11.  A Sunday at the Edge of Civilization

The only thing I knew about Charleville (“SHAHRL-vil,” pop. ~57,000 including the adjacent city of Mézières) before I went there was that it was where the poet Arthur Rimbaud came from and that he hated the place for being so stiflingly dull when he was a lad in the late 1880s; I’m from Walla Walla, so I can relate to that. On the train heading there I also noticed that its region seemed to be rather under-served by the French train and road network—a place to go to, perhaps, but not through to somewhere else…“end of the line.” And yet it’s in that zone that has been fought over so many times, most notably by Germany and France in the two World Wars. It didn’t add up, to me, so I was curious to see what kind of a place it was.

Arriving so late in the evening (I think it was nearly 22h00), I took no chances about accommodation and went directly to the Hôtel de Paris, which faces the station across a street and a little gazebo-graced park. The room wasn’t especially cheap, but under the circumstances I didn’t care. I dropped off my bags and immediately set out in search of dinner. I figured that the late hour would be less of a problem in locating an open restaurant given that it was a Saturday night. What I found was a bleak scene: a quiet town indeed with far more residential buildings than businesses, and when I spied a restaurant-y looking place a ways off, I hurried toward its cheery bright lights in hopes of getting there before they closed for the night.

Tout Va Bien, where I dined, is actually in Mézières, which is an older city adjacent to Charleville, the latter having been founded only in 1608; I’d unknowingly crossed into the other town about three blocks from the hotel. And Mézières is definitely more residential than Charleville, as I was to discover the next day. For the moment my only concern was getting fed, and I was very well cared for at Tout Va Bien: an entrecôte sauce moutarde with a sauce like I like it—stunningly strong—accompanied by what appeared to be “tater tots” but were a superior version, like whipped potatoes gently fried in nugget form. Mmmm, MMMM! Still, I was a bit envious of diners at two nearby tables: they got fish which were flambéed over dried fennel branches on a cart beside their tables before the fish were served…the aroma was wonderful. (All of this ran counter to my impressions of the restaurant’s décor and appearance, as it has a kind of forced cheeriness in its too-strong yellow-and-green motifs.)

On the walk to and from the restaurant, by the way, I crossed at least two bridges over the winding river Meuse at least once each, and these bridges had large flags—projecting at regular intervals from the bridges’ rails—national flags which I surmised upon a brief review of their variety must be those of the current European Union member states. The next day I confirmed this, although I never did quite establish what Mézières felt was its claim to EU-fanfare significance.

The next morning I awoke somewhat early and stayed in bed trying to get a smidgen more sleep, but when I finally gave up at 8h30 I found a surprising situation: not only was it raining, and cold, outside my hotel window, but there were actually some snowflakes among the heavy raindrops. I tried to juxtapose this awareness with the memory of getting sunburnt while staggering sweatily around the southeast outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand barely two weeks earlier, but it was too improbably ridiculous. I’m a rain-and-snow person, and in this case one who also wanted to check his email, so I wasted little time showering and hitting the streets to find an Internet café.

Sunday mornings in most places are pretty dead. Sunday mornings in quiet towns are deader. This wasn’t quite a Twilight Zone episode, but it felt like it could turn into one at any time. The only businesses I found open were boulangeries/patisseries, in Mézières, and at one point I ducked into one to get a bite to eat and escape the rain (which was coming down with some force at the time), although this idea backfired when I returned to the street and discovered there was no sheltered place to eat the pastries without having them be washed from my grasp while one end was still in my mouth. Well, I did spot one place in a park and hurried there, but it turned out to be a small kiosk formerly used for who knows what purpose and was now evidently an informal pissoir.

I also saw a strange parade proceeding amid the rain along the avenue d’Arches, the main road joining the two cities, and I truly have no idea what it was: there were bagpipes, various groups in vaguely Renaissance-era costumes (the groups each uniformly attired, that is). There wasn’t much of a crowd out to watch them, and the rain made the whole thing even more random-seeming.

After about three hours of this fruitless and drenching odyssey (even the shirt under my leather jacket was soaked through), I returned to the Hôtel de Paris to change into drier clothes and think through possible next steps. When I came back down (in dry attire this time) to the main level, I got smart and asked the woman at the front desk if she knew of an Internet café in town; she said she didn’t but that there was a computer with Internet access just there in the hotel’s sitting room, behind me.

I am such a doofus sometimes.

So I dealt with email, checked to see who’d won the Paris/Marseille match the night before so I’d know what to expect in Paris’s mood when I returned for my last few days in France (Paris won, thankfully), put in a solid request for a reservation at Hôtel Caulaincourt Square, and got caught up on world news before returning to wandering the rainy, slightly hilly streets of Charleville-Mézières.

Despite the citys’ almost creepily quiet and empty streets, which I found inhabited only by other travellers (except around the place Ducale, Charleville’s market-square), I had a surprisingly good afternoon. Part of this was because of the Musée de l’Ardenne museum, which was not at all bad, but for sure the treat was part of the Rimbaud museum. The rain, by the way, had let up, for the most part, but rainy greyness lingered over Charleville all day, and at one point I visited the Église Saint-Remi, the town’s main church, and later I spent some time exploring (in complete and blessed solitude) Mézière’s Basilique Notre Dame d’Espérance, which was heavily damaged by war in 1870, 1914, 1940, and 1944 and now is unfortunately “graced” with some aesthetically ghastly stained-glass windows of atrociously inappropriate “modern” design.

The Musée de l’Ardenne presented some fascinating evidence of the towns’ various histories, across many centuries, ranging from the archaeological to the sociological in its display forms. It clearly was well-funded, in its current incarnation, as it was spotless and sharp beyond what one would expect of an off-the-tourist-route town of little interest. It has one lovely crossover with the town’s non-Rimbaud tourist draw (the marionnette festival held here every three years) in the form of a street-facing clock/theatre where the hours are marked by “marionette”-animated vignettes of the 12th-Century legend of Les Frères Aymon (the four Aymon brothers, Rinaldo among them, who fled Charlemagne’s wrath after one of them killed the latter’s nephew, and who on their enchanted horse Bayard hid in the Ardennes forest), plus a room inside the museum devoted to this tableau’s design and mechanisms. The corridor leading to that room in the museum is glassed on one side to show the various stage sets and manipulated elements of each hour’s scene—a quite large cross-section of a functional model of a fairly complex stage set.

From there I eventually found my way to the Musée Rimbaud, which was a few blocks further north on the banks of yet another loop of the Meuse, in a former mill building. Well, most of it’s there. There’s also the house where he grew up, across the street on the town side of the riverfront boulevard, but the majority of the displays are in the mill building…and yet it’s the other that grabbed me. The mill building is after all a museum devoted to the memory/notoriety (and writings, to a much lesser degree) of a person of whom there are only a handful of photographs and who really didn’t leave much of a trail or do much. Because of this, it’s a shrine for the already-Rimbaud-smitten to wallow a little more: there’s not much to be gleaned about his life and works here unless you’re already familiar with them in general, and there’s WAY too much iconization of him here (along the lines of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe painting sequences, but more so and French on top of THAT) for the casual passer-by. Only a biographical videotape running in one room (for how long? I never saw an indication and moved on after about 10 minutes) tells any cohesive story or even establishes more than sketchy facts.

Across the street, less is much more.

The house is empty of furnishings, other than in the vestibule/library (gift shop?), except for a fireplace/mantel in each room (and a minimal mockup of a railway-carriage booth in one room) on which rests a glass-block-encased series of small, vintage photographs of cities which were the setting for episodes or periods in Rimbaud’s life, each room representing a different chapter. The only other things in the rooms (which by the way are quite small) are light, sound, color, and yourself…and it’s amazing. These “virtual” furnishings are continuous loops of sound montages and visual projections: the sound ranges from a clatter of railway cars along tracks to murmured phrases in exotic languages mingling like waters at a confluence of quiet streams, with one room hammering the visitor with a rapid-fire staccato barrage of English and French phrases which presumably (given their tone) are from Rimbaud’s writings. There’s one projection per room, one of them so subtle that you might not see it if you don’t hold still for awhile and eventually notice what’s changing, while the one in the room with the spoken texts has projections of printed text zipping across the walls, at angles, at a speed which allows the viewer to catch bits and pieces but never to assemble more than an impression.

I thought it was absolutely marvelous…one of the best museum experiences I’ve ever had. It was nearly missed, as closing time was fast approaching—in fact while I was there a young group of two or three people entered, hurriedly looked through the three floors’ worth of rooms, and exited…and half of that happened while I was standing in the subtlest room of all (the green-lit one), unmoving, getting the first definite impressions which had been designed for that understated room. I felt like a statue, or a plant mutely aware of live humans whizzing through my display area at a rate irrelevant to my own speed.

I mentioned that color was an element of the rooms’ decor, but I should qualify that by adding that it had a very secondary role by comparison to the audiovisual programming: the color was provided by rectangular plastic/plexiglass panels—one per room—blocking the one open window in each room. If there was a significance to the colors chosen for each room, it eluded me; the effect of these panels was immediately either jarring or incongruous but soon faded to a nearly-neutral background impression.

A bit dazed, and very pleased, I drifted through the grey late-afternoon ambience from the museum back to the courtyard which faces the side of the Musée de l’Ardenne with the marionette stage, in hopes of seeing the hourly show. I wasn’t alone: about 30 of us stood in the chilly wet beginning of dusk to watch—adults, children…a mix. The tableau, in the end, was a bit of a disappointment: not much actually happens, and it only has any semblance of a meaning if you’ve visited the museum and read there the tale being enacted piecemeal, street-side, or if you’re already familiar with it (which is unlikely). I think the Golden Hand of God the Marionettist moved a little, and two figures bowed in front of a seated one while a voice narrated the scene, and, well, that was it. Curtain. I didn’t turn to the others to say “what a ripoff,” but I confess that a soupçon of that notion crossed my mind. I mean, after seeing all that rigging and concentrated setup, I expected at least a turn of a head or a stylized swordfight: the fascinating sculpture Le Défenseur du Temps (“The Defender of Time,” created in 1979 by the same artist, Jacques Monestier), in its dreadful concrete-box setting in Paris’s Marais (just north of the Pompidou), has a golden humanoid symbolically (albeit slowly) battling a dragon (Earth), a crab (Water), and a rooster (Air) at various hours, and three times a day it fights all three, so why was this 1991 creation by Monestier, in a city which is host to a puppetry festival, so unspectacular?

There’s very little left to mention about Charleville-Mézières and my time there, except that it was strangely funny to see almost nobody but the same other non-residents prowling the streets of Charleville that Sunday evening in search of ANY open restaurant. I was doing the same (and beginning to worry that I should hurry back to Tout Va Bien in case they were the only place open on Sundays) when I found a place—Le Richelieu, 38 rue du Théâtre—off what I would have called “the beaten path” but clearly an acceptable restaurant. They took care of me, and I helped them by offering to move to a different table, shortly after I arrived, so they could group some adjacent tables for a family which came in soon after I did.

The food was good, the atmosphere quite mixed but not at all bad: with regard to the latter, there was the too-quiet feel of the room in general, as it played host to maybe four or five of its ten tables without filler music or other distraction other than noises from the “smoking” section (this area wasn’t specifically “non-smoking” and did have one table with some cigarettes, but there was a definite “smoking” section kept successfully distinct). Its charms were minor and slow to register but all contributed to what became a pleasant evening: the armoire just inside the restaurant’s door, its open drawers and surfaces laden with small potted plants which provided a bright green foil to the room’s rich orange, wine, and brown colors, was of particular note, as it had in one of its wooden keyholes a large key from which dangled a tag or emblem of some sort bearing a pair of “fu bats.” These last propelled me back to Seattle, briefly, as my dear friend Cat Grey had introduced me to this cultural/artistic icon once, and I was delighted to find them just now (and I thanked her again for teaching me).

Dinner itself—magret de canard, with a demi of Hautes Côtes de Nuits—was very nice, not overwhelmingly good but nowhere near bad. The one surprise, other than the fu bats, was that as I was chatting with the proprietor/manager-du-soir, during which I mentioned my Rimbaud-museum impressions in briefer form than I did here, he disappeared for a bit and returned with a large-ish glossy packet containing a few Rimbaud poems printed on parchement-y paper (white paper, the parchment aspect being printed on the front only), all of this produced for 2004’s “Année Rimbaud” (evidently the local tourist industry’s packaging that year of the usual Rimbaud shtick) for me to read and keep. I took a stab at reading them, at least one of them, there in the restaurant, but I soon realized this would require a greater concentration and different setting, as the poems seemed to dwell on buttocks. Perhaps they do—and a friend who’s read a bit of Rimbaud confirmed that I may well have read those poems correctly that first time—but in any case it’s poetry, and I need to be in a less-literal frame of mind when I dive into those waters.

Sleep came easily that night, as I began (in my mind) the closing of the tale. I think I began the closing sooner than I should have, actually.

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