Les Eyzies (Dordogne)
Sometimes I’m so busy suffering from the cold — did I mention that since August I’ve been living in a magnificent setting, 100 meters from the river, looking up at limestone/tree-topped mountains dotted with pre-historic caves? — that it’s hard for me to profit from experiences I’ll probably never have the chance to live again. This morning, as I was bringing the green pastis Duval water pitcher out to the terrasse on which I’d decided to lunch (after the morning fog clears and before the afternoon fog sets in, there’s actually strong Sun out there), I saw a little dog circling the clump of brush halfway between me and the river, it’s tail stump vigorously wagging. He was apparently following the back and forth of a creature within, or perhaps containing him until Master arrived. Which he did, rifle balanced loosely on his shoulder, making a slower tour. The farmer across the road was also watching. I went back in to boil the potatoes and endive over which I was going to dump the part of last night’s fondue Savoyard that congealed for my lunch when I heard, yes, the crackle and then the shot. I scurried outside in time to see the middle-aged hunter bend over and pick up something that could have been a ferret, judging from its long body and head. I watched him, silent staring countryman style, as he marched up to the road at a patient pace, the downed animal appearing to be maybe a duck with a glossy black head. We eventually said bonjour, I continued to watch and he asked me, “Would you like to eat gibier today? I give it to you. ” Perhaps it was a courtesy as he’d caught the bird on ‘my’ property. “No merci,” I said with evident amusement. “Mais merci dans tout cas.” I’d actually been dreaming of eating chicken, but I had no idea how I’d remove the feathers and otherwise make the bird ready. The man lowered his head as if to say, your loss, and as he retreated across the road and into the pasture on the other side, right below the train tracks, I realized I could simply propose to the farmer, who keeps chickens, that he remove the feathers and that we then share the bird. So I threw my shoes on, and a jacket, and ran down the road but he was no longer in view. So instead, it’ll be my mashed potatoes and endives mixed with day-old congealed fondue for lunch today.
Well, not Paris, actually; Montreuil, last stop on the Metro 9, which has the best Christmas decorations I’ve seen in France this season, and I’ve seen France this season, from Les Eyzies to Perigueux to Montpellier to Sete to Marseille to Paris. The uniting theme seems to be green, wreaths with spare accessories, although the classic colored lights seems to be holding too, especially outside city halls, like that here, where my pal Sandrine (not her real name) is putting up with me. And actually this may not be accidental, at least in Paris, where the Socialist Ayatollah who runs the place as mayor put out an edict that the power of Christmas lights had to be reduced 60 percent. My favorite though remains the petite tree on the counter of La Rimauderie which I can never spell right, which usually stays on the counter well into February so that joking-in-French limited wags like me can say, “Toujours Noel!” Today I just straggled the counter ignoring patron Martine’s (real name) extended hands in favor of kisses. Then after a glance up the rue des Martyrs (green plus disco balls, not as tacky as it sounds), down to the Boulevard, the Boulevards, Montand’s Boulevards — ‘so many things to see’ — via the arcades or passages. I stopped at the music boxes with the idea of getting one for Sandrine to make up for the betise I committed last night but nothing seemed appropriate: “Let it Be,” which would imply that I was saying she should just “Let it Be,” flippant self-serving advice in this context, “Sous le ciel de Paris,” which was more about my adventures than her. “La Vie in Rose” was tempting — the worse stereotype to get a French person on the one hand, but the lyrics seemed appropriate to the situation. I finally decided on “Les amoureux des bancs public” by Georges Brassens because played at a certain tempo it took on a tragic air, but changed my mind when the young vendeuse wouldn’t get off the phone to help me…. Not the only of my interactions which had an unexpected twist today. At the cheese boutique, en route to the Seine, I told the man of the couple who runs it that I’d moved to the Dordogne, where the problem was that every other cheese but chevre, i.e. those made locally, cost 40 Euros a kilo.”N’importe quoi,” said he, “Our most expensive is this one, 21, or this tomme chevre from Haute Savoie, also 21, would you like to try it, I’ll include the etiquete (label, with green mountains and grazing chevres) you can by just a quarter. It wasn’t outstanding, I preferred the almost at its eat before day camembert soaked in calva that probably made me too sick to see the Rosas concert and Sandrine mad at me for insisting we turn back, but then I remembered that tommes have penicillin in the rind and so even if it the taste wasn’t outstanding it would disinfect my taster, i.e. my tongue, which has been piqued non-stop by the tooth that lost a chip off its shoulder a couple of days ago. I have to go now; I decided not to try to get tix to the concert tonight so I could be here when Sandrine gets back and help her unload her props from the clown party.
As I hinted at in entry numero uno, my own personal traumas — I’m just too close to it — as well as the fact that my day job is writing have are the main reasons it’s taken me seven years to get to a place where I *think* I’m able to record my observations in a readable result. However, certain vignettes from that time have stuck with me; this is one.
There’s another perspective on France’s social welfare system: The high tax rate that pays for it. Business owners can pay 60 percent of their income in impots. My lighting guy says it’s cheaper for him to go on vacation than to work. My news/magazine boutique guy, the one who closed his shop, blamed the functionaires to whom much of his taxes go. In the last presidential election, the Socialist candidate, with her vigorous defense of the functionaires, didn’t get this; the right-wing candidate got it enough to present illusory solutions. But only François Bayrou — whose approach of simply taking the best ideas regardless of ideology was misunderstood by the cleavage-accustomed French as ‘flou’ or mushy — got it enough to propose some practical solutions, including a Small Business Administration on the American model.
But back to the donuts: So last year around this time my friend the barista at Le Valmy, my cafe d’habitude on the Canal, pulled out some notebooks and pens she’d gotten for cheap at a magazine store on the other side of the Canal which was going out of business. I dashed over there, scoring some notebooks and a DVD of the first Star Trek episodes. The proprietor was telling a commiserating client that she was closing because she was paying most of her income in taxes and just couldn’t make a living. So she was moving to the United States, where a friend had offered her a job making donuts…in Texas… Lubbock, Texas.
“…” because one of the first things to bite the dust — or mordu le poussiere as the French say — in Internet communications was Irony, so I can’t actually headline this item “a Nation of B******s” even if I don’t mean it pejoratively. Au contraire! I love that in what is in many ways a Nation of Catholics, the big news in the latest census study here is that last year, for the first time, more children were born out of wedlock than in it. I’ve never met a country that is so conformist and at the same time its antithesis. And just when you think you understand the distinctions — conservative in family structure, radical in political variety for instance — they do something that confounds your theory.
In the wake of the Clinton comeback in New Hampshire, the European papers were glowing, according to France Culture, over the American example of Democracy as something Europe would do well to emulate. I think a bilateral perspective is in order.
In the last presidential election here, there were 12 candidates from 12 parties. Each was accorded a set period of television time — about an hour I believe — to be allayed as they saw fit. In the many corners around the country where they were displayed, each candidate had a metal placard on which to share its message. In other words, imagine a U.S. election where the Socialist Worker’s Party got equal time to the Dems and Repubs and you get the idea. (My favorite party, if not candidate: The party of Hunting, Fishing, and Nature.)
In the States, by contrast, NBC has just told Representative Dennis Kucinich — the most pro-peace Democratic candidate — he can’t participate in the next debate. And two candidates who at least have good ideas that should be listened to, Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd, as well as the only Latino candidate, Bill Richardson, have dropped out of the race because of the results in two of our smallest states — thus essentially depriving the rest of the 48 states of a voice on their candidacies — and ideas.
Democracy in action!
Cited by the French secretary of state for the ecology on France Culture this morning as one of the challenges we face.
That was Jacques Prévert on “The Attic of Memory” today on France Music — it all sounds better in the original, Prévert’s cadenced reading, “Musique est le soleil du silence,” on the show “Le grenier du memoir,” which starts with the ticking of an ancient clock and a faraway voice over crackling air-waves taking us back.
As I expected, the Colombian ‘rebels’ FARC’s release of two political hostages — one of them the right arm of Ingrid Betancourt, kidnapped because she refused to leave Ingrid when the FARC thugs kidnapped her — banner news all over Europe earlier this week, was relegated to ‘also in the news’ by the NY Times. Why? Because the hero of the day, the man who orchestrated the release, was Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez — anti-hero to Bush and thus the New York Times, which, never-changing, inevitably takes the establishment line.
Yeah (Ouais), mes proches (close friends — the rare case where the version français is shorter) have been telling me I should blog this or better book this but the level of misery has been so jaundiced I can’t cut the vein in my usual humour. When it was just the tarantula-sized spiders — no doubt looking more ominous set off against the stones in the walls of this 300-year-old stone house in the Valley of the Dordogne in the Capital of pre-history in Southwest France — I could see the hilaritiy in my sleeping with the lights on and a blindfold over my eyes so they wouldn’t come out. And I guess there’s some slapstick humor in the explanation of how I broke the plastic deck table — by standing on it so that I could lodge the deck parasol in the brown trelisse so it would cast a shadow over the window and discourage the yellow-tailed flies from infiltrating the house. But the physical challenges? One of my two remaining cats dying? (Not because of the place — Hopey loved it here ((except for the time when the huge black horse chased her)) ) And then there’s the psycho-social aspect which I just deleted from this entry. How about focusing on the culture and political mix and the mix of culture and politics? I’ve been here long enough that this is not going to be your “Isn’t France cute?” or “How about those wacky Frenchies?” or “My new country is perfect, my old country sucks” story. Maybe it will just reflect my observatory powers as a foreign correspondent of thirty years standing, a world citizen of three great cities (San Francisco, New York, and Paris) and some esoteric locales (Anchorage, Princeton, Stonington, Ct., Plainsboro, N.J., Les Eyzies, the capital of pre-history in Southwest France) in two great countries. My hope is that whether you’re a Francofile on that side of the Ocean, a Yankofile on this side, or a resident of either country looking for an outside perspective — whoops, there go the lights.