Thursday, November 10, 2011

Museums, Mme Merde, and Mmmm: Miettes

This will come as something of a surprise to those who've known me a long time, but I went to my first live show of the year a couple of Sundays ago. (The one song I saw at SXSW doesn't count). This is a combination of my decreasing professional involvement in music, my extreme fatigue with it, and the fact that here in Montpellier, almost no music of interest comes here during the course of the year. True, earlier this year Wire was in town, but I had no money whatsoever for that one. Last year, except for an impromptu visit by some Austin-based musicians, there was nothing at all.

This show, however, was by someone I've known for a long time, John Cale, who's always interesting. And it was also in the Rockstore, which is the second-closest live music venue to my house. (The closest is the bar-restaurant next door, and Cale is far and away not awful enough to play there. I keep hoping their live-music experiment will fail, which is possible: everything else there has). Except for Wire, they've never had a single act which has interested me, and, as you can see from the upcoming events, that's hardly a surprise. (The Gladiators were interesting when I saw them in the '80s, but as far as I know the original guys are all dead, or there's only one guy left, another of those skeletal reggae bands that plods the circuit, trading on old glories).

Besides Cale, who was having an off night and seemed to be ill, I was curious to see the venue, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and festooned the center city with banners showing performance shots of (mostly French) bands I'd never heard of performing there. It's astonishing how the French could have such a huge rock scene without any of it ever leaking out to the wider world. Well, it is unless you've investigated it and noticed how utterly unimaginative 99% of it is: a journalist friend of mine in Paris once took me to see RCA France's big new signing La Fille du Pirate (The Pirate's Daughter -- great band name, huh?), at the Olympia, the legendary Paris venue, and I remember them chiefly because it was such a dull show. Big money had changed hands, and to such little effect. But the reason all the banners were up was because the Rockstore owners had thrown up their hands a couple of years ago, unable to make the place work any more -- and the city of Montpellier stepped in and bought it from them! Just imagine that happening in any U.S. city!

The Rockstore turned out to be a classic old rock venue. According to the unofficial city historian, it was a Protestant temple (they're not called churches here, and this area was a real hotbed of Protestantism early on), then an auto shop. It also must have been a theater of some sort after that. It's got the classic velvet curtains which, if washed, would probably give up a 60-40 mix of tobacco and pot residues, an unused balcony, several bars, and an agreeably dingy ambiance. Too bad the local taste diverges from mine so much; I felt pleasant nostalgia for the duration of the evening.

* * *

I saw the Rockstore again on Monday, when the pleasant combination of non-rain and having €10 in my pocket sent me to the local laundromat. (I have a washing machine, but it was broken by the idiot movers when I came here from Germany, and is number 1482 on my list of stuff I have to take care of).  There I sat and watched as troops of immaculately-clad teens in the latest hip-hop and what they call here "street" fashions were herded in and out of the place, part of what I guess was a video shoot at the Rockstore. The entire street was lined with trucks, but this wasn't a huge surprise because a note had appeared on all the doors on our street warning us that someone called Firstep Productions was going to invade.

I totally lucked out that day: almost the minute I got back to the house with my toasty dry laundry, the skies opened up again. This almost incessant rain has probably been welcomed by the local farmers, although it's inhibited my ability to hit the market to buy what they're growing. But it's also had an effect on my neighborhood. All the windows in my house face across a small courtyard, but one, the one in the bathroom. I frequently look out that one to see what's happening in that direction: remove the buildings facing there, and I could see the Comédie. The coming of the stormy season was presaged by huge winds, and one day as I looked out the bathroom window, there was a lonely straw hat which had blown onto one of the roofs, as potent a sign that summer was over as could be. Yesterday, though, I looked out to see this sign on the same roof:

What on earth could this be? A sign from some demonstration on the Comédie which had blown away? That was the only thing that I could think of, but it sure had landed square, and it had that nick out of its top. Figuring "megots" was some acronym, I checked the dictionary to make sure, and found myself grinning.

Megots means cigarette butts. And this sign was a clearly aimed at la famille Merde upstairs. The entire courtyard is littered with cigarette butts those folks throw out their windows, hundreds of them, and if you remember, it was just a couple of weeks ago that one of Mme. Merde's megots started a fire in some garbage they'd also thrown out the window. And now that I thought about it, I did remember how many butts had collected on that roof over the summer until the rain washed them away. Given how much cigarettes cost here, the Merdes must be fairly well-off. She sits in the hallway at night yelling into her cell phone and smoking, and in the morning we can see where she was by the pile of ashes and butts on the floor.

I salute whatever neighbor put this there, and hope it does some good. There are, however, several more windows to toss butts out of, and they do, so I'm not too optimistic about this campaign.

* * *

Getting older is no fun, but if you're in Montpellier, it does have its advantages. The other Sunday, bored, I went for a walk and noticed that a place I'd been curious about was open, the Pharmacy and Chapel of the Work of the Misericordians. I walked in and read the signs, but wasn't really interested: the Misericordians were a laic order founded shortly before the French Revolution to provide food to the poor, and were interrupted in this by the Republicans, who secularized them. The Montpellier chapter also provided medical assistance, thanks to the local medical school, and had a pharmacy to mix up medicine. As I was reading the signs, the guy who took tickets showed up. I asked him if the sign saying admission was free to those over 60 was true, and he said yes, went back in the office, and presented me with a ticket with three pieces: one to the pharmacy/chapel (which he then gave me a guided tour of -- not all that interesting, actually), one to the Museum of Old Montpellier, and one to the Museum of the History of Montpellier in the 10th to 16th Centuries, also known as the crypt of Notre Dame de Tables.

So there I was, with a free pass to a Sunday afternoon! After thanking the guy for his tour of the ceramic pots in the pharmacy, I headed to the Salle Pétrarque, a fairly ancient building behind a 19th century façade just around the corner. The museum there is a sad, but terribly typical, example of the small-town municipal museum, with odds and ends in its rooms. There were the collections in glass-fronted armoires with hand-written descriptions so faded as to be illegible, corners so dark you couldn't be sure what was in them, and a huge table with a map of the old city, which was pretty interesting.

But I was in a hurry to get to the other third. Notre Dame de Tables was so named because of the money-changers who set up outside, offering trade to the pilgrims on their way to Compostella who needed local currencies. It was also where the city tax collectors sat on tax days and took their shares from the locals. Nowadays the church is long gone, but during the excavations for what is now the Place Jean Jaurès, the foundations and crypt was uncovered, and today a pretty nice exhibition is located there. There are little doohickeys that give you a tour in any one of a number of languages, and I learned a bunch about the local history -- including the connection between the "new" city of Montpellier and the Greco-Roman settlement at Lattera. There's not much on display, because the church got pretty trashed on the way to its final destruction in the Revolution. The narration skips some important bits of early history, at least as far as I've been able to figure it out (I keep looking for a decent one-volume history of this city in French or English, but so far I haven't found a thing). I also noticed, through a hole in the floor, a gigantic number of leg bones, which, assuming some were female, seem to indicate that the long-legged ladies I see around here are part of a proud genetic inheritance.

For those of you who aren't as aged as I am, this threefer is available Tuesday through Sunday for just a couple of Euros, and now that crappy weather is upon us it's an entertaining way to spend a dreary afternoon. Don't expect much out of the pharmacy or the Old Montpellier Museum, but history buffs will be well-served by the crypt.

* * *

In further news The Other Ed and I had lunch yesterday at Omija, the Korean deli/snack bar I mentioned a couple of months ago. They were doing pretty good business, with a young Franco-Asian couple eating there when we arrived, and some black ladies arriving afterwards. We had a platter with some steamed beef with garlic, a bunch of shredded lettuce with some sort of white, garlic-gingery dressing, some rice and beans, shredded carrots, cucumbers, and canned corn (what is it with Europeans and canned corn?), a Japanese chicken nugget, and some fresh mango cubes for dessert. A tiny pot of kimchee served for both of us, and it was pretty tame, but then, this is France, and you can't go all atomic on these folks and expect repeat business. Seven and eight euros for lunch is still a bit rich here in the world of the Broke, Not Poor, but I'm definitely enthusiastic about this place now, and recommend it heartily. The husband of the couple who run it was on duty, and he speaks English if you don't speak French, being half-French, half-Zimbabwean, a combination I can safely say I've never encountered before. I suspect they need all the help they can get, so head on down and chow down.


  1. I'm really surprised the Rock Store isn't older than 25 years. It already had a run down and very used feel to it when I was hanging out there as a student in 1988.

  2. Click the link up there: the building is really quite old.


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