Monday, April 20, 2009

Breakfast With Agamemnon

Obviously, one of the first things I had to do once I moved in was to set up a place to eat. For this, I used my battred old Ikea table, set in front of the kitchen window. And when I sat down to eat breakfast, I was staring at this dude:

As my foggy brain woke up, I found myself trying to decode this. Who was this guy? Well, the little bas-reliefs surrounding him read Greek to me: the garlanded cow skull...didn't I remember that from the Iliad? Ditto the armor that looked like skin. The helmet, too, looked a bit Greek. He's flanked, a couple of arches in either direction, by heads of women, and their headdressing, hair and what appears to be a bonnet, also seems vaguely Greek.

Looked at in context, though, the whole thing is even more mysterious:

To start with, old Agamemnon (if that's who he is -- that's what I've dubbed him, anyway) is flanked by a couple of dragons. That's hardly consistent with the Greek thing. The stained-glass window below is even nutsier: harts, gryphons, unicorns, lions...and, in the center, images of two couples.

The answer to the riddle is actually quite banal. I'm looking at the back of a building from the 19th century. True, it has a plaque from the local historical preservation folks on it, but that just announces that it has a magnificent staircase, which I've never seen. The tenants I can see are two, with an empty floor up on the top which features an open window which slams shut repeatedly during windstorms. I keep waiting for the glass in it to break, but so far it hasn't.

On the ground floor is a lutherie, one of several here in the center city, run by Fréderic Becker, who employs a number of folks who occasionally gather in the courtyard to smoke or to run the bandsaw -- or, on occasion, to play ping-pong.

Upstairs from M. Becker is the local chapter of the Alliance Francaise, which the local equivalent of the Goethe Institut or the Institute Cervantes, a government-sponsored organization for spreading the language and culture of the country. (America doesn't have such a thing; instead it has Hollywood). In order to get to them, you have to ascend the mighty, listed staircase, which sure looks grand, even in that tiny photo. (Not so good are the prices for language courses; I've got a connection to a woman who charges ten euros an hour, and hope to brush up my ability to listen and understand with her as soon as some more work starts coming in). The biggest problem I have with the Alliance is that they can look into my bedroom, since their floor level is slightly higher than mine. I don't see many people walking around, but there are some curtains which I think must keep the place cool in summer. On one of their windowsills, someone's got a couple of window-boxes.

So, basically, this was a grand house, what the french call a hôtel, built by some provincial egomaniac in the late 19th century, who used an architect who knew his grandeur and didn't mind mixing it up in confusing ways as long as it said "you are a nobleman, even if those days are past" to his client.

And because of all of that, I have to wake up each morning and eat breakfast under the stony glaze of Agamemnon (if, indeed, it is he) and then, later, sit at my desk and write looking at the downcast eyes of a very bored-looking "Greek" maiden. And, of course, all that bas-reliefed armor.

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