One of the pleasures of researching and writing a novel, historical or not, is getting to know other places and people. In writing my first novel, set in a Trappist monastery, I developed a relationship with a specific Trappist community in South Carolina. I ended up visiting the monastery four times, and for several Christmas's running sent them a donation. My Van Gogh novel has taken me even farther afield: all the way across the ocean. Since I've started working on this project, I've visited Paris twice and Provence three times. (My longest stay, five weeks, came last summer.) I've walked the streets of Montmartre, shuffled around the Louvre, and strolled the Boulevard Montmartre--where Theo Van Gogh's gallery was located. In Provence, I've spent many hours in the city of Arles and other parts of the Camargue; I've driven out to the Abbaye de Montmajour, where Van Gogh often went to paint for its views of Arles and La Crau; I've taken a day trip to Montpellier, scene of an uncomfortable visit by Van Gogh and Gauguin to the Musée Fabre (see an earlier post); and three times I've visted the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy where Vincent voluntarily committed himself for over a year. These were wonderful, memorable, and extremely useful tours. But the single greatest benefit of my trips to France has been finding and experiencing Mas Ballot.
No, there's no direct Van Gogh connection (although the owner has an abiding interest in Van Gogh's rendering of constellations). Mas Ballot is a beautifully maintained house in the quiet village of Raphele-les-Arles, and it's where I've stayed during each of my three visits to Provence. I happened to find it on the internet five years ago, and boy was I lucky. Not only is the house surberly decorated in French country style--which my wife appreciates--with a sweet back garden, but it's large enough for a family to spread out in it, and it's a comfortable distance from Arles: close enough to drive to quickly, and far enough away that it can act as an oasis of countrified silence. You can sit on the upper balcony at night with a glass of wine and take in a huge sky of stars with only the sounds of an occasional car passing on the road nearby to disturb your communion. My wife and I have enjoyed many many glasses of wine on that balcony as our two sons slept in the bedroom just inside. (In fact, my profile photo--click on the Sidebar--was taken on balcony at Mas Ballot.)
I don't know if Van Gogh ever passed through Raphele-les-Arles, but he was famously a walker, and when I stay at Mas Ballot--whether enjoying the broad night sky, or running the next morning along a country road, passing farm houses and fields of crops--I sense that I am taking in the provencal landscape much as Vincent did, a landscape that has changed remarkably little in the last 100 years. And when I'm overheated from a day of exploring I can always jump in the pool, a luxury--I admit--not available to Vincent.
I love my home in Arkansas and my friends here, but I really can't think of any other place I'd rather be than Mas Ballot, especially in the summer: walking to the bakery, listening to the cicadas, reading and sunning myself on the patio, attempting a watercolor portrait of my sons, cooking up a dinner from the groceries we just bought from the Geant store up the road. Enjoying that glass of wine. I can't know if when I finally finish my novel I will have occasion to experience Mas Ballot, or Provence, again. But I'm certainly hoping so. And I keep trying to improve my French.