|Funny, he doesn't look Montenegran|
Yesterday, having been awakened by the adrenaline rush following the blast occasioned by someone playing a radio at top volume at 7am and then forced out of bed by the sheer awfulness of French pop music, against which I finally had to shut my living-room/office windows just so I could concentrate, I began to droop around noon. I was hungry and ready to indulge in one of my vices: a half-liter bottle of Coke (still made with cane sugar in these parts) along with the sandwich I was envisioning making.
I set off for the store. This involved turning left outside my front door, then turning left again and heading up to the Comédie, after which I turned right and bore right until I finally entered the Polygone, the mall in whose basement there's a very nice supermarket run by Monoprix. I usually do this at least once a day. Nothing odd about it.
The problem was at the store: there seems to be a law in France that says that everyone takes off 90 minutes for lunch at noon or shortly thereafter. Thus, the supermarket is jammed between noon and 1 with people buying lunch. Go there at 2:15 and it's empty. Of course, part of the jam is that all the cashiers are at lunch, too, so there are generally only two registers open.
But I have no office I have to be back to by a given time, so I just cruise around, look for ideas for dinner if I need them, and buy something for lunch. Yesterday it was a package of Spanish chorizo, a paprika-infused sausage that's nothing like the Mexican stuff of the same name. Grabbed a warm Coke (€1 cheaper than the chilled ones! And I have ice at home), and then stood in line. After paying, I walked over to the Paul bakery franchise (travellers' tip: if you need a sandwich or a croissant or similar while travelling in France and it's just a question of a quick transfer in a train station or something, Paul is everywhere, and a distinct step up from any other chain bakery) and got a ciabatta (which the French, disdaining the Italian language, call chapata).
I was now ready to go home and make my sandwich. Really, I do this often enough that my mind is frequently elsewhere during the entire process. So when I went into the street off the Comédie and saw all the cops, who seemed to be standing in line by the kebab shop, I thought huh, look at all the cops buying kebabs. They didn't move when I got to them, either, so I had to go around them, giving each of them the chance to look me over. This was sort of ominous, as was the pair of army guys walking up my street.
Now, both the army and the police have a pretty heavy presence in my neighborhood. For one thing, a favored gathering point of the junkie/alcoholic crew is in front of the other Monoprix, at the other end of my street by the carousel. The cops come and clear them out at regular intervals, and then the garbage collectors come with their wheeled cans and pick up the beer cans, food boxes, and so on. For another, there are regular army patrols of four soldiers, each with an automatic weapon, that roam the town. This is evidently an anti-terrorist crew, although I don't see how it prevents terrorism. Nor am I going to argue that it doesn't exist here: after all, one of the 9/11 hijackers, part of the crew that crashed in Pennsylvania, was from Montpellier's Figuerolles district, a neighborhood that's largely "Arab," which is to say Maghrebi and Middle Eastern. One day, I was headed to the store and one of these crews, augmented by some police, had two young guys standing with their legs well spread, hands behind their heads, automatic weapons trained on their hearts. It's worth noting that these guys were dressed like any other young machos around here, not in djellabas with knit caps, and were clean shaven.
But I was of no interest to them, so I went home and made my sandwich.
It wasn't until later that I found out what had happened. The BBC reported that a member of the notorious gang of international jewel thieves, the Pink Panthers, had been arrested in Montpellier.
How close to my house was this? Well, if I could walk out the open window in front of me and continue for about 20 feet, I'd be at the window of the apartment vacated yesterday by a young Argentinian couple in the building on the corner of my street and the one where our alleged Panther was living. (It wasn't them, despite the coincidence: they really are Argentinian, right down to drinking yerba maté with the traditional straw and blasting tango music.) Unfortunately, it wasn't M. Gnaaagh Gnaagh, either; he was raving and fighting with his girlfriend last night, as usual. (Of course, if I were trying to hide out, I doubt I'd annoy the neighbors by throwing plates of food and packages of ham out the window, having loud fights with my girlfriend, and threatening to jump, either. The trick is to remain inconspicuous.)
I was actually glad to see all of this, though. I like to think that, as a former newspaper reporter and someone who's spent his life practicing journalism I observe what's around me. The wealth of detail above is perhaps a defensive reaction to this. Because, you see, a couple of weeks ago something happened that I still don't believe I missed.
There are, at either end of my block two bars where students (and, I guess others) go to drink. They drink a lot: these places cater to binge-drinking (or, as the Académie Francaise has ordered in the past couple of weeks, buvand express). One is a rather overdecorated French-themed place, with antiques and a huge plastic cow in the street, the other pretends to be a Spanish place, with light eats and, when it opened, flamenco. The noise coming from these places, because they're right in the street and nobody goes inside except in the winter and when it's raining, is unbearable. Fortunately my apartment doesn't face the street, so I only get a bit of it.
But imagine my surprise one day when I left the house and saw people at the Spanish place piling charred stuff in the street, blackened and covered with that greyish mist that comes from being sprayed with hoses. The inside of the place was a mess. It had been a serious fire, although my guess was it happened late enough that the bar was closed. It hadn't quite gutted the place, but it did take them the better part of a week to get it open again.
And I'd slept through the whole thing.
* * *
Once again, it's time for Montpellier's guitar festival, Les Internationales, which seems to have dropped "de la Guitare" this year. With a tired lineup like this (go check it out), I seriously would not have chosen a promotional graphic like this.
Although who knows? Maybe France has made the truth-in-packaging laws stronger this year.