Friday, June 28, 2013

Courtesy and Condescension

I was sitting at my desk Saturday mid-afternoon after coming back from the market, and was wondering what I'd do with the rest of the day (as I do all too often these days) when the phone rang. The display showed an Austin area code, but not a number I recognized. I answered and was surprised to hear the voice of my friend Andrew, who told me that he'd come over to do some business in Spain and had brought his youngest son, Abe, with him. Andrew brags a lot on his kids when I visit him in Austin, and yet, since they're boys and there are three of them, they're always in motion and I've never really met any of them for more than a second. At any rate, Andrew had realized how close they were to Montpellier, and, in a flash, jumped in the car and was on his way here. I gave him some basic instructions, and in no time the two of them had arrived, scored a hotel room, and were ready for my tour.

I've gotten pretty good at it, integrating the parts of Montpellier's history and geography into a walk through the center city, and it's always more fun when the people you're showing around are smart and have good questions. We walked for a while, stopped for a drink, and then continued on. At one point, we came upon the Panacée, once the seat of the Medical School, which for the past several years has been undergoing transformation into some sort of contemporary arts center. I'd been there when it was still a wreck in 2006, but it was hosting the first Montpellier Biennale of Contemporary Chinese Art, which had some remarkable pieces in it. Unfortunately, it was also the last Montpellier Biennale of Contemporary Chinese Art, and not long afterwards the renovation started.

There was a good-sized crowd, and what looked like copious drinks and snacks, and from what I could tell -- the place was packed -- they've done some nice things to the interior. What little art I saw was, alas, what I've come to think of as "subsidized avant-garde," which seems like an oxymoron until you figure that someone got a grant to produce it, and while technique is very much in evidence and very slick, content is sorely missing. I made a note to come back and take a look, nonetheless.

We left, and the sun was beginning its descent. I wanted to get to the top of the Corum, the opera house/convention center with a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside -- you can even see the Mediterranean -- before sunset, so we climbed Rue Bocaud towards Rue Salle d'Éveque, a narrow street with some impressive houses on one side of it, whose back yards border the Esplanade.

Now, one rule about a lot of older European cities is that the architectural action is in the courtyards and interiors, which are almost always closed to the public. Thus, at the top of the Rue Bocaud one finds the Hotel Bocaud ("hotel" meaning "grand house" in French). It's intriguing because of the sign on the front, which I've noted before while totally getting it wrong, embarrassingly enough.

The inscription reads that in 1561, Jean Bocaud, a regent of the University, became the first Montetpellierian to request a Protestant (Huguenot) burial. In terms of city history, this couldn't be more provocative, and ties in with the monument on the Esplanade to the Protestant preachers and ministers who were executed there.

More importantly that moment, a car passed us as we were walking, and the door to the Hotel Bocaud opened, providing a tantalizing peek at the interior. It quickly closed, though, as they usually do. We got to the Hotel, and I stood there translating the sign and talking about its implications as Andrew and Abe listened attentively. As I was talking an older couple appeared and opened the door. They were apparently returning from the Panacée opening, which had evidently just let out, and the man, tall and wearing a fine linen jacket and equally fine straw hat, paused for a moment, then turned to me. "Would you like to see the house?" he asked. Well, of course I did.

"This is not so interesting," he said, gesturing at the immediate building. "But the stairway is quite fine." This was through a couple of glass doors, through which my guests scrambled, cameras and iPhone at the ready, while I chatted with our host, explaining who we were.

Kind of out of focus, but notice the busts on the wall.
I didn't get as close a picture as I'd have liked, but the details were very nice. "The busts, alas, aren't famous Frenchmen," our host noted to me, "but, rather, Roman emperors." He chuckled. Bringing light into the stairwell was a window set in the ceiling.

Emperors and sunlight
Then we walked into the side yard, where people parked their cars, and he pointed out the building next door, which he referred to as the Maison Sully, but which I know as the House of International Relations, where the twinned cities have given plants for the gardens and several consuls have their offices. I was more interested in the space between us and the Esplanade. "That used to be the city ramparts, you know," he said. The city wall was apparently dismantled in several stages, and small bits of it are still up. Nobody had done any serious gardening at the Hotel de Bocaud, though, and it was all weeds of some kind, although weeds with nice white flowers.

We just stood around, enjoying the quiet and the late afternoon light. Abe discovered a kumquat tree and pulled one off. "Hey, they're really sweet, not like the ones we have in Texas!" he exclaimed, and I translated for the old man, who smiled.

Andrew snapped a couple of photos, and then we thanked our host for his graciousness. He'd even begun to try a little English so he could talk directly to the Texans.

All in all, it was an unexpected and magical detour in the routine, and I was quite glad it had happened.

* * *

Dinnertime was approaching, but Andrew wasn't very happy. He'd lost his glasses -- brand new glasses, at that, bought just before he'd left Austin. We spent some time trying to figure out where this might have happened. Andrew decided it was the café where we'd had our drinks, so off we went to find them, although it was all the way across town. He fretted all the way there and then, when we inquired, nobody had found them. Nor were they on the ground by our table. They were gone. Eventually, we made our way to Gourmet Gulch, as I call the Place de la Chapelle Neuve, where no fewer than five restaurants surrounding the square maintain tables (although the one which actually occpied the Chapelle Neuve, where the University's law school had been in the 18th century and which had been a chapel before that, had gone out of business and was being renovated into another restaurant). We had a good, leisurely meal, with a big pichet of Saint-Christol, but Andrew was inconsolable. 

After dinner, both of the Texans were exhausted, but Andrew decided that an after-dinner drink was in order. I first tried an excellent wine bar, but that wasn't acceptable. Another bar was chaotic and didn't have much in the way of libations. Then inspiration struck: we were right by Ste.-Anne, and O'Carolan's Irish bar. They'd have something, although sad to say all their tables outside were full. But that just meant room indoors, so we walked in. As we tried to look at the blackboard with the menu on it, I was approached by a young man, barely much older than Abe from the looks of him, who'd heard us speaking English. "Where are you from?" he asked me in English. I replied in French, "Moi, j'habite Montpellier, à deux pas de la Comédie," invoking the fiction so many real estate folks indulge in here that everything is "two steps from the Comédie." My friend from Seattle who had been here the previous week was told that the place she got from Airbnb was "deux pas de la Com," and it was all the way at the top of the hill, a five-minute walk. 

But he apparently didn't hear me. "Are you enjoying your stay? Are you English?" No, I told him, I live here, and I'm American. Ignoring me, he turned to the Texans, who were kind of wishing he'd step away from the blackboard so they could read it. "And what about you? Are you English?" He kept grinning, which I found unnerving. I had an inspiration and suggested we order Calvados, which may not be local, but is a perfect obscure after-dinner drink. "Calvados? I do not know, perhaps we have Calvados." Fortunately, they did, so we took our glasses into a back room (one nice thing about O'Carolans is its sprawl -- perhaps the only nice thing about it) and tried to talk above the din of a group of binge-drinking French kids. "What was that all about?" Andrew asked rhetorically. I watched one of the kids at the other table drop a shot glass full of ominously colored liquid into his beer and chug the result. I thought about the old gentleman with his linen jacket and straw hat, and then I thought about Abe, who, at 17, seemed to be the most civilized person under 40 in the whole bar. 

All photos in this post by Andrew Halbreich. Used by permission; all rights reserved.


  1. That was really nice of the man to let you tour the house.

  2. I hope his glasses were insured!

  3. One of my pet peeves is when people ignore the fact that I'm speaking French and condescendingly speak to me in English.

    I'm pretty sure that the shot in the beer drink was a Jägerbomb. They're disgusting.

  4. Hi! I enjoy your blog:) My husband and I will be traveling through Europe over the next few weeks, and are looking to stay in Monpellier for a few nights, then go to Carcassonne...can you give me any travel tips for getting to Carcassonne from Montpellier? thanks:)~Nicole

  5. Easy enough to get there by train or car, although I sure hope you got hotel reservations months ago.

    Write another comment with your contact info, which I won't publish, and I'll give you some tips.


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