The next morning, Donna and I pulled on some clothes and started down the stairs to see what sort of breakfast this place would offer. Jill got wind of our plan as well. The three of us landed on the main level to find Madeleine talking with an older man. Her hands were filled with jars of preserves. She broke into English when she saw us. “Have a seat - the coffee will be right out.”
A good looking couple sat at one end of the breakfast table. The dark-haired, goateed man looked my age. He gave us a big smile as we sat down across from them. “I am Nick.” he said with a strong accent while extending his hand. “This is my wife Angelica”. Madeleine came by and placed the jars on a wooden platter in the middle. “Nick and Angelica are from Milan. They are staying on the first floor.” She told us.
“Hope our kids didn’t keep you up.”
“Not at all.” Nick laughed. “You have more?”
“Yes, two boys”
Madeleine broke in. “That man I was speaking to is our local boulanger. She explained how he’d achieved special status in pastry design or something – she used a lot of French words for so early in the morning. She disappeared and when I looked back at Nick, he was frantically searching for something on the table. He shrugged his shoulders. “No coffee” he declared embracing his head in a playful portrayal of a fit. We chuckled at this recognition of international caffeine dependence. As if on cue, Madeleine returned with a hot pot shrouded in a quilted, oddly tall cover. “I’ll be right back with the bread.”
Nick removed the cover and placed it on his head. He looked like the Pope and made praying motions with his hands. The rest of us exploded in laughter. We heard Madeleine returning and he quickly placed the quilt back, holding one finger to his mouth – like a schoolboy.
Turned out Nick was a high-ranking officer in the Italian Army. They were enjoying a few days away. Over coffee, they shared travel stories with us. “I envy you” Donna said. “You can visit other countries over a weekend.”
“Much to see” Nick added. “Must visit many times!”
Their plans for the day included a visit to nearby Avignon.
“I hear it’s beautiful.” Donna said longingly. “I don’t think we can fit it in.”
After the couple left, Chris and Alex finally got up and joined us. Alex grabbed a croissant and covered it in jam as Madeleine described a museum in town that was dedicated to the time when this part of France thrived under the Roman Empire.
“They built the museum right on top of the circus.” She added, looking at the boys. “Where they had chariot races!”
* * *
At the museum, Donna explained how the Romans kicked the Greeks out of Arles. Later the Arlesians helped build twenty battleships for the Romans which were used to defeat the Phoenicians, who occupied nearby Marseille.
“The Romans were impressed by their loyalty, and rewarded them by building them a modern walled city – complete with an amphitheatre, circus, and aqueduct system.”
I was impressed by a row of statues without heads. Nearby was a row of heads without statues. Rather than create a new statue each time an official took power, the Romans simply replaced the head. An efficient use of tax money I thought.
Chris and I studied a model of a floating bridge, which looked quite different from the ones in Seattle he’d always been fascinated with. The Roman span was supported by a series of large wooden boats which could open to allow ships to pass. They built it at the bend of the river where the current was the weakest – we’d walked right past the site on the way to the museum and didn’t know it. “On the way home, let’s see if some of it is left over!”
I was fascinated with this museum – possibly the first history museum that I’d ever enjoyed. It must have been exciting for an average Joe to live in this city back then. In my protestant upbringing, the Romans were portrayed as lust-hungry totalitarians that conquered cities for sport and sat around planning orgies and eating grapes. This place told their side of the story. It was sobering to realize they actually did some great things.
* * *
After an afternoon of playing among the ruins, we started moving our tired bodies back to the place we currently called home. The sidewalks were narrow – barely a foot wide. In our exhausted condition, they seemed especially hard to navigate as they had the pedestrian utility of a balance beam. “Sheeee-it” Alex cried as a side view mirror of a buzzing car nearly tore off his pant pocket. Suddenly, a car with a roaring engine was on our back and its engine revved loudly, as if to get our attention. I looked back to see a black Alfa Romeo coming to a screeching stop just behind me. The driver jumped out.
“Dad, it’s Nick!”
“Jeff!” he approached with an enthusiastic smile. With his motor running, he showed Donna and I a handful of postcards he’d got from Avignon – explaining each one while a line of cars began to build. “I’ll share more later!” he promised, jumping back into his car.
“He’s cool” Jill said as the parade of cars passed by.
“Yes.” I said, knowing that in a matter of weeks, we’d be spending an entire month in Nick’s country.” “I hope we meet lots more like him.”