Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw and Tentacle

Bonjour and Happy St. Anthelme's Day, June 26,

As our time here draws rapidly to an end, we had the pleasure of welcoming the last of our visitors. (I don't mean, of course, that it's a pleasure because they were the last, but that they, like all our guests, bring pleasure.) Donna and Dennis, and Les and Betsy, stopped here for a few days at the midpoint of their transcontinental odyssey, which began in Bruges and will end in Rome, after stops in Paris, Nice, Genoa and Florence, among others. I'm sorry to report that, although when they arrived they were all in the very bloom of health (except for Les' old basketball knee), they looked more like that painting of the American Revolutionary soldiers swathed in bandages by the time they limped away over the horizon toward Nice. Or at least half of them did, maybe the drummer and the fife player (fifist?). The last time I saw them, we were in the pharmacy buying a crutch for Donna, who had slipped down a rocky hill while hiking on the plateau behind our house with Mike and Dennis. We had feared that her ankle might be broken, but the most recent word is that it was only (!) a severe sprain. And Les, in addition to everything else, had been stricken by Napoleon's revenge and was looking a pale shadow of his normally robust self. We did manage to do some of our favorite things, though, without serious mishap, like a walk through the country. This is the "before" picture. See, everybody looks pretty good.

It's spring, when young beetles' minds turn to thoughts of love.

And young spiders', like this one lurking seemingly in ambush on the underside of the flower above, to thoughts of lunch. What a dirty trick! In flagrante delicto, no less. It's like he's hiding under the bed.
Mike constructed a makeshift net with a stick and a plastic raspberry container and wrought havoc among the butterflies of the veldt, or whatever they call it here. Champs (pronounced "shomp"), I think.

Here's a wild orchid. It's the only one of its kind we've seen.

On one of the days, Les and I stayed home and everybody else went to Cassis. They enjoyed the usual activities: swimming, sunbathing, the boat tour of the calanques; but they did something entirely new and exciting which we've never tried before...

...Jellyfish Wrestling! That's right! Shown below are the nasty welts on Mike's arm after his first, and only, bout, which I guess you could say he lost. Thank goodness he was with Uncle Dennis, a veteran scubaist who's dived in exotic locations worldwide, and who had the experience and presence of mind to act calmly in such a stressful situation by marching him over to the lifeguard, where he (Mike) was slathered with some kind of soothing antiseptic balm.

And here's the whole crew, bruised, battered, bloody but unbowed, as they prepare for their departure. We went from here directly to the pharmacy where Donna bought a fancy adjustable crutch. A souvenir, so to speak, of Eguilles. We'll be seeing them all again in just a few (very few) weeks, by which time I hope everybody's fully recovered from their visit.

There are three horses who are usually in a field at the turnaround point of one of my jogging routes, and sometimes I take them apples. I'm such a city boy that this is a big "wild kingdom" adventure for me. The horse pictured below is the most vigorous of the three, probably the youngest, and has a disconcerting habit of chasing me after I've distributed the apple wedges. I assume his intentions are honorable, that he just wants to play, but when you feel the earth shaking behind you with the hoofbeats of something that outweighs you tenfold or so, it gives one furiously to think, as Hercule Poirot says. Mike, who has taken "Equitation", whatever that is, for one term and therefore thinks he's some kind of cowboy, makes fun of me mercilessly, but he also studied Greek mythology this year and I could swear there are some carnivorous horses featured in one of those stories. Anyway, from now on I'll make sure there's a fence between us when I feed them.
I mentioned our last visit to the Sorgue, when I forgot our fishing licenses. Well, we returned twice last week and it was as beautiful as we had anticipated, and although we know for a fact there are trout in there (we've seen them), we got nary a nibble on either occasion...

...not counting the ducklings.

Hilary, who I know through the Powell's network of acquaintance, came for a few days and we took her to the Sorgue on Sunday, which is when the famous market is held in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. After strolling the market, Lois and Hilary joined Mike and me at riverside, where we had been fishing, for a picnic with all the wonderful things they had bought. The only even mildly exciting thing that had happened to us up to this point was my falling into the river and filling my waders with ice-cold spring water. But then, Hilary amazed us with her hitherto unguessed dramatic talent in her performance piece, "Venus Rising - the Scream!", an artistic fusion of Botticelli and Munch. (The water, as I have mentioned, is Cold with a capital, and italicized, C.)

The next day we all went to Cassis, but I forgot the camera. Summer has fallen with the abruptness of the guillotine. It's been in the 90's for the last few days, the papers are filled with ozone alerts and the electronic signs along the highways remind you that speed limits are significantly lowered to reduce emissions. I think I remember seeing one other driver during the drive to Cassis who actually decreased his speed. Must have been a foreigner. The French speed up.

It was a pleasure getting to know Hilary better, and we look forward to seeing her and her husband when we return. Her husband, Chad, is a pilot and she offered to ask him to take us flying sometime. Lois and I were a little, uh, hesitant but you-know-who is all agog.

Speaking of Mike, we received his report card in the mail and he did great! It was a challenging year, with a lot of new situations to deal with, and we're so proud of the way he handled everything. On top of which, he passed all his courses and has been promoted to the next grade, which is good news if he should choose to remain in France. And I'm sure that Sellwood Middle School will be impressed. Especially if they don't look at his Math grade!

This week of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament has been wild, wacky and wonderful, provided, that is, that you're not a fan of Portugal, Holland or Croatia (my deepest condolences, Milan, to you and all the Zupcic clan.) Turkey had appeared to be the team of destiny, winning improbably or taking the match into penalty shootout at the very last second, leaving their opposition psychologically shattered and incapable of making penalty kicks. But they, too, lost last night, fittingly at the last second, in the semi-final to Germany, who were pre-tournament favorites but had started out disappointingly. And tonight Spain meets Russia in the other semi-final.

I'm happy to say that we're enormously relieved this morning because we've received word from Lois' family that her mom, Lillian, who is 92, is doing well after surgery to repair her leg, which was broken in a fall. I always knew she had an inner toughness. And I'm not just saying that because she's my mother-in-law! When she woke after the anesthetic had worn off she said to the attending nurse, "Where's my ice cream?"

Hey, that's a good idea! I think I'll go rummage through the freezer and look for some butter pecan. And I think May Sarton, when asked at the age of 85 if she had any regrets, replied that she wished she had eaten more ice cream.

Until next time, Au revoir with a cherry on top!


Saturday, June 14, 2008

School's Oh You Tee!

Bonjour and Happy St. Herve's (with an accent over the second "e" - would that be "Herb's" in English?) Day, June 17,

After letting his hair grow for close to three years, Michael decided it was time for a new look, and I agreed to go with him for moral support. And because I needed a trim, too.


We went to the barber shop - sorry! Styliste, or Centre de Beaute - that I've been going to. Now, Mike has had only one barber shop haircut before this because I'd cut his hair for the first 9 or 10 years, so in addition to the trauma of the cut itself and the radical alteration in his appearance he had to confront tonsorium culture, so to speak. For example, he'd never had someone else wash his hair (other than us, of course, when he was younger.) It turned out to be an experience he won't soon forget, and since it's unlikely that he'll ever read this I can feel free to describe it. Two tres chic young French coiffeuses, one a trainee, were assigned to him by the owner, a hard-bitten woman of my age or thereabouts (who, incidentally, administered my haircut), and they spent over an hour hovering around him clipping, snipping and trying to engage him in conversation, but he was so embarassed, I guess, that he was mostly silent except for occasional brief muttered answers to questions like, "Do you live in Eguilles?" and "Do you speak French?". By the time they were done, everyone in the salon was watching and it felt like they were going to burst into applause when he got out of the chair.


Here he is at the end of his last day of school.

The school held end-of-year festivities and a buffet on the evening of the last day. Michael had a speaking part in his class' production of "High School Musical"; that's Mike at the mike. He played a skateboarder and delivered his lines with authority. We could actually hear him. All the classes presented something, and there were a fashion show, some rock and roll bands and an awards presentation ceremony.

The moon was visible through the mimosas from where we sat.

Here are some of the proud parents. From left to right: Unidentified dog, Francois, Maria and Lois.

More proud parents, who have become friends. Charlotte; Christine and George, and their daughter. And, actually, I think the unidentified dog in the photo above belongs to them.
The culmination of the show was this: the teachers, bewigged, singing a version of an ABBA song with the lyrics revised for the occasion, like, "What went wrong? Homework used to be so gooood!", and "How can we go on after you've left?", and "What happened to the paper you promised me?". This was conceived and rehearsed in secret so the kids were astounded and the rest of us were in hysterics. The whole affair was well-managed, a pleasure to attend. For Mike, it was bittersweet, of course, because he'll probably never see most of these people again. We can all sympathize, I'm sure. Remember being 12 and 1/2? It was a pretty emotional time, as I recall.

The weather is still changing from hour to hour, from sun to showers.

Here's Filu, who belongs to the neighbors who own the horses (neigh-bors; horses; wow, an unintentional pun!) and who looks, from certain angles, a lot like our Lucy...

...speaking of whom, Betsy and Les, who are taking care of her while we're in France, and Donna and Dennis are here for a visit at the midpoint of their European odyssey. They started in Belgium and stopped in Paris enroute to us, and they'll be leaving for Nice and various places in Italy in a couple of days. I'll present photographic evidence and a more detailed description of their visit next time.

Meanwhile, another day draws to a glorious end in Provence.

And tonight, France plays Italy in the European championships. Both teams (who played for the championship of the universe at the last world cup, you'll remember) are, shockingly, in desperate straits, on the verge of elimination. They're in the same 4-team pool with Holland, who has emerged as the surprise juggernaut, and who crushed France and Italy by a cumulative score of 7 to 1 (France 4-1 and Italy 3-0). So, at the very best, only one of them will advance. And if Roumania, who's in 2d place in the pool, beats Holland, who, having already secured a place in the quarterfinals, will be resting their best players, then both of them will have to crawl back home with their tails between their legs and their fans pelting them with abuse. And maybe tomatoes. Dennis and Donna are big fans, and Lois is discovering a hidden streak of fandom, so we'll be glued to the tube. And I smell wondrous aromas emanating from the kitchen, where Les is busy working his culinary magic, so the evening promises to be a memorable one.

And I hope yours is too.

Au revoir.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Les Trois Chanteuses/The Three Altos

Bonjour and Happy St. Guy's Day (June 12),

I've been telling you about the very un-Provencal weather we've been having and, indeed, the record for monthly rainfall in May was broken - 170-some mm, which is, what, 7 inches or so. That doesn't seem like much when it's written out like that, especially to an Oregonian, but it's undeniably been stormy. I took the picture below during a relatively peaceful interlude the other day. Looks like the eye of a hurricane or the cover of a Carl Sagan 'Birth of the Universe' book (Is it Cosmology? Or Cosmetology? Only profound interdisciplinary thinkers like Stephen Hawking and Estee Lauder know for sure.)

The last weekend in May Eguilles celebrated its age-old tradition of transhumance (sheep-herding to us landlubbers). There were a lot of subsidiary events, as there always are at these festivals, but we just went to the big show 'downtown' on Sunday. For some reason which wasn't completely clear to me, a major Corsican influence was evident, with Corsican singers and dancers clad in Corsican costume. This is the village square, the heart of Eguilles, bordered by three of the most important civic buildings: the Mairie (City Hall), the Church, and the Tourist Information Office. The Bar/Tabac, another key institution, is right around the corner, just a short promenade away.

When I looked at this shot later I discovered that our landlord, M. Olive, farmer, rentier and gentleman, was in the picture. That's him in the blue shirt next to the white banner, peering intently at the guitarist's feet. That pillar-like object behind him rises from the middle of the town fountain, which has spigots for both eau potable and eau non potable, and into which the sheepdog pictured below leaped for a refreshing dip after his exertions. When he jumped out and started shaking himself dry, the spectators scattered like wheat before the chaff. No, like chaff before the wind. No, that's not it either. The simile is eluding me. Like the sere leaves of autumn skittering across the barren pavement before the chill November gales. Oh, well. Never mind.

The photos are somewhat out of sequence. The first item on the agenda was a demonstration of a sheepdog herding his flock. It was quite impressive, but, having seen the movie "Babe" I'll never again be able to watch this kind of thing with the seriousness it deserves.

The main event, of course, was the procession through town and then back again of a herd of sheep estimated at 1700 head or thereabouts. (This is not something that I'd admit to just anyone, but I'm half Texan, and occasionally I slip into cowboy lingo.)

I'm still trying to learn how to use the Macro close-up function of our camera, and some of my experiments are scattered through this post. Just doing my part to fill up bandwidth with pointless trivia, unlike the important stuff on Facebook, and bring the whole internet crashing down around us! Mwah-hah-hah! OMG!

Then, this Saturday as the sun was sinking in the west...

...we went to the Salle George Duby in downtown Eguilles to attend the long-awaited concert of the Eguilles community choir, of which Lois is a prominent member. It was a smash! The program included world folk songs, something by Mendelssohn and 2/3 of Carmina Burana, with piano accompaniment. The hall was filled to overflowing with enthusiastic fans and we were well-rewarded with a great performance. A fitting culmination of months of hard work. Bravo!

There would be more pictures (certainly such an important artistic event deserves to be commemorated thoroughly) but an unfortunate philosophical and artistic difference of opinion has reared its unattractive head between the two generations of family photographers. Michael, perhaps not surprisingly in one so young, believes that movies constitute a more complete and convincing statement whereas I, staunch traditionalist, believe in the power of still photography. So if he gets his hands on the camera he uses up all the bytes or pixels or whatever in about 2 minutes and the ominous "Memory Card Full" message starts blinking on the display screen and, Voila!, that's it for the evening. So that's what happened. Although we do have a pretty good video, with sound, of a catchy Italian folk song they did for an encore, so all was not lost.

Okay, if you locate the fourth woman from the right in the front row and look carefully you can see the top of Lois' head sticking up behind hers.

During this sunset, while I was taking the picture, there were bolts of lightning shooting from the grayish-whitish blurry cloud on the right. Crazy! Although I think I remember reading somewhere that lightning actually shoots from the ground upward. But I could, of course, be wrong. Like I was some weeks ago about the location of Mad King Ludwig's fantastic extravaganza of a palace. It's actually in Bavaria, not Bohemia, Batavia or Bulimia, or any other place that begins with a 'B' and ends with an 'a', which is what confused me. Like Dan'l Boone, who was never lost but admitted to having been temporarily confused a time or two.

The sunsets are amazing. Or at least they amaze me, but I may be easily amazed. I'm gonna have hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures like this one by the time we leave. I mean, every night is spectacular.

There's a big old abandoned farm or something out in the boonies on one of my jogging routes which is undergoing renovation. For the longest time I heard these piercing cries that I couldn't identify emanating from its grounds and which sounded like a litter of giant house cats either in heat or being tortured (love hurts, they say). Turns out to be peacocks. There's a flock of 6 or 8 and they wander around the area freely.

Years ago, when I was young, there was a public service anti-smoking advertisement which showed a leathery-skinned woman with bloodshot eyes, battered veteran of life's vicissitudes (sp?), crookedly smiling although toothless, with a cigarette dangling from her chapped lips, the caption of which was "Isn't Smoking Glamorous?" (or words to that effect.) It's inspiring to see that a new generation recognizes the importance of discouraging this evil addiction among its members and that prominent celebrities have taken upon themselves the responsibility of sending a clear and convincing message to this effect to their peers and admirers. Foremost among these socially responsible artists is Amy Winehouse, who took time out from her busy schedule of recording sessions, world tours and court appearances to pose for the new version of the old ad. If I hadn't quit smoking years ago, I would certainly seriously consider it after seeing the picture below. (I have a nightmare vision of Amy accidentally immolating herself in a cloud of hair spray while lighting up.)

And our Carla's next album is due for release soon, or maybe has already been released. Along with the book she just wrote (or at any rate, helped to write; or at any rate, gave permission for someone else to write in her name) about her whirlwind courtship and marriage with Nicolas. A reviewer has said that she claims in the book to have married Le Prez not only because of his sexual magnetism but also for his brains, of which she believes him to have "5 or 6", but the reviewer observes, and fairly, I believe, that her remarks may "lose something in translation". Looking at the photo below, the first thing that strikes one is that they don't make first ladies the way they used to. The first First Lady I can remember was Mamie Eisenhower. Also, a poll was taken recently and the majority (57%) of the French approve of Carla continuing to pursue her musical career. So it looks like she's beginning to win them over. Maybe it's the boots; like Nancy Sinatra, she's gonna walk all over you. And, of course, this IS the birthplace of the Marquis de Sade, so maybe she's put her finger, or her steel-tipped toe, on a chord of sado-masochism that runs through the French character. One might have guessed at its existence from the crippling pointy-toed, stiletto-heeled shoes that everyone staggers around in. And you should see what the WOMEN are wearing!

And then, after all is said and done, after the festivities, hoopla and reality shows, the political shenanigans, human inhumanity to humans and natural catastrophes, I sometimes just want to get a copy of this sign from the French Department of Roads, Bridges, Sidewalks (trottoirs) and Gutters and put it out in front of the house. I think it perfectly expresses, with characteristic French drollerie, at least one understandable response to Mugabe, et. al. And speaking of conscienceless bombasticators, how lovely to see, and hear, Billy Ray Cyrus back in the spotlight where he was meant to be. The cultural landscape has been so barren without him.

On the other hand, did I mention Euro 2008? Oh, yes, I think I did. World class soccer, European national teams, 2 games every evening on network TV available to all, even ignorant foreigners like me. I guess life is worth living, after all. Just for moments like seeing Holland crush Italy (the defending world champions) by the lopsided score of 3-0, as they did the other night.

Our time here is ticking away and soon we'll be back in terra cognita, where time is money, men get pregnant, and they play REAL football.

Au revoir until next time,