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LYDIA DAVIS DOESN’T call them “tidbits,” though her article One French City,” London Review of Books, August 12, 2021, is a perfect example.
Davis begins her article with “What follows is part of an ongoing piece of writing which I can best describe as being the elaborated notes of what I have been discovering in my explorations….”
Yep, this is how my tidbits originate too. Here are tidbits about the French city of Arles, several gleaned from Davis’s LRB piece, others from my old guidebooks, still others from my usual Internet sleuthing.
Cook’s 1923. “Arles, on the main line (483 miles—buffet), is one of the most ancient cities of Southern Gaul, and was once the most important (population 30,000). The exact date of the origin of Arelate (Arles) is not known, but it was a very flourishing city under Julius Caesar.… About two hours suffice for seeing the principal sights.”
I Suspect Lydia Davis Would Beg to Differ. By contrast, Davis says that Arles has “a history which goes back nearly three thousand years, so there is a lot to read.”
“Arles,” Davis writes, “is in the South of France in Provence, on the lower part of the Rhône delta, on a limestone hill 25 metres above sea level. It was settled, successively, by Ligurians, Greeks from Phocaea, Celts, and in 46 B.C. by the Romans as a retirement colony for Caesar’s Sixth Legion.”
Davis cites the impression of a 19th-century traveler, “Joseph Bard, in 1834, described it this way: ‘It is an old city, of an incredible opulence in debris, lost in the swamps.”
The Mosquitoes of Arles. Another Davis citation: “John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in France, the standard 19th-century guide, warns that Arles is unhealthy ‘at certain seasons’ because of the marshes and pools in the vicinity. Even today, there are hosts of mosquitoes clear into the month of November, and no screens on the windows, so that if you expect to have a good night’s sleep, you must swat as many of the little insects as possible against the walls and ceiling of your hotel room, where they tend to rest, and not open the window until your lights are out.”
Arles’ Official Lion. Davis says, “One lion was given to the city by the count of Provence, and at that time he paid for its upkeep. Later, the city assumed the expense of its upkeep, and there exists a receipt, dated 1453, from the butcher who furnished the lion’s meat, called, in the Latin of the document, ‘nutrimenti leonis.’ “
St. Caesarius. Davis writes that “St. Caesarius (c.470–543 A.D.) lived at a time of intersection of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages…. In his day, the common language was still Latin, and it was in Latin that he spoke to his congregation. Not all the population was Christian: there were also adherents of the Arian heresy and even pagans who still worshipped Jupiter.”
Davis says, “St Caesarius condemned a provision of Roman law, still practised at the time, which allowed a young man to keep, before his marriage, concubines whom he would then abandon after several years in order to take a legitimate wife. ‘They do this with the support of civil law,’ St Caesarius said, ‘but certainly not with the support of heaven.’ ”
The Language of Arles. “In the streets,” Davis observes, “conversational Latin would, over the following centuries, evolve into something like present-day Provençal. Alphonse Daudet, in the 1860s, listening to his friend Frédéric Mistral read aloud to him some of his verses, remarks that the ‘beautiful Provençal language’ is ‘more than three-quarters Latin.’ ”
The Mistral. Davis notes that the poet’s namesake, the mistral, “is usually the prevailing wind in Arles, but it is not and was not the only named wind.There are pictures called wind roses, directional wheels showing all the winds of Provence, with their names. There were not just four named winds, or even eight, or even sixteen or 24, but, on at least one wind rose, 32 named winds, each blowing from a different direction.”
My Automotive Tidbit. Speaking of winds, indeed, I recall the Ford Zephyr, Lamborghini Diablo, Maserati Bora, Ghibli, Khamsin and Mistral, and Volkswagen Passat and Sirocco. And the Chinook RV and Sundowner trailer. In a broader sense of transportation, there’s the 1928 Santa Ana monoplane as well. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021.