Why I wrote this: This piece was the cry out of the depths of my soul. I know from personal experience that we aren’t always happy with our circumstances. The present is a gift, surely, but it can also be a huge mess. And sometimes, just for a little while, we don’t want to deal with that mess. We seek an escape from an unforgiving reality and find it in the most peculiar of things. Art is my escape into the world of unknown possibilities and past periods of time where today’s issues don’t yet exist. Art allows me the space necessary to regain my fortitude and sends me away a renewed, stronger, a more compassionate person.
On a warm mid-September night I am sitting at a table for two in an open air café in Arles, France. I have never been here before, I am thinking to myself as I sit alone and enjoy my glass of herbal-green Chartreuse, a divine drink first made in the 18th century by monks. There is a sweet sound of gentle classical chords playing on a well-tuned piano that comes out of the inside part of the café where there are more seats and better lighting. I would have picked my spot inside if it were not for the magical starry night sky.
A handsome waiter is dancing his way around the tightly packed tables carrying a heavy silver tray on his palm. He wears a black uniform with a clean white-as-snow apron that complements and adds to his tall stature. Every time the waiter opens the door to go back inside, its rusty hinges creak and squeal like fingernails on a chalkboard but even that nasty sound does not interrupt the harmony of the terrace.
A lot of people have come here tonight. They are sitting along the short round tables arranged into three neat rows. Seems like the bright sulfur yellow and citron green of the old-fashioned lantern hanging over the tables attracts people just like it attracts moths toward its warm and tempting flames. It feels like the many people gathered around do not notice my presence. It is almost like I am wearing an invisibility cloak that shields me and my pickle-green drink from everyone.
Even if I did not look thoroughly I could almost immediately notice something strange about these people. Not just strange, but strangely harmonious and well-balanced. They are all dressed formally and in a very old-fashioned style; I would say late Victorian. Women wearing modest long dresses and subtle colours, high necklines and peaked shoulders, tiny heels on their pointed shoes, rich jewelry and curled hair. Men are all wearing dark tail coats and dark tuxedos in contrast with white bow ties around their necks. Men are inseparable from their black top hats and intricately carved walking canes. All these colours blend into all shades of yellow underneath the light of the lantern.
I feel this strange harmony in the pleasant evening breeze puffing through the evergreen cypress trees that grow on the very far end of the street. I feel it in the lemonade-pink pale petals of Daphne flower in a tiny vase on my table. I feel it brushing against my cheeks like a sweet kiss. I feel it swinging in the thickness of my hair. This gentle flurry of the humid air has a familiar freshness. I look up at the sky above the rooftops of the sleepy buildings. It is painted with unthinkable shades of blue: ultramarine and deep indigo, even violet. And stars. Hundreds of thousands of them. Some shine with a bright silver glare, others seem ghostly pale and distant. At that moment I wanted to start counting them.
This unexplainable warm harmony stretches out reaching every object within my range of vision. Behind me on the other side of the street there is a small souvenir shop dimly illuminated with butterscotch shadows of the lamp. My position is extremely uncomfortable to examine the shop, since I am facing the inside part of the café, so instead I stare into the faintly lighted street.
A gentleman and a lady are strolling down the sidewalk. I notice a swiftly approaching horse wagon headed in their direction so I try to warn them. I wave my hands and yell something I can’t even recall but they don’t seem to hear or see me. Someone else yells out a warning and they manage to get off the street. The horse cart rumbles past and I cannot help but wonder where a horse cart would be going this late into the night. It is like I am magically transported into the 19th century. No, that is impossible, I tell myself, there is no way. It must be the effect of the pickle-green Chartreuse.
I can hear the clutch of shoes against the cobblestone pavement; I can hear silverware clashing against the plates, wine being poured out of the bottle. I hear Merci beaucoup and Bon appétit. The loud smell of fried fish fillet suddenly strikes my nose followed by the elevating and refreshing smell of the cypresses carried on the wings of the humid breeze. I think to myself, maybe I should see the Mediterranean from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer some twenty miles south. They say the waters there are turquoise and sometimes at night the waves crash against the cream-coloured sands of the shore with such an unstoppable force it can freeze your blood in its tracks. But the café and its beautiful sulfur glow have enchanted me completely.
As I sit on the tangerine deck of the terrace, I start noticing fewer sounds which can only mean that it has gotten late and a lot of people have taken their leave. The sweet sound of the piano slowly fades away, but the lantern is still lit and the sulfur yellow glows on the wall, the tables and chairs and the few people left in the café. The harmonious feeling does not leave me even now, when I know I need to get going. Uncountable stars wave at me with smiley faces and then…
Then everything fades away, not suddenly like a storm on a sunny day, but gradually, naturally, like it was bound to happen eventually. As someone gently taps on my shoulder I turn to find my friend telling me that it is time to go. He grabs my arm to pull me away, and the instantaneous aching in my arm reminds me of what I seem to have forgotten. I look around with wild eyes expecting to go back to the harmony and the warmth of the lantern. Then I realize there is no warmth here, and the light here is logical, dry and white, and there is no smell of the sea and pines. I realize I am in the crowded Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands and I am looking at a masterpiece of Vincent van Gogh. “Café Terrace at Night” has always had a special place in my heart ever since. Each time I look at it, I feel myself inside the painting a little deeper, a little more real.