2006July31 A small visitor

Reading Time: 12 minutes

[no animals were harmed in the making of this blog entry]

I’ll try to make this quick, because it’s a little late, and I have other things to do before I go to sleep.

The walls are famously thick of the houses here in the village. The rule of thumb and usual reference is three feet. It’s not quite that, but probably at the base of the house it’s close to that. They are, indeed, masonry walls, and mainly on the periphery walls of stone, either as rubble within the wall or as large stones carefully fitted to one another.

As a result the windows are projections, and our pretty much modern windows, all of them casements opening inward, are set midway in the opening. Hence the sills are deep, and form a shelf in every window. These are commonly tiled. They are in our house. On the outside, to cover the window opening are shutters, which open outward, and these, like the windows, are either split “French-style,” that is there are two hinged shutters meeting in the middle, or there is a single shutter, hinged on one side or the other.

With the shutters closed, the house is quite dark within.

The front of the house, which constitutes one of only two walls with access to the out of doors, faces west. The other outer wall faces south. We sit, in short, on a corner, and our other inner walls are party to our neighbors: one to the north, and another “behind” us, to the east.

The result of this aspect and configuration is that the front of the house is in shadow until well past noon, but we see the sunny opposite side of the place almost as soon as the sun rises in the morning. The houses are sufficiently high opposite us, and slightly elevated relative to our position that we don’t get that much direct sun. So the inside of the house, on the first two floors, anyway, stays moderately cool and livable, even in the worst of the dog days, which have, incidentally, returned after a respite following a clamorous thunderstorm of two hours duration a few days ago.

The top floor where I toil away, entertaining you sporadically, is just under the roof, and there is no insulation, and it gets warm, unless we keep the air moving, which we do. My fingers move very quickly across the keyboard setting up a slight breeze. That and the four foot circular fan I described a few entries back make all the difference.

The house has no screens. Most houses don’t. On the plain, it’s a problem, because of the flies. Up here in the village the flies are less of a problem, and there are few mosquitoes, if any.

As for other insectivora there are plenty of critters, of every conceivable type. In particular there are wasps and hornets, though I’m hard put to tell the difference. One of them has wings that jut straight out, like a spy plane, and the other has wings that sit at an angle, sort of swept-wing, like fighter planes. It doesn’t much matter, as they don’t bother anyone most of the time, unless you’re eating, and they don’t usually get into the house. The eating thing is a problem only when we entertain out on the terrace on the roof.

On the third floor, the only windows that open are in front, as per the rest of the house, and facing south, again normale, but in the kitchen up here, and so around a jog in the wall, because of the doorway into the kitchen. there is also a unique fixed window, that is, it can’t be opened, but it looks out on the terrace and faces east, so there is mucho sun up here in the morning, starting at sunrise.

We leave the French double casement windows open in front on this floor. Hence there is a slow, but steady stream of either wasps or hornets—these particular beasts are on the small side and have the delta wing design. They fly to the fixed window. I would too. It looks like the way out again. But of course it isn’t. Poor things. And so they loiter, buzzing around the window, up and down, side to side. At night, once a crowd has accumulated—about the third day we had been here—they bunch up at the top of the window, as if keeping one another warm, not that it gets that cool up here. But there is a community thing happening. They’re in a bunch right now, a tight bunch, right in the corner, out of reach—though the last thing I would think of doing is reaching for them.This has been going on for almost two weeks now. Every morning, I come up here to check the mail that arrived overnight: and say, folks, the mail has been slim in this direction. You know who you are.

Every morning I expect to find a little pile of hornet or wasp corpses on the sill. But nothing. They’re keeping alive somehow. The size of the bunch has stabilized so maybe they’re eating each other, or maybe a few of them have an extra brain cell or two and they are finding their way back to the open window, or are feeling adventurous and going around the corner into the kitchen, where there’s about one and-a-half square meters of wide open window (that’s about 15 square feet for you culture-centric or math-challenged).

Anyway, that’s the wasp and hornet story. There’s a bunch of other singular specimens of a variety of species, very much smaller, except the moths, and they flit around, not bothering me or anybody else. And that’s pretty much their story.

On the floors, especially in corners in the dark, we find corpses, speaking of corpses, of beetles and tiny critters that look exactly like scorpions, but they are only related and don’t pack quite the same wallop. They’re about an inch and-a-quarter long, and their stingers rise maybe three-eighths of an inch above them. They move kind of slowly, and we’ve mainly seen dead ones. Nevertheless we check our shoes before we put them on. I do and Linda is supposed to. So far no stings. Nevertheless, they like dark tight spaces. And I guess they either have no olfactory development worth speaking of, or they like the smell of feet. And that’s the little scorpion-not-really story.

I mentioned the cicadas, cigales in French, and one of the symbols of Provence. There is at least one restaurant called Les Cigales for, I’d say, every 10,000 people who live in Provence. Our favorite Les Cigales, though we’ve hardly been to all of them (would make a nice project though) is in Aix. Their pizza is particularly good, and they have a nice terrace on the street.

The cicadas have been active and voluble of late, because of the heat, as I said.

One evening last week, a cicada landed on Linda’s shoulder while we were out eating at a restaurant in Aups, called La Provencale (not very good, and our waitress was trop attitude, so you won’t be hearing much about that place, much as I have a masterly way with a complaint or a disparaging word, but this was, except for the cicada, just beyond the pale and not worth my typing about). Anyway, this monster lands on her shoulder, and scares the crap, but only for a moment, out of Linda, who then did not know what to do.

I sat next to her, so I had the best view. It was a beautiful thing, a sort of matte medium gray, warmish in tone, and almost monochromatic. There was a couple of little kids at the table next to us, Irish as it happened, so I thought it would be easy to attract their attention without groping for French. But they didn’t take much interest. Though Grandpa did, and he remarked on the size of it. I had mistaken them for Americans, so I said it was a Texas cicada, and he allowed as it probably was, in quite a brogue, which immediately disabused me of their origins. Linda was getting tired of not moving a muscle, and I guess the little creature also was getting bored because in one leap or short flight it landed on a roost about five feet away, and we lost him. Perfect camouflage.

I like moments like that. These creatures are truly beautiful, and, though not privy to Linda’s fantasies as she sat there, at first unknowing, and then terrified—the thing was about four inches long and they are all legs and wings, folded back in a characteristic aerodynamic foil, even at rest—I myself wished for another encounter. In the end they are not harmful, or so I gather.

And that was that for cigales, or at least the larger species of insect beasts, until today.

Last night, as I leaned out the front window of the salon on the ground floor, I noticed Nicole, the innkeeper and our good friend in the doorway of the inn, returning from watering their plants on the facade. I noticed that the kitchen was dark and the kitchen door closed, though usually wide open, with the bug zapper and its eery blue light visible across the way, even with all the lights on in there. This meant their cook was, once again, hors de combat.

Nicole and Rudolf’s trials with kitchen staff would make a book, but I won’t get into that. I just knew, as I leaned on the tiles of the sill, which is about 28 inches above the floor (and yet, on the other side, the outside of our place, the bottom of the window is practically level with the street—but I’ll explain the significance of that in a moment), that Nicole was probably fit to be tied. With the cook out, the restaurant could not serve dinner even to the guests of the Inn who didn’t fell like driving the few miles to the nearest eatery, in any one of several towns surrounding us.

She usually notices everything going on within eyesight, but such was her reverie and preoccupation that I had to call, “Nicole” before she took notice, just as she was going to disappear inside. In effect, I said what gives and she told me he was calling in “sick” again. I said, well then come in and have a glass of wine, an invitation she rarely refuses if it’s possible to take it up.

I was in the midst of making dinner, and she came in and joined us, for just one glass of wine. We killed the entire bottle with her, and she also had dinner, as she couldn’t remember if she had even eaten (this cook business is very upsetting). She insisted she would replace the bottle—a rosé from the Chateau La Curniéres, which is in neighboring Tavernes, and a very good value: I bought half a case for 27 euros just that afternoon, and it’s a wine featured at the Inn (for 22 euros a bottle, and quite a value at that). We insisted she wouldn’t. Finally we bid one another good night and I locked up.

This morning, after looking through my sparse pickings in the email department (see above: inadequate communications from friends) I headed downstairs, and passing through the salon sensed more than noticed that something was amiss.

The window in there, as I say, faces the place with a sill about two and-a-half feet above the floor and about four or five inches above the pavement which comes right up to the stone wall of the facade of our house. The entire first floor of our house is below grade, with the kitchen floor down a deep step further. This means mainly that outside the house at least, the grade has been raised a number of times, I’d guess since our house was built. The town was established in the 12th century, probably late in that period. We are told our house is either 14th or 15th century in origin. That’s a long time to be putting layer on layer.

The chief deficit of this is, with stone walls, and a floor inside closer to the water table and below the grade outdoors, the walls wick moisture out of the ground and that moisture stays insulated by about two feet of earth and stone. Hence we have a perpetual decaying of the inside plaster on the front wall. We’ll suffer, thanks.

Window treatments in southern France are represented in a narrow band of interpretations. There’s your lace window curtains. There’s your lined drapes. There’s your wooden-beaded curtains—popular in doorways and windows down on the plain: they admit light and aren’t a barrier to humans and pets, but they keep out flies. There are some other treatments even less attractive to us than these. For four years now, and longer, we’ve had naked windows, though you’d never know it from outside, which is what counts, with the shutters closed. They mainly are closed, we’re so seldom here of late.

But you gotta’ have window treatments. The compulsion is Linda’s, and I don’t disagree. I’m just your usual persnickety picky mate, as I am with more or less everything else, and not just any treatment will do.

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We both agreed that a nice, plain, sort of gauzy see-through kind of curtain would do. For the salon, we found a nice piece of gauze they would use up in about three minutes at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, for a mere 150 bucks for this flimsy bit of, well, I can’t even call it cloth. About seven feet long, and about five feet wide, with ties attached at the top to go round a curtain rod. It took us six months to get it hemmed, possibly in the ‘States, flying it back and forth with us, because who knows a good seamstress in Fox-Amphoux? But I’m not sure of these details.

It does lend a nice dreamy romantic quality during the day to the light coming into the room. And you can’t really see in, because we don’t have lights on, certainly none brighter than the blazing sunlight. And, remarkably, no one looks into other people’s windows over here. At least not while I’m watching, sometimes deep in the shadows of the salon.

So this morning I detected something different about the room, and I looked around quickly and noticed the curtain was disturbed—pushed aside slightly—and there, sitting on the sill, was a bottle of Chateau La Curniéres Rosé 2004. Magic. I went over to retrieve it, and as I straightened the curtain on the rod, noticed a slight movement above my head.

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A very large bug, with very big legs, what I originally thought might be a cigale (but have been told, by Pascal Masi, is not possible with such legs—more likely a grasshopper or locust, or maybe a cricket; all are related) was sitting there on the rod, and he suddenly leaped to the floor. I spotted him, not moving, and I ran into the kitchen, grabbed a colander, ran back, and threw it over him. I went up to the third floor and grabbed a sheaf of ink-jet paper to slip beneath the colander, retrieved my camera, and went back to the salon. I switched lenses, slid the paper under the colander, lifted the whole deal off the floor and put it on a table, raised the colander. Nothing. Gone. Vanished.

Actually he was clinging to the inner surface of the colander, and I gingerly coaxed him onto the paper, and then somehow onto the outside of the colander. Tough to shoot. Very small, maybe three inches long, and all tension. No way to tell when and in what direction he would spring. I grabbed a couple of shots, and then brought him to the open window, and he immediately jumped to the ground, a distance of maybe eight inches, thanks to the raised surface of the road. I took one more picture.

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This last one was sort of mano à bêto I stared at him, and I know he was scrutinizing me. Big eyes, taking in everything. The rest of him blended beautifully with the leafy detritus on the ground outside our ill-kempt street front. I know what you’re thinking. What’s with all the brown leaves and junk? It’s summer. Well, they’ve probably been there since our last visit, in January. What I want to know is, how does he know, blending in perfectly, when you come right down to it?

This is wholly beside the point. What struck me is the way he studied me. I know he was memorizing every feature: the beard, the glasses, the wild white hair, the slight skin condition. The next time we meet, I know one of us will be ready, and it won’t be me.

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2006July30 All the marbles

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I really thought the weather had had its back broken with a monumental thunderstorm as they can only have in Provence—the conditions are ripe for big forest fires and big storms, they seem to go hand in hand, but never in such a way that the latter can absolutely prevent the former. It was beautiful yesterday. And the first third of the daytime and the evening hours are lovely in any event.

But the heat is back, and it means that mid-day is killer.

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We went on a little excursion today. Linda wanted to go someplace we hadn’t been. So we stopped for coffee and croissants (it’s Sunday, so we had pain au chocolat) in Aups, and then stopped on the road to Tourtour to check out a personal “museum” kept by a woman sculptor in the midst of acres and acres and acres of garrigue (an essentially untranslatable word, peculiar to Provence, like maquis, but differentiated because of the combination of flora that characterizes either of these kinds of hilly shrub lands—very rough country—the garrigue has an abundance of aromatic shrubs: lavender, rosemary, and Artemisia), with her little sculpture park at the end of almost a mile of dirt road, which has been paved over with raw concrete in places because, it’s obvious, it would be impassable otherwise, especially in the rain.

Her name is Faykod (last name—the rest of it is Maria-Zsuzsa de… born in Hungary, of a Swedish father and an “Austro-Hungarian” mother; I love this kind of detail, straight from the official biography—let’s see, the last of Austro-Hungary, you remember?, the Empire that whipped the crap out of the French in the 70s, the 1870s, was pretty much last seen not long after their swan-song as a great political entity, and that would be right after the WWI, when the Allies said, “thanks for the memories and auf wiedersehen”) and she has done some very strange stuff, I mean aside from keeping alive in this small way what had been a great empire, in a galaxy far far away.

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Working almost exclusively in white Carrara marble (the finest stuff—the stone that Michelangelo used), she sculpts mostly figurative pieces. A great many are clearly allegorical. Many female nudes. And then, in the middle of things like a draped corpse, life-size, that represents the Resurrection, there’s a "Head of Diana" only it is not merely the goddess, but it’s Princess Di, with a clenched-tooth smile and small round earrings. A life size figure of Mozart, with his fingers melting into a keyboard from his left hand, and a violin from his right.

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Dozens of pieces in a little arid park, filled with trees, very dry lonely kind of trees, and a fountain, with a bronze female nude in the middle of it. If you keep walking along the dirt road that snakes through the property (which has a wrought iron portail guarding the entrance to the fenced in portion of her land), and a little ticket takers booth (it was free today, but ordinarily it’s six euros) you reach her studio, with the manicured lawn festooned with huge blocks of marble, and guarded by a ferocious bichon frise, which is a dog about the size of both your fists and the color of raw Carrara marble.

She emerged herself from the back of a low very modern building and said hello and urged me into the studio proper, which had a lot of small pieces and some beautiful, very pricey furniture (ditto in the living portion, which I could spy through an open door). She resembles her portrait on the Website (http://www.musee-de-faykod.com/), but only sufficiently that you wouldn’t mistake her at a cocktail party. Her portrait shows her in a kind of Byronic pose, wearing an outfit that I could imagine Byron might look upon as pajamas. I think it’s the Mittel-Europa idea of Romantic chic. The Website is a little cagey about her age, though it’s clear she was finished with her earliest education, graduating from the Sorbonne in 1978. Which puts her in the neighborhood of 50. And a still handsome neighborhood it is. She is trim and lithe, and who wouldn’t be muscling huge hunks of expensive rock around?

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Also, her tools are serious, as you can see from the photograph I shot in her atelier. She pointed me to it,  after describing some pieces she was in the midst of and then sort of disappeared.

She had showed me a huge crucified Christ she’s working on, and there were a number of other religious themed pieces strewn about the place, in various stages of emerging from the rock. On the handout it said she has a Christ in black marble that was commissioned by the Vatican Museum.

There’s also a huge swimming pool on the property, very fancy, with a glassed in covering, very much like a nursery hothouse, and clearly meant to allow swimming year round.

Of the little pieces, the few we could come close to actually putting in a living space we could afford to live in were some very small bronze nudes, female, about a foot long in various states of prostration or writhing. These were 8,000 euros. Each. So I would imagine she is, indeed, doing OK and can afford the land, the gate, the fence around the sculpture garden and studio, which must encompass about 20 or 30 acres. This Musée Faykod has been a local feature for ten years, as of this year. That was how I knew about the free admission—it was mentioned in today’s paper. I do recall when I first came here in 1988 there was a gallery right in the town of Aups by the same name—this museum to herself is about three miles out of town. The gallery, it turns out, closed that same year, and I assume she needed eight years to re-group and accumulate the gelt to go really big time.

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In the end, she is quite prolific and eclectic in her subjects, which range from many Christs, in many aspects of his life, but particularly popular are crucifixions (one of which was the one commissioned by and now residing in The Vatican) to, well, there’s no other word for it but, celebrities. For example, there’s a full figure (in every sense of the word) statue of Marilyn Monroe, commissioned for use by the Cannes Film Festival, but now standing, with a hip cocked in her sculpture park, an image more or less crafted of MM in the ’62 era Madison Square Garden "Happy Birthday Mr. President" period of the movie goddess’s tragically short life—you remember, she wore a gauzy gold dress that fit so well she might as well not have bothered with it.

Maybe there’s a minor theme detectable in that both Marilyn and Diana died at the same age. And there’s an irony my mother would have immediately detected in that that age was 36, or, in Yiddish and Hebrew "double chai" or double "life," because 18 in Hebrew characters also spells the word, "life." Maybe if they’d been Jewish. But then, who knows what Ms. Austro-Hungary would have done with them.

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2006July29 Se Coucher [to go to bed/lie down]

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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Montpellier, in the Hérault. The caption on the advert says: "Lesson #13: Unveil to him his line of opportunity" [click on the image for larger view]


"What they [the French] were still good at were the arts of intimacy. Eats still rated high…In every other quartier, the fresh produce markets, the good bakeries, the charcuterie with its cold cuts. Also the great displays of intimate garments. The shameless love of fine bedding…It was wonderful to be so public about the private, about the living creature and its needs. Slick magazines in New York imitated this but never got it right…Yes, and then there was the French street life. "American residential streets are humanly nine-tenths barren. Here humankind is still acting up," said Ravelstein.
Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
[acknowledgement and thanks to Rick Cohn for sending this quote along]


There is a feature of every provincial market (that is, the out regions, where we are, where the locals depend on market day, the one day a week, or two, when presumably fresher and better, and more local, goods are for sale, and they get to see their friends face to face and chew the fat, have an expresso, or something a little stronger, and immerse themselves fully in the culture — Ravelstein was talking about Paris, his French bailiwick, where it’s an everyday occurrence; the biggest cities in the south also have a market day every day, purely a matter of, well, marketing). It would make for a good short subject, or, I suppose, in my hands, a good long discourse. Ravelstein alludes to this feature in "shameless love of fine bedding." He’s probably talking high thread count Egyptian cotton or even linen bed clothing.

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In the markets around here, summer and winter, at least one stall is taken up with beds. Mainly mattresses and box springs, or all in one units. Many are attended to by women, and, being French, more often than not, comely women. The other day, in Aups, one of them, one of these femmes des literies [women of bedding; I simply will not say "bedding women"] held a small crowd, mainly of men, transfixed, as she bulled a mattress, which she picked up two handed and hoisted off the ground, to another location in her stall. To paraphrase a great line from "Damn Yankees," — many minds on a single thought.

Ravelstein [read: Bellow] speaks of the "arts of intimacy." To me, rather, it is a matter of the arts of culture and society, and a much finer tuning of the ensemble as they play much more appealing melodies of the quotidian — a very much different experience than that in the United States. And on that, clearly, we both agree.

I’d expect Bellow to take the thread up that he does here, and weave it into this transfixing, compressed, yet poetic social commentary. He was a sensual man, and, fathering a child in his 80s, obviously, like another great artist, a Spaniard who transplanted himself to another Catholic country that was far less repressed in that regard—Picasso, I mean—he was fortunate to be highly sexed and able to do something about it until several years near the end.

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2006July27 Mid-Summer Night, More or Less

Reading Time: 20 minutes

Our dear friend Mikki Lipsey, actor extraordinaire, is in repertory in two Shakespeare plays in a new Shakespeare company (if you’re in northern New England, near Waterville Valley, you should try and catch either or both shows… they’re very well credited and reviewed: http://www.shakespeareinthevalley.com/). She’s cast as Leonata in Much Ado about Nothing, and Peter Quince in Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. It’s the latter that got me to thinking. When exactly is mid-summer night?

I learned, to my surprise, that mid-summer eve, according to old folk calendars, including the Celtic, actually falls on what has always been the fixed date that we know as the summer solstice—the zenith of the sun’s path with respect to earth and the length of the daylight hours. That’s June 23, always. Though we of course, have a variable date, because we’re scientists, not old folk.

If we were old folk, summer would begin on May 1, or May Day, and end on August 1, also known as Lamas Day. Hence mid-summer, with a certain logic as well, as the height of summer should be the day that the sun shines longest, falls on June 23, also known as St. John’s Day. Hence it’s somewhat past.

This would be a hard lesson to deliver to the old folk around the village.

We’re contending, as I’ve made much of, with the days of la Canicule, dog days, and it is hard to believe that summer would end, as it did in the old days, just four days from now. I had been hoping that somehow, mathematically, mid-summer night or eve, was about to fall—I assumed about 45 days after the solstice, which would make it the day we leave the village to return to the U.S. Not to be, but a thesis forms itself.

Let us say that mid-summer is not the height, or the middle, or anything of the sort, but is the very thesis of summer, its paradigm, if you will. Even after only ten days here (and an aggregate of a great many more days than that, but never in the past during la Canicule, a set of factors that adds a certain sweaty frisson to the concept) it is clear that any one day is much like the next or the one before, here in the Haut Var, in this little village—I am told like so many other little villages—and inhabited largely by people who either see the world, not with sameness, but with a continuity, or see "thw world" as a place far away from here, where other people occupy themselves with things like dates and times, temperature variations.

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In fact, it is inhabited mainly by very old people, people who have seen the world, and had their share of clocks and timers, and shared and imbibed in many a feast, both of the moveable sort, and now, of the sort that has a certain timeless quality, still with rich portions, and the wine has reached its peak. This is not to say the sun neither rises nor sets for the village, and for its constituency of elders, statesmen of their sort and venerable women, who keep history in their heads.

Almost every evening there is a beautiful sunset just beyond Mont Ste.-Victoire in the distance, shrouded as it may be in haze or smog, or whatever its particular constituents. When we drove to Aix-en-Provence two days ago, we saw one of those roadway warnings the newspaper told us about [see my earlier posting] just as we exited the autoroute. “Pollution warning—speed limit 100kph.” But that trip will have to wait for another entry. The sun is a disk over the horizon, an orange almost scarlet in intensity, suffused, tranquil, supernal. The mood lasts even after the sun has set behind distant hills, and the light doesn’t so much disappear as mellow out to dusk, and then about 10:30 it is dark for certain. The sky clears completely and the milky way and likely a million other stars, much closer, are visible.

However, before that happens and in a metaphor, I think, for what we all dream will be the very very slow transfiguration of our lives into mild decrepitude, if not senescence, the day takes its good old sweet time ending. On a recent afternoon/evening, with the sun still high, the same afternoon I began this post two days ago (a note for those of you imagining I am chained to the bistro table in the attic) I decided to take a stroll around the village. I did, and I promptly strolled again, this time with my camera, as—and this has happened too many times—there was many a picture I spotted on what amounts to my scouting mission.

Every time this tiny village leaves me with the sense that I have mined every conceivable image—I say this with no prejudice; this is my village and my images: some of them to some of you hackneyed and stereotypical, to others the occasion of gushing, as the world so often does, over images possibly so trite and hackneyed and, well, stereotypical, that one may only conclude that some of us have the gene, and some of us simply hate sentimentality—I discover that the changes a day brings, or a month or a season are worth recording. And, much as we have not been here year-round, there are many such instances. We have never been here this late in July, and never at all in August. So I live to shoot again.

The great photographer Eduard Steichen—one of the greats of all time and one of the greats in photo history, as one of the dons of early and mid-20th century photography, and he who captured some of the seminal images of American photography (if we must make such distinctions)—spent a great part of the ending 20 years of his long life regularly shooting photos, morning noon and night, in every season, of a favorite shadblow tree on his property in Connecticut. This gives me permission to believe, if it does not, in itself, mute the prejudices of you out there who thinks that “seen one, seen them all.” I am beginning to think that the same phenomenon may obtain, if not everywhere, then at least in our village.

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Just down the descent into the lower square, or place, largely indistinguishable from the upper square, or place, where we are located (across from the chapel and the Inn next door to it), a boisterous crowd is having their end-of-day match of pétanque. Pétanque is the Provençal version of boules, or “bowls,” of which another variant is the Italian bocci. We Americans have bowling, of course, dating back at least to to the time in Washington Irving’s immortalization of the legend of Dutch spirits playing “bowls” in the Kaatskil Mountains in upstate New York, and thereby explaining the local phenomenon of thunder in the hills, with no ensuing rain.

There is thunder here too, but largely ignored, and largely subsumed, as the match progresses, by the manly basso guffaws, and the more shrill squeals of the women and the few older children participating, as the lead see-saws among the hurlers to the latest one, who jigs in triumph. I asked Jean-Jacques, our beloved neighbor, a retired businessman, and former global salesman of French molded rubber goods, such as shoe soles and the like, if this was the training for équipe Fox—the very local Juventus, or Manchester Union. And he chuckled, and said, “Non, l’équipe Normande.” Team Normandy. Presumably this is his native terroir, as well as that of at least some others of this generally spry bunch.

Jean-Jacques is, by his own description, “a very old man.” He certainly has some bragging rights to the title of doyen of the village, though the doyenne, Frieda, his next-door neighbor, is very much older. Frieda sits tranquilly in her tiny terrace in front of her door, attended usually by a small number of younger neighbors, to do the seeing to her needs—she is nearly blind, and one must announce oneself, with name and relation, as she recognizes very few people in the village merely by the sound of their voices. Most of us are an itinerant and international crowd—though among the first things she tells you is that she is originally Swiss and her French is terrible, and it isn’t, and she speaks no English, but she does. It’s not surprising she cannot keep track of us. Whether she tracks the hoots and triumphs of the pétanque players grappling either right under her nose, or across the place in another clear area in front of the houses on that side, is unknown.

Jean-Jacques does, often, gird himself for battle, and brings out his little zippered case for the three steel pétanque balls (differentiated by the differences in a swirling arabesque of fine lines molded or etched into the surface), each about the size of a major league American baseball. He manages one match or two, and then sits and watches on the edge of the field of battle. On the first days we arrived, he had visitors in the form of one of his sons  en famille and a number of them the members of what J-J called Team Normandy.

Jean-Jacques is a recipient of the emails that I send to update Linda’s condition, when it’s been warranted in the past, and also to warn all recipients of the posting of what are now these blog entries. He invariably sends a response, sometimes ventured in English, but usually very brief and in closing he writes, “amitiés,” in friendship, as indeed he should. He is game even to try this tortuous English of mine, as he is not nearly as advanced in the language as his sprightly, very dear wife Paule who, in contradistinction, and if I understood properly, reads at least one book in English a week.

I always respond to his email in French, most recently by thanking J-J for his exertions in trying to read “la langue difficile.” I also told him it was difficult for me writing it, so I understood. The next day, his son, a man at least in his 40s, came to me as I sat in our car, preparatory to a day trip, and effusively thanked me for writing to his “papa” in French, and that he appreciated it, and his papa very much enjoyed the missives in any event. He said Jean-Jacques knows many little words (in English). I said I knew too many big words, and I knew it was very difficult.

I do not have either as tight, or amiable (or tender) a relationship with the others of the sizable elderly cadre of citizens of Fox. One fellow, with whom I mainly exchange greetings—this means not a thing except for engagement in the absolutely minimal protocol or etiquette for civilized social discourse; one says “bon jour” or whatever, depending on the time of day, to even the most remote members of one’s circle of acquaintance, if not to strangers, say, strolling through the village. With Jean Jacques (who, incidentally, when he essays an email to me, styles himself, “Jan-Jak from Fox!”), as with Paule, and the Jouves, our neighbors further up the street, and Nicole and Rudolf , our close friends who keep the Inn, and maybe one or two others in the village, we do exchange the famous French two-cheek kiss—and none of your air kisses either—on greeting if we stream within at least a meter of one another.

This one fellow, who always says, “Good day,” to me, as do I to him, and shares, as well, a twinkle-eyed grin, seems to me to strut about a bit, and in the heat always without a shirt, in shorts, and flip-flops with no socks, if he is wearing footwear at all. It reminds me overall of Picasso, or perhaps Tony Hopkins’s wonderful interpretation of the painter in the film, “Surviving Picasso,” with the delicious Natasha McIlhone as Françoise Gilot, whose story the movie actually told—surviving his sometimes demonic self-possession and will. The one difference right off, is that my friend from the village has a mop of thick straight dead-white hair (much like Picasso’s would have been, had he kept it)—which you’d think would give the two of us another point of affinity, but I try to ignore this, as well as refusing to appear in public without a shirt. He does not lack in cocky self-possession. Some might call it smugness, but I, who believe in at least a little bit of sensitivity to nuance in the French character (and Picasso was, of course, Catalan—not the same thing at all, just ask a Catalan), think it is more akin to a very typical self-assurance, mixed with certitude, a dash of joie de vivre, and a soupçon of sheer blindness to others (and which I usually prefer to call narcissism, but I wish to preserve the informal entente cordiale which I have maintained with no treaty conferences necessary for my entire career in the French provinces).

I am sure he is a splendid fellow, and trés gentil (the catch-all minimal phrase of greater than anticipated approbation: “very nice”), but whenever I see him, I can’t help but think about one quirk of his: A penchant that clearly he cannot control.

I must first explain very briefly that the chapel has in its belfry a clock. The clock strikes the hour, and the half-hour. It does this 24/7 as we Americans like to say. You either get used to it, or you don’t. I have gotten used to Linda’s white noise machine all night after 12 years, so I can’t hear the bells anyway. Within the entrance to the chapel there is a bell pull, accessible to all, because Francine, our neighbor two doors away up the street, who is charged as beadle with keeping the keys, opens the doors at about 7:30 every morning, and locks up the doors at about eight in the evening.

The clock has its own chimes, which are sufficiently loud, and actually somewhat musical, for the village, but can actually barely be heard once you are down on the plain below. The hand-pulled bell, on the other hand, has a robust clamorous tone to it, and it is very loud.

The only other matter of note is that now that the clock is fixed, at the insistence of the mayor (after having the clock silent for almost three years in the absence of a bronze part for the ancient mechanism, a part that had to be ordered and hand forged and crafted), it rings more or less on time for at least a week after the mechanism is adjusted. Then it begins to stray. We have been here for almost two weeks on this typical visit, and the clock is now four minutes slow (with a second “ring” of the hour, three minutes after the first, which makes the second ring seven minutes late).

At noon, my stalwart Picasso-double copain (“buddy”) strides into the chapel, grabs the bell pull, and rings it like all hell is breaking loose. A cluster of three rings of three strikes of the bell each, and then, in as fast succession and loudly as possible, any number of rings. I don’t think he keeps count. I do from time to time. It’s always more than 12 and less than 24. And it also annoys the shit out of me, because, well, as the telephone repairman who was here earlier in the week remarked to me, without asking or provocation, “C’est calme. Très calme…” [in effect, “it’s very quiet here!” suggesting not only this fact, but also, “how nice”] Why Pablo has to ring that bell, who knows? It’s better to get pissed and then imagine all kinds of psychopathic tendencies for any number of reasons than to confront him if only to ask why, never mind to suggest that he is not only disturbing my peace, but that of any number of others likely. I’ve actually taken a very limited poll, and yes, it’s been noted by others, but “C’est normale.” Which is the usual hapless Gallic verbal shrug.

He’s prominent, always, among the pétanque players, and though I always expect him to be boisterous, given his bell-ringing exploits, he remains serious, if not studious, of every game.

I shoot my shots and move on, below the Place de Siret (I am at a total loss as to what this means, or to whom it may refer; the only siret I know in French is the acronym siret which refers to the national system of codifying businesses, much like the U.S. SIC codes, as to type of business and with all imaginable sub-categories, such that a siret is a 14-digit number, without which you cannot do business in France, and it is very difficult to do business—at the industrial and mercantile level—without knowing the siret code of the enterprise with which you are dealing). It’s true the mayor, who insisted on naming every street up here in the village, is a mason, that is, a stoneworker, and a businessman. But he is a very minor businessman, if a very important mayor, or so he makes himself, in this town of 380 citizens and 16 square miles, most of which are farms, or forest (and one-third of the town is national forest, outside his jurisdiction). I will learn by and by who or what Siret is. In the meantime, I am in a very small way grateful that I am above the invisible division between the Place de Siret and my own,  the Place de l’Église, which is no mystery at all, as the chapel entrance is 75 feet from my door. I would hate my address to be Place de Siret.

The sun beams on the parking lot overlooking the plain. Just below is the Chateau de Barras and its fields, and beyond that, more woods and forest in the direction of Barjols. Slightly to the north of this westerly view is the aforementioned Mont Ste.-Victoire, growing hazier as the day dwindles despite the sun. North off the parking lot is the other main street of Fox, though it’s hard to think of these barely paved or unpaved byways as streets. There are only three worth talking about all told. There is one on either side of the village, running parallel, and overlooking the plain on either side, just above the ancient ramparts. This is just as the Knights Templar planned it. From the highest point in the village one can see anything and anyone approaching from all directions. If you actually get into the village you must cope with a mare’s nest of tiny alleys—ruelles—and culs de sac.

The westerly street, running south to north, is the rue Berri—again a mystery as to reference. I don’t like blanks, so I have imagined the street is an homage to Claude Berri, a famous director-producer-writer, among whose creations is the wonderful duet of films made in 1986, based on Marcel Pagnol novels. Pagnol is the Steinbeck of Provence, writing mainly in the first half of the 20th century, and living to engage in the film industry of France, and getting to see many of his stories, which take place at the beginning of that century, turned into cinema. Berri directed and helped write Jean de Florette and its companion piece, Manon des Sources, which starred, in the title role of Manon, the stunning Emmanuelle Béart, still barely out of her teens when the films were made.

Pagnol grew up in and wrote about that part of Provence to the west, in the département called the Vaucluse, a very much rougher place, containing the gigantic national park, left largely untamed, if studded with many mountainous towns, called the Luberon. Those films of Berri were shot in the Vaucluse, and I can imagine the presence of the stars caused quite a stir in whichever villages at the time their mayors decided to disoblige by permitting a movie to be shot: Gérard Depardieu, Yves Montand (in one of his last, and possibly his most triumphant, cinematic roles—playing an ur-paysan, the wily peasant-farmer, whose craftiness and love of money, land, and power has clearly left him, unknowingly bereft of whatever humanity he was born with), Daniel Auteuil, in a role that is a masterpiece of subtlety and utterly natural mimesis, playing a man who in his clottish stupidity and cupidity, belies the true nature of this gifted brilliant actor, and, of course, la Béart, who plays the grown daughter of the Montand character’s victim. It is a tale, in two parts, of a very satisfying ultimate revenge.

I tell you all this, because our little village is on the verge of an onslaught of filmmakers. This may sound a bit déja lu, but it is not. A French production company has unfortunately found our village and deems it the perfect setting for a pair of films that will interpret two other Pagnol novels, set in 1905, tales of memory and love. This is somewhat smaller scale as the films are intended ultimately for the French cinema channel on national television. It is expected that the production values will be high, the company will be uppity and demanding, as they commandeer the Inn for the lodgings of the stars and the other important company members, and as the production makes an ordeal for the entirety of the village. Among other things they will fill both the Place de Siret and the Place de l’Église with tons of sand, to obliterate the asphalt and the modern paving stones, and the painted parking demarcations, in order to simulate conditions of the turn of the last century.

No one has said how the sand will be removed, and I gather I daren’t ask. No one else has either. The icing on this cake, and one that poisons the dish for me, is that Monsieur le maire autocratically granted permission to the production company without consulting with a single taxpayer (which would include me). We will catch only the tail end of the inconvenience. The chief malaise will be having to shlep our bags as we leave to our car, wherever we may be able to park it. Once the sand is spread, parking is forbidden in the convenience of the places for the residents.

Hence this early evening walk of mine is also to refresh my memory, and to give it fresh material to hold there before the barbarians storm the gates, with nary a kettle of boiling oil to be dropped upon them from the citadel.

Rue_berri_mg_1478edit
The rue Berri is incredibly narrow, being formed of the walls at the backs of houses that front the places and the facades of houses that teeter above where the ramparts of this classic ville perché once stood to defend the residents, especially at night, after the farmers had returned from working the land on the plain. A brand new road sign, comprised mainly of the economical iconography of the universal language of signage in Europe, shows that somewhere ahead the street narrows to 2 1/2 meters, or barely more than 6 1/2 feet, a little more than the width of a car. One has the most live sense of this dimension only when one tries to pass between these ancient stones behind the wheel of a mid-size car. It is a testament generally to the driving of most Europeans, natives and tourists alike, that the chief demolition of the walls, if any, has been via the ravages of time, rather than the errant bumpers and fenders of a Citrôen. There is indeed a great deal of construction on the rue Berri and this has meant for one place at least, where an absolute ruin has been slowly turned into what promises to be a magnificent terraced stone box, preserving much of the ruined detail and replicating the same ancient techniques of building the new additions and extensions, that trucks of building materials, two small cranes, and other semi-heavy equipment has found their way down and then back again out of this back street.

Ruelle_remparts_mg_1481edit
One nice small sign of the triumph of time and nature over the folly of politics and economics: I see that ivy has already begun to obliterate one of the street signs, mounted only two years ago. I wish I had reserved my wrath—the chief victim of which was myself; as there’s no one to complain to, as I have already noted: I’m a taxpayer, but not a voter. It is now clear to me that these signs will not withstand the ravages of not only the local flora, but of the rough mistral-driven weather, and the unintended blows of passing vehicles, falling rocks, and the accidents of renovation. Indeed, in a wryly ironic footnote to the otherwise unseemly assault on the town by the cinéastes who will arrive soon, lights, cameras, sand truck, and actors in tow: they have insisted on removing the street signs for the shooting. Inauthentic. If the mayor were a thinking man, this might have kept him awake at least one night.

The rest of my walk was unremarkable, save for its being in a village still inhabited and largely intact, as it has mainly been throughout its 800 year-old history, since its founding by the Knights Templar. The area was originally settled in a sporadic way by Greeks, and later Romans, who overran them. The town, and in particular the plain, was considered an ideal encampment by the army. And so beloved did it become, apparently by these originally Legionnaires that, mustered out and retired to a pension from Rome, they elected to settle here in Fox Amphoux, or whatever exactly it was called then. “Fox” is a corruption of the Latin, though what Latin exactly I’m not sure. Amphoux, also, has devolved from some more ancient tongue and vocabulary.

One feature that always is striking is the everchanging floral display. I am not speaking of the domestic arrangements of many of the current inhabitants, who, God bless them, have much greener thumbs than Linda or I could ever aspire to. For the first time, to divert attention to these domestic displays for a moment, we have seen the plants in pots at our front door in bloom. The plant is called a “Rose Laurel” (rose laurier) and we are told that the leaves and stems are toxic to the touch. I have no idea if this is a common trait of the laurel, but the leaves look awfully like the bay laurel that is an integral part of a great deal of my cooking, including, as it does, many stews, soups, and daubes, as well as tagines. I’ll have to find out. One of these rose laurels shows blooms that are, as it turns out, a fairly typical pink, not unlike the color of many rhodedendrons I have known. The other plant, however, shows a rarer, though by no means rare, flower that is somewhere between crimson and mauve. That’s the one I took a picture of.

Also, to return to my path and the things that grow with seemingly no assistance from anyone, the figs have begun to form. They will be ripe on our next visit, in fact in their last throes of ripeness, as we plan to be here, if it’s possible, in early October.

Backlit_flower_mg_1490editAs it’s de rigeur for the comprehensiveness of my photo catalog, if for no other requirement, to take a few very close shots of the flowers that seem to grow wild, as they grow literally out of the walls all over the village. Inevitably, we’ve discovered, everything is owned by somebody, and there is no reason to think that property is any more in the public domain than that it is civic property. In fact, the mayor just had the town purchase a very small chapel at the edge of the entrance to the village—a spare cool room, with an arched ceiling and a very tiny stained glass window up high above the door, faced, in the opposite wall, with a vent. The design works, as in the middle of the hottest day last week, entering the semi-shadow of the chapel was like entering an air-conditioned haven. Currently the chapel is showing 14 terra-cotta panels, enamelled with art, representing the Stations of the Cross. It is part of a show of other pieces, dating from prehistoric times to the present, and the output of contemporary artists, most of whom live in neighboring towns. The theme is earth and fire—that is, terra cotta or terre cuit [cooked earth]. The show is sponsored by the village, an art gallery that has opened in the Chateau Barras, and one or two other sponsors, and somehow also cooked up by our attention-deprived mayor, whose ambitions for attracting glory seem also to produce worthy results as well as the dubious.

After_sunset_mg_1497edit
By the time I finished my walk, the pétanque crowd had retired, at least temporarily, and I went in to get ready for dinner. When I was finished, I went out one more time—by now it was just past nine in the evening—to take one more shot, looking down on the plain, in the direction of where the sun had just gone to bed.

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2006July26 Vignettes

Reading Time: 10 minutes

An odd sense of privacy

In today’s Var-Matin, one of the daily newspapers of Provence, there is a story about how the air pollution is almost as bad as it’s ever been, certainly the worst since 2003, which was some kind of banner year, but we missed summer here in Fox-Amphoux that year (we were here briefly in May) and so we have no personal reference.

For this story, by way of illustration, though of what I am not sure, there were photographs taken on the autoroute, the federal superhighway of France.The autoroute features immense overhead bulletin boards that span the road, which is sometimes as many as five lanes across. In these particular photos, one on the front page, and one on the interior page to which the story jumps, page 2 in this case, presumably because it’s such a big story, passing cars are shown from the rear. It is a section of highway near Brignoles, approriate to the Var edition of the newspaper (there is also a Nice edition, and Nice is in the département called Les Alpes-Maritimes, as opposed to the Var, right next door). Brignoles has one of the very few autoroute access points in any one of the départements through which it passes, and Brignoles is a larger than average town, though not a city, and one of the centers of commerce in the Central Var. When you’re in Brignoles, you’re halfway to the coast from our village. It takes about 30 minutes to drive there. And it’s probably another 40 minutes to anyplace worth going on the coast.

In the photos with the rears of the cars, there is also a vantage of the electronic bulletin board, and it shows an announcement telling drivers to slow to 80 kph (that’s about 50 mph, the normal speed limit in clement conditions is 130 kph [about 80+ mph]) because there is a high level of pollution.

Now here’s the curious thing (what? you think it’s curious there’s air pollution here in Paradise? you have a lot to learn… naturally, the Francophobes are not surprised, I am sure). In the photos, the license plates are clearly visible. In France, the typical license plate (which the driver supplies, incidentally, once granted a plate number—the key maker shops are big on supplying license plates in various designs and color patterns, all approved for use in the EU) is a wide, shallow rectangle, yellow, sort of an OSHA yellow, with very large black numerals and letters and, usually, to the side, a blue square with a ring of gold stars, the symbol of the EU, with an F in the middle or below it. These plates are far more readable from a much greater distance than any state license plate I have ever seen in America. In these photos, the plates have been electronically altered so that all you see is a cloudy dirty OSHA yellow rectangle.

Mind you, the only other information you have, is that the photo was clearly taken in daylight (which currently begins at about 6am and ends at about 9:15pm) and, because the caption says so, the otherwise anonymous bit of highway is near Brignoles.

Who is being protected from what and why?

No English Please

We just bought two fans. Both are the Alpatec brand, which I’ve seen before, mainly in the French big box stores. I’ve had to do a little, minimal Google-based research to go any further.

Alpatec is a French brand, acquired by a distributing company called White=Brown (actually, the logo incorporates three parallel horizontal lines between the words, but there’s no standard keyboard character for that) that was in business for years, apparently, distributing other people’s products, when they decided to establish their own brand of electrical home appliances.

Alpatec was a manufacturer of climatization equipment, room air conditioners, fans, etc. when White=Brown bought them, in 1999. The year before, White=Brown had opened a manufacturing facility in Sens, France, which, I have to infer, was meant to facilitate bringing all appliance production in-house.

Indeed, one of the fans, described on the box as a 16˝ High Velocity Standfan [sic], was delivered in a generic looking white corrugated carton with black lettering, a black line drawing of the product, and a black logo for Alpatec. It also shows the address of Alpatec in Sens, France, in the zone industrielle of that city (and since I’m being my usual fastidious self, that would be in the département called Yonne, in Burgundy, and hence, not very far from here; kind of central to the entire country, but this is irrelevant). The reverse side of the box (the broadest sides, incidentally) has exactly the same information, with the description of the product in French, but still designating the size as 16˝ [sic]. Just to finish establishing something, the narrower sides of the carton show technical specifications, with all metrics (air flow, basket, or cage, size) in metric units, in French on one side and in English on the other. The motor power is in watts on both sides. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, except all but the electrically challenged will know that US watts are different than metric watts. The presumption is, it makes no difference, as, in Europe, when addressing Anglophones in the same breath as Francophones, the default assumption is, you’re British if you speak English.

On Web sites, on some fancier packaging, such as for iPod accessories and other computer related accessories and peripherals, the little flag they show athwart the English version of the salient matter printed on the outside packaging is a Union Jack.

Quickly moving along here, the other fan is in a much fancier box, printed in four-color reproduction, with a photograph of the product—a contemporary cylinder, very tall (about four feet), so the box is tall and narrow. And once again, the product information is in French, and (presumably) British English.

So now what’s so weird about that, you’re asking me in your head, right after wondering when I’ll get to the point.

The point is this. On all other packaging, except the aforementioned fancy products in a specific category (and almost without exception from American brands: Logitech, Altec-Lansing, H-P, etc.) and absolutely without exception, French packaged goods never show product information in English, British or otherwise. Further, any product user manuals, Quick-start guides, recipes on foodstuffs, also are absent English versions on products clearly intended for the French market primarily.

Further, there will be other versions in other languages. The usual suspects: Spanish, Italian, German, and then usually, Dutch, Flemish, even Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and there have been languages I have not been able to identify.

These fans are the first products I have ever seen aimed at Anglophones, equally, never mind merely secondarily, to Francophones. Do they know something? Does every other brand in the friggin’ country know something they’re not telling White=Brown?

The Alpatec Web site is, as these Web sites tend to be, mildly (if that) funny, if you click on the “English” version button, where you find a translation that’s largely literal, and, for me, always, of its kind, reminiscent of the hilarious essay by Mark Twain, written late in life, in which he opines on the poverty of the quality of translation of his stories into French. And he proceeds to prove it by presenting the standard French translation of his most famous (and first published) story, “The Celebrated  Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” He then proves his point about the inadequacy of the French translation, by translating it back into literal English.

If you are an American, or a Brit, until you have elected to be in France such that you must equip yourself with the usual and nominal essentials, I mean in addition to food on a daily basis, like a vaccum cleaner, a radio, a power drill, etc. you will never have cause to wonder why the French marketers deliberately omit any guidance, explanation, caveat, or disclosure to their English speaking customers. Not to mention the stove(s), the refrigerator(s), the dishwasher(s), and the washing machine (OK, why in multiples? well, see, it’s like this, those of you not aware: there are two kitchens in the house, one on the ground floor, and one on the top floor, next to the terrace), all of which were left for us by the previous owners. And none with instructions of any kind in English.

And until you have so elected, judge not.

Cheesy

Speaking of those Alpatec fans, one other thing that’s omitted on these products, in addition to any other information save in the English and French languages, is an indication of the country of manufacture.

We are used, in the US, to seeing Made in China, or perhaps Taiwan, on an increasing number of consumer products. In fact, it’s the law to so indicate, not China, but whatever country in which the product was made. And you cannot say, made in the U.S.A., unless the final product, entirely assembled and ready for use, whatever the origin of the parts, was manufactured and packaged in the United State of America or its Territories.

I’ll tell you right off the bat, I have no idea if there is a similar law here. Some products tell you they’re from somewhere else. The grissini sésame (sesame breadsticks) I bought today, of the LU brand, which is French, were made in Italy. Says so right on the box, in French.

Neither of the fans we bought says anything. Not on the box. Not on the so-called “manual.” Not on the fans.

The White=Brown puffery on their Web site allows me to believe my original suspicions are correct.

When I removed the products from their respective boxes, and did the minimal assembly required so either of these tall fans could stand upright, I could not help but remark (to myself) on the cheesiness of the manufacturing: fabrication of parts, use of materials, fit and finish, etc. Must be made in France, I thought.

Here’s the thing. We have a similar fan to the tall cylinder, with the remote control, and the oscillating works, and the timer, etc. at our apartment in Cambridge. Bought it at Brookstone, under their brand. Cost about one hundred bucks, and a beauty. Nicely designed, nicely fabricated and assembled. Works well—been working for a year. And manufactured in China.

The two fans we bought here in France came to 198 euros. That’s about $250 at current rates of exchange. I don’t know which was how much, but it doesn’t much matter.

We already know from repeated attempts to find a sofa we really like that was designed and manufactured in Italy, where they know how to do these things, and which is, admittedly, expensive. It’s available in the UK, and it can be delivered here (for 400 euros). It’s available in the U.S, but that’s a ridiculous proposition. It is not available in France, as far as we can tell, and I’ve spent hours researching the beast.

A particularly snide, and knowing, sales rep from the UK told me on the phone that this is not surprising. The long and short of her superior opining was that the French don’t want to acknowledge the competition, and the best way to do it is simply not to let them in. This seems particularly true of household goods. And, though I hate to admit it, the French don’t make such good household goods. We do have Ligne-Roset and Roche-Bobois furniture either here in France, or at home in Cambridge, and it’s gorgeous, magnifique, very costly, well manufactured and it’s made in Italy. But those two brands are French—retailers, but French, and that makes it OK. I guess.

We also weren’t satisfied with any of the bathroom fixtures we were directed to look at by our French friends (at building materials outlets, and home furnishings big box stores outside Toulon, which is kind of the Newark of southern France). Then I stumbled—I seem to stumble a lot—on a store specializing in bathroom fixtures on a back street in Nice, where I found beautiful fixtures. And we bought (OK, now I have to admit to having two full bathrooms) towel bars, and hooks, and toilet tissue roll holders in two different styles—brushed nickel over solid brass for the contemporary bathroom downstairs, and solid brass, sort of Belle Epoque style, for the bathroom off our bedroom. All made by a company that has been making these things since 1820. Called Samuel Heath, and it’s in the United Kingdom. With prices to match. As I always like to say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The result of these anecdotal observations is that I now know what accounts for those French worker productivity figures I keep hearing about—some of the best in Europe, and among the best in the world. But how can this be, with their level of unemployment, the famous French “attitude,” the culture of farniente? It can be, because the French likely do what we will not. They pay their workers far in excess of workers in the third world, and they keep the manufacturing at home. Not difficult, and they look upon the cheesy results and are satisfied, because the money stays here (I mean the money all stays with the government, because along with the relatively high wages come very high taxes), but that pays for a lot of beer and cigarettes, and your basic roof over the head of those en chômage (unemployed).

Or it could just be that I stumbled on not only the last two big fans in that particular store during the dog days that cleaned out every other store we went to prior. I may also have stumbled on the only products still manufactured in France, because who needs to be patriotic when it comes to cheap, but cheesy goods? Except the cheese that is, and that’s not cheap.

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2006July25 Déja lu

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Well, I’ve been getting some feedback, as I suspected I would. Some of it witty. Some of it equivocating. But there were a couple or so of you who, indeed, find these entries a tad on the long side… First response is, tough noogies, as we say over here in Provence. Second response is, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Third response is, well, what better have you got to do—like I’m keeping people from something—and if something, go do it. This is a free service. Despite what you think it’s still a free country. I mean that sincerely, whether you’re here or there, or should I say, state-side or in LBF (la belle France).

Others of you, the few who have written and I am appreciative more than I can say, so I won’t, have been approbative and encouraging, without an ounce of condescension. One of you, shall I say D— (no names, and I know I’ll get crap about that from S—) has even been, in part, inspired, because I think she was thinking of doing it anyway, to start her own blog.

She wrote, having begun to look into the notably painless process of doing so (you think if it was difficult there would be so many freakin’ blogs?), that there seemed possibly to be something in it for me:

they ask for a referral code.  Do you get some marvelous benefit for referring me?   A free car?  A side-by-side refridgerator freezer filled with eskimo pies?  In any case, I didn’t want you to miss the boat.   Let me know!!”

Aside from shaming some of you, if that’s even remotely possible, I also thought this toughtful gesture needed thorough investigation as soon as possible. The result of this exhaustive study is contained in my reply to D—, which follows forthwith, and will constitute the remaining substance of this blog entry. It is, in fact, not only about referrals to new blog subscribers, but continues to have as its motif, life in France:


Dear D

So I looked into the referral thing, and, as one would expect from life in the modern era (the "oughts" or, alternatively, especially if you’re British, the "nils" or, finally, particularly if you are part of Generation X, Y, Z or the first four letters of the Greek alphabet, once we get past "Z," the "zeroes") it’s complicated and moral, which is the classical definition of the comedic mode, speaking in terms of the traditional canon and Aristotelian principles of mimetic art. And you know how I love the comedic mode.

I had to read, well, I read about 10% and skimmed the rest of, something called terms and conditions for doing business with a "partner" of Six Apart, the company that actually owns TypePad, the blog service I use, and that partner is called Commission Junction, so you know where that’s headed, and I DID click on the "accept" button of the terms and conditions portion, but then I was directed to a button to approve, or rather show my acceptance (there’s very little I approve of in life in the modern era, see above) of the CJC (that’s short for Commission Junction) Privacy Policy. Well, maybe it’s my slight allergy to lavender, which is always vaguely in the air — I mean, come on, this is Provence in mid-summer for God’s sweet sake, or maybe it’s because my eyes were slightly bleary from something I recently read, or tried to read, or maybe it’s because I suddenly felt the need for a Klonopin (which is my anxiety warning bell sign) because of something I was in the midst of trying to read. I was trying—really—extra extra hard.

But it all got too difficult and then I went wildly clicking on reset buttons and buttons to close browser windows, and finally the browser itself because I couldn’t take anymore of all this really ponderous, tedious, long-winded prose, which, as you may know, is a subject that causes great anxiety in me (look up, in the Howard Index: conditions which cause anxiety, because Howard may be the cause of them himself through uncontrolled compulsive behavior).

The bottom line, as we like to say in business, from which I know you recently retired, on a trial basis (ha ha "trial"…) and I really am not trying to cause any anxiety in you by saying things that, like, bring back bad memories, anyway, the bottom line is, I get three bucks, if I accept these terms, and those policies, and give away far too much private information about myself in the process, and there’s something about "advertising" and "negative account balances," both of which I find to be loathsome concepts, and I would never accept them, and allow people to link to this TypePad Web site of mine so they can sign up for a "trial" (ha ha) subscription themselves.

And three bucks is three bucks it’s true, but over here, three bucks buys you two euros, more or less, and for two euros, you get a really really cold Coca-Cola (un Coca, and isn’t that nice and kind of amazing it’s the same word? If you want a Diet Coke, it’s un Coca Light, again, amazingly, say it just like English, only as if you had something wadded in your nose at the same time, or as if you were just sniffing a lot of really mature very fresh lavender blossoms really really close — why they don’t say "Diet" in French, I don’t know; maybe it’s like a slangy really dirty word, you know something to say to Zidane in the middle of a World Cup soccer final: "Hey Zizou, your mother really should go diet… and maybe your sister too…").

Now I never drink Coke, unless it’s disgustingly hot, and I’ve had four of them since we got here, so you know how hot it can get. But I don’t feel like a Coke right now, even up here on the third floor, which gets not only disgusting hot, but beastly hot, almost like you were in England or something and it was that hot. Part is because we got this big floor fan and it’s going like crazy on its highest speed, and it really works really well. And part is because it’s been thundering outside for about ten minutes, which is the promise of cooling off, but kind of a hollow promise, because the sun is still blazing out there… I can see all this really bright sunlight out the window, and the cicadas (in French, les cigales) are really chirping like mad, it’s a kind of really grindy, sandpapery chirp, with no high tones, just rapid grating, which they only do if it’s really hot. They chirp, they stop, they chirp, they stop. If it hits the disgusting beastly level of hotness they do it non-stop. But anyway, under these conditions at present, no Coke is necessary.

Of course two euros will also buy you a nice little Pastis, which is that Provençal liqueur that smells badly of anise or licorice, but which is mighty good, and mighty cheap, and gets you some ice cubes and a big pitcher of water (pichet de l’eau) so you can either or both keep your drink cool longer and dilute the pastis, which is pretty strong medicine (some Americans think it tastes like medicine — I don’t; I love licorice) taken straight. Anyway, diluted or not, they don’t actually give you too much pastis for two euros. I mean, compared to American bars, it’s a bargain (especially given your typical pastis is 90 proof), but it’s no sweet little buzz, never mind a good drunk. For that you need at least ten euros spent fairly quickly, shall we say? And in the middle of Provence, the heart of the heart of the country we might say, in the middle of summer, where it’s always on the verge of getting, and not only because of the superfluity of Brits around here (which you can blame on a strong Pound Sterling, which is even stronger than the euro, which, see above, re: dollar to euro conversion) beastly hot, you don’t do anything too quickly. Nothing. Not even drink. Unless it’s beer. Maybe.

So, I’ll just forget about this big commission of three dollars, US (two euros, uh, EU, I guess), and advise you to just start up what I know will be that sweet little blog of yours. For one thing, I know it will be a lot shorter every day to read.

Howard

PS You know, reading this over, I think it’s so good, I’m going to put it on my own blog. How’s that? So you can even skip that entry, in case you don’t feel like having that déja lu (that’s a pun, in French, see?… lu is past participle of lire, the verb "to read") feeling. And then you’ll also be the envy of at least two other people, and maybe as many as over a hundred.

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2006July22 Queue Analysis

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Market day in Aups this morning was not so bad. Enough people to cause long lines at the stalls, but not so many to stall traffic.

There is a whole topic, for long discussion, in the subject of the French and being in line.

Before getting into the subject proper, I’d like to observe that Henry Fountain of the New York Times had interesting things to say on the subject of great athletes, and why some crack and some don’t, the latest of them being the French football great Zinidine Zidane, who did crack, and broke the heart of a nation. Even the petite Nicole, innkeeper across the way, and usually far more interested in fashions and movie star gossip, thinks he’s a rat. Forever.

Anyway, Fountain spoke to, among others, a guy named Sagal, an expert in winning ways (and partner in an outfit called Winning Mind, which gets him in to consult to World Cup soccer teams, if you can believe it—what the hell, business is business), who said, “You’re talking about a situation of absolute intense pressure. And you are talking about a player in particular who is unparalleled in his ability to stay narrowly focused. What you saw was him losing his focus. His strength became his weakness.”

If Zidane had been a little smarter, he would have spoken to Sagal before the game, or even to Vizzini, the rogue played by Wallace Shawn in the movie, The Princess Bride. Vizzini advised that the most famous advice was never to get in a land war in Asia, but slightly less known was “never go up against a Sicilian when death [or, presumably, sudden death] is on the line.” Marco Materazzi, who dissed the mother and the sister of Zidane, thereby provoking him to crack, is from Puglia, but close enough.

However, whatever advice he was given, however focused his concentration, Zidane cracked, thereby proving that when zucchini is on the line, nothing can crack a middle-aged Frenchwoman in the produce stall at marché. They set new standards for stalwart implacability. In the ‘States, we call this behavior obnoxious or rude, but it’s par for the course over here, so get used to it. In France, we call it the narrow focus of world-class champions.

And if you’re in front of the red peppers, don’t leave the slightest gap, or some lithe, and usually pretty peppy, broad (I say this in the fondest way; French women are generally thin, especially here in the country: the rich ones do yoga—another story for another time, but remember the mayor’s wife, and ask me about it, if you forget—and the less well-to-do do gardening and run around a lot in very tiny cars until they get where they’re going, and then it’s foot traffic at high speed) will suddenly be up in your face, oblivious to your presence, and squeezing the fennel bulbs. The vendor, Patrick, and his son, with the pierced eyebrow, which has healed since last January, keep up a running patter, hand out plastic baskets for patrons to collect their fruit and vegetables, and stay focused on the person right in front of them. But that’s the extent of their focus. These guys know they are not even made of the stuff of Zidane, and long before market is over they will crack in the face of the onslaught of French balabustas [this is yiddish, not French, and it means head of household, and when in reference to the female head, it means, kind of, housewife on steroids]. And they know it, and so they keep it light and always ease off.

As it’s market day, and it’s mid-summer, and it’s the Saturday market, not the off-day market on Wednesday, there are a lot of people buying, and they queue indiscriminately to their place in any logical pecking order or right by time of arrival. Each place in line represents not a priority in age, or etiquette. People bull their way in because they need that thing goddamnit right in front of where you, or somebody, else is standing, and they won’t wait. And the scales and vendors work the crowd from the middle of the stall behind the majority of the produce. The rest is in bins inaccessible from the front, and most people have to ask the vendors for a weight of onions or potatoes, which sit in several varieties in plain view, but out of reach, unless you actually wander into the stall behind the vendors, who neither invite you nor shoo you away once you realize that nobody gives a damn if you do wander back there to pinch and poke the root vegetables.

Then there are people raised in the venerable tradition of having the vendor select the fruit and vegetables according to the running advice one gives as to need: ripe, almost ripe, for next Tuesday, or a dinner for eight, and never do the patron’s hands touch the food. If you have the reticence mixed with suspicion I do, or, if some people are correct, the level of control that I myself apparently make manifest I absolutely must exercise (moi? a control freak? pardon, monsieur, ‘dame), this tactic never works. There’s a catch 22 in there somewhere, because if I never trust the guy to get what I ask for, as I suspect, or maybe expect, he will substitute some wormy, mealy, overripe, or god knows what defective, as I fear he will, I’ll never learn if he can be trusted.

Today I spent 14,40 euros (the comma is not a mistake; in addition to the other strange metric things they do over here, they use commas, where we use decimal points, and vice versa, though to them a period is a period is a decimal point, or point [a kind of nasal pwehn, with a very soft “n” almost non-existent at the end there, for you non Francophones]), which is not a great deal though it weighed down our shopping basket, or 16,40, if you include the medium sized Cavaillon melon I got from another stall just selling melons across the way, making it even heavier—and bought yellow peaches, courgettes [zucchini] grown right there in Aups, a huge red pepper, also Aupsoise, two beautiful Italian eggplants, six apricots, ready to eat or bake into a clafoutis, sort of a cross between a pudding and a cake, studded with the fruit, and usually made with cherries, but actually an appropriate recipe for any small stone fruit, or even figs or, if you’re stoned yourself, just about anything sweet and not so thick if you cut it in half, plus salade, which is how we refer to all and any sorts of lettuce, in a one huge head, and two fresh ugly old-fashioned beefsteak tomatoes, probably grown right here, in one of the tiny farms in Fox-Amphoux. They’re tiny, that is, compared to the bigger farms, which mainly grow grapes, or wheat, or sunflowers—we’re surrounded by sunflowers down on the plain, just about in the middle stages of growth—or merely sheep fodder, which seems to get left lying in the fields, or winter fodder, which is grown later, and gets rolled into bales by big reaper/balers. The latter are always a surprise, like indoor plumbing and town water and sewer, which is what we have in our village of 50 houses, the final stage water treatment building disguised as yet another medieval-looking stone mas (antique farmhouse). There’s also now ADSL connectivity, and a rumor of cable, but it’s very expensive. I always think I will see farmers in WWI vintage Ford tractors, but they’re actually fairly modern, and why not? They’re subsidized to the hilt to perpetuate the myth that this is a nation of small farmers (remember the tomatoes?) to attract the tourists and rich northern Europeans, Brits, and crazy Americans like us, so we’ll buy up the ancient real estate at inflated prices. Where was I? Tomatoes.

Also strawberries in a little wooden basket, grown somewhere in the north, because it’s way past strawberry season, but these are nonetheless real strawberries, as opposed to the red-on-the-outside-white-on-the-inside semi-hardened foam monstrosities that they insist on selling at Whole Foods Market emblazoned with the word “Organic,” as if that means anything any more, and which traveled further to get to River Street in Cambridge than we did to get to the Old Village here in Fox from River Street.

Anyway, it was quite a bit of produce per the aggregate price per pound, and especially considering it was mostly grown about 30 minutes from where I’m sitting at the moment in our cool ground-floor sitting room. I picked it out all myself. I’ve been doing this for what will be 20 years soon enough and I’ve never asked Patrick, from whom I’ve been buying this stuff—and he lives in Fox, though I’ve only seen him once on the highways and byways of the village—for half that time. I still don’t know if he knows me. The bemused fellow at the pizzeria we like, whom we’ve seen far fewer times and at greater intervals, obviously knows me. Life goes on without pizza, but you always need fresh produce. And it’s hard to tell if Patrick recognizes me or anyone else, ‘cause he’s not letting on, which may be the champions-who-lack-focus and crack factor, or it may be simply that, in public, like any good psychiatrist, he’d prefer not to acknowledge his clients. I mean, he knows how well I choose produce. Probably gives him a good chuckle.

There’s a lesson here, as I say, practical only on market days in France, but edifying nonetheless, I think, if not merely entertaining. I have prepared this simple photo/diagram to illustrate my point. So mouse-click on the small photo and you will see some items for discussion and elucidation in the larger version.

March_aups_produce_mg_1458
Shown is the left hand side of Patrick’s produce stall. The troops, uh, the patrons have massed on this side (we are facing the center, with the scale, barely visible, and pile of plastic baskets). Starting from the right, see the green arrow, is Patrick, blurred, conveying the constant motion he stays in, usually whistling and offering many a bon mot. No doubt he considers that a moving target is a safe target. To his right a female clerk, possibly a relative (only his close friends would know for sure), and a minor player. She’s there to relieve some of the pressure, lest the queue build too much strength in numbers. All the way on the left, helping the customer in the light blue pinafore dress and the huge barrette choose some fruit—always deployed on the left side of the stand—is the son, under the red arrow; you can’t see the pierced eyebrow too well. The greens, that is leeks, fennel, zukes, cukes, etc. are always on the right, not visible in this photo, and not a busy part of the stand, not in the summer, not during the canicule when it’s too hot to cook. Fruit can be eaten raw, which explains the particular battle array, um, queueing of this crowd. The woman in the pink bow, with a floral print skirt and red sash (this all is camouflage) it looks like is getting her money out to pay the girl. Why have it out ahead of time, which might lessen the waiting time for others?

The big guy on the right in shades, and without socks I suspect is there either under duress, or has wandered in innocently, wishing to buy one potato, say, or a banana. Another photo shows him holding hands with the woman with a back pack in a khaki colored sleeveless dress, so it’s possible they are on a reconnaissance mission for a larger party, including children and a nanny—anything to add critical mass, or merely inert bodies that do not move at all. I suspect the guy being hunched over is just a feint, and he is really buying nothing at the moment, and only pretending to get out his change purse.

The woman in a bobbed mannish hairdo, with clogs and a white top may appear to have done her shopping (in the green poly sack hanging from her right hand), but she is only looking thus far. Patrick gives your produce to you in a poly sack, but it is distinctively purple (please note the absence of purple sacks), or in thin brown kraft paper bags, marked “does not allow humidity” [this is a rough translation, produced under battlefield conditions]. Please note the absence of thin brown kraft paper sacks. The woman with vaguely reddish-blonde hair, pulled up for the heat is only in the preliminary stages of shopping at the stall, and is clearly absorbed in thoughts, for the first time that day, about what to serve for dinner. When she finally gets to the front of the line, which is a bit bunched up here, strategically so, she will take another five minutes, pondering what is actually offered that day, and with turtle-like rapidity alter the menu in her head.

Some people, the real veterans, pick things up, put them back, mumble to themselves, and chat with Patrick or his son. All stalling tactics to frustrate the enemy, I mean, me.

By the way, to illustrate that Patrick is complicit in all this, purely by virtue of the layout of the stall—unique to summer, when there are plenty of recruits to refresh the lines of combatants, please note the cluster tomatoes in the foreground, only part of an island display (absent in the Fall and Winter), which also includes that other hot item, lettuce, or as I said, salade, as the french call it. Another hot weather favorite. Just wash and serve.

Think about the cleverness of this placement tactic. At the stall one sees only (the better) varieties of locally grown tomatoes—your vine tomatoes, beefsteaks, Romano or plum, etc. These are more expensive. So people queuing will note the tomatoes, and get interested, poke them and prod them, maybe a surreptitious squeeze or two, and then note the price, and say, screw this, and immediately begin looking for cheaper tomatoes. Hence the cluster tomatoes—handsome and robust in their own way, sort of stereotypical in appearance, the way you’d expect a tomato to look and, this being Provence, not half bad tasting, but, unlike the local breeds, not really quite ready for eating. If you’re in a queue in the front of the stall near the scales, you have to turn around, and brave at least one layer of other shoppers to get at the cheaper tomatoes, thereby creating a gap as soon as you move, which is quickly, in fact immediately, filled in. In fact, the moves are so fast, you can guarantee yourself to be jostled, and whatever is hanging on your shoulder: expensive digital camera, shopping bag, purse, will get tugged or poked in such a way that you have to check for either damage or attempted theft. This distracts you, losing momentum, and forcing you to have to push through to the tomatoes in clusters and the lettuce, which, having seen the tomatoes, causes you to recall that you also need some salade, because what goes together like lettuce and tomato better than the very self same materials?

What you cannot realize, viewing this photo in a casual way, is that this simple seeming queue… you may call it a crowd, but it is a queue, take my word for it. Just try to get in front of someone. They’ll let you know what they think of you and remind you that there is a line after all, Monsieur!… This queue seemingly two-deep, is actually three deep. Note, please, the turquoise arrow, which points to a woman’s flats of approximately the same color.

This embedded queue participant is further insurance against any flanking motions around either side of the cluster-tomato/salade island that was in front of me as I shot this photo. To the left of the hidden woman in azure flats is the jetty of Cavaillon melons (you can see the wooden slats of the crate holding them just above the turquoise arrowhead). This prevents penetration from the left because you can’t possibly squeeze between the melons and, well, here’s a coincidence, the… the large-breasted woman with her hair up in the vaguely yellow sun dress with spaghetti straps. Go around to the right—about two meters, it’s a BIG island of lettuce and tomatoes—and you’ll have to squeeze in behind the woman with the backpack, in case you were wondering why she’s standing just there, and doesn’t have anything hanging from her shoulder. You don’t want to do that because you’ll have to contend, maybe, with her burly escort who is feigning getting money out to pay for the produce they’ve had for quite a while (and how do I know? Because hanging from backpack lady’s right wrist is a purple poly sack, not very laden, as I suggested (see above), maybe one, maybe two potatoes). And with two of them groping and digging for change, they can take twice as long occupying that space, at least as long as it would take to get around the lettuce island…

And you thought the Japanese and British were pains in the ass when they queue up. They just shove and stuff. Here, it’s more insidious and appears to be polite, but it’s like the shochet (kosher butcher) said to the cow hanging upside down in front of him, “this won’t hurt a bit.” Zip zap. You turn around to ask your wife if she’d prefer squash to zucchini, and some little thing in espadrilles is next to you and somehow in front of you, and she’s already got her hands on two bunches of ciboulettes (chives) like she’s been standing there all day.

Later, I’ll analyze another kind of queue. The ATM queue. It’s an experience especially fraught because the cash machines mainly spew out fifties, which the vendors love. They love it in particular if you are spending like, six euros forty-seven cents, they will take the fifty and always ask if you have a euro-fifty, and that means getting out your change purse with the coins, because the smallest paper denomination is a fiver. And of course your hands are already full of paper and poly sacks, and a very heavy shopping basket. And you’ve got a five-thousand dollar digital camera perched on the very edge of your sweaty shoulder, and you’ve got to get your hand in the pocket of your shorts to get at the zippered change purse they handed out as a gift at the bakery up the street back in January, when there are hardly any customers, and there’s never a queue. No intense pressure. Nothing to make a man, never mind a champion, crack.

But that’s another story.

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2006July18 Nice in high season

Reading Time: 10 minutes

The Delta flight, direct from New York to Nice, is not full by any means. As a result both Linda and I get two seats each, and next time, she says, she’ll make her move sooner—sooner than the others on the flight—and grab three seats. Any number of things might account for this surfeit of empty seats at a time when tickets seem to be not only at a premium, but at an all-time high for prices. But the airlines ain’t talkin’ and one must speculate.

For one thing, the premium on tickets presumably has eased as we flew with frequent flyer points, originally slated for a May 30 departure, with a return on the very day we are finally able to leave. Linda thinks it’s because she played the medical “card” telling a sympathetic Delta agent about her illness and treatment (the cause of the first delay in our plans), but, boarding the plane, it is evident immediately why seats were forthcoming. This is a sure indicator of the ways in which Delta must be hurting. A previous trip to Nice, also via JFK airport, one of the few direct flights from the U.S. to Provence, occurred on Christmas Eve, and was clearly not only full, but with a very full contingent of French citizens.

This flight, in high summer, and on the verge of the official French vacation period, when all of Paris, and much of the rest of the country, shuts down, is bereft of Francophones, it seems, of any nationality. What this condition seems to prove is that, indeed, America itself has shut down as a source of tourism revenue—whereas in the past, certainly pre-9/11, the United States provided as much as 40%, and perhaps more, of the tourist traffic that made France (and apparently still makes it, even without our help) the number one tourist destination in the entire world. [All you Francophobes out there, and you know indeed who you are, I have several words here for you. You may be thinking at this point, so they’re losing business… good for the conniving, disloyal bastards… that well may be, but France is still the number one tourist destination on the planet, and those tourists are coming for France, not the French. We come for both, because, well, we know both of them. I added this merely to give myself an opportunity to disabuse one and all, but especially the Francophobes that they don’t hate Americans. Indeed, they scarcely work up the energy to work up a hatred for much. Scared? Yes. They’re scared of what crazy militant Muslims will do. Whether this is wise or not, I’ll leave to you, but at least we still share that much with them. And they’re very afraid, or at least heroically non-plussed by the present American administration. If you don’t care for Chirac and his crew, then count yourself even. Finally, at the risk of repeating myself, they don’t hate Americans. Best of all, they don’t hate these two particular Americans, nor any of you lot that have managed to visit us. Indeed, the feelings seem to be more akin to "like" or, dare I say, "love?" If you want Europeans who hate Americans, you’ll have to work hard and look elsewhere. And, of course, though I disclose a bias, if there’s a nationality or an ethnicity over here that you yourself must hate, I’d look elsewhere than at the French. Every French person I’ve ever met has been a pleasant human being, likable and friendly. We do count our friends among the natives, and these we love. No question about it.]

Delta has, and has always had, only the one flight each day to Nice from New York. If any city could fill that flight, one assumes it would be New York. Hence, the numbers are down for sure, even on this wisp of anecdotal evidence. It may be that it’s because it’s Monday (rentals in France are usually Saturday to Saturday, but the standard rentals are not aimed at Americans. Indeed, it’s better to arrive on a Tuesday, because, in rural France at least, so many shops (and too many bank branches) are simply closed on Monday. That’s an artifact of the draconian 35-hour work week laws among a number of artifacts that conspire to make France an interestingly different place to live than the U.S. They’re laws that much easier to enforce, despite the abundance of workers who simply don’t work. There is nary a “typical” French worker who needs more than an official excuse not to work. Indeed, it becomes a right. And institutional idleness has become a creative proposition.

Seats generally are at a premium, especially on the traditional national carriers, which are bleeding money, because there are so few tourniquets. One way of choking off the blood flow is to raise the price of seats made premium by relative scarcity. Fewer flights. Fewer seats.

We flew on a relatively big plane to Nice. I’m sure if Delta could use a smaller plane with less capacity they would. But a 767 has not much less range than a 777, and a 757 won’t make it to Nice. Wouldn’t even make it to Paris.

When we arrived, it was only variations on a theme.

In France, the vaunted French vacation period for its workers (exceeded these days at least by Germany, thereby making it a workers’ paradise, a phrase that has lost the grim irony of only 50 years ago) begins in earnest July 15. Our flight was the 17th. We arrive after a night of no particularly great turbulence, including the type fomented by infants, of which the flight had its share, and a blood orange colored dawn and took our room at the Hotel Westminster, a lovely old place smack on the Promenade des Anglais, and therefore with capacious seaside rooms that somehow fit with the remnants of a Belle Epoque air (though with thoroughly modern frigid-making climatization equipment for those rooms) and a central stairway that would give Dolly Levi a suitable entrance.

The large room in which we ate our breakfast the morning after we arrived is particularly ridiculous. It seems to be a ballroom, with a level of ornateness not seen since about the time of the war. That would be World War I.

Ballroom_westminster_mg_1444It’s hard to tell if this is a room original to the hotel’s design, renovated and modernized (parquet floors, huge gilt chandeliers
, with a myriad of fixtures tricked out to look like they still burn gas), or if it has been designed to reproduce the era at impossibly great expense. The Westminster is part of a millionaire’s row of hostelries right on the water, with the Negresco, queen of all of them, still going strong and still with a suitably famous restaurant, Chantecler (though it lost one of its three Michelin stars in fairly recent memory). All of them are monuments to faded glory. In our breakfast room, presided over by a lone waiter, who fetches you hot water for tea, or a carafe of coffee or cocoa, as you choose, there is so much room the tables are widely spaced, as if for some desultory senior prom or a failed fund raising banquet. The food stations are yards apart. Tucked in a corner, chafing dishes with scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausages, alongside a huge water-filled gizmo with wire cages for eggs (piled in a basket) for boiling with a timer that maxes out at 120 seconds. Another table features cold cuts and cheeses (a particular favorite of Germans). Yet another is festooned with a huge wicker pannier, filled with mini-croissants: plain, raisin, and chocolate, set beside Dairy Queen-sized chilled dispensers of orange juice and grapefruit juice. Somewhere in there are bowls of stewed fruits, including prune plums, apricots, grapefruit, and a cornucopia of dried cereals that would do Kellogg proud. It is altogether an impossible amount of food for the slow stream of guests of varying nationalities and ethnicities—though all decked in casual garb in defiance of the decor. The hotel is not empty, but it is far from full. Perhaps the feast is only fitting to the design of the room, with coffered ceilings and the heads of odalisques set above the arched doorways. The sense of grandeur makes the meal worth the price (36 euros—about 45 dollars—for what is dubbed a “continental” breakfast; presumably a full breakfast would be “planetary”), though that is included in the cost of our room.

The room itself, I’ll add quickly, is the perfect set up for a lagged out pair of Americans, who don’t want to miss all of the rest of the day, and yet desperately need sleep. The plane may have allowed us to spread out, but not sufficiently to get even three or four hours of sleep strung together into a whole. After a touristic lunch of salade niçoise at a nearby bistro, tricked out to look Parisian, we collapse, but with the drapes left drawn open to admit klieg amounts of brutal white sunlight into the room. We awaken, with plenty of hours of day left, and time enough to make reservations on the terrace of the restaurant in the hotel.

We were splurging, though the promotional price we got was dubbed “Farniente,” one of those French idioms with no really suitable translation into English, possibly a nonce word and definitely made-up, though it comes close to meaning literally, “nothingness” and is understood to mean perfect guilt-free idleness. Not only does this cheap rate garner us a sea-side room but it is on the top floor, so our view of the beach, or plage, is as spectacular as it gets for essentially middle-class folks with, if not a budget, then at least thoughts of one always lingering in the backs of their minds.

Plage_nice_mg_1439The beach is occupied practically from the moment the sun rises at around six, and stays occupied until it sets, which, at these latitudes, and situated where we are in the European Central Standard time zone, occurs at about nine-thirty of-the-clock. Note, however, that occupied does not mean packed, and in Nice, they come and go, not talking of Michelangelo, indeed not talking of much of any consequence at all but to their personal quotidian concerns, and carrying minimal gear.

Many of them have not even towels, their bathing outfits barely visible under shorts and tee shirts.

The only way to tell those who have been swimming, aside from the obvious drift of that part of the crowd moving generally away from the shore, is the occasional wet tee shirt, particularly on young women who bear two round wet spots over their bikini tops. You have to wonder why anyone braving the unrelenting sun—there’s not been a cloud in the sky for four days now, going on five, despite promised storms that have already soaked the Southwest—would not have spent his or her entire time in the water, far warmer than our northeastern beaches, not to mention that the beaches this far east on the Mediterranean are, in actuality what the British call “shingle.” That is, there is no sand whatsoever, but a swath, perhaps 25 yards deep from the Promenade to the water’s edge, at low tide, composed entirely of pebbles ranging from a quarter-inch to an inch along their narrower axis and worn smooth. In short, impossible to walk on in bare feet, and nearly so even with the usual street-worthy footwear.

Inland only a block, and further into the interior of this seaside city, the buildings are sufficiently high—likely averaging about four stories, especially in the tourist quarters within two or three blocks of the shore—to cast a shadow on one side of every street and thoroughfare. Only tourists venture on the sunnier side.

The ultimate point to be made is that crowds move right along, just as they do in September, right after the great “Rentree,” the institutionalized return, or reentry, to school and work life, or even in December, as Christmas shopping crowds brave the frigid daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s. More importantly, the Promenade des Anglais, which I’ve seen immobilized with traffic, even in early June, itself moves along at the stately pace of 50 kph, the heavily enforced speed limit [about 30 miles an hour].

Once we pick up our car—this time a Passat, with a turbo-diesel injected engine and quite peppy—we move right along, to my great surprise, and right out of the city, and make it to Fox Amphoux in our usual hour and forty minutes.

The dread for travelers of high season on the French Riviera and elsewhere in the south has abated for sure, and left an unhappy lot of touristic entrepreneurs whose livelihood depends on a certain volume of business from May through September.

The big test will be market day in Aups on Saturday. Having missed the other market day, driving up on Wednesday afternoon—markets are exclusively in the morning—we have no idea what to expect.

The last time we were in this region this late, and actually a bit earlier, having departed on the 15th of July, the crowds on market day in Aups, a town that is really no more than a village of three thousand people, made it impossible to traverse it from one end to the other on the main drag in less than forty-five minutes. It usually takes about two minutes, maybe two-and-a-half if an unusually large number of folks are crossing the street in the middle of town.

I am determined to get to town early, have coffee, shop and get the hell out, so I may never know if the crowds have abated here as well. Watch this space.

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