Monday, October 5, 2009

An adventure to Montpellier

Sometimes researching a historical novel turns out to be harder even than crossing an ocean and traveling the length of a country. I did all that when I traveled last summer to Paris and then by train down to Arles (where I stayed for a month), but the difficulties didn't end there. Some background: I'm about to start revising a scene in my novel where Van Gogh and Gauguin visit the city of Montpellier, about fifty miles southwest of Arles, and more specifically the Fabre museum. This scene was suggested to me by historical fact. Apparently as a way to break out of a rut, and put aside their increasing differences, the two housemates actually did travel to Montepellier in December, 1888 to visit the Fabre. If the point of the trip was to bring peace to their relationship it didn't work. They fell into a disagreements about various artists and not long after the trip had a kind of blow up at an Arles cafe. At least Gauguin said so. Too, this was not long before Vincent's big and infamous breakdown, the one where he cut off his ear.

Given its apparent importance to the history of the Yellow House meltdown, I knew I wanted to write about the trip to the Fabre. And I wanted to do it while I was staying in Arles. I'd never been to the Fabre before or to Montpellier. But, I figured, I do have a rental car! So off I went one morning after vigorously checking and rechecking Google maps. I thought I knew what I was doing. I got off the highway at the right exit and came to an expected traffic circle (otherwise known as a "roundabout"). At the circle I went in one direction, immediately realized my error, turned around and came back. At the circle again, I took what looked like the only possible correct direction and proceeded. A few minutes later it was clear that the street names and terrain didn't match what I remembered from Google maps. After a few minutes more I was driving dangerously off the beaten track. So I turned around where I could and headed straight back to the original traffic circle. Except coming the other way, the road I was on was a Bus Only lane. Cars could not go in this direction--but it was the only way I knew to get back to that traffic circle! I caught a million strange looks from cars going the other way and expected police sirens at any moment. I imagined some torturesome conversation, trying with my almost non-existent French to explain my actions to an officious, club-toting gendarme.

Finally, as sweaty as I was relieved, I reached the traffic circle and was back on legal territory. I went around the circle again and got off in another direction. This didn't look like it could possibly be the right way, but a sign pointed to "Palavas" and the street I wanted to get on to was called "Avenue de Palavas." Oh, well! Ten minutes later it was blatantly clear that I had left the environs of Montpellier altogether. The drive was a pleasant, even rural one, but lead me to a cute little Mediterranean resort city called Palavas-les-Flots. Not that Palavas! Oh, well, so I turned around again and headed back a fourth time to the d*** traffic circle in Montepellier. When I finally got there I took the only other direction remaining for me, which originally had looked completely wrong. If this one didn't work, I'd just have to give up, drive back to Arles, work on the scene blind, and wonder forever about the veracity of Google maps. What do you know, but a minute later I recognized one street name and then another. I was on the right road! Not long after that I found the Montpellier train station, where I intended to park all along, but when I pulled in I only saw what looked like drop off parking. Just before I pulled in, I thought I'd seen a sign pointing to other parking, but I'd ignored it. Now I would pay for my stubbornness, because I had to find that other parking. Well, easier said then done in a French city you're completely unfamiliar with. I took what turns I had to, crisscrossed my route several times, and a few times almost found myself heading the wrong way on a one way street. But I did at last see a sign for the other train station parking. I pulled in after what felt already like a complete day on the road and took the only parking spot I saw, not even sure I was allowed to park there. Too bad. I wasn't giving up the spot, and I wasn't going out on the road again.

After some hiking around and asking for a map at the tourist office, I did find the Fabre, and going there certainly did help me iron out some details of the scene. (I actually wrote the first draft before I went.) Montepellier is a lovely university town I'd recommend to anyone but even now all I can think of is how hard it was just to get there. Gauguin and Van Gogh had it easy. All they did was hop a train. I had the option too. I just didn't take it.

(Above: The Fabre Museum on a sunny day last May.)


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