2006November9 Café punditry

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I had coffee the other day with a friend. It was market day anyway. By long standing habit, usually in the company of Linda, on market day, coffee-making and the matinal visit to the bakery are suspended. On Wednesdays, the boulangerie in Fox is closed in any event, and one must go at least to Tavernes, the nearest town with a bakery, for croissants or whatever else may be in stock. Hence, café is served au café, and this day, as well, I have my first croissant, as a treat, for this entire trip.

My friend, who I shall call Renaud Petit, mainly for reasons of protecting myself, is someone I have known pre-dating the purchase of our house. Suffice it to say, he has a business in Aups and he was instrumental (though not the main instrument) in procuring our little corner of paradise. His office, which opens right off the street, is in one of the squares of Aups, shaded in its entirety by a tree overlooking a fountain. There is a small terrace bounded by a curb surrounding the fountain. Three streets, plus a barely passable alley, join in this square or place, which is named for a general of the first Napoleonic Empire, born in the town.

Opposite Renaud’s office is a small bistro, always open on market days. For the greater part of the year, including a warm fall like this one, tables and chairs spill into the street. They also occupy a portion of the terrace paved in stone across the intersection. These three streets and the place are very busy, especially so on market day. Foot traffic, trucks and cars and mobylettes, that is mopeds, motorcycles, and prams stream by at a steady if studied pace. Trucks park to deliver goods. Drivers park their cars for any number of reasons—to run into the Casino grocery, or the cafe or Maison Presse [newsstand], or sometimes, more exotically, the butcher or even the tiny store which sells digital cameras, flash memory, and mobile phones (and has always seemed incongruous to me, but I’m a romantic). As a result of these ad hoc stops, all traffic above the square frequently, but only intermittently, clogs and halts. If it were a pulse, we would call it a stoned-out pulse, only here no one is under the influence of anything, not at 11 o’clock on a lovely warm late Fall morning on market day.

Renaud has claimed one table in the bistro, that is outside the bistro, just within view and easy conversational distance of the patron within. He calls it his “annex,” and unless business matters of a certain kind, mainly appointments with clients, keep him behind his storefront desk, and weather permitting, and during office hours consisting of a posted five hours a day that he honors scrupulously, he sits there, cell phone on the table in front of him, as well as a dead soldier of an espresso cup.

Having done business in the town for over 20 years he has had an opportunity to make the acquaintance of a great many people. In the course of a market day, any number of them will pass and, like the men and women who invariably bear the honorary title of “mayor” of some equally small locale or neighborhood, he greets them, often with a jest or a bon mot. I have never sounded him out, but once, on his status. He admitted as we discussed the subject of nativeness that he, a Niçois, for all of his years in the town, was still considered an outsider. As for the quotidian bonhomie of the Aupsois passing through this particular place you would never know it.

Renaud is a big man, less stout than sturdy, though he has a pot belly, which seems out of keeping, given his swaggering walk and bulky muscled arms. He has grey hair worn in a small pony tail, and a generous salt-and-pepper beard. He is only five or six years older than I am, but somehow we relate as if I were of a generation to follow his. This is probably the lack of acculturation I suffer, obvious and notable to anyone else in what I nevertheless think of as my terroir. Renaud speaks almost no English, though he pretends to speak even less and to understand almost none at all. This is no ploy. He is on better ground in French, as he has a bluff and congenial nature and he has the Frenchman’s natural expectation that in his country you will speak his language, if for no other reason than his own mastery. He, like most French, adroitly, tactically, and always tactfully, corrects my worst gaffes. I cannot predict when he will offer a succinct correction, brief enough to make the point and keep the flow of conversation going.

We speak in French, and have had several occasions to make one another laugh. There is no greater sense of achievement for one as enthralled with language and its potentialities as I than to make another person laugh intentionally in his own language. Renaud, as you might suspect or intuit from my description so far, has drollness as a major factor in his slightly larger than life persona. I enjoy getting him to enter that realm of expansiveness that borders on the philosophical. He has offered me explanations of many things—simple, direct, common sense explanations of how things are, with the suggestion that they are as they should be.

The other day, we played each other a bit for straight men (though we are often content to sit in silence in each other’s presence; as often as not some copain, some buddy of his, however tenuously I may use this word, has sat down, and they have an animated conversation that sometimes I follow, and sometimes I catch only the gist). He has stopped long since introducing me as “my friend Howard, an American.”

The occasion for remarks may be unpredictable. This market day, as I entered the place, he caught my eye and rose to greet me, an open hand raised almost to his chin. “Un moment… j’arrive, j’arrive,” I said as I continued into the newsstand to get my daily “Var-Matin” (the largest daily in Provence, which I like to quote to American friends—like the “New York Times,” it is printed in regional editions, cut about as fine as the “Times” would if it had a Staten Island edition, as opposed, say, to a Yonkers edition) and the “International Herald-Tribune” if they weren’t sold out of the three copies they stock each day. I also entered the boulangerie just down the street for a banette (the size of a baguette, but with characteristic ends, drawn out to a point; they are indistinguishable for taste; though the ends of a banette get, predictably, very crunchy) and the aforementioned prize of a croissant. It was sufficiently late that they had already sold out of croissants au beurre. The latter are especially sinful, as the raised pâte feuilleté has an additional enrichment of butter, or so it seems. It is also possible that the  croissant nature, for which I had to settle, has no butter at all, but some other semi-solid fat. I don’t really know. Nature, of course, means “plain” in this context. And it’s a perfectly good croissant. The au beurre variety is unmistakable. No matter.

I joined Renaud, and we bussed one another on each cheek. We exchanged pleasantries. I drank my coffee, ate my croissant. I will now embark on the substance of our conversation. I will not make things difficult for you, or flatter myself by attempting to recreate the conversation in French—even if I presumed to remember it. His comments for me are always a triumph of substance, if not expressiveness, much more than elegance of language. He is a thinker, but not an intellectual.

He read from a booklet of classified advertising, distributed free and freely from flimsy metal stands around the town. He read from the real estate ads, and observed there were many properties for sale. I could tell he was warming up. He turned to the automobile section and eyed the pages randomly. He observed there were many cars for sale. I had an observation of my own and made it, hoping it would elicit a reaction.

I said I noticed that many of the ads were in fact placed by dealers. Bulls-eye! He commented that if one took any notice of car prices in France versus those of any other European country, there was a disparity. Take a car that sells for a hundred euros, in another country, any other country, it will be selling for 75. This proves, he said, that the French are thieves. Or, I said, it means that the consumer is ignorant. He conceded the point.

At this moment, having reached a quick impasse, Renaud focused his attention on the passing parade. Among those with whom he exchanges pleasantries or a bon mot, at least half of those he greets are women, and several walked by in each direction. He practically ignites in the presence of comely women, though he treats them all as if they were comely. One woman was cause enough for him to rise, greet her warmly, give air kisses, and have a brief conversation of no particular consequence. She was, to me, like so many women in this town of semi-retirement: attractive, beautifully made-up, casually well-dressed, and well-coiffed, in this case in a silvery hue.

I remarked to Renaud, once he seated himself, that he seemed to know every good-looking woman in Aups, the older ones, the young ones, and those in between. “Too thin,” he said, in response. She’s too thin, and he made a face. I immediately pictured a Renoir portrait in my mind. “Thin women live longer,” I said to him. “Thin women live longer, yes, but the nasty ones (femmes méchantes) live even longer. You know why?” I looked at him questioningly—as if I would presume to know—inquiringly.

Here, for the first time he became slightly tongue-tied. He explained it was because they reacted to all things in the same way and they got caught up, and this substance…, he simply could not come up with the word, filled them, energizing them, driving them on, and it was this substance, this… this extract… “Testosterone?” I suggested, “l’essence masculin.” “Yes! and there’s more. It gets in their cells…” “Adrénaline perhaps?” “That’s it. It pumps them up, it fills their cells with energy, the essence of life. It keeps them alive. Their meanness keeps them going.” I laughed enough to keep him going. But I had to leave. He had clearly shot his wad, as I saw he had settled back to look indolently at the classified ads. Then he arose, as I arose, and said something about going to work.

I had to leave because I was expecting a delivery of a new dishwasher that afternoon. He said, well, I’ll see you tomorrow, and I said, “Only perhaps. I leave in two days for the United States.” And he said, “Soon enough then. Tomorrow…”

Tomorrow is not soon enough.

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2006November06 Customer Disservice

Reading Time: 10 minutes

And speaking of stereotypes (well, I was, but you wouldn’t know it, as that essay hasn’t been posted yet), let us not deny, we Americans, the bulging sack we bear of images of our French brethren that are none too complimentary. With the onslaught of recrimination that ensued the French refusal to implicate themselves three years ago in our adventures in Iraq, that sack well nigh unto burst, with a renewal of invective, a revival of old stereotypes, and a passel of largely invented, if inventive, new ones built on somewhat twisted views of history, and utterly devoid of any true experience in the vicinity, never mind the company, of a living breathing French person.

All that being said, and my bona fides consisting chiefly of having lived among them for increasingly longer periods of time over what will soon be two decades, I will say, certain things are true.

I won’t indulge the more rabid appetites of my red-blooded countrymen who are ready to brand the French as inveterate cowards, and devour them whole. The propensities of the French, like that of Americans, to pick their fights and engage sometimes in the worst of fights for the worst of reasons are not material to this discussion.

Rather, it is more the perennial domestic behavior, the true nucleus of the national character of a people, if not a whole continent below a certain parallel (I’ll get to that by and by) that is under my scrutiny. It is the disposition of the French toward work and their fellow citizens that is my subject, and my thesis is, it’s true, the French national character is to be summed up non-verbally, as a shrug.

Let me instance you some for instances. I am here on a mainly administrative mission on this trip. The necessity for it and the compulsion was shared, if not inspired, by my beloved wife, who could not accompany me, and whom I miss terribly. I got on the plane somewhat reluctantly, much as I love it here short of comparison, but not of being exceeded, only because of my feelings for Linda, for the few paltry tasks that one must do as a homeowner anywhere. They all fall into the category of you gotta’ be there or it won’t get done.

We’ve owned our house here, it will be five years in February, long enough, and had enough work done—to the tune of many thousands of dollars, lest you think these are ordinary chores, better suited for Monsieur Bricolage [“do-it-yourself”]—to know the latter thought is a truth and a truism. You can count on an artisan, kind of a jack-of-all-tradesmen (who does a little electrical, a little plumbing, a little carpentry, a little masonry, etc.) to get work done unattended, and only with the promise of payment, even if you are an eighth of a world away, and incapable of supervision or scrutiny. It’s especially reassuring and there’s a stronger guarantee of completion if you are away for extended periods of time (that is, months, not mere weeks or days) with no stronger bond than a handshake and a farewell. But first, you must get the artisan to agree to begin, and accept a key to the premises.

We have had two excellent artisans work on our house, both at the recommendation of my dear friend Yann, who knows more about these things than I will ever know, including how to do the work himself if need be. The first of these excellent gentlemen is now off in some posh place, engaged in a two- or three-year process of renovating from roof to basement a magnificent ruin, purchased by some baron of industry or commerce here in France, who has the predicated patience, and the very deep pockets, necessary for such an enterprise.

The second is actually a transplanted Brit, who spent parts of his youth in Provence and speaks the lingo fluently, and now has lived here on a permanent basis for almost 20 years himself. He did a wonderful job tackling what turned out to be an arduous and dirty job of ripping up our rooftop terrace and making it waterproof (which the previous owner was only led to believe had been done by his favorite artisan). In the process the job got dirtier and more arduous because he discovered that a very short wall (thank goodness for short) separating the kitchen up there from the terrace, and also serving the very important perpetual mission of having a very large window installed in it, was rotten, in a word, and either had to be re-built or have a new wall built alongside it, like an intentional Siamese twin of masonry. We chose the more difficult and expensive recourse of ripping out the bad and building anew—on the verge of the rainy season in spring. That he managed it, without getting more than a few drops inside our property, endeared him to us further.

However, some smaller, less challenging, spit on your hands and leap into the fray, dare I say, picayune, projects remain. And these are not his meat, or his daube de boeuf. They are not even his pot au feu. And so he eludes us—easy enough to do by email. When I arrived here, I left a message on his mobile. Unanswered as yet. I sent another email. Rien.

Then I stopped in to say hi and chat with his wife, who owns a little boutique in a nearby market town, painting in the inimitable local provincial style—the main decorative motifs being floral, including native flowers and lavender, plus the equally inevitable olives and olive branches. The style is attractive, if you are well-to-do and have decided to bend your decor in this direction, and the work is professional, nay artistic. In short, she is an artisan in her own right. She always assumes a certain gentle, but steely-eyed, air of amusement, or, possibly, bemusement whenever I ask about her husband.

I asked if he was in the country, meaning the terroir, meaning anywhere within 250 kilometers. He likes to go on adventure expeditions. Our last trip here, this past summer, he assured us that after his kayaking trip somewhere near Kashmir, assuming he didn’t break anything or render himself permanently invalid, he would be ready to tackle our little projects—even with marching orders only from afar.

Having not heard from him, I gave him the benefit of being somewhere exotic and involving gear you buy from Eastern Mountain Sports or REI. But no. “He’s in his tower,” she informed me. Which I immediately understood to mean he had a chantier [work site] in operation, and it was located in a tower somewhere nearby. It’s possible he didn’t get his email, because their computers had been screwed up, sometimes she was getting his email (though she didn’t receive the one I had sent), etc. etc. And, they were about to leave briefly, until yesterday, which was Sunday. A visit to their college-age daughter, in university in the motherland of England.

Saved by circumstance for another five days! But I must track him down and pin him down. The wife offered no excuses, except to note that their son was getting more and more like him everyday, being at home at the moment doing homework, which would be due on his return (that would be today) and hence taking advantage of the holiday last Wednesday, the day I went into her shop, but which he should have done before this trip, etc. etc. I noted that hubby had gotten very French. She didn’t demur. Indeed, she observed that it seemed to be a quality that deepened with each passing day.

What one would expect, right? Situation normal, all Frenched up… The sort of thing you read about in those obnoxious fictions created by Peter Mayle, who re-ignited all the fuss among English-speakers for Provence, and raised property prices at a faster rate than anything else might have—except that his colorful, if lovable malingerers are always quintessentially French. And, in such a circumstance, one can always pretend incomprehension on both sides of the conversation. But my guy is British! It’s something in the air, in the earth, in the food and the wine. It gives me an idea for what I can tell Linda, when I have to report not exactly getting to everything we needed to get done here.

But wait!

I’m not done.

I ordered some items on-line to assist in implementing the expanding communications needs of the household (don’t scoff, dear reader, as you are a beneficiary; broadband has finally reached our tiny out-of-the-way community, and now we must outfit ourselves with new paraphernalia and gadgets to make the most productive use of the technology). I ordered from Amazon, whose long profitable arm has long since reached France and the rest of the European Union. I ordered the items delivered rapide, that is, by expedited means through the French equivalent of Express Mail from the U.S. Postal service.

I ordered the items on Wednesday, the holiday I referred to earlier (and, in part, the subject of another blog entry, stalled in the parturition, so to speak, and still not posted) and this meant, as they made clear, that they would not ship until Thursday, for delivery Friday, guaranteed, before 1pm.

It is at the moment, Monday, past noon, and they still ain’t here. Here’s what it says on the ChronoPost site, where they allow you to track your shipments:

lun 06/11/2006
07:22        TOULON CHRONOPOST
Envoi en cours de livraison       

sam 04/11/2006
05:29        TOULON CHRONOPOST
Envoi mis en instance le samedi au point de retrait       

sam 04/11/2006
05:29        TOULON CHRONOPOST
Tri agence d’arrivée effectuée       

ven 03/11/2006
01:31        ROISSY CHRONOPOST
Envoi ayant pris du retard pendant l’acheminement       

jeu 02/11/2006
18:36        ORLEANS CHRONOPOST
Tri agence de départ effectué       

jeu 02/11/2006
12:07        ORLEANS CHRONOPOST
Envoi prêt chez l’expéditeur

The package was prepared for shipment on the day it was supposed to leave at the shipper’s quarters, though it was, essentially, in the hands of the post office. That was at noon on Thursday. By 6:30 that evening it had been sorted. All this took place in Orleans, a city to the south of Paris.

On Friday, the day it was intended to arrive at my door, eleven-and-a-half hours before the promised latest time for deposit in my hands, it was at Roissy, the town in which a little airport called Charles De Gaulle is situated, in honor of the national hero of World War II and later (I know, I said I wouldn’t bring these matters up). For those of you not aware, Roissy is north of Paris. It can take an hour by car  to get there, as any of you do know knows, trying to get from Paris to your flight home. Having arrived there, the shipment was delayed (“having taken [part in] the routing backlog”). It’s the fault of the package.

Nevertheless, in only 28 hours it reached Toulon, which is a 70 minute flight away. However, it arrived on Saturday. Hence, the moment it arrived, or at least during the same minute, it being Saturday, the package was put in a holding area (a point de retrait, given the ambiguous and multi-purpose functionality of so much of the French language, could also be interpreted as a “retirement home” or, perhaps, the staging area for a retreat, but, as I said, I’m not going there…) The plain and simple fact is, although the mail is delivered on Saturday, the banks are open for business, and posting to accounts, on Saturday, all shops are open on Saturday, it’s Saturday, for God’s sake! You can’t expect an express delivery to be made on Saturday!

Then this morning, everybody woke, refreshed, renewed, and hungry for providing service, and at 7:22 this morning, my packages were en route from Toulon, and now they are in my hot and sweaty little hands, having arrived while I was writing this paean to the wry sensibilities of those who determine the French way of life—the very people who live it. Indeed, all the electrons making up the bits that form the bytes that constitute these less than sanguinary, but also less than sanguine, more than sarcastic, doubtless ungrateful, words will for the briefest of moments, briefer than the imagination of a native Frenchman can conceive of, pass through one of the marvelous high tech devices I procured with so much trial on my part, impatient American that I am, and so much imposture and mastery of indecipherable euphemism, such is only one facet of the genius of the French (none dare call it turning the obvious into pure bullshit).

By the way, another shipment, two audio CDs that are a lot cheaper here, even with the egregious value added tax, than in the U.S., where there is little call for the wonderful new music that is hard to categorize, sort of an amalgam of World music and cabaret, arrived in the mail this morning, before my express packages. I ordered those on Friday, and I relegated them for standard shipment, which is free. My express packages will also be free, as they didn’t deliver on time. But still. [One CD is the latest, but one, of my absolutely slap-down, Han Sho King Duck favorite French singing group, called Lo’Jo, whose music is indescribably wonderful, well, to me: check it out, http://tinyurl.com/y6pdap; try listening to anything, but in particular, try De Timbuktu à Essakane. or C’est la vie.]

I give. I admit it. I’m an American. I have to be taught a lesson once in awhile. A true Gallic lesson.

As a coda to this sad tale, let me tell you that, not having learned as of last Thursday the fate of my packages and their premature, if brief, retirement-to-be in a bonded warehouse belonging to the French government in Toulon, I foolishly ordered a really big item. It’s a new dishwasher, because our old one, the main unit, in the kitchen where I do all my cooking on the first floor (remember, there’s another kitchen, fully equipped, sort of for show, on the third floor, just next to the terrace; probably intended to make sure ice cubes are always at hand, and that the brandade de morue stays warm, and the lobster salad stays cold) has shit the bed, as we so impudently like to put it in the ‘hood. It overflows.

I bought the new one from Darty, which is kind of the Best Buy of France. They are all over the country, and they’ve got the Web thing sewn up tight. I hope. They deliver on Wednesday afternoon in their own trucks, and cart the old clunker away, for free. So they say.

Supposedly, it is the behavior I describe, in the land of farniente, and bordered to the southeast by Italy, and to the southwest by Spain, if one should not say the whole of the Iberian peninsula, lands where the concept of tomorrow takes on eternal proportions, that makes France an innately Latin country. It’s certainly hard to tell otherwise down here in Provence, but let me remind you, all of France is warmed by the Gulf Stream. And we excuse it in Italy and Spain somehow, because, well it’s warm and soft and dreamy, and you can’t count on either of these countries for anything when it comes to a good honest fight. But the French! The French! Our bankers in the Revolution (never mind that it bankrupted the country and the king, and was the proximate cause of their own Revolution)! Lafayette! Montcalm and Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham!

Baloney. Or should I say, saucisson! Sit down my dear, have another glass of rosé, and try the brandade de morue, it’s fresh and warm.

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2006November02 Coming out and shutting down for the dead

Reading Time: 6 minutes

[Fox-Amphoux, Var, Provence] One of the implacable, albeit stereotypical, facts about France is that it is an overwhelmingly Catholic country that is also consummately irreligious. Almost no one goes to church with any regularity, and the hand-wringing, to which not too many people pay attention, sounds unremarkably like the hand-wringing that garners more attention from, say, American-Jewry. In the latter case it is especially the rabbinate that wrings its hands as it wonders at the modern propensity of largely assimilated young Jews to marry out of their faith.

Such is not the problem in France. If I recall seeing the percentage accurately, something like 88% of the country is Catholic, or so identify themselves as of not too many years ago. So when young Jacques marries young Marianne, no parental feathers get ruffled about the perils of mixed marriage. Of course, even if they weren’t both Catholics, there’s little likelihood of remorse. Scratch a Frenchman or woman, and you will find some taint of another religion or ethnicity under there somewhere. But in the main, the French wear their religion as easily as their skin.

The purest of the pure Gallic French are small in number. Mixing it all up is Celto-Ligurian-Greco-Romano-Teutonic-Nordic-Anglo-Saxon inter-breeding over two millennia. For all that, and perhaps because most of the world surrounding France—not to mention occupying it—about the time that the Moors and other elements of the Caliphate left the Iberian peninsula was Catholic one way or another, France is Catholic, whatever the purity of the stock.

Around here, in the lofty reaches of the central Provencal department of the Var, there are many Italian surnames to be encountered. This sort of clinches the deal. My personal theory is that the reason name after name on the headstones and tombs of the permanent inhabitants of the cemetery just down the hill end in vowels (as we say in the ‘States) is that some time in the late fourteenth century the black plague decimated town after town. Those towns and villages that didn’t die off altogether were abandoned.

A slightly complicated set of political alliances resulted in Nice and a significant part of the Var (essentially most of the land between the river of that name, west of Nice, and the Rhône River as it courses its way more or less southwesterly, into the Mediterranean) becoming the property of the House of Savoie. In league with the Duke of Anjou and the Count of Nice, that august state (now, itself, also a part of France) repopulated with the good citizens of Liguria the towns and villages ravaged by pestilence. Liguria was, and still is, Italian. Indeed, where the present French Riviera ends and the Italian one begins is Liguria. If we can thank them for nothing else—aside from my thanking them for repopulating this part of Provence—we can thank the Ligurians for pesto. However, there is so much more for which they are responsible, and someday, someday, my friends, I will tell you about it.

Whatever their roots, here and elsewhere in France, the people of this great nation remain mindful of their spiritual inheritance. They honor it largely in the breach of course, until it comes to that great invention, le jour ferié. It’s what the British call a bank holiday, and everyone else, including us, calls a national holiday, that is, when banks, the stock market, and hence, most businesses, are closed. The United States, despite all appearances, not being a particularly deterministic society, has, as one would expect from a country where CEO salaries are a multiple by several hundred times of the lowest salaried worker, and productivity is unequalled, and two weeks vacation is standard, very few national holidays that close the banks. The French, who are smarter than we think, and had a very smart scientist, named Laplace (Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace, who, despite the marquis title, lived from 1749 to 1827, in short, he beat the Revolution…) who believed that if you could account for every atom in the universe you could pretty well predict everything that was going to happen—in short, a guy who was just waiting for computers to happen—have a lot of jours feriés. And funny thing, a damn lot of them correspond to, well, the Christian—let me be more specific, the Catholic—calendar.

After years and years of arriving here late in May for an all too brief two weeks of the most glorious weather anywhere, never mind that of one of the most enduringly beautiful places on the face of the planet, I wondered for awhile, being innately stupid and unobservant, why we always seemed to arrive on a three day weekend, when everything was closed. Turns out, there’s this little phenomenon called Pentecost (you could look it up—lunar calendars, Easter, all that stuff…) and it’s, well, it’s a national holiday in France.

Which brings me, among all the other subtly crypto religious jours feriés, to the one I essentially just discovered, called, in common parlance, “the day of the dead.” That is, it’s the Jour des mortes, and it occurs on the day after the one we know as All Hallow’s Eve, or All Saint’s Day, or, dadgummit, it’s called Hallowe’en for chrissake. The French close their banks, their stores, their supermarkets, they close everything but the emergency room, on the day after Hallowe’en… And we think they’re craven and irresponsible, smug, self-satisfied, and contemptuous.

Think about it while you’re workin’ a Hershey’s miniatures gastric hangover with extra-strength Pepto-Bismol.

So the French have figured out how to take a lot of holidays. And when they don’t take holidays they’ve figured out how to provide minimal service short of dysfunction (see my next blog entry, “Customer Disservice,” which actually was posted before this one; why? jour ferié. I’m union.).

Lest I give you the wrong impression, let me add this very important set of observations.

Just like the high holiday Jews who show up at synagog on the high holidays, and primp in their high-price ticket seats, the only time they will appear in a place of worship, there is a certain reflexive response from the media (who else) when it comes to All Saints’ Day. They send photographers to the cemeteries and take photos of the lugubrious assemblages of entirely sincere people who gather to honor the dead. It’s become, apparently, prelude to observance of that day, a little later this month, that used to be called Armistice Day and is now Veterans’ Day (no doubt, just to make sure that veterans of the First World War, most of whom we should remember are dead at this point, don’t gain some kind of memorial hegemony). A lot of veterans’ groups and town officials gather in the local cemetery and lay a wreath. The local paper the next day is filled with snaps of this sort, from one town to small village to another.

In the local daily for the Var, and a major Provence news vehicle, the lead story on the Day of the Dead concerned the rapidly increasing cost of burial, thereby making this day a matter of mercantile greed. It’s a valid issue, but the Day of the Dead isn’t official burial day. It’s a day to remember the departed. That’s what the French call them, les disparus (which immediately conjures up for the Anglophile with peculiar cognate propensities the spectre of the “disappeared,” and there is a weary, yet disquieting sense of death as a disappearing act).

I was told by our lovely vivacious neighbor, Paule—whose appearance and liveliness vastly belies her apparent years—that one couple in particular (she pointed out their car, parked near the cemetery of the village) appears every week at the cemetery, yet every day of the week leading up to the Jour des Mortes, to honor their daughter, who died in her 20s in an automobile accident. This occurred four years ago. Who am I to say, let it go, already?

During the days before le Jour des Mortes there is indeed, on a country-wide basis apparently, a significant increase of such visits. As it turned out, there was no let up, even after last Wednesday, on which the day in question fell this year. There is no sign of lugubriousness about any of this activity. No sign of obsessive preoccupation. There are few signs of grief, unless, of course, the departed departed fairly recently.

For some, in short, the Day of the Dead is an honest and solemn institution. The chapel, which lies mere meters from my front door, showed signs of increased activity the day before. A squadron of locals, vaguely familiar, but no faces I could identify for sure, appeared in the village, disappeared into the chapel, and for about 15 minutes there was the sound of benches and other furniture being moved about, let us say, by force, mainly scraping the 13th century stone floors.

The next day, le parking at the foot of the village filled with cars. And the inhabitants thereof, in turn, filled the chapel. There was no joking, no vainglory, no kibbitz, no grand gestures of greeting and kissing of the cheeks. Just a stream of middle class, mainly middle aged people who showed up to do what they gotta’ do.

Now, there are officially 380 inhabitants of the town of Fox-Amphoux, including our little village. And I can assure you, there were not 380 people in that chapel, nowhere nearly. Whatever the number, no doubt it was a fraction. Probably it was a fraction greater than the fraction reported to the census as “devout” from among the 80-odd percent of Catholics in this nation, yet significantly less by a very long shot, of the 80-odd.

And it is, of course, for them that the banks and the stores and the supermarkets and just about everything else (though Wednesday is a market day, and we did have a market…) is closed on le Jour des Mortes. And who are we to say that they don’t deserve the holiday, even as much as the price to be paid is the mindless exploitation the rest of us engineer on a day that our thoughts about the departed, or anything else of any spiritual significance, may take a back seat to thoughts typical of just another day off? And don’t we deserve it anyway?

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