Shortly after midday in the 16 euro-a-head 'Les Filles du 16' restaurant we were seated at a table next to 4 giggling women in their 60s. I thought about a friend and the lunch we'd had a few streets away some years ago. Lyn, then in her early to mid 40s, was tall with white/blonde hair, a ready smile and a smokey voice. Despite being prematurely aged by years of ill-health and pain she was great fun. She loved to shop, chat, drink, eat, smoke and laugh. She liked a good lunch.
I couldn't remember the year, 10 or 15 years ago perhaps, but I knew the date. It was my birthday. It was our host, Lyn's husband, David's, birthday too and he treated us all to a long, expensive, and for me, tense lunch. My highly intelligent, easily bored ex hated long lunches, even birthday ones he didn't have to pay for. A lot has happened since. In November 2014, 7 months after initiating divorce proceedings, I fled Scotland for Provence and more devastating still, Lyn died suddenly a few weeks ago.
I've been thinking a lot about her and the time we spent in Arles and when the opportunity arose to visit last week I seized it.
The centre of Arles has been untouched by late 20th century planners and architects and as a result it's busy enough to be interesting, and quiet enough to be pleasant. The grand Place de la Republique with its obelisk and lions leads to the Place du Forum and the cafe made famous by Van Gogh's painting. Narrow streets of shops and restaurants embrace the Coliseum and the Roman Theatre.
Arriving in the afternoon, we ate a late picnic lunch in the park overlooking the stalls of the famous weekly brocante. By the time we had browsed the brocante, checked in to the Atrium, and walked to the Roman Cemetery, the sun was disappearing behind the plane trees. The cemetery seemed smaller than I remembered. Even back then Lyn had difficulty walking. The avenue of ancient tombs leading to the medieval Church of St Honoratus seemed longer when she and I visited.
Over lunch the following day we planned a visit to the Musée de l'Arles et de la Provence Antiques. Peering at the map and feeling tired after a morning visiting the Coliseum, Roman Theatre and the Cryptoporticus, I suggested we drove but was overruled. I was pleased - every corner we turned revealed a scene from an impressionist painting. Forty minutes later we were flagging, but at last the huge and ugly modernist museum appeared behind a bypass near the river. We flinched. As happens so often with these buildings it wasn't obvious how to get in. We scratched our heads and negotiated the tumble weed towards what might have been an entrance - the architect's drawing for this 'space' would have little groups of carefully chosen people (not middle class or old) milling around gazing in admiration at the perhaps award-winning building. But as with the Burrell in Glasgow, it was much better inside than out. The most striking thing about the collection was the care that had been taken to arrange the displays of ceramic and glass. No simple rows of urns or jugs. Each shelf was assembled like a still life - with consideration to size, form, line and colour.
On the way out we stopped at the tiny gift shop. I bought a present for the couple who'd been looking after Sally dog - a replica of a Roman lamp decorated with an erotic scene. The friendly woman at the counter told me in French she loved Scotland, but when she told me the places she liked it was evident she loved Ireland. Then I turned to leave and collided with a bookshelf. Too much glass.