Sunday, August 28, 2011

Post Heatwave Miettes

Been meaning to phone home a little sooner than this, but the past week has been pretty awful. Again, apologies to my friends in Texas, since nobody should have to endure what they've endured this year, with a heatwave which has seen daily temperatures hovering around 110°F (that's 43.3° C, folks) for weeks on end. Still, around here motionless air around 90°F  (32.2° C) with high humidity hasn't exactly inspired me to go out and snoop for stuff for the blog. It's the weather pattern here, and I'm quite sure there's a French word for it: either the winds are off the Mediterranean coming from Morocco or whatever bit of Africa is down there, and, thus, hot and damp, or they're coming from the Cévennes Mountains, and are cool and dry. The turnaround tends to involve violent winds, and when it goes from hot to cool, it's a welcome phenomenon indeed.

Still, one must go out from time to time, and hot muggy weather is prime observation time for Stupid T-Shirts. I don't carry a notebook for this, and there were days when I saw so many I forgot them all. Just enough of them stuck in my feeble brain to report a few classics back here.

Naturally, summer brings thoughts of water and the beach and all, so there are a lot of fake souvenir shirts for California beach towns made by the big designers. Someone has also come up with one that reads


In case any of you are thinking of taking this advice, may I add that most of the time surfing on the waves is far preferable. I guess shooting the curl is surfing in the wave, but that's not the usual way you do it, and is recommended for advanced practitioners. Maybe Mike will correct me on this.

Unsurprisingly, men wear the vast majority of stupid t-shirts. Some of this is because women's ts tend toward simple messages (I LOVE BOYS) or graphics with one word (FASHION or CHIC) -- or with no words at all. Men have to let it all hang out. One exception I saw recently was a teenage Japanese tourist girl whose shirt had the message


My immediate reaction was to get offended, but on solemn reflection, without having seen hers, I'm afraid I had to agree. I'm not sure how to make this blog more fashionable, but will entertain suggestions.

Men's ts also tend to have more aggressive messages on them, or, rather, teenage boys' do. One I saw had a picture of a black guy's hand with a huge ring on it grasping a sheaf of $100 bills and the message


I think it's a shame to live in a society where power and respect and taurn are all equated with money. Especially taurn. Whatever that is.

But the hip-hop ethos really does drive young French men, especially the white ones, and especially the white ones who don't seem to understand English very well. That's what I had to conclude when I saw


I dunno, dude. Sounds kinda gay to me. It's the Ghetto Absolutely Fabulous Mob you want to watch out for, though.

And finally, the other day, a wonderful summing up of the whole teenage male ethos, a picture of someone breakdancing (still huge here) with the words


Um, okay.

* * *

Montpellier is currently in the midst of a serious crisis, one which involves me as much as anyone. The huge French supermarket chain Monoprix has, apparently, discontinued its free pink bags for groceries. You can still buy sturdy reusable plastic bags for €.15, but they're not the same. The old ones were flimsy, but actually stronger than they looked. I kept a steady supply of them for use as garbage bags in the kitchen, and I wasn't the only one by far, to go by the bins where the neighborhood chucked its garbage. Sure, the 9% beer crowd tossed theirs on the ground, and so did others, but I'd still say a large percentage of my neighbors reused them for various purposes.

Which is what recycling's about, right? And when I went grocery shopping, nine times out of ten I'd take a cotton bag of my own (thanks, SXSW) to use, because I hate waste as much as the next guy. But now they're gone and they've been gone for a couple of weeks. I'm on my last garbage bag (looks to be something I brought back from Staples in New York), and I'm not sure what I'll do when that gets full and has to be tossed. Monoprix is a perennial candidate in various European green prize initiatives, and they've done many wonderful things in terms of making organic food available at sane prices (and packaging it so it looks different so you know it's organic) and trying to source locally (although what's with the Mexican garlic and Tasmanian onions?), but they seem to have forgotten the other end of the chain.

UPDATE: Aug. 30. Yesterday, pink bags were everywhere at Monoprix. They're back. Just in time for my next bunch of garbage, too! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, again we see The Power of the Blog In Action! (Well, if such a thing were true, they'd have taken down that fake Brassaï by now).

* * *

Another crisis seems to be the Estivales this year. This has always been fun: a bunch of local winemakers, many of whom are pretty obscure, set up on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, and you buy a tasting glass and three tasting tickets for €4. The pours are generous, there are loads of stands set up selling "tapas," ie, charcuterie and mussels and fake Indian and Japanese food and who knows what all, and the city sets up long tables and everyone hangs out, enjoying the nice summer evening.

Or at least that's how it's been. My first Estivale this summer involved my meeting a friend at 10pm, and it was the first time I noticed any tension: some guy was haranguing a server in one of the wine tents and things looked like they were getting a bit out of hand. I noticed a lot of rather, um, overserved people wandering around that evening. My second one was perfectly civilized, but started earlier. Then, two weeks ago, I met Kirsty and a friend of hers from the States for a tasting and, along with our glasses, we were handed a little flyer from the city suggesting the use of public transportation. Unnamed "incidents" were mentioned, and I remembered hearing about something in the local press through the grapevine. What was really telling was that, by the time of our last glass, workers were dumping piles of cellophane-wrapped thingamajigs with the city logo and instructions on how to use "Le Ballon." I should have grabbed one, just to see how a do-it-yourself breathalyzer works, but I didn't. There were also cops everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.

It's weird, but it's something I've noticed: in comparison to America, where alcohol consumption is considered something apart from daily life, as close to a civic sin as seems possible, in Europe I've always been gratified by the way it's integrated into the fabric of society, from my first visits to England when I saw people bring their kids to the village pub, to Germany, where the hotel vending machine had beer in it (and so did McDonald's), to France, where wine is almost a sacrament. The American attitude leads to binge-drinking: the drunkest people I've ever seen in public were in the parking lot of a "bottle club" in Tyler, Texas, a "dry" city with circuitious ways around the law. American students on year-abroad programs come here and slam down the cocktails, and apparently that ethos has crossed over to their French peers: around the corner from me is a "shooter" bar, serving nothing but flavored rum shots to college students.

I have no idea if there's a sea-change underway, and, to tell the truth, I kind of doubt it. Adults seem pretty balanced on this sort of thing, and it may even out. It's just that I suspect it wasn't always like this, and I'm surprised by the aggression and stupidity involved. On the other hand, apparently there are those people who, when they die, want it to look like they were doing something cool.


  1. Bonjour,
    I am a fairly new reader (and follower) of your blog. Even though I now live in the US, my mom's family is from the Herault region of France and we lived in Montpellier in the mid 1970s and I remember the heat in the summer. Anyhow, I can relate to your comments about "English" messages on t-shirts. My problem when I visit France these days is to find t's with inscriptions in FRENCH for my 11-year old son. I did not even know there were t's out there for bloggers! How about that!? I have just seen you posted about the Dordogne recently. I will go back and read your stories as I was there as well this summer. Veronique aka French Girl in Seattle

  2. I think maybe that blog t is only available in Japan. But I just had a GREAT idea!

    How about a City on A Hill t-shirt?

    Maybe with the banner design (tweaked a little).

    Oh, okay. Don't all applaud at once.

  3. Ed, the French term for those winds coming off of the desert in southern Algeria is called the LE MISTRAL. (check a map sometime. you are north of Algeria not Morocco. Un arabe est un arabe. kif-kif.) The same type of weather that Raymond Chandler wrote about in Los Angeles. They call them Santa Ana winds.

    When I lived in Aix in the 70's there were no plastic bags at the Monoprix. I thought it was a vast improvement to have to buy a string bag for food shopping and get away from paper or plastic.

  4. The mistral blows from North to South down the Rhone valley. It is worst in the Rhone valley itself and Provence. Here, it is very dry and can be cold as it has to rise over mountains (depositing its humidity as rain/snow there) to get to Montpellier. It produces the blue sky and 300 days of sunshine.

    The Tramontane is similar, but blows from NW to SE through the corridor between the Massif Central and Pyrenees.

    The Sirocco is a wind originating in the Sahara and blows South to North. In Africa it is very dry, but picks up humidity as it crosses the Med sea and causes rain (often with a fine yellow sand) along the European Med coast.

    The Marin is a warm, moist wind from the SE blowing into the Gulf of Lion. It brings rain which falls mainly on the hills and can cause flooding. It is known locally as the Greek wind.

    Other winds are just winds !

  5. See? I knew an expert would show up to clarify all of that. One who actually lives here, too. Thanks, Peter!

  6. dlwilson26, I think Ed will be on this in no time, but I'm afraid that the Mistral is 1) a cold wind out of the north, and 2) something that doesn't hit much of Languedoc (the eastern Gard is the exception, I think), and certainly not Montpellier.

    Maybe you could check a map sometime, too?

  7. 'Sokay, Gerry: Peter got it. I didn't know any of that stuff, so I'm going to have to remember where that post is next time the weather changes.

    And most Americans can't tell the Languedoc from Provence. No wonder: I passed a place on the rue du Ancien Courrier the other day selling souvenir dish-towels printed with cigalles and the word Provence. Seems to me the Tourist Police should bust them!

  8. The accident involving the people coming back from the Estivales was terrible. The car ploughed into another group who had been there too but had taken the tram out to a certain point and were waiting for their parents to pick them up. The irony made it all the more tragic.

    As for bin bags, you can buy them from Monoprix.

  9. Oh, lord, that *is* awful!

    And yes, of course one can buy garbage bags at Monoprix. The point, though, is that we didn't use to have to because we could reuse what we got for free. Which I thought was part of the deal.

  10. There'a godd summary of mediterranean winds (with a map!) here.


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