Walking home with Jess and Max after dropping Alexander at school, out the old cloister gates and through the winding cobbled streets redolent of woodsmoke and the scent of baking bread. The rhythmic clang of metal on metal, not mechanical, hand labor, off some distance, but so distinctive you can almost taste it on the sides of your tongue. From our stoop to the quai is less than 40 yards, so we wander over to take a look. There, on the far side of the river, rising from a weedy lot…circus tents. Trucks emblazoned with the legend, “Cirque: La Piste aux Étoiles” (‘The Trail to the Stars’), and if I squint my eyes I can just make out, in the shade of the smaller tent….camels. If we climb to the 3rd floor bedroom we have a better view.
I can see camels from my window.
A few weeks ago, during the Feria de Riz, they ran bulls through the streets, led by a phalanx of gypsies on horseback, to the arena built before Hadrian was born, where…well, you know what happens to bulls in an arena.
Down the street is a sausage makers, founded in 1740, still going strong, and around another corner the hospital where they put Van Gogh after he cut off his ear.
And here’s the thing – this is the quotidien, the everyday. This is the new normal. We’re here six weeks now, still getting our bearings, hayseed gazing, and it rushes over me daily like a dizzying tide. I practically hyperventilate at what’s on offer at the weekly marché, and melt with each mouthful of still-warm bread and briny olive, still stare open-mouthed at morning mist on the river and close my eyes to just listen to the morning chorus of wooden shutters. And it’s not just novelty of the unfamiliar – we’ve visited here maybe a dozen times over as many years, it’s where I proposed, where we were married, well past first blush…but now we live here. And an alchemy of place can happen – the commonplace becomes extraordinary, the extraordinary commonplace. 50,000 people live here, with 50,000 everydays. Van Gogh is simply one more marketable commodity, the marché is where you buy tomatoes for dinner, and transcendent bread is literally an everyday non-luxury. Do gypsies on horseback even raise an eyebrow?
How long do we hold on to wonder?
I wrote the above lines a little over 4 years ago, just after we had arrived in Arles. At the time I think I meant to continue writing, speculate on where and what the coming years would bring. And now we’re in the coming years. Circuses have come and gone – they seem to be a thing in France – and gypsies still chase bulls through town – although not in this year of the pandemic.
I no longer hyperventilate at the marché, (except in autumn, in a marché d’automne I hyperventilate over the mushrooms, and scallops, and olives in slanting morning sun, I buy more than I could ever use, and then I use them) but I can’t imagine it’s absence, or shopping any other way, and I still literally discover new things every week – I’ve never seen that crème d’artichaut before, I must try some…
So how long?
I still hayseed gaze, maybe a function of seeing the world through my children’s wondering eyes. Maybe the stranger in a strange land syndrome never wears off – I will never be a native, there will always be something of the ‘other’. But still I wonder…as the days pass do we outgrow the capacity for amazement?
My children find beetles in the grass thrilling, the geckos living behind the shutters worthy prey. I suppose at something past a half century I am over the thrill of beetles, but…I think back to a conversation with my father, at the time 75 years old or so. We were talking about movies…not sure how we had ended up there, the conversation wandering like most conversations with Dad managed to.
I had gotten in the habit of quizzing him on his youth whenever I had the chance, not with any kind of urgency (awareness of time?), but a fascination for what could tumble out. It wasn’t so much the Mark Twain quote, “When I was fourteen my father was the dullest man I ever met, but by the time I was twenty-one I was amazed to see how much he had learned in seven years.”, I had always been pretty sure Dad was and always would be an exceptional person, more a realization that as I got older it would be good to know as much as possible about this man who had shaped me. And…he had some pretty great stories.
In any case, we were out on the deck, drinking iced tea, discussing movies. Favorites, memorable ones….I think I suggested, and Dad agreed, that the Billy Wilder film, “Some Like it Hot” might be the funniest movie ever filmed. To this day, if I watch it, there are still moments where I will laugh out loud – not bad for a movie from 1959. We were discussing the scene near the opening when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are for-hire musicians playing at what is essentially a gathering of the various mafia families, a sort of annual conference to discuss ‘business’ and the division of territory. The scene is set in a hotel conference room, and to prevent interruption by the police, the whole thing is disguised as a legitimate charity event, a meeting of the “Friends of Italian Opera”. It’s ludicrous and hilarious.
But then Dad says, “It’s not that far-fetched, really. I was at an event like that in Detroit when I was younger.”
Pause. Wait…you don’t mean you were at a mob dinner, do you?
“Well, I had this friend John – we called him Big John, he was a big guy, and he owned a pizza restaurant. I would go there often, and we had become friends. And every year, someone from the local mafia would come around to all the Italian businesses in the neighborhood with tickets to an annual charity event, and they would say, “Here are the tickets you are going to buy for the event”. John didn’t really have a choice, so he would buy the tickets. And one year, he said to me, “Ray, I’ve got these tickets, do you want to come along?”
You went to a mob dinner?
“It was at a county club outside of Detroit, and it was a legitimate charity event, something like in the movie, I think it was for the benefit of Italian orphans. And the money actually went to the charity, it was just organized and run by the mob. They were part of the community there, and they had to balance out their other activities with some good will.”
What was it like?
“Nice, they did a nice job. We played, I think, 9 holes of golf, and there were stops along the way for a glass of wine or a slice of pizza. There was a big dinner after the golf. There were a lot of expensive suits and slicked back hair, there was a live band playing.
I’m sitting at this table with Big John, having a really nice dinner. They had another local Italian chef cater it, and he must have wanted to make sure they were impressed. There was tons of food. And there’s this table up front, at the head, with all the mafia big wigs, and they really do look like the movie, with some VIPs, and Rocky Marciano is sitting up there with them. Do you know who Rocky Marciano is?”
Yeah, Dad. Even your sports-challenged son knows who Rocky Marciano is: undefeated heavyweight champ for most of the 50’s. So you were at a Mafia dinner with Rocky Marciano?
“And John’s had a few drinks by this point. More than a few, and John’s a big guy. So he leans in to me and says, “Ray, I think I can take him…”, indicating Marciano. Then he starts to get up, and I’m pulling him back into his seat, trying to get him to sit down.”
So what happened?
“Well, he calmed down. He really had had a few, and I mean, John’s a big guy, but…he would’ve been slaughtered.”
And this is the thing: here’s our Dad, calmly telling me that he prevented a major incident at a mafia banquet, because he stopped his friend from fighting Rocky Marciano. And to him, it was just another day in his life, part of his ‘quotidien’, it probably never would’ve come up if we hadn’t found ourselves talking about this particular movie, drinking iced tea, shooting the breeze. To him, it wasn’t extraordinary – it was the everyday, the normal. It’s like the time I was talking to Grandpa (Mom’s Dad), and he mentioned that the ship he travelled to America on in 1912 took a little longer than usual because they had to stop and “look for people from that boat that sank”.
Our father had a far more amazing life than I think he or any of us realized. He had the unique ability to both take the extraordinary in stride and be amazed by the everyday. And that is one of the greatest lessons I cherish from him: continue to be amazed. Everyone and everything has something fascinating about them. Start every day with wonder.
I want my sons and daughter to grow up like this.