There may well be statistical proof that not all young Frenchwomen smoke but it didn’t look that way during the week I spent in Arles at the beginning of July. I have heard it said (by young Englishwomen) that they smoke in order to stay thin because they eat, without restraint, le foie gras, les glaces, les croissants, le cake and numerous other delicacies forbidden to would-be slim people. Whatever their motivation the smokers of Arles most certainly have a sympathetic environment. Every bar and cafe spills its tables and chairs out onto the street so that its customers may casually add their exhalations to the sultry, Mediterranean miasma.
Those ancient, unplanned, miniature streets play host to drinkers and diners regardless of any traffic. One day I watched an oncoming motorcyclist approach a lunch party whose tables were stretched across the street leaving barely enough room for pedestrians to pass. I expected a confrontation but was amazed by the way he and the unconcerned diners at the end of the table made an accommodation so that he was able to manoeuvre through the narrow gap without dismounting - and without a drop of vin rose being spilt. No comment was passed nor word spoken. The party resumed lunching and la patronne, seated inside, lifted her plaster-encased leg onto a stool positioned deliberately in front of an electric fan.
The centre of Arles has no familiar ‘chain’ establishments among the abundance of bars, cafes and restaurants although I did see signposts to McDonald’s pointed towards the outskirts of town – a place too far to contemplate venturing for such meagre incentive. With such a profusion of bars and eateries in the crowded streets and squares I was faced daily by the problem of which one to choose. Every lunchtime and coffee break presented this dilemma- made no less difficult by the local entrepreneurs, who all seemed to offer the same dishes at much the same prices. Of course I could base my decisions on the appearance and ambience of the competing establishments, which was fine for the first few undiscerning days of my visit. But later in the week I began to tire of three choices of wine- red, white or rose- and basic cuisine and began to comb the side streets for more challenging menus.
This strategy didn’t always succeed in delighting – there was a memorable, over-priced disappointment in a Michelin-recommended restaurant – but, when it worked, it felt like a minor triumph. There was a ‘mom and pop’ restaurant where the waitress mimed for us the ritual method of preparation for the toasted bread accompaniment to the fish soup; there was the sheer delight of drinking a bottle of Cotes du Rhone which, for once, did not disappoint and there was the charm of being waited on by people who were friendly yet professional.
Arles, like so many places which depend on visitors to drive their local economy, has its own dilemma in maintaining a balance between being itself and becoming a caricature. One sign that it might be resisting theme-park status is the dogged determination of the majority of businesses to remain closed on Sunday and Monday regardless of the hoards of potential customers roaming the streets. But there are spectres on the horizon: on the last day there I had lunch in a very French, tourist-free restaurant where, from the first floor terrace, I spied across the road Paddy Mullins Irish Pub.
I wonder: if all the Irish pubs in the world were to incorporate would they constitute a bigger business than McDonald’s?