What is the right thing to do in this sombre quadrangle lit by bright flowers under a Provencal sun? This was the sun that brought the master deep south from Paris and which stirred him so. Coming in through the high portal that leads you straight into courtyard, you cannot help but reimagine that incident from December 23, 1888, and feel vicariously the pain the artist felt in his sliced-off ear, feel the greater agony in the mind that caused the self-infliction. The quadrangle today is a close reflection of the painting by Van Gogh.
I'd been there late afternoon the previous day; it was peaceful then. I'd walked round and round the aisles on both ground and upper floors. There were only a few tourists, a Chinese mother and child, a young Chinese couple, and an odd white visitor. I came back the following morning seeking the same serenity, and found instead a very busy place.
Group after group of tourists kept arriving, most of them middle-aged, and wearing bright-colored audio aids round their necks so they could better hear their tour guides. They gave only a casual listening to their earphones as they indulged in the great pastime of our times: Photography. Their cameras took in the quadrangle from varied heights and angles; the cameras absorbed altogether the mind and eye of their owners—specially of the males in the groups.
They were arriving in large numbers, so it wasn't comfortable to stand on the entrance side of the small place. I moved to the inner corner, where a camera crew had sat down a professorial man in the sun, with their camera and lighting gear staring at him from the shade. A woolly cylindrical microphone hung over him. The crew cast wary glances at any intruder tending toward their space, which was all of one quarter of the quadrangle. I went near there anyway, and took pictures the best I could with shaky hands and mind—the gram of self-assurance I'd approached the folks with fell away when the professorial interviewee looked toward me for a fleeting moment. His eyes were so intense. I let go my camera and settled in the shade of the corridor and turned toward the crowds. A half of them were in the sun, the rest of them were at the picture-postcard stands in the aisle, or at the tables of the cafe on the corner.
After a while I went into the cafe, and found I wasn't welcome for mere coffee. But the waiters warmed to me by the time I'd reached a second coffee with a second Perrier. I used the time to debate in my mind if I should buy a 976-page tome on Van Gogh on sale in the souvenir store next door. The decision was done by the time I smiled to the barista to signal for the check. After two quick double espressos, you are ready to take on even Proust.