The battle of the Popes
[ places - february 05 ]
A Thai woman abroad...
The Cannes Film Festival, Marseille, Monaco, Nice, St Tropez... I didn't go to any of these, but I have just come back from Provence, France's most popular wine-growing area.
Apparently France is the world’s most popular tourist destination: how does the country that attacked Thailand in 1893 and ran the Indochine Empire until the 1950s make itself so attractive?
With my little knowledge of colonization, I suspect that a lot of people under the French Empire had a hard time and starved in order to sustain their invaders' homeland. But the historic fruits of running opium and coffee monopolies (amongst other things) in Indochina for decades still attract visitors from around the world.
For the first time in my life abroad, I am not pining for Thai food. I'm not patriotic, but in the past, if food wasn't hot and spicy, it had no taste for me. In France, I got a chance to explore cheeses and olives, and it didn't stop there. During the entire trip, salami (sometimes made from horse; only a great empire produces horse meat, I think), baguette and croissants distracted me from the main attraction - the wine. In a very short time I turned into a pisshead, unthinkable for me in Thailand. The days were cool, despite the fact that it was 28 degrees, and so dry. The Mediterranean sky was completely clear and blue. Perfect drinking weather.
My trip passed peacefully, even though I was cursed by an Albanian lady begging in front of an ATM in Avignon. She gave me such an evil eye that I forgot to give her any money as I ran to escape. Down the road, portrait artists sketched crayon pictures of French comedian Louis de Funes on the pavements. I watched a Japanese guy waiting to have his fresh tourist face immortalised on paper - it looked depressingly universal, the same service for tourists as in London, Paris, Saigon, Patpong...
Avignon was once the residence of the Pope. For a while in the 14th century, there was a rivalry between popes in Avignon and Rome: which was the God’s true representative on earth? The Palais des Papes in Avignon is a huge expression of absolute power, so I suppose the man who built it must have been very pure…
I watch a group of European haves and have mores stroll through the palace gate (closed to the general public) for a posh dinner, and wondered at the thick high walls around the building. On the square below the palace, an electric toy train is making the rounds, looking for foreigners. It's empty. Two cops in tight T-shirts, baseball caps and dark shades, guns strapped to their hips, pass... on their bicycles. Now there's an idea for Bangkok. These tough guys look like New York cops - do the citizens of Avignon complain about cultural pollution? Music drifts across the old cobblestones; a young Moroccan is playing the trumpet. More cultural pollution. The soothing sounds of Miles take the edge off the palace and turn the afternoon into a beautiful French sunset.
Tourism is on everyone's mind in Avignon. A kilo of grapes in the city centre costs 2.9 Euro (150 Baht), while down the road you can buy direct from the farmer for a fraction of the price. Do the French charge tourists more than usual? Is the Pope Catholic? Well, despite the confusing history it all comes down to money - my money.
The next morning I spent one and a half hours in the market in Carpentras. I didn't buy anything except a postcard. It's hard to get away from the common cicada in this area. But the French don't eat these noisy critters. They sell them to the tourists instead. They use the motif of the cicada to make soap, candles, sculptures and curtain prints. They love it. They stick porcelain cicadas on their house walls, or hang beautifully welded insects from rooftops. Amazing, La Provence. I watch fascinated as visitors spend their money on insects and try to put it all together - the French Empire, the popes, the cicadas and the olives.
As the sun sets I remember drinking, jump into a Citroën and head home for a game of pétanques, a glass of wine and non-spicy food that tastes good. Vive la France.