Thursday, June 24, 2010

More Miettes

I got an e-mail asking me why I hadn't blogged the Fête de la Musique, the annual Solstice celebration that happens all over France (and Germany) on June 21, and the reason was, mostly, that I was dealing with a musician. Lisa Shawley is a friend of a couple of people I know in Austin, and she showed up on Facebook announcing that she was busking her way through France, and asked if I knew anyplace good. I asked Bruno, a street-musician I know here (and about whom I'll have to write at some point), and he said there were no particular rules, just a few tips. So she came down on Friday, and had a place worked out through the Couchsurfing website. I helped her find her host, and on Saturday she went down to the market, where I found her with a bass player who didn't seem very interested in what she was trying to do:

She decided to stay until the Fête, and joined in with the festivities at the Globe, an English-language used bookstore and informal cultural center whose owner, Lawrence McGuire, also has a band called the Peace and Love Cowboys. I went home after her set, though, because if she hadn't been here, I would have burrowed deep into my couch and waited the evening out.

This sounds curmudgeonly of me, I know. Here's a day set aside for free music, played everywhere around every town! What a beautiful, idealistic event! But the reality is different. For one thing, you almost never see professionals participating in this thing. For some of the groups and individuals who play, it's the only gig -- or almost the only gig -- they'll have all year. For another thing, the spirit of the thing is vitiated by the fact that a large percentage of the "musicians" are DJs. You're not going to rope me into the "DJs aren't musicians" debate, for the simple reason that I've done lots of DJ work and I know how hard it is to cobble together a set in a club or on the radio, but I will also grant you that it's easy enough to assemble a sound system that'll blast your average fiddle band into oblivion with the touch of a switch. Quite frankly, I think that what my late friend Rollo called "guitar operators" and such should be the focus of the Fête, and not record selectors.

Of course, there are flaws with this, too: the nearest stage to my house for much of the day was from some École des Bands, or École du Rock, and I endured utterly soulless, technically proficient, out-of-context noise from one group of teenagers to the next. Um, Chuck Berry doesn't work as heavy metal, kids. Really. And if Joan Jett could have heard what you did to "I Love Rock and Roll..." No, I hate to speculate. But this was live music, and their parents were out in the crowd with their camcorders filming it all, and no doubt some of it now lives on YouTube. The horror...

After the schoolkids shut down, there was the bar next door, which has a common wall with me, so I know how their tape ends, because they shut down every night at 12:45, before I go to bed. They just moved the speakers out into the street, so now I know what the treble frequencies sound like. But, again, that's cheating: not only was it a tape, but they didn't even bring in a live DJ.

Just as New Years Eve is the amateur night when people who don't drink or party during the rest of the year do more of both than is good for them (and emergency rooms get to see all kinds of interesting stuff), Fête de la Musique is amateur night for both performers and audiences. As most anyone who lives in downtown Montpellier (or downtown anywhere else in France) can attest, it should be called Fête du Bruit, the Festival of Noise.

As for Lisa, she took off after busking the Tuesday market for Arles, will be meeting her partner in The Just Desserts on the 5th, and chances are that they'll be back busking and housesitting in Montpellier around then.

* * *

Lunkhead news: Last year, I was awakened in the middle of the night by something in my apartment which turned out to be a cat which had managed to climb into my place by means unknown. This cat, by dint of being un-neutered, has become a part of the life of all of us who share the courtyard my apartment looks out onto, with her yowling at all times of night and day. Imagine how surprised I wasn't to discover that she belonged to Les Lunkheads downstairs! But there's a happy ending for the cat: a woman moved into an apartment over by one of the roofs the cat hung out on, and started feeding her. Next thing you know, she's adopted the cat -- and taken it to the vet! Lady, we all salute you.

So this morning there was a commotion down below: one of the Lady Lunkheads decided she wanted the cat. So she's been clapping her hands, making kissing sounds, and calling. This works -- for dogs. (Well, sometimes it does). It never works for cats because cats don't care. Finally, Lady Lunkhead decided to bribe the cat out of hiding and placed a bowl of milk, a bowl of kibble...and a dead lizard in the courtyard, where at this moment the milk is probably turning into cheese and the lizard is dessicating in the sun. The lizard, in particular, pisses me off, because from what I can tell it's a Moorish gecko like the one that appeared in my apartment during a windstorm last year:

(Image from Wikipedia)

These useful critters eat mosquitoes, and mosquitoes have begun to appear around here. Anyway, she's still going at it and I can just see the cat stretched out on the other woman's couch thinking that maybe if she exercises patience, Lady Lunkhead will go away. Cats are good at that. 

* * * 

And another week passes without a phone. I now have a Secret Operative, however, who may be able to work things out on Monday. I sure hope so; I hate paying for services I'm not getting. 

Meanwhile, regular readers will notice two new features. First, the PayPal button no longer displays a wall of incomprehensible French or intimidating German: I figured out how to make it display English. And thanks to those who've navigated the furrin languages. 

Second, I've added a webcam to this site in blatant imitation of Ben Perry's Berlin webcam. Unlike his, which displays a nice slice of the city, mine is a bit boring: there's a mountain off to the left which I suspect is Pic St. Loup, but since I have no idea where this cam is sited, I can't be sure. It refreshes only once an hour, too, which at this time of year, when there's not much change in the weather, means there's not much variation in the image. There's an official city webcam that shows the action right outside my house, but it's a fake: it shoots a 5-minute loop and plays it for 15 minutes. It's also not possible to embed here, I believe, although a friend of mine's 8-year-old volunteered to help, and then didn't. Kids today...

The dance festival is up and running, and I'm going to go look at some of the free stuff, and there's also some other cultural stuff happening, so I hope to be back sooner than later. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Miettes of Miscommunication

The basic fact: my phone (and Internet) has been off since late April. There's a very good reason: France Telecom Orange billed my bank account, and when three in a row bounced, they cut off my line.

That, however, assumes I have service from Orange. I don't. I never really have. Oh, because there was no record of any previous renter having a land-line, I had to open up an account, but then the telecom I do have service with, Free, took the line over.

It still didn't really work, though; sometimes it would, sometimes it wouldn't. I finally got a Free technician over in January of last year, and he realized that Orange had never really surrendered the line and both telecoms were sort of alternately using it. He called Orange, got put on hold for 20 minutes, and finally had words with them. Everything worked well from then on. Until it didn't in late April of this year.

Something was odd: I kept getting spam from Orange offering me deals on new cell-phones. I figured this was due to my having a contract for my iPhone. Then I started noticing something was really wrong: I was being billed €19 a month on my bank account from Orange. Stupidly, I didn't do anything about this, which led to the demise of the bank account: Orange would bill me, it'd bounce, Orange would charge me an additional €20 for the bounce and the bank would do likewise. Then, when Orange got no response for three months, they took revenge.

See, the nice words they told the Free guy notwithstanding, they never cancelled my account.

At any rate, I paid my May bill with Free, although I had no service for the entire month, and I'm about to pay my June bill, even though I've had no service so far, and Free will send another guy out. There is no way the couple of hundred Euros that Orange has eaten will ever come back to me, though. Former monopolies never admit to making mistakes, as I know from Deutsche Telekom.

Meanwhile (and this is good to know), I found out that I can buy a SIM for my iPhone and not have to subscribe to a plan. I'm using it now. I bought it from...Orange.

* * *

So, you ask, if I don't have any Internet connection, how am I able to blog and do e-mail and Skype and all? Well, up until recently, I was stealing bandwidth (with permission: I had to have a password, after all) from my next-door neighbor, a nice Moroccan kid named Yazid. However, last week, Yazid, fed up with les Lunkheads, moved to the suburbs to his sister's house, where it's quiet.

While waiting to get the problem with Free resolved, I started going up to the Bar Vert Anglais, where, when I'd first moved here, they'd kindly let me use the in-house wi-fi and not necessarily have to order anything. Of course, when I wasn't flat broke, I always got something, and it was the smell of the famous Vert Anglais Burger being delivered to nearby tables that induced me to buy my first one.

Sunday afternoon, while negotiating a complex problem via e-mail, I was asked to leave immediately. There was virtually no one else in the bar, and I hadn't intended staying much longer. Fortunately, my e-mail was finished, so I pressed "send" and left.

There's a problem here, and it's not just people mooching their wi-fi. In fact, Nick and Sarah, who are two of the three owners and work the morning shift Monday through Saturday, are still perfectly okay with my being there. Their kindness saved my bacon when the Nasty Little Man pulled the rug out from under my plans and the Orange/Free thing hadn't been resolved yet. The afternoon-night guy, though, Jody, has never really wanted me around.

I both do and don't know why. Certainly I've never gotten in trouble with him, and when I had money and hung out there, I spent the money. But the problem goes deeper, and it's one I've encountered before: some British people overseas really, really don't like Americans.

My most notable encounter with this was in Berlin. There was a guy I got to know, pretty friendly, helped me adjust to moving there, and gave me work from a British-owned project which came up every two years. We hung out together, drank together, talked endlessly into the night together. I worked on the project five times. I considered him a friend.

Then one night, we were in E-Werk, the legendary techno palace, when he erupted at me. "You bloody Americans! You in particular, Ed: get off my fucking patch! You're poaching on my patch, and I don't like it one bit." I was aghast. For one thing, I had no idea that Berlin belonged exclusively to him. For another, he'd taken some Ecstacy, which I thought was supposed to make you love everyone, although I've never tried it. And for another, I was writing for American publications, which need an entirely different slant than British ones. In fact, the British press is next to impossible for Americans to break into, so it's usually not an issue. Even MOJO, a magazine you'd think would welcome American contributors (since it was, at the time I was involved with it, trying to break into the American market), has explicity stated that it doesn't welcome Americans because it's a British magazine. (These days, of course, it's been bought by the insane Bauer publishing group from Germany, and lost nearly all of its top writers by attempting to make them sign a horrible surrender of rights agreement, so you'd be a fool even to want to write for them).

The culmination came when it was time for the project again. He came over to my house, flopped down on my couch, lit up a huge joint without asking if it was okay (it wasn't; it was afternoon, and my landlord's mother, a horrid Gorgon of a woman, was occupying the apartment across the hall, and if she'd known what dope smelled like she wouldn't have hesitated in calling the police), and said "I know you think you'll be working on the project again this year, but I've decided your work's just not good enough. So it's no use asking for any; you're off the project." He stubbed out the joint, stuck the remainder in his cigarette package, and left. A couple of phone calls confirmed that other Americans who'd worked with him in the past got similar treatment. He wound up having to do nearly all of it himself, which led to drug consumption, which led to horrifying health problems.

What's this all about? I have no idea. I take people on a case-by-case basis, and I've found that when I encounter this anti-Americanism in British people the best thing is just to walk away from it, because there's really nothing you can do. Thus with Jody: there are too many bars in this town if I want to meet friends for a drink, so that's where I'll go from now on. And, since Nick and Sarah don't have a problem, I'm not really hurting myself by avoiding lunch there (they don't serve dinner), so there are more burgers and excellent salads in my future when I can again afford them.

No moral here. Other expats take notice, and let's move right along.

Oh, and thanks to the young woman upstairs for her wi-fi. She's moving in the middle of next month, though (les Lunkheads again, plus the guys next door who tried to break down her door at 4am one night, frustrated that their keys didn't work and too drunk to notice that it wasn't their apartment), so this must get resolved soon.

* * *

Regular readers will notice that the PayPal button is back. The previous one led to the now-deceased bank account, and this one should work with my American bank. I'm not a huge fan of PayPal, and if the huge project I almost got last week had become a reality, the button would never have returned. As it is, though, things are still day-to-day, so I'm still broke, but not poor. Not with all that sunshine out there, and black cherries being as cheap as they are.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Back To The Market

It's been a while since I posted any market pix, but when Jason the photographer was here, he decided it'd be fun to shoot me shopping at the market, so we went down there and he got not only pictures of me, but of lots of the market activity. Along the way, we attracted a lot of attention, since a guy with a huge tripod does that, and, of course, as a foodie himself, Jason wasn't immune to buying a bit for himself. Among those we talked to was the coffee-roaster, who turns out to be an American living in Montpellier (he looks ex-military), and someone whom I'm going to have to get to know. He usually sets up next to the Tomaologue, and I asked him when he was going to return to the market, because it's been a while since I'd had a good tomato. He told me that he's currently just selling plants out at his farm, and won't be at the market until the end of June. Can't wait.

But Tuesday's a fairly light day, and I wound up with some of the props, but nothing spectacular. Today, I went back to get a couple of things I needed, and in the middle of the market, my nose cleared and my taste returned. It was fantastic walking around smelling the stands which were rotisserie-ing chicken, selling paella, and cooking other stuff. I could also smell cherries -- which are coming into season now -- and knew that now I could shop for the tiny melons which I noted were even more numerous than they'd been on Tuesday. Sad to say, none of them were particularly ready. Actually, that's not true: I found a couple that were, took note of the stands, and returned to realize that the good melons had been bought and the green ones were still there. I also know there's an art to buying a not-quite-ripe melon and letting it ripen on the counter for a couple of days, but I'm not yet sure how that works. 

There'll be time for that: I still remember last year when an old guy solemnly accepted my €1.50 for a large melon, then stuffed two smaller ones into the bag. I was on a pretty tight budget, so a €3.50 mini-melon wasn't really easy to justify buying, and so I passed. What's here is some red Batavia lettuce, which makes a nice Caesar salad, because it has hard ribs packed with water; below that are some cherries, which I can say taste real good, the tiny strawberries, which'll be a pain in the butt to get onto the cereal, but well worth it; some green peas (which may be fading out soon; they seem to have a short season); some eggs, not from my regular egg guy, who's only there on Tuesday, but from some ladies who sell goat cheese and have the second-best eggs at the market, and some miscellaneous asparagus, ungraded and, thus, cheap. 

I also noticed some odd greens. There's a hippie-looking farmer with some missing teeth, who sells organic produce, usually at pretty premium prices, but it's good stuff, and he had a stack of something labelled laitue celtuce, a thick stalk with some leaves erupting from its top. I have no idea what this is, and have never seen it before. Then there's a couple who specialize in very expensive organic stuff (from whom I bought the hot green chiles last year), who had bunches of something labelled amaranth épinard. I'd always thought of amaranth as a grain, having seen it in health food stores, but according to the Oxford Companion to Food, it's a huge family of plants, some of which do indeed produce grain, but many of which are prized for their leaves, including Chinese spinach and callalloo, which I've had in Jamaica. No telling which this one is, but I guess it doesn't matter in a recipe. Maybe I'll look in some of my Chinese books and see if something inspires me. (Then, of course, it'll have disappeared from this stand). 

So, I guess, begins the marketing year. And about time: I'm hungry -- and determined to have the operation to restore my taste and smell permanently as soon as I can raise the cash! 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Four Hours

NOTE: If you read this on Monday, Blogger pooped out on uploading photos half-way through the post. Here's the whole thing.

There's a photo team in town at the moment, a guy named Jason Varney and his assistant Evan, shooting an article on the best retirement spots around the world for the AARP Magazine. The Languedoc is one of them, and I wound up being the sole person they could find to talk about it. Jason and Evan have already been to Costa Rica, Mexico, and Portugal, and Saturday night they hit Montpellier. I spent a couple of hours showing them around town, although they'd already done some scouting, and around 2, out of nowhere, it started to rain. We took shelter at the Cafe de l'Opéra in front of the Opéra Comique, and ordered Cokes until the shower passed. "Is this a place with a lot of microclimates?" Jason asked. Well, that's what wine-growing is all about, so yeah, I guess. "I'm thinking we should get in the car and go look for some color." I couldn't agree more, actually, so I ran back to the apartment, grabbed a guidebook in case it was necessary, and the roadmaps, and we were off.

Unlike last summer, when it took us two hours just to get out of town, this time we had a GPS, so we set the controls for Sommières, a charming medieval village half-way between Montpellier and Nîmes. Along the way, we passed a lot of colorful stuff, including some famous Gres de Montpellier terroir at the village of Saint-Christol

Jason exited the car to a hearty series of crunches, and exclaimed "My god, look at all the snails!" Thousands of white snails were all over the grass by the side of the roadway in the aftermath of the rain, and it was impossible not to step on at least a few of them.

Back in the car, we headed straight to Sommières, where, it says in The Rough Guide to Languedoc and Roussillon 3 (Rough Guide Travel Guides), Lawrence Durrell spent his last years. I visited very briefly a few years ago and have been meaning to go back, among other reasons because I sort of hallucinated that there were more beautiful women per square meter than anywhere else I'd been in France. We parked near what looks like an idyllic (and very affordable) hotel, the Auberge du Pont Romain, and hiked into the center up a steep hill. The whole town is built on a hill, and the bridge into town actually is a Roman bridge from the first century. The street we were on had a couple of potters' ateliers, which, despite its being Sunday, were open. I was trying to find the market square, and all of a sudden, there it was. There were some tables set up, and a bunch of people sitting around leisurely sharing food. A sign announced it was a "repas de quartier," with food being provided by a small restaurant, Rue Jardinière. We walked through the small gathering when all of a sudden someone started hollering. "Hey! Who are you?" American journalists, we explained. "Well, then, you have to join us!" A woman with grey salt-and-pepper hair was bringing out an aluminum tray with a cut melon on it, and numerous others were gathered around various tartes salées and other goodies. A great amount of rosé wine was also in evidence.

Jason does a lot of food photography, and immediately saw the potential here. I was translating my butt off, and doing a pretty good job. The woman who'd brought the melon turned out to be the proprietoress of the restaurant, and the rest of the crowd were local artists and others from the neighborhood. One very drunk ceramicist was urging me, in a slurred mess of French, English, and Spanish, to bring everyone to his atelier to look at his work.

Eventually, Jason arranged a couple of trays of assorted food in front of some of the crowd, and two of them kissed, and a whole lot of snapping happened. I was stuck on one of the benches as a counterweight to one of the more boisterous women, who was at the other end making sure she got in the picture. I think she saw herself as something of a spokeswoman for the terroir.

We were the hit of the party. Everyone wanted to talk to us, and we definitely made a bunch of friends.

Here, Evan (red shirt) and Jason (green shirt) are tackling one of the local melons, with various other of our new friends looking on (or not).

We finally escaped, heading up the hill for a shot of the not-so-impressive church, then back into the car. It was about 5. I thought it might be good to head for Pic-St.-Loup, the impressive mountain that you can see from Montpellier, so we set the GPS for St. Mathieu-de-Tréviers. We didn't get too far: a village named Gallargues was having its weekend festival, which was all but over. There'd been a running of the bulls, as various sturdy iron fences made evident, and things were winding down.

(This guy was not among them; he was hanging out at a horse farm Jason stopped to photograph).

On our way out of Gallargues, however, we saw a large herd of spectral white Camarguais horses in a field, with the light just right. Jason took photo after photo, as Evan and I noted the large number of actual escargot-type snails hanging around on the driveway we were parked in. I finally went over to shoot the horses myself.

You can see why Jason gets the big bucks and I don't. When I got back from this, there was a guy trying to communicate with Evan. He turned out to be the guy in whose driveway we'd parked, and I offered to move the car. "No, no, just curious about who you were." I told him, and this turned into a long conversation about the snails ("You can eat them, you know." -- he was astonished that I did know that, and had eaten them) and the crawfish -- American crawfish, meaning big ones -- in the nearby river. I explained about Cajuns to him, and we were getting along fine, when Jason returned and it was time to hit the road again.

After passing through a village I'd sure like to hear someone pronounce, Buzignargues, and then lots and lots of vineyards which probably eventually become generic Pic St. Loup wines, we found ourselves approaching Pic St. Loup, through a valley which, on its opposite side, had the bread-loaf figure of another mountain, the Hortus, dominating it. "Some things are great for real life, but not for the camera," was the way Jason put it, and boy, he was right. The Pic is long, and not at all the stereotypical cone-shaped mountain since, like the Hortus, it's made of limestone. It has loads of different parts, and I'd like to see a 3-D representation of it. The Hortus, for its part, apparently has a Neanderthal cave site in it. I noticed the opening of a huge grotto on one side of Pic St. Loup, too.

Jason was right about the real life vs. camera thing, but just to give you an idea what we were about to drive through, check this out:

What you don't see here is the Hortus, the other mountain, which would be looming some ways to the right of this picture, where the road was. You'd need Cinerama to do it justice, really.

We got back in the car and drove through the valley, the GPS fixed on St.-Martin-de-Londres, a town I'd once stopped for lunch in after getting massively lost. I remember it was supposed to have a nice church, and so we parked in the lot I remembered and headed up the hill. One thing that I really got out of this trip was how friendly everyone was: we're out of tourist season, and that seemed to make a difference. We passed a pizza joint and the old man who ran it was sitting outdoors in the sun with a drink, wishing us bonjour, and when we responded, saying something in what was probably Italian. One thing about hanging around with Jason is you get noticed: his camera is huge, and so is the tripod he carries it on. Shooting only natural light, this makes it a pretty stripped-down rig, actually. But it's big.

The church is, in fact, nice, but on Sunday at about 6:15 it was deserted. Here's old Martin himself, about to divide his cloak (beggar not in sight):

And a view from the church of the tightly-put-together town.

"This is real quiet," Jason observed. "Too quiet, in fact." So we packed up, went back to the car, and decided to drive back to Montpellier, because there was a big highway nearby that'd get us there in a straight line.

The whole point of this post is that, leaving town on a wild hair a bit after 3, we managed to see and do all of this, including lengthy stopovers in Sommières and at the field of horses, a detour by that wheatfield above into a town called St. Mathieu de Tréviers (where there was nothing much) and a spin around St. Martin de Londres, and yet we were back where we started (including the nerve-wracking circling of our destination on the one-way streets of inner Montpellier) almost four hours after we left. It only encompasses a tiny part of the map, and I know there are other such trips -- dozens of them -- waiting to be taken, with food, wine, history, and scenery all within an hour or two of my doorstep.

What I'm hoping for now is the time and the resources to do this every now and again, and, finally, a magazine or newspaper or (paying) website actually interested in a story or two about a part of France they've never heard about.

If not, well, I'll keep it for myself. I wouldn't trade Sunday's jaunt for anything. It made me very, very happy to be here.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What I Did Not Do Today

And not just because it was too late for the bulls, either.

This is more like it, but not all of it:

What I did do today will likely show up tomorrow. Patientez-vous, s'il vous plaît.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Today Around Town

Here was the question: where was everybody going to go?

The basic problem was this: today was Montpellier's Gay and Lesbian Pride day (the event is always referred to in English, for some reason), and according to an unreliable source, 20,000 out-of-town revelers were supposed to be coming to town for this.

It was also the 15th annual Festival of Fanfares, which clogged the Comédie with crazy people playing brass instruments and oboes (not the kind you see in orchestras, but a local wooden variety properly referred to as a hautbois) and drums. When I went out at noon, this was all further complicated by the local Palestinian supporters massed with sound systems and leafleters and Palestinian flags, protesting the latest dust-up in the Gaza.

And this was even further complicated by the fact that the Comédie currently looks like this:

That big barrier which goes all the way around the Fountain of the Three Graces, which you can see in front of the Opéra Comique, for which the square is named, is hiding some kind of renovation work that they started months ago, and somewhere on the other side of the barrier is a nice sign which says that this work will be finished at the end of May. Which May, though, is not specified. Anyway, I peeked today, and it's really not finished. To the delight of the café owners whose establishments ring the square, the barrier covers up about 70% of the square footage of the Comédie, where I believe a large number of the 20,000 proud gays and lesbians are planning to dance tonight, because if you turn 180˚ from where this picture was taken, you get this:

Which is a big disco stage from Radio NRJ. I heard the sound check, which was doing the best it could to defeat old-time stereotypes of homosexuals as people with exquisite taste. I imagine that stereotype will be ground into the earth even more in the next few hours, and stop at 1, because it's a city event, unlike a  party by Les Lunkheads (who've been pretty quiet recently).

The city solved part of the problem by moving the event I was most interested in, the Fanfares festival, to another quarter of the city entirely, over to the Beaux-Arts and Boutonnet districts, where they've blocked off streets and erected stages so that these weird bands, with names like Texas Couscous, Pink It Black, Monty Pietons, WestCostars, and many others, will play this evening as the beer flows. Without the acoustic baffling provided by the buildings between me and the Comédie, I'd say this would be a bad night to have a place in the Beaux Arts (which, I keep reminding myself, is a pretty nice little district).

I was unaware of the schedule, which starts at 6, so I wandered over at about 3, and stumbled on these guys:

They were playing in the market square, and right after I snapped this, they launched into "Hava Nagila," although I don't think it was a political statement. Unfortunately, at just this moment, my battery crapped out, so I didn't get a picture that was so cute I could probably have sold it to the local paper: behind the tuba player was a little girl of around 3, a look of intense concentration on her face, a wooden recorder gripped tightly in her fist, squeaking along with the band with all her might.

I'm not sure what the deal is with these Fanfares, because I really don't know anyone here clued in to the local culture on this level, but they apprear to be Associations, and their instrument cases have dozens of stickers from similar festivals to this (and a couple of fences along the way to the stages had posters for about a dozen upcoming Fanfare Fests all over this part of the country). The presenters, too, the people who put up the stages, also seem to be Associations, with one wearing the name Les 100 Ado-Rators des "Punk's Not Dead."

Too deep for me. I'm going to stay home and read. I'll miss the hautbois, though. They were intense.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Milliwatts O' Miettes

Which is to say, the power's back on. Got a call about 11 yesterday from the guy who does the job, and he said he'd be there at 2. I thanked him, and figured any time up til 6 would be fine. I almost passed out when he showed up at about 2:15, and before I knew it, I was back in action: all the toys on my desk made clicking noises and I knew I was back up. I then loaded a large bag with all the spoiled food in the refrigerator (and it was a lot: I'd stocked up), I retrieved the charging cord for the laptop from my next-door neighbor (thanks, man), and I was back up and running.

Interestingly, as I was searching Google Images yesterday for a picture of an Electricité de France electric meter to run as a graphic with this miette (all the images I found were copyright, though), I found tons of bitter political cartoons about EDF, its outsized profits, its crappy service, and its grip on the nation. When I lived in Berlin, I used to joke that Deutsche Telekom had gotten ahold of some of Lily Tomlin's Ernestine the Operator skits from Laugh-In (for you youngsters out there, one of her key lines was "Care? We're the telephone company. We don't have to care.") and thought it was a training film. Former state monopolies are like that: Tomlin shocked Bell Telephone into rethinking its customer relations. European monopolies didn't bother with customer relations until they were privatized. It wasn't until 2008 that I actually had great service from Deutsche Telekom: they sent an installer to my house on a Saturday, which is unthinkable, she was a woman, which from their previous incarnation was equally unthinkable, and I was astonished that she spoke English (although I didn't demand it, she was eager to practice). As recently as a year earlier, that would have been inconceivable.

I'm not quite sure how many institutions in France are privatized, but EDF is, for sure, and so is France Telecom, which now calls itself Orange, probably so that people won't bomb their offices. Orange is my next epic battle. When I moved into this apartment, nobody could find a record of a land-line having been here before. The way you deal with that is that you open an account with Orange, who open the line for you, and then whatever telecom you choose takes the line over and Orange bows out. Except they didn't. I had to call my provider, Free, and they sent a guy out who tested the line and noticed that Orange hadn't turned themselves off. He called, got put on hold for 20 minutes (good thing his mobile phone was fully charged), and eventually had a conversation with someone. "There, it's fixed, you shouldn't have any more problems," he said, and left. And it was true: unlike before he came, when things were going on and off, and I occasionally couldn't use the phone, service was smooth.

And then, this April, it stopped entirely. Something else odd happened: I got a bill from Orange for land-line use. Looking over my old bank records, I saw that they'd been charging me €19 and change every month for this, and until the financial meltdown which also occasioned the electric problem, my bank had been paying it. Now they were three months overdue, and within days the account went to a bailiff. I asked Free what I should do, and they said I should get Orange to admit that they'd been ripping me off like this, after which they could do something about it. I replied that since it was their guy who supposedly fixed it 18 months ago, maybe the ball was in their court. Meanwhile, I'd like all that money back, but the chances of that happening are, I'm sure, next to nil. Free has yet to reply, but I bet I get billed for the month I had no service from them because I was cut off for not paying bills I shouldn't have gotten in the first place.

* * *

Of course, all of this could be worse: a friend in another European country is facing eight days in jail for an unpaid debt of less than €300. I had no idea that debtors' prisons still existed, nor do I know whether, after serving time, this person will have repaid the debt.

When I think of debtors' prison these days (and I don't, much), the spectre of the old prison in downtown Montpellier comes into my vision. When my sister was here last year, I finally had the exuse to do the très touristy thing of riding Le Petit Train, a silly little conveyance you find in lots of French towns and cities these days, a fake choo-choo locomotive pulling a few open cars with audio through headphones which can be adjusted to play the narration in a half-dozen languages. I didn't learn much, but I did have my attention drawn to the old prison, which I don't think is in use at the moment. It's behind the Palace of Justice right near the Parc Peyrou, but -- fittingly for a jail -- it's almost impossible to get to (or, of course, out of).

I went for a meander the other day, and this was the best I could do, looking up to the end of this street. I note from the map that it's cruciform in shape, and is labelled "Maison d'Arrêt," which Harrap's Shorter French Dictionary: English-French/French-English (English and French Edition) defines as "remand centre," so maybe it's still in some kind of use. Another neat thing I found in that area, though was this, although I'm not sure the photo will show it as well as it might:

This is the side of the Palace of Justice, and shows where the new laws used to be posted so that citizens could come and read them, as well as, I believe, notices of upcoming trials. 

* * * 

And speaking of trials, you'll notice that the PayPal bug that once adorned this page is gone. That's because the bank account it was attached to is also gone. I'm attempting to hook it up with my old PayPal account, but that hasn't happened yet, and may not happen, if PayPal makes it as difficult as it might. Ever since the day my account was suspended for suspicion of money laundering, I've hated them, though, so it might never return. I thank those who've tried to help, regret refunding their donations, and remain broke but not poor, as Willem deKooning put it. That, too, should be passing soon, and meanwhile please buy tons of cookbooks from the Amazon bug over there and the French-English dictionary highlighted up in the last miette and feel free to come visit and buy me dinner! (You'll get a walking-tour of the city that's much better than Le Petit Train). 

Okay, my white horse is saddled and the valet is waiting with my lance. Off to do battle with Orange!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In Which We Engage With The Workers' and Peasants' Struggle

Well, not exactly.

But it was a delicious irony that France's second-largest book fair, the Comédie du Livre, which was held over the weekend here, featured North American Literature as its theme, and that Montpellier's Anglophone Library has been closed since January. To those of us who've been working to get it re-opened, it was too good a chance to miss.

And so it was that we had a meeting to form a plan of action, and to discuss forming an Association. As I may have mentioned last year, when there was the annual fair of Associations here, this is a basic unit of French life, getting together with like-minded souls to do everything from study the Thai language to collect stamps, to do horrible country-and-western line dancing, or to raise AIDS awareness. The Association was voted a good idea, so that's in the process of happening.

We then spent a considerable amount of time figuring out the wording of the banner we would carry as we demonstrated at the opening ceremonies at 10am on Friday. A guy named John, who's associated with another Association here, Americans for Peace and Justice, said that his neighborhood Association has been trying to get the city to put up a stop sign for five years. The city agrees it's a good idea. The stop sign has not yet been installed. But you've probably anticipated that.

Finally, we got the sign hashed out, added two t-shirts to the order going to the banner-maker, and agreed to schedule everything in our Google group. Over the next week, a few people signed up to leaflet the Comédie, and we made some shifts. The good people at Le Bookshop agreed to let us store our bag of petitions, t-shirts, buttons, and all at their corner of the American Literature stand, which they were sharing with a much larger bookshop called Grains de Mots, which I've never paid any attention to, but which was hosting the North American author signings.

On D-Day, Friday, I hauled myself out of bed, acutely aware that I had to pay my electric bill, but not wanting to let the troops down, and at 10, when I'm usually having coffee, I was out on the Comédie, where frantic last-minute setting-up was occurring at all the tented bookshop spaces. Our fearless leader, Vicki Metherell, was there, with a stack of petitions, and soon others began trickling in. The banner was unfurled, then mounted on a couple of bamboo sticks, at which point we found out how tricky it was to hold. In front of the "Louisville Café," the little space where authors and others gave talks, they were erecting a plexiglass lectern for the opening ceremonies, and inside the space, the press was asking questions of the invited authors. I lurked outside with a petition and when they gathered for their photo, I nabbed them one by one to sign it. After all, we'd probably have your books there if it were open!

Here, they're having a photo op with Madame the Mayor, Hélène Mandroux, in pink.

We got ready with our big gun.

And, an hour or so later, when the speeches began, we were ready:

Not only were we very visible to all the media covering the opening ceremony, but several of the speakers mentioned our cause, most notably a fiery young politician named Georges Delafosse, who is currently the Cultural Adjutant of the Region.

After the speeches, the hard work. I ran off for the rest of the day to struggle with the electric bill (see the previous posts), and the volunteers started handing out flyers and getting signatures. I wasn't able to get out there til Saturday afternoon, and it was hot, so I didn't last very long. Sunday, though, Vicki and I spent most of the afternoon out there. Her goal was to get 500 new signatures from the event, and although I'm not sure, I think she may have succeeded. It was mighty close towards the end, I do know that.

My tactic was to stick by Le Bookshop, and notice who was interacting with English-language texts (since there were some French books for sale, too). If they started to walk away or made a purchase, I'd hand them a flyer. Many of them would stop and read it right there and demand to sign the petition. "This is a scandal," one French woman said. "But if you are dealing with the city or the Region, you should not expect to get anywhere." Another woman, an American from Harvard, who's studying CSI here and is married to a gendarm from Toulon, heard the story of the University's shutting us down and called her husband over, relating the story to him in French. "This is theft, isn't it?" she asked. He thought a minute and said "Yes, I would say so." (Dang, we could have arrested the University President if we'd known that -- and if he worked here!) Lots of people were simply unaware that the place existed, and asked us what the opening hours were.

In the end, I think we raised a lot of visibility for the collection and the ongoing effort to get it opened back up. One of our new members is a bilingual, trained librarian from New Zealand who now lives here, so that's a neat bit of info. And Vicki was supposed to have a meeting with Delafosse yesterday.

La luta continua! I mean, it's just not fair to pull the plug on this thing right as I was working my way through the Library of America's Philip Roth collection!

Now to continue the struggle against the electric company, which, as of 3pm on Tuesday, still hasn't shown up to turn my power back on.
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