Monday, March 30, 2020

VAN GONE-VILLE 4: ESCAPE FROM PROVENCE




Van Stein: The Starry Night Painter




I hit the gas pedal, tear through wheat fields painted by Claude Monet, past St-Paul-de-Mausole (Van Gogh's asylum) out of St-Remy—not stopping for two-and-a-half hours until we are forced to a halt by an officious police officer guarding the border into the Principality of Monaco. 

I would have stopped us, too, in our baseball caps, leather bomber jackets, bloodshot eyes, and unkempt hair.

Van Stein startles awake.  “Whats going on?”  He focuses on the immaculately uniformed female Nazi.  “Uh-oh,” he mutters, “not another threshold guardian.”

Identity, she demands. 

We surrender our passports, which she scrutinizes, then patches our names to Police Central through a two-way radio. 

Car papers, she demands.  

I hand her a wad of rental documents.  She inspects, it passes muster.

Then the grilling.  Why do you come to Monaco?

There’s no point lying to an officer of the law. “I have a rendezvous with Prince Albert.” I check my wristwatch.  “At 11:30 this morning.” 

So, like, can you hurry this up a little?

“Le Prince Hereditaire?”  She looks at scruffy me like Im nuts, wanting to hear me confirm this in her native language, I guess.

“Oui,” I oblige her. 

She whispers into her two-way radio, listens, gently hands me passports and car papers.  “I am sorry,” she says.  “It is my job.”

“Its okay,” I reassure her.

“Goddam Nazi,” hisses Van Stein as we roll off, spiraling downward into Monte Carlo on a quiet Sunday morning. 

We take an open-air table at Café de Paris for cappuccino and croissants, joined by Reek Pisserin, in from London to join me for princely business. 

We leave Van Stein at the café, promising to return for lunch.

Two-and-a-half hours later (the Prince was late and the meeting long), it is way past lunchtime.  

A French foursome occupies our old table where Van Stein should have been.

Where did he go?  

Reek Pisserin and I scramble, aware that our flight to London is two hours away.

I find the artist sitting, sketching, next to a fountain in gardens adjacent to Place du Casino, a look of total abandonment on his face. 

“Thomas?  Sorry, we ran late.  Why didnt you wait at Café de Paris?”

Van Stein shakes his head in disgust.  

Finally, he speaks.  “They wanted to move into lunch and I didnt have cash to pay for our croissants and coffee.” 

“What about a credit card?

“When they saw it was American, they refused it, just told me to leave quietly.  I was lucky not to get arrested.”  Hed been mindful of the Nazi at border control.  “Ive been walking around, trying not to look suspicious, which is hard for me today, since all I had was forty-five minutes' sleep before you woke me up and I look like a homeless tramp around all these Lamborghinis and Ferraris and mink coats.  Then I sat here, pretending to sketch.  The police have been circling, getting ready to pounce on me.  Im never coming back to this place.”

We find the car and drive to Nice-Cote dAzur Airport, return the vehicle to Avis, retrieve our gear. 

“Hey,” says Van Stein.  “Wheres my paint box?” 

On all these trips, Van Stein carries a small wooden crate with his mix of paints, thinner and brushes.

Its nowhere. 

Did somebody break into the car in Monaco?   

No.  Unheard of. 

“Phone the chateau,” snaps Van Stein.

I consult the invoice given me at checkout, tap out numbers, connect, explain the situation.

Yes, we have Mr. Van Steins wooden box, says the woman.

“Where did you find it?”  

I expect her to say, His room.

The answer startles us:  Outside, behind the chateau.

“But I wasnt even back there,” says Van Stein.

“You sure you want it back?” I ask him, fully understanding the metaphysical darkness behind this, based on my haunting.

“Of course.”  Every new expense, however small, burdens the struggling artist who lives for art and sees money only as a means to buy more paint.  

Ultimately, its a question of arithmetic:  the expense of buying new supplies is greater than shipping the crate home.

”Careful, Thomas—you never know what may come back inside your box.  You may need to re-name it Pandora.”

With hindsight, it is clear what transpired: 

We’d gone searching for the spirit of Van Gogh. So the dead artist first tries to throw me out of my room, second, tries to keep me prisoner, and third,  smuggles himself to Santa Barbara in Van Steins box.