Picking whether or not to be here.
Talk about a First World Problem!
There are castles on hilltops at every turn and churchbells ring out on the half hour from medieval spires reaching into blue skies. Ancient Roman cities recently discovered under layers of soil sit on display in sunken parks beside current day market places. Stone houses rise out of cliff faces, their walls thick with green vines shaped around doorways and shuttered windows furnished with blossoming flower boxes. The scent of lavender fades in and out as you walk through the cobbled streets which seem almost haunted by the likes of Cinderella and Rapunzel. It is a whimsical place.
New York “Karen #1” is doing a cooking class here. She planned this trip two years ago, and her two bedroom / two bathroom apartment is in the centre of a medieval village north of Avignon, considered the capital of Provence. Karen very generously invited me to join her, on condition that I understood she would be buying cheese, critiquing olive oils, tasting wine, cooking and eating with her tutor and about 10 classmates, for up to ten hours each day. So by day I hang out in “our” village, or cycle to neighbouring villages to compare hilltop castle ruins and terrace garden cafes. It is sheer bliss. By night I have company to sip wine and eat strawberries and cheese with, on a balcony overlooking the local castle.
Two days ago cooking class went to the village’s weekly market to choose fish fillets, vegetables and various other ingredients. I was invited to join them. It was interesting, a lot of fun, and demonstrating my interest in cooking, I came away with two new tops, two new pairs of trousers and a number of Provençal laughs. Karen came away with about 300g of goat’s cheese for the princely sum of €22. This was fairly and squarely my fault as I stopped to taste morsels being held out to me on a wooden board, embroiling us in a situation with a French guy in a chef hat and red and white checked apron.
French people are nothing like the stereotypes which have made me reticent about visiting their country in the past. They are lively, friendly, funny, open and polite, with what seems to me like a very strong sense of community spirit. Life is centred around big open, treelined shady squares, very much like the plazas in Spain. Adults sit in cafes on the edge of the square watching children play around the trees and fountains in the centre.
Yesterday I hired a bicycle, repeating the words of the rental guy in my head as I pedalled up some steep hills: “if you don’t climb the hill you will not see the view”. How right he was! Cycling on French roads, you are treated like royalty by the cars sharing your space – they slow down for you, queue behind you until there’s somewhere to pass, give way to you at roundabouts and other intersections. There is no sense of being in anyone’s way. A number of times I passed groups of cyclists going the opposite way, two-and-three-abreast on the road, with cars queued behind them waiting patiently for a place to pass.
Farewelling Karen on Saturday I’ll be in Provence for at least another week, possibly longer because it is going to be a pull getting me out of here. As yet I have no onward plans. Having seen so much in the past three months, I want to savour what I’ve seen of Europe and not rush off to see/do any more. You cannot see or do everything, even if you spent your whole life traveling, and the best way to travel is to stop and spend time getting to know the place, people, language, culture and lifestyle. For now I can’t think beyond staying still for a while in Provence and just being in this very magical moment. Perhaps this will be my final European destination before returning to Cambodia.
Reiterating the extreme good fortune I am always so aware I live with, I type this with BBC World News on mute in front of me and livestreaming MSF’s International General Assembly in Barcelona on my laptop. BBC continue to cover the migrants in Calais trying to jump into trucks crossing to the UK. A few days ago I was in Calais again, for a flash of a moment as the Eurostar emerged from the Channel Tunnel and hurtled towards Paris, where I took a subway across the city to the TGV station en route to Avignon. Joanne Liu, MSF’s International President, is speaking in Barcelona on the many complex challenges facing MSF, from Ebola in West Africa to the new sea search and rescue missions being undertaken in the Mediterranean, to mass population displacement in Syria and the spread of Drug Resistant TB across the poor world.
This brings my thoughts to Paula, the 25 year old DRTB patient who was told she had abdominal cancer when in fact it was Drug Resistant, abdominal TB. As I type, as the migrants race to jump into the back of trucks at Calais, as Dr Liu speaks, I can see Paula sitting on her wooden bed beside the barred window in her elevated shack beside the Mekong, across the narrow track from her village mosque. Her abdominal wounds ooze faeces, she struggles to gain weight beyond the 30kg she has achieved since a year ago when I met her, at 20.8kg and tearful that she had a terminal cancer she did not have. Her 15yo brother and their father have moved to Malaysia to work on fishing boats in order to keep the family fed. They will not return for three years. She sits on that bed with a copy of the Koran as her constant companion. She has sat there for months, wishing and hoping to recover from this debilitating disease. So far, there is no indication this will happen for her. Our simultaneous lives are so disparate that if I hadn’t experienced them both in person, I would not believe it possible.
Over my months in Europe I have sent regular emails and photographs to the children at Phter Koma, some of who have replied, practising their English on me. We’ve also Skyped. I hear from Chom regularly via Facebook as well as a number of my old colleagues. Happy news from Cambodia is that the baby of my colleague, who was dying in hospital, intubated and having to be manually ventilated by family members, made an amazing recovery! He still has severe cerebral palsy so life will remain challenging and he is very vulnerable to further illness. It has not been possible to have contact with many others who I miss a lot. Paula is one. The young family with the crippled father on the outskirts of Dara’s village, Dara and his family, the blind widow and her elderly parents and young daughters, the landmine victim in Siem Reap. It is starting to feel like time to return. If I can only find the momentum I’ll need to jump out of this fairytale.