Monday, May 26, 2008

Matter and Auntie-Matter

Bonjour and Happy St. Kevin's Day, June 3. JUNE 3!! Mon dieu! Already? We're thinking now in terms of weeks rather than months until our return. Beaucoup to do before then.

(And St. Kevin!? How does one pronounce that in French? Kuh-vanh, I guess.)

In the meantime, we've been enjoying visits from some of Mike's fantastic galaxy of aunts. He's a lucky boy! Aunt Kate was here, then Aunts Linda and Michaelene, then Aunt Ellen and Cousin Kristen, and soon Aunts Donna and Betsy (and Uncles Dennis and Les) will be arriving.

We took Linda and Michaelene to Cassis, as we take all our guests to Cassis.

As I mentioned last time, when Lois and I left them they were about to embark on a cruise to some of the calanques in the vicinity although there was a storm brewing on the horizon. The photo below is the last sight of them we had, and, although Michaelene seems to be bearing up well, Linda looks a little, uh, apprehensive.

I will always prefer to remember her as she appears below enjoying the good life that France has to offer. There are at least 3 desserts on her plate, that's a nearly empty ice cream tub off to the side and she's washing it all down with a glass of red wine. It's you, Linda! Bon appetit!

This is the flower bed outside our door.

A few days later Ellen and Kristen arrived (see their extremely photogenic selves below). On Sunday we all went to Isle-sur-La-Sorgue and divided into two groups: a shopping team and a fishing team. Perhaps you can guess who was on which team. The Sorgue river is a well-known and popular trout stream, a spring-fed river which emerges from the subterranean depths in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and flows 25 or so miles (or maybe more) west to the Rhone. Like the Metolius in Oregon, or Boiling Springs in PA, which also spring full-blown from their underground sources, it's crystal clear and beautiful, although challenging because if you can see the fish then, ipso facto and QED, they can also see you. I had conscientiously packed all the necessary fishing gear, running through the mental checklist two or three times, and felt smugly secure that we were fully prepared. Which made the discovery that I had left our fishing licenses (cartes de peche) at home all the more bitter. So, after Mike had given vent to what I can only characterize as petty and unfilial recriminations, we walked upstream scouting out likely spots for our next trip. The trip WITH the licenses. (If you're caught fishing without a license here, especially in a Categorie 1 trout stream, you can be fined HUNDREDS of euros! Let's see - in dollars that's, uh, er, oh never mind, we'd just get depressed.)

One branch of the river runs along an island which is owned and farmed by a local family, the Meyers, and this stretch is maintained and managed for catch-and-release trout fishing. The next 2 pictures were taken from the same spot on the path; I just turned around.

Here's Mike watching fat brown trout swimming by thumbing (or finning) their noses at him, while he's shaking his head and wondering how I could have been so dunderheaded as to forget the licenses. I think I heard him muttering something under his breath, too, but I didn't ask.

Here is a portrait of the invertebrate beauty that makes it all possible. To a fly-fisher, mayflies are among the loveliest of creatures, and this is no exception. Stately, big and graceful, these were swarming in clouds of hundreds when we were there. They splash onto the surface of the water to lay their eggs and that's when the trout strike with a ripple and a gulp. I don't know which of the multitude of species these are, but they're the biggest mayflies I've ever seen - over an inch long! Yum!

After the market closed at noonish, we returned to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to pick up the marketgoers. This Sunday market is famous, extolled by both Rick Steves and Ed Ruden, Michael's pediatrician, so the town is very crowded. We made our escape and headed for the Pont du Gard, a monumental 2000-year old Roman aqueduct which spans the Gard river not far from Nimes, Arles and Avignon. It's noted also for the amazingly lifelike statues of the Greco-Roman goddesses of umbrellas, the Kabathii, which grace the entrance.

Lois had visited with Linda and Michaelene and was very eager for the rest of us to see it. Frankly, I was thinking, "Ho, hum - another 2000-year old roman ruin. Yawn." But it was spectacular, even in the rain, and I'm so glad we went. She was right again. Why do I even bother doubting her?

The players have changed, the styles have changed, the language has changed and the boules are now made from high-tech metal alloys, no longer the skulls of vanquished enemies (I just made that up!), but the game goes on much as it probably did among the construction workers who built the aqueduct two millennia ago. The contest below must have been a serious one because, not only were there photographers, both still and video, protecting their expensive cameras from the rain under plastic shrouds, but the players on each 3-member team were wearing their little matching jackets, which they only do for important matches.

Then, continuing the great-circle tour, we went to Arles, another Roman city on the Rhone. Every so often, I find myself unwittingly caught driving through the ancient narrow crooked streets of the old part of town, whether in Aix, Marseilles, Tours, or wherever, like a bug drawn inexorably into the depths of a pitcher-plant or some other carnivorous organism, and I say, "Oh, no! Not again!" Well, it happened in Arles, but we managed to survive and eventually reached our destination. It's a good thing that I lost the capacity to hear hostile car horns shortly after our arrival in France, or I might have gotten rattled. Maybe it's a frequency thing, like dogs not hearing ... wait a minute, that's not right. It's just the opposite: they hear MORE, not less. Anyway, blaring horns roll right off my eardrums like water off an Oregon duck's back.

Our destination was the Musee Reattu, named after the 19th century neoclassical painter, Jacques Reattu, which contains some works by Picasso, Rousseau and Reattu himself, and which is currently featuring an exhibit of couture-related drawings, and the dresses, purses and jewelry itself, by Christian Lacroix, enfant terrible of French fashion. The juxtaposition of this wild vividly-colored modern stuff with the grayish classicism of Reattu was disorienting at first, but became really engaging as one got used to it. And the museum itself is housed in a beautiful, labyrinthyine 15th century building. There's another room around every corner. We were constantly saying, "Hey, we haven't been in here yet!"

Apparently Lacroix got his start in the outdoor advertising business, sculpting beautiful sign-holding figures known as Kristenelles.

Some of the guards prohibited picture-taking while others just ignored us - they were busy with their Blackberries or Gameboys - so I restrained myself, but I couldn't resist the following:

As you probably know from experience, culture vultures get very hungry. For that post-museum carbohydrate replacement, curators everywhere recommend an immediate infusion of ice cream and a stroll through the town square.

In the interest of journalistic verisimilitude, I must tell you about the sidewalk bar/tabac which you can see to the left rear in the picture above. I think I was the only one of our party to notice, but the outdoor patio was filled with scruffy, seriously drunk Arlesiennes, and in the 10 minutes or so that we were loitering in the plaza at least 2 outbursts occurred there. People would shout hoarsely, stand up abruptly, knocking their chairs over, gesture aggressively but drunkenly; others, equally loaded, would intervene, everybody yelling, and then all would sit clumsily down again. No actual blows were dealt, that I saw, but a lot of fingers were pointed. I felt that I was really getting to see the true heart of France at last. I shoulda taken pictures! And this was Sunday, no less!

It has really been raining a lot here. Flood warnings were issued a few days ago to about 20 towns and villages along the Durance river, which hasn't been necessary since 1949. Our neighbor, Jean-Remy, a Provencal native, is getting seriously depressed. I've told him he's welcome to visit us in Oregon, where it doesn't rain nearly as much, ha-ha. As I've mentioned before, southern France has been in a serious drought for 5 or 6 years so most people are happy about the precipitation. And the clouds are awesome, dude.

Lois took Ellen and Kristen to, guess where, Cassis the day before they returned to Paris en route for home.

And while they were there, two goddesses of the sea, the Parsippinads, rose from the foam, delighting the assembled beachgoers during their brief appearance before scurrying off to a nearby cafe, there to don warm coats and sip hot drinks in an attempt to stave off hypothermia. (Hey, hypothermia is a Greek word. See, it all fits together! In one great holistic, er, wholeness.)

Our printer's transformer burned out a couple of weeks ago and we're awaiting delivery of a new one. I went to 10 electronics-related stores and none of them had the part so we were reduced to ordering it on the internet from a French company. The deliveryman called yesterday because he couldn't find us - one of the disadvantages of living out in the country - and he said he'll try again today (at least, I think that's what he said). Anyway, I haven't been able to scan any pictures from the newspapers into the blog and I've been saving some which I hope to share with you next time. Provided, of course, that the delivery guy doesn't get frustrated and throw the package into the raging Touloubre, our neighborhood river.

Until next time ("prochaine fois"), Au revoir!


P.S. The pictures of the sky that I've included over the months are taken from the same window in our living room. The little cluster of trees and the roof and chimney of the neighboring building appear in most, or maybe all, of the photographs. Unconsciously inspired by Cezanne, maybe, who painted the same view of Mt. Ste. Victoire 150 times. Or maybe it wasn't 150. I may be confusing Cezanne with Van Gogh, who painted 150 pictures while he was in the hospital in St. Remy-de-Provence. (All these impressionists look alike.) But it was a lot.

P.P.S. The delivery guy just brought the transformer! I had to wait by the road at the bottom of the driveway and wave him down, but he got here. We talked about the soccer game on the tube tonight, France vs. Colombia. So next time I'll be able to include those photos I told you about.


Friday, May 16, 2008

A Little Bitty Tear

Bonjour and Happy St. Ives' (Burl? I wonder. They do worship Jerry Lewis.) Day (May 19),

A couple of weeks ago the French celebrated the end of World War II (Thursday, May 8) and Pentecost and Pentecost Monday, which constituted, for many, a 5-day weekend! We decided to get into the spirit and took a drive to Nice and the Villa Ephrussi, which is on the Cap Ferrat peninsula south of Nice. On the way we drove past Cannes but the Film Festival hadn't started yet so we didn't see Uma, Brad, Harrison, or any of the usual crowd. Our lives are a little emptier for having missed them but maybe our paths will cross next time. We live in hope, dahling. The festival and its participants get an obscene amount of media coverage here. Even the local paper, La Provence, moves its soccer news off the front page for pictures of Angelina.

We chose Thursday to make the excursion because Mike had the day off, knowing full well that it was the day of remembrance of Victoire 1945 but failing to consider the ramifications. Like parades, which the French are extremely enthusiastic about, especially those with a military theme. Consequently, the main roads in Nice were blocked off in preparation and we were detoured away into a massive creeping, crawling traffic jam. After what seemed like at least 2 hours but which was probably half an hour or so, we escaped and headed down to the Villa Ephrussi. The villa was built in 1905 by the sole remaining descendant of one of the branches of the Rothschild family who had married into a wealthy Italian banking clan. I assume she was one of the richest, if not THE richest, women of the time. She already had, at the age of 19, four perfectly suitable villas in Monaco but she needed another one, I guess, and outbid, for the 7 acres, some other outrageously wealthy figure with whom I'm sure you'd be familiar if I could remember who it was. (Lois tells me it was the king of Belgium. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't.) The site is right in the middle of the peninsula so you can see the Mediterranean from the windows on both sides of the house. She donated the property to the French state when she died and the gardens have been enlarged since then, but even in her day they must have been stunning. Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trail Blazers - oh, and Microsoft co-founder - has a little place nearby and I think I saw his yacht - a smallish ocean liner, really - moored out in the bay with some others only slightly less mammoth. Paul comes into Powell's with his entourage after almost every Blazers home game. Yeah, me and Paul (or Paulie, as I call him) go way back.

Sunday was American Mother's Day so we observed the formalities and treated Lois with the reverence she, and mothers everywhere, so richly deserve. Our annual celebration includes breakfast in bed, with, on one of the very few occasions in our household, BACON!, for the honoree and a plant for the garden, this year a lantana. Then we drove to Francois' and Maria's (and Elaine's and Matthew's) house in Le Castellet for the afternoon, which included a delicious home-cooked dinner and a visit to the village on the top of a hill. Francois tells me that this place is so picturesque, charming, etc., that it's busy all year because even the French are attracted and it's close enough for a day trip from Aix, Marseilles or Toulon.

Incidentally, FRENCH mothers' day (Fete de Meres) is next Sunday. The expectations in our house have not yet been made clear, but I think I'd better lay in some bacon just in case.

I'm not sure they even have a Fathers' Day here.

Pictured below, from left to right: Elaine, Francois, Matthew and Maria. From top to bottom: Francois, Elaine, Maria and Matthew.

Pictured below, from left to right, while slumming: Robert Redford, Frodo Baggins and Meryl Streep.

Then, on Tuesday, I think it was, I learned how to use the Macro close-up function on our camera. The wildflowers are exploding out of the ground around here and it's very exciting - something new almost every day. I took these during a jog, which lasted about twice as long as usual, of course, because I was stopping every few minutes to take pictures.

This is rapidly becoming one of the rainiest springs in local memory and the residents are very happy, because they've suffered 5 or 6 years of drought. There have been spectacular thunder/lightningstorms. I happened to look out the window at the right moment and, voila!, there was a rainbow, or arc de ciel. And a brown horse, or cheval brun.

I think I mentioned the poppies growing in the wheatfields. They grow in some but not in others and we wondered why. I just read it's because some farmers use herbicides, that's why. Duh! In fact, the organic food industry here is a pale shadow of its American counterpart. But they're trying.

When we arrived last July, the fields looked like they were covered with snow or ice or something. Closer inspection revealed a few trillion little white snails slowly oozing their way up every vertical surface from stalks of wheat to fence posts. As you can see, they're getting started already.

Here are the sexual organs of a poppy. Not even Monet in his most impressionistic flights dared to portray them!

I'm falling behind. Dear friends (more like sisters, really) Linda and Michaelene left today after a week's visit. We dropped 'em off in Cassis, where they'll spend 3 days before going on to Albi (history buffs will recall the Albigensian Crusade of 1215 or thereabouts, during which a French bishop, when reminded that there might be some innocents among the heretics seeking refuge in a church which he had ordered to be burned down, replied, "Burn them all! God will know his own." But I digress.) I'll have to recount their visit next time. I'll only say that as we left them they were heading out of Cassis harbor on a small, rickety tour boat just as the storm of the decade roared in from the Mediterranean. We look forward to seeing them on our return to Portland, if they're still speaking to us.

I have mentioned the remote but startling possibility that our team, Olympique Marseilles (OM), could end up in third place at season's end after being in 19th place (out of 20 teams) in December. Well, the season ended Saturday night and, incredibly, they did it! (I didn't see the game - it was on cable - but I saw one of their goals on the news the next day. It was ridiculous! Djibril Cisse, a striker, had a penalty kick blocked by the goalie straight back toward him and he tapped it in with his forehead from about 5 feet away over the prostrate goalie. The final score was 4 to 3.) Which means that they'll be in the Champions' League tournament next season, and that's BIIIIG MONEY and bigtime competition! So naturally, in the spirit of enlightened modern sports management, they're going to sell two of their best players. Francois is a true fan. He tells me I'm too forgiving. I guess his heart's been broken once too often.

We're looking forward to seeing Lois' sister, Ellen, and our niece, Kristen, in a few days. That'll make it 3 nieces out of 4. The fourth is in too delicate a condition to travel, if you get my drift. (Congratulations, babe! And Mr. babe!)

Until next time, then, here's another Provencal sunset.

Au revoir.