July 31, 2008

Juilletistes et Aoutiens

I went into the dry cleaner across the street the other day to pick up some stuff. We chatted a little; he is a nice guy who likes to sing little ditties as the big wheel turns round and he searches for your clothing. French ditties. His shop's telephone ring is the sound of his grand-baby crying (very odd), which is disturbing and stressful to hear as he rushes around trying to find the phone.

In any case, we got to talking about vacation - a germane topic at the moment in France. Remember, 5 weeks paid leave per year. That is what they get. He was heading to Sainte Maxime, to the South of France (along with the rest of the country). I told him it sounded lovely and as I was leaving, he punctuated my step out the door with, "Remember, we will be closed from tomorrow until the 5th of September."

Seriously? Closed. The month of August. That is impressive vacation taking. And commerce sealing.

It is true that Paris sort of shuts down in August. Most little vendors have hand-written signs staring at you through the glass window announcing their closure during August. Traffic isn't as bad in the city - unless you are talking about tourist traffic. It is a little bit magical - walking down the very residential streets and feeling like this grand city has been deserted. (I hear the chime of Natalia Dobova's "It's quiet...too quiet. The people, where are all the people?" And then I wait for the drone of a Porsche's engine).

On the news last night, there was something that looked a little like a weather report, but was actually a traffic report for vacationers. The announcer used the words, "Juilletistes et Aoutiens" (people who take their vacation in July verses people who take their vacation in August). You see, tomorrow will be the meeting of these two worlds on the French highways. The Juilletistes will be returning to Paris and the Aoutiens will be fleeing. A traffic nightmare will ensue.

July 29, 2008

Le Petit Palais

We went to the Petit Palais in search of some potentially relevant art for the class I will teach starting in September. The Petit Palais itself has an impressive muzzle and its backside isn't so bad either.

July 26, 2008

Coco Chanel: Mademoiselle

For those of you who were speculating how I spent my fabulous 100-euro gift-certificate, earned by working under extreme conditions (no air-conditioning)...

COCO CHANEL. A girl, I've been told, can't go wrong with her.

Said Coco Chanel: "Perfume is of the utmost importance. In the words of Paul Valéry: 'A woman wearing the wrong perfume has no future'."

No future, eh? Not for this girl.

July 24, 2008

Birds and Dogs and Things

This weekend we ran around Paris and saw:

A boat on the Seine, which I would like to board and then live on.

An outlandish circus type with his birds (whom he feeds warm brie and bits of hazelnut chocolate).

A most charming and pensive dog, lolling about the Seine.

Yummy Art Nouveau.

And had a ripe, cheesy photo taken...

July 23, 2008


Our illustrious neighbor, Josephine, charms our “Juda” from time to time. Seen here, she is doing a great job fake-vacuuming as she glances furtively at the conversation of the neighbors above (whose door was gratifyingly open).

Now, I am fully aware that this photo may be classified as typical Josephine-like voyeurism. This is absolutely true. You see, her ways are communicable, catching. Xavier and I peep out of our Juda to catch her spying on us and on others.

I stopped writing about Josephine. I was trying to just ignore her entirely. It worked on many levels. I became perceptive to when she typically went out in the morning for bread and avoided leaving the apartment around that same time. I listened for her shuffling in her apartment while I would wait for the elevator to rise up the building. If I heard the shuffle of her slippers, I would rush down the stairs, two at a time to the sound of her door opening in wonder above me.

Sometimes she would catch me. She would foxtrot out of her apartment at the exact moment I had entered the elevator. She would stand there, still sporting her floor-length t-shirt, holding me captive in the elevator by keeping the door from closing (with the help of her considerable form).

These moments weren’t as bad as they might sound initially. She would usually start by reporting the activity she had monitored going in and out of my apartment, any strange sounds that she had heard from within; all of which was incredibly lackluster information. I live there.

She would eventually peter out; there was a general lack of rousing events streaming in and out of my apartment, and yet she would always manage to report it all to me as if I were a stranger to the place and as if she were letting me in on a huge secret. I would insist on the fact that I was late and then she would release me, telling me that I should come over anytime to sit and have tea with her, that she generally has nothing to do (a real eye-opener).

You see, I had a real visceral aversion to Josephine after our beginning episodes when she sabotaged my bike-riding life in Paris. After that, Xavier officially killed her plant, a leafy fern that sat innocently potted outside her door. He urinated into it for a week straight. I am certain that she was peering out of her Juda watching him and didn’t say a word because she found it so engaging. (As you can see in the photo, she has found a suitable replacement).

So, back to the picture. We have become like her. We peer out of our Juda. We listen for her heavy steps, for her shrill voice as a warning not to exit the apartment. I shut the windows and shades that face her apartment. We take note of, even snoop in, her life; albeit with a dissimilar motive to hers.

And yet, it isn’t just her peering that is contagious, it is also Josephine herself. I think I might take her up on her offer to tea.

July 15, 2008

14 Juillet in the South of France

We spent the holiday weekend in the South of France visiting various extended members of the Joly family. We stopped in Lyon, Entrevaux, and Malijais - from Paris to Provence. Xavier and I sat this morning having breakfast at his Uncle Remi's house and digested the four days. I told him that I had fallen a little bit in love with French people after this trip. It provided me such a particular view into their lives. With Xavier, I was a family member in the French clan and I learned and saw such things. Scroll. You shall see.

Here we are, having a nap in a field in Provence on our trip.

And this is a lovely vintage Citroen 2CV, parked by an even lovelier (and much more vintage) silo.

Malou Joly

Here is Xavier's paternal Grandmother, Malou. She is 89 years old and lives in a little town outside of Lyon. She sang to us at every opportunity and, knowing that I am American, she pulled out songs she had learnt in English when she was 6 years old. When we arrived, she accompanied Xavier about the house, attached firmly to his elbow, gazing up into his face. After a bit, she approached me and said, "Ooh la la, he looks like a movie star, doesn't he? And you...let me get a better look at you...hmmm...pas mal." (You're OK, spoken with a mouth that clearly measured my beauty unequal to her grandson's).

We sat down and watched a remarkable film with her. It was a film that was created in 1936 of Malou and her siblings and family. They lived in Normandy and were a very wealthy family in France at the time; a film like that is rare for the era. She was about 18 years old. There she was, flashing across the screen, with her dark bobbed hair, perfectly coiffed and parted, like her sisters. There were many scenes on the beach in Normandy - before the rest of France populated its shores (and certainly before the Americans came and landed there - she emphasized). The beach was theirs, in essence, until paid leave was given to everyone in France in 1936 - the very year the video was filmed.

There were many scenes of the children in her family surrounded by animals - cats, dogs, horses, chickens, cows - she recalled how important animals were for their family. They had a bit of a removed relationship with them, however; Marie Antoinette-ish - all the animals were cared for by their servants, but the children caressed and played with them constantly.

There were also scenes where the music teacher was giving lessons, and most impressively, the gymnastics coach. She recounted that they would do two hours of gymnastics every morning. The gymnastics instructor was an impressive fellow - with his tank top and muscles gleaming in the sun, lifting the girls off the ground to stretch out their limbs.

The most remarkable aspect of sitting and watching this with her was her ability to recall and almost relive the events that played out in front of her on the tiny screen. Her vision is quite poor and she had to refer to her special glasses equipped with magnifying lenses, created for watching TV, but it was of little importance. She had the memories there on her face - you could read them as we watched. The original film was dubbed with her voice retelling the memories as they passed (her voice superimposed on the silent film, recorded 10 or 25 years prior). Occasionally, she would correct her earlier self on the names of people or dates. She even remembered the name of a chateau she had forgotten originally.

She was stunned at some point as she watched her beloved family and spoke of the way time passes and people are gone. It was impressive. I imagine oldness, as a state, doesn't transcend or change with culture in a certain sense. It was clear that Malou believed that she is as she knew herself in those images, without much of an accounting for who she has become.

Xavier found old photos of his family and found this one of his dad, taken when his dad was 18 years old. Their resemblance is striking and the rest of the trip was marked by people's disbelief of how much Xavier carries his father in his actions and appearance.

Gaby Joly

We headed off through the night, up the mountainous path past Grenoble to Entrevaux, where Gaby (Xavier's aunt) lives. Gaby has nothing of value. Nothing. This fact is clear when you approach her tiny and distressed bungalow of a house, high in the mountains of Southern France (above). She sits there, at her ramshackle table, in that picturesque place, with her nothing that is so much - with her smile and her laughter (she is constantly the source of raucous laughter - she is currently in pursuit of a career as a clown). Gaby may have nothing, but she takes nothing and makes it beautiful. Look.

It is like a perfectly styled "shabby chic," French Provence catalogue spread, except this is real and made from the remnants of other people's unwanted things. Throughout the year, she collects all the scraps of left-over candle wax and then at Christmas, melts it all together and creates strange-shaped candles in half-tipped over glasses (to dry crooked) as presents.

While at her house, we had two great meals at tables full of people Gaby loves - her children and grandchildren, all there to visit, to sleep in tents where the house was too full and to soak in Gaby.

The morning we left, Gaby woke up early to offer us breakfast (the traditional simple French breakfast of bread with jam - homemade by Gaby, hot chocolate, coffee) and to be with us before we took off. We spoke about the members of Xavier's family, her animals (cats and kittens all over, and her rooster who thinks that she is his mother hen and needs to be tucked in at night in order to sleep), about how she loves winter in the mountains of Provence at her little house, heated only by a wood stove and the crunch of the snow under her feet outside. And then, as we were leaving, Gaby wanted to give us something. She told me to follow her out to her field of lavender, and she cut an entire plant's blooming stocks for us to take, wrapped in newspaper and twine.

Here is the original "La Poule," Matao, who comes from Gaby.

Here are Laetitia (Gaby's daughter) and her boyfriend, Sylvain.

In his little chair positioned behind Gaby's house, Sylvain played his guitar to the mountains.

Le Var (River)

The river beneath Gaby's house is called le Var. It is a river that runs through the Alpes de Haute-Provence. We hiked down to it with Xavier's cousin, Matao and his little 5 year old daughter, Orane. When we arrived, we found sculptures all over the place, planted along the river rock (made of it) of the banks. The sculptures were all about balance. Examine the one above.

So, Xavier decided to have a go at it. It was a formidable attempt.

As for me, I found mud.

And a friend who wanted to indulge in it with me. I was so pleased.


High in the mountains of Entrevaux, we found the citadel - and the medieval town, which is encased in walls. We climbed and climbed to reach the citadel and to explore. After quite a hike, we found ourselves at a castle, with the quintessential castle-y things - a moat, a chapel, hidden spaces and old ruins, and dungeons and prison cells (which were, almost unbelievably, used up until WWI - to house German POWs).

The most stunning aspect of the town and of the citadel was the nature of the roofs. They had a tiled appearance - the conglomeration of subtle colors that, from afar, looks ruddy, but which, up-close, becomes a masterful mix of tints and shades.

Remi Joly

And then we were off to find Remi (uncle) in his town called Malijais, in his idyllic stone house, sitting atop a mountainous hill, overlooking Provence, with no neighbors to be seen. He, his wife and daughter reside there, eat vegetables from their garden daily, and heat and power their lives using solar panels.

Remi sat us down upon our arrival and delivered a condensed version of l'Histoire de France, according to Remi Joly. This particular version of history amounted to a half-joking, half-very-serious account of French superiority throughout all time over the English. From England's Gallic roots (most things stem from France, after all), to Jean-François Darlan's 1940 sinking of the French naval fleet in WWII, which was an action, according to Remi, motivated by a desire to keep French assets out of British hands. (I think the official version of that story is a bit different. According to most, it was the Brits who sunk the French fleet to keep it out of Hitler's hands - the difference between the two versions is only slightly important), and then on to the fact that, according to Remi, British people's buck teeth are caused by their constant pronunciation of the 'th' sound in English. His final, and most convincing point was the fact that little British girls’ panties smell like pee-pee. Ah, the joys of being Remi.

Remi is delightful. He cooked two incredible meals for us, using courgettes (zucchinis) that knocked our socks off. He also took us 4-wheeling: Remi style, in his crazy old, forest-green, big-tired car - the branches of trees assaulting us from both sides through the open windows as we were rocked up and down his mountain. His phenomenal dog ran ahead of the vehicle, showing the way.

A little video that documents our jubilant ride with Remi up and down the mountain:

Les Escargots Chez Remi

At Remi's house, escargots grew on everything. They knew they were in France alright.

La Lavande en Provence

The delicacy of the whole trip. The lavender fields in Provence. We drove for 10 kilometers or more and they were unbounded - infinite - they just kept going.

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