The Frogmarch

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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Bleu, Blanc et Rouge

Listen up: I don't want to see your vacation photos, and you don't want to see mine. Look, it's nothing personal. I'm sure your trip was awesome and you had a great time and did some amazing things in Whereverthehellitwas, but honestly, looking at some snapshots of a place I've never been and probably won't ... almost always fails to transport me. You probably feel exactly the same way about my vacation photos, which is why I haven't posted any of our trip to Provence back in late May, even though it was a superb trip for us and one of the most enjoyable long weekends we've taken. But a recent dearth of image-heavy posts has left me no choice.

Still, I'm not going to subject you to a tedious play-by-play of the whole trip. All of these pictures come from one tiny town we visited on one afternoon. And I'm only sharing them with you because the place is so remarkable--this is a town called Roussillon, in Provence, even though it looks like Utah or New Mexico.

See, like many villages in Provence, Roussillon was built on a hilltop to provide some modicum of protection from marauding Visigoths, Saracens, Savoyards and tour buses packed with English tourists. This hilltop just happens to conceal the world's largest surface vein of ochre, a rusty-red mineral used for centuries for making red paint and dye.

As a result, the village itself is a mostly-uniform reddish color, making it quite photogenic, especially with the background of a brilliant-blue Provencal sky. That's it in the photo, and in that photo you can see the entire town--there's really no more to it than that. In high summer the ratio of tourists to residents is probably about 10 to 1.

The quarries are reached via a footpath at the base of the village. Centuries of ochre mining has left the quarries in bizarre sandstone-looking shapes. The loose dirt is red and finds its way into everything--if you go, don't wear white.

By the way, Roussillon is just a few miles from the similarly-beautiful Provencal hilltop town of Gordes, which we visted last September (blogged here).

There Are No Problems Without Solutions

I read in the paper the other day that France has four times more registered clairvoyants than priests. That's remarkable for a country that considers itself a Catholic country--although something else I read recently put France pretty high on the list of least-religious nations. One would also think that the country that gave us Cartesian rationalism would be fairly skeptical of metaphysical hoodoo.

But there is definitely a high degree of belief in the, er, nontraditional forces that control our destiny. For example, every paper runs a daily horoscope, often right next to the listing of the day's saint (today is St. Aristide's feast day; you know what to do). That's not unusual, as many papers in the States do the same. Former president Mitterand was known to regularly consult his favorite seer--not unlike Nancy Reagan of the same era. My basic-cable lineup includes the astrology channel Astro Center TV (you can watch it right here if you've got a fast connection); street signs and hoardings in crummier neighborhoods are plastered with stickers for pay-per-minute astrological reading phone hotlines.

Most amusingly, every so often--about every other week--I get flyers from clairvoyants in my mailbox, along with the usual pizza delivery coupons, oriental rug shop flyers, and offers to join health clubs. They're all very similar; cheaply-printed slips on plain white paper, advertising a "professor" with an African-sounding name, if not a description of the actual tribe or village from which he draws his powers. Almost every one also has the slogan "Il n'y a pas des problems sans solutions," doubtlessly a powerful mantra, thus I had it scrawled on my office whiteboard for a while. Here's a translation of one of these slips that transsubstantiated into my mailbox yesterday:

EFFECTIVE -- SERIOUS -- POWERFUL -- Payment after results!
Professor KEBA
Grand International Seer and Medium

Graced with the great secrets and hereditary gifts handed down from father to son for 7 generations, whatever is your problem, contact him. He posesses very effective and rapid solutions to resolve all of your problems. Famous accredited specialist in relationship problems, even the most desperate. Sexual problems -- work -- exams -- family-- protection against enemies and evil spells-- definitive return of a lost lover or meet your future lifetime companion, quickly, etc.

Work done also by correspondence. Do not wait any longer! Your satisfaction is guaranteed.
7 rue Port du Temple 69002 Lyon -- Metro lines D and A -- telephone 04 72 40 92 19 THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS WITHOUT SOLUTIONS

Needless to say, I called immediately! I am pleased to report that I am now fully protected from my enemies' evil spells, and my multitude of sexual problems have completely disappeared, or will as soon as the next full moon, when I can finally bury this monkey's paw. Thanks, Professor!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Watch This Space

I've made several attempts at writing a new post, but I can't seem to organize my thoughts in a manner which makes the post not suck.*

So for those of you who habitually check the Frogmarch just to see if something new is up... here are some pictures of birthday cakes and some nice birthday flowers for V (still life with Kleenex box). The green one's Boog's, the red one is V's...and an ice cream cake to boot. Sorry, Carvel... you lose.

*This should not be construed as a guarantee that the next post will not suck anyway.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Anecdote Intended to Illuminate a Larger Truth

One of my colleagues, a Canadian, was out for a jog the other day. She lives in the Croix-Rousse, a neighborhood built on a steep hillside just north of the Presq'ile. Her regular route takes her up one of the flights of steps that pass for streets in that neighborhood, and on this day, upon reaching the top, she suddenly felt dizzy. She sat down on the top step to gather herself... and passed out cold, falling over and hitting her head on the stone step.

She woke up in the Hopital Croix-Rousse, where the pompiers (firefighters) had taken her. (One always calls the pompiers for emergencies, as the police are too slow and the ambulance services are more like taxis for taking the sick and infirm to appointments.) She was kept for a while for observation, received a battery of tests, and had her head stitched up where she bonked it.

When the doctors released her, she went downstairs to the discharge desk, where she realized that, since she had been out jogging when it happened, she had no identification, no passport, and no money. Yet she had been admitted and treated at one of the best hospitals in the city despite having given nothing more than her name. She explained her situation--that she had no money and no identification, and to boot was a foreign national not covered by French health care--to the discharge nurse, who said:

"C'est pas de probleme. Just come back and take care of it in a few days when you're feeling better."

Anecdote presented without comment. Selah.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Roughing It, French Style

For most of my youth, I spent about 1 weekend a month camping, even more in the summertime. This habit extended into adulthood on a much lesser scale, but I often while traveling enjoyed camping as a cheap alternative to an expensive hotel room: Simply find the state or national park nearest your destination, pitch a tent and toss out your bedroll, and you're set. But I most enjoy camping in its purest form--backpacking in a few miles from the nearest trailhead, setting up next to a rushing trout stream or waterfall, and propping up your boots next to a blazing campfire to sit up all night telling stories that may or may not be 100% true.

The French, it may not surprise you to learn, have a completely different idea of what camping is.

I suppose it makes sense: With all the land of France having been throughly settled and cultivated for some 25 centuries now, there really isn't any wilderness left. Wilderness, for the sake of argument, is defined here as everything between "Places where there aren't any restaurants" and "Places where something might eat you." Even in places called bois (woods), the trees are planted in straight lines; there have been no significant numbers of apex predators in the wild since before WWII (a controversial program to re-introduce single-digit numbers of Slovakian brown bears to the Pyrennes is not doing well, largely because the bears keep showing up dead).

Camping in France, then, is not so much about enjoying the wilderness. It's about getting some fresh air away from the city, for sure, but one is expected to maintain that French savoir-vivre while doing so--so French campgrounds are highly civilized places, with on-site white-napkin restaurants, hot showers, swimming pools, laundromats, water parks... even discos (I'm not making this up).

Big deal, you say, we've got those KOA monstrosities right here in the States. Just bypass 'em and find a backcountry campsite in the national park. Ah, but see, here in France, camping sauvage is strictly forbidden in the national parks. One can technically get away with it by setting up after nightfall and moving on early in the morning, but if the park rangers find an established camp during the day, they will likely confiscate all the gear and slap a big fine on the perps.

So with some resignation, Boog and I found a commercial campsite in Chamonix for our weekend trip there. The Lonely Planet Walking the Alps guidebook called it small and quiet, so it would have to do. As it turned out, the campground was pretty nice: there were indeed spectacular views [pic, that's Mont Blanc seen from the door of our tent] and the restrooms were among the cleanest I'd seen in France (seriously, nicer than some restaurants).

It should go without saying, to people who know V., that she and Tater stayed home for this trip; no amount of campground amenities could convince her to go camping. "My people left China so they wouldn't have to sleep on the ground and cook over a fire," she says. (She's so cute when she talks about "her people", like she's not 100% assimiliated.)

We were assigned a pitch next to a French family with a camper that had an attached tent extension ("pavilion" might be a better word for it) complete with four-burner stove, chaise lounges and electric fans. As night fell, they settled in to watch a little TV. It was unclear whether they had Canal+ via satellite.

Chamonix' stature as a world center for alpinism was readily apparent on taking a look around at our neighbors at the campsite: Among the palatial tents and patio furniture arrayed by French families on vacation were small knots of $600 Mountain HardWear tents occupied by British, American, and Spanish climbers, identifiable by their extensive GoreTex and frequent blond dreadlocks. Himalayan prayer flags fluttering from guyropes testified to the residents' hardcore credentials. We were certainly out of place with my 80's-vintage backpacking gear.

The purpose for the whole trip, by the way, was the ascent of the Aiguille du Midi by cable car, then a hike along the Grand Balcon Nord, a very well-known trail that is just above the timber line but generally below the summer snow line, and hangs above Chamonix valley like the balcony its name implies. Pictures here are from that hike.

We had a typical Alpine lunch of bread, cheese and sausages on the shore of Lac Bleu, a small glacier-fed lake at the bottom of a scree slope. The water was utterly clear and incredibly cold [pic].

Remember how I said France is lacking in wildlife? This right here [the photo that looks like it's of a rock] is the first example of wild fauna I've seen in over a year's worth of being in France, unless you count the rats at the Perrache bus station. It's a marmot, kind of a high-altitude Alpine groundhog, and unofficial symbol of the Haute-Savoie-- later we bought a plush marmot (clutching an eidelweiss) at a Chamonix gift shop to bring home to Tater.

The Grand Balcon Nord trail, after traversing the Aiguille massif, ends at one of Europe's most famous glaciers, the Mer de Glace [pic]. It doesn't look all that impressive at first-- rather than a massive sea of ice, it looks more like an eight-lane interstate of ice. But take a closer look--see all that dirt on the sides? That's rock ground up by the glacier's passage that falls on top of the ice, covering the 100-foot depth of ice with a thin dirty layer, kind of like one of those ice cream cakes with crumbled-up Oreos on top.

The depth of the glacier is more apparent from the bottom of the valley: There's a short cablecar going down, and then by a long metal stairway (300 steps) one can go all the way to the depths of the glacier, where there is an ice grotto carved into the side of the glacier. Since the glacier moves about 30 meters a year on the sides (faster in "midstream"), they carve a new ice grotto each year, and a glance "downstream" reveals the entrances to the 2006 cave, the 2005 cave further down, etc.

The grotto itself isn't all that impressive in terms of the cave itself or the ice sculptures within, each backlit with an array of lights of slowly-changing colors [pic]. The fact of being within the glacier itself was more interesting to me, with the remarkable pure blue of the ice walls [pic, Boog in the grotto] and the sensation, buried at the back of the mind, that this whole thing is moving, albeit very slowly, and the irrational fear that there would be a horrific kerrrraack! and the whole thing would collapse.

The glacier can be reached from Chamonix by a rack-and-pinion mountain railway line, which loads of tourists use to visit the glacier in summer. This being France, there is also a restaurant and hotel at the upper rail station, with views over the glacier. So after coming down off the mountain, one can shrug off one's backpack and ropes in the lobby, clack across the marble floor in crampons, and prendre reservation for dinner, eightish, before taking a kir royale in the bar for apertif. Anything less would be uncivilized.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Git Off the Dang Roof!*

[You'll want to click these pictures to enlarge them. Totally worth it this time.]

At 13,000 feet, the sunlight is pure white, melting the very air, vaporizing the thin clouds. The snow fields and icefalls shimmer. I reach to put on my sunglasses, but they're already on. A group of climbers inch up the Glacier de Geant like a short column of ants.

The little thermometer on my backpack zipper pull registers 40 degrees F. It is mid-August atop the Aiguille du Midi, jagged neighbor to the taller, round-shouldered Mont Blanc, some two miles almost vertically above Chamonix.

To my left are the endless peaks of the Alps sweeping across Switzerland to Austria; back to my right, the green valleys of France's Haut-Savoie. Across that mountain there, Italy.

As recently as the eighteenth century, no one had even attempted to climb Mont-Blanc; it was believed that merely attaining this height would result in death via some sort of altitude-induced existence failure. Climbing a flight of steel steps to the observation platform, I'm inclined to see their reasoning--after that simple effort my head suddenly swims and I feel spacey, as if I'd just chugged Robitussin.

But things have changed a lot since the 18th century in these Alps, notably the construction in 1955 of the world's highest cable car. Anyone with about 30 euros and a decent head for heights can go from downtown Chamonix to one of the highest peaks in the Alps in about 30 (terrifying) minutes. For 30 more euros, one can keep going by cable car over the massive ice fields to Courmayeur, Italy.

"I think we should go back down now, Dada," Boog says quietly. While I've been snapping pictures he's been keeping a prudent distance from all of the railings. We're here on a side excursion from the day's activity, a lower-altitude hike across the Grand Balcon Nord to the Mer de Glace glacier.

A platoon of Gore-texed climbers clump by in crampons, bundling coils of rope, ice axes and various rattling climbing widgets and doohickeys. A heavy steel door posted with dire warnings in French, German and Italian leads to the outside, like a space station airlock.

There is a rack of postcards for sale here, and remarkably, a mailbox; cards dropped in here will be given a special postmark indicating their origin at Europe's highest boite postale. But I don't have a pen or my address book, and Boog tugs at my hand. He's ready to have our picnic lunch a few thousand feet below, where there is plenty of solid-looking ground, and where it is still summer.

[*of Europe, that is.]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Night at the Movies

It's movie night in Lyon. It's after 9:30 at night and you're walking down Rue Edouard Herriot in the 2nd, all the stores closed but the restaurants still full. You're tempted to stop in at the Grand Cafe des Negociants for a p'tit verre, but you're a little short on time.

Earlier in the week, you scanned Lyon Poche for films marked with "VO" next to the title--for version originale, meaning that the dialogue is in English (or German or Chinese or Hindi) with French subtitles, because concentrating on translating means you miss some of what's happening onscreen. Plus listening to French for two hours gives you a headache. Fortunately there are always plenty of films in VO, from Hollywood blockbusters to arthouse fare. You don't get to see many movies, what with the kids and all, and your babysitter having moved back to England, so you try to be a little selective.

You reach the theatre, which is easy to spot from down the street because of all the people hanging around outside. That's where the box office is, right out on the street, and besides, there's no lobby. Scanning the board, you ask if Boulevard de la Mort is indeed playing tonight, thinking to yourself how much more awesome that title is than its American one. You pass your EUR7.50 through the slot in the glass, take your ticket, and join the small crowd hanging around reading the movie reviews posted under glass in the hall.

At about 10, people start to wander inside. A kid dressed in jeans and t-shirt rips your ticket, says "C'est dans la salle en-bas," and nods toward a descending staircase.

You do not buy a 44-oz fountain cherry coke.
You do not buy a $6 bucket of popcorn with extra butter.
You do not buy a box of Jujubes.
You do not buy Rasinets.
You buy nothing, for there is nothing to buy. For there is no lobby.

Descending the stairs, you enter the screening room and take a seat in the fourth row of about ten. The theater seats are essentially like those in the US, except that the floor is flat rather than sloped, never mind stadium-style. You hope that no one tall sits in front of you. The room slowly fills, and people talk softly. You are pleased that there are no ads or insultingly inane trivia questions flashed on the screen. You look up at the arch-vaulted stone ceiling and estimate its construction as about 1700. The top of the screen has a notch in it to allow an arch to pass through. The theater's cellar location means that the room is cool and comfortable, which is a relief since there is no air conditioning.

The couple sitting next to you is discussing Kill Bill vol. 2, or perhaps recounting a particularly trying visit to the in-laws.

The lights dim and the film starts without fanfare. There are no trailers, no "Please refrain from smoking" (nobody is smoking, for the moment), no "Let's go out to the lobby" because, yeah, there isn't one.

For the first part of the film, you can't help instinctively reading the French subtitles. You are amused at the French translation of a typical piece of Tarantino dialogue: "M-----f----r, you best get yo' skinny white ass off that car!" becomes "One should not sit there!" Some strange quirk of a Hays-code-like rule means that French subtitlers do not translate profanity... no matter what kind of depravity is being shown on the screen.

You find that at times you are the only one laughing.
You wish you had smuggled in a drink. And some popcorn.

The film ends, and there is applause mixed with some what-the-hell-was-that laughter. You walk out to the street and slide behind the wheel of your twitch-perfect '71 Challenger R/T with the Magnum 440, Flowmasters and stripe-delete... well, actually, you just walk on home.