Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Slum's Environs, A Context

My friend D is having a hard time of it over in Texas. She's been writing me from her new place, which she's just moved into, and, since I have no idea where it is, I've taken to calling it the Undisclosed Location, and signing off with "to the Undisclosed Location from The Slum," which, as readers of this blog know, is the code name I use for my apartment. I've never really been able to convey in photos how small this place is, and how inconvenient it is to reach some of the things I have here, many of which still reside in the boxes they were packed in almost exactly four years ago. (I think the fourth anniversary of my moving here will be this coming Friday).  Nonetheless, when she wrote me "Send anything you feel like photographing. Pieces of your life. They have to be better than the pieces of mine right now," I took a bunch of photos of the apartment and sent them to her. Then it occurred to me that they'd been no more successful than the others I'd taken over the years and she probably still had no idea why this place drives me nuts and why I resent paying €691 a month (about $880) for it.

The thing is, I told myself, she's probably romanticizing my life over here, when in fact it's pretty much the same as living in Austin, with some details changed. I'm sure others do, too, when they hear Terry Gross say "Ed Ward lives in the south of France" on Fresh Air, or they read some of the cooler posts I've put up here about my travels, or they see some of the nice photos of Montpellier I've put up here. The fact is, I go shopping for food (in a mall, no less), patronize a laundromat, and do all the things everyone does in a neighborhood that's just painfully ordinary, so to contextualize it, I went for a short walk today to deliberately shoot mundane photos of my daily surroundings. Since it's Sunday, few of the businesses were open, so the photos are relatively depopulated and some of the activity that spills out into the street is missing. I have also deliberately not given a hint to where I live exactly (except a shot of my front door, which I'm e-mailing to D and not posting here) because that's one of the things in my life that's nobody's business but mine. And the real-estate-management firm that dearly wishes I'd leave. So, without further ado, let's walk out the front door:

and down the stairs from the third floor, where I live:

and out into one of Montpellier's most dangerous streets. Not, I hasten to add, dangerous because of crime, but because during the day it serves not one, but two learn-to-drive schools despite being, like most of the streets you'll see here, pedestrianized.

I turn into one of the two commercial streets and walk away from the Place de la Comedie, the huge square at the foot of Montpellier's hill.

Not much to see. The left-hand side of the street is mostly failed businesses. La Civette is the neighborhood tabac, and sells magazines and lottery tickets and I don't know what all. I've never set foot in it, myself. Next door is one place I do wish had been open. Omija is our neighborhood Korean deli and grocery store, run by a pair of wonderful folks, and offering a rather pricey but delicious lunch. I've written about them here before, and since then they've become extremely successful. Couldn't happen to nicer folks. Past that is one of the driving schools, a bar I've never seen open (the guy is walking in front of it) and the laundromat that just opened. Exciting, huh? Further down the street is a kind of mini-Chinatown, although the restaurants pretend to be Vietnamese, and are really "Asia" restaurants.

On the left is a huge multiplex, and at the very end of the street you can see the railroad tracks. I'll turn right there by the Fleurs de Jade and walk down a narrow street with a North African bakery called, for some reason, Carthage Milk, a not-so-hot Moroccan restaurant, and a truly undistinguished Indian restaurant. Next to that is a tiny alleyway which I think gives a lot of the flavor of the neighborhood.

I think it has a certain charm, although you couldn't pay me to live there. I have, however, seen rental notices for apartments on this tiny stretch of road.

At the end of this short street, we hit a major commercial street. We can turn left and walk down to the tracks

or right, as I will, up to the Comedie.

There are a lot of things on this block. The Cuban bar on the right is very popular with black guys and serves, yes, real Cuban rum and beer, since France trades with Cuba, after all. There are Italian and Japanese (well, sushi) places on the left, as well as a huge pinball/video game arcade (betcha didn't know they still had those, eh?). There's a Subway, strategically located across from the entry to a French-immersion-course school, out of which tumble well-to-do-looking American kids. There are a bunch of these schools in the neighborhood; year-abroad programs are a big source of income here in Montpellier. On the right side of the street is Oasis, a better-than-average kebab shop, and, past that, one of the ubiquitous Internet and phone abroad for cheap stores. There must be a half-dozen of them within three blocks of tihs spot, always with Africans and Middle Easterners using the facilities. Finally, there's the Diagonal Cinéma, another multiplex noted for running foreign films with French subtitles, including Hollywood films. I've never been, but I'm not much of a cinephile.

Up at the Comédie, there's the merry-go-round

which stands in front of the Monoprix, a French chain which is about half groceries and half other stuff,  this branch of which is open for a few hours on Sunday. It usually has dozens of bums and street people hanging out, drinking, their dogs fighting or playing with each other, but today therre was almost nobody there, which meant taking a snap was easier.

They've recently facelifted this whole store, and now they have self-checkout machines which sometimes work, but I rarely go in, despite its being close to me, because the hyper-testosteroned Algerian boys they use for security guards have braced me more than once just for fun. Given the usual population of the immediate surroundings, they need guards, but they don't seem to have any filters. Anyway, the supermarket I do shop at, Inno, is just another Monoprix brand, has a better selection, and the extra two minutes' walk is good for me.

Just past the Monoprix are these two buildings, clearly remnants of another era.

The Grand Hotel du Midi is now the New Hotel du Midi, part of the New chain, with cheapo modern decoration inside, but decent rooms, I hear. The other building is a bank (two banks, from the banner for the bank that told me I couldn't open an account because "this bank is for French people only,") where I pay my rent and sometimes, before going to America, buy a few dollars because changing money in most of the U.S. is practically impossible.

That street, though, is the grand entrance from the train station to the Com, so they've lined one side with palms.

That's the train station at the very end, and tram tracks for lines 1 and 2. L'Assiette au Boeuf is a cheap restaurant that's just a bit less than mediocre, serving a house wine that will thin the enamel on your teeth. Needless to say it's jammed, especially on weekends. On the right side is an enormous pharmacy, a made-in-China hip-hop clothing store, some city center for youth, the ATM I use about half the time, and there are sandwich and kebab shops on both sides of the street.

Just past the white umbrella is another short street I turned into, because I wanted to shoot the Hotel Metropole, now a Holiday Inn, which was the home of Helene de Savoie, Queen of Italy and Montenegro (I know, it's complicated), and Resistance heroine, about whom I've written previously here.

You can also see the Habib barbershop, which I think is one of the social centers of Maghrebi Montpelier, and, on the other side of the street, past the Lebanese flag, is this

which is one of the best bakeries in town, but one where I rarely go because there's another good one just on my corner. They also manufacture their own chocolate in here, and I feel guilty every single time I go past because they are not only good, but totally old skool, and I should be supporting them with my patronage.

So there it is: we're back at the Oasis at the end of this street, the Proxi market, a sort of 7-11, where I'll go in a few minutes to buy some mineral water, and a short walk from my house.

It's mundane, but it's the way people live. The glitz, the glamor, the history and the occasional good view, all that's up the hill. Down here, we have hallal butcher shops, kebab stands, two-star hotels, and crappy little grocery stores that are open late and on Sundays. Some of the apartments are slums, some are quite nice. It's close to the tram, close to the train station, close to the post office, and it's where I live.


  1. I find the Monoprix building stunning. The long balcony is very elegant and the sleek black frame of the ground floor windows harmonize wonderfully with the sobriety of the building above and underline the sheer length of the balcony, whose ironworks provide exactly the right amount of decoration and frivolity needed by the facade. All in all a splendid building and a very good photograph.

    The rest, though, is depressing stuff. I had forgotten how downright dowdy (or, as they say in french, décati) much of France can look.

  2. Obviously the pics were not taken during rush hour. You may find it now boring, but I think your neighbor is rather exotic and would certainly visit if I had any discretionary income left.

  3. Thanks for the tour.
    And yes, I think once someone hears, "south of France" it is very easy for them to romanticize our lives. I try to remind them that I don't live in a Peter Mayle novel.

  4. Thanks for posting all that. Reminds me of my 2 year stay in Aix-en-Provence. The 2 cities look surprisingly similar. Probably because of the presence of the Universities.

    My impressions are based on living there in 1970 when there were 5 francs to the dollar and you could live pretty well on $3,000 a year.


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