Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spring's the Thing!

Bonjour, Happy First Day of Spring (Joyeaux Printemps) and, lest we forget, Best Wishes for a Felicitous St. Herbert's Day (March 20)!

The really big news here today and its effect are captured nicely in the opening sentence of the article from which the picture below is taken: "Ce matin, la France rigole". This morning, all France is laughing! I suppose, to be accurate, it should say "all France EXCEPT the fans of Olympique Marseilles is laughing", because our team, one of the most formidable in France, was eliminated from the Coupe de France tournament by Carquefou, a team which plays in an amateur league at or near the bottom of the multi-level soccer pyramid, several light years below OM. So one of the best teams in France, every one of whose starters is a full-time professional and millionaire, was beaten by a team some of whose members are: a real estate salesman, an administrative aide, a bartender, a bank employee, a student, a gym teacher and, the scorer of the only goal, a guy on unemployment.
This is not unlike the Yankees being beaten by the Sellwood Middle School team.

The prostrate figure in the photo below is Djibril Cisse, a native of Arles and therefore a home boy and favorite of the Marseilles fans, who is covered with tattoos and has a differently colored and styled coiffure every couple of weeks. He embodies the showbiz aspects of professional sports and he does a lot of posturing and finger-pointing. He's a striker, though, so I suppose a lot of that behavior comes with the position and he seems strangely likable. Paradoxically, although OM has played terribly in, and been eliminated from, every tournament it's been in this year it has played well and made a stunning comeback in the regular League 1 season. The team was plummeting into relegation (the bottom 3 teams at the end of the season are kicked down to the league below and the top 3 in that league come up to L1) but is now in 4th place, an amazing turnaround. As the noted American Philosopher of Sport, Al Michaels, has said: "Go figure!"

The dust is settling from the local elections, in which 36,700 municipalities of all shapes and sizes chose mayors and council members. If one of the candidates gets over 50% of the vote the first time around that candidate wins. If no one gets 50%, there's a second runoff election the following week - last Sunday. Apparently the vast majority of contests were determined the first week, with less than 4000 remaining to be determined by runoff (or second tour, as it's called). There was a slight shift to the left, as expected, in reaction against Nicolas Sarkozy and his party, the UMP, but nothing earth-shaking. I had to see the doctor this week and, speaking about the elections, he just laughed, shook his head and said something to the effect that "Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose" (the more things change the more.., etc.). Here in Eguilles the incumbent, a representative of the "center-right", was confirmed in his post by 56% of the first vote, so a second poll wasn't necessary.

I've mentioned the good fortune we've had at a couple of crucial junctures in meeting really great people who've contributed to making this whole adventure possible. One was the woman who found our apartment for us, Rebecca. We met on the internet and just took a leap of faith and it couldn't have worked out better. She's originally from Australia, as is her husband, but they've been living here for 9 years or so. We hadn't actually met tete-a-tete until a few days ago, when Rebecca and her infant son, Jamie, and Lois and I got together at a cafe in Lambesc, a neighboring village where they live. I took some pictures of the village but somehow, incomprehensibly and unforgivably, came away without getting any of them, two of the most photogenic subjects it's been my fortune to encounter on this (or any) trip.

It's cold and windy today, but the sun is shining and spring is obviously enroute. These wild orchids, Orchis Tachete with an accent over the 2d 'e', are growing alongside the driveway. They're a protected species.

It's been unusually quiet around here this week because Michael is in the Alps with 75 other kids from his school on their annual ski trip. This is his first time on skis but it sounds like he's having a blast and remains ambulatory and uninjured, at least as of last night when we called him. (I'm always taken aback by how deep his voice sounds on the phone.) They're divided into groups according to skill and experience and he's in the charmingly named "Debutants". He'll be returning tomorrow afternoon.
It's just as well that he has something of a vacation this week (although I think the mornings are devoted to schoolwork) because last week he had 6 or 7 major exams, the second installment of the dreaded Trimestrials, and our household was in a state of high anxiety and chaos, as is usually the case when there's serious studying to be done. (I guess I should have said that it's just as well that we ALL have something of a vacation this week). Below you can see us studying French during one of the relatively quiet interludes that arose periodically when we became exhausted from wrangling with each other, and during which we were able to rest and recover enough energy to resume wrangling. And by the way, look at the flipper on that kid! He WAS born in Oregon, Land of the Webfoot, after all.
Another contretemps, if that's the word I want, occurred last week due to my inadequate facility with the French language. Our phone company is constantly sending text messages to our cell phones in a never-ending attempt to sell us stuff we don't want, and we've just gotten in the habit of deleting without reading them. For one thing, they're hard to read and, as I say, we've come to realize that they're the equivalent of junkmail. Well, apparently they had been sending me a series of warnings for the last couple weeks that if I didn't provide them with a copy of my Titre de Sejour, or resident's permit that I recently received, they would shut off my phone service. (But not, for some unfathomable reason known only to themselves, Lois' phone or our internet connection, although they, too, are in my name!) The first I knew of this was when I received a letter from them, and the next thing I knew my phone was dead. I sent them the papers they wanted and have been forgiven and restored to their good graces. So you can call me now.
Although our stay is only 2/3 over and we have 4 months remaining, our thoughts are turning toward home. And not just our thoughts. Yesterday we visited a travel agency in Aix and bought our plane tickets for the homeward journey, which will include stops in NY and NC to see our families. We figured that the dollar - I don't want to talk about it! - is not suddenly going to get more valuable in the next 4 months, nor is the price of oil going to take a dive, so we'd better get the tickets early. (It looks like we did the right thing, because today's paper announced a bunch of fare increases to compensate for rising oil prices.) Then, intoxicated by spending so much money, we spent some more (it's hard to stop once you've started!) on a moderately expensive lunch (we haven't eaten out for months), came home and paid our taxes! Ouch! We haven't spent so much money in a single day since we signed the papers to buy our house, lo these many years ago. My heart is still palpitating (or, as a friend once said in reference to his heart-stirrings for a buxom bartendress, "palipitating".)
We're looking forward to the beginning of the visiting season. There are some of you reading this whose rosy cheeks I'll be kissing a la mode Francais in the near future. I can hardly wait.
And I hope that those of you to whom I will not be able to personally administer the aforementioned gesture of affection and respect will accept the electronically transmitted version I am now dispatching in your direction, with a kiss-kiss bisou, as they say here, first on the left cheek - smooch - and then on the right - voila! Merci!
Au revoir!

Monday, March 3, 2008

"I'm filled with shear terror," said the taxpayer sheepishly

Bonjour and Happy Ste. Olivia's Day! (Today is March 5th. Yesterday was St. Casimir's Day.)

Spring is trying fitfully to make its appearance here, but is having some trouble. A couple days ago it was t-shirt weather, but now it's cold, cloudy and windy again. The flowering trees and bulbs are in bloom, though, and the wheat is several inches tall so it's only a matter of time.

And, as we all know, when spring is in the air a middle-aged American's fancy turns to thoughts of income tax. I spent most of Monday doing our return, which is always a chore, even with the help of Turbo Tax, but was even more so this year because it hadn't occurred to me to bring all our financial records, such as they are, over here. I guess I was so preoccupied with making sure we packed the necessary fishing gear that the trivial details got overlooked. But thanks to the internet I was able to dredge up the info I needed (like the Sellwood Community Center's phone number, for example - vital information without which Turbo Tax, that benevolent dictator, wouldn't have allowed us to submit the returns) and complete the process. Or, rather, the first part of the process. Now we just have to figure out how to pay.

Mike and I have been riding our bikes up on the plateau behind the house and last time we heard some bells clanking in the distance and rode over to see what was going on. I'd read about the long-distance shepherding (transhumance) that goes on here but hadn't actually seen any until now. The shepherds were a leathery young couple with several big dogs and an SUV and they're headed up north to their summer pastures. They must walk several hundred miles in the course of their annual migration.

Here's Mike bronco-bustin' a wild mountain bike.

Structures like this one are scattered through the hills and we assume they're shelters for the shepherds. Most are old and in disrepair. This is the newest one we've seen.

Here's the orchid show we went to in Eguilles at the village civic center, the Salle Georges Duby. (I just looked him up in Wikipedia. He was a historian of the middle ages and one of France's prominent "public intellectuals"). It was great fun. The place was packed with orchid-minded enthusiasts. We bought a beautiful little aromatic phalaenopsis (see below).

Here's our baby. It actually does have a faint pleasant aroma, which is unusual for orchids.

We had some friends over for dinner on Sunday, and one of the couples brought these mimosa flowers from their garden.

Our guests were Monique and Alain, and Maria, Francois and Matthew. Monique is a friend and fellow choir member of Lois' and Alain is her husband. I wrote about our visit to their house some weeks ago. Francois and Maria are Matthew's parents, and Matthew is a classmate of Michael's. I've become acquainted with them in the way that a lot of parents do, that is, while waiting outside the school for the kids to get out. Maria is Filipino, Francois is German/French, they met while studying in Japan and they've also lived in Bermuda and Hawaii as well as France.

We prepared a traditional old-fashioned American meal - homemade guacamole, chicken enchiladas, beans and rice, salad and chocolate cake a la mode. After the main meal we took a walk to settle things down and make room for dessert. We have this stroll down to the little Touloubre river that we inflict upon - I mean, "share with" - all our guests because we love it so much.

Local elections for mayors and council members are coming up in all the villages and towns in France, and the frenzy of the campaign season is reaching its climax. La Provence is filled with pictures of mayoral candidates and their teams, we keep getting campaign literature hand-delivered to our mailbox and one can't just walk down the village streets anymore without being buttonholed on every corner by someone running for something. Eguilles seems to be experiencing an increasingly heated race. The incumbent mayor, who is affiliated with the UMP, Sarkozy's center-right party, is being accused of autocracy, nepotism, cronyism, fiscal carelessness, at best, and downright corruption at worst. He, in turn, is lashing out at his detractors and accusing his rivals of amateurism, ignorance, slander, blasphemy and torturing puppies. (Just kidding about the puppies.) Interestingly, his main rival is a woman who was his deputy for several years and who, presumably, was privy to the inner workings and dirty secrets of his office, so he's taking her campaign very seriously. Of course, she may have been culpably involved in those inner workings and dirty secrets herself. We still have a couple weeks before the election and there's plenty of time for more shocking revelations, so we anxiously await developments.

I was accosted the other day on one of the village street corners by an older woman with whom I have a nodding acquaintance as she was handing out flyers in support of the incumbent. I haltingly explained that I wasn't a citizen, that I am in fact an American, and she asked who I'd be voting for in our presidential election. She mentioned Obama but I didn't think my French was good enough to explain that I'll vote for whichever Democrat gets the nomination, so I said I wasn't sure and proceeded to the boulangerie to buy a baguette. But then I became curious and stopped on my way back to ask her who she, and the French in general, would like to see elected. She switched to English (she had, in fact, been in New York just last fall) and vigorously expressed her hope that it would be Obama and said that most French agreed with her. Underlying her sentiments, of course, is the immense relief, shared by billions worldwide, that the current occupant of the office will soon be just an unsavory memory. Although, sadly, the effects of his misguided policies will be with us for generations.

I like to end these reports on a positive note, but it may not be possible this time. As if politics and the economy aren't enough unpleasantness, Olympique Lyon (rivals of our team, Olympique Marseilles, but at least they're French) were eliminated by Manchester United (English American-owned mega-team) last night in the Champions' League. So I'll just end with a pretty picture instead.

Au revoir until next time.