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. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Merry Miettes of May (With Socialism and Rabbit Turds)

As I said in my last post, it's not like nothing's been happening around here, and besides the pretty much related stuff in the last post, there's been a bunch of miscellaneous miettes-like things piling up on the desk. So, because I hate clutter (short pause for audience laughter), let's clear some of it up.

* * * 

I haven't been over to the Pavillon Populaire recently because it's been one dreary academic photo show after the other. While it's commendable that the city sees the acquisition and exhibition of a municipal collection of art photography, as well as an ongoing number of curated shows during the year as part of its cultural mission, the selections tend to be pretty uninteresting and the rationale behind them full of artspeak. 

The current show, La Volonté de Bonheur (approximately, The Desire for Happiness), however, is something else. Subtitled "Photographic testimony of the Front Populaire, 1934-1938," it documents a tumultuous period in French history, during which some fairly amazing stuff happened. One thing was a huge workers' movement, as strikes turned into general strikes, and the right-wing government was brought down and a socialist one under Léon Blum was installed. As you might expect, the horrors of socialism were inflicted upon France immediately: in 1936 alone, women were given the right to vote, workers were given a 40-hour work-week, and for the first time, everyone got paid vacations. Quelle horreur, non?

It's amazing history, but not such great art, but once you walk through the show, you'll be okay with that. You'll see such familiar names as Robert Capa, Brassaï, André Kertész, and Henri Cartier-Bresson on the poster, but you'll barely notice their presence on the walls. You'll see a lot -- a lot -- of pictures of  cute kids with their fists raised, sometimes along with proud mère and père, sometimes just marching along by themselves in demonstrations or parades. You'll see workers on strike at automotive and machine shops dancing and eating lunch while they're on strike. You'll see lots and lots of pictures of gigantic demonstrations filling the streets of Paris (as with much of French history, you'll never guess that some of it actually did happen outside that city), and I gotta say, the picture used for the poster, by Fred Stein, of the guy perched on the rooftop giving the clenched-fist while a huge crowd below is milling around waiting for a parade is pretty dramatic. 

Stein, a German who relocated to Paris in 1933 and whose work is virtually unknown these days, is the discovery of the show, mainly because he got some good shots while embedded with the Front Populaire, as the huge coalition of all of the French Left was known in these years. There's a Capa that's identifiable as a Capa, but this is reportage, not art. The one exception is Cartier-Bresson's famed 1936 series of photos of French working-class families on their first vacations. There are a couple of vitrines in the show with magazines that are approximately "how-to" guides to vacationing, and a separate series by Pierre Jamet shows daily life at an "auberge de jeunesse," or teen summer camp, and you might want to check out the slideshows of his work here if you can figure out how to get in. 

This is the kind of show you want to go to on a rainy day, because there's lots of reading to do, and, if you're not up on French history, some of it will require catching up with later via some online resources. As Hitler grew in power, the Front Populaire went from being "like a convivial village fair," as one of the captions describes the general vibe, to the usual squabbling of the Left, with the Stalinists (surprise!) not helping a lot. By the end of 1937, it was over.

EDIT: According to this page -- and Marie, who commented below, women did not get the right to vote until 1944

La Volonté de bonheur: Témoinages photographiques du Front populaire 1934-1938, until June 9 at the Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, open Tue-Sun 10am-1pm, 2pm-6pm. Admission free. The show will also be at L'hotel Fontfreyde, Clermont-Ferrand, from Oct. 8-Jan 4. 

* * *

Je suis désolé, mais j'en doute

* * * 

Now that it's getting warmer, street life is picking up, and there are more beggars than before. As I was doing the laundry the other day, though, there was a young couple in the laundromat who looked familiar, talking in a language I didn't understand, but which sounded familiar. Aha! It came to me: Russian. Their familiarity was explained when a third person joined them, with his dirty clothes in a knapsack, and a cardboard sign which fell out as he was getting them ready for the machine: J'AI FAIM! AIDEZ-MOI! I just knew that the three or four people I saw with these identical signs had to be  connected, and I was right. That they were Russians didn't surprise me at all. They always have a small dog of some sort, too, because they know that that softens the hearts of the old ladies they depend on for their take. And just a few days ago, a new guy joined them. Of course, he had to have his own sign, and I guess they didn't have a spare dog at the moment, but they did manage to come up with a gimmick that was even better for attracting attention: his sign read J'AI FAIM! AIDEZ MOI! VIVE LA FANCE! It worked, but it was only temporary: I saw him the other day with a new sign and a dog. 

* * * 

Ever since I got here, there's been a "tropical" store on the rue de Faubourg du Courreau, which is what St. Guilhem turns into when it crosses the Boulevard de Jeu de Paume. I always wondered how they made money, since they were in a huge space and didn't have much stock, and then they expanded next door and started selling wigs. I just noticed today that they're gone, but people who need South American stuff, frozen African fish, and, on rare occasion, fresh corn tortillas (yes!) can still find them. A much smaller (and, for me, closer) store has opened. 

La Pangée keeps long hours and seems to have most of the good stuff from the old place. They're kind of hidden, but maybe word of mouth will keep them open. There are lots of things like sweet potatoes and yam and plantains and okra, and mysterious Central and South American things I don't recognize. As I keep saying, I have nothing whatever against French food, but I also like to encourage diversity. 

La Pangée, 12, rue de Balances, 34000 Montpellier. Open Mon-Sat 9:30am-8pm, Sun 10:30am-5pm. 

* * *

Finally, some news from the suburbs. I keep passing a parked car with one of those things you don't see the first few times you notice it: a sticker for a local baseball team. Yes, baseball. (I still remember my shock at having to have it pointed out that there were a bunch of Bulgarians playing baseball when I was there: apparently it's a very popular sport in that country.) 

But yes, they're the Clapiers Rabbits. I'm not sure what this is all about, but "clapier" is a word for a rabbit hutch, although the name of the town is derived from an Occitan word, according to the official Clapiers website. And, although I can't find the word I'm looking for, I was in Clapiers a couple of years ago with a couple of French women who noticed a sign on a local bakery and started giggling. It mentioned that among the specialties you could buy there (it was Sunday and it was closed, sorry to say), were Pétouls de Clapiers, the famous candy. The word which provoked the giggles, I was told was a slang word for rabbit turds. Which, assuming they're made from chocolate, might be good. Meanwhile, best of luck to the Clapiers Rabbits for the upcoming season. 

* * *

Gotta go. I swear, I had another item here, but Mme. Merde's been screaming into her cell phone out in the hall for the past half-hour and I've lost the ability to concentrate. More news as it happens!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Ugly, The Bad, and The Good

I've inverted old Sergio Leone's formulation for the simple reason of leaving you, dear reader, with an uplift rather than a, um, downlift at the end of this post. And I'm writing the post because I haven't written anything here for a month, and gee, you'd think nothing had happened. Of course, you'd be partially right. Still, if you have a delicate constitution, you might want to skip down to the bad.

The Ugly

One of the best things about this past summer was that the family that lives directly above me was gone.  I say "family," but I'm not quite sure what the actual structure up there is. One thing that's inescapable is that there is a woman, who is much younger than she sounds, and she has two children, a boy of perhaps eight (I'm terrible at guessing kids' ages) and a toddler who is sort of pre-verbal, or just on the cusp of talking. Who the kids' father is, I have no idea. There are two men who are sometimes there. One is young, like the woman, and dresses sort of hip-hop. The other is tall, skinny, and much older, and is prone to long spells of coughing, the kind you expect to end with the thud of a body hitting the floor and, soon, the arrival of an ambulance crew. When I see him on the stairs, he's rarely without a cigarette. But he's apparently still alive. 

The thing about this crew is that the woman, who is clearly the alpha of the group, knows only one way to keep them in some kind of order, and that's by yelling. I have to say, for someone as short and slight as she is, her voice just cuts through everything, including the doors, windows, and walls of my apartment. You have met her here as Madame Merde, in honor of her most-used word. It's like the punctuation at the end of most of her sentences, at least those declaimed at the highest decibel-count in her range. I have no idea what, if anything, she does for a living, but we do have an opera company in town, and it's occurred to me more than once that with a little training, she could project right to the back of the auditorium. 

She's got a very cavalier attitude towards the fact that she has neighbors, though. She shakes out the bedding and the rugs every morning, which hasn't been a problem lately because my windows are closed. That's not going to be the case very much longer. She smokes constantly, which means ashes. When the window here by my desk is open, it accumulates cigarette ash -- far more than it ever did back when I smoked. She's got troubles, too, ones she doesn't want the kids to hear about, so she takes her cigarettes and her cell phone and sits in the stairwell and talks and talks and smokes and smokes, and sometimes she sobs. I don't listen in, despite the fact that her already loud voice is amplified by the acoustic chamber of the stairwell, or the fact that she sometimes repeats things over and over, like the other night when whatever she was talking about involved Sète, Aix, and Montpellier, words I heard a lot. You'll notice I didn't mention her taking an ashtray out into the hall with her. Guess how I know that. 

Her boy is, of course, a problem. Well, hell, I was at that age. And although I've heard her yell it now for a couple of years, I have no idea what his name is. He seems to be a nice enough kid, sometimes kicking a football around in the street, sometimes hanging with another kid his age, but he does torment his little sister, and he went through a period of being fascinated with gravity: two of the apartments across the courtyard have broken windows from his throwing toy metal cars. 

Besides his name, the words most commonly yelled upstairs are "merde" (of course), "dépêche" (hurry up), and "arrête" (stop). He often whines back in protest, which just causes his mother to raise the decibel level some more. The other day, they really got into it. Eventually, he bolted, ran outside, and, agitated beyond his usual level, leaned over the railing of the stairway and puked his guts out. 

The stairwell in happier times
I was here, working or reading or something when this all happened, but shortly afterwards I had to go out. Unconsciously, I grabbed the railing there on the right was slimy. And it burned. And I ran back into my apartment and washed my hands with soap. It had been an hour or so since this incident, and, as I discovered on my next venture out, not only had Mme. Merde not cleaned the railing, she hadn't cleaned the steps, either, where the majority of the discharge had landed. 

Nor has anyone, over a week later: this was last Tuesday, and there's a reason for my noting that. We supposedly have a cleaning service that comes in and does the public areas of the building, and I get charged €30 a month for them, but that now-dried patch remains. 

The Bad

There's a cumulative effect to this constant conflict upstairs. It's that listening to angry people all the time is wearying. I'm not the one being yelled at, yet there's an unconscious perception of the emotion that acts sort of like it would if I were. This shouldn't be a problem I have to deal with, but it's just one element in the growing dissatisfaction I have with my immediate environment. When I was on the road in March, I found myself pondering an odd question: why is it that I had no problem putting my pants on in hotel rooms, yet I occasionally lose my balance when doing it at home? I had thought I was getting unstable in my old age or something, but really: zip zip and my pants were on. So I consciously thought about this when I got back here and made a discovery which led to a set of discoveries. My bedroom is so small that I don't have room to spread my legs out enough to put on a pair of pants. Moreover, I realized the other day, I've become used to stepping over the corners of the bed to get over to the window leading to the tiny balcony, which is open during the day to let in what little sunshine gets to me, and, in nice weather, fresh air: hop, hop. To get to the closet-like thing where my socks live, I have to shut one of the panels of the window, which ordinarily blocks it. And this led to other discoveries: unconsciously pulling back one shoulder or the other as I go down the hall to the bathroom or kitchen, so as not to knock over anything or spill a cup of coffee going from the kitchen to the desk. In short, I'm too big for this apartment, I have too much stuff in it, but I'm not prone enough to claustrophobia to have noticed this. 

This is what you see from the door when you enter this place.

And this is the view from the other direction
Come November, I will have been in this place, with its insane tenants and obscene rent (which was raised at the start of the year), for five years. Five years of cooking on two electric elements jammed as close together as they can be, showering with an implement that's essentially a hose with a showerhead on it that barely reaches the top of my head and that requires the use of one of my hands at all times because it doesn't hook onto the wall, and navigating without bumping into anything. With luck, come November, though, I won't be in this apartment. 

Where I will be, though, remains a big question. There's the fantasy of renting a big, inexpensive apartment in Barcelona. In fact, an old friend from Austin put me in touch with a friend of hers who's lived there for many years and is in the process of buying a new place and divesting herself of exactly the kind of apartment I've fantasized about, and at some point I'm going to head over there to look at it, although neither of us knows when it'll be empty or when I'll have the dough to make the move. There's also the question of whether I want to learn two new languages (Catalán and Spanish, although just Spanish in a pinch) in order to make this move practicable. Whether I want to, hell: if I can is more like it. I picked up a teach-yourself-Catalán course not making brilliant headway. Or, to be honest, any. 

Where I will not be, most likely, is France. Which I hate to admit, because I know the language here and there's a lot I like about the place. There's a part of me that wonders if it's not time to go back to the States, although it seems, in many ways, the most foreign of my choices. The politics scare me. The lack of a social safety net scares me: imagine my health crisis in December happening in the U.S. I would likely not live long enough to see myself get out of debt. But French society, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, is set up in a way that's antithetical to the way I live, urging a regimentation on people that I resist almost on an organic level. 

So what's to do? I hear Portugal's nice. Stay tuned. 

The Good

As I said, the incident with the kid upstairs happened a week ago this past Tuesday. As a lot of you know, that's one of the market days, where I walk across town to the outdoor market and buy stuff to eat for the next couple of days. On this particular Tuesday, one of the vendors had plentiful wooden baskets of tiny strawberries, garriguettes, so I bought one and enjoyed them on some breakfast cereal the next morning. There was also the first reasonably-priced asparagus, some fat peas in their pods, and what may be the last spinach for a while, which became part of a northern Indian chicken, spinach, almond, and raisin curry. 

This week's, not last week's, and only what's left two days after purchase.
These twice a week trips have gotten me eating better, losing weight (and not just from the two-mile walk that a trip to the market entails), and increasing my cooking skills immensely, even on that wretched excuse for a stove in my tiny kitchen. (Another sad thing about the space-crunch in this apartment is that it's far too small for me to have anyone over for dinner, which has been part of my socializing routine for decades). They're reminders that I'm in a part of the world, which, unlike Berlin, pays close attention to the seasons and rests in surroundings capable of producing a huge variety of natural products. (Incidentally, for my friends in Berlin, I just read a book which casually noted that the ancient Prus, the ancestors of the Prussians, were pre-agricultural until the thirteenth century! Dang, no wonder they never developed a cuisine worthy of the name.)

Wherever I wind up next, I'm pretty committed to continuing this way of life. It doesn't cost a lot, and it's good for me. I'm very thankful that I discovered this, even if it took me most of my life to do so. 

And I'll be back here with another post soon, believe me. It's just that the post-trip comedown this time was hard to deal with, and, as you can see, I'm still dealing with some of the fallout. 

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