Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Stroll and Fail

It finally got to me the other day: I'm spending way too much time in my apartment. I wake up, read the news, check the doings at the Save the Library site (big excitement: someone posted a malware spam!), then get back to work on my book. That's usually wound down by around 2, at which point I make some lunch. Back to checking the news and various URLs that people have sent and before I know it, the sun's going down. I walk a block or two to the supermarket, then come home. And the next day I repeat it.

The exceptions, of course, are market days, Tuesday and Saturday, when I trudge about a mile over to the Arceaux market. But even that's been taking a hit recently. Either the weather is crappy, or I don't actually need anything. But I did it again this morning. There was no excuse; the sun was bright (I was actually glad I'd remembered sunglasses), and although it was crisp out there, it wasn't too bad.

So let's recreate the walk. I came out of the apartment and as soon as I cleared the carousel in the corner of the Comédie, I put on the sunglasses. Stop to let a tram take off, and then across the Com to the Rue de la Loge, the big street lined with luxury stores (Bang & Olufsen, Godiva, some women's clothing shops and a couple of high-end jewelers) that, almost at the top, has the Place Jean Jaurès where the students hang out and drink at night. Yesterday, there was a big roundup of what I believe are currently called "travellers," kids with huge dogs who hang out and drink 8.6% beer out of cans and beg when they can remember to. The police were all over them there, possibly because, from the evidence, some of the dogs are quite ill. I never thought I'd see a town that could compete with Berlin for dogshit in the streets, but Montpellier's running a good race.

The street flattens out at the top of the hill, where the Halles Castellanes (the indoor market hall) and the Virgin Megastore share a building. I actually was in the Halles yesterday, which is how I noticed the police/travellers contretemps. The idea of going to the supermarket just to buy something vegetable to go with my dinner seemed stupid, so I went to one of the stalls and bought a broccoli. It cost me 75 cents instead of €1.00 or more at the Inno. And it wasn't swathed in plastic, either.

Once past the Halles, though, I was faced with a choice. Walking straight into the large space called the Plaza of the Martyrs of the Resistance, where I'd walk left onto the Rue Foch, has recently been made more difficult because the branch of some bank is doing renovations and the construction crew has built an extension of the building out onto what was already a very narrow sidewalk. I've taken to going down a side-street and rejoining Foch a block or two down, which is longer, but pleasanter -- and darker. I was enjoying the sun, and there didn't seem to be many people out, so I kept going. Rue Foch is what they call a Hausmannesque addition to the city, modelled after the changes Baron Hausmann made in Paris in the 19th Century. All the buldings along it are 19th Century, and I'm told that the reason the street was cut was to divide the two main parishes of the city. To the left as I head towards the Peyrou Arch, the yellow Arc de Triomphe monument to Louis XIV, is the St. Anne district, which is where, theoretically, anyway, I'd like my next apartment to be. Me and, I suspect, thousands of others.

Rue Foch is again lined with luxury clothing stores, and today, the two pharmacies, a couple of doors away from each other, were flashing that it was 11.5°C (53°F) and 6°C (43°F). I decided to believe the former. At the end of the street is the Arch, after which I crossed a street into the park which is part of the Peyrou complex, with an equestrian statue of Louis that's tall enough that there was a law for many years that no secular building (churches were of course excepted) could stand any taller than the King. Recently, someone lashed a huge cardboard sword to his hand, a New Year's prank, I guess.

(This picture's from last April, incidentally)

The other big monument in the Peyroux is the Château d'Eau, the water tower which has the pumps that supply water to the many fountains in the central city, and it's been covered with scaffolding for the better part of a year. The Peyrou has trees on either side of this bare expanse, and needless to say in high summer this isn't the route I choose. To the right (actually to the left in this picture) you can gaze out into the mountains, and on the left is urban sprawl and a couple of hills and, I think, the Mediterranean. Today, the mountains behind Pic St. Loup seemed to have a dusting of snow on them, and there was a crew in the park who were trimming the trees, a sure sign that spring is coming. On either side of the Château d'Eau, there are staircases which go to the lower level of the park, which surrounds the main part on either side and meets below the Château. Extending from the rear of the Château are Les Arceaux, a faux-Roman aqueduct which runs for about a mile, where it hooks up with an older aqueduct which runs to the spring from which the Lez River originates. It's kind of a fake version of the region's big tourist attraction, the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct near Nîmes.

Attached to one of the arches is a photo, allegedly the only verified one in existence of Jean Moulin, the famed Resistance figure. which was taken there. Stairs at the end of the park lead to a small street, across from which are more stairs, which take you to ground level in a parking lot, where more tree work was going on. From there, it's just a couple of blocks to the long lot where the market stretches out.

Having taken you this far, I have to admit that, except for the wonderful odor the chicken truck was making (a truck with a portable rotisserie on which a dozen chickens roast before a fire, their fat dripping onto some sliced potatoes below), there wasn't much at the market today. My shopping list was modest, as was my budget, but it was essential: garlic and eggs. Oh, and of course anything else that looked good that I could afford. The egg guy is always there on Tuesdays, a friendly chap who serves as an agent for his neighbors who raise chickens. He's got four kinds of eggs: "bio" large and extra-large, and non-bio in the same sizes. Prices range from €2.50 for six extra-large bio to €1.90 for six small non-bio. He loves to talk, and today he wanted to talk English. This is because I taught him the phrase "free-range" the first time I bought eggs from him, and he's been accumulating phrases since then. "'Ello! 'Ow har you?" I admitted to being good. "You wan' six freh randzhe?" Indeed I did. "Two Euro! Sank you. 'Ave a nahze deh!" It's not only his gregariousness that keeps me coming back to this guy, as I've said: I practically have to put on sunglasses when I scramble the eggs, their yolks are so yellow.

In a nice surprise, the cheese guy from Aveyron was there today, too. A few weeks ago, he'd offered me a slice of his Conté, and it was very good: nutty and smooth. We got to talking, and he discovered I was American, so he made another slice out of a very funky two-year-old Conté with a gnarly, worm-eaten (I think) crust. I thanked him and admitted I wasn't really in the market for cheese at the moment. With the piece of old cheese still dissolving in my mouth, I walked away, got about five feet, and a bulb went off in my head. I should get some of this stuff. So I did a U-turn and did just that. As he was cutting it, he said "My British customers think this is like Cheddar." Which is exactly what I'd thought: a nice sharp Cheddar. This guy is in his 40s, third generation cheesemaker, and is, he told me today (when I really wasn't in the market for any) that he's usually there on Tuesdays.

I poked around at several other stands until I found one with exceptional garlic, and bought three heads. Really, there was almost nothing on offer today: a few winter squashes, lots of potatoes and onions, black radishes, and a few turnips. Oh, sure, there were stands that were fully-equipped fruit-and-vegetable stands, but the stuff was all from Morocco and so on. I can get that at the Inno. A new stand offered Corsican charcuterie, coppa and saussicon sec in donkey, boar, and beef varieties, as well as a black sausage called figatelli, which appears to be made from liver and blood. People tell me that the Corsicans make great sausages, so I'll have to check these people out when I have a little extra to spend on exploring the huge range of stuff they were offering.

Wow: six eggs and three heads of garlic. What a haul! Four whole Euros spent, too, less than the ten I allow myself even during hard times in the summer. But the extra six can wind up with me hauling back enough melons, tomatoes, and peaches, as well as other stuff, to wear me out. In the summer stuff is cheap because it goes bad if they don't sell it. That time is coming, but I'm still going back twice a week, if possible, because last year I ignored the market during the months, like now, when it wasn't as colorful, and only started going back in May. As it is, I'll be missing most of March, which I'll be spending in Texas, but I've promised myself to be more observant this time.

* * *

Some weeks back, I mentioned I was going to be writing up a photography show which was running at the Pavillion Populaire by a famous French photographer, Raymond Depardon. Actually, it was four shows, three of which were at the Pavillion, but the most interesting one to me, his photos of the Languedoc region, were at the old St. Anne church, and opened later than the other three at the Pavillion. Two of those I found rather icily intellectual and theory-driven, "Wandering" and "Cities," both of which were photos shot with a set of rules he gave himself. (I have nothing against this per se: the preceding entry was written as an exercise for stuff I have to do with this book I'm writing). In "Cities," I believe the idea was to spend 48 hours in a city and try to do a portrait of it, and, at least for the cities I was familiar with, he seemed confused. Neither portraits of familiar landmarks nor of situations which define the urban life, they were more like snapshots than anything. "Farmers," though, which took up the entire second floor of the Pavilion, was quite wonderful. Depardon himself grew up on a farm, and admits that it's informed his view of everything since. The sympathy and emotional connection shows up in his portraits of people who are still working their small farms. You can see the toll it's taken on them in their faces.

But I missed the show at St. Anne. Just plain forgot it was there, and yesterday I kicked myself. What an idiot. Even worse, though, was that I didn't know that the other show I was going to write about also closed on Sunday. This one I went to because the artist was the wife of a friend of mine, but once I saw the pieces, I really flipped.

Florence Causeur-Chastagner works in collage, cutting pieces out of colored paper and fitting them together. She told me she's never trained in it, just started doing it one day because it made her feel good. There were two main sections of the show. The first were blank-faced sets showing people posing or grouped together as if in snapshots. Marie got one of them on her blog, but it doesn't really register the skill and color. The way these images are framed and arranged in sets implies a kind of narrative because they recall comic books, but in fact there's no narrative at all, which makes narrative-driven people like me stare at them all the longer, waiting for a connection which never comes. It sounds frustrating, but it's not.

But the pieces which made me jump up and down with happiness (I exaggerate, but they really did thrill me) were her reinterpretation of the Mexican Day of the Dead art, in which skeletons do this and that, just like living people. They're called calaveras (which, duh, means skeletons), and what Mme. Causeur-Chastagner has done has been to make her own version, using Bible stories and other religious imagery, which the Mexican tradition would never do. There's a Stations of the Cross, for instance, and some illustrating Old Testament scenes. I scanned a detail of one which she uses on her business card above. This little guy is deciding on whether to wear good or evil (the good being the wings on the coat-hanger). She and her husband spent time in Austin a couple of years ago, which is what triggered this series, and I hope to talk to a couple of gallerists there in March to see if, when they're back at the University of Texas in 2011, she might get a show there. The cultural confrontation might well ignite some worthy discussion. At the very least, it would be a revelation.

The show, incidentally, was at the Galerie Saint Ravy, an old building deep in the old town which is owned by the city and used to show the works of local visual artists, which I think is a very good use of public funds. Almost as good as helping to re-house the collection of the Anglophone Library would be, but that's another story for another day.


  1. What a great walk - now I must sit with a coffee.
    Oh those rotisserie carts! Even on the hottest market days I'd immediately want some chicken or duck as soon as the roast aroma wafted over. What really gets me is the fat dripping down on to the potatoes below. Instant dinner.

    The older I get, the harder I like my cheese. So much for Eliot's peach. I love the chalk of a good Comte.

    It's no good - I'll always think Moulin looks like Lino Ventura!

  2. Heard you today on Fresh Air with your piece about the band Big Star. Nice story. I always wondered what became of Alex Chilton. Had to smile when Terry Gross referred to you as "Ed Ward, Rock Historian."

  3. I have been listening to you on Fresh Air for a few years, starting when you were in Berlin. Today, Terry finally gave some contact info. You remember Davy the Fat Boy from Corry Hall? Djinini the loisada Gypsy? Forty years and more, where has it gone? I lost my copy of Mad River's "Amphetamine Gazelle" years ago, and my copy of RS with your Moog opus, but a lot more, even more valuable, stuff has gone down the tubes since. I must say, you still have a mind like a steel trap, and can turn a phrase with the best of them. Keep on.
    best regards, Dave Torrence

  4. Ed- you've inspired me for the thousandth time-

    this time I'm paying you back-


  5. @ Dave: Wow, long time no hear from! Give me your e-mail in a comment here, and I won't publish it. Love to find out what you've been up to.

    And Robert, no offense, but I clicked on that and it wanted me to register for something without explaining what I was registering for. Glad you were inspired, though!

  6. I came back to this post a few times, Ed, to take it all in. And I'm in love with this collage - you've inspired me with your writing and the artwork.

  7. Nice post. I posted the photo Florence sent me. I would have preferred another one, for sure. I agree with you about the "best (Mexican) part" of her art. I also like her more American (US) works.


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