Sunday, October 21, 2007

I KNEW I should've brought long underwear!


Winter has descended without warning like the cold blade of the guillotine, SNICK!, and the faces around us wear expressions of offended surprise not unlike those I imagine to have been worn by that revolutionary machine's victims, our neighbors' ancestors. We live among their descendants, whose demeanor says as clearly as that of an aristocrat on the tumbril, "How dare they do this to ME!" , 'they' being in this case the weather gods. We wouldn't mind so much, but our landlord, among many others, was taken by surprise and the heating oil hasn't been delivered yet, so we're clad in multiple layers shivering in our apartment. The boiler should be fueled, up and running by Wednesday, we've been assured by the landlord's daughter, a charming and friendly young woman who also invited us to come downstairs (we live on the top, third, floor of their old stone farmhouse) and huddle in front of the fireplace. She's as cold as we are, but whereas we wear sweats and hoods, she, because the French have certain standards to maintain, swathes herself in elegant scarves. Saturday was the first cold day (today is Monday) and Sunday we took a long walk through the woods and fields surrounding our house (see photos). We're heading off to Paris (doesn't that sound just too too jet-set?) for a few days at the end of the week, during Mike's first school break, and, wouldn't you know it, it's REALLY cold there.

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The Rugby World Cup is over and France has been put out of its misery, but not before a lot of pain, false hope and humiliation. They played in the 3rd-place game, a disappointment in itself, against Argentina, who had already beaten them once, and they lost again. The French team is the perennial bridesmaid of the world cup: always close but have never caught the bouquet. The match was sloppy, mean and ill-tempered on both sides from kickoff with a lot of stupid penalties and outbursts of violence. (Outbursts of violence? In rugby? How could you tell the difference?) That was Saturday. On Sunday South Africa won the cup by defeating England in another less-than-artistic, defensive struggle. England, although the defending title holders, had become the cinderella team of the tournament because of their steady improvement since having been annihilated 36-0 by S. Africa a few weeks ago during the round-robin pool phase. But in real life, I guess the slipper doesn't always fit. That's why we have fairy tales!
My sudoku-playing friends and relatives (Yes, you, Dad!) will be interested to learn, as I was, that the village about which I wrote so glowingly a couple weeks ago, La Roque d'Antheron, has another jewel in its crown that I didn't know about at the time. Turns out they are the proud hosts of one of the regional sudoku elmination tournaments (that's IN ADDITION to the classical music festival! What a hotbed of culture!) that leads on to the next round, which leads on the next round, etc., until the French National Sudoko Championnat. The winners of which move on, I assume, to the, European, International and Intergalactic championships. I was working at Powell's when the sudoku monster devoured America, and it was amazing, and instructive, to see it happen. One day, there were 2 sudoku books, the next day there were 2000. And half were by Will Shortz. I personally have never even attempted one. The aficionados extol its addictiveness, but since I'm already strung out on the Guardian and London Times crosswords, I dare not risk it.
The nationwide transportation strike, more of a demonstration, really, happened last Thursday, with aftereffects lasting until Saturday. The trains were most affected, a few flights were cancelled and everyone got home in time to watch Les Bleus lose on Friday. Some of the unions are hard line, but a couple have expressed a willingness to talk things over with the government, which these days means Nicolas Sarkozy, so it'll be interesting to see what happens. Will the labor movement be split? Sarkozy's cabinet, to which he appointed people of various political stripes, even socialists, is beginning to show signs of strain, too. And how about Iran? And Russia? All these questions, all these problems. But, to tell the truth, in the mind of the French public they all fade into insignificance before the REALLY IMPORTANT ISSUE of the day:
LE DIVORCE and its aftermath.

I'm not going to dwell on this sordid subject. I believe that politicians are people too, sort of; and that they have feelings that we can recognize as such with a little effort, deeply hidden maybe, a little twisted, but feelings nonetheless; and that they have a right to a private life away from the constant scrutiny of the public, so they can loosen up and reclaim their authentic personal narrative, even if it includes chapters of fraud, chicanery, adultery, nepotism, blackmail, egomania, etc. So, as I say, I'm not going to dwell on it. The photo below, from the front page of La Provence, says it all anyway.
Cecilia is getting a lot of sympathetic press. She's being described as a private person who can't handle the constant limelight and who made an honorable and honest attempt to patch things up after their separation a couple years ago, but it didn't work out. One of my favorite quotes (which I forgot to cut out and will therefore paraphrase) was from Cecilia regarding life with Nicolas after he was elected president. It was something to the effect that "it was like giving a violinist a Stradivarius. All he wants to do from then on is play his fiddle."
But the French move quickly and are already asking, "Et maintenant?" ("What now?"). For example, in one of the recent newspapers appeared a photo (which I also forgot to cut out) of a noted French yachtswoman - I should say a "noted, statuesque, French yachtswoman" - running toward the camera from out of the surf, like Aphrodite herself. She was smiling, windblown, sun-bronzed and her thin cotton dress clung like a wet t-shirt. She was identified as a "friend" of the president, who, according to the book written about him on the campaign trail, is quite flirtatious himself. C'est la vie! C'est l'amour! We anxiously await developments.
That's it for now. I guess I can put my mittens back on. Au revoir.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The grapes are in, the Bleus are out!

Instead of gallivanting off to another exotic locale this Sunday for our weekly field trip, we decided to explore our home village, Eguilles. We had begun to suspect that there was more to the place than we'd thus far discovered, and, indeed, when we went a block or two off the main drag a whole new world opened up. We stayed in the older part of the village, around the top of the hill, where the streets are narrow and crooked and the houses are multi-storied and butt right up against each other. The newer neighborhoods which surround the central core are on flatter land and mostly covered with the French equivalent of subdivisions, or tracts, filled with the middle-class Frenchman's idea of the good life: single-family houses surrounded by walls, many on dead-end streets. Unlike the classic American style of a big open front yard, which seems to say welcomingly,"Hey, c'mon in. Don't pay any attention to those bars on the windows," the French home remains aloof, distant, and mysterious, pointedly suggesting that it would be best if you just kept on walkin'. I suppose the style has evolved from the fortresses which made life possible during two millennia of invasion and war, both civil and foreign, like many European buildings
which present a forbidding aspect to the passer-
by but have beautiful gardens behind the walls.

These are some shots we took on our walk.
Lois and Mike are sitting on the patio of the
local Tabac, a key local institution which
dispenses newspapers, magazines, alcohol,
tobacco, coffee, etc., and is the real nerve center of Eguilles.

The grapes have been harvested and the growers are painstakingly pruning the vines by hand and burning the debris, which generates dense irritating smoke. This carcinogenic cloud blankets the whole area. It's bad enough that we're close to the Etang de Berre, a sort of giant
lake or inland sea, which is ringed by factories and is one of the most polluted areas (both air and water) in Europe. You'd think the wind would disperse the smog but it just seems to drive it into every corner of the province. A common sight in the mornings as we drive Mike to school is the leathery grape farmer standing out in the fields by his fire, stirring the embers while wreathed in its smoke and puffing away on a cigarette.

This is a picture of Sam Rindy, a French artist of Cambodian descent who planted a big kiss on a painting by some guy named Twombly while it was being exhibited in Martigues or Avignon or somewhere in the vicinity. You may have heard about this where you are. The painting (not the one in the photo), valued at 2 million euros or dollars or cowrie shells, I forget which, is pure white, Sam was wearing thick red lipstick, and IT WON'T COME OFF!! This is a BIG SCANDAL here, and her adventures in court have been reported and followed avidly since they began a couple of months ago. She claims that she was overcome by artistic passion, that the smooch was her tribute to the artist, and it seems to have evoked the sympathy of the court, because she's only being fined a paltry 4500 euros, or maybe wampum belts (which, at the exchange rate currently in operation courtesy of the financial wizardry of the Bush administration, is about $30,000,000. ) Ars longa, vita brevis, I think the phrase is.

I was reading "Beloved" by Toni Morrison this week when I suddenly realized why I like sports. Because it's one of the rare human activities that, although taken "seriously" by the participants and fans, doesn't involve people trying to kill, enslave, lie to, sell snake oil to or steal from other people. It's always a relief to reach the sports section of the paper, of whatever country, after wading through War, Politics, Bizness, Beautiful Celebrities, etc. So that's my epiphany and I'm stickin' to it.

Speaking of sports (a subtle segue, no?), the picture below says it all. What a headline!

What a photo! What a disaster! The French rugby team, Les Bleus, went down to defeat at the hands, and feet, of the perfidious Albionese - the Brits. I supported Les Bleus, of course, in my position as an honorary temporary Frenchie, and was shocked to discover that my son, whom I've sheltered in my bosom, so to speak, all these years was actually rooting for the English! (My English friend Jon says that the phrase "rooting for" isn't used in the same sense in England as in the colonies, i.e., as a synonym for supporting, encouraging or championing. He says it has an altogether different and obscene connotation. And knowing him as I do, I'm sure he knows whereof he speaks.) Actually, the English Lions are my second favorite. Against all odds they've had an inspiring cup run and will meet their nemeses, the Springboks of South Africa, in the final. I was hoping they'd meet, and the Lions would get their revenge, in the third-place match and that France and Argentina, who lost to S. Africa in the Sunday semifinal, would meet in the final. So I got the matchups I wanted, at least.

France's number one sports fan, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was seen leaping into the air with joy after the victory of Les Bleus over New Zealand (at least I think he was leaping. It's hard to tell with a guy who's 5'4"), has certainly experienced his share of ups and downs lately, also. He met with Vladimir Putin, czar of Russia, at their joint induction into the Hall of Fame of Big Statesmen in Small Bodies, joining Attilla the Hun and Napoleon, where they tried to divide up the world but were stymied by their differing views on human rights, Iran and solid neckties vs. striped. (Although they were in complete agreement on the dark gray suit issue.)

Hard on the heels of that disappointment, the various official organs of the French government have begun to acknowledge what everyone else has known for weeks, that the President and First Lady Cecilia Sarkozy (referred to by some of the press as the "Invisible Woman" for her conspicuous absence from official functions since her husband's election)
will be getting a divorce in the near future. Constitutional scholars have been poring over the records to see if there is a precedent for the divorce of a head of state while in office. On top of everything else, the mid-term local election campaign is in full swing and the UMP, Sarkozy's party, may not do as well as anticipated, due in part to his own diminishing popularity among the voters. Not to mention the one-day transport strike (our first French strike! I'm so excited!) scheduled for Thursday.

To combat this plague of bad news and evil omens, the President today unveiled a new strategy which he believes will reassure his conservative supporters by underlining his commitment to traditional values: human sacrifice.

"It worked for our ancestors, the Gauls," he said after the first implementation of the new policy (see below), "it worked for Salome, it worked for Robespierre, and I see no reason why it shouldn't work for us today."


"THIS oughta cure her headaches ",

enthuses concerned husband

Au revoir!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Mon Dieu, what a week!

On Thursday we drove to Marseilles for our long-awaited appointment with destiny, i.e., the French immigration department, to see if we would be deemed worthy of continued residence on Gallic soil. We had, of course, in what is becoming routine preparation for all bureaucratic encounters, spent a couple days scanning and printing multiple copies of every piece of paper we could find which might serve as evidence, however slight, of our identities, financial condition, place of domicile, children, if any, insurance coverage (VERY important), state of


health, etc. etc. We had taken photos of ourselves in one of those little coin-operated booths, 4 identical copies, passport-size. We collated, paper-clipped, stapled and folded sheaves of documents. It all began to feel eerily familiar, like deja-vu. Hmmm! How strange. I wonder what - wait a minute! We did all this before, a few months ago when we applied for our visas, even to the hectic drive into the bowels of a major city during rush hour (in that instance, San Francisco), even to the identical, passport-sized photos. What do they think - that we've changed so much in 6 months they need new up-to-date portraits? Actually, they're right. I've aged prematurely from all the paperwork.
I must say, seriously, that, despite what we'd heard


about French officialdom ("unfriendly", "rigid", "sadistic", "the inspiration for the works of Kafka", etc.) we have always found the people with whom we've dealt to be truly helpful. They are thorough, professional, formal in the French
manner, and this can seem unfriendly, but when they see that you're taking it all seriously enough to at least try to get it right, they warm up, become supportive and a sense of humor emerges. (There, that should get me in good with their surveillance agencies).

Being there (the immigration bureau) was in some ways like reliving what I imagine our immigrant ancestors experienced on Ellis Island. There were people from all over the world, the big rooms had that universal "government office" feel, we all stood there nervously clutching our little sweat-stained bundles of papers, hoping, hoping. I really felt a sort of helplessness, like that described by Kafka, of a powerless nonentity at the mercy of unknown, probably malign, forces. The "take a number and be seated until you're called" machine was out of order, a nice touch, but somehow everyone muddled through, there was a shared commiserative we're-all-in-this-together feeling and no one stormed out in a rage.

The upshot is that it looks like we'll be permitted to enjoy the privilege of staying here for another 10 or so months.

But enough about us. We're just tiny protoplasmic microcellules in the vast universal organism which has evolved for billions of years in order to produce that crown of creation, the Rugby World Cup, and those most divine participants in the essence thereof, the French national team, Les Bleus. The world of rugby was shaken to its foundations on Saturday, first by England, who won the last World Cup 4 years ago by beating Australia in the final, but who have been stumbling ever since and who were shut out 36-0 in this one by S. Africa during the round-robin opening phase. They were counted out by everybody but have been slowly coming together and beat an overwhelmingly favored Australia AGAIN Saturday morning in the sudden-death quarterfinals. Major trauma down under. But wait! There's more! A few hours later, France, who are hosting the Cup but who lost their opening match against Argentina, played (cue the fanfare) NEW ZEALAND, the Gods of Rugby who are always favored whenever and whomever they play, and Sacre Bleu! they beat THEM too! I actually read in the paper today that the stock markets in NZ and Australia are expected to slump and coaches have already quit in disgrace. So next week France and England will meet in one semi-final and Argentina and South Africa, both very good teams, will meet in the other. I'd like to see France and Argentina in the final with Les Bleus getting sweet revenge for their opening defeat, and England getting THEIR revenge against South Africa in the 3rd place game. Allez Bleus!

Oh, I forgot! When we were walking down the Rue de Rome in Marseilles after our interrogation by the immigration people, we passed within arms' length of 2 of England's players, Mike Catt and Matt Stevens, who are about the size of a linebacker and a defensive tackle, respectively, (my attention was first drawn to them because Stevens weighs 260 and has NO NECK). They were casually strolling along, shopping bags in hand, clad in these pedal-pusher, capri-style mid-calf-length pants that seem to be all the rage now, at least here, where males of all ages are wearing them. Even guys older than ME! With tank tops.

The local soccer team, Olympique Marseilles, continues its Jekyll/Hyde season. They were expected to contend for the league championship but started out terribly, the coach was fired, a new one was hired, a faint hope was kindled which burst into a mighty blaze of optimism when OM beat Liverpool, a perennial power, in Liverpool in a Champions' League match. The relief was short-lived, however, because they then proceeded to lose another French Ligue 1 match and are now in danger of (horrors!) relegation to Ligue 2 next season. That's sports for ya'!

On Sunday we drove to Salernes, a village in the Haut-Var about 50 miles or so northeast of here noted for its ceramics. All the pottery places were closed but the market in the square was in full swing and we walked around, had lunch, walked around some more and fished the La Brecque on the way home. Autumn is just gorgeous here, and we discovered an extremely scenic route home along the base of Mont St. Victoire.

And then there's politics. Or rather, the soap opera that politics have become. Up until recently the private lives of politicians were shrouded from public view by an unspoken understanding between the bigwigs and the press, which allowed all kinds of weirdness, corruption and hanky-panky to flourish in the shadows. Government officials had secret bank accounts, parallel families, scandalous affairs, and little of it became public knowledge. (That's 'knowledge' as opposed to 'suspicion". The French have a deeply-ingrained, permanent suspicion of all government and its funtionaries.) Lately, though, they've gotten in step with the march toward celebrity culture (or anti-culture) as perfected by the unholy marriage of Showbiz and Marketing in the States, and now there are no secrets anymore. And the situation the last year has provided plenty of grist for the rumor mills. First, Nicolas and Cecilia (the Prez and First Lady, or Premiere Dame) briefly separated 2 years ago and she was hanging out with some American advertising executive (Perfect! She's a former model and TV personality.) until her husband flew over and brought her back (dragging her by the hair? Naah.). Sarkozy's main rival for the presidency was Segolene Royal, a Socialist who had lived with her party's chairman, Francois Holland, for years, long enough to have had 4 kids together. During the campaign, though, one of the big periodicals (Paris Match, maybe) assigned a beautiful young woman reporter to cover Holland's activities and, voila, they fell in love, he was photographed kissing her feet at the beach (I'm serious, I saw the picture) and he left Segolene. She recently declared herself recovered from the trauma and ready to re-enter the political arena. Now, Cecilia Sarkozy is coming under increasing criticism for some erratic behavior, especially her propensity to absent herself from official functions under some lame pretext. She snubbed the Bushes when on vacation in New Hampshire this summer, pleading illness to avoid a Bush Family Barbecue (Now doesn't that sound like fun?) but was seen shopping; she didn't turn up for the official dinner of the G8 ruling powers; and just the other day she skipped a visit to Bulgaria with Nick where she was to be honored for her part in getting some Bulgarian nurses freed by Libya. Now rumors are swirling to the effect that the First Couple is on the brink of another separation or divorce, and the electorate is eating it up. But we here at Unutterable Gaul are happy to be able to lay these rumors to rest. Our exclusive sources have informed us that Cecilia has rejoined her husband on the campaign trail (see last week's post) and is brimming over with the milk of human kindness.




Au revoir until we meat again. Tom

Monday, October 1, 2007

Love at first sight and other sports

It's a common enough story: Middle-aged man visits foreign country, falls madly but inappropriately in love and suddenly the life he's been living ever since he can remember seems pointless, empty and impossible to bear any longer. You've read it in novels, seen it in theaters and heard it discussed on daytime TV, but I assure you it really happens. It happened to me.

Yesterday we visited La Roque d'Antheron, a smallish village north of here on the banks (or almost) of the Durance, a village seemingly identical to dozens of others we've visited with no noticeable after-effects, but this time I lost my heart! Maybe it was the charming town square, the Place de la Republique (most communities regardless of size have one), the renowned classical music festival which runs for several months each year, the imposing chateau which seems to have been ingeniously converted into a Clinique Dietetique (what used to be called a fat farm), or the adolescent pizza-eating bacteria (see below). Anyway, it seemed to epitomize everything I'd want in a place to call home (did I mention the fishing in the Durance) if for some reason I was cruelly exiled from Portland and cast out onto foreign shores, there to eke out a meaningless existence far from friends and family. (But not, thank god, from Italian food)

The virtues of La Roque had been extolled to us by the mother of one of Mike's classmates at a wine and cheese party which was held at the school on Friday night. We had been somewhat apprehensive about attending but it was great fun. Many of the people there had moved frequently about the world due to their own jobs or, in childhood, the work of their parents, or both, so it was a very cosmopolitan gathering. Many of the couples were bi-cultural, the woman from one country (Malaysia, for example) and the man from another (say, Scotland). The english-speakers gradually ended up clustered together near one of the outdoor heaters (it was held outside under pollarded plane, or sycamore, trees) and got delightfully silly, conversing raucously in variously-accented English, the new lingua franca of the age. A good time was had by all, in part, I'm sure, because we all left the kids at home! We were free, freed from the shackles of parental respectability for one glorious evening! And what a relief to meet some kindred spirits because we know some of the parents at this school are, well, clearly suffering, and not in silence, from terminal affluenza, poor things!

Lois has been actively integrating herself into the local scene, finding and joining activities that interest her. As I write this on Monday evening, she's at her first choir practice with an amateur choir composed of residents of our village, Eguilles. They are beginning preparation of Carmina Burana for presentation later in the season. She attends yoga class on Tuesdays in Aix and just signed up for Intermediate French for Parents offered by Mike's school. Vous allez, Grrl!

We're planning our first family trip to Paris at end of October during the first of Mike's two-week school breaks. We think we'll take the high-speed TGV train and spend 4 days in Paris, after which we have the pleasure of welcoming some friends and our niece Heidi for a visit with us.

And now the important stuff: The French rugby team, Les Bleus, have advanced to the quarter-finals of the World Cup!!! That's the good news. The bad news is that they have to play the fearsome New Zealand All-Blacks, who are overwhelmingly favored to win it all. However, there's more good news: the All-Blacks have been overwhelmingly favored to win it all every time the World Cup has been held (every 4 years since 1987) and they've only won it once, in its inaugural year. But then there's more bad news: the match is being held in Cardiff, which I think is in Wales, despite France being the host. Inscrutable are the ways of the International Rugby Federation. The round-robin, or pool, stage is over and the matches from now on are sudden-death, so the drama is heightened to an almost Euripidean pitch. (Pitch? Is that a pun?) There are 8 teams remaining so there will be 2 matches on Saturday and 2 on Sunday, all broadcast on free TV, available even out here in the sticks, so Mike and I and most of France are agog with anticipation.

It's been a quiet week for our favorite continental chief of state, Nicolas Sarkozy. True, he did address the 6 billion inhabitants of Planet Earth via the United Nations, lectured the world's leaders on their economic and environmental responsibilities, visibly lost his patience with some interviewers (hey, they're only journalists, y'know) and threatened Iran with nuclear annihilation, but that left a couple days free, so he went to the country to promote his reforms. The old campaigner hasn't lost his touch, as the photograph below, an Unudderable Gaul exclusive, demonstrates. He had the audience eating out of his hand. Alfalfa, maybe. C'est comme ca! Tom

Steaks future on reform mooovement
"Voice of the people will be herd!", he vows