7.
Avignon

In the south, one's senses get keener, one's hand becomes more agile, one's eye more alert, one's brain clearer.
- Vincent Van Gogh


The Gare de Lyon is where the trains leave Paris for the southeast of France. The high-speed TGVs lie beside the platforms like enormous king cobras, waiting to move out on their long streaking runs down the Rhône valley. Amazing machines, cruising at speeds well over 100 mph, the TGVs - and their sisters in neighboring countries - have revolutionized travel in Europe, making surface travel competitive with the airlines; in many cases the train will get you there faster than flying. (Especially considering the delays at airports, and the long slow journeys between most airports and the cities they serve.) An American can hardly help contrasting the magnificent French national railway system with the sick farce of Amtrak.

However, it must be admitted that TGV travel tends to be a bit on the sterile side; the great speed tends to isolate one from the passing landscape, more so than on the slower local trains. This isn't such a loss on the first part of the Paris-Avignon run, where the view is pretty boring - beautiful green fields and pastures, but monotonous after a while - but later on, getting into the hill country along the Rhône, there were times when I wished we could slow down a bit.


Sitting by the window watching the rich farm country streak by, I thought back over my experience of France so far. Mostly I thought about national stereotypes and other lies; and how, despite an obviously prosperous dairy industry - herds of fine-looking cattle could be seen on almost every hillside - there was more cattle excreta about France than in France.

All my life I had heard it said, repeated by travelers from the most casual to the most experienced: "The French are not friendly people." (Often with the coda, "They're especially nasty to Americans."

Well, I had only been in France a few days, and no doubt seen too little to form solid opinions; but based on my experience so far, my response would have been a resounding, "Bullshit!"

On the contrary, I had found the French on the whole a very friendly people, very pleasant and unfailingly polite, and very helpful to at least one stranger. To be sure, there had been a few assholes, but you get them anywhere and I hadn't found the percentage any higher in France than anywhere else I'd been.

Considering this, I thought perhaps part of the problem came from different ideas of what constitutes "friendly" behavior. One big thing, I suspected, was that Americans expect people to smile, constantly and enthusiastically, for any reason or none; smile smile smile, it's expected and if you don't do it they think you're being unfriendly. They used to hammer us with that in encyclopedia-sales training, and I got a lot of shit because I didn't smile with sufficient warmth and "sincerity"...and I'm told that in just about any job that involves dealing with the public, you can get reprimanded if you don't smile enough.

The French, on the other hand, are a dignified and civilized people who do not go in for grinning all the time like a bunch of chimps; they can and do smile, most beautifully, but only when they mean it, when they've got a reason. To my mind this is a major point in favor of the French; I have long considered this national smile-fetish to be one of the most vulgar manifestations of American culture, on a par with the custom of first-naming people one has just met - and an unattractive one; as Jack Kerouac pointed out, a big smile is nothing but a lot of teeth.... But I imagine this is one reason a lot of Americans get the idea the French are "unfriendly."

I didn't find the French unfriendly; I did find them a people with a keen sense of personal space - I don't think I ever met a pushy Frenchman, or ever had one ask me a lot of nosy questions. (I did have some less pleasant encounters with some of the numerous Levantine population, particularly in Paris - Syrians and Lebanese can be a real pain in the ass - but you can hardly blame the French for that....)

Another bit of oft-repeated wisdom, which I had been told many times in the weeks prior to this trip: "If you try to speak French, they won't admit they can understand you. Unless you speak it absolutely perfectly, they'll put you down." Balls. My French is dreadfully bad, about on a par with Tarzan's English; yet I found French people unfailingly patient and receptive to my efforts, even though it must have hurt their teeth to hear what I was doing to their language. Time and again, upon apologizing for my bad French, I was told: "Oh, but I can understand you." Nobody ever even corrected me, though I rather wished they would, so i could improve.

(The one problem I did have was with the occasional person who thought he spoke English, and didn't. Now and then I'd run into someone who would insist on speaking English, and ignore my efforts to switch to French, even though I couldn't understand a word he was saying. And now and then a waiter or concierge or shopkeeper would try out a few English words on me; but they were obviously just trying to be helpful. I never had any impression they were putting down my efforts to speak French.)

It may seem that I was getting pretty hasty in forming conclusions, considering I'd only been in the country less than a week; but in the days ahead, traveling about and in and out of France, I never had occasion to change my views. Maybe there is some part of France where people are surly and rude and hostile, but I never went there. Never went anywhere they weren't damn nice to me....

Down along the Rhône valley below Lyon the country got more interesting, rugged-looking mountains on the horizon - nothing of Alp size, but even a small mountain looks impressive in that low-lying terrain - and here and there closing in along the river so the train passed among wild, grotesquely shaped rock formations. Then the valley opened out again and a little while later we were easing to a stop in Avignon.


The first thing you see when you leave the station at Avignon is the medieval wall that surrounds the inner town. (Avignon itself sprawls out over a considerable area outside the walls, but the old walled city is what most visitors come to see.) One of those "Toto, this definitely isn't Kansas" sights - thrown a little off by the inevitable towering shapes of construction cranes.


Within the walls, Avignon is a pretty town of shady streets and little tree-shaded squares, with narrow cobblestone streets winding off in all directions without apparent logic or pattern. (The only place in Europe I ever got genuinely lost, though that was later.) A young person's town, with lively night life and motorcyclists roaring up and down the main drag on shiny new high-performance bikes, or gathering at cafés:


But all this cheerful scene is dominated by the huge complex of walls and towers of the Palace des Papes - the Papal palace, home of the fourteenth-century Avignon Papacy, one of the most bizarre (and embarrassing) chapters in the history of the Church. Here, on a high hill overlooking the bend in the Rhône, a succession of Popes built their headquarters and their stronghold.


Today the great buildings are little more than a tourist attraction; the broad square, where the faithful used to gather to see the Pope ride out on his white mule, is mainly a place where cafés set out tables and local kids practice skateboard tricks...but there was a time when this was the center of power of the Christian world.


And power was what it was all about; the outlines of the place say all that ever needed to be said on that point...the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame and Amiens, have an undeniable spiritual look about them; whatever the squalid reality of medieval Christianity, at least the exalted ideals were given form in the soaring Gothic spires. There is nothing like that here; the Palais des Papes makes no spiritual statement whatever, and the few religious symbols appear tacked on as pro-forma afterthoughts. This is quite simply a fortress, the headquarters of a temporal power.


And of a financial empire. Under the Avignon Popes, the Church became a full-fledged racket, and the Papacy amassed enormous wealth through taxes and the sale of offices and indulgences and anything else anybody wanted to buy. No wonder the angel looks away in embarrassment.

(I am indebted to Barbara Tuchman's magnificent A Distant Mirror for much of my information on the history of 14th-century France; I strongly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to France - it definitely enriched my own journey immeasurably.)

The Avignon Popes certainly lived high off the hog; the interior of the palace is said to be full of wonderful art treasures, though I didn't go in to see for myself. According to contemporary reports, they definitely knew how to party; Popes and cardinals and lesser clergy, together with their mistresses and various whores and catamites, had some splendid-sounding orgies within these walls. The Avignon Popes were on the whole a pretty cultured and intellectual lot; corrupt and cynical they certainly were, and enthusiastically decadent - though they never got up to anything to equal the later Borgia gang - but in their way enlightened. Clement VI, for example, extended Papal protection over the Jews of Avignon, at a time when Jews were being exterminated all over Europe, and tried to use his influence to get Christians to stop murdering them, which is more than certain of his supposedly legitimate successors bothered to do.

And the town itself blossomed, filling up with all sorts of hustlers and procurers and other medieval service-industry representatives; whatever the moral and religious shortcomings of the Avignon Papacy, it must have done wonders for the economy of Avignon itself. The atmosphere is not entirely gone even now; there is still a definite let-the-good-times-roll feeling about the town, especially on a holiday weekend such as was coming up....


The battlements and towers along the skyline above the Rhône send a clear and unequivocal message: I am the Pope - do not screw around with me. The Papacy had always claimed a considerable degree of temporal power, of course; but by moving into a fortress like this, the Avignon Popes dumped any remaining credibility as spiritual authorities, and became just another lot of French warlords.


And - despite the impressiveness of these walls as works of military engineering - it was to a considerable extent bluff and bullshit. The Avignon Popes never commanded the trained armed forces to back up their posture; the truth was that they were creatures of the French king, and existed only under his protection and sponsorship, it being useful to Philip the Fair and his successors to possess a compliant Papacy in-house, so to speak. Papal military power was an illusion; on one famous occasion a gang of mercenaries under Bernard du Guesclin, on their way to a war in Spain, extorted 200,000 francs from Clement, merely by camping across the river and looking menacing.


Now, the hilltop strongpoint is merely a place to stroll under the trees - there is a beautiful little park - and enjoy the magnificent views of the city and the river and the surrounding countryside.


And, oh yes, for growing grapes. Always an inspiring sight: booze on the hoof, as it were.


Here, of course, we have the famous bridge of the catchy old song. It seems to have been a hard-luck structure; time and again, flood waters took it out (easy to imagine; the Rhône is a big fast powerful stream at any time of year and it drains an enormous watershed) and it even got destroyed by military action during the Albigensian pogroms. Finally, after yet another flood had demolished half the span, the town of Avignon said screw it and left it alone.


Sur le pont d'Avignon, on y danse, on y danse... actually no. Apparently there was at one time a kind of tavern located on an island in the river, underneath the bridge, and people went there to drink and have fun; and so the original lyric went "sous le pont d'Avignon" - that is, under the bridge at Avignon one dances, one dances. Which does make a bit more sense, even if it doesn't sound quite so festive.

And speaking of dancing -

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