Reviving Local Traditions in Arles, France

I have a new gig! I am an occasional cruise ship lecturer. My first cruise destination was sailing along the Mediterranean coast. The cruise ship was luxurious, by all definitions of luxury. But I am not writing these blogs to tell you what I had for dinner. I want to share with you observations that I gather from this experience that may add insights into how you see the world and how people outside of your own locality live their lives. And if you are an educator or student, I hope you will share these insights with your students or others.


Areal view of Arles, France

It was a warm, sunny day with a slight chill of autumn in the air as I toured the delightful city of Arles, located in southern France with a population of about 50,000. It seemed like a prosperous small city with bustling sidewalks and lively small businesses surrounding the old plaza. Tourism obviously contributed to the vibrancy of the city.



Roman coliseum. Photo by: Dinise Ames

The city has a long history and is the site of monuments and ruins from ancient Rome, which were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1981. The well-preserved Roman coliseum built during the first century of the Roman Empire is, remarkably, still used for concerts and other festivities! It seated about 40,000 during ancient times, but a mere 16,000 today. The Greeks left their imprint on the city as well with the ruins of a theater still visible. As a world history educator, it was delightful strolling among the antiquities and imagining how others might have lived in this very place that I was visiting today.



Cafe Terrace at Night by Van Gogh

The Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh lived in Arles from 1888 to 1889 and produced over 300 paintings and drawings during his time there. Although he is revered today, during his stay in the city he was regarded as an aggressive oddball, and tried the patience of the town’s residents. He only sold one painting while in residency, hardly indicative of the mark he would make on the art world after his death.


Cafe Frequented by Van Gogh. Photo by: Denise Ames

He was drawn to the area around Arles because of the light, and on that warm, sunny fall day I finally realized what he and other painters meant by the magical light of Arles. It was diffused light and cast a magically, surreal impression on all subjects. It had to be seen, rather than just described.

This leads me to an insight that I would like to share with you. After several inquiries and observations, I found that the people of Arles are purposely and intentionally creating a different way of living, working, and carrying out their everyday lives. Among many of the residents, there seems to be a rejection of the globalized worldview that has spread throughout the U.S., Europe, and rest of the world, in which everything is replicated and mass-produced with maximum profits the ultimate goal. There is a real push to return to local traditions and pride in the heritage of the region. To dispense with the mass-produced entertainment options of a globalized world, and return to simple walks along the boardwalk next to the coast, or encouraging children to ride on a small merry-go-round playing old tunes or sliding down a water slide next to the sea.


Local  Butcher Shop. Photo by: Denise Ames

The museum in Arles was allocated money for renovations by a wealthy resident. He stipulated that the curators highlight the local traditions, and insisted that the museum staff and guides wear the local and traditional dress of the area. Traditional music blared from the speakers as construction was getting underway. Even the local dialects of southern France were being preserved by the local museum and other venues. Boutique shops showcased local designers and their unique interpretation of traditional southern French dress for the modern shopper. It was exquisite!


Local Traditions. Photo by : Denise Ames

After witnessing the ostentatious lifestyle of the super-rich on the shores of Monte Carlo, it was a relief to see the small town atmosphere and pride in local traditions and customs coming alive in this lovely city. Since I am a big supporter of returning to local traditions and creating identities associated with local place, I was thrilled by what I was experiencing.

Could it be that the globalized worldview that has infiltrated every corner of the world with its mass-produced goods and services is experiencing a push-back to its dominance in some corners of the world? If we as global citizens are to counter the dehumanizing conformity of globalization and the concentration of wealth among a tiny elite, the efforts in Arles are inspiring and worth emulating.


Mode of Transportation. Photo by: Denise Ames

I am sure Arles, France is not alone in this experiment of making the local come alive once again, but it was wonderful to observe a localizing process in this lovely region of southern France. Perhaps, it has to do with the misty, magical quality of light in Arles that allows people to clearly see what is really important in their lives and to follow that light in shaping a more livable future.


Questions to Consider:

  1. What are the benefits of a local economy?
    2.  What are the drawbacks of a local economy?
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