2006July27 Mid-Summer Night, More or Less

Approximate 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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