Ed Ward's Blog Leaves Europe After 20 Years and Returns To The U.S., Another Foreign Country. Currently, This Blog Is In Transition.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
One of the things I like about living in the centre ville here is that it's pretty much a hundred percent pedestrianized. It has to be: at best, most of these streets were made for horses, not even carriages, and the further you go from a main street, the more likely it is that not even a horse could get down there.
You can, of course, get into the pedestrianized zone: motorized bollards controlled by radio block the main streets, and a little negotiation with a special police station will get you a permit for your vehicle to get into the center for a limited time, either once or indefinitely: Nick, who owns the Bar Vert Anglais, picks up supplies and food every couple of days, but he has to rush the stuff into the place because he's got to get his car out before his time is up. The fines, I hear, are stupendous. (Unfortunately, this ban doesn't apply to motorcycles and scooters, although so far that's not much of a problem. We'll see when summer comes.)
At any rate, what this means is that I have to walk everywhere, which has always been my preferred mode of transportation, not only because it allows me to get some exercise, but it also allows me to exercise my writer's eye, always looking for details, always looking for stories unfolding around me.
There are two main streets which I use almost every day. The rue de la Loge is the one which runs uphill from the Comédie up to the Place Castellanne, and the rue Saint Guilhem goes at a right angle from there downhill. The former is lined at the bottom with expensive shops, then, at the Place Jean Jaurès, bars and restaurants (and a good butcher) take over. The latter is a very dangerous street for me, because it's got a great cooking supply shop, a shop specializing in local wines, a CD store, and M. Puig's astonishing cheese shop. It's also got some more down-to-earth places, like a tabac/magazine shop, a late-night grocery, and a few of the ubiquitous cell-phone shops. Both of these streets have brass studs in them emblazoned with scallop shells, since they were on the route pilgrims took to Santiago de Compostella, the most important site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages
Rue St. Guilhem empties into the rue du Faubourg du Courreau, which is quite funky, with a lot of Arab businesses on it, several translation services, some cyber-cafes, and an African wig-and-grocery shop. There are some odd hotels on some of the streets feeding off of this street, including an actual no-star hotel called the Hotel Abyss. No way I'm even approaching that one.
The combination of good climate and wealthy people naturally attracts lots of beggars, from the traditional Romany ones, women with children who perch by bank cash machines or else wheel their toddlers right in front of you and demand cash, to what I guess are now also traditional sorts, dreadlocked kids with dogs on strings. There are also a couple of odd ones. A very middle-class-looking woman sits in doorways with a cardboard sign reading AIDEZ-MOI (help me), making me wonder what her story is. I did catch her one time reading an astrology magazine on a day when not too many people were in the streets, and another time buying vermouth (vermouth?) in the Monoprix. There's another guy up by Jean Jaurès who has a substantial fan-club. People are always stopping to chat with him and pat his dog and give him money. Maybe a local celebrity fallen on hard times. There's a deeply tanned old man who just sits with his hand out, grinning into his beard, and running off to buy a tot of brandy as soon as he's acquired enough money. Over by the Polygone shopping mall, there's a guy in fatigues who kneels, back ramrod straight, holding one hand out, the other clenched into a fist behind his back. Another Polygone regular is a woman with a business plan. If you've been in a Catholic church here, you've seen lots of brochures and magazines, very glossy, good production values, all for the taking. She takes them, and then sells them, sitting on the sidewalk. Old ladies, probably rationalizing that they're not giving money to beggars, but aiding a pious soul in need, buy them from her.
In a category all their own are the armies of solicitors for charities, mostly college-aged kids, very polite, very friendly, all wearing identical coats for the Red Cross, something called AIDeS, and Médécines du Monde. Having had 15 euros per month vacuumed out of my bank account for two years by the German Red Cross, I avoid them.
So on a scale going from the guy-with-hand-out up to the entrepreneuse, the next step up is the buskers. Again, the Polygone, with people going to shop, or going to the Antigone neighborhood behind it, is a good place to do this. There's a very odd African guy with a duct-taped acoustic guitar who is often there, playing and singing softly in a number of languages, then breaking off to preach incomprehensibly, also in a number of languages. The grave subject of his preaching, that the world is going to end and all unsaved people will go directly to Hell, is undercut by his tendency to dissolve in whoops of laughter. He's a very interesting guitarist, but creeps me out a bit too much for me to stand and listen to him for very long. Another low-end musician who can be found here and on the rue de la Loge also totes an acoustic guitar and sings Bob Marley songs loudly and badly. He's got a sign reading JUST FOR DRUGS AND ALCOHOL, which is commendable in its frankness, but he's also prone to loudly abuse passersby in English and French for not giving him money.
Moving up the scale from them, we find the Black Gypsy (le Gitane Noir), who is just that: a black guy who has a real knack for French-Spanish gypsy music -- and has two CDs for sale, both in his guitar case and at the CD store on St. Guilhem. He performs with a lot of personality, and I suspect he does quite well. There are also normal gypsies, who, being gypsies, aren't regulars, but can often be found, especially around Jean Jaurès, performing gypsy jazz or flamenco.
My favorite of the solo performers, though, is a tall, thin guy who sets up in a number of places around town, but can almost always be found on Sundays on the rue de la Loge standing in a doorway that must be particularly well-suited for his acoustics. With his small white dog hanging out, he plays Delta blues and other black popular music of the '20s and '30s on...a ukelele. It's totally wrong, but somehow he makes it work. Just as his instrument is wrong, so is his singing: he is clearly not imitating anyone, but, rather, he's got a very "square" style which straightens out the bluesiness of the originals into more conventional shapes. He looks like an R. Crumb character with his odd little hat, the white dog, and the tiny instrument and his beanpole body. I wonder how many of the lyrics he sings he actually understands.
I may have even figured out approximately where he lives: several times I've been walking down the steps on the rue du Bras de Fer and heard Memphis Minnie or the Mississippi Sheiks playing out of an apartment. I've never located the source, but who else in this city would be living on a steady diet of such stuff?
And that brings up another thing about the streets here that I'm hoping to learn: where do these names come from? The street of the arms of iron? What's that about? Presumably the rue de Huile once had an oil press on it, but what went on on the rue de Four des Flammes, the street of the flaming oven? Who were the black sisters who gave the rue des Soeurs Noires its name? Evil nuns? There's the mysterious green horse of the rue du Cheval Vert. And then there's the street where I'm afraid I'm doomed to live out the rest of my life, the rue Gagne-Petit, the street of earning little.
Oh, it's not all that romantic, not by a long shot. We have a Gambetta, like most French cities, a Louis Pasteur, a Voltaire, and so on. But unlike Berlin, which often has a helpful bio on a street sign ("Poet: 1843-1875"), Montpellier keeps you guessing.