Vincent van Gogh, the world’s most famous artist, turned 170 this past Thursday.
About 20 years ago I rolled into Provence in southern France looking for Vincent’s spirit.
Inspired by the region’s sunlight and color, which suited his palette, the Dutch artist settled in Arles, a city along the Rhone River, during 1888-89 for 18 months. It was here that he briefly shared a little yellow house with fellow artist Paul Gauguin before their bickering sent Gauguin packing to Tahiti and spoiling Van Gogh’s dream of creating an artists’ salon.
Their final altercation took place the day before Christmas Eve. Vincent reacted by
slicing off a piece of his ear (though some believe Gauguin made the cut with his sword then quickly left town to evade arrest). Vincent walked bleeding into the heart of town, to Café de l’Alcazar, and offered it to his favorite gal, Rachel, a prostitute who lived upstairs. (Rachel fainted.)
Back then, Arles was a bullfighting town. Its Roman coliseum, Les Arenes, is still around. but the city these days is known for Vincent, who has long overshadowed the once-famous Spanish matadors who passed through to torment and kill bulls. (At the end of a fight the matador would cut an ear from the bull and gift it to his favorite lady, thus partly explaining Van Gogh’s bizarre behavior.)
In January, Arles is chilly and dank and smells of onions. A constant drizzle pushed me to take refuge in a matador-themed café where, over cappuccino, I pondered the absence of Vincent’s spirit in a town whose citizens exploit his fame seven days a week.
Souvenir shops and kiosks on every street and alley peddle posters and postcards and booklets of Van Gogh’s paintings — the same images that their great-great grandparents despised 140 years ago. Café de l’Alcazar, which Vincent painted and made famous as “The Night Cafe,” is now called Café Vincent van Gogh. (Such irony.)
The Arlesians called him “Fou Rou”(Crazy Redhead) — and after the ear incident they circulated a petition calling for him to be run out of town. Caving to their diagnosis, Vincent committed himself to St-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum. There in the garden he furiously painted a nocturne of swirling stars over St-Remy, a masterpiece and iconic image famously known as “The Starry Night.”
Following his discharge 18 months later, Vincent returned to his native Holland and slaked his thirst for life by killing himself at age 37. (It is believed by some he may have been murdered by 16 year-old Rene Secretan. but this theory has been largely debunked.)
Part of the old asylum is still a psych ward, for women only. The older wing, where Vincent lived, is a museum open to the public for a few euros’ admission.
Thinking this was where I might find Vincent’s spirit, away from the crass commercialism of Arles, I toured Vincent’s quarters: the bed where he slept, the bathtub where they locked him down for hours at a time because shrinks back then believed such prolonged bathing cured insanity.
An onsite gift shop featured art created by their patients, and there I sprang for a papier-mâché bar relief of a ghostly white figure with shaven head and mad eyes, one arm raised high the other dangling low to signify bipolar disorder.
A LIVELY NIGHT
On the other side of the Alpilles (rocky hills) sits a perched medieval village called Les-Baux-de-Provence and, beyond that La Cabro d’Or, an 18th-century stone farmhouse, now an inn with a Michelin star restaurant.
Their three-course supper is superb, bested only by a full-bodied Bordeaux followed by vintage Armagnac, the perfect set-up for a good night’s sleep. And thus, I settle into my cozy, cave-like room and prepare for bed, enjoying the still of night until lulled to sleep by CNN …
A huge explosion to my right jolts me from deep slumber. I lurch upward, no clue where I am during my first few seconds of consciousness. I twist my head right, expecting to see a big hole in the wall from whatever bomb just blew. But the wall is intact, along with a small radiator, which I’d earlier turned off.
So what was the loud noise? A radiator burp, magnified beyond reason by the silent countryside? I get up and peek through a window at the very bright full wolf moon hanging low in the sky. I check the time on the digital alarm clock by my bedside table: Just past 2 a.m.
So I slide undercover and fall into another deep sleep… until a hand grabs my right arm, just below my elbow — a real physical grip.
I awaken with a start certain that someone (a doctor, perhaps?) is standing beside me to explain my circumstances. Although anyone’s presence would warrant a serious explanation, I’m astounded to find no one there.
I rise, drink Evian water and gaze out the window to see a bright full moon, hanging lower than before. Shaken- – literally, having been shaken awake — I note the time (3:45 a.m.) and turn the TV on, intending to avoid slumber.
But CNN, as usual, induces sleep… until…
A knock on my door. I rise, walk to the door and open it. An expressionless human form stands in front of me. It is carrying an easel, wearing a floppy straw hat. Slowly, it backs away while motioning with its arm to follow it out into the darkness.
I awaken from this dream, then fall back to sleep … until my mind wakes up, but my body remains asleep — one of those sleep paralysis numbers where you want to open your eyes and move but your muscular system and every other part of your body refuses to cooperate and won’t budge.
EXIT STAGE LEFT
It takes about two minutes to snap out of this, and though it is only 5:15 and still pitch dark outside, I want out of there. I quickly pack my things and hoof it to the main building where staff are cranking up for the day.
“I need to check out,” I say.
I’m told the woman who handles checkouts has wandered off.
“Wandered off where?”
“Would you like coffee while you wait?” A very un-French offer because complimentary anything is unheard of in these parts.
“No,” I say, wanting to leave ASAP, not wanting to be delayed by coffee, not even free coffee. “My room is haunted. A spirit or a ghost or something tried to eject me from my room.”
“Really?” This is followed by an expulsion of air akin to blowing a raspberry. Very French.
“Not only. First it woke me up with a loud explosion and then, when I wouldn’t take the hint and leave, it grabbed my arm, as if to say, time to go. And then it knocked on my door in my dream and motioned me to leave my room. So can I please check out?”
The coffee guy shrugs. “She must come soon.”
The check-out lady finally appears and prints an invoice. I scan the charges. “Yeah, everything’s fine.”
She runs my Amex card. It doesn’t work. She tries again. No authorization.
“OK,” I say, “If Amex doesn’t want the commission, give it to MasterCard.”
She runs MasterCard then regards me with suspicion. “Non.”
“Impossible.” Now I blow a raspberry. “That card always works. OK, here’s what we do,” I dig into my pocket. “Cash money.” I count out four hundred euros.
“I must make you a receipt,” she says.
“Not necessary.” I fly out the door, throw my luggage into the car and, beneath a setting wolf moon, approach the electronic gate. It is supposed to sense a vehicle exiting and open automatically… but does not. I wait a full minute. Nothing.
I alight and trot back to reception.
“The gate won’t open!”
Two French women glare at me. “Impossible,” snaps one. The other blows a raspberry.
“I’m not lying,” I say. “It really won’t open.”
One of them hands me a magnetic strip card. “Use this.”
I see. Let’s have fun with the jumpy American after we’ve spooked him all night.
I gallop to the gate, run the card, nothing happens. Again. Same result. And again. (Conventional wisdom suggests that the truest definition of insanity is when someone does the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.)
I return to reception and thrust the card in their faces. “It does not work. Let me out. Now.”
They look at me like I’m not only a stupid American but crazy to boot. One of them rolls her eyes, follows me out and runs a magnetic card through the slot. Doesn’t work. She opens a small metal box at the side of the gate and presses a button. Nothing happens.
By now I’m too desperate to gloat.
She blows another raspberry, stumped, says irritably, “This never happens,” as if it is MY fault.
“What now?” I groan in desperation.
“I go see.” She stomps off.
“Go see WHAT?” I holler after her.
A few minutes later she returns with a new magnetic card, swipes it and — voila! — the gate finally slides open and I’m set free.
It is clear what happened, of course.
I went looking for Van Gogh’s ghost and found it, presumably haunting the asylum). His spirit then trailed me to La Cabro d’Or, where it tried (three times) to evict me from his old stomping grounds — and when I didn’t get the message, tried to hold me prisoner. (I suspect Vincent took umbrage at my exploration of his asylum bathtub.)
And don’t expect me to say, “April Fool’s Day!”
Because it truly happened. No joke.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at email@example.com.