Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hypertourism, or, If This is Tuesday I Need a Nap! And I've Lost a Day!

Bonjour and Happy Ste. Aimee's (with an accent over the first "e") Day!

(The date that the blogspot machinery automatically assigns at the beginning of each post is when I begin loading the photos, which is sometimes a few days before I begin writing. These words, for example, are being processed on Wednesday, February 20.)

I have been describing at length the bureaucratic tribulations we've experienced in our pursuit of legal residency here, and I'm happy to report that, Mirabile Dictu and Hallelujah, we are as of noonish today fully fledged legitimate temporary inhabitants of France, and we have the laminated Titres de Sejour to prove it! The last pieces of the puzzle fell into place surprisingly quickly. Last Wednesday we went to Marseilles for our scheduled medical appointments and were treated to the French bureaucracy at its finest: friendly and helpful staff, relaxed atmosphere, minimal delay, efficient X-rays, modern facilities, and the doctor even spoke a little English. The best part, as always, was the waiting room where all of us sat chattering in several languages, admiring the different national costumes (I was clad a la mode Americaine - immediately identifiable - jeans and hiking boots - and, sticking out like sore thumbs, WHITE SOCKS!), smiling at the antics of the kids, cooing at the babies and just generally managing to
coexist peacefully without any politicians around to tell us how. After the physical we found a sandwich place down the street and ate at an outside table with giant semis roaring past and belching diesel fumes (the semis, not us!). This is near the stadium and the beloved Olympique Marseilles team had a game that night and preparations were already, by noon, well under way. Then we decided to visit Notre Dame de la Garde, the church on the highest hill in Marseilles, which we've been wanting to do ever since we first laid eyes on it months ago. Lois navigated us up the back side of the hill (it reminded us of San Francisco - that Mediterranean look, you know, as well as the precipitous incline) and, to our surprise, there was plenty of parking and no crowds. The church in its current incarnation isn't all that old and you can see the Byzantine influence in the photos. You can also see the breathtaking views. The exterior walls have big gouges sustained during the Battle for Liberation in 1944.

Michael is on vacation for 2 weeks, so we've been day-tripping hyperactively around Provence, flitting like bees from flower to flower, so to speak, hoping to offset the exorbitant gasoline expenditure by taking picnics from home, which we supplement with post-prandial caffeinated beverages at sidewalk cafes. It's not very warm, but we've learned to look for sunny, sheltered spots and, since we're wearing our winter coats and we sip swiftly, we've managed to avoid hypothermia so far. The photos below are of Glanum, a Roman community from the age of Augustus (2000 or so years ago) which was uncovered beginning in the 1920s. At its peak, 30,000 people lived there. Only a small part has been excavated, because there's a village, St. Remy de Provence, there now. St. Remy is the site of the hospital into which Van Gogh checked himself when he felt things getting a little a out of hand, and he painted 150 pictures during his stay. So there's a lot to see.

St. Remy and Glanum are in the region called the Alpilles, as is the medieval fortress of Les Baux which I have mentioned before.
That was Thursday. On Saturday we went to the Gorges de Verdon, the Grand Canyon of Europe, which is mentioned in every guide book ever written about France. It really is spectacular. We drove along the southern edge, the left bank or rive gauche, along roads lined with snow, roads which during the summer are bumper-to-bumper with traffic (the RVs are smaller here, but so are the roads).

On the way home we stopped in Sillane, a small village noted for the waterfall at the end of a well-trodden path about 1/2 mile away. Due to a gravitational quirk, the water falls horizontally. Some months ago we had stopped here to go fishing. I like the old stone wall around the village.
Sunday we stayed home, but Mike and I took a bike ride. There's a small hill behind us which ascends to a plateau. When you get to the other side of the plateau, about 2 miles away, you find yourself gazing down hundreds of feet over a vast panoramic vista, which is one of my favorite phrases and which I'm glad to have had an opportunity to use here.
The canal in the picture carries water from the Durance river north of us to Marseilles, which is south.

Then, on Monday, we put on our thong bikinis, sunglasses and spike heels, grabbed our Dolce & Gabbana handbags and went to THE RIVIERA, OH YEAH! ST. TROPEZ, HERE WE COME!
And there was nobody there. Just a couple busloads of paunchy middle-aged turistas. Like us, kinda, except for the paunches. But the area is beautiful and mild and much lusher (horticulturally speaking) than our part of France and I can understand why the beautiful people flock there. If I was beautiful I might flock there myself.

We went to the library in Aix yesterday, always one of the highlights of our week, and to one of the English-language bookstores (there are 2). Actually, this one is an English-, French- and German-language bookstore, AND the proprietress stocks strange foreign foods like peanut butter, maple syrup, marmite, Dr. Pepper and other exotica. Today we returned to Aix where Mike and I got cartes de peche (fishing licenses) and then we paid our 4th and, we hope, last visit to the sous-prefecture. We took a number, waited for about 15 minutes, handed over a small sheaflet of papers and a bunch of money and received in return our state-of-the-art, laminated, wallet-sized ID cards entitling us to legal residency until October (I felt like shouting, "At last we're legitimate, you b******s!").
Tomorrow we're going NOWHERE! It's just as well, because there's a great Champions' League soccer match on the tube tonight - Olympique Lyon (who've ruled the French Ligue 1 for several years now and whom we, as Marseilles fans, cordially detest) versus (Hold on now!) MANCHESTER UNITED, the quintessential English team and said to be the most popular on the planet. We don't have cable so I don't watch many matches, and I've NEVER seen Manchester United, who have some of the world's best players, so I'm pretty excited.
I think we'll be visiting Nimes and the Pont du Gard in the next few days, before the vacation comes to an end, and the Orchid Festival that was in Tarascon last week and which I wanted to attend but didn't, is coming to Eguilles this weekend so we'll be able to make it after all. I love second chances. If only all of life was like that.
And now the spaghetti is ready, the aroma is heady, and like a French yeti I must say Adieu!
Until next time,
Au Revoir!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Crustacean Shells and Wedding Bells

Bonjour! Today is Notre Dame de Lourdes Day!

Last Sunday we had the pleasure of spending a long afternoon and eating a wonderful dinner at the home of Lois' friend and fellow chorister, Monique, and her husband Alain. There were several other guests and conversation was conducted in 3 languages: English, French and German. One of the neighbors, who was also a guest, had 2 kids, one of whom was a killer ping-pong player and we played in shifts on the table outside the living room in the front yard. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful. They also have a piano and Alain and I found ourselves playing, haltingly, piano/sax duets. After appetizers (2 types of tapendade on endive leaves) Alain, whose family comes from Martinique, prepared Caribbean shrimp and rice to follow red cabbage salad. Lotsa bread, a green salad, wine for those who so desired - delicious and plentiful. After an interlude for digestion, Monique whipped up 25 or so crepes and a pot of coffee for dessert. A long, relaxed afternoon. By the time we left, the conversation had turned to politics. We escaped just in time!

I had learned on Sunday morning that the Super Bowl was being broadcast here on public network TV. I had assumed it would only be on cable, which we don't have, so during our visit an internal debate was raging in the back of my mind: Should I or shouldn't I stay up till 4:00 to watch it? I decided in the affirmative and I'm glad I did. We got the game itself, but not the American commentators or commercials. The commentators were all obviously former players, giants with no discernible necks, but they were speaking French! Talk about cognitive dissonance! I still don't know where they came from.

In another sports note, I was at the bank trying to trace a check and when the clerk, a young man, noticed the word "Portland" in our records, he brightened up and said, "Oh, Trail Blazers, non?" (Actually, he said something unintelligible in a heavy French accent which I was only later able to translate.)

Later that morning there was a tremendous lightning/thunderstorm (or so I'm told - I was sound asleep, having been up all night) and we lost our electricity. We figured there was a switch somewhere that needed to be thrown, but we didn't know where, and we also figured that someone, most likely our landlord's daughter, would be home by early evening to take care of it. Through a fortunate fluke, I saw the woman who keeps her horses here and asked her if she knew where the switch was. She said no and further informed me that Patricia, the landlord's daughter, had gone up to Tours for a couple weeks, so she called Michel, our landlord, on his cell phone to report the situation. It's a good thing she did, because he was in Marseilles and hadn't planned on returning to Eguilles, but he made a special trip, flipped the switch (which is in his house downstairs), and we gave him dinner - Lois' homemade ratatouille, bread and cheese.

Mike is on vacation now - winter break - so we've vowed to make lots of day-trips. In pursuance of this objective, yesterday we went to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in the Luberon district north of here, a destination which is mentioned in every guidebook to Provence. The Sorgue river splits and weaves two strands through the town - very picturesque - and its Sunday market is quintessentially Provencal. It received the highest recommendation possible: enthusiastic praise from Dr. Ruden, Michael's pediatrician and dedicated Francophile, so there was no way we were going to pass it up. I'm glad we went in February because it's notoriously crowded in the summer. Heck, it was crowded enough yesterday! Here are some pictures.

There are waterwheels scattered throughout the town. They're old, rusty and covered with moss. And the river is filled with fish that we couldn't identify. There are many species here that we don't have in the States.

There's the regular market and there's the brocante where antiques and collectibles are sold. It's way more interesting in a way, as you can imagine. Like Antiques Road Show in French.

As is often the case, this smallish village has a big, opulent church. And that's all I know about it.

We figure that as long as we're paying a jillion dollars every time we fill the gas tank, we might as well take the scenic route whenever possible, so we drove through the hilltop village of Bonnieux on the way back.

The local elections are coming up in a few weeks and the tempo and quantity of leafletting, rallying, name-calling and accusatory finger-pointing are rising to giddy heights. (Yes, sir, just like home!) And when one thinks French politics, one thinks You-know-who. There's no escape, really. He was in the news this week bigtime!

It seems like just a couple of months ago, doesn't it, that we were sadly observing the departure of Cecilia Sarkozy from the Elysee Palace.

And that's because it WAS just a couple of months ago. But in Sarkoworld time moves at a different speed and this week he and Carla Tedeschi-Bruni were officially married (see photo below). I've talked about this whole saga at length and have nothing further to add (unless and until something else newsworthy occurs, which is just a matter of time) except to share the most recent tidbit to drop from the divine Carlesque lips. In one of the spate of biographies being rushed into print, she is quoted as saying, "Je veux avoir un homme qui a la pouvoir nucleaire (I want to have a man who has nuclear power)". Whether she's referring to the French military capability or her lover's amorous capability, I don't pretend to know, but in either case it's a little scary. Especially, one would think, for the President himself. Go, Rocket Man! (He looks a little tired, doesn't he?)

Well, it's my night to cook and tonight I'll be featuring one of the highlights of New World Cuisine: cheeseburgers! So we can KETCHUP on things next time.

Au revoir!