Monday, December 24, 2007

Joyeux Noel!

Bon soir!

There's a little voice in the back of my head which is always ready to pipe up and reinforce my natural inclination to procrastinate by saying,"Don't worry, you can always do it later/tomorrow/next year/etc." But since we won't be here next year, another voice has been making itself heard, and it subverts the other one by warning, "Hey, you've only got one chance to do this!" So this week we heeded the second voice and plunged into holiday activities with wild abandon. Here are pictures of some of the events.

Wednesday afternoon, Mike's music class sang during an outdoor Christmas market at his school.

Thursday night we attended a concert of 14th and 15th century carols from Italy, Catalonia and Spain in the Eguilles community center, but I forgot the camera. Friday afternoon Mike's school had their Christmas pageant, and his choir performed again, but I didn't really get any good pictures.

Saturday night we went into Aix to attend a concert by a youth choir in an ancient chapel, Chapelle des Oblats, which is located at the top end of the Cours Mirabeau, the main street. We were early so we walked around the festive byways for a while. This choir is a rigorously trained one and it seems that the kids have already decided on careers in music. They were accompanied by a harp, and sang interesting stuff: some Rig Veda hymns (!) by Holst and the Ceremony of Carols by Britten, with a Debussy piece for harp in between. They were fabulous! Chills up the spine, and all that. Even Mike was impressed.

The statue is of the legendary Good King Rene of Provence, who made Aix his capital.

On Saturday, we drove a few miles north to the village of Rognes for the truffle festival, along with several thousand other interested spectators. There were dozens of vendors selling everything you can imagine, including traditionally prepared pork (I couldn't resist this photo opportunity) and, of course, the festival's raison d'etre, truffles. As you can see from the sign beside the basket, demand for the "black pearls" is outstripping supply, and the price had been adjusted accordingly. Yes, that's 1400 euros (about $2000) per kilo, a mere $900 or so a pound. We stuck our heads in the baskets and inhaled deeply, for free, (the smell is so earthy and rich that it's almost like eating one) and ate scrambled-egg-and-truffle sandwiches for 7 euros each. We ended up buying a block of chocolate with hazelnuts, some tapenade, biscotti, apples, brioche and probably something else, so we feel we did our part to support the local economy.

We decided to forego midnight mass tonight, but in penance we attended an earlier mass in the village church in which local children act out the story of the nativity. The place was absolutely packed to the rafters with at least three generations of Eguillans and overflowing out into the square. There was no choir (they're saving themselves for Midnight Mass) but the congregation sang several hymns, in which we were able to join because the programs included some of the words. The priest spoke vigorously and with humor (or so I deduced from the chuckling around me), the kids paraded before us clad as the characters from the manger, communion was offered, carols were sung, etc. I haven't been in a catholic church for probably 40 years or so, but I'm glad we went.

We want to offer our best wishes for happy holidays to everyone, with the hope that we will all see more peace on earth and goodwill in the days and years to come. And we hope that you have something as sinfully delicious to indulge in during this season as the buche noel shown below, just moments before it was sliced up and sacrificed to our ravenous appetites.
Singing carols is hungry work.

Best wishes!
Joyeuse Fetes!
Lois, Tom and Mike

Monday, December 17, 2007

Get a Horse! Or a Reindeer! Or a 12 Million Dollar Bichon Frise!


On our first drive into Aix-en-Provence back in July, I accidentally drove our rental van uphill the wrong way up a long, cobblestone street lined with steel stanchions which was barely wide enough for a single car. I was still suffering jet lag and was in a state of severe culture shock (I hadn't had time yet to fully appreciate the unique French approach to driving and was distracted by the chaos unfolding before my windshield) and didn't realize what I had done until I was about halfway up the alley. Just as we managed to interpret the meaning of the "Do Not Enter" sign which I had blithely driven past and the enormity of the situation hit me I glimpsed a narrow slice of blue sky at the top of the hill in front of us and realized, with a pounding heart, that we just might make it after all if the gods smiled upon us. Though if I'd remembered Shakespeare, I'd have remembered that like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they tear our wings off for their sport (I'm paraphrasing) and would've been better prepared for what followed. For no sooner had hope flickered fitfully in my breast than a sleek, predatory-looking white sports car tore around the corner and came at us headfirst down the hill. The driver, a grizzled grey-haired guy who looked like a mafioso, screeched to a halt and glared at me in disbelief. I gestured in the universal sign-language of helplessness, hoping to inspire sympathetic understanding, hoping that he would back up just a little bit and let me out, but he just sneered and began driving slowly but inexorably toward us. After all, he was indubitably right and I was equally indubitably wrong, and there were signs all around to prove it. So what could I do? I started backing up. Down the hill backwards, narrowly missing the posts that lined the way (it was a rental VAN, remember), craning my neck, peering from one mirror to another, yelling for guidance from Mike in the back seat, I could see that my antagonist was becoming amused. A crowd gathered to watch. Finally I reached safety, slumped back exhausted in my seat, the spectators applauded (I don't know if they really did but they should have!) and my evil nemesis roared away in a cloud of exhaust, bound for one of Dante's deepest subterranean levels, I hope. I had thought that this nightmarish event would be the nadir of my driving experience while in France, never to be surpassed for sheer horror, but, gentle reader, how wrong I was.

There are 2 garages in Eguilles, Garage A, the authorized Renault service, and Garage B, an independent, somewhat scruffy-looking operation. Garage A had installed a new tailpipe and muffler for us some time ago, which I wrote about in an earlier blog, but it wasn't done right and a rubber gasket-thing kept falling off and the whole car would start rattling like it was in its death throes. I learned how to reattach the gasket, and didn't think it was important enough to take back for repair. Two months ago I had taken our car, a 1996 Renault Clio, to them for an oil change. Because we have to ferry Mike to and from school, it's absolutely essential that we have the car by 4:00 in the afternoon, a fact which I went to great pains to make clear to them. "Oh, sure!" they assured me. "It'll be ready." When I returned I got these surprised looks, as if to say "What? You thought we were serious?", and the information that they hadn't even started yet. So I drove off in a huff. At the earliest opportunity I took it to Garage B. They noticed that the windshield was cracked and that my insurance covered it in full, so they changed the oil and replaced the windshield. Oh good, I thought, a prompt, reliable mechanic. Since it doesn't rain very often here it was a good 2 or 3 weeks before we got in the car one morning after a heavy overnight downpour to discover that the blasted thing was leaking like a sieve. The seats were soaked, the felt-like material on the ceiling was dripping and every time we turned a corner, the centrifugal force caused a spate of cold water to fly out of the compartment on the ceiling which holds the inside passenger lights. When I turned right, the water flew out to the left, and when I turned left, vice-versa. So I kept meaning to take it in but hadn't gotten around to it when, a week ago Friday afternoon (of course! Does most car trouble occur on Friday afternoons, just when mechanics are closing up shop for the weekend? Why, yes, I believe it does.) the car died in the village as I was on my way to pick Mike up. I was able to leave it parked, take a bus downtown, rent a car from Hertz and pick Mike up on time, thereby minimizing the trauma. On the following Monday I had it towed to Garage A, they replaced the battery (and, incidentally, replaced the tailpipe gasket-thing) and I picked it up on Wednesday. The proprietor asked a few gentle leading questions and finally gave it as his opinion that this car was one of the thousands that been partially submerged during severe flooding in Nimes in 2003 and had then been eased surreptitiously onto the used car market. Aha! I had just been reading about this flood, and this revelation explained a lot, like how the tailpipe had rusted completely through. When your car has been up to its door handles in muddy water, there are bound to be problems.

So I paid the man and drove directly to Garage B to have the windshield, which was guaranteed, reinstalled correctly but on the way I noticed that the turn signals, which had always functioned perfectly, weren't working. Friday afternoon (this last Friday) Lois took the rental car to pick Mike up and drive to Aix to return said rental and I went to pick up our car from Gargage B. Windshield done, no charge, no problem. I call her from the middle of dense downtown Aix rush-hour traffic to tell her I'm just a few blocks away and to go ahead and sign the rental back in when - may the sky fall on my head if I'm not telling the absolute truth - I notice the dash lights getting kind of dim and the BLINKIN' CAR BLOODY DIES!!! Right by the entrance/exit to the largest public underground parking lot in Aix, at 6:00 on Friday!! The walls of Jericho would have fallen in 2 seconds flat to the cacophonous blast of horns that rent the evening air when traffic came to a halt and I put my flashers on. Hell hath no fury like a French commuter delayed, especially on the way to the weekend. I was able to push the car a couple of blocks (slightly downhill, thank goodness) with the help of a sympathetic passerby and find a parking spot, where I left it over the weekend with an explanatory note in the window. Fortunately, as I mentioned, I was near the Hertz office, where Lois and Mike had just returned the rental car. I called her and she re-rented the same car and we drove home and had pizza and watched some BBC nature DVD's. (Thanks, Donna and Dennis. We opened the present a little early. Hope that's okay.) Although, to tell you the truth, I was more than a little uneasy watching those innocent, unsuspecting big-eyed prey animals being savagely grabbed and gobbled up by sharks, crocodiles, tigers, wild dogs, etc. Reminded me too much of me at the mechanic's, if you know what I mean. On the drive home we had noticed that Garage A was still open so we pulled in and I told the boss what had happened. He told me to come back in Monday (today) and we'd have it towed in again.

So this morning, after dropping Mike off at school, I returned to the garage and rode with the tow-truck driver into Aix, after he dropped off a mangled Renault Twingo at another garage en route, and we retrieved our car. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised that it hadn't been towed away by the gendarmes. The driver, Mumu (that's what he said) and I had a great time discussing politics (Mumu doesn't much care for W! Surprise!), kids, cars, and France. By "discussing" I mean he would rattle off a stream of mostly incomprehensible French while I nodded intelligently and then I would respond in broken Franglais to what I hoped he had said. It actually worked out pretty well. Surprisingly, we never got around to sports, although I DID learn that he himself is not a fisherman, but his brother is! By this afternoon the master mechanics at Garage A had determined that it needed, not just a battery, but an alternator and some other mysterious parts the translations of which I can't find anywhere, so I don't know what they are except that they're elements of the electrical system. The car'll be ready on Wednesday. If this doesn't fix it, we've resolved to give it to an automotive school or something and lease a car for the remaining 7 months of our stay. Well, thanks for letting me whine. I mean, "share". I certainly feel better. How about you?

I can't believe I forgot to mention, in the last blog, one of the true highlights of the Mimet village Christmas festival: a version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" sung as part of the grand finale by the conjoined forces of the 5 adult choirs which had performed earlier in the evening. When I heard those unmistakable "A-weem-o-way"s, a chill ran up my spine. The words were in French, of course, and we couldn't really understand them, so it wasn't until afterwards that we found a program and discovered that they had actually been singing "Le Lion Mort Ce Soir", which is The Lion Dies This Evening, and which may, for all I know, be the authentic title in its original African language. It would be just like the American recording industry to sanitize it, presumably to protect us from the grim realities.

I read about the death of Peg Bracken, author of the "I Hate to Cook Book" and many others. She and her husband, her 4th, used to come into Wilf's when I was working there and I had the pleasure of waiting on them numerous times, and it was always fun, but one had to be on one's toes. She was very civilized but a real live wire, sharp as a tack, with a roguish twinkle in her eye. I guess former journalists are like that. More recently I had seen her in Powell's when she returned to Portland during visits from Hawaii, where she spent the last few years. I'm glad I got to know her a little.

The photo above accompanied an article in La Provence about a study conducted in Sweden, the astounding result of which is the discovery that Santa, to discharge his Christmas duties (to wit, 2.5 million stops, assuming delivery of toys to all children regardless of country of residency, ethnic background or religious preference) would have to travel at a speed of 5,800 kilometers per SECOND (that's about, uh, let's see, 3500 miles per second). This allows him 34 microseconds at each stop, total, to descend the chimney, deposit the presents, eat the cookies, drink the milk, ascend the chimney, and take off for the next stop. Pretty impressive. I wonder who funded the study. This article appeared next to one about Leona Helmsley's dog, to which she left 12 million dollars, and which eats gourmet food off of silver plates. I know (do I ever!) that the dollar ain't what it used to be, but really!! I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise, though. Leona was always so generous.

We bought a sapin de noel (christmas tree) today. They're pretty dinky and shockingly expensive, at least here in the south (they're imported from Denmark), but it's worth it; it's only been here a few hours and already the living room smells wonderful. Like home. I'll send pictures next time when it's decorated.

Mike and his music class are singing tomorrow at a school christmas fete, then again more formally on Friday, and we've talked about going to Midnight Mass in the village on christmas eve, as well as attending a village christmas carol party at the community center (Salle Georges Duby. I think he was a historian, but I'm not sure.) on Thursday. I'll let you know how things went in the next post.

It's been 2 months since Le Divorce, and President Sarkozy, like the champion fighter that he is, has kept us dazzled with his fancy footwork, feinting here, jabbing there, backpedaling, all the while concealing his true intentions and setting us up for the roundhouse right, which came out of nowhere on Monday. You've probably read about this already, but you can imagine the effect it's had here in La Belle France. He was photographed with the woman who may indeed be the next Premiere Dame of France, Carla Bruni, former supermodel and current singer. (Photographed where? Why, Eurodisney, of course.) This continues the disturbing trend noted in this space ere now of high-level French politicos marrying showbiz personalities. It makes you wonder, doesn't it? Clearly they more openly acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between politics and entertainment, which is after all just the newest incarnation of the tried-and-true bread and circuses approach to government. The appearance of the couple promenading through Never-Never Land was quickly recognized as another manifestation of what is becoming acknowledged as Sarko's overarching strategy, or modus operandus, that is, dazzle the unwashed masses with front page gossip while making the real decisions in secret. It's been referred to as publicizing his private life (the "peopleization" of politics) while privatizing the work of government, i.e., meeting with union leaders over lunch instead of in an official public forum. The decisions and agreements reached at these tetes-a-tetes affect the whole country, after all, but coverage of them is relegated to the back pages because the front pages are already full. The media is/are becoming aware that they're being cleverly manipulated and the editorial pages are very colorful lately. I think Carla would make a great first lady because of her what you might call vocational experience. She's had serious relationships with, among others, Mick Jagger; Arno Klarsfeld, the well-known activist lawyer and a friend of Sarko; editor Jean-Paul Enthoven; and then his son, philosopher Raphael Enthoven. How's THAT for a resume'?

I've tried not to complain too much about how cold it is here, but I must mention that an article in today's paper revealed that the French record for consumption of electricity in a 24-hour period was shattered yesterday, which is attributed to the unusual cold spell (or "cold wave", as they say here) we've been having. It's been below freezing for several nights and is expected to reach the mid-20's tonight. The photo below, though horizontal, shows me ready to depart for a jog through the countryside clad in my seasonal athletic garb. No, it's not gore-tex (I'LL show these people a thing or two about style!). Michael refuses to accompany me when I'm dressed like this for fear that someone will see us and... and what? Report us to the fashion police? Snicker in that annoying nasal French way? "I'll tell you what," I tell him. "You get rid of those calf-length camouflage pants and t-shirts with skulls on them and I'll get a new sweatsuit, OK?"

We hope you and your families have a relaxed but exciting, peaceful but festive week-before-the-holidays. Best wishes from our house to yours.

Joyeux fetes!

Lois, Tom and Michael

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dear Santa, What's That Reindeer Doing?


I wrote some time ago about the malls here exploding into Christmas frenzy just like the ones at home, and here are the pictures to prove it. These figures, the Santa and the multitude of others, most of which aren't shown here, have sophisticated animatronic capability so it's a dazzling spectacle of sound and movement. I only wish I could have captured on pixel the gentle bleating of the sheep wagging their little tails, the donkey braying and wiggling his ears, the chuckling of Santa as he rings his bell and turns his head from side to side surveying the passing multitudes ("Hey, you! Yeah, you with the grocery cart! Have you been good this year?"), and the contented lowing of the oxen as they chew their cud and defecate in their stalls. Oh, wait a minute! Sorry. They're ALMOST that realistic, but not quite. There are also a couple of shots of the exterior of the mall, and one of Conan the Adolescent Barbarian being let out for the day. See the cage to his right (your left)?

We had met the parents of one of Mike's classmates at a school party back in the fall and Lois and the mom, Charlotte, have been taking French class together and have become good friends.
Charlotte asked if we would like to attend one of the many functions being held this past weekend throughout France in conjunction with the annual Telethon in aid of kids with genetically-transmitted diseases, this one in the village of Mimet, to see her son (and Mike's classmate) Benjamin, perform. So, of course, we said we'd love to. The village is one of the highest around, perched precariously on a mountaintop about 20 or so miles from here with a view, I'm told, to die for (we were there in the pitch blackness of a winter evening, which is even darker out in the country - I think I saw some lights off in the distance!) We arrived at the Salle des Fetes, the civic center of Mimet, in time for the last few numbers of one of the five adult choirs which was performing, as well as the grand finale in which all five joined. Then it was the kids' turn and the fun began. There were at least 20 acts, ranging from gangly teenagers playing electric guitars to tiny three-year olds singing duets. Benjamin came on at the end, by which time it was past many of the stars' bedtimes, so the crowd had thinned considerably, and it's too bad because they missed the undeniable highlight of the show. He sang two songs, one a French pop song I don't know, and "Imagine" by John Lennon, and didn't hit a single false note, even those really high ones. Then, after a short break, he came roaring back with a scaled-down, but still impressive, version of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer". He was great and received an ovation from the remaining crowd of die-hard music lovers. We feasted on baguette sandwiches, cold pizza, chips and pastries and a good time was had by all. Too bad I didn't take the camera. We achieved a notable "first" on the drive home: We didn't get lost! It was a lot less eventful than the drive from Charlotte's house, where we met, to Mimet. She was driving a new car with GPS for the first time and we were following. We were frequently reminded during the drive that the concept of the traffic roundabout ("rond-point") is a great one, in its accommodation of human frailties like indecision and slow reflexes; to wit, you can go around and around for as long as it takes to figure out which of the 4 or 5 alternative routes is the right one. And if it turns out not to be the right one, why, you just drive to the next roundabout, circle, and come back to try again.

The soap opera that has held all of France, and by now much of the rest of the world, in a sort of sick fascination, the Sarkozy presidency, has, just when you thought you'd heard everything, reached a whole new level. His Mother has spoken! As you can see below, her experience of his first two marriages has hardened her attitude toward the sacred institution of connubial bliss. One fears that her son's romantic tendencies may bring him into conflict with her expressed views, that even if he doesn't fall in love or succumb to the wiles of an ambitious temptress, the internal logic of the office of which he is the custodian may require a First Lady to fulfill its organic necessity, to bring it to completion. At first glance, it doesn't look good for the mother-son relationship. But that would be to underestimate his genius for the unexpected, for the grand gesture, the decisive action that comes out of nowhere and confounds all prognosticators. See below.

"In a shocking development which has caught the world completely off guard, President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed marriage to Generalissimo Moammar Khadafi today before a stunned press corps which had been summoned to the Generalissimo's traditional Bedouin tent, pitched on the lawn of the Elysee Palace during his state visit this week, and the Generalissimo accepted. When asked about the vigorous disapproval of Khadafi's visit expressed by members of his cabinet, the President responded, "They don't know what he's really like. Inside that cruel, megalomaniacal exterior he's just a sweet little pussycat. And anyway, my Maman thinks he's the best thing that could happen to me!" The world's newest "power couple" will wed in St. Tropez and honeymoon in Dubai.

Until next time.
Au revoir.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

If Mickey Rooney was in charge, the world would be a better place


No doubt you've read or heard about the riots that took place in Paris last week. The good news is that they only lasted 2 or 3 days and were strictly confined to 1 or 2 neighborhoods, unlike those in 2005 which spread to over 200 communities throughout France. The bad news is that the violence escalated to an unprecedented level, with rioters actually shooting at the police. Various commentators have pointed out that this is what defines a civil war. Although the French can seem to exaggerate the seriousness of some political developments (and underestimate the seriousness of others) this is quite scary. Apparently anyone in France can legally own a shotgun (rifles and handguns are another matter) and the gun shops in Paris were sold out in the course of those 2 days. Further bad news is that, despite the grand promises which were made at the time, not much has been done since 2005 to ameliorate the conditions in the banlieus (suburbs, which in France means the decaying high-rise ghettos ringing most cities) which, in the view of the Left, give rise to riots. (The Right blames it all on drugs and gangs.) Nicolas Sarkozy is President now but was the Interior Minister in 2005 and his remarks at the time are believed by many to have made things much worse than they would have been if he'd just kept quiet. Keeping quiet has not been one of his more conspicuous talents, but he does seem to be learning that it IS possible and even, sometimes, necessary. In many ways he's the antithesis of the typical French high-level functionary. He's the son of immigrants, he was abandoned by his father, was educated in schools considered distinctly inferior to those attended by the elites, has appointed ministers of North African descent to his cabinet and seems just idiosyncratic enough to confound everybody and do something really constructive about what is really a tangled mess. People who have lived in fear of dark-skinned Muslims for decades are now even more afraid of criminal gangs from Eastern Europe - witness the expulsion from Italy of thousands of Romanians after the commission of a brutal murder by one of their compatriots.

Whew! Okay! On a lighter note, we went to the neighboring village of Ventabren on Saturday because (1) we hadn't been there before, and (2) a Marche de Noel (christmas market) was being held in their civic center. En route, we stopped by the Aqueduc de Roquefavour pictured below. It was built in the 1840s and is part of the Canal de Marseilles, which carries water from the Durance north of us to that city. Also, and most significantly, it spans the Arc River which, as you can see, is a beautiful little stream on whose banks we'll probably be spending a lot of time once trout season opens. The village of Ventabren is perched on a big hill and offers magnificent views in all directions. (The time has come for my regular technological disclaimer:
I don't know how many photos will actually be visible to you at the end of this process. I up/downloaded 10, but as I'm typing on this draft screen, which is a whole different thing from the actual posting, I see 6 pictures and 4 little red xes.)

Last time I mentioned the French friend of our neighbors who was so helpful to us while we were making the arrangements for this sojourn (she's the one who likes "the malls"). She's also fascinated with Native American cultures, having studied them in university, and became acquainted with our neighbors through meeting one of their fathers during one of her visits to the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where he was a public health official. Anyway, she (Edit, ay-deet, Edith - these english keyboards don't have accents, more's the pity) and her 3 daughters came over for dinner Saturday night and we had a blast. Lois and I collaborated on an all-american meal of brined, breaded and fried chicken cutlets, cheesy scalloped potatoes, haricots verts - I mean green beans, salad and good ol' fresh baguette. Edit is completely bilingual but the girls (16, 14 and 11) are in various stages of learning English, nevertheless we all muddled through quite successfully, with the aid of the many dictionaries that are scattered around the house. The kids eventually seemed to get bored (imagine that!) with the adult conversation so they watched the beginning of "Princess Bride" on DVD in English with French subtitles and borrowed it to watch the rest.

Yesterday Mike, who's been playing rugby on Friday afternoons (and had the exciting experience of witnessing two of his equitation classmates being thrown from their horses today, one into the electric fence - "It's a good thing it wasn't turned on," he said. "She woulda been fried!") had a play date with one of his school friends. They walked into Aix with the friend's family to see a movie but got to the theatre a little late so decided to see it next week. The movie in question is "Beowulf", which I gather is a recent Hollywood 'treatment' of this oldest classic of english literature. I'm a little worried that my memory is finally going because I've read it a couple of times and can't for the life of me remember the Angelina Jolie character!

Be that as it may, fortunately for the frustrated cinemaphiles there was a christmas carnival in full swing right outside the doors of the theater at the Rotonde, which is the hub from which the main streets radiate, so they were able to meet their minimum movie requirement of truly horrible food - cotton candy (barbe a papa - papa's [or 'pope's?] beard) washed down with soda pop followed by Nutella crepes. (Nutella is a hypersweet viscous chocolate-hazelnut syrup! Like Pepsi, it can take the paint off cars. [Do you think that's true about Coke and Pepsi, or just a folktale? I've believed it for 50 years. Speaking of significant fractions of centuries, there was a great article about Mickey Rooney in yesterday's Times (the London one). He's 87, he's been married to his current wife, Jan, his 8th (that's EIGHTH), for thirty-five (35) years and he and she are currently appearing in a production of Cinderella at the Empire Theatre in Sunderland, England. His favorite foods are Waldorf salad, potato salad, spaghetti, piccalilli (I'm not really sure what that is) and ice cream, but I think the secret of his longevity is revealed in the following admission: "When I'm around the house I wear shorts and argyle socks." Gotta be the argyle. He closes the interview by saying, "When Jan and I finally settle down (he's 87, remember) I'd like to buy a boat." I think I have a new hero!]

Where was I? Oh, yeah. So I drove into Aix to pick Mike up and tried to take some shots of the truly spectacular lights, most of which came out too blurry to show anyone. Those little doll-like figures are Santons, traditional hand-carved (Sure! Made in China, I'll wager!) Provencal Christmas decorations. I guess the goal is to collect them over the years and then buy the houses, barns and other accoutrements that go with them. The ones shown here are unusually big, 8 to 10 inches tall. Most are much smaller, like 3 inches. Hey, look at that one in the middle! It looks like Mickey Rooney!

P.S. My friend and critic penguindevil (see his comment on the last post) points out that I didn't include any pictures of the mall that I was so enamored of (of which I was so enamored. When Winston Churchill was criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition, he replied, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!" A great man.) last time. I'll try to get over there this week and immortalize it on film - or pixels.

Also, a reader (or at least someone who looks at the pictures) has requested information on Jacques (3 minutes, shower included) Chirac, the former president who is being interrogated about his role in some big-time financial hanqui-panqui which occurred during either his mayoralty of Paris or his presidency, or both. I'll try to get au courant with developments, but at this point I can only tell you that he's the saddest looking man I've ever seen. With bags under his eyes that are even bigger than mine! And that's saying quelque chose.

Here's looking at you, kids!