Friday, May 31, 2013

Sax and Violence and Other Month-End Miettes

I didn't see the flying saucer when it came into our courtyard, but boy, did I hear it land. So did a lot of other people. 

I should explain, for those who are just getting here, that I live in the back of my building, and its back faces the back of another house, on another street, and, looking out my bathroom window, which is at a 90º angle to the rest of my windows, I can see the backs of other buildings, which front on the Place de la Comédie. There are three streets represented in this panorama. Directly across from me, the building I see the most of, the building with the weird military decorations I noted in one of my first blog posts, now contains some new tenants: a youngish couple with appalling taste who've staked off their perimeter with large ceramic urns containing olive trees, into whose soil they've stuck large, gaudy ceramic plates now share the lowest floor with the violin-makers. Just upstairs from them is a young couple I've heard speaking Spanish. A set of parents are visiting, and the other day the Spanish was explained as I watched Ma and Pa drinking out of classic yerba maté cups. Next door to them, above the youngish couple, used to be the Alliance Francaise, where well-fed young Americans learned French at top-dollar prices. Now it's occupied by a family consisting of a middle-aged man, his slighly younger wife, and their teenage daughter, who sort of practices the piano daily. I've been intrigued by what looks like a large oil painting in the room closest to me, and the other day I finally saw it and was very surprised: it's an oil portrait of an American Indian in full regalia. This is not the thing one expects from a French family, and I surmise that the doorbell on the building labelled SMITH may ring in their flat. 

At any rate, we all studiously ignore each other, for the most part. I have no idea who lives in the other part of the courtyard, the one out the bathroom window on the Comédie, except there are the offices of a local newspaper, La Gazette, in one building, and more offices in the one next door, with apartments on the two top floors.  I usually never see any of the inhabitants, although Gazette employees come out onto the back balconies to smoke, and there's an apartment in the building next door that sometimes blasts out horrible French rockbilly at ear-splitting volume. The people there, if their laundry, which they dry out their window, is any indication, all wear black. And that apartment is where the flying saucer came from.

There'd been a lot of yelling, a man and a woman really getting into it, and at one point there was a gutteral noise followed by a crash. 

The saucer, no longer flying

The guy had apparently thrown his meal out the window, where it landed with the noise we all heard. The neighborhood cats gingerly crept up on it, and started eating. Moments later there was a gutteral "Augggggh!" and a much, much louder crash. A large cardboard box had been heaved out the window and had landed on the tile roof you can see in the corner of the above shot, a roof that's on an odd little house in which lives a very old couple. They have a skylight, which the box had just missed. It would certainly have gone through it had it hit it right. Cloth and broken glass was spilling out of it. The battle continued. Mr. Smith came to the window and leaned out. I went to the bathroom and looked. The sounds of people hitting each other could be heard. It was real cold hanging out the bathroom window, though, so I closed it. Even if I'd witnessed a murder, the layout of these houses is so confusing that I have no idea where the front door to this building might be, so it was no use calling the cops.  A friend suggested that by closing the window I'd spared myself the sounds of make-up sex, but frankly neither party sounded sober enough to attempt it. 

The next day, the battle continued. This time I saw the guy, in a t-shirt, come to the window, gently brush one of the plants on the window-ledge aside, and empty another cardboard box into the alley between his apartment and the old folks' house. There was definitely no make-up sex happening this time, and the sound of blows continued for a while, the woman pleading, the man growling, a pot being hurled, hitting flesh, and falling to the floor. I haven't seen any signs of activity for the past couple of days, so I guess someone's in the hospital or in jail. Or both. 

Ah, but the violence wasn't over. I've mentioned my upstairs neighbor, Mme Merde, often enough. How she sits in the hallway, chain smoking and yelling into a phone and at her children, and how it reverberates throughout the house. Well, yesterday someone had had enough: the guy in the apartment next to mine, whom I'd never met. He knocked on my door, and asked if this was disturbing me, too. He'd apparently also talked to the Africans downstairs, and they weren't happy, either. But neither of us knew what to do. He's particularly worried because he's got a month before finals -- a student -- and he can't concentrate. I can't concentrate, either, when I need to. And everything reached a crescendo later in the afternoon. 

Some poor kid is trying to learn the tenor saxophone. This kid is not very good. That's the way it is when you start out. Having attempted the instrument myself as a youth, I have to say that progress is being made, because when the instrument fired up yesterday, actual scales were being played, pretty much error-free. Several of them were played, ascending and descending, and that's when Mme Merde reached the end of her tether. She stood at the window and started screaming stuff and I learned a whole lot of new words in French that I hope I'm never stupid enough to use against someone. She stood and hollered until the saxophonist gave up -- a good four or five minutes. Well, not "good," exactly. 

This woman needs help. We, the tenants of this building, and, I suppose, the Smiths and the Argentines and everyone else except maybe Mr. Hurler, are subjected to her yelling and weeping day after day. Yesterday, as I was talking to my neighbor, she came up the stairs carrying a plastic bag with two Heineckens in it. This may be a clue: it was about 2pm, but I heard a bunch of glass noises coming from up there later. 

Thanks to Montpellier Marie, I have some phone numbers and some social agencies who might be able to help. I'll talk to my neighbor -- I'm hopeless on the phone in any foreign language, even if I can speak it tolerably well face-to-face -- and maybe he can call and get something done. As it is, I'm not even sure what her name is, but there are only six apartments in this building, and the Africans and my neighbor and I are three of them. The best solution, of course, is to move, but until my agent sells my book, that's not going to happen. 

Envy me my exotic lifestyle, people! 

* * * 

It was good to see the eyes of the world turned to Montpellier the other day when France's first legal gay marriage happened here. The BBC had a particularly good report, and the video of locals giving their (often boneheaded, but remember that this is a very provincial place) opinions also has some nice establishing shots of the Comédie and the fountain of the Three Graces, as well as the River Lez. The first young woman in the video is standing in front of a real estate office very close to my house. I didn't go near the media circus, myself, but there was the requisite bomb-threat, which, after that right-wing writer who opposed gay marriage killed himself in Notre Dame in Paris, had to be taken seriously. 

Of course, Montpellier is known as a very gay-friendly city, and tomorrow is Gay and Lesbian Pride Day (yes, that's the official title, and yes, it's in English), which will bring between 100,000 and 200,000 people to the city. Many of them will drink to excess and there will be a big sound system blaring the kind of disco music I'd like to believe my gay friends would never tolerate. It will shut down by 12:45 at night, the police will help the drunks get to wherever they're going to, and the street cleaners will do their acrobatics on the tiles. The next thing you know, it'll be Sunday morning. 

* * *

Annals of Bad Business Ideas (or maybe not): I was pretty happy when a laundromat with brand new machines opened around the corner, and I noticed some months ago that a large machine had been hauled in and set up. It had temperature controls, but I couldn't figure out what it was. It sat there and sat there, and then, one day, the secret was revealed: it was a dog shower. Really. You insert Fido, set the controls, pay your money, and he gets cleaned automatically. I've had two dogs, and lord knows I'd have liked an automatic dog-cleaner, but if I'd tried this thing on either one of them, they probably would have stopped talking to me. On the other hand, since I wanted to write it up for this post, I went down to take a picture of it and found some guy washing his dog in it. A smaller dog than I ever had, and in the picture, he's going through the dry cycle. Anyone else think this is bizarre?

I then proceeded to the mall around the corner, which is struggling to find tenants and has just lost a huge video game store, to find a new shop open, with a, let us say, peculiar name. 

I can't imagine anyone admitting they shopped in a place with a name like that, but, well, this is France. 

* * * 

Finally, a tip on food. Every January, Berlin thrills to Grüner Woche, Green Week, when food companies from around the world come to display their wares and try to convince Berlin stores and restaurants to carry and use them. Berliners walk around, terrified of the unfamiliar stuff, and jam the hall that promotes German food by state. Meanwhile, us foreigners shop like crazy: I was once given a double handful of jalapeno peppers by a Mexican guy who was just happy that I recognized them: certainly nobody was buying any. I used to go with a couple of friends who owned a restaurant, and one of our great discoveries was Tunisian olive oil. I have since learned that a lot of the priciest Tuscan cold-pressed extra-virgin stuff is mostly Tunisian, thanks to a legal loophole, and the stuff we bought was not only the best olive oil I've ever had, but it was also cheap. Tunisia had a very strict Socialist government, so branding the stuff was out of the question: it was either "Tunisian olive oil" or nothing. So it was nearly impossible to find in the 51 weeks of the year that weren't green. 

Fast forward to last week, when it was Whit Monday and the guy where I usually buy my local olive oil was closed. The supermarket wasn't and they had recently discontinued peanut oil (which I use for Chinese cooking, among other things) to put in a new line of olive oil to add to their other lines of olive oil. Terra de Lyssa, it was called. I picked up a small can of it and was shocked when I got home to read that it was top-shelf Tunisian oil. I guess it must've been the Arab Spring: these people are marketing the hell out of this stuff, and I see from their website that it's available in the States (at HEBs all over Austin, for one). It's just as good as I remembered, too. 


  1. Ed Ward, I enjoy reading your adventures down the rabbit hole. Your neighbors are all recognizable types and if you fleshed out their backstories and do some character development, you'd have the makings of a fun story. All you need is a plot and you'd have the makings of a detective story/crime fiction novel.

    Which brings me to Derek Miller's novel "Norwegian By Night." Reading the book's description in this profile, I thought of you and your latest guy who spills a bowl of soup in a restaurant/guy who the soup falls on adventure.

  2. I think the new shop is thinking of the song Marilyn Monroe sings in Some Like It Hot but they're using a "P" where it should be "B" (also sung by Betty Boop).
    I guess they didn't verify the lyrics and spelled it without considering what the spelling might (also) mean.
    The English influence in the Ariege has led the French to appreciate the English dish, a fruit crumble. However, in copying the dish, it can be spelled 'grumble' and other variations on the word. It's kind of funny because (as I'm sure you've experienced) a visitor speaking French to a French person is subject to having their pronounciation corrected...I don't mind but I think the same care is not always exercised when some French use English...

  3. Sort of like the "Gordon Blues" I used to see advertised in Berlin.


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