Written for the Guardian Travel Section
I had gone to a friend’s place in the South of France intending to forget my broken heart by writing a comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. Arles, as occupied by Romans and painted by Van Gogh, is an exquisite little town but, for 3 days, all I had done was to moon joylessly around the house sipping brandy. I felt little enthusiasm for France, life, comedy, or anything really. Disconnected. On the third evening it occurred to me that I needed to get out.
So the next day I crossed the Rhone, hired a bicycle and set off South into the broad, even, watery Camargue – home to horses, bulls, mosquitos and many breeds of bird, most famously the flamingo. The flat terrain suited my mood and empty roads smoothed my way. After a couple of hours I spotted a spire on the horizon and turned towards it. The crooked old church was now a crooked old bar, dark and gloomy after the bright blueness outside.
Inside an old lady in black with a sad, distracted air served me a cold beer and a sandwich jambon. Poor old girl, she seemed even glummer than me. I decided to try my French out. ‘Do you ever get flamingos come into this bar?’ I enquired.
She stared at me, totally baffled.
It was not much of a gag (though I was planning to follow it up with a question about them falling over) but it seemed to pole-axe the woman. Flamingos in the bar? What was this peculiar foreigner talking about? Then I saw it dawn on her – it was a joke! She broke into a broad if toothless smile. The thought now tickled her. She started chuckling and I could see that this silly remark by a passing tourist had suddenly, somehow reawakened in her the memory of laughter, that I had, by chance, unlocked something in her. The chuckling gave way to cackling and full bloodied hooting and her bleak introspection seemed to dissolve to reveal a wrinkled but open and beautiful old face. After my lunch she came outside to wave me off as I set off cycling again out into those broad Mediterranean skies. Arriving back in Arles later I sat straight down and started writing.
It is now fifteen years since my cycle in the Camargue and I am preparing for another tour of my solo show (the ‘gentleman’s tour’ – a handful of dates in agreeable places) and I will, wherever possible, stay over after the gig in a nice hotel, breakfast on porridge and kippers the next morning, then spend the day rambling in the surrounding countryside (note to self: get OS maps for Abingdon, Frome, Stratford and Barow). And, at some leafy point along the way, I will no doubt remember once again the encounter with the lady in black, which has become mythic in my mind; that marvellous old woman, laughing, laughing, laughing.