The Frogmarch

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

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bastille Day

The 4th of July, for me, has always been an underachieving holiday. It has such promise: for starters, anything that calls for setting off fireworks is already headed in the right direction. Plus there's the promise of a cookout, you know, some fried chicken, deviled eggs and watermelon ...sounds great.

But the reality always seems to fall short of the expectation. July 4th in North Carolina is always always always just filthy hot and humid, so 15 minutes after you get to the cookout you're drenched in sweat and being eaten alive by mosquitos, and you spend the afternoon coated with a thin warm ooze of mixed perspiration and Deep Woods Off, praying for the swift arrival of nightfall and hoping you can drink enough watery domestic beer to take the edge off. Then night comes and everyone piles into a car to go see the fireworks, inevitably either getting stuck in a huge traffic jam around the actual site or arriving too late at the local Super-Sekrit-Locals-Only-Fireworks-Viewing-Spot to actually be able to see anything except a quarter-sized reddish burst through a stand of trees. Oh, and then someone cranks up the Lee Greenwood on a car radio...

Just as the French Revolution was in many ways a knockoff of the American Revolution, La Fete Nationale (it's not called Bastille Day here; I'm guessing it's because the good intentions of the Revolution turned pretty darn ugly, and they don't want to commemorate that) is a lot like Independence Day. Free concerts, games for the kiddees... and filthy hot. One of the few advantages of living in a new city where you have no friends is that you have no social obligations to go to anyone's cookout or schlep to someone's Super-Sekrit Fireworks Spot. So we spent the heat of the day huddled around the Pinguino (our trusty air conditioner). 'Round about 10PM--high latitude, it gets dark late here--I gathered up Boog and we walked 3 blocks to the quai along the Saone. The city's fireworks display is launched off Fourviere, the big hill with the cathedral that dominates the center of town, so you can see pretty well from about anywhere, and the riverside gives a nice unobstructed view. So here are some pictures.

I don't know where French people go to buy fireworks--South Carolina's a long haul from here--but they obviously do, because they were going off all night. This last picture's from our balcony (a perspective you're probably getting tired of), around midnight; note that they've changed the color of the lights in the fountain to blue-white-and-red for the occasion.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The World's Oldest Professional

I didn't take any pictures to go with this post, either.

I seem to go to the supermarket a lot here. I don't know if this is a typically French thing--owing to the small size of refrigerators, the unavailability of Costco warehouse-club packs of frozen chicken nuggets, or the difficulty of toting 12 grocery bags full of stuff without a car--or if I actually went to the Harris Teeter pretty often back home as well, but just didn't really notice because it wasn't much hassle.

Regardless, every other day or so, I walk the six blocks along Rue Carnot, which appears to be populated entirely with travel agents; their front windows are papered with the season's package-vacation specials (Algeria is dirt cheap in summer, Florida priced way out of proportion to its actual worth). Just before getting to the Monoprix supermarket, I hang a left down an alley that runs between the 14th-century church of St. Bonaventure and Planete Saturn, sort of a French Circuit City (the buildings in the center and the left, respectively, of this 1910 photo; they still look the same, except that when the Germans blew up the bridge at extreme left in 1944, the shockwave blew out all the stained glass).

She's always there: The World's Oldest Hooker.

The first time I saw her, it didn't really click that she was a "working girl". After all, sluttily-dressed women aren't too uncommon in France, and women dressing half (or a third!) of their age don't really raise an eyebrow. Lots of sixtysomethings are wearing tube tops, miniskirts, and spike heels these days, right?

Maybe she's just dressing younger than she should.
Maybe she's dressing younger than she should, and her eyesight's going, so it's hard for her to tell how much makeup she's got on.
Maybe she's dressing much younger than she should, her eyesight's going, and she's hanging around on this street corner chainsmoking while waiting for a ride to church bingo. Every night of the week.

Nah, she's a hooker.

Most of Lyon's ladies-of-easy-leisure work in the gritty south end of the Presqu'ile by the railyards and warehouses. These women (who are more in the typical age range one expects of their profession) work out of delivery vans parked on side streets and along the quais, their dashboards decorated with candles, lanterns, and garters, apparently in some sort of code I don't understand. The ladies--and I use the term loosely, not to denigrate their character but because I don't think all of them are biologically female--lounge provocatively on the running boards or sit in plastic chairs on the sidewalk; transactions take place in the curtained-off rear of the vans. Don't come a-knockin', etc.

I must assume that the authorities turn a blind eye to this trade of the tricks, since it is practiced so openly. We discovered it while I was out for a long walk with Boog down the quai---on the way home, after a riverside juicebox break, Boog needed to go potty, so we ducked into a vacant find that it was being used as a place of business.

C'mon, kiddo, let's go someplace else.
"But Dadda, I need to pot-"
Now, I said!
"I was just waving at the nice lady, Dadda."

Anyway, The World's Oldest Hooker plies her wares far uptown, far away from these lower-mileage competitors whose wares might be more pliable. I don't know how much business she gets, since the fact that she's always on the street means she's not actively earning money at that moment, but she seems content to hang out on the corner, chatting with the neighbors, exchanging knitting tips, and so forth. Heck, I don't judge.

Plus she always waves back at Boog.

Bonus photo, also not mine: That Lyon Photos website has some neat stuff on it, especially the "Photos Anciennes". This one's of our street almost a century ago (1909). You can see straight into my living room at center (second building from the right, top floor with balcony).

Dig the sign on the building at right, above Gaz de Lyon: "Life for Nothing." Was there more to the sign, or was the existentialist movement active in France decades before Sartre? A disgruntled GdL employee frustrated by rampant Cartesian rationalism? ("Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.")

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Steal This Armoire

Add this to the list of things that are cheap here: Antiques. Or, at least, what we Americans would consider antiques. In France, of course, there's a lot of old stuff. From where I'm sitting right now, I can see at least 3 buildings that are older than the oldest building in my hometown, and a few blocks away is an entire neighborhood that predates the United States by a good 200 years.

All of this means that there have been grotty furnishings gathering dust in French attics for many centuries. As a result, things in France that are less than 150 or so years old aren't rare at all, and aren't really considered "antiques". They're considered "used furniture".

In a crummy neighborhood over behind the train station is La Boite D'Occases (The Box of Used Stuff). On the inside it's very similar to the Carrboro PTA Thrift shop, complete with scarred ping-pong tables and slightly warped copies of Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream and Other Delights". But in the furniture rooms in back...look, I'm no antiques buff and don't know a Louis XIV chair from Lewis Lapham. But man, there's some good stuff there for dirt cheap.

Witness: This marble coffee table (under a really heinous wooden one and next to an equally heinous glass one). Yours for the princely sum of 35 Euros! Not impressed? Well, take a gander at the matching marble ashtray that comes with it! Heck, I think that's pretty cool, and I don't even smoke. I might buy it to put my TV remotes on. You can't get a pressboard coffee table at IKEA for 35 baguettes, never mind a marble one with matching ashtray that looks like set dressing from Goodfellas.

But we don't need a coffee table; we came to find an armoire. We considered this one wedged back in a corner (with matching tiny nightstand) for 100 euros, but the mirror was a little loose, plus it smelled like old lady. If you want one like this, you can troll eBay for "french art deco armoire" and find one for about $1299, plus 300 for shipping. Or you can go to La Boite and pick up a handsome dot-matrix printer while you're at it.

So we bought this one instead. It was listed at 80 euros, but when I fiddled concernedly with a loose hinge, the store guy said he'd go as low as 65. Sold! We paid an extra 30 to have their guys deliver it by truck and schlep it up our 6 flights of stairs (heh heh).

It took me about 2 minutes to fix the hinge, then I stood there and admired it for a while.

After all, it's the only piece of furniture in our apartment that looks like it actually belongs.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Road Trip to Grenoble

I got a month's paternity leave when the Tadpole was born. This is not necessarily a French thing, since the international agency I work for is not bound by French labor law (something they're probably very pleased about, given the remarkable rights given to workers here). Of course it passed all too quickly, and I didn't accomplish a tenth of the things I had hoped to during that time. That's the problem with paternity leave: It involves taking care of a newborn.

But I did manage to take a full day to take Boog to Grenoble to do some hiking in the Alps. I figured it would be nice to get some relief from the blistering heat as well--unfortunately it turned out to be the hottest day of the year, 96 degrees at street level in Grenoble and 90 or so in the mountains above town.

Grenoble's about 90 minutes from Lyon by the slow local train that stops at every two-bit burg in between. It's less than an hour by TGV (which can't get up to full speed given the curves and grades necessary), but that only runs twice a week.

Trains are really the way to go for intercity travel in France, especially given the cost of gas and autoroute tolls. They're clean, inexpensive, and they run on time; add to that the essential bad-assery of the TGVs--which sometimes pull into the station with birds splattered on the windshield--and you've got an easy, hassle-free trip. Usually.

Grenoble is the "capital" of the French Alps, a small city not too deep in the mountains; I knew the name from old Peanuts cartoons (that's where Snoopy wanted to go ice skating with Sonia Henie for the 1968 Winter Olympics). It reminds me a little of Asheville, NC, comparable in size, attitude (and altitude), and status as home base for activities in the surrounding mountains.

Maurice Stendahl said of Grenoble, his hometown, that every street ends in a mountain. That's pretty much true--there's a cable car running from smackdab in the middle of town up to the Bastille, the old fortress at the top of the Chartreuse Massif that overlooks (overhangs, really) the town and the Isere valley. The cable car is really a series of six-seater plexiglas balls, like Christmas ornaments...not for the acrophobic.

This is Grenoble and the Isere from the cable car, hence the fuzziness. The mountains are this close on all sides.

This is Grenoble from the Bastille. From here, we turned around and started climbing.

Back in feudal days, each French lord's territory was divided into individual parcels for the farmers, with narrow paths in between each leading to the town centers, to water sources, etc., so each farmer could go about his business without tresspassing. If you fly over France, you can still see the way lots were laid out: long and narrow, each with a little bit of frontage to these paths. After the revolution, these paths really belonged to nobody--but someone in the government had the foreseight to turn them into a massive system of well-marked and well-maintained public trails, called the Grandes Randonees (the Big Walks). Imagine the Appalachian Trail, only fifty times over and interconnecting every region of France. If you had the time and the inclination, you could walk from Nice to Normandy without ever setting foot on a road.

Boog and I were taking the GR9, which connects Grenoble to Annecy, crossing the Chartreuse Massif at about 6000 feet.

Even though this was a 96-degree day in late July, there was still snow visible on the northern faces of the peaks (top center).

The Isere Valley from above. The flat area at bottom right was the old parade ground above the Bastille.

We stopped near here for a picnic lunch of saucisson sec (dried sausage) and the local Tomme de Savoie cheese, plus a PBJ sandwich and Elmo fruit snacks for Boog.

Weather-blasted sign on a trial hut (closed for the summer season).

We stopped short of our objective, a mountaintop castle, as we were running short of water and I was uncertain of Boog's ability to make the final climb--I'd had to carry him up some of the steeper, rockier parts. Still, we had made a good full day of it; Boog crashed out at the Quickburger in the train station and I carried him on the train over my shoulder, like a sailor with his seabag.

There is a large group of demonstrators carrying a giant Lebanese flag down my street right now...I'd better go take some photos.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Please Continue Holding Breath

Look, I'm just trying to save you from hitting "refresh" on your browser every five minutes waiting for me to update this thing...

For the past two weeks, roughly, I've been waiting for to send me my spiffy new cable modem/TV decoder box/multimedia network thingy. It looks like a sweet deal: for 30 euros a month you get ADSL, cable, and a phone package that includes free calls to the US (!). Plus you can use it to beam multimedia files from your 'puter to your TV, so we've been anxiously awaiting hitting up iTunes so V can catch up with Lost and I can finally find out what happened on the Battlestar Galactica season finale.

The catch is that you have to disconnect your France Telecom line first so they can set all this up. Hence we've been without a home phone (we do have a mobile) and even the most rudimentary dialup internet access since August 1.

Oh, and TV? Here's what you get on French TV without cable or satellite:

France 1: The flagship channel. During the World Cup, France 1 had all the best games. They have the most-watched news programs, though I confess I can't tell the difference between theirs and the other France X networks. But at prime time? Episodes of CSI New York, dubbed into French.

France 2: is to France 1 as ESPN2 is to ESPN. Showed every second of the Tour de France. Like France 1, standard fare is three-year-old US police procedurals. CSI is called "Les Experts", but NYPD Blue is just NYPD Blue and The Shield is just The Shield.

France 3: Oddly, seems to be just game shows, talk shows, and variety shows. Though one time I did see an all-star tribute to Serge Gainsbourg that was freakin' rad.

Canal+: The HBO of France, with high-quality series, current movies, and their own film studio. Also, you have to pay for it separately. But they do show it unscrambled over the air from 5PM to about 8:30, a slot they reserve for their most boring programming. You remember that show Capitol Steps? The one with the puppets that looked like Newt Gingrich and whatnot? Well, the French did it first, and still are, on Canal+ at 8.

Arte: A joint Franco-German endeavor (those always go well) that is a bit like PBS, only without Moenchengladbach City Limits. Lots of nature documentaries, vaguely disturbing theatre/dance performances, and the like. But it's the channel I watch the most, because late at night they show old American cowboy movies with subtitles rather than dubbed. The other week I caught "Two Rode West" and "Terror in a Texas Town", the latter of which features the only Western gunfight scene ever to feature a harpoon.

M6: Aimed at the youth market, M6 is something of a combination of the WB and MTV: Dopey sitcoms, teen dramas, and reality shows. In other words, watching it will make you, like, more stupider? But they do show porn late at night on Sundays. Or so I've heard, anyway.

So, yes, I'll be glad to get cable hooked up so I can at least watch CNN and the BBC. But then I'll get down to the business of posting all the photos I've taken recently--we took a trip up to Burgundy last weekend for V's birthday, plus I've still got the Grenoble photos and Bastille Day and a bunch of other stuff. I'll try to make them interesting and related to trenchant observations on the French experience, rather than "Hey, wanna see my vacation photos? This is a church..."

Once I have a minute.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

So is it hot where you are?

Yeah, I already is. Here in Lyon a "vague de chaleur" brought 90-plus-degree days for several weeks in a row, with no rain since back before Bastille Day. I know, you're thinking that 90+ degrees and 80% humidity is just a late-spring day back in NC, but I gotta tell ya: Lyon is prepared for 90-degree heat like Raleigh is prepared for two feet of snow.

Air conditioning as we know it barely exists here. Even movie theaters don't have AC. Everyone habitually overdresses, wearing long pants (and often long sleeves) year-round. Add to that the aforementioned scarcity and expense of deodorant, and you get a Metro that smells like a barnyard (and, as a lesser consequence, people dying of heatstroke because there are no air-conditioned shelters where people can go to escape sweltering apartments). You'd think they would have learned after the 2003 heat wave killed over 10,000 people...well, maybe they have, because there have been only a handful of heat-related deaths this year.

Our apartment was of course built in the years before Mr. Carrier's magnificent invention, but with its thick stone walls and courtyard design (allowing a crossbreeze most times of the day), it's not too unbearable. We did, soon after moving in, invest 500 euros in a portable electric AC unit, roughly R2-D2 sized and capable of keeping one large room mostly unsticky. Thus a lot of our time recently has been spent huddled around the ol' AC in the living room.

I've heard it argued--probably in the Oxford American--that the advent of air conditioning brought about the demise of the Southern literary tradition: so much depended, apparently, on the front porch and the story-swapping it engendered, not to mention the general misery that fertilizes the flowering of so much creativity. See how much Faulkner suffered when he went to Hollywood to write movie scripts? By that token you'd expect Lyon to be a hotbed of creative activity.

But it's quite the opposite: It's a ghost town. In August, most of France is on vacation. I mean deeply on vacation. Many stores are closed for the entire month. Most of the local papers have stopped publication until September, because no businesses want to advertise. Local factories anticipate a huge dropoff in orders and idle their plants, so their workers go on vacation, etc., etc., until there's no one around but the tourists and the businesses that cater to them. And us expats who recoil at the thought of fighting the hordes for a few square centimeters of pebbly beach on the Riviera.

I wonder if that's why it's taken so long to get my high-speed internet box delivered. In the meantime I have no phone service at y'all don't be calling me.

Unrelated pic: The confluence where the Saone River (left) flows into the Rhone (right). (The actual confluence is about 10 feet behind the camera.) This ugly but extraordinarily expensive piece of real estate will soon be the site of a large museum/science center, being built behind the blue fence at center.