Monday, May 31, 2010

Minute Of Marketplace Miette

The mighty etnobofin was here this weekend with his tiny little video camera (gotta get me one of those!) and mentioned he wanted to go to the market. I was doing that anyway, so we met up and here's what he put together. Ignore the guy in the white hat and the garish shirt. If you can.

Marché des Arceaux from Richard Cotman on Vimeo.

Too bad he didn't wait a couple of weeks for the riot of tomatoes.

More when the electricity's back on. (Oh, you're surprised they didn't show up today? Tsk tsk).

Friday, May 28, 2010

Possible (Sorta)

The good news is, I found someone to take cash money for my electric bill.

A little bad news came with it. Nothing I can't live with, but I'm not happy about it.

Last night I chased down the guy who'd sent me on the wild-goose chase out of town yesterday. He'd mentioned that there was a tram stop "right in front" of the office where he'd paid his bill. He also told me he's dyslexic when it comes to maps. Fair enough; I know others who have this malady, including someone I travelled with for a week. ("Where are we," I'd ask. She'd shriek and try to find the page in the road atlas. Finally, she took to keeping the road atlas open on the pages we were driving. Still couldn't figure out where we were.)

He hauled out his phone. "If your phone has credit on it, we can call the woman who drove me out there." And so it happened. She told me it was on the Mosson tram-line, second station from the end. That tram-line stops in front of my house, and the strike was over. Fine, I'm on my way to solving the problem.

This morning, however, was the opening of the annual book fair, the Comédie du Livre, with the Mayor and all manner of other people in attendance, along with a number of the writers from this year's partner area, North America. The irony of this didn't escape the committee we've formed to try to re-open the Anglophone Library (you can sign our petition here), so we printed up a huge sign on vinyl-coated cloth and stood right behind the podium where the mayor and all the officials were bloviating. (I'll have more on this in a subsequent blog-post). This occupied me from about 9:30 til about 1, when I came back here and found, in the mail, my latest bill from the power company. The good news was, this was exactly the kind of bill I needed to pay at the post office with, but I decided instead to go out to this little office so I could pay and get an appointment to get turned back on. The bad news is, it had €161.53 added on to it for the next two months. This raised the amount due to, well, all the money I had in my pocket. So I jumped on the tram, headed waaaaay out of town (past the Chateau d'Ô, where I'd done my most recent Epic Walk) and got off where the woman told me.

Nothing there.

I figured okay, maybe "second to last" doesn't mean exactly what it does to an American, just as the "first floor" is what we'd call the second floor. So I checked the next tram stop and there was, as I'd been told, a kind of strip mall. No power company, though.

I got the next tram, spent 20 minutes travelling back to where I'd started, noticed with some delight that the post office was open, stood in line for 30 minutes, where I became the first customer of the clerk I dislike the most, a nerdy little guy with ADD who keeps realigning the pens and so on on his desk, and in seconds I'd handed over my cash, signed a promissory note for my firstborn, and came back home.

You'll notice that in the comments on my last post was an offer from a local resident who blogs as Magic27, a British woman who works as a translator, to help me out on the phone. I got her number, called her, and asked if she'd help. Happy to! We met by the caroussel in front of my street, she called the magic number and, after being on hold for about 20 minutes, got a human being who asked when the bill was paid. I looked at the cancellation, and it said 4pm. She repeated this to the person on the other end and then said to me "You're gonna love this." Some more chat happened, and she hung up.

"The good news is, you're going to get turned on. The bad news is, if you'd called before 3, they could have taken care of you today. As it is, it'll be Monday." The French, you see, don't work weekends.

So now I have to get through the weekend unable to cook or wash the dishes piling up in the sink or take a shower, but Monday I'm back able to do all of that, and I think I'll start with the latter. I took a cold shower yesterday, and I see why the Victorians thought it was a good way to tame sexual desire: I wanted to stop living entirely, and sexual desire is, of course, part of living.

I went to an inexpensive restaurant last night, but I'm not going to be able to do that again before I start cooking. I have to save money for the nose doctor, whom I'm seeing on Monday about the next step in getting my taste and smell back.

But one small step has been accomplished.

Now for those bastards at Orange.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


This is frustrating. To put it mildly.

Like most writers I know, I've had some financial problems recently. They resulted in my bank bouncing automatic debits, which are the only way you can pay some bills in France. These problems have, in large part, been solved, and I'm in the process of trying to sort out the wreckage.

Mostly, I've been concentrating on my phone. I've paid my phone bill, but my phone still doesn't work. According to my telecom provider, Free, this is because the line was closed by France Telecom Orange, the old state monopoly. According to a letter I got after the line was closed, it was closed for nonpayment. Which is weird, because I only had to pay Orange once, to open the line, and then Free was supposed to take it over. That all went down in January '09, but it now appears that Orange has been sucking €20 a month out of my bank account for nothing since then, while never relinquishing the line. And, when those payments bounced, they shut me off. The only way to rectify this is to call them. Which, without a phone, I can't do.

Finally, I had an idea. I would just get a pay-as-you-go phone, which I couldn't really afford, and use that to contact Orange, which has an English-language help line that's reportedly very good. I asked a friend which provider he uses for his pay-as-you-go and he said...Orange. Okay, fine. Use Satan to fight Satan. So I walked into an Orange boutique, and, as usual, everyone was busy. As I waited for a saleswoman, I looked at the various phones on the wall. Apparently, all of them could be used for pay-as-you go SIMs. Including the iPhone.

I have an iPhone already. It had had an Orange contract which expired, and I didn't use it as a phone all that much, so I've just been using it as an iPod Touch.

But the saleswoman told me that for €15 I could get a SIM with €5 credit on it, toss it into the phone, synch the phone with iTunes, and bingo, I'd have a number. And you know what? She was right!

But. Tuesday morning, a guy knocked on my door. It was the electric company. I'd gotten some letters about this, so I knew what was happening: he was going to give me "service minimum" for those unpaid bills. I would be allowed only 1000 watts, which meant I couldn't use the water heater (1200) or the stovetop or oven (1500) ot it would blow the special fuse he'd put in the box.

This wasn't a big problem, though: I'd just gotten paid by a magazine in Germany, and the money would arrive later that day. The post office is also where you pay your electric bills if you're paying cash. I'd pick up the Western Union money, present my bill, pay it, and they'd turn me back on. And I could do those dishes sitting there in the sink.

They're still there. The woman at the post office apparently didn't know how to deal with this, and showed me a form that I couldn't fill out. She claimed my customer number wasn't on the bill, which it very clearly is. Okay, I thought, it should be possible to go straight to the electric company's offices and pay my bill. The way you can do it in America, and the way you can do it in Germany.

So yesterday I lit out for the central office, which is way out in the boondocks. The trams were on strike -- or, more accurately, slowdown -- and there were about 10,000 people waiting. Okay, I supposed I could wait til tomorrow, which is to say today, Thursday.

So, bright and early this morning, I went to the tram stop. There's still a slowdown, but I got on a not-so-crowded tram and went out to where the office was supposed to be. It wasn't there, but I followed the tracks for a mile or so, and saw a sign pointing to the electric company's building. It was huge. It has its own infirmary. It was also totalitarian-looking as it could be.

People were leaving for lunch, and I walked into the lobby. The reception window was closed. I looked around for a sign. A woman saw me and asked if she could help. I told her I wanted to pay my bill, and she told me that wasn't possible there: there was another office that handled that. Where was it? In the center city, she said. Oh, the place a few blocks from my house. Okay.

I walked back into the city. It was entirely possible that the electric company would close for lunch, and I knew where I was, at last, so I knew I was about a 45-minute walk from downtown. It was a gorgeous day, if not a particularly inspiring walk down the Avenue Georges Clemenceau, which is mostly kebab shops and tire shops. The authentic Mexican restaurant seemed closed forever, sad to say. Never got to check it out.

Eventually, I got to where I was going, although there seemed no way into the building. I finally found a way in and was confronted by a nice woman at a reception desk. I told her my goal -- paying the bill and getting reconnected -- and she said it wasn't possible, that I had to call a number.

Now, this is where I fall down. I cannot communicate in a foreign language on the telephone. It's all I can do to make a doctor's appointment in French; navigating a phone tree is impossible for me in the language. The electric company allegedly has an English-language help service, but the robots which pick up the call talk rapid French, and I couldn't figure out what to do.

Consultation with the guy who pays his bills in cash each month made me realize that the woman at the post office probably made a mistake, so I gathered up my courage, my cash, and my documents and headed back to the post office.

Which was closed in solidarity to the strikers.

The dishes are piling up. I'm not sure what I must smell like, since my nose-doctor appointment's not til Monday, but I see a cold shower in the near future. I'm going to have to eat out tonight, which I really can't afford, and I mourn the fact that wherever I go I probably won't be able to taste much.

Trying to pay the electric bill has eaten up all the time I was going to devote to getting the telephone turned back on. It's taken me all week just to get this far.

And I'm nowhere at all. Impossible.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Daytrip: Béziers

I'd been promising myself another trip out of town for some time, but the money situation's been tight, and the weather's been crappy. But a couple of days ago, I was running around in the warm sunshine and told myself it was time to just Do It. So I went down to the train station, handed them €23 for a round-trip ticket to Béziers, and woke up yesterday morning and got on the train.

The trip, which takes a little over a half-hour, showed that spring was definitely here: the first growth of the grapevines, and the sidings covered with bright red poppies attested to that. The wind, though, was blowing like crazy, so it wasn't that warm.

The best way to get into the interesting part of Béziers is to take the pedestrian subways that are right in front of you at the train station. This takes you to a park, the Plateau des Poètes, which announces itself with this war memorial:


(Please, no deodorant jokes). The park is studded wtih portrait busts of various French poets (most of whom I've never heard of, like this one):

It also has another monumental sculpture, of Atlas, that's just plain goofy.

At any rate, once you're through the park, you come upon a large boulevard with a pedestrian mall in the middle of it, which takes you to the municipal theater, at which point you turn left and in a few blocks are in the old town, where the covered market is (nothing much going on there, I discovered after a quick turn) and where a huge church sits.

This is the place which, if people have heard of Béziers, they know it for. On July 22, 1209, the Crusade against the Cathars (aka the Albigensian Heresy) reached Béziers, a city which had already been excommunicated by the Pope (that's right: the whole city), and its citizens crowded into this church, the Madeleine, for shelter from the attack. Arnaud-Amaury, the vicious monk leading the Crusade, ordered the Church burned, and when it was pointed out to him that innocent Catholics were taking shelter along with the heretics (not to mention the fact that churches were supposedly places of refuge), he replied "Burn them all, God will know his own!" I've read that 7000 people perished in the fire, but now that I've been inside the church, I really doubt that: 7000 people in this space would die of suffocation, fire or no fire. But it's a nasty place anyway: some 40 years before that, various townspeople murdered a visiting Viscount for having insulted the honor of Béziers' soldiers. There's a nice bloody painting of it right there.

I left the Madeleine and headed into the narrow streets of the ancient quarter. It was 12, and, as with nearly everywhere in France, at noon everything closes for lunch. It was a perfect opportunity to get my bearings, and I headed directly to the other main church in town, the St. Nazaire Cathedral. It was there that I realized that I might have to re-title this blog: Montpellier sits on a hill, but Béziers really sits on a hill: the hike through the Plateau des Poètes is all uphill, and it's steep. The cathedral sits on a cliff, essentially, and from it, you can see the Orb River, which encircles the city, and off into distant mountain ranges.

The wind was really kicking by this point, and it occurred to me that finding a place to eat lunch would be a good idea, so that I could wait out the re-opening of the museums. This allowed me to pretty much map out the part of town I was in, although there were some astonishing surprises, like walking down a narrow street into a tiny square and coming upon Roman Guy.

There's no sign, no notice, just this statue hanging out.

Another surprising presence is the guy below, who turned out to be St. Aphrodise, who, according to legend, brought Christianity (ie, himself) to Béziers, and, after making some converts, proclaimed himself Bishop. Somewhere along the way he managed to piss off the Romans, who beheaded him in one of the squares, at which point ol' Aph picked up his head and walked back to his church to be buried. He naturally became the patron saint of Béziers.

My wanderings eventually brought me back to the Cathedral, and I noticed that its cloister and garden were open. The garden is small, and unfinished because in the middle of the locals putting it together, the guys in Rome decided to move the bishopry to another town. Still, it's nice and compact, and has lizards running all around it.

It's also got a nice view. The cloister, which is above it, attached to the Cathedral, has a bunch of old stones set in its wall.

And a somewhat newer one showing that singer-songwriters sometimes get recognized, just not in their lifetimes:

Okay, by now I really was hungry, so I found a crepe place that also had salads. Not the best salad I've had here (the Vert Anglais in Montpellier still holds that record), but strips of ham, some Rebluchon cheese melted onto little toasted baguette slices, and lettuce, served in a "bowl" made out of a toasted crepe was a nice enough lunch.

After that, I'd noted that the Musée des Beaux Arts was just around the corner and would open at 2, while the Cathedral wouldn't reopen until 2:30, so I wasted some time and bought a €3.50 ticket that got me into that, the other art museum, and the Musée du Bitterois, the historical museum. Art in Béziers is dominated by a guy named Jean-Antoine Injalbert, whose turn-of-the-century style I find unbearably heavy. (He did that statue of Atlas, above). Apparently his masterpiece is a statue of a naked boy, running, which appears in various iterations both at the Beaux Arts and the Hôtel Fayet, the other art museum. It does suggest a lot of energy, the way kids run flat-out, but it's also an instant cliché. By chance, the Beaux Arts was showing the local art-school's senior show, and I must say that its graduates, based on what I saw, will be carrying on Injalbert's tradition of obviousness and banality, although one student had taken the running boy and Photoshopped him into a bunch of different photos -- a football game, placing the American flag on the moon, the Béziers train station at night -- in ways that were pretty funny. The Fayet is more of the same, along with a lot of really mediocre paintings.

With the Cathedral finally open, I went in there and was again disappointed, although you'd think that anything that size would have something to recommend it. It does, in fact: a number of 13th century stained glass windows telling the story of Christ's life. The problem is, they're so high up that you can't see them without binoculars except in one small chapel. The place does have an impressive organ, though: a couple of the pipes look to be about twelve feet high.

After that I wandered some more, and stumbled on the church of St. Jacques, which dates back to at least the tenth century.

As you can see, the windows are boarded up and you can't get in, although I bet it's interesting in there. What it does have is a small park, from which you can get the full impact of the Cathedral:

By now, it was almost 4, and my train left at 5:24, so I slouched over to the Musée du Bitterois ("Bitterois" being the possessive form of "Béziers," ie, what locals are called). It was the third museum on my combo-card of the best museums I've seen anywhere. The Museum of the City of New York is good, the Amsterdam City Museum is good, and this is absolutely on their level. I could have spent three hours there, as it walked me through the prehistory of the city, the Roman era, the conquest by the Visigoths, the arrival of the Muslims, the eventual handing-off of the city to Christians as the Muslims retreated to deal with their problems in Spain, the rise of the city as a commercial trading post, and on and on to the rise of the wine industry and the part the city played in the 1907 wine this point I was just skimming, checking my watch nervously. I'll have to come back to really do this place justice.

Nearby, it is alleged, is a Roman amphitheater, which I spent my last 15 minutes in the city trying to find, with no success. How on earth do you hide a Roman amphitheater? I guess that, too, is for the next time. I really need to take a closer look at the map: maybe Béziers would be a place to rent a car and drive out into the surrounding countryside, then come back and spend the night after a good meal. Expensive thoughts, those, but only relative to the €30 this cost me. With luck, things will improve enough that I can do this sort of thing more frequently. And there's still Perpignan to explore...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hanging Around

One of the things you notice about Montpellier is that, although the buildings are old, they're all pretty much the same age. There's a reason for that, some of which happened here:

Just another of the nice old houses, this one belonging, apparently, to someone of some stature because of its huge door and imposing facade. And yes, the guy was definitely somebody, as the plaque on the front indicates:

For the French-impaired, this says "In 1561, Jean Bocaud, regent of the University, became the first Montpellierian to ask for an expulsion of Huguenots." Huguenots were French Protestants, and the woods were thick with them in this part of France. The King, however, may have been 500-some miles away in Paris, but he was up to his neck in debt -- financial, spiritual, and military -- to the Pope. M. Bocaud got his way, but much of the center city burned, and the Cathedral was trashed in the process. In the end, the Protestants who lived made it to Berlin (a lot of them: the Kaiser was a Protestant and looking to increase the population to raise Prussia's profile) and Britain and even the United States: I grew up not far from a town in New York called New Rochelle where a lot of them settled. So when you see that most of the listed buildings here all date from the 17th through 18th centuries, that's why.

Not that the fires of Montpellier stopped burning. The other day I was wandering around the Esplanade and came upon this lovely little memorial:

Again, for the French-impaired a rendering of that first paragraph: "Here, on the Esplanade of Montpellier, 34 Protestant pastors or preachers were hung, broken on the wheel, or burned alive after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes." A list, with the dates of execution follows, from three guys who died in 1690 all the way up to poor Étienne Teissier in 1754. It goes on to say that after the Revolution, Article X of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens made freedom of religion part of French law.

There are a few other interesting things in this park, and I'll snap them one of these days. I'm just amazed it took me this long to find this quiet, but horrifying monument.

EDIT: Boy, does my French need work. Translating the plaque on the Hôtel Boquet, I got a crucial word wrong. What M. Boquet did was to request burial as a Huguenot. In other words, he was a force for tolerance, not one of the bad guys. Thanks to Olivier (in the comments) for pointing this out.

I Want To Take You Higher

You learn something every day. The day in question was my recent appearance at the English-Friendly Montpellier get-together, held in the Belvedere Room of the Corum. Now, the Corum is the big opera house-cum-meeting facility that anchors one end of the Esplanade, a not horribly ugly modern building that's perfectly utilitarian inside.

I chose this shot because it's at least got some color in it, but the stairs also go off to the right, at which point there are more stairs, which lead to a long passageway with grass in it and onwards to even more stairs. These lead to what I think must be the highest publicly-accessible space in downtown Montpellier, the Corum Terrace. It's got a helipad in the middle of it, and today the wind was blowing hard enough that I'm glad I walked instead of taking my chopper.

Now, if you keep walking, you get to some steps which take you down to the aforementioned Belvedere Room (which, it turns out, is also accessible by an elevator), but let's stop and check out the view.

Here, we're looking approximately south. The brick building in the middle distance is the Lycée Joffre, the local high-school, a former fort (appropriately enough) which still has its star-shaped fortifications. It was plopped down there to remind the locals that Paris was watching them, since they had a tendency to get unruly. On the far right, the Ibis Hotel peeks into the frame, with the Polygone shopping mall to its left and the Polygone office building next to that. It is just possible that, between the first and second (counting from the right to left) of those white high-rises, you can see the Mediterranean. Or so claimed a couple of the students I talked with as we left the conference; I have yet to see the local beach. In the foreground, a pedestrian bridge leads over the train tracks.

This next photo shows some of our lovely urban sprawl.

This is approximately northeast, and shows the train tracks heading towards Lunel, where many of the vegetables I get at the market come from. There's not much of import here, but you can see the Avenue de Saint-Lazaire curving off to the left, on which, in a couple of blocks, you'll come to Montpellier's only Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel, the Jardin des Sens. I haven't been inside, but it seems a rather dull location for a hotel, just a few blocks from the immense cemetery. The food had better be good. In the far distance, to the left, the thing that looks like a castle is the chateau d'eau, or water tower, in Castelneau-les-Lez.

Due north, we can see Pic St. Loup looming on the left, and the mountain with the basalt columns to its right (still can't figure out what that one is). A little closer in is the steeple that sent me on a couple of my epic walks last year. I finally figured out it's in the military encampment, and not accessible to the public.

Looking due west (and trying to avoid a young couple who were virtually having intercourse on the wall -- kids today!) over the historic center, the St. Pierre Cathedral being the most notable thing on the skyline, but the coolest building, which can't really be appreciated from the street, is the Ursuline convent, now known as the Agora, and the center of the annual Montpellier Dance festival. This is pretty much in the center of the photo, with two identical cubes with cone-shaped things on top. And you can see the hill as it rises away from all of this to the left.

A little further on, slightly to the south, the hill is more pronounced:

Here you can see the steeple of St. Anne's on the left. In the foreground the Sully Center, where some sort of international studies are conducted and occasional receptions are held. It has, unsurprisingly, a very nice garden just behind that row of flags.

In the bottom of both shots, the Parc Archéologique's arch peeks out. Here's a better view:

This is a remnant of the old city wall, and there are also some old foundation stones, but nothing terribly interesting. Of more interest are the outlines of the ceramics ovens near the tram-stop just to the right of this, where faience pottery was made (outside the city walls, of course, due to the fire danger). Some examples are shown in the superstructure of the elevator which goes up to the Esplanade.

You can also reach the Esplanade via the stairs you see here, which will take you to the Parc Archéologique.

With this, I've gone about 360º atop the Corum, so there you have it, pretty much the whole dang city. Time to come down off the roof and walk in a straight line to the Comédie and home.

(Note: I had to reduce the size of these photos so that some of the stuff I mentioned would fit on my screen. You can click on them to see larger versions.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Lunkhead Dossiers, Chapter 1 (And, I Hope, Last)

So the landlord came over the other day, unsurprisingly, and we had a little chat, at the end of which he asked me to write a letter to him about the downstairs neighbors, the ones I've been calling les Lunkheads here. So, for those of you who think life in France is all rosé wine and croissants, I'm reprinting what he got in his in-box this afternoon.

(For the utterly French-deficient, "pub" is short for publicité, or ads, in this case the advertising flyers which get stuck in our mailboxes nearly every day, and "Ils ne sont pas méchants" means "They're not bad."

* * *

Dear M. Valmier:

As requested, a few notes about the downstairs neighbors. You indicated that English would be acceptable, and since I can give the narrative better that way, I choose to use it. 

When the neighbors downstairs moved in, I was relieved that the last occupants, who seemed to favor videos of women being tortured, played at high volume late at night, were gone. The new tenants had a raucous moving-in party, and of course I forgave them that; I might well have done the same in the circumstances. 

A few nights later, they had another party, during the course of which they took over the courtyard, leaving bottles and cigarette butts everywhere. This lasted until about 4 in the morning. Again, trash was everywhere. Eventually, I think the violin-makers, whose property the courtyard is, had a talk with them, because until last night, they haven't used it again. 

Within a few weeks, a pattern set in: loud gatherings, featuring loud music, happened several times a week. Some nights, they started at about 3 in the morning and lasted until around 7. Every Thursday, there seemed to be a meeting there starting at 20h, and lasting well into the night. They ignored requests to quiet down, from myself and from numerous neighbors shouting out  of their windows. 

It also became evident that they saw themselves as "anarchists," posting political posters about consumerism and advertising in the hallway, and reacting to the "pub" in their mailboxes by tossing it down the stairs. 

Their presence took a turn for the sinister in December. One day, I was leaving the apartment and found my way blocked by two large dogs who'd been tethered to the railing on the stairway. One was looking me in the eye and growling. I've been around dogs all my life, and know exactly what that means. I knocked on their door, and it was opened a very little bit by a young woman. I asked her whose dogs those were, and she said "My friend's." A man, whom I couldn't see, said "Ils ne sont pas méchants," and she slammed the door. I tried to pass them again with the same results. I knocked on the door again and again the same woman answered. She was very annoyed, but I said I couldn't pass the dogs, and her friend should do something. At that point, the door opened wider and a man I'd never seen came out, also annoyed, and yelled at the dogs, allowing me to pass. I turned to thank them and noticed that each of them had one sleeve rolled up. This isn't conclusive proof of what I assume was going on there, but it was suggestive of activities including needles. 

One night, as I sat reading, I heard someone come up the stairs, mutter a few words, and go silent. Looking through the spyhole in my front door, I saw a man lying down on the stairs to the third floor, a can of beer at his feet, getting ready to go to sleep. It was the same man with the dogs, and I believe the dogs were tied up outside my door. He was there for several nights afterwards. One night, the neighbors upstairs had a party, and he came in  and arranged himself in his usual place. Some of the party-goers came downstairs to talk to him, and I couldn't understand what he said (he was very intoxicated), except that he kept shouting the word "respect." Eventually, one of the kids brought him some beer. 

He disappeared when the weather got better, but I started seeing used alcohol pads, needle sterilizers, and orange plastic needle caps just inside the entryway. Given the chip system for entering the house, I can only assume someone had given him a chip. 

During this period, the parties downstairs got noisier. Less music was played, but people shouted, threw bottles at each other, and overturned furniture. More than once, a male-female dispute went into the hallway late at night, and on one memorable evening, at about 4, the screaming woman eventually went into the street, where she kept screaming for another twenty minutes. 

Last night was also memorable: recently, the neighbors have started singing and chanting loudly and tunelessly, not only during the night, but during the day, as well. They're doing it as I write this, in fact, using a bullhorn because aparently they can't yell loud enough. Last night, they also used the courtyard again, although they seem to have cleaned up after themselves this time, but the evening seems to have been capped with a burning of a stack of "pub" just inside the front door; there was a pile of ashes there at 11 this morning. 

I should contextualize these remarks by saying that since all of my business is conducted with the US, which is between six and nine hours earlier than here, I tend to stay up late and get up late. Thus, the bar next door playing music until just before 1 is not a problem. I've also lived around students and young people in Texas (in a university town) and Berlin enough that I can sleep through some noise without a problem. These people downstairs are unprecedented in their disregard for the fact that they live in a community and have to have some respect for the fact that their actions affect other people. It is a measure of the tolerance of all of the people whose residences face our courtyard that nobody has, to the best of my knowledge, called the police on these soi-disant anarchists, and that their spoiled-children antics, which now include throwing their garbage onto the stairway, continues. 

I realize the difficulty in getting rid of rent-paying tenants, but I hope this testimony and that of the many others whose lives have been disrupted by these idiots will help you. 

Best Wishes, 

Ed Ward

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Meandering Miettes of May (With Muguets)

If you're French, you get it: the first of May is Workers' Day, a celebration of the honor of labor, a day off from work (although it was Saturday this year), and, in Montpellier, a day when various left-wingers marched to the Peyrou park and listened to punk-rock and speeches while eating plates of varied charcuterie and drinking rosé wine. Although everything -- and I mean everything -- is closed, the market at the Arceaux wasn't, and I went there to get a couple of necessaries, and thus walked through the park on my way and looked at the stalls getting set up. I was just ahead of the parade, which had gotten as far as the Comédie and was waiting to ascend the hill by the time I set out, hundreds of people of all ages carrying banners and handing out leaflets about dozens of issues, and when I returned, the party in the Peyrou was underway, with a not untalented woman-led punk band singing away, and more people than could fit into the park (which itself is blocked by work that may or may not be related to the new tramline), including a lone woman with a sign in Greek and French urging us to support the Greek workers. The focus at the moment seems to be on the Greek bankers, but I guess they won't get anywhere without the workers.

The other way the French know it's May 1 is that you can't turn around without someone urging a bouquet of muguets, lilies of the valley, on you. These seem to sell for a euro a slim bundle, and are, according to my dictionary, where I looked the spelling up just now, supposed to bring good luck. (Man, I like dictionaries with cultural contextualizations!) There were muguet sellers all over the market, even a couple who'd brought their teenage son in his motorized wheelchair to sell them. There were also a bunch of high-school-age kids running around with pots of some plant that looked like it would get a lot bigger, with deep green leaves. I'm not sure if this was another tradition of which I'm not aware or a club raising dough for a project or something. At any rate, I know by this that spring is around the corner, or at least the fruits of spring are soon to appear at that market, and although it's still prone to turn cold, I have happy memories of this time last year.

* * *

Of course, the other thing about this time of year is that on days when I have nothing else to do -- alas, there have been all too many of those recently -- I can get out of the house and start walking around with the camera again. So, remembering Brent's criticism, mentioned in my last post, that I don't do enough to show how cool this town looks, I decided on Sunday to walk through the St. Anne district and try some shots. This is the neighborhood which first convinced me I'd like to live here, where I shot a bunch of photos on my very first visit, and I thought it would be interesting to go back and see what I found.

On my way over, I found the store where French bureaucrats shop:

and the house where a famous Canadian historical figure grew up:

(a closeup of the plaque you can see on the side)

Soon enough, though, I was wandering around the area just below St. Anne's church, which many visitors are disappointed to learn is a 19th century attempt at looking like an old church, although I think there was something there earlier which got trashed during one of the many anti-Catholic riots around here. And although the weather wasn't at its best, there were still lots of enigmatic old buildings to be seen.

These trefoil windows, for instance, are a very old architectural feature, and it's very evident looking at the house that it's been collaged into its present state, the modern window to the lower right being just one of the latest additions. Looking at an exterior like this makes me wonder what the inside looks like: is there, for instance, any interior indication of those trefoils?

Or this place, on the Rue Terral, which is actually old enough to merit a plaque from the city (unlike most of the buildings in the St. Anne) which says it has 13th century details:

Or this place, an obvious collage:

Which, as you can almost see, has this odd symbol on one of its stones.

No clue what it is, and, again, I'm curious what the interior looks like.

Some of the things that look charming are, um, somewhat less charming when you know what they are. Check out this interesting thing coming out of the second-floor wall on the house down the street from where I shot the photo:

But when you get underneath it, you see that this is a splendid example of its type:

Yes, folks, this is the toilet. The bit on the right has only been boarded over, but since this was a nice house (and this is its back end), its owners had a nice place to sit, and given the angle that the street is at, the rains would eventually wash away the leavings and send them downhill -- if the night-soil gatherers, whom I assume existed back then, didn't carry it away first for fertilizer. From the pipe coming out of the other compartment, it could very well still be used for this purpose.

I took lots more pictures -- 35 in all, which is an astonishing number for me -- and I'll be putting more up as atmosphere at some point. As I wandered, on a not-quite-warm Sunday afternoon, I started thinking again about living in this part of town. The buildings seem divided between student slums and nicer places to live, and I'm not at all sure how you can tell, although some of the buildings are clearly not very well kept and have sixteen names on the doorbells. The proof would probably be to walk the streets about 3am around graduation and see what the noise level was, and where, but moving is a very distant thought for me just now, so I'm not going to spend time worrying about it.

The next day, I remembered that I'd opened a demo of Photoshop Elements some time back, and it had a 30-day demo period. I'd also been utterly bamboozled by how it worked, so after 30 minutes or so of messing around I'd shut it down. But long ago a friend had shown me how to tweak photos with it, and because of the weird light on Sunday, the colors were, I thought, a bit off. So I opened it up again, saw I had exactly one day to play with it, and got to work. (For some reason, not all the photos above have been tweaked; I guess I didn't get them all into the folder I was working from). One after another, they snapped into better shape. Cool! Then I had another idea and started playing with the effects. Cooler! Mediocre photos turned into slightly better art!

Then I remembered why I'd opened this application the first time: I'd sent a photo, taken last November 9 after the phony Berlin Wall shindig on the Esplanade, of a magnificent sunset over the Comédie to my pal Marie, who teaches Photoshop, among other things, and asked her how I could turn it into a banner for this blog. She sent back a sample that I liked, all but the typeface for the title, and said "You're on your own." I'd tried to fix it, but failed utterly, and gave up in frustration. Yesterday, cheered by my photo success, I opened it up again, and suddenly it all seemed so easy. I still have no idea what, exactly, I did, but as you can see, between yesterday and today (the absolute last minute this demo will work) I figured out how to do it. I still have to make it all more readable, and I'm not sure how to do that, but I'll probably go back and try to figure it out before the Elements goes poof later today. Or leave it for the moment and go back when I have $80 to buy the sucker. At any rate, a small facelift for spring, even if the image is fall.

And here's the mediocre photo, reworked:

* * *

Another way I know it's May is that the Master's program at the University asked me to participate again. This year's project (last year's is here) was a pamphlet called English Friendly, designed to be used by the city for...well, I'm not sure what. It's packed with information about how the bureaucracy works, which is good, and it's got phone numbers and information about English-speaking doctors and lawyers, which is exemplary, but it's also got random lists of hotels and restaurants and a page explaining French bread and cheese and wine, which is utterly bizarre. It's missing ethnic groceries, of which there are a few, and at least one English-language bookstore, whose proprietor was in attendance and not very pleased. It seems not to know whether it's for tourists (who don't need most of the info -- especially the hotel list, since it's a rare visitor who hasn't already gotten a hotel together) or for students (the culture the authors know best, after all) or for other English-speakers who've moved here because they've got a job with the University, one of the biotech firms, Dell Computer, or whatever.

I was briefly interviewed, and then added to a list of speakers on the topic of integration of Anglophones in Montpellier. I took this as a challenge: would I be able to stand up in front of a room of French students and speak French? I'm quite good at extemporaneous speaking, but the foreign language thing makes me choke even when I know what I'm trying to say. In the end, I stood up and said a few things, but among the things I didn't say were, um, my age, what I do for a living, my disappointment at the closing of the Anglophone Library (although another speaker mentioned, that, thanks), nor did I make any mention my radio work in Berlin and how much I'd like to get my "Blue Monday" program back on the air here (afterwards, the students I talked to were very excited to hear it, so I think it'd fly), and any actually coherent criticism of the booklet. I eventually sat down in embarrassment without getting a fraction of my points across, but it's better than I've done in the past. Hell in 20 more years, I may be able to be fascinating in French. Not last night, though. How frustrating.
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