Thursday, February 28, 2008


Marseilles, the oldest and second largest of French cities is often referred to as a French Naples. One industrious German guidebook even goes so far as to call in the Chicago of the Mediterranean, which is getting there except that Chicago only wishes it could be half as crazy as Marseilles. The Ancient Greeks founded the city of Marseilles and used it as one of their principle trade ports to the riches of North Africa. It has subsequently morphed into a crusader capital and finally, one of the focal points of Byzantium before modernity yielded the traditional maritime empire null. Marseilles is filthy, colorful and fantastic. Its is well over half made up of immigrants, mostly from Italy, Greece, Spain, The Middle East and North Africa. People tend to have about them that Southern olive complexion that comes from spending the year working in the sun. Dark features and complexions. The women have about them the sense that they used to look stunning before befouling their looks with pack-a-day smoking habits that leave them looking ravaged. The city literally sweats the smell of seawater and anise.

The fist thing you notice about Marseilles are the colors. While France as a whole presents itself in shades of grey and black, Marseilles is a flash of yellows, reds and blues. Europeans, especially Northern Europeans love to go on about “the mentality of the south”, which one must admit, has been useful in explaining some of the personality quirks of certain Spaniards that I’ve known, and this is clearly on display in Marseilles. With this though comes a certain grittiness – its very much like its portrayal in the French connection. I spent a couple of hours in a bar watching Italian football with some of the locals, not one of them who had French as a first language, which in many ways made me fit in better, except the local pidgin of Arabic, French and Italian is so much more complicated than French that you have to be from Marseilles to speak it.

As an avid people watcher, Marseilles proved to be almost too much. The denizens of Marseilles are not necessarily attractive, but they are distinctive and that is worth far more. Marseilles even has its own fashion sense – either athletic jackets and leather or expensive, though highly baggy suits with ornate vests and occasionally, fez’s. The town as a whole has its own flavor. Like Chicago it is enormous and sprawling, however, like San Francisco, its growth is controlled by geographical constraints, with the sea on one side and mountains on the other. Mediterranean societies all seem to have their particular quirks. Looking out at the sea, you can’t help but think of the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Greeks and the other great Mediterranean Empires. I’ve been hungrily devouring Herodotus in the hours since I’ve been back, looking for something I’m not quite sure of.

I came to Marseilles only after a winding road trip through the south of France, lateral movement from one provincial tourist trap to the next. The town of Aigues-Mortes is nice and all, and very interestingly contained within a 13th century castle that looks like a leftover from the battle of Agincourt, but its name, more or less speaks for the town, which is, after 8:30, decidedly post-mortem. We also passed through what felt like half a dozen other Mediterranean tourist towns, none quite as decadent as, say, Cannes, but all of which lacked that particular lunacy that makes Cannes appealing in the first place. The beech was of course nice, but I couldn't help but shake that feeling of artificiality that one gets from those types of places. The French then do plastic resort towns almost as well as Americans then, they just haven't quite discovered, or are blissfully culturally incapable of comprehending, the marketing mechanisms that make American tourist destinations so lifeless. It gives one hope that perhaps, the American cultural empire, for what it is, has yet to become all pervasive.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Local Knowledge

The Mediterranean Winter has finally shown its true colors. Rain and ennui has descended upon Montpellier, but, I am told, it will soon pass. Gloom then seems to be the norm for the moment at least, but then again, I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest long enough that there is nothing shocking here.

Local knowledge proves itself again and again to be invaluable. The problem with localized knowledge is that it must be earned, and usually through, to be charitable, painful “character building” processes. On the other hand, being an American in Europe does have in advantages. Europeans set the bar very low for the American intellect or ability to grasp much of anything and as a result, any display of knowledge or of being cultured is met with amazement. Such was the case with a particular Magyar who I managed to, gain the affections of through a working knowledge of classical music. She repeatedly stated how shocked she was not only that I had heard of Debussy, Ravel, Lssizt and Bartok, but that I could name pieces of music by them, and even, through use of computer, play them. And so I had found a gimmick.

Having a “gimmick” is very important sometimes. When one is, to coin a politically salient/correct term, “aesthetically disabled” – and I have been told that I have a good face for radio – one is driven towards some form of compensation. I have always relied on the verbal, if only because I find it hard to shut up sometimes, but in France, where my grasp of the French lexicon is not all that it could be, and as I have documented previously, I have had to find new, and far less verbose means of expression. This realization came to me after seeing borrowed bits of Blake, Colleridge, Wilde, and even Verlaine (in the original French no less,) crash to pieces on the shores of (mis?)translation and cultural impropriety. The local knowledge: the information of societal norms and cultural references that in many ways defines a society, is not mine. Here though, I had found a point on continuity with an intelligent and lovely European that did not center around an American pop-culture that I have never quite understood.

We decided that it would be one of those nice George Elliot novel type flings - the kind where everyone has a nice time; everyone learns a little something about themselves and leaves (and indeed there was a pre-existing time table do to the departure of my partner in fling’s impending return to Hungary). This of course, as always, gives way to the more Henry Miller type fling, which tends to end in ennui and dissatisfaction, but really, one must take ones “adventures” from time to time. The Victorians were all a band of sexually repressed prudes anyways. With the aid of a pocket dictionary I started trying to fall back on more flowery language, but without local knowledge this proved to be my undoing. As those that know me well know, I have a certain interest and tendency to comment on, interesting noses - especially of the Eastern European variety. This has resulted in a purely superficial admiration for the (familial Hungarian) Sarkozy government in France. The nose makes the state, but I digress. In an effort to convey this particular aesthetic quirk of mine, and in the hope of coming off as cute, I told the girl that I quite fancied her nose, using the French verb “envie” which my pocket dictionary assured me was both appropriate and safe. What those charlatans at Larousse failed to share with me was that the verb "envie" is used far more commonly as a euphemism for something far more "rigorous". This compounded with my correct translation of the part about the nose and you get the picture.

So while George Elliot giving way to Henry Miller seemed like a logical bit of continuity, the push to the literary world of the Marquis De Sade, and nostril penetration, proved to be too much. Unsurprisingly, certain forgotten “errands” were quickly remembered and I was left wondering, until a French friend clarified matters for me later that evening, what was so offensive about talking about a nose. I suppose the look of shock and horror should have been the tip off that my translation had gone a bit off, but I thought she was just touchy about her nose. Of course I tried to explain the mix up later, but when you need to explain later, it usually isn’t a good sign. And by then, in her mind, the possibility of culturally enlightened Americans had been forever muddied with grotesque, though unintended, sexual deviance.

Local knowledge earned. I am wizened and certainly not bitter – and who can be bitter when the error in question is that funny? Not quite my finest linguistic moment, but it solves any future problem of entanglement. And sometimes, it is better to simply be happy when it rains.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Little Drop of Crimson

I’m staring at the single drop of blood on my lapel. It is a scarlet thing that won’t seem to come out no matter how much I rub at it. My hand shakes a little. I apply a little more club soda and salt and the lapel finally comes clean. I take a breath and turn back to nursing my beer, now with both hands.

Three hours ago I’m walking down one of the main drags in Montpellier. Its one of those beautiful Mediterranean afternoons where the sun distributes its life giving rays sparingly. I’ve just finished some quick grocery shopping and I’m looking for a café where I can tuck into my paperback and maybe have an espresso. A man just ahead of me, in full motorcycle regalia guns the engine of his 250cc Yamaha and peals into the narrow street. He doesn’t see the car and the car doesn’t seem him. They collide with a sickening thud sending the rider flying down the road as the bike slides into the curb. In the moment he is airborne, it is a if time has stopped. I stand open mouthed, seeing the inevitable. Grim determinism rears its head. Some primal instinct tells the man to tuck. Brace for impact. He tries to coil up, but not quickly enough. He hits the ground with a wet smack, bouncing and skidding before coming to a stop.

Me and a shopkeeper - out for a smoke - are on him in seconds. The legs sit at right angles, splayed apart in ways they shouldn’t be. He’s still conscious but in shock, hasn’t realized what has happened yet. He has searing blue eyes buried in the recesses of his helmet. They look at us pleadingly. I am going to see those in my dreams for months I can’t help but think. Finally he moves an arm, but barely, meekly. He is starting to feel the gravity of what happened. I tell him not to try to move, but now he is struggling to pull off his backpack, which has been twisted onto his front and the straps of which seem to be cutting into his side. We try to hold him down, but he is fighting at it, and we are worried that we are only going to hurt him more by restraining him. His legs don’t move. The shopkeeper and I look at each other then try to help him get the pack off. I reach for a plastic clasp and undo it, while the shopkeeper whips out a knife and cuts one of the straps. We very slowly and carefully remove the thing. A crowd has surrounded us now; a sea of cellular phones and French voices floods my periphery. The driver is out of the car too, panicking, crying, crying, and shouting at everyone. Grief and shock spilling from him in a flood of emotion. Someone from the crowd tries to calm him down, keep him away. Some semblance of sanity and control seems to have been restored. Then the blood begins to bubble up. Christ, there is a lot of it. It has its own smell, salty and sanguine. The shopkeeper, who I later learn is named Francois, rips off his belt and a woman from the crowd hands me a scarf. We pull it tight around where the blood is bubbling from, hoping that the paramedics will be here soon and that we haven’t made things worse. The blood flow seems to slow. Still the legs don’t flinch. Now he is clawing at himself again, looking for something. He is incoherent, sputtering requests, commands, prayers, while the blue eyes continue to cut into me. He continues to search himself with broken hands as we continue to push down to keep pressure on the wound. Finally he pulls loose, with twisted fingers, a cellular phone from a pocket and half says something about needing to call his wife. I help him manipulate the buttons, and then help him hold the thing up against the helmet. He coughs into the phone for a bit, half formed words fueled by adrenaline and delirium, and then the hand suddenly loosens its grip on the phone. He closes his eyes for the first time. This worries me and I try to talk to him. His eyes flutter open again. He emits a low grown that sounds like nothing I have ever head before.

Finally, after what feels like hours, I hear the wail of sirens and we are bathed in flashes of red light. The crowd parts ways like the Red Sea before Moses and the emergency technicians followed by the police step through. One of the three EMT techs looks at us, then the tourniquet, gives us a nod of approval, a pat on the shoulder and takes over for me holding the wound. The other two unroll a gold foil blanket. They manage to move the downed rider into the ambulance in a matter of minutes, and are gone, careening down the boulevard. I never did get the rider’s name. The next twenty minutes are a daze. It is as though I am watching myself. I am talking to the police in my broken French, hoping for semi-coherence. The driver is finally calm, he gets the name of the hospital where the man is being taken and gives his statement to the police. The crowd begins to disperse. I look at my hands for the first time. They are stained crimson, but there is none on my clothes except for the drop on my coat. Once things have dispersed, the shopkeeper shows me into his shop and we clean up in the sink in the back, saying nothing to each other. After this we step outside again. The shopkeeper and I shake hands and exchange names. “Bonne chance.” He says to me. He is one of those tall, thin stoic types, but I notice his hands shake, just a little, as he lights a cigarette. “Bonne chance.” I reply as we part ways. It seems to be the only thing appropriate to say. And we both mean it.

It is the randomness of violence that seems to be the most striking thing about it. Violence is dehumanizing. It reduces to pulp and artifice what was once living breathing organism – reducing life to little more than a waste product. Violence comes suddenly and horribly, doing its damage. It is that randomness; that chaos of action that gives it much of its power. I remember reading accounts of Beirut during the civil war in which regular violence - bombings, gunfights and destruction - became so commonplace that people began to fail to react to it. It becomes unreal, or simply part of the scenery. Here though, violence remains very real. It is the suddenness of it that shakes you more than anything. The things that pass through ones mind, in those moments of horror as the damage in done, and in the immediate aftermath, that are telling. Violence hammers home ones values. Violence is the great equalizer; which makes it all the more terrifying.

I take a pull from my beer, exhale, and think: I’m glad to be alive.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Vampire for the Lord

France is a country that possesses in its character a certain sense of beaten back Catholicism. The French remain latently Catholic. This manifests itself in an Evelyn Waugh-esque studied conservatism of person that gives way to hedonistic impulses born from prolonged self-repression. With the high secularism apparent in the modern French societal idiom, this poses an interesting dichotomy. As for myself, while I personally want as little to do with Catholicism as possible, I must admit, I have, how shall I say this, never missed an opportunity to “take communion”. It is a culture then that loves to imbibe the blood of Christ, even if it agrees with me that perhaps the body tastes better with a bit of Roquefort. I am then a quite proper vampire for the Lord. A positively liturgical drinker if you will; albeit one who delights in the more macabre side of Catholic literalism.

Which is entertainingly where my prior knowledge of Montpellier came from before living here. Certainly, I’ve visited France before but I’ve never been this far south. The Montpellier regional wines however, are noted by Thucydides (though sadly not Herodotus, who remains the favored Greek historian). These wines may have slid some since then, many holding a slight metallic bite that is not necessarily bad with food, but which seems to be the impact of the international decision in recent years to ratchet up alcohol contents of wine, which in my mind has damaged the flavors. But I digress. The Greeks clearly knew something of Montpellier as they left their share of borderline creepy artifacts to be restored and considered by the population of the city in the years that followed. For example:

I think that I am also beginning to feel a certain dislocation vis-à-vis the English language. While it is easy enough to speak English in France, vocabulary limits dictate that certain things can simply not be discussed; as I also lack the French vocabulary to breech certain subjects. It is interesting to feel ones linguistic capabilities slowly drift away, to be mangled on the shore of platitudes. It genuinely pays here to be demure, coy even. The French, deep in their Catholic recovery are reserved, and often plane spoken. The hedonism only boils to the surface at certain carefully considered moments.

I spent last Saturday in the Pyrenees, two hours to the northeast of Montpellier. The snow stood in marked contrast to the Mediterranean. Again, blood of Christ for breakfast makes a bountiful if slightly disorienting morning. I have every intention of attributing this to the ‘religious fervor’ induced by early morning consumption of the bodily fluids of the heavenly host rather than its alcoholic content. It is clear to me that we need reclassify wine as food, leaving the ostentatious and often time unfair characterization of ‘booze’ to the harder stuff. We, (my party and myself and not to be confused with the royal we) of course moved on to the harder stuff as we charged down the side of hills in uncontrollable sledges, often colliding with the mountainside, trees, and I hope not small animals. The snow was nice, playing out a blanket of the virginal that we insured was soon to be irreversibly defiled. Following this was a long, semi conscious bus ride home and a celebration of such indisputable gusto that it was days before I was able to declare myself free of hangover.

I’ve also managed to abandon my recently acquired habit of smoking; in the midst of a city-wide Mardi Gras celebration no less. As a result, my body is deep in a nicotine crisis. My newly carcinogen starved lungs can’t decide whether to thank me or simply play dead. This weekend, I finally see the Mediterranean, which is some consolation.