Tuesday, February 8, 2011


It all started with an argument about the best way to travel.  Should one read up about the place in order to know something about it and see it in a more informed way, or should one just go and have the pleasure of being surprised.  He was for surprise, I was for informed.

For me, a visit to Provence was a chance to explore Provençal textiles and ceramics.  When I went to Avignon for the first time I went out of my way to find the rue des Teinturiers, which my handy TimeOut Provence guidebook said had a small canalized river and numerous waterwheels that ran alongside it.  These remained from the 19th century when the street housed dyeworks, used in the making of those wonderful Provençal cotton prints.  The Pope’s Palace is fantastic (and you can’t miss it), but I think the rue des Teinturiers is the prettiest place in Avignon.  Just looking at my photos of that small street still gives me pleasure, and I may not have found it or understood what it really was if I hadn’t read up.

I didn’t go to Arles the first time because Van Gogh had lived there for 15 months and painted his best-known works there.  I went because it seemed interesting, was in the right area, and had a beautiful and relatively inexpensive hotel that was too inviting to pass up.  In the town of Arles they have plaques posted here and there indicating subjects of some of Vincent’s paintings, but I didn’t pay much attention to them.  I just wandered around, soaking up the ambience of the place which I found wonderful, visited the Frederic Mistral Arlaten folk museum, full of every manner of day-to-day things the Arlatens had lived with a hundred or more years ago, including tiny shoes worn by the women (goodness how our feet have grown!), discovered the local 19th century artist Léo Lelée, and enjoyed just being there.

Some time after that trip I happened to see the last few minutes of the movie Lust for Life (one of my mother’s favorites but one I had never seen), and having visited Arles, it sparked my interest in the painter who had lived there and had had such a hard life.  When I heard that a new edition of Vincent’s letters had been published, well illustrated with many reproductions of his work, I thought to buy the book, but it was prohibitively expensive.  Instead, I looked on the internet and found the Vincent van Gogh Gallery (http://www.vggallery.com/) where all his letters appear, as well as hundreds of drawings and paintings, a bibliography, and links to related sites.  It’s a great resource for someone with a limited budget who wants to learn more about Van Gogh and doesn’t have a well-stocked library nearby.

After studying some of the material on that website and reading other books such as The Yellow House and the out-of-print Vincent and Theo Van Gogh: A Dual Biography (a five-pounder that my stepson Manuel Serge was kind enough to bring with him in his luggage on a visit because it was too heavy for the used bookshop to mail), I have come to see Vincent, who Mark Roskill calls an “intensely lovable man,” in an entirely new way.  Going back to Arles in the future will be a different experience for me.  Arles has become a place with meaning.

Although I appreciate knowledge and expertise, I also enjoy surprise and new things.  I heard a lot of classical music at home growing up, some of it on records, most of it on the classical radio station that my mother would always be tuned to (KDFC?).  But I didn’t begin attending opera until I was well into adulthood and my best friend Sheila dragged me over to the San Francisco Opera House for a dose of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova.  It lasts for about an hour and forty minutes during which you never hear what I would call a melody.  In spite of that, I was hooked.  I didn’t like the music, but I liked opera.  One of my first-ever fabulous experiences at the opera happened soon afterwards, the second time I went.  It was a performance of Madame Butterfly.  All of a sudden, Butterfly was singing that famous aria.  I knew that aria was from Madame Butterfly, but I hadn’t given it any thought beforehand so when she started to sing it, it came as a complete surprise.  That was a thrill.  No longer just a beautiful aria, it became, like so many others afterwards, part of a much greater whole.  I’ve had similar experiences since, but none was quite the same superb surprise as the first time.

I think pleasure or enjoyment can be divided into (at least) two types: (1) the enjoyment you can get from a surprise or from something new, and (2) the enjoyment you get from something you know well.  One needn’t exclude the other.  Some people prefer one, some the other, some enjoy both equally.  And me?  I think there is more value to knowing something well and being able to enjoy it on multiple levels and in a more profound way.  That, it seems to me, gives a richer and deeper enjoyment than experiencing something new.  On the other hand, I’ve come to think that what I enjoy most hasn’t to do with either.  What seems to give me the greatest pleasure is seeing someone else’s dog play on the beach, seeing a deer near the road or an otter in the sea off the coast at Monterey, or watching the little birds who come to bathe in the small ceramic bowl I set out in the garden.  The known and the unknown may lead to all kinds of enjoyment, but watching the antics of my two cats brings me the most pleasure the most often.

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