The South of France, in my mind, was supposed to be a paradise of sea and sun: an inviting deep blue sea under an unfiltered sun, a clear pale blue sky, a heat that is almost unbearably hot. On the surface, the South of France was exactly that...except the sea was deceptively inviting, almost unswimmable, because it was so cold.
We tried to go swimming at the little 'beach' by the hotel on the first day. We'd just played an hour's worth of tennis in the dry 30-degree heat, which worked perfectly for me: it was hot and therefore nice, but dry (as opposed to humid, like in Singapore) and therefore non-sweaty. I was particularly looking forward to immersing myself in the sea, both to cool off, and to experience again the incomparable sense of largeness and freedom that I always feel when I swim in the open sea.
We got our things, walked to the beach. I had difficulties navigating the uncomfortable pebbles; only to be out-done by the sheer shock that I felt when I finally wobbled my way to the water, dipped my feet in it, and felt as if I had just stepped into an ice-cold bucket.
It was cold, it was quite windy, he was not comfortable with the water temperature, and so I freaked out. Note, though, that this was a week before my period so my mood swung happily from one extreme to the other, depending on what we were doing. So I freaked out and burst into tears because it was not what I had in mind; namely, I did not have in mind a water temperature that made me not want to go into the water at all. So we abandoned ship, headed for the small little pool; at least I got some swimming in. E found out that there was a public beach down the hill from the hotel, which we (he, really) hoped would be warmer given it was closed, sort of, and full of people.
We went to the sandy part the next morning. It was not warmer at all. But I was determined to swim, so after maybe 5-10 minutes of standing in the sea, cursing the water for being as cold as it was, I took the plunge and started swimming. It became bearable after I got used to the water temperature; but because the swimming area was quite close to the shore and cordoned off by a safety barrier, probably because there were yachts and sailing boats just up ahead, it didn't that wonderful.
Next to the sandy part, though, was another beach: the naturally pebbled one, no safety barriers. The next evening, I dragged E to that beach, just to try, I said. We tried; stepped into the water, shuddered at its coldness, and even though I desperately wanted to swim, E's complaining about its coldness did not inspire any confidence at all (harsh, but true!). After a while, though, I decided I was being stupid; that I was already there, so I might as well just do it; and so I just did it. I started swimming, surging forward to a more or less open horizon, let my body get accustomed to the cold; and when it did, there was that magical feeling again: of being as one with the sea, of not knowing, temporarily, where it ended and I began, of being at peace with the deep and frightening mysteries that it held, as if the sea were my friend and being a part of it was the most natural thing in the world.
E doesn't like swimming, so he got out of the water after a short while. I stayed on, and held on until the cold started permeating my skin and penetrating into my flesh. That was when I finally, albeit reluctantly, admitted defeat, and got out of the water, some distance from where we had lay our towels. I saw E approach, holding my flip-flops, as it was painful walking on the hard pebbles. How sweet, right? I think so too.
We went to Arles on one of those days; I forget which one. Like I said, I wish we had done more research on van Gogh's regular haunts, as we only sort of stumbled upon it around 6pm when we walked past the Espace Van Gogh and I found out, while eavesdropping on an English-speaking tour guide, that it was a hospital where van Gogh had stayed before he transferred to the hospital where he lived out the rest of his life. Then we found out that the riverbank where we'd stumbled upon two evenings ago was the spot where he painted his Starry Night over the Rhone painting (not to be confused with The Starry Night), when I casually flipped through a thin book about his paintings and found a map of the locations of his famous works in Arles. Afer that, we tried to find the location of his yellow house, just to be utterly disappointed when it turned out that it was gone, and replaced with a decidedly unartistic and uninspiring carpark.
Still, it was a good day, albeit almost unbearably hot. We went to the Langlois Bridge (now called the van Gogh bridge) first, as my parents have a print of one of the paintings that he did of it hanging in our house, and I wanted to see it. The bridge is no longer in use, but the scene was pretty much as van Gogh had painted, except with more green, less yellow. Even the house is still there. I love being connected with a history that I find compelling like that.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Arles. When we were there for dinner two evenings ago, I noticed the numerous works of photography on the walls of the streets, which I really liked. I found out later that there's a huge non-commercial photography exhibition of sorts in Arles. I didn't want to pay to go to the Roman ruins (honestly, I've already been to Rome, so these other Roman ruins don't hold much interest for me), so we walked around in the heat (where I marveled over how the town looked like something out of a van Gogh painting) sought refuge in a little cafe purported to have air-con when the heat became too much, and wandered around again (that was when we discovered the van Gogh places) until it was time for dinner at 8pm.
By that day, I was getting very sick of vegetarian food in France, or at least, in French towns that aren't big ones like Paris. I was basically eating eggs and cheese and salad (as in raw vegetables) ever day. E wanted to find something different for me in Arles, which is big enough to have more options than the seaside town of the hotel - and found this fusion place which seemed cool. And don't get me wrong: the food, on the whole, was good. But I ended up eating cheese anyway because those were the only non-meat/seafood options. Alas!
Still: the melon puree with pesto, pine nuts and seaweed was surprisingly sweet and refreshing. I liked the Saint Nectaire (?) cheese as well. I also liked the burrata, but you can hardly go wrong with that.
What I didn't really like was the grilled watermelons with feta, sprinkled with sesame seeds. First, while the watermelon did look grilled, it tasted just like a regular watermelon. Second, I didn't think that the watermelon and feta went well together. The texture of the two was rather too different for it to work: the watermelon light, the feta thick and chunky, It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as interesting as it sounded. We did have a yummy rice pudding for dessert, though. So all in all, that was probably one of the best meals I had on the trip - but the best meals were undoubtedly the food that his mom cooked!