-shirts holding a stack of menus and eyeing the crowd for anyone who lingered just long enough to maybe be guilted in to ordering something, and we both decided the pressure wasn't worth it. We got espresso and a glass of grapefruit juice a couple cafes over.

We continued on past the Roman arena, that is still used today, even for the bullfighting Van Gogh painted here more than a hundred years in the past. We sat in the grass for a little while in the spot where the Yellow House once stood--it was damaged significantly in WWII and later demolished. The building behind it is still there, and you can see the same railroad tracks in the background.

The Van Gogh Cafe from "Cafe Terrace at Night."

The location of the Yellow House. Things have changed a little.

We rented bicycles near the train station for 7 euros each. It was a very relaxed shop. "Just pay whenever," the guy said, filing Andrew's ID somewhere on the desk without glancing at it.

Our bike ride was delightfully easy out into the fields in the correct direction. "I always forget how easy riding a bike can be," Andrew remarked, implying, as I knew, that the flat lands like where we were now offer a different rider experience than the wild hills of the Pacific Northwest.

But you, dear reader, should pause at any statement like, "I always forget how easy riding a bike can be!" Because, Murphey's Law or something. He forgot to knock on wood.

We did find sunflower fields this way. The first one we happened upon was inaccessible thanks to some construction on the road around it. The second field was mostly dead. This was sad. Maybe we were just a little late in July and missed the ideal time, or maybe they were struggling in the heat wave. The third field was of very short sunflowers. We took a few pictures here, but it wasn't what we'd been dreaming about. The next field had some that were a little taller, but much more sparse. We rode around for a long time. Finally we returned to the thickest, tallest corner of the brightest sunflowers we'd passed along the way, and got some good shots.

It was on our ride home, from probably nearly an hour outside of town, that we realized why our ride in had been so easy. First of all, it was a breezy day. On our way out, the wind was at our backs, happily pushing us along as if my cute red dress were the sails of a boat. Second, this area was not actually perfectly flat. We'd been riding along an almost undetectable decline, and now we were pedaling back up it, heading straight into the wind, faces full of south-European-heat-wave sun.

I couldn't believe we ever thought this was a good idea as we sluggishly pedaled at an embarrassing pace back towards Arles. Remember our last blog post about what a great time we were having in the South of France? All that beach/pool lounging and rosé sipping didn't leave a lot of room for athleticism. My body didn't love it. Andrew's in far better shape than me, but it was obvious from his grimace that the damp chafing he was no doubt experiencing would require a multi-day recovery period.

When we rolled back into town, dripping with sweat and scowling, we went straight for the air-conditioned Monoprix and bought a liter of grapefruit juice and a liter of water. Both were gone within ten minutes, and even then I didn't even have to pee for ages so you really know my body needed it.

Ultimately, including at the height of my discomfort that day, I would say our whole field trip to Arles was totally worth it--even though on our way home, exhausted and sunburned, we tried to go to the Lidl in Nîmes to save a few bucks, which was more like a 40 minute walk instead of the promised 13, and then when we got there we couldn't find the front door, and when Andrew finally found the way in we realized it was so pitifully stocked they didn't even carry onions... so we made the 40+ minute limp home on band-aid-less, blistered feet without our needed discount groceries... That's just kind of how it goes. Each time we're checking off a bucket-list item, we're also probably creating our own suffering in the name of keeping things Budget.

We are currently sleeping in a windowless room in a shared Airbnb in the heart of Barcelona. There is no air conditioning again, even though the coldest it ever gets in this city is the low 60's in the dead of winter. The fitted sheet's elastic corners are so stretched out, and the fabric so light and thin (Andrew likened it to saran wrap earlier today) that any light movement we make rips it from its place and means we're waking up on bare mattress every morning. At least we've been given a fan again. Andrew is about to go try and get a haircut across the street, and after that, we'll probably stop at the local Lidl to get provisions for lunch and tomorrow's dinner (even though yesterday's stop at Lidl had us stuck in line for nearly 40 minutes because of some issue at the cash register) and then head to the beach. It's not in the budget to eat out too much, but we're giving ourselves this evening to try the tapas and sangria. Things are good, but things are real. Next week we'll hit month 10 of travel, with the home stretch starting to come into view.

Life is all about balance, truly. We are having a great time, with the appropriate ratio of mishaps and discomfort and grumpy days along the way.

- J

Dinner in our Barcelona Airbnb. Please know the humidity is also similar to a tropical fog.

Evening walk in Nîmes.

That time in Nîmes when we accidentally happened upon the start of Stage 16 of the Tour de France. Got to count down and cheer at the starting line and watch them whiz by!


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