What is it about a particular place that can make us change our perspectives the way we might change our shirt? Someone once said that whereever you go, there you are. It’s supposed to mean that you can’t escape from yourself. I don’t know about that. I was a different self once, a long time ago, in a different place and because of that different place. Today I came back, looking for that alternate self because I couldn’t find it at home anymore. Maybe I’d left it in Provence.
I sat at a table outside of a little café on the square in front of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. It’s an enormous open space, paved in cobbled stone, with the massive and imposing walls of the 14th century palace rising up on the other side, its huge blanched stones shining golden in the afternoon sun.
My feet remembered exactly how to find the place, as if they had trod here just yesterday, and every day before that. Over a dozen years had passed in truth, but everything looked exactly the same as it did before. Nothing had changed a bit. You can certainly never say that about an American city.
Time seemed to melt away, while leaving its eerie echo. Everything was comfortingly familiar, as if I had never left here, or the carefree life I once had here. And yet the shadow of problems back home that seemed so insurmountable gave everything a strangely surreal feeling. How could I be here again when my mind wouldn’t let go of things happening back home, where my whole life seemed to be falling apart?
Often I would come to this café as a student to drink espresso or beer, while discussing politics and the big ideas of the day with my fellow students. This had been our favorite place to hang out of an afternoon, and we’d even had a favorite table. It was the very same table where I now sat, so many years later.
I ordered a Kronenbourg, the king of Alsatian beers, which was so difficult to find in the Midwest. The first sip was heavenly, and I savored it, relishing the thick honey-like sweetness.
I love to people-watch, and there is no better place to do it than at a table outside of a little café in any city in France. You can loiter all afternoon, watching the world drift past. There were artists scattered about the square, painting on their canvasses, while completed works were carefully displayed around them for any tourist who might take a fancy to one. A woman in front of me painted the flower row near her. One of the paintings at her feet was a beautiful rendering of a hillside field of lavender, so common here in Provence, dazzling in its brilliant purple hues.
I listened for a while to the conversations around me. A group of students argued passionately about some minor political question, their hands gesticulating as they spoke, their voices rising and lowering dramatically with each point they made. I smiled, remembering the way small things had once seemed so grand and important to me, before real-world problems got in the way.
I laid my coins on the table and got up. I wandered around the square for a while, seeing little and hearing less. At the north end I turned to the left without much thought as to where I was going. I was slightly startled a few minutes later to find myself in the shady park that overlooked the river. Great French Oaks towered above me, their thick and knotty branches spreading out like angels’ wings to cover any who cared to terry a while in their shade.
In front of me was the large pond that I remembered so fondly. The resident colony of swans glided by, aloof and ambivalent to the gaggle of boisterous schoolboys that ran past, looking for the perfect place to launch their model sail boats.
We used to come here, Xavier and I. My mind replayed the scene as if it were a film. I saw the shine of his wavy black hair as he tossed it back off his forehead. I saw his hands tearing off little pieces of bread from our baguette, and tossing it to the swans. He smiled that disarming smile of his, his startlingly blue eyes gleaming deviously as he glanced toward the hedgerow and then back at me. My stomach tingled with imaginary butterflies, just as it had then, as I remembered taking his hand at the edge of the row. I remembered the softness of his lips, the warmth and sweetness of his breath as his face approached mine.
I had learned briefly in those happy days not to worry about what anyone else thought, to do what pleased me. Then my old life had returned, its cares with it, as soon as I’d left here. Now all I heard from some quarters was what some people might think.
Other people’s feelings now seemed to rule my existence.
“No, you have to come alone,” they always said. “You can’t bring David.”
I felt my face flushing with anger as I thought about all of the threats and counter-threats that my family and I hurled back and forth. My heart quickened at the thought of David’s anger, which masked the hurt feelings caused by their constant exclusions.
I had felt so much freer here! If only I hadn’t gone home all those years ago; if only I’d stayed here, with Xavier…
I shook my head to clear it. There was no sense thinking of things that no longer mattered. It had been years since I’d thought of Xavier. I had written to him once after I returned to the States, but there had never been a reply.
I walked down the lane that leads toward the river. There is a promenade there that affords breath-taking views from atop the bluff, with benches and tables set up for the weary, or for any who just want to linger.
I sat and watched the reflection of the sun, with its tiny specks of light dancing on the surface of the ripples. My eyes filled with tears, and the dancing lights blurred together.
An old man’s shout startled me. “That is what you get for keeping so many women!” he scolded, his finger wagging at the man across from him.