Saturday, July 19, 2008


Lois' mother, Lillian Heinlein, passed away peacefully yesterday at the age of 92 with her daughters at her bedside. The sisters were singing hymns, some of which their mother would have sung during her years as a member of her church choir. Although she had been unconscious for longer and longer periods as the days passed, who knows but that the familiar melodies helped her transition in some way. I know that it was important to Lois and Ellen to be at their mother's side, and the rest of us will gather to pay our respects in just a few days.

Given this development, it feels awkward to be writing this post, but I also want to complete the record of our experience here. So please bear with me.

Mike and I are flying out of Marseilles tomorrow morning, July 20. Lois left on July 10 to be with Lillian. We'll be joining her and the rest of the family in New York for a few days before flying to Asheville to see my side of the clan. We just spoke with Lois and she believes the funeral is scheduled for Tuesday.

Monday, July 14, is, as all the world knows, Bastille Day! Earlier in the day before heading to downtown Eguilles for the civic celebration I took these pictures of what has been our back yard for the last year. I guess it's natural to start feeling nostalgic at the end of an experience like this, and I've been taking "memory book" photos for a couple weeks now. They may not have much artistic value, but they do have sentimental significance.

While Mike and I were sitting outside inspecting grasshoppers, one of the people who boards her horse on the farm came by for a training session.

During the day the musical aggregation pictured below was playing in the courtyard in front of the mairie, or city hall, which adjoins the church.

Shortly after sunset...

...we drove to town to revel with the populace. We were here for the celebration last year and Mike vividly remembered the carnival, or rather, the shooting gallery. We agreed on a limit to his expenditure ("It's my own money, Dad!") and he spent every centime of the sum blasting away at balloons. That's him in the white t-shirt. I guess it was worth it because he won, guess what, a BB gun! A more benign type than they had when I was a kid, with plastic BBs, but it sure looks real, like a Colt 45. I should say "looked", because it lasted about 2 days. Two days of extremely heavy use. And now, as we're cleaning the apartment, we're sweeping up dustpanfuls of little round yellow spheres from under all the furniture. (Mike tells me, and he's done his reasearch, that they make biodegradable BBs now!)

Then the citizenry assembled in the courtyard of the mairie for the piece de resistance - an artillery barrage. At least it seemed like it. They were setting off major fireworks right there in the middle of the crowd. Last year there was no wind and fiery debris was raining down on all of us. This year conditions were more normal and the howling wind was wafting the stuff southwards over town. It's amazing that no houses burned down.

Last year the display was accompanied by the thunderous strains of Carmen reverberating out across the square from a giant PA system. Yes, the opera IS about Spain, but it was written by a Frenchman, so I guess it qualifies as patriotic. This year I didn't recognize the music - something pseudo-classical - but it was just as loud!

The next day, we drove eastwards along the coast to Le Castellet to visit the Kratzes for one last time: Francois, Maria and Matthew - Helene was in Scotland. (In previous posts I've referred to her as Elaine. Well, that's what it sounds like! French is so confusing! Lois has already mentioned what a relief it is to be able to speak English all the time. Even in New Jersey, where they speak something very similar.) Earlier in the week we had lunch at the home of Edith (ay-deet) and her charming daughters in Gardanne. The friends we've made have been the best part of the trip.

That evening Mike and I took one of our last promenades through the garrigue (brushy forest) across the street. This rapidly became a family tradition which we inflicted on unsuspecting visitors, some of whom may recognize the pictures.

Next day we went to the library for the last time to get some movies. The library has been one of the high spots of our sojourn. It's amazing how much reading one can do when one doesn't have a job! By far most of their books in English are novels, so we read fiction almost exclusively this year: from Austin to Auster, Eliot to Ellis and Dickens to DeLillo. In my real life, I mostly read history books, so this was a change of pace for me, whereas Lois has always been an aficionado of the novel - an afictionado, so to speak.

I'm afraid I don't know the story behind these decorative monoliths, but they're somehow SO French, nezz pa?
And here is our landlord, Michel Olive. Great guy, virtually no English, constantly busy. He was another of the good things that happened to us. The French are pretty cagey about their material goods (centuries of dodging the tax collector, whether of Louis XIV, Napoleon or the Republic. Truly, taxes are forever!) and we could never find out exactly how much of the surrounding land he owns, but he also seems to spend time building or renovating apartments both here and in Marseilles, so he could very well be a man of considerable substance. But he still has fun driving his tractor!

There are a lot of things to like about France - art, architecture, fashion, style, scenery, the Tour - but when I glance down at my waistline I'm reminded of what has been really important. This was taken at our favorite brasserie on the Cours Mirabeau, where we went after the library.

And, in closing, a sunset, of course. The last French sunset for a while. Only in this final week of our stay have I learned that our little camera has a digital zoom function, which lets you get in way closer than the regular optical zoom allows. Think of all the great sunset pictures I could have taken! I really must start reading instructions! Which should be easier from now on, since they'll all be in English!

I can only repeat what I said last time: It's been fun; thanks for reading; and Au Revoir!
And this time I mean it!


Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Sun Sets on Our Adventure

Bonjour. Today is a dual saints' day, so Happy Sts. Henri's and Joel's Day (July 13)!

Since I last wrote, Lois decided to return to the States to help care for her Mother, whose recovery from surgery to repair her leg, which she broke in a fall, has not been going as well as had been hoped. She left on Friday the 10th, so Mike and I are on our own and will have to wrap things up here without the benefit of her gentle but firm guidance, and then we'll meet her in New York. We'll do the best we can here but there are bound to be lapses from her high standards. We just hope Lillian improves.

On a beautiful early-summer evening the week before last, the twin tutelary gods of commerce, who stand gazing out across the Cours Mirabeau in sleepless search of opportunities for profit maximization, were witness to a different kind of transaction. Six hundred elementary school students were singing their hearts out as part of the annual music festival, and we were there. Lois had gone downtown earlier in the day to visit a friend at an Indian art show and had noticed the preparations for the concert later that evening. Her enthusiasm inspired us all and we drove downtown after dinner to see what the fuss was all about. The stage was set up at the head of the Cours and the street was closed to traffic and was packed with spectators. You can imagine the sheer number of proud parents and grandparents alone. I mean, 600 kids. That works out to, um, let's see, figuring an average of 1.4 parents, weighted for the high French divorce rate, and .89 grandparents, weighted for the high French smoking-related cancer rate, that makes, well, beaucoup, anyway.

Here are the multitudes assembling, strolling up the Cours Mirabeau.

And here's the choir, all 600 of 'em, who were/was accompanied by a rock/jazz ensemble and a series of African singers and instrumentalists. The music was an interesting hybrid of all these influences.

After the concert and some ice cream we strolled back down to the other end of the Cours to the Rotonde, the hub from which the main streets of the old part of Aix radiate.

For some time we had been noticing wasps flying around the apartment, especially by the armoire (or whatever it is) in our room, and when I looked inside I saw a bunch of little cylinders made of dried mud clustered in one of the corners. I scraped them off and we opened one and, voila!, look what we found. Quite the science experiment! They're filled with little spiders, apparently still alive, and based on our vast field experience of watching the whole BBC Planet Earth series, not to mention several seasons of Nature on PBS, we deduce that these little arachnids have been paralyzed by wasp venom and are probably hosting wasp eggs implanted somewhere in their bodies. Yuck! But fascinating, in a macabre sort of way. That's life science!

We've driven through the village of Lourmarin many times on the way north to somewhere else and have always wanted to stop and explore, so we finally set aside a morning to do just that. Lourmarin has two main claims to fame: its fabulous weekly market and the fact that Peter Mayle lives there. Provencalians have mixed feelings about him. His books [A Year in Provence and its offspring] have drawn tourists here in their thousands, which is a mixed blessing. Like everwhere else, tourists are reviled by the natives despite [or maybe because of] the natives' economic dependence on them. While we were walking through the crowded market, we heard mainly German and the American dialect of English.

The strait and narrow primrose path to the village.

We bought some bread, cheese and sausage and had a plein-air pique-nique far from the madding crowd (well, not that far) down at the end of town near the chateau. There aren't very many chateaus in this part of France - that was a Loire valley thing.

On the way home we stopped at the Durance for a little fishing. Or, as I'm compelled to think of it in the complete absence of fish, "casting practice". Still, just standing knee-deep in a beautiful river on a glorious day is reward enough. The bed of the Durance is composed of loose round stones like those in the photo and has been completely rearranged since our last visit by the high water of the spring. I mentioned before that there were fears that the river would overflow its banks and flood warnings were issued to 20 or so towns along its course. The last time we were there, the path to the water ended at a steep dropoff which we had to clamber down, and, more significantly, back up. This time there was no dropoff and no sign of one ever having been there, which made the walk a lot easier.

If it was up to me, I would order a giant dumpster and throw everything we can't fit into our suitcases away. Including the car. But cooler heads, or head, prevailed. Lois found out how to participate in the weekly vide-grenier (literally, 'empty granary' and, by extension, 'empty attics or storerooms or basements or garages') which is held on the southern edge of downtown Aix, right by the Arc river. So we rented a space, got up, literally, at the crack of dawn and trundled a carload of stuff over there. It was another of those cultural experiences that we'll remember fondly. What struck me were the older North African men strolling around with shopping bags trying to recapture the experience of their youth in the souks and bazaars of Algiers or Casablanca. We quickly learned that bargaining is de rigeur. It's part of the etiquette. Once Mike accepted a guy's first offer for some jeans or something and, although the buyer agreed, he was obviously disappointed and told Mike, somewhat resentfully, that he should bargain more. He obviously felt cheated of one of the elements of a successful transaction, even though he got a better price.
Dawn breaks over the railroad bridge in Pont de l'Arc, and the vide-grenier begins to stir.

Setting up.

Remember the book 'The Material World', a photographic essay of families around the world and their stuff? The following picture would have fit right in.

The spiders wait patiently in their lair, and then...

...when the unsuspecting victim wanders in, strike with the speed of lightning! That'll be two euros, please. Oh, all right, one euro fifty. Merci.

Later today Mike and I are driving to Gardanne to deliver some of the things we couldn't sell to some friends who, we know, will give them a good home and put them to use. Tomorrow is Bastille Day (although the French don't call it that; to them it's Quatorze Juillet - July 14th) and we'll attend the festivities in Eguilles like we did last year (Yes, Mike, including the shooting gallery.) Then Tuesday the plan is to visit the Kratzes, who have appeared in these annals before (Francois, Maria, Helene and Matthew). We leave on Sunday, a week from today, which leaves time to follow the Tour de France on the tube and get a few more jogs in. And maybe go fishing. Oh, and lest we forget, to pack, clean, dump, ship, give away and otherwise dispose of the things we've accumulated during our sojourn.

I may not be writing another one of these communiques. It all depends. But if not, it's been great fun and thanks for reading. I know we'll be seeing many of you very soon and we can hardly wait. Until then,

Au revoir,