Friday, February 20, 2009

Learning the City

The Professor, with whom I stayed on my first trip down here, lives in a mansion. Not, however, a mansion as you might imagine it -- not on his salary. It's called a hôtel particulier, and was once a single dwelling, but it has long since been broken up into apartments. It's got a huge door on the street, an impressive, if somewhat decayed, courtyard, and the very appropriate air of having once been grander than it is today. Like so many of the center city's buildings, it's made of limestone, and details of its past peek out of the renovations of centuries. 

Naturally, having been introduced to Montpellier in such surroundings, I determined that that's where I, too, would want to live once I had the money to move. And, naturally, that proved to be one of the greatest impediments to my finding a place. 

The centre ville, and most specifically the part known as the Écusson, or escutcheon (the field on which a coat-of-arms is displayed), for its shape, which had been determined by a series of city walls in the Middle Ages, is a jumble of narrow streets lined with old houses. Not as old as they might have been: the city was very badly damaged in the 16th Century, as the local Protestants fought off the Catholics sent from Paris with money from Rome. Very few buildings from before that time remain, and, I think, none remain intact, without later additions. 

The grand buildings tend to be on one side of the hill Montpellier is built on, and less impressive, but equally old, ones on the side that slopes down towards the University. Now, one peculiar thing about the French is that the idea of living in such historic surroundings doesn't seem to appeal to most of them. They love the surrounding areas, with their New Jersey suburb-like standalone or duplex houses, tiny yards, and backyards with swimming pools. So the only people who want to live in the Écusson are students, weirdos, and foreigners. By far the largest group among those are students, so apartments are subdivided and subdivided, and that's not good news. I need space. And space, in the Écusson, costs. Or, rather, it can be found, and relatively inexpensively -- if you can afford to buy. Which, of course, I can't. 

So I had to settle for a place outside the Écusson -- but just. I can be there in less than two minutes. I'm five minutes from the train station, and there's a shopping mall with an impressive supermarket in it just down the street. There's a carousel nearby, too, if I find myself in need of one. With all that, though, it's amazingly quiet, and, although the apartment is, I think, smaller than was advertised, I'm happy enough with it for the moment. 

* * * 

The University has a lot to do with why I chose this particular place. It informs the city's culture, draws events and ideas here, and lowers the average age of the population. In this, it's a lot like some of Berlin's more salutary features, without the incessant negativity and self-destruction. 

Nobody knows how old the University is, although 1000 AD is the date usually given for its founding. It came about in a strange way. Once, the Mediterranean came up to Montpellier, evidence of which remains in the names of various "ports" which are perfectly dry nowadays. The main settlement was on the hill, and the main business was spice trading. Morocco is just across the water, and both the Greeks and Romans have long histories of settlements in the nearby area. The Greeks, for instance, are thought to have introduced winemaking (although it may well have already been in existence and they only refined the process), and the Romans took over the plantations when they arrived. The spice markets here drew a population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews: a local museum displays some tombstones from a now-vanished local church, in whose graveyard each of those religions had a section. The Muslims were all over this part of the world, ruling Spain and regulating a lot of commerce on the Mediterranean, and had the first real educational system. The Jews dealt with money matters, currency exchange, loans, brokering shipments. And the Christians were merchants to the inland areas, getting the spices from the port's docks to the marketplaces of Burgundy and Paris. 

The way I've heard the story, when the ships docked to sell spices, that's not all they had with them. And, of course, spices weren't just recognized as flavoring ingredients; they were also reputed to have medicinal properties. Some of the spices had come from as far away as Asia, and in closing a deal, one merchant might have offered a bag of something interesting as an inducement to make the sale, some substance that was supposedly medicinal in nature. By the time it got here, nobody was sure what it was. At some point, the Arabs decided that an institution should be formed for a systematic study of these medicines, and, perhaps, new uses for familiar medicines could also be found. The Christians and Jews threw in money to build this school, and since all three groups had their own systems of medicine, professors and instructors were as close as your doctor's office. This focus on healing lasted for centuries: the Jardin des Plantes was Europe's first botanical garden, founded in 1593 to grow and study medicinal plants. Both Rabelais and Nostradamus studied, then taught, at the University. And, throughout the political and religious upheavals, the University stayed central to the life of the city. 

Today, the thing is spread all over the map of the city, and very little of it exists within the Écusson. Still, its presence there continues in the houses in which students and educators lived (the Professor lives on a street named for a city in Spain, which endowed the house next door to him as a residents for students from that city who went to Montpellier to study -- which, 600 years later, is still its function), the buildings in which they worked, and the tolerance for research and learning that's brought high-tech and bio-tech to town. 

That was one layer of the city that I knew before I moved. Oh, but there are more. 

1 comment:

  1. i have read this far. HOORAY! i have to stop to get my household moving, will return. what was the name of Bruce's band that u blasted?


Site Meter