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.


  1. I don't get the part about the place in the middle being an obvious collage. What makes that so obvious?

  2. Maybe it doesn't show up in the small scale photo. Did you click to enlarge it?

  3. I did and I still don't see any joint, so to speak: the facade looks physically and stylistically homogeneous to me.


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