The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Yeah, Like You Wouldn't Bust Caps at Hitler's Benz

Many months ago (actually just a few), when Boog and I were out for a walk in the Monts d'Or, I spotted and photographed a mysterious castle-looking building on the other side of the Saone River. I wondered idly what it was.

As it turns out, this was indeed the Chateau Malartre, built in the 16th century, partially destroyed by fire, seized and sold during the Revolution, etc., as happened with many French chateaus. This one, though, was bought in the 50s to serve as a museum for its new owner's substantial historic automobile collection, which had somehow avoided seizure by the Nazis during the occupation (M. Malarte himself survived deportation). The collection expanded after Malartre's death and the museum's subsequent purchase by the city of Lyon, and it is now considered one of the foremost auto museums in France.

And just a 20-minute bus ride from our place! Grab your fruit snacks, Boog, let's go!

We saw this 2CV right across from where we were waiting for the bus. I'm not sure if the 007 graphic is meant to be ironic or if it refers to the scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where Roger Moore and Melina Havelock flee Fiat-driving baddies down a Greek hillside in a 2CV.

Although I consider myself to be somewhat of a car buff, I confess that my knowledge of very early automobiles is pretty lacking. Which is a shame, because this place has a spectacular collection of pre-WWI automobiles. The way they are displayed, too, is remarkable (and very different from US museums) in that you could just walk right up to them and stick your head in.

Or take extreme close-up photos of headlamps that were actually, you know, lamps. The handbuilt nature of the early days of automobiles really comes through when you look closely at them. Most of these early cars were assembled piece by piece in converted barns and warehouses, back before the advent of the assembly line.

Lyon was something of a hotbed for this type of cottage industry back in the day. The museum had a nifty illuminated map that would display, at the touch of a labelled button, the location of each the 60-odd shops in Lyon that manufactured running boards or bodies or transmissions or entire cars. Maps that light up tiny lights at the push of a button are museum gold.

The top floor of the chateau is dedicated entirely to vintage motorcycles. I don't know anything about bikes, either, but there was some pretty neat stuff here, too.

Too bad the way this pinup girl--strongly reminiscent of WWII bomber nose art-has peeled off this gas tank.

I'm not sure I understand the significance of the fish at the end of the fork.

I'd like to believe that early bikers actually wore mustaches like this.

This handsome sage-green roadster's body is entirely covered in custom-fitted, hand-stiched leather. Practical? Oh heck no. Dang, I got caught in a light summer shower and now the car's ruined! It really speaks of a time when cars were purely toys, something for the wealthy to mess about with at the country estate. Sure looks good, though. Check the way the upholstery echoes the engine compartment vents. And I bet it smelled nice when the engine warmed up the leather.

At the other end of the complex, a much more spacious modern building (or hangar might be a better word for it) houses the post-WWI collection.

Boog dug the streetcars and funiculairs displayed there--this one served our street, once upon a time, between Place Bellecour and the Hotel de Ville (City Hall).

A lot of the pictures I took that day are of hood ornaments and emblems. How does one represent the essential qualities of one's business in a few inches of steel or inlaid porcelain?

This one's from a Lorraine, obviously. But check it out: Besides the Lorraine cross, there are two cranes, a biplane, a brick wall, and a lurid blue-orange sunset.

I think my Boy Scout council patch looked something like this.

I know I'm far from the first person ever to notice this or mention it, but...

Dang, that gull-wing Mercedes 300SL is a good-looking piece of machinery.

First production car to have fuel injection, too. I did not know that.

I should have taken better notes while I was snapping photos--I don't even remember what this is. I think I just took the picture because I liked the radiator grille. It reminds me of an electric space heater I found in the basement at Mallette Street one time--it would get really hot for about 30 seconds or so, then blam! all the fuses in the house would blow.

Don't remember what car this was from, either. I suspect something Italian. But I kinda wish car manufacturers would still make vertical-strake headlight cover grilles.

Besides the rare and historic cars, the museum also has a sizable collection of cars that belonged to famous personages. They even have a Popemobile left over from the Pope's 1984 visit to Lyon--it's basically just a stretch Renault Espace minivan with only one seat in the back, plus some nice wine-red interior carpeting.

This is Edith Piaf's '55 Packard Caribbean convertible: Low miles, lady driver, all options, new whitewalls.

Further along is the Hispano-Suiza used by Charles DeGaulle at the liberation of Paris.

Nice ride. But I gotta wonder why ol' Chuck D was rolling in a (neutral) Swiss-designed, (neutral) Spanish-built hooptie. Maybe the Renault and Citroen factories were busy cranking out Panzers and Nebelwerfers. And maybe he couldn't find a Lorraine that was actually in working order.

Down at the end of the display hall is one of the crown jewels in the museum's collection: The Mercedes-Benz parade limousine used by Adolf Hitler himself, and captured by Free French forces as the Germans retreated from Paris.

As befits any megalomaniacal dictator, this ride was factory-prepped and pimped to the nines, 1940-style: A blown (!) V-12 engine (!) producing somewhere north of 400hp (!!!), solid rubber tires to prevent flats, and redundant systems including dual radiators. Add a seat of honor that is raised 40cm to make its occupant appear taller than the rest of the car's occupants, and you've got a car fit for a Fuhrer.

Did I mention the armor plating and bulletproof glass? I imagine the scene went something like this:

Say Pierre, you think this car, she has bulletproof glass?
What you mean, Jean-Paul? Is just glass glass.
Naw, Pierre, is bulletproof. Tiens, donne-moi vos pistol.
Man, you're gonna get us in troub--
BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM! [clink of brass shells on concrete garage floor.]
Putain, you right, Jean-Paul! The glass she cracks but she does not break!
Here, gimme your Thompson...

It turns out that on the day we visited, there was a car show going on, with local car buffs bringing their vintage rides to show them off. Car culture is somewhat different in France than in the US, but gearheads are pretty much the same everywhere.

As Boog and I were eating our picnic, we watched this guy spend a good 30 minutes trying to get his 3-wheel cycle started. Once he got it going, in a big cloud of black smoke, he ran a bunch of victory laps around the grounds.

This Renault was about knee-high, with a retractable windscreen. French car designs are sometimes just plain strange. But you knew that.

This beauty of an Audi convertible was one of my favorites--I'd never seen one in person before.

Strictly speaking, it's an Auto Union 1000SP, from right before when VW bought Auto Union and started using the Audi name.

Dig the subtle tailfins, mirrored (literally) in the swell of the bumper. Sexy but not overdone. Who says the Germans are cold, calculating engineers?

I saved the best for last, though. This lemon-yellow beauty is a Citroen Mehari, built by Citroen on the 2CV chassis, originally for the French Foreign Legion and then for sale to the general public.

The body panels, bolted directly to the steel frame, are made of plastic. Thump them, go ahead. Thwock! Molded in color, so if you scratch it up, just break out the fine-grit sandpaper. That plastic body makes it nice and light, so the 600cc 29-hoursepower motor gives you just loads of raw whining power for roaring around at speeds of up to, uh, I dunno, maybe 50-60 on a long downhill straight.

Ragtop? Check.
Four-wheel-drive? Check.
Removable doors? Check.
Space in back for a couple of kegs on ice? Check.
Handy bins for storing your kepi and your Gauloises? Check and check.
That French je ne sais quoi? Mais oui!

And, and! They used one in The Muppet Movie. If that's not street cred I don't know what is.

Boy, it's a good thing I didn't have my checkbook on me, or I would have written the guy a check right there. Look, hon, I bought us a new car! No, no, forget about the Beemer. Look how cool this is! What? Air bags, schmair bags--it doesn't even need seat belts. And look! Thwock thwock thwock.

If I can find one of these in decent running condition under a couple grand (and can figure out how to get it to the States) I am so buying it.

It's Hard Out Here for a Pope

Yeah, no new content for a week--I've been putting in late nights at work, with two projects coming to deadline at once. I got through it, though, and next week starts the Toussaints (All Saint's Day) holiday in France, which serves as an excuse for a weeklong fall break for schools. So with Boog out of school, I'm going to take a few days off next week so we can go up to Vezelay, a hilltop village in Burgundy with an 8th-century basilica that (allegedly) holds relics of Mary Magdalene. How did chunks of a saint allegedly get from Jerusalem to backwoods France 1200 years ago? Long story.

Anyway, I never got around to posting some photos of our day trip down to Provence. So here you go. Avignon is the largest town in Provence, and serves as a gateway to the small towns, hills, and lavender fields that give rise to romantic fantasies and Peter Mayle novels. If you remember your Western Civ 101, it was also the site of the papal seat during the 14th-century Avignon papacy, when things got a little hairy in Rome. So Avignon is a fortified town with an elaborate papal palace, in addition to the famous bridge (first pic).

Jam-packed with tourists, too. I do my best not to be grouped as one of these, but when I'm schlepping around some historic site or another with my camera and Lonely Planet guide, it's hard to maintain that my apartment in Lyon qualifies me as a local. I was buying an absinthe spoon (more on that in a later post) in a shop just off the Avignon palace square when the shopkeeper asked where I was from.
"Um, I live in Lyon."
"Your accent is not quite Lyonnais," she said with a laugh.

We left Avignon and headed east into the Luberon region of Provence, where the temperate flora and fauna and green hills of central France give way to Mediterranean scrub and bright sun.

Gordes is a small town built rather spectacularly on the top and sides of a very steep hill. Approaching from the valley, it has something of the appearance of an Anasazi cliff dwelling. After nearly becoming a ghost town in the early 20th century, it became something of an enclave for artist types and wealthy Britons. That hasn't led to extensive exploitation, fortunately, though we heard more people speaking English here than anywhere else we've been in France so far.

Like a number of the villages we've been to here, there is the problem of where to point the camera to capture the overall charm of a place with no obvious "hey, look at this" focal point. Hence lots of pictures of "some houses" or "a street".

Thus presented here without additional comment. I've also just been handed a crying baby.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I'd Been Afraid to Mention This Before Now

When I was a kid my family lived in a turn-of-the-century house in Charleston, SC. Many of the buildings in Charleston, being elderly, low-lying, and slightly (or very) run-down were infested with palmetto bugs, and our house was no exception. Palmetto bugs are to regular cockroaches as timberwolves are to shih tzus--technically the same thing, but bigger, meaner and significantly less welcome in your kitchen. Every month the exterminator would come and fog the whole house; we'd sweep out the victims and try to get the chemical smell out of the house, and a week later they'd be scurrying across my bedroom floor again.

When we moved to Charlotte later on, we presumably brought some eggs with us, because I remember making a game of new ways to kill roaches--dart guns, hair spray, a toilet plunger, etc.

When I grew up and went off to college, I lived in a row house in Pittsburgh's notorious South Oakland neighborhood ("Do not live in South Oakland unless you are reasonably proficient in hand-to-hand or small arms combat," read the unofficial CMU student handbook). It was cheap, close to all the punk rock clubs, and godamighty it had the absolute worst roach infestation I've ever seen. My roomie and I bought Raid by the case, so we could have a can in each room and a personal can on us at all times. I drew a Raid DMZ around my bed each night in a futile attempt to keep the roaches off me while I slept. On one trip to the bathroom on a humid night I counted 27 different roaches during the time it took me to do my business and clear out.

My housing standards improved after I got a real job, and our house back in Chapel Hill contends only with the occasional smoky brown wandering in from outside, plus sugar ants in the kitchen when it rains.

This is an awful lot of background to get to a simple observation about our life in France, which is this: In our apartment, which is 150 years old, located 50 yards from a major river, and in a country where public sanitation is, erm, not up to North American standards... [looks around, whispers] ... I haven't seen a single bug.

Well, we got mosquitos in the summer with the windows open at night, but not Roach One. It doesn't make any sense to me. I was anticipating the absolute worst. How can this be? I can only assume that here in France they use some sort of deadly carcinogenic Agent Orange/Zyklon-B doomsday pesticide expressly forbidden by the Geneva Accords. Either that, or they have negotiated some sort of truce to appease our insect overlords, who are awaiting the critical moment to strike.

The steps to the basement of our building are sealed off behind a locked, ten-foot-tall solid oak door. What horrors lie within?

Speaking of distasteful vermin: I haven't seen a single mime, either.

Unrelated picture: Guys playing petanque on a Sunday afternoon, Place Sathonay. One scores points for every ball closer to the target ball (the little red one at center) than any of the opponent's balls. Players who are fairly skilled specialize in targeting opposing balls and knocking them out of the way. Remarkable when you consider that petanque is usually played with a woozy afternoon buzz resulting from drinking pastis all day.

I think I'm going to buy a set of petanque balls, just so that when I return to the US I can show up at cookouts with them and annoy the hell out of people with boring stories of how I learned the game in Frawnce, you know.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Short Walk at Dusk

I know, no new content in a week...I've actually been incredibly busy at work, and both Boog and V have been fighting off colds so I've been having to hustle a lot at home, too. But I don't want you all to suffer repetitive stress disorder from mashing the F5 (refresh) key over and over again, so here are a few snapshots from a stroll I took at dusk from our apartment over the Saone to the old city.

Photo #1. Skaters, Rue St. Exupery. Lyon is a skateboarder's paradise: flat, with pedestrian streets and lots of public spaces with concrete ramps and rails to grind on. Most importantly, the cops don't care a bit. I've thought about buying a board here just to mess around with, but my 34-year-old knees aren't what they once were, and I don't know if I still have the muscle memory to pull off a curb ollie, never mind a rail slide on one of those concrete traffic barriers.

Photo #2. Wall plaque near Place Bellecour (click on it to read). These are everywhere--I can think of five within a couple blocks of our apartment--and the echoes of the occupation are probably worthy of their own post.

Photo #3. Crane Barge in the Saone. I really should get a tripod for these night shots...naaah, I'd never take it with me or have the patience to set it up.

Photo #4. Passarelle St. George, pedestrian bridge over the Saone. Hey, that's a pretty good picture. Click on it so you can see it better. That's Eglise St. Georges on the right; straight across the bridge is the apartment where Mom & Dad stayed when they came to visit.

Photo #5. Pont Bonaparte, which is no longer called that officially, but it's kind of hard to erase engraving out of marble. The lights you see under the bridge are a parking garage built right into the riverbank; you don't want to park your car there in the lower levels on days when it's raining upstream in the Beaujolais.

All for now... eventually I'll post some pictures of our trip to Avignon, the city of popes. Tentative post title: "Popin' Ain't Easy".

[One of the worst things about France: No one gets my quasi-obscure pop-culture references.]

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Taste of Home

With regard to Pat's comment about needing a taste of home:

Some Saturday mornings we get ourselves together and trek up to near Place Terreaux, to Lyon's only bagel shop, a little place on Rue d'Algerie called Best Bagel (see pic with English sign). Now, I didn't grow up eating bagels, but I had some pretty good ones in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill, topped with lox and served by guys with sidelocks in funny black hats.

Best Bagel doesn't have that kind of Red-Sea-Pedestrian cred, but the bagels are fresh, and they have honest-to-Jehovah Philly cream cheese, which they'll sell you by the gram to take home.

But we don't just come for the bagels: This is also the only place in Lyon to buy Dr Pepper. Sure, it's 2 Euros a can, but I'm worth it. As the "US groceries" on the sign implies, there's also a small selection of American goods: Froot Loops, Crisco, Miller High Life, Betty Crocker cake mix, Twix bars.

For V., the attraction is equally filled with artificial flavors and preservatives: On a table by the window is a stack of the fairly-recent trashy gossip mags (People, Us, Entertainment Weekly) she used to flip through at the gym back home. Boog and I have bagels and Dr Pepper, and V catches up on slightly-stale gossip she already knew about (Mel Gibson's bottle battle! Stinging heartache for Croc Hunter's wife!).

If you squint, it's a little like Carrboro! Well, maybe if you close your eyes completely. And your ears. And don't sniff too deeply.

Metro, Boulot, Do-do

One of the first blogs I ever read regularly was Hunkabutta. A Canadian who moved his family to Japan, Mr. Hunkabutta took his camera everywhere he went and took pictures of ordinary, everyday people and ordinary, everyday things. There were, for example, lots of pictures of people waiting at commuter train stations. Hunkabutta eventually moved back to Canada, where he lost interest in blogging, presumably because most of his readers already know what Canada looks like. But the archives are still there; I think they're fascinating, more so than anyone's photos of vacations or historic sites (which I've been pretty guilty of posting). So I decided to take my camera around with me on a vaguely gray typical work day last week.

The French have a rhyming expression that means "the daily grind" or "the rat race": Metro, boulot, do-do. Metro for the commute; boulot means "the job", and do-do is diminutive for dormir, approximately analagous to "beddy-bye". French rats race a lot more leisurely than American ones (and take a lot more vacations), but there is a certain ennui in the same routine each day. The first pic is the Bellecour Metro station, 3 levels deep, where Boog and I catch the Metro around 8:15 in the morning.

Boog's school is on this street down in the 7th, a formerly industrial area that has been in a continuous process of renovation for about 15 years now... all sorts of new weird-looking buildings interspersed among old warehouses and machine shops. Boog's school is the yellow-painted building ahead on the right. I don't know what the graffiti stencil art means, but at least it's well done.

After dropping Boog off at the school, I head to work via this Metro station at Place Jean Jaures. The giant world map that covers the entire platform wall has a black line cutting across it at about eye level, indicating the latitude where Lyon is. Didja know Lyon is further north than Minneapolis, Halifax, or Vladivostok? Well, there you go.

This relief, on my way to the office, is part of a memorial celebrating those who work in the medical profession. And their brave dogs.

I had thought about taking a picture every hour on the hour throughout the day, but then I realized that I'd have a bunch of pictures of the inside of my office. And nobody wants that.

Around midmorning I often take a break to walk down to the corner patisserie for a cafe eclair or a pain au chocolat. This billboard hangs on the building over the patisserie. I'm not sure why they left this little guy up there when they took down the last billboard, but I'm glad they did. He makes me happy.

By the way, I've learned that avenir not only means "future", it's also the name of a billboard/advertising company. Which makes the sign in the third picture in this post make a little more sense.

This ghost of a building is right next to the patisserie. If you click to enlarge, you can see the remains of the inside wall of someone's house there--old wallpaper, kitchen tile, the bones of old chimneys black with soot. It reminds me of cutaway drawings I made when I was a kid, showing secret hideouts and firepoles and subterranean escape tunnels.

This house apparently lacked an escape tunnel or rooftop helipad. Probably not many ninjas or attack robots, either.

Around 1PM I head for the square to pick up a sandwich from a sidewalk stand. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings there is a market here, selling fresh produce, meat, seafood, cheeses, bread, and so forth. The stalls close at noon, the city's cleanup crew arrives at 12:30, and by 1PM there's nothing left of the market except the puddles of runoff where the cleaning crew has hosed off the squished strawberries, stray lettuce leaves, and fish goo.

Cliche alert!
Photo of florist's sidewalk display!

I didn't notice until I'd uploaded the photo that the flower variety in the foreground is marked "Reagan".
Must be forget-me-nots.

More graffiti, at a demolition site. Ours means "bear"; I'm not sure if he's meant to be pooping or just sitting there contemplating. I also wonder if he was sitting on the step before it was torn down.

Something about this building, probably the name "Cristal Palace" on the center roof arch, makes me think it's a formerly glamorous old movie theater gone slowly to seed. The top two floors are some sort of health club; the bottom is occupied by a greengrocer (a good place to go if you can't find what you need in the market because it's out of season).

I kind of forgot about the camera on the commute home--probably just as well, more of the same--and the rest of my evening was spent cooking dinner, bathing the boys and getting them put to bed.

So let's just skip ahead to do-do. This is looking from the bed out through the balcony doors. At bottom you can sorta make out kitty plotting his escape (or at least determining how to eat the plants in the planter box).

Beddy-bye time.