There comes a time in every lengthy overseas stay where things start to get a bit samey – two months into my tenure as an English Language Assistant and I find myself with little left to say about the job itself. Some days are good days, some days are bad days. Some kids speak well and often, and make me smile. Some are mute, and I try to smile at them anyway. I’m doing my best and – I think – I’m doing okay.
“But”, as the wise sages once said, ” when the weekend come, the weekend come.”
Weekends are a precious commodity for the language assistant – three (or four) days is a lot of time in Europe, and each weekend begs for some exploration. I’m a sucker for the supplication of abstract concepts, so I’ve gone on a few trips lately. The first of these was to Avignon, in the South of France, during the November long weekend.
Of the many derogatory remarks that I envision on my future tombstone, it is probable that the mason will be unable to resist chiselling in my eternal struggle to make friends. Put simply, I’m sometimes insensitive, argumentative, frank, picky and selfish. I’m nosey, I interrogate people with invasive questions, and I never agree to disagree. I try to be a good man, but I’m not always a nice one. I’m also very introverted sometimes, although I refuse to see this as a flaw, and neither should you. With all this as preamble, it’s a bit surprising that I spent my first trip away with a new friend, laying the foundational elements of a brand new friendship, for four days non-stop.
Well, it surprised me, anyway.
My new friend – who has some interest in privacy online, and so will enjoy anonymity here – is another assistant, whom I met on Facebook while we were comparing notes on the assistantship program. She’s Canadian, and we speak English together. I must admit – although I love French with all my heart – it’s nice to spend a weekend as an outsider now and then. We deliberated for a while before choosing Avignon for the long weekend, but in the end it was an easy choice: nine out of ten dentists agree, the South of France is unmissable.
Actually, with the amount I’ve paid my dentist over the last few years, I expect she’s visited many times. How many baguettes does extracting six wisdom teeth buy you?
On our first day in the south, we visited a little town called Arles. Supposedly, this is one of the most beautiful towns in France – and I believe it. The entire place has a slightly Italian sort of feel to it, which is unsurprising given its proximity to both the Italian border and to Avignon, which was the seat of the papacy for some time. Coalman favoured us with beautiful sunshine all day during our visit, and we were both utterly charmed. This is seriously one of the most lovely places I have ever seen.
The town is known for several things – not least of which being the landmarks relevant to the life of Vincent Van Gogh and the ancient gladitorial arena. While exploring these, it’s also impossible to miss the vast (vast!) markets to which the city plays host – these are the largest markets I have ever seen and they sell everything. Stretching around the city in a huge ring and selling every imaginable type of gizmo and dooflickey, they are immense. Food, bric-a-brac, art, postcards, dollhouses, furniture, animals (including live rabbits and chickens), clothes – everything. You could spend all day walking through these markets and not find the end of them.
As for Avignon itself, we had both sunshine and rain in almost exactly equal measure. Obviously someone hadn’t devoted enough prayers to the weather gods. Aside from just walking around the city – and Avignon is very walkable and very pleasant – we did a few of the major touristy things. Like yes, of course, we saw the bridge. I didn’t dance on it – and I think my sheer unwillingness to dance may have, in fact, broken the curse that normally compels people to do that. More seriously, the bridge is pretty cool and has a surprisingly interesting history for a structure designed for the express purpose of crossing a river. For example, it has a chapel inside, as part of the bridge. That was unexpected.
One of the other “must see” landmarks in Avignon is the Papal Palace, the former residence of a long series of popes and a good place to spend a rainy day, since it’s mainly indoors. The Palace, unsurprisingly, is palatial in nature. Only a fraction of its former size, it nevertheless dominates a vast corner of Avignon and pays testament to just how too-rich the Catholic Church has always been. The church – or rather the popes – both owned and ruled the city as well. Apparently they swindled it away from its previous ruler – Joanna the First of Naples – for a mere 80,000 florins one day when she was desperate for smokes and had run out of cash.
I actually enjoyed the history lesson that is visiting the palace. My dislike for Catholicism aside, it’s impossible to ignore the grandeur and spectacularity that the faithful have generated, as well as the clever and beautiful pieces of architecture that characterise every inch of this structure. From treasure vaults to towers, it’s a master work. Good job popes.
One of the best parts of my short vacation in Avignon was just hanging out with a friend. It’s a distinctly different experience to travelling alone and one of my favourite things about it is that the downtime is more fun. Just streaming TV shows from the BBC website when it’s raining outside and eating a pizza is pretty okay when you can share it with someone – and Avignon has great internet, too. One can never guess if friendships will last, but I’m glad that I’ve made a couple of friends here in France – eight months would be a long time to be all alone.