The Frogmarch

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Zip City; or, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

The economic upheaval of WWII and its aftermath led to a number of demographic changes in France, the most important of which was a large-scale shift from rural to urban life. Cities (especially Paris) started sprawling, and young people fled the small towns of La France Profonde (lit. "Deep France") in search of jobs in the cities.

While small-town life carries on and some people cling militantly to ruralism, the truth is that many villages, especially in the Massif Central and the Southwest, simply no longer have any economic engine and are becoming ghost towns as the older residents die off, the boulangeries shut down for lack of customers, and the markets have fewer and fewer vendors each year. This trend is being reversed somewhat in Provence and the Dordogne, both of which are flooded with Brits drawn by rock-bottom real-estate prices, and the restaurants and building-supply stores that cater to their needs.

On our recent trip to Nice, we stopped in this village, Pont-sur-Loup, to tour the Florian candy factory there. This was largely a reward to Boog for behaving on our visit through the Fondation Maeght modern art museum, but interesting enough to deviate a few kilometers off the main road.

The factory's works are very simple and low-tech. There are no robots or automated processes or even assembly lines per se--just large kitchens where fruit and chocolate and sugar (and interestingly, flower petals) are mixed together, then another room where things are baked or dried, and another room for packaging.

The factory's setting is simply stunning--deep in the gorge of the swift, rocky Loup river, with cliffs towering on both sides and the soaring, crumbling piers of its older namesake bridge pointing at the sky. It was rather late in the day as we finished the tour and I snapped a few shots in the fading light as we walked back to the car through the village.

"Village" is probably too strong a word for it now. Pont-sur-Loup is a wide spot in the road with a few houses and some vacant storefronts. My GPS navigator didn't list it, and doesn't either (Le Bar-sur-Loup is just downstream). Besides the candy factory, there is a lonely tabac/presse and that's about it.

It was oddly appealing, though--V asked me why I was taking pictures of random buildings and I really couldn't answer.

This abandoned hotel really appealed to me visually, with its Art Deco details. Something about it reminds me of a Led Zeppelin album cover. Check the gunsight window at upper left, and the flying-saucer balcony over the portico... rad. There was also a really awesome terrace on the back of the building overlooking the waterfall. Why, if I had a few kiloEuros to blow, I could get this place fixed right up and... aw, there I go.

This is about 20 minutes' drive from Cannes, by the way (and importantly, on the far side of the autoroute); I suspect you'd have a pretty good view of the Med from the cliff tops.

Across the bridge, this vacant brasserie--it's hard to read the faded paint of the sign, but it's there-- still had chairs stacked inside on the other side of its broken windows.

I don't know if this is one of those dying villages of France, or merely one that never really was much of a place. Someone obviously still cares, though; note the planter boxes hanging on the bridge in the first picture.

Monday, May 28, 2007

I Sing the Lyon Municipal Library

(After Walt Freakin' Whitman*)

I sing the Bibliotheque Municipale de Lyon!

The largest public library in France, with 2.9 million volumes,
The newly-renovated entrance next to the Part-Dieu metro so I don't have to walk past stinky bums pissing on the steps behind Carrefour,
The art gallery with its weird plastic jellyfish hanging from the ceiling and arty moany sound installation,
The elevators big enough to actually get a stroller in;

The children's section with its rack of books in English,
The selection of novels in English right there with the French versions and sometimes bilingual editions if I'm feeling saucy,
The travel books that I don't have to buy if we're going to, say, Languedoc for the weekend,
The whole room of graphic novels that are really easy to read in French because, you know, there's a picture right there,
The videos and DVDs that often have English subtitles or soundtracks except for the ones which come from Asia so I can't watch those cool HK gangster flicks, which kind of sucks;

O the music room!
O the CDs that I may take home and burn copies of at my leisure!
O the indie-rock obscurities!
O the entire back catalogs of Soul Jazz Records and Studio One!
O the Europe-only releases!
O the copy of DJ Shadow's Product Placement CD and oh my god where the heck did you get this they only printed 6000 copies which were only sold at shows so did the library actually send a guy to a DJ Shadow concert to buy this how nuts is that!

Moloch!** Your bizarre filing system confuses me! Why are your novels arranged by country of origin? Why are DVDs alphabetical by director instead of title? Is Dewey Decimal not metric enough for you?

Moloch! Your graphic novels are arranged by some system I have yet to decipher! It is neither author nor title! It might be by illustrator!

Moloch! I have to stand in line to return my books, as they must each be inspected by a librarian upon their return!

Moloch! The cute librarian girl always takes way longer to check returned books than the greasy librarian guy who smells like waffles!

Moloch! I keep getting mistaken late notices because your computer system was designed by Frenchmen! No I do not owe 1.80 euro in late fees!

Moloch! I find your 10-book limit unneccessarily restrictive!

Moloch! The guy always playing the accordion outside the entrance is not very talented and only knows about five songs!

O I say these are not the parts and poems of the Library only, but of the Soul!

[*Leaves of Grass, my ass!
**OK, so I got into Ginsberg's Howl for a minute there.
***Photos shamelessly ripped off the internet.]

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Next on ESPN6: Amish Rake Fighting!

Sunday-before-last was the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Lyon. Once upon a time this might have been a bigger deal: With the advent of railroads, Lyon lost a lot of the importance as a river-commerce center that had led to its founding back in Roman times. There is still some shipping---big cargo ships still offload at the dockyards south of town, and smaller barges ply the Saone up into the Beaujolais--but whatever civic culture of watermen once existed is gone now.

So the blessing of the fleet continues more as a nod to tradition than as an actual source of hope that the city's sailors would return safely home from their dangerous work.

One could argue that the diminishing power of the church as a guiding influence in French people's daily lives plays a part as well.

So the blessing of the fleet is a pretty low-key affair, much like an American small town's Labor Day picnic, with some games for the kids, a cookout, a few speeches from local elected officials, and a band from the local high school.

There is of course the blessing itself, a mass held on board a floating chapel river barge--itself a vanishing icon of a bygone era when strongly religious sailors needed a place to take communion and go to confession but were nowhere near their home churches. This one [2nd pic, in blue and white with French tricolor; altar under the arched awning at center] is said to be the last one in France operating full-time.

The high point for me, though, was the boat jousting. On this day there were crews from La Mulatiere and St. Fons, two neighboring towns just south of Lyon on the right bank. This was more of a demonstration match than a battle royal for supreme control of the Federation Nationale de Joute Nautique (I just made that up), and both crews seemed to be having fun, taking spectators along for the ride on some passes, pushing each other into the river, and so on.

Let's go to the action:

The jousters stand on flat platforms at the rear of each boat. Protective gear is minimal; there's a shield worn on the left arm and a chest protector under the shirt. A rescue boat stands by, with an ambulance waiting on the quai just in case.

The lances are long, flexible wooden poles that have enough spring in them to launch an opponent off of his platform.

The boats are powered by smallish inboards just in front of the platform--in the old days they would have been rowed. The crews today are mostly just along for the ride and to haul the loser and any floating lances out of the water.

At a given signal, the boats line up on each other, and the jousters brace themselves on wooden foot blocks bolted to the deck.

The boats aren't moving all that fast, certainly not as fast as a galloping horse, perhaps more like a slow jog.

The crews all hit the deck to avoid being fwapped in the head by stray lances.

Each jouster finds a good place to plant the business end of the lance (preferably in the target niche in the center of the opponent's shield)...

The lances bend...

And sprooiiiinnnnng! someone goes swimming.

The loser is fished out of the Saone, is taunted mercilessly (Silly French knigget! Hamster/elderberries/etc.!), and the next contestant mounts the platform.

I can't say that joutes nautiques is likely to replace soccer (or rugby or cycling or volleyball or basketball or handball or tennis or petanque or skiing or biathlon or fencing or...) on the pages of L'Equipe, but a pleasant enough way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

PS: I'll be darned! There is a national federation! Here are the current standings in the Senior Heavyweight division. Jean-Christophe Moras' lead in the points race looks insurmountable.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Drunkblogging: Calvados

Now, this isn't a proper Drunkblogging post per se, as I'm not going to take you step-by-step through an evening of drinking calvados--because you can do that your very own self.

In fact, this post is to urge you to do just that. Your local liquor store probably carries some, so go get yourself a bottle. Make sure that at the very least, it's labelled AOC; like scotch for example, the taste difference between the good stuff and the cheap stuff is very great, with the price:quality graph ascending at about 1:1 before levelling off toward incrementalism at about the $40 price point. The cheap stuff may as well be applejack. Bleah. If your wallet can swing it and it's available, go for bottles labelled Vieux Reserve, VO/VSOP, or even XO (indicating increasing length of aging in oak; 3, 4 or 6 years minimum, respectively). Less-aged bottles are fruitier, while older ones tend to take on more oak/vanilla tones from the aging. I have liked all of the AOC Pays d'Auge I've tried, so I don't think you can go far wrong there.

The French are known for drinking a small glass of calvados between courses of a large meal; this trou normand ("normandy hole") is meant to reawaken the appetite. Calvados is also offered as a digestif at most French restaurants. I've found that I enjoy it neat, in a brandy snifter, with or without accompanying cigar. Given that it's a tasty warming drink on a cold nasty day (which they have a lot of in Normandy), calvados may replace spiced rum as my winter hip-flask drink of choice as well.

Hmm. Maybe I should have posted this back in the fall. Well, you get what you pay for. Anyway, get on the bandwagon before P. Diddy, Busta and their ilk discover calvados and do a Courvoisier on it.

[photo not mine.]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Something to do as you eagerly await the next Frogmarch post

We're getting ready to go out of town again--sticking to our one-trip-per-month schedule even though it's only been 2 weeks since we got back from Paris (which counted as our April trip). May is heavily laden with holidays in France: there's Labor Day (the 1st), then Victoire (what we'd call V-E day, the 8th), then Ascension (the 17th). Since Ascension is on Thursday, everyone in France takes Friday off, too, and heads out of town on Wednesday night.

So for our May trip we're taking the long weekend to spend a few days at a quiet B&B in Nowhere, Provence, with some sightseeing on the itinerary but also ample time for just lazing around the pool in the sun.

I probably won't have time to put together another post before we leave, as I have 436 things to do before then, so here's something to amuse yourself with:

Flickrvision, which uses Google Maps to plot photos from around the world as they're added to the photo host site Flickr, in real time. Truly random pictures appear and disappear, ephemeral as dreams.

All right, I've got to go try to find Hi-8 NTSC videotape, buy some Orangina for the road, and check prices on petanque balls.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Paris Snapshots

Figurative snapshots not associated with the literal snapshots that accompany them:

In Parc Montsouris, deep in the 14th, there are benches that, when one sits on them, launch a looped audio recording of students from the adjacent university softly whispering declarations of love in their native languages...about 50 of them. A pleasant idea, but a little strange to be strolling along and then encounter a park bench whispering unintelligibly to itself.

[pic: Signs of the times, St. Sulpice]

Paris has joggers, by the way. Lyon, not so much, especially not in great flowing streams of sweat bands, Adidases and shorts.


Lifetime goal achieved: I've been mistaken for a Parisian by a Parisian. The counter lady at the Korean traitteur in Chinatown asked if I lived in the neighborhood. This is far from any tourist area, and I was carrying a bag of groceries, so I suppose I didn't look like a tourist, but it says something about Paris that a tall blond etranger with bad French and a thick American accent could possibly be a local.

[Pic: Jacob v. Angel, as intrepreted by Delacroix, St. Sulpice. Remarkable how well the painting's composition and colors work with the very limited available light. No flash here, sorry about the lens flare.]

That Korean take-out, by the way... superb. One of the better meals I've had in France, even if it was eaten sitting on the floor of a tiny hotel room with a view of an elevator shaft. A "triple room" sometimes means "a regular-sized double room with a third bed jammed in there somehow."


Paris' metro makes Lyon's metro look like a Disney monorail pulled by magic unicorns. The Paris metro is much older, which explains a lot, but the cars are ancient and filthy (except on the new, modern 14 line), it's not air-conditioned, and the stations are a rat's warren of tunnels, some unmarked. Most criminally, at least for a person pushing a stroller or lugging two overstuffed roll-on suitcases, there are no elevators and very few escalators. At one changeover at Gare St. Lazare, V. counted eight flights of stairs between one line's platform and another. I didn't notice because I was too beat from lugging Tater's stroller up and down the steps. A person in a wheelchair would have no chance at all.

The good news: smelling hospital disinfectant in a Metro station is better than smelling urine. [pic: The clergy at St. Sulpice have had it up to here with those Davinci Coders. Click to embiggen.]


You know how Paris is supposed to be filled with fabulously-dressed people sporting the lastest couture? We didn't find that to be the case at all. I alluded to this in the previous Paris post, but it really was unusual to see so many people--women especially-- so casually dressed.

Part of my observation may be due to the large number of sloppy tourists thinning out the style quotient, but we spent a fair amount of time away from the touristy areas as well.

Here in Lyon, V. gets dressed up to go to the grocery store, and women seem to go to much greater lengths to present a pulled-together look on a daily basis. Dare to appear in public wearing a t-shirt and (gasp!) shorts, and you face the silent judgment, sneers, and pointed looks of the Lyonnais.

I was talking about this with a Parisian colleague, who said that Lyon is much more conservative (socially, not politically) than Paris. As she put it, the Lyonnais feel they have everything they need-- a big city that's close to the country, close to the mountains and the beaches, good restaurants, good-enough arts and culture-- so they feel they never have the need to look outward or make any changes.

[Pic: Faces on the Pont-Neuf]


When you're naming your Indian restaurant, you might consider not naming it after a guy most famous for starving himself. [pic]

"Hey, we've won civil rights concessions from the British colonial government...anybody hungry? Let's go to my place and chow down!"


Shakespeare & Co. is no longer in the same place it was when it published Ulysses, and when Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein hung out there, but it is still a quite worthy bookstore [pic].

It's strange, after hundreds of everyday shopping encounters that occur according to a familiar script in French, to buy something at a store where the entire staff is American. I had to stop myself from repeating my half of the ritual en francais.


About the nursing bra thing: A few months back V. was reading Entertainment Weekly or People or one of those other things she reads when not translating the early philosophic works of de Beauvoir. There was a brief blurb/quote from Angelina Jolie or some other recent-mother celebrity about how much she loved her nursing bras from Agent Provocateur, that they were pretty enough to wear with straps showing or under something see-through, etc., etc. The London-based Agent Provocateur has a website (which you probably don't want to visit at work), but of course one doesn't buy bras without trying them on first (er...I'm told). V. found that they did have one store in France, in the lingerie department at Printemps in Paris.

Which is how I ended up rather sheepishly hanging around the lower level of Printemps with a fussy baby strapped to my chest, admiring a display case of rhinestone-studded riding crops (I said they were British, yeah?) and silk pasties, idly thumbing through racks of articles with prices totally out of proportion to the volume of material presented, while Boog lolled on a heart-shaped red crushed-velvet bench playing with... "It's a feather-duster, kiddo".

As it turned out, the design V. liked so much didn't fit her well, so she walked away empty-handed and resigned to nursing bras with the industrial appeal of farming apparatus.

[Pic: Speaking of beautiful supporting structures. I said no touristy photos, but you gotta admit it's a very pretty church. And did I ever tell you the one about the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame?]

The Printemps on Boulevard Hausmann, and the adjacent Galeries Lafayette, are astounding for the sheer volume of tourists shuffling through them, gawking at astronomical price tags, taking photos of racks of clothes, filing off motorcoaches and back on again. The Asian tourists seem to have this bug particularly bad, as if a trip to Paris would be incomplete without a purchase of something Dior. Rows of Japanese husbands sat glassy-eyed and sullen on the curb, smoking cigarettes and ignoring the bustling crowds bumping against their backs. Small booths on the sidewalk, backed against the wall of Printemps, hawked knockoff silk ties at 3 for 20 euros to those who merely wanted to say they had bought something here.

I can't imagine anyone from Paris comes here except out of utter necessity.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Lyon Calling

Another night of overtime pay for the riot cops: Things were quieter in general Monday night, although there was a relatively better-organised demonstration parading down Rue de la Republique-- better-organised in that people were actually carrying signs and banners, rather than just randomly breaking and burning stuff.

This procession marched past us down to Place Bellecour, where they were blocked by the police. I'm not sure why, since they were not particularly disorderly--perhaps they didn't have a permit. After this, chants of "Police everywhere, justice nowhere" started up, and the cops became intent on dispersing them. That's what these pictures show--first the remnants of the marchers moving past around Place de la Republique, then the police moving slowly down the street, bunched tightly together behind riot shields and brandishing tear-gas guns (or rubber-bullet guns? Hard to tell). You'll probably need to click on the photos to be able to make anything out.

After the police had moved the crowd down the street, we heard loud metallic scraping, as if the metal construction barricades further up Republique were being moved around, then several loud gunfire-like pops, as if tear gas was being launched, but we didn't see (or breathe) any gas.

Sunday night turned out to have been a pretty rough night in lots of parts of France, with 730 cars torched and 592 people arrested; 12 police were reported injured in Lyon. Some pictures here; note that #5 is in front of the tourist office in Place Bellecour (and the guy in #9 is not me).

When we moved in to this apartment, we knew the neighborhood would be lively; we had no idea just how lively. I'm starting to think about permanently mounting a camera tripod on the balcony railing... maybe it'll help with the blurriness.

Hopefully the next post will be back to the usual banal musings on French life and culture, rather than dark, blurry action shots of riot cops.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Now You're Cooking With (Tear) Gas!

Sunday, as you know, was election day here in France--a great idea, by the way, having elections on a day when pretty much everything is closed, so that people have nothing else to do but vote. It was a plain ol' Sunday for us; I did some stuff around the house, then in the afternoon took the boys out for a walk. The Jardins de Chartreuse, the grounds of a monastery that once stood on the Croix-Rousse plateau overlooking the Saone and Vieux Lyon, were peaceful and green, and Boog played in the mud in the small playground while Tater sat in my lap and tried repeatedly to jam his thumb up my nose.

Later, after we'd given the boys their baths and packed them off to bed, I was making a late dinner and V. was on the computer checking out the election results. Exit polls showed pretty much what the polls had been saying all along--a relatively close but still very much forseen Sarkozy win. "Don't leave your car parked on the street in Clichy tonight," V commented.

What can only be described as a ruckus brought me from the kitchen again a few minutes later, the kind of shouting and chanting that is fairly common this close to Place Bellecour. Looking out, I saw about 200 people raggedly marching, circling the fountain at Place de la Republique before heading north toward the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). There were a handful of signs, and chants of "Sarko! Facho!" (fascist). Some were tossing garbage cans into the fountain...why do they always take it out on the trash cans? The mob headed up the street out of sight, accompanied by the sound of approaching sirens, and I went back to my chicken and rice burritos, which are a little strange when you have to use emmental and gouda instead of pepper jack.

Later, shouts from below--too tough to make them out. The street was oddly deserted, and I stepped out onto the balcony for a better look. Heavy smoke hung over the street, and I leaned out to look toward Place Bellecour, where the smoke seemed to be coming from.

Ooh, that was a mistake. Suddenly I couldn't breathe, and my tear ducts spontaneously ejected tears down my face. I reeled back into the bedroom and slammed the door behind, coughing furiously, hoping none of the gas had entered with me. I had just been tear-gassed in the privacy of my own home. I recovered fairly quickly, and it became apparent why tear gas is so effective--it makes you immediately want to get the hell away. Which explains the deserted street.

So I didn't take any pictures of the post-election unrest for y'all to look at. The rest of the night we kept the windows firmly closed, and there wasn't much to look at anyway. There was plenty of shouting through the wee hours, though, plus trash can pyromania, car alarms and store alarms, and the occasional unexplained loud crash.

We watched some of the news coverage on TV, and it was interesting to contrast what has happening on our screen--Sarkozy followers celebrating in Place de la Concorde, Sarko's motorcade zipping through Paris, waving, shaking hands--with what was going on outside our windows.

This morning, the street cleaners were at work at 6 just like every day, with little evidence of the night's disturbances. There were scattered burn marks on the sidewalk and the occasional puddle of melted garbage, and a big pile of broken beer-bottle glass in the gutter at the edge of Place Bellecour, along with burned flares and what may have been spent tear gas cannisters.

This morning's paper reports that a large group of youths had crashed a party for Sarkozy supporters aboard a floating nightclub moored in the Rhone, throwing bottles and debris down onto the deck from Pont Wilson (a block from us; this would have been the group I saw first); cops broke this up using Flashballs (which I had to look up; rubber bullets, more or less). Police later clashed with protesters in Place Bellecour, finally using tear gas to disperse them. Hey, we made CNN!

"There are some tensions," the police spokesperson said. "All was quiet on the western front," he failed to add.

I don't know if the Sarkozy administration will be good or bad for France in the long term, but I do know that it looks to be a productive quarter for Karcher.