Monday, September 24, 2007

What is ochre, anyway? Let's ask the President!

Bonjour to all from this little farm in Provence, where we're renting the third floor of a 300-year old stone farmhouse. The hot water ceased to appear today, the evening air is redolent with the aroma of horse manure, one is almost suffocated by clouds of horseflies and yellow-jackets when one ventures outside, the French are still driving like that, and we're muddling through.
Quite nicely.

Among the many books we read in preparation for this sojourn was a highly-regarded work by a sociologist named Philip Wylie called "A Village in the Vaucluse", which was written shortly after WW II and is still, 50 years later, selling well. He called the village "Peyrane" but that was just a pseudonym; the actual name is Roussillon and we visited there yesterday. It's about 40 miles north of us in the Luberon, which is more mountainous and more heavily wooded than our part of Provence.

(Geographical note: France is divided into 100 Departments, roughly equivalent to counties, which are then clumped together in groups of 4 to 6 to form Regions. The old historical names, Aquitaine, Burgundy, Gascony, etc., are familiar and still used in a loose sense, but they weren't precise enough for Napoleon, who implemented the reorganization described above. For example, although we say we live in Provence, and that's good enough for most purposes, we actually live in the Department of the Bouches-du-Rhone, in the Region of PACA (Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur). The Luberon is one of those old informal historical areas in the Vaucluse region. There! Clarity itself, non?)

The area is famous for its ochre quarries - I had no idea ochre was ever such an important commodity - and the dominant color of the surrounding hills is burnt orange, or, yes, that's right, ochre. The village has become a very popular tourist destination due to its mention in Wylie's book, its grand outdoor markets, which weren't in session when we went, and, not least, its description by Rick Steves as "having all the charm of Santa Fe on a hilltop." We've learned never to underestimate the power of Rick Steves (ot Peter Mayle, for that matter, whose home village of Lourmarin we drove through enroute to Roussillon.)

Mike and I had taken our fishing gear in hopes of finally getting into a French river, in this case the Durance, which officially divides the Bouches-du-Rhone and the Vaucluse, so on the way back we stopped and got our feet wet for the first time since our arrival. We caught and released a couple of unfamiliar French fish, but mostly just enjoyed the beauty of the Durance and of some fellow fishermen - paunchy, hairy Frenchman wearing thongs (not the footwear)! Why don't they print pictures of THOSE guys in L. L. Bean catalogs?

Speaking of hairy men expressing themselves, I mentioned previously the French rugby player
Sebastian Chabal, who has become the reigning idol over here, and the impact he's making on
French culture. As you can see from the photo below, I was not exaggerating! When streakers start impersonating you, you know you've made it! At this rate he may end up in the pantheon of immortals with Jerry Lewis!

The world may have lost Marcel Marceau, but we still have Nicolas Sarkozy. Whether they love 'im or hate 'im, and there are plenty in both camps, the French watch their hyperpresident with a sort of sick fascination. There's been plenty to watch, too, from his marriage, breakup and reconciliation, to the "Love Handle Scandal" ('poignees d'amour'). Paris Match, a leading popular (think "People" in the States) magazine owned by one of his friends, airbrushed into nonexistence the unsightly protuberances dangling over the waist of the Presidential swimming trunks captured on film during his controversial New Hampshire vacation this summer (If you haven't already, you can see the 'before' and 'after' pictures on the web). And one of France's most eminent playwrights, Yasmina Reza, accompanied him, at his request, during the presidential campaign and wrote an honest, not very flattering book, finding him vain, insecure, domineering and sarcastic. Imagine! A vain, insecure politician!

But his moment of truth, the long-awaited confrontation with the unions, is fast approaching! Others may have doubts, but as the photo below indicates, the man is ready!


"Je ne suis pas un monstre!", says French president

Vows to greet union chiefs with "a big hug"



Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sports & Politics - Why, it's just like home!

This is my first attempt at this. Here we go! Allons sie!

We've been here in southern France a little over 2 months now. During the first few weeks we visited a number of local sites of interest, Avignon, Arles, the Camargue, Cassis, Marseilles and, of course, Aix (-en-Provence, or just 'Aix' to us locals), which is our nearest city. We also made a more extended visit to Switzerland to see some of Lois' distant relatives, who were hospitable and generous beyond the call of duty. Photo>

Michael has just started his second week of international school and all the signs are positive. He likes it so, naturally, we like it. His French is already improving, the lunches are an adventure (mussels? calamari?), and he's had his first session of equitation (horseback-riding to us plebs). There is a disturbing number of fancy cars and SUVs in the parking lot but we've met some delightful regular people and Mike's friends seem very cool.

Le Monde du Sports

The French appear to be experiencing both a crisis of confidence, arising from the recent performances of the national rugby and football (soccer) teams, and apprehension about the future, caused by Hyperpresident Sarkozy's impending meeting with the leaders of some of France's most powerful unions. The Rugby World Cup is being held here and the populace has embraced it with enthusiasm. Matches are played in stadia throughout the country (and Wales and Scotland - for reasons which are unfathomable to everyone), including Marseilles, which is our nearest BIG city. Mike and I really enjoy watching when we can, once or twice a week, athough we don't begin to understand the rules, if any. The French XV had been expected to advance easily into the later rounds, where they'd be facing the traditional rugby powers, the Big Boys: New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, but they were shockingly beaten by Argentina in the opening game. Mon Dieu! Banner headlines! National hand-wringing! Fortunately they redeemed themselves by steamrolling Namibia, a mostly amateur side, a week later. Immense relief!

There's a political angle to this, as well. The selector/manager of the team, Bernard "Bernie" Laporte, will enter Sarkozy's cabinet as the Secretary of Sport and Leisure (or words to that effect) after the competition, so observers are sure to seize on the team's performance as an early indicator of his competence or otherwise.

One of the players, Sebastian Chabal, has become the current darling of the French people and press. I'm looking at a picture of him right now on the front page of La Provence. He's about 6'5" (2m) tall and weighs about 250 lbs. (I don't know how much that is in kilograms, but he's big), has long hair, a beard, tattoos and is built like an even bigger brick toilette than his colleagues, which, when talking about rugby players, is really saying something. His nicknames include 'Attilla', 'Caveman' and 'The Anesthetist', but he's articulate and funny and comes off like a closet Buddhist.

The national soccer team is driving everybody crazy with their inconsistency. Remember the World Cup final last year against Italy? Italy won on penalty kicks, but not before the Head Butt Seen Round the World had been administered by Zinedine Zidane, French national idol, to the sternum of Marco Materazzi, who later admitted making obscene remarks about Zidane's sister in an attempt to disconcert him. Well, it worked like a charm! Zidane was sent off, Italy won and that was that, for the time being. European national teams are currently playing each other to see who will appear in the later rounds of Euro 2008, a sort of smaller world cup for Europe. They squeeze these elimination games into their regular league schedules (the players make their exorbitant salaries playing on pro teams all over the world and they gather for a couple of days at a time for these Euro 2008 matches. Some pro teams are also playing elimination matches for the Champions' League, but that's another story.) Anyway, two matches, home & away, are played with total goals from both encounters determining the winner. Les Bleus (France) beat the Azzuri (Italy - the reigning world champions, remember) the last two times they played, to great national acclaim, but then lost - both times - to Scotland, a relative minnow among sharks. More headlines, more editorials, more agonized instrospection!

Oh, and the basketball team, which has some NBA players on its roster, was eliminated early in the Euro 2008 basketball tournament.

Le Monde Politique

As if the turbulence in the sporting world wasn't enough, there's anxiety about the imminent clash between the president and the unions. Sarko was elected largely on the strength of his promises to stimulate the moribund economy by making radical changes in the labor sector, like eliminating the 35-hour work week and restructuring the generous pension system and early retirement procedures. So far there's just been a gradual escalation of posturing on both sides, with the administration and the unions circling each other and pawing the ground and issuing apocalyptic predictions. There's no telling what will happen - the government was forced to back down the last time they tried this - but the following photograph, just received hot off the wires from a usually reliable source, doesn't bode well.


Many tough issues to tackle, says President,

attempting to rally his athletic supporters

Heureux chemins!