Learned the Hard Way

All things considered, phase one –the exploratory phase—of my itinerant retirement is going remarkably well. Which is not to say that there haven’t been some “oh shit” moments.  So a little advice for anyone contemplating a similar adventure:

1. If you take a bus to a small town out in the countryside, make sure you know where to catch the only bus back.

The ride to Le Vigan, a small town on the edge of the Cevennes mountains was lovely. The goat cheese festival that drew me there, not bad, and I had a pleasant afternoon in the leafy park on the edge of town. I sampled some cheeses, lunched on grilled lamb and fresh salad, and dozed in the dappled sunshine. Edith Piaf recordings over a PA system alternated with lively and entertaining performances by the local band, it’s members clad in a dozen different iterations of striped shirts, pants and hats.

The bus making the journey back to Montpellier was scheduled to leave at 4:55, and I was waiting for it 10 minutes early. I wasn’t too concerned when it wasn’t there at 5:00. But by 5;15, I was pretty sure something was wrong. Up till then, every bus I’d taken had been smack on time. So in my fractured French, I asked a passing couple if they knew if the bus was ever this late. No, they answered in English. But the bus had already left, from the main stop in the town center. It didn’t come up to the final stop in the park on festival days. Some 60 euros poorer, I left the next morning, having spent the night at a local hotel and eaten an overpriced veal ragout for dinner. Still there was one plus: My hotel room had a tub and I got a nice long bath that night.

2. Always arrive at a new apartment with a stack of tissues in your luggage—especially if you arrive late at night or on a Sunday, when stores are closed. Apparently, you can’t count on a supply of toilet paper.

3. Do not overestimate your ability to learn new skills at age 62. I figured “how hard could it be to ride a motor scooter?” I should have been tipped off by the three grinning Frenchmen watching me from across the street as I climbed on for the first time. They’d clearly seen this drama unfolding before. I managed to wave jauntily to them and successfully traveled about 50 meters before I had to turn a corner. Down she went. I wasn’t hurt, fortunately, merely stuck under the tipped-over scooter and trying hard not to look embarrassed.

The young man who bounded over to help me up and right the scooter didn’t speak English, but he was pretty clearly saying “I don’t think this is a good idea”. I managed in a combination of Franglais and pantomime to convey that I wanted to get the scooter over into a nearby parking lot, where I could practice a bit more before taking it on the road. Reluctantly he wheeled it over, while making me promise “just one more try.” It wasn’t enough. This time, when the scooter went over, the side mirror broke and I called it quits. But I got to ride back to the shop on the back of the scooter, holding on to a cute French guy!

4. Do not order something based on a picture in a menu. It sure looked like a nice grilled piece of fish—something like tuna or swordfish. It tasted like cardboard and had the texture of a rubber boot. Sepia a la Planche turns out to be grilled cuttlefish—aka a chunk of a big squid.  In fact, don’t eat at any restaurant that has pictures in its menus. It’s probably aimed at tourists who the proprietors figure wouldn’t know good food anyway and, in any case, won’t be back.

5. Ask which floor your AirBNB apartment is on. The first one –in Valencia—was four long flights up. It made me feel better about the volume of Spanish cheese and fresh bread I was eating, but reclimbing those stairs for a forgotten umbrella was torture. As for hauling 50 pound suitcases up and down? Oy. The second one, in Montpellier, was on the ground floor. Easy on the knees, not so good for letting in sunlight. And when the windows were open, you could reach out and pet any passing dogs (windows don’t have screens here.)

6.  If you park in a garage, have cash, even if the signs say they take credit cards.  Some of the self-pay kiosks don’t take credit or debit cards from outside the country you’re in. Note that French drivers are unbelievably impatient with anyone who holds up the exit lane figuring that out.

7. Watch out for those fruity wine drinks. The first time I ordered Aqua de Valencia, I thought it was a generous pitcher that I got, but what-the-heck, it ‘s just OJ with some cava (Spanish champagne) in it.  It wasn’t until I tried to stand up (and later looked at the bill I’d signed) that I realized it had clearly been aqua valenciameant for two people. And it wasn’t until a day or two later that I learned, no, it’s not just a bucket-sized Mimosa.  Aqua de Valencia packs a potent punch of gin and vodka as well as the cava.

As for Sangria: Well, we Americans tend to think of it as a fruity summer drink for lightweights..  Take some red wine, add lemonade or fruit juice or club soda and a bunch of cut-up citrus fruit and you’ve got a nice, mild, refreshing summer drink.  Not in Spain you don’t.  Sangria here is red wine mixed with cava and brandy, with fruit soaked in enough brandy to preserve it for years.  I had one; it was good. I had another and staggered out of the bar, forgetting to pay my bill.

8. Just let your hair grow.  Despite checking for recommendations online, casing various stylists’ shops to see if the customers walked out looking good and happy, and even stopping total strangers in the street to ask where they got that really nice haircut, I ended up with some of the worst cuts I’ve ever had.  In Malaga, the hair on one side of my head was a good 1/2 inch longer than on the other. And considering that the longest hair on my head was about 3 inches, it was quite a sight.

9. Watch where you step. Pooper-scoopers are apparently unheard of in many European cities. Ask me how I know.

10.  If an AirBNB is described as “right in the center of things”, keep looking. My Malaga apartment was on the first floor (that’s up one from the ground floor in Europe) facing into what looked like a quiet little square a few blocks from Plaza Constitution, the main gathering place in the old quarter.  Perfect, right?  Wrong. At around 9 that first night, the doors on what had looked like shuttered residences on the ground floor were thrown open. Scores of tables and chairs filled the plaza and people began to gather.  Hundreds of them  And the party went on till at least 5 AM every night of the week except Mondays for the entire month I was there.  No earplugs in the world could have deafened that noise of that crowd.

Malaga street bar

 

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The Teeth-Gnashing Frustration and Sly Charms of Sicilian Public Transportation

This week’s train trip from Siracusa to Taormina was easy and enjoyable. Catching the bus from Giardinii-Naxos was easy enough too. It took only three inquiries to figure out where to catch the bus and a helpful TripAdvisor expert had told me to get off at the penultimate stop to be closest to my hotel. Since I had no idea where any of the stops were, however, we whizzed right by it. Still — only a slightly longer walk. No big deal.

The return trip: Not so much.  I had a ticket on a train leaving the Giardini-Naxos train station at 5:53 PM. The receptionist at my hotel told me the buses left Taormina every quarter hour at that time of day and it was a 15 minute trip. So, I aimed for the 5 PM bus to be super safe; figured I’d actually catch the 5:15 PM; and still had the 5:30 to fall back on if something went wrong. I arrived at 5:05. There was a parking lot full of busses at the station, most of them dark with no destinations marked. And thus, my saga begins.

 I ask at the ticket booth in my half spoken/ half-pantomimed bastardized Italian-English. “Bus per estacion Giardini-Naxos, per favore?” The guys there point generally at the parked busses and say something in their own version of Italish that seems to mean “look for the sign on the bus”.

So, figuring maybe the correct bus hasn’t arrived yet or it’s one of these busses, but it isn’t marked yet. I watch for it, eagle-eyed, until 5:20. No Giardini-Naxos sign on any of the busses that leaves. Now I’m starting to get a little alarmed. So I try the ticket office again. This time, one guy points to his watch and says something that seems to indicate “next bus at 5:45”. Whoa. No 5:15 bus? No 5:30 bus? I’m going to miss my train. But I can’t seem to communicate that question; I just keep getting the next bus, 5:45 answer. So, I go approach two bus drivers standing chatting near their idling busses. One shrugs and walks away. The other, god bless him, smiles and says “Giardini-Naxo estacion? Si” and walks over to check with another driver. In a minute, he grins and indicates in his fractured Italish. “Now. This bus.”

So, I get on that bus and sure enough it hauls off in a few moments. I go along thinking “Great.  Plenty of these people are probably going to the rail station, and I know the trip is supposed to take about 15 minutes. I’m sitting anxiously watching the minutes tick down, figuring I need to be ready to run when the bus stops at the station. At just about 5:48, the bus pulls up to a stop. I double check with the driver: “Train station?” “No, no” he says pointing backwards. We’re well past the train station. I didn’t know I had to signal a stop and wouldn’t have recognized it till we were past it anyway.

OK. I guess I’m not taking that train. I get off the bus anyway, since I have no idea where it is headed now. Two kind strangers with good English help me figure out that in a few minutes another bus should come along that will possibly take me all the way to the Catania bus station. We know it goes to the airport and think it stops at the bus station first. I know from reading posts on TripAdvisor that if it does, I should be able to change at that station to another bus headed for Siracusa. And, I figure, the worst that will happen is I’ll end up at Fontanarossa airport, where I know I can get a bus to Siracusa.

So I wait and sure enough another Interbus bus comes along shortly. Who’s driving that bus? The kindly driver who helped me find the “right” bus in the parking lot. He looks flabbergasted when he sees me and is clearly asking me in the Italian I don’t speak “what happened? ” Then he laughs and answers his own question: “Disaster, si?”

In our mixed languages, we establish that yes he goes to the Catania bus station and will tell me when to get off. I need a new ticket, but he says get on. A stop or two later, he motions for me to get off the bus. I know I’m not in Catania, so I’m a bit concerned, but then I finally get that he wants me to buy a ticket at the kiosk there and get back on the bus. So I do, squinting my eyes at him and saying “Now you’re not going to leave without me, right?”. He laughs and says “No, no”, but then jokingly shuts the door on me as I try to reboard. We both laugh and the bus moves on. When we get to the Catania station, he tells me. OK, get off here and I do, thanking him profusely. A few minutes later, when he starts his return trip, he sees me standing on a nearby corner, hesitating to plunge into the three lanes of whizzing Italian traffic to get across the street to the other busses. In a last fillip of kindness, he pulls to a halt and motions for me to cross in front of him, waving and smiling.

Now I’ve got to figure out which of the dozens of busses is the one that goes to Siracusa and where I buy the ticket. I wander around the huge staging area and ask few times, before I am pointed to a little storefront with a blue Interbus sign that’s more than half hidden by some scaffolding and I recognize the blue busses across the street. Phew, this is going to be OK. I manage to buy the ticket and establish that the next bus is in an hour, at 8:30 and leaves from slot 7. “Dove?”, I ask. Where? He points vaguely across the street to the blue busses.

I wait in the air-conditioned station till 8:10, then head across the street. I find signs for slots 4, 5 and 6 with an unmarked additional slot next to them, before another bus company’s area starts. So this unmarked slot is number 7, right? I wait for the bus to arrive. I wait and I wait some more. At 8:30, I’m nervous when there’s still no bus. But I figure: This is Italy. It’s probably just late, right?

At 8:35, as I head back to the ticket office, the guy who sold me the ticket is lounging outside. He spies me and looks quizzically at me. I ask “Bus per Siracusa?” The guy shakes his head and gestures. It’s gone. I clearly look dismayed. Where was it, I ask? “Dove?” This time, he points down the street. Number 7 is apparently half way down the block rather than in the plaza with the other slots. I sigh. My fault. “Next bus?” I ask, hopefully. “Domani”. Uh-oh. I know that Italian word.

But, wait, there’s hope. I vaguely remember that there was a late night train from Catania to Siracusa. So, I head to the nearby train station. YES! On the departures screen, there’s a 9:30 train indicated. I go to buy a ticket. “Una per Siracusa, per favore”. The agent shakes his head and says “No train.” What? I point to the departures screen, “Siracusa?” Again, he shakes his head. “No train,” he repeats, then pausing, says “bus”. I try to explain: No, the bus station ticket agent says no more busses tonight. He clearly doesn’t understand and just keeps rather mournfully repeating, “No train. Bus.”

I go to the waiting area thinking. OK, so I’ll find a hotel. But I’m still puzzled about the train on the departures board. and I ask a woman waiting. “Train per Siracusa?”, pointing at the board. She nods yes and says in Italian 9:30. I try to explain that the ticket agent won’t sell me a ticket and says no train. Though she speaks no English, she understands that I’m in trouble, takes my arm and comes with me to the ticket office. Now there’s a new guy there. I ask, “Train per Siracusa, tonight?” He nods, yes, and points to the departures screen. Now I’m relieved but skeptical and look confused. He motions for me to wait and heads off to find someone else. The Italian woman and I figure he’s hunting for an English speaker. But he comes back and repeats the now familiar “no train, bus” refrain.  Mysteriously, however,  he motions that I should buy a ticket from the other agent anyway. So now I’m back to the first agent. I heave a big sigh and try him again. ” Una per Siracusa, per favore ” This time, he’s willing to take my money, and says simply “bus?” I think, what the hell: “Si, bus.” Then I remember I have a bus ticket. So I show it to him. He looks at it and tosses it back derisively, shaking his head and saying. ” no, no — bus ticket”. By now, I have no idea what’s going on, but I fork over another 6 euros for another ticket to Siracusa. (I’ve now paid for this trip 3 times) and silently issue a little prayer that somehow — bus, train or magic carpet — it will get me back to Siracusa before dawn.

He gives me the ticket and repeats 9:30. It’s now 9:00. I ask “Dove?” He points vaguely outside. I figure I’ve got 20 minutes to figure this last mystery out. I head outside to look around. But before I get far, a young woman with some English comes out of the station and says to me “Excuse me, Siracusa? ” Yes, yes, I think, I’m saved! In halting English, she indicates the ticket office guy inside. “He says that way ” and points to the right of the station. I’m about to head that way when the other more-helpful ticket guy comes out and guides me to a bus parked 50 meters away to the left . The bus is empty. It’s dark. But there is a driver lounging nearby. I say hopefully “Siracusa? “. He nods yes and I get on; I”m not letting this bus out of my sight till it takes off. Sure enough 30 minutes later it fills up, with all the passengers who have now arrived to take the apparently cancelled 9:30 train, and takes off. I now have only one last hurdle to overcome. This time, I sit directly behind the driver. Every time the bus stops I lean over and say “Siracusa?” and he shakes his head no, until finally at about 11;30, he grins and nods “Si, Siracusa.”

Tomorrow i head to Noto, then Modica and Ragusa — all by bus. I’m crossing my fingers.

How to Make A Sandwich, Sicilian Style

Not for nothing is Andrea Borderi called genius. Every day a small crowd gathers IMG_2815at his shop at the edge of the daily outdoor market in the old section of Siracusa, to watch him ply his trade. Over the course of a few hours, he’ll make perhaps a hundred sandwiches, each of them a work of art.

IMG_2914Like other artists, Borderi has complete creative license.  Customers don’t tell him what kind of sandwich they want. They simply tell him how many sandwiches they want and he takes it from there, drawing from his palette of meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments as the moment’s fancy takes him. But the basic format remains the same.

1. Slice a foot-long loaf of Italian bread and scoop out a bit of the middle to allow more room for the scrumptious fillings.
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2. Start with a layer of flavorful vegetables: Sun-dried tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, a bit of golden corn or perhaps a combination laid out in careful separate dollops along the bread.
3. Throw on a handful of greens–romaine, arugula, red leaf lettuce, etc.–along with some raddichio, all quickly and expertly chopped.
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4. Dice one ripe red plum tomato per sandwich and scoop it on. Now grate fresh parmesan directly on the growing mounds. To complete this layer: Give it a squirt of extra virgin olive oil and squeeze on the juice of a freshly cut lemon half.
5. Add a layer of creamy white, slightly salty fresh mozzarella. While you’re slicing it, be sure to cut some extra pieces, handing them out to the customers in line. After all, no one is complaining about the long waits and most turn down the offer to have a sandwich made more quickly by an assistant, preferring to watch the show and enjoy the genius’ work.
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6. Pare a few thickish slices from a bright yellow cheese and place them on top, along with  few black olives.  Be sure to give the olives a smack with the broad side of a knife and remove the pits first!  If so inclined, sprinkle on a few small slices of a mildly hot red pepper for some extra color and zing. At this point, too, you might add a slice or two of a pungent sausage–salami, pepperoni or the like.
7.  On a sheet of butcher’s paper, layer some slices of your chosen Italian cold cut–ham, mortadella, proscuitto or the like.  Place a row of thick chunks of thrice-baked, creamy  ricotta on top of it. Depending on your choice of meat, you might sprinkle on some fresh basil leaves or dust the meat with wild Sicilian oregano (accomplished by simply shaking a dried bouquet of it over the food). Maybe drizzle a bit of local honey on top.
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8. Now carefully use the paper to turn the meat and cheese into a neat roll. This is the point where the sandwich genius double checks his work, inhaling deeply, to ensure that the meat and cheese are seasoned correctly.
9. Plop the roll of meat and cheese on top of the already huge mound of goodies on the bread.  Top  it with the other half of the bread and carefully cut it in half, wrapping each half in butcher paper.
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Time required to prepare two Borderi sandwiches simultaneously: about six minutes, while maintaining  interaction with the customers throughout. Borderi asks them  where they’re from, periodically hugs and gives the Italian two-cheek kiss to old friends, and hams it up for photos. It’s a show that his audience delights in. (“Obama!” says Borderi to Americans, offering them a high-five and a wide grin.)

And the sandwiches?  They’re phenomenal, as well as a tremendous bargain: only €5 for one big enough to feed at least two people.

Dolce Far Niente in Sicily

Summer in Sicily reminds me powerfully of childhood. True, it’s a much more exotic setting than the small working class town I grew up in, and the thermometer indicates that it’s at least 10 to 15 degrees hotter most days than southern New England ever got. But there’s much that feels the same. The tempo of life, for instance.  The languor of Sicily in August feels a lot like I remember summers as a nine- or ten-year old: Waking late, with the sun already well up in the sky. Spending hours reading a book or just sitting idling, daydreaming. It’s what the Italians call dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing.

There’s a freeing carelessness that feels like childhood, too. Most days I don’t bother with make-up, just smearing on some sunscreen. And much as I did as a youngster living close to the waterfront, I often simply put on a swimsuit and a light cover-up first thing in the morning, because it’s cool and comfortable and I know that at some point before the sun sets, I’IMG_2240ll end up in the water. Those of you who know me well will recognize this as highly unusual behavior. I typically avoid occasions that require scanty clothing and don’t particularly like swimming either in pools or at beaches. But in Sicily it’s easy to leave behind the self-consciousness about dimply thighs, sagging boobs and ginormous butts. Women (and men) of all shapes, sizes and ages have no compunction about revealing far-from-perfect bodies—pasta-bellies and wrinkles be damned. (Of course, some of them do look pretty good!) I’ve even taken to wearing sleeveless tops in the only slightly cooler evenings, letting my usually camouflaged underams flap freely.

The neighborhood I grew up in was originally a summer community, made up mostly of small homes where families parked for the summer. As time passed, many of the homes were insulated and enlarged for year-round occupancy or new ones meant for that purpose were built. But there were still a number of summer-only residents when I was young; many of the neighbors had boats of one sort or another (I, in fact, had a canoe); and community life centered around the local beach.

IMG_2335In Syracuse, the homes aren’t wooden and are centuries older than the summer houses of Laurel Park, but they share a sort of casual summer shabbiness as well as the faint smell of mildew and damp, and typically inadequate, outdated and often jerry-rigged plumbing and electrical systems. And just as in my hometown, here wet swimsuits and threadbare towels hang outdoors on railings to dry; flip-flops are the footwear of choice for all ages; and meals are casual affairs, often eaten outdoors.

Although there’s no actual beach in Ortygia—the small island that is the antique and cultural heart of the working city of Syracuse—the sea is very much present. While three bridges connect one side of the island to the rest of Syracuse and a marina occupies another stretch, much of the island is surroundIMG_1625ed by a steep, fortress-like seawall, adding to the sense of Syracuse as a place  with a long history of cultures repeatedly clashing  and commingling. At one or two spots, long, steep staircases lead down to small sandy areas outside the seawall and a handful of tourists and locals spread their towels there to take in the sun and jump in the waves.

But I, along with most of the inhabitants, prefer the Solarium—a large wooden deck-like affair accessed by a metal stairway down an outcrop of boulders. Hovering over the water, it’s large enough for a couple dozen souls to spread their towels and bask in the sun until the heat drives them to IMG_2264jump off into the sea. An adjacent spit of boulders shelters those who prefer a more natural, if less comfortable, place to park their bottoms and a higher diving point for the more intrepid teens and tweens.

The water is clear and its temperature perfect—cool enough to refresh, warm enough not to chill. Some people swim vigorously or snorkel, but most, like me, simply float, bobbing up and down in the modest waves, grinning at the deep blue sky and endless sea ahead of them.

Is Madrid “The One”?

We’ve only been dating for a day or two, but I have a good feeling about this relationship. As a potential long-term match, Madrid ticks a lot of the boxes.

  1. Physical attractiveness. Madrid has that particular handsomeness of so many Spanish men, combining a dignified aging with youthful vigor. Stylewise, Madrid is pretty interesting, too. Like the Spanish policemen who role up their sleeves just-so, Madrid can be a bit fussy, what with the Baroque palaces and manicured formal gardens. But just as the policemen’s muscled physiques and hip beards bespeak their more macho selves, so do Madrid’s casual outdoor cafes and tapas bars, not to mention the bull ring.
  2. An interest in culture–ballet, symphony and opera, as well as Broadway style theater and flamenco. But Madrid’s no snob. Along with the St. Petersburg ballet performances this summer, there’s a showing of all the 007 James Bond films along with a special on the costumes and sets for the movies. And of course, Madrid has plenty to offer in the way of art, architecture and history, as well.
  3. An amiable disposition. Madrid’s friendly and open, and loves a good conversation.
  4. An intriguing history. I think I could spend years getting to know it all.
  5. A mutual interest in food and eating well.
  6. Imagination and a good sense of humor. How else could you explain all the giant winged creatures, horses and chariots atop the buildings?
  7. A nice ride. I’d never have to drive again. Madrid just takes the wheel and whisks you wherever you want to go via Metro or bus.
  8. Our communication is good, too. Between my rudimentary Spanish and Madrid’s cosmopolitan grasp of English, we’re getting along fine.

Of course, Madrid  can be quite moody—extremely hot and bothered sometimes and very chilly at others. That’s a red flag, but it’s too early to tell if the big swings will be more than I’m willing to tolerate.

I wish Madrid were more green, too. Big shady trees lining long pedestrian walkways and a giant urban park are all well and good. But that side of Madrid can be a bit of a hassle to access, if you’re not careful.

And, well, there are signs that Madrid may prove to be somewhat high maintenance. Other dates I’ve had in recent months have been the complete opposite: It would take so little to keep up a happy domicile that I could easily dally with other suitors, skipping off for long weekends regularly. I fear that won’t be the case with Madrid. I’m sure I wouldn’t be tethered to my kitchen stove, but I probably would have to trade off some freedom.

Of course, it’s early days, yet; I’m far from ready to make a commitment. At my age, you really need to date for quite a while before you’re ready to move in together. Baltimore taught me that. And playing the field for the past five months has made me cautious about love at first sight.  Uzés, France just looked so good at first glance, it was hard not to keep my heart from bounding out of my chest. But with a little more perspective now, I can see that a pretty face isn’t enough to keep me interested over the long haul. Like many charmers,  Uzés is just too shallow. Mirepoix, with it’s lovely medieval arcaded town square—never was more than a harmless flirtation. As for Montpellier—such a strong candidate on paper: I stuck the difficult relationship out for two months, struggling to give it a chance and appreciate the good in it. But, come on, a girl just shouldn’t have to work that hard.

When the right one comes along, there should be some magic, some fun involved. The fact is, I wasn’t planning to meet Madrid. Browsing the Internet sites for a good match, Madrid looked too hot, too cold, too big and too expensive, so I never even tried to arrange a date. I just wound up stopping by for a few days on my way to another engagement. And whether it works out between us in the end or not, I’m sure glad I did!

The 10 Best Things about Montpellier

  1. Passion-fruit sorbet shaped like a flower in an ice cream cone. Aside from how pretty it looks, it has a sweet-tart tang that makes the world seemIMG_2021 cropped like a happier place. And it reminds me of Hawaiian Punch, a favorite beverage when I was young.
  2. The English Book Shop on the Rue de la Bras Fer, crammed with English language books of all sorts and IMG_1991offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and assorted goodies. It’s also where a small mob of native English speakers and a polyglot mix of others eager to practice their English skills cram a downstairs room every Friday from 5 to 7 pm.
  3. The limestone paving in a small pocket of streets in the Ecusson—the old city. The Rue de l’ Ancien Courier and others nearby are narrow and twisty, IMG_0998filled with history and crammed with cute little boutiques. The Rue du Bras de Fer even has one of the few remaining original arches crossing the street, which is actually a series of wide shallow steps.
  4. Tuesday evening organ practice at St. Michel’s church just around the corner from my apartment.
  5. The colorful trams, with paint jobs designed by the likes of Christian La Croix. In fact, the public transit as a whole is pretty great. A 10-trip ticket for the tram costs 10€. IMG_1977Ditto, a 10-trip ticket for the regional bus system, which will get you the 20 minutes away to the Mediterranean beaches or 40 minutes to the gorges and mountains of the Cevennes.
  6. The Monoprix, where you can buy “une cannette du Coca Light” for  0€89. Plus, it’s actually cold and not just slightly chilled as most soft drinks in France and Germany are.
  7. The fedoras. Everyone–male or female, young or old—wears them.IMG_1979 cropped
  8. The trompe l’oeil buildings.  I had to go up to and touch this building before I understood that it really is just one big flat wall.IMG_1982
  9. A cold Monaco—a frothy pink concoction of beer, grenadine and either lemonade or lemon-lime soda. Probably too sweet for real beer dinkers’ taste,but surprisingly good on a hot afternoon.
  10. The quirky bicycle art scattered around the city. IMG_0953 I’ve spotted one emerging from a staircase, three whole bikes emerging from a wall two stories up and one with half the bike on one building and the other across the alley. I’ll bet there are lots more in the outer sections of the city.

Rocks and Trees, French Style

Can someone explain this to me?  I don’t get it.   This particular “objet” sits outside IMG_1708the St. August church  30 feet from my apartment in Montpellier. It looks like some kind of oversized, formless chia pet. Other larger versions of what I think might be viewed as some sort of living sculpture are sprinkled around the city. In the garden opposite the Gare St. Roch rail station, a large boulder sits in the middle of a fountain. Water seeps down the sides of the boulder and plants of varioIMG_0962us types sprinkle it with green. There’s a scrawny wildflower here and there, and what looks like some form of lichen creeping over and into some of the crags. At the PrIMG_1263omenade du Peyrou, there’s another such boulder–this one with a small tree growing out of it–in the middle of a reflecting pool.  A third boulder sits in a plaza fountain surrounded by outdoor cafés.

IMG_1515 One of the city’s largest and most famous public statues—the The Three Graces, sitting in the middle of the city’s Place du Comedie—incorporates a mound of natural rock, adorned both with chubby  cherubs and scraggly plants. It’s unclear to me if the cherubs were carved from the rock or were somehow cemented into place. Either way, the juxtaposition of the formal statuary and the rough rock is, to my eye, at least, weird.

Equally strange is the French predilection for sculpting trees into unnatural forms. I’m not against pruning or shaping trees in principle. Sometimes there’s a very good reason for it. Fruit trees, for example, are often espaliered—a French word (just saying). They’re rigorously pruned and trained to grow flat against a fence or trellis. Ditto, a variety of flowering trees.  In the first case, the treatment makes it easier to pick the fruit and in the second, makes a pretty spectacular privacy barrier around a courtyard or patio.

A bit of judicious pruning can enhance IMG_1897a tree’s natural shape, too. These beauties–called plantanes in France and Germany and plane trees in Britain–often line a town square or the drive to a stately home. In fact, they often line streets–most often main arteries leading into country towns but sometimes what seem to be just random bits of road. They’re closely related to what we call sycamores in the U.S., and, well pruned,  they form a beautiful high canopy. So why prune them to look like giant candelabras? They look strange and unnatural even when they’ve leafed out fully. When they’re bare, they’re ugly graceless things.

Still that’s mild compared to the trees that have been pollarded–at least, I think pollarding is what is being attempted. When you pollard animals—deer, cattle, sheep, for example—you cut off their horns or antlers. (Language digression here: A polled breed, such as polled Hereford cattle, is one which has been developed from a natural genetic mutation causing it to be hornless.) But when you pollard  a tree, you don’t just lop off a limb or two. You shear every limb off every year, causing the tree to form large bulbous knobs.

It’s thought that the practice of pollarding trees arose in the Middle Ages so that the new growth would ensure an adequate annual supply of kindling. That’s no longer the case, of course, so pollarding is done for purely aesthetic reasons. Aesthetic reasonIMG_1890s? The result is a tree that at its best—for a few months in summer—looks like a ridiculous beach umbrella with a supersized center pole. At its worst—which is for the remaining two-thirds of the year—it looks like an arthritic troll: gnarled, knobby and disproportionate, with a trunk far too thick for its height.

Some poor trees are truly tortured. The tops are simply lopped off, along with all of their limbs in spring to keep them from growing taller or wider or–evenly.  Some, for example, find themselves shaped  like lantern arms or street light poles, with a single horizontal limb.

Other IMG_1283trees are simply sheared into conformity. We’ve all seen squared-off hedges. But full-grown trees?  How do they even do that? I doubt I could make such a level cut on two-foot wide privet hedge.  How do they evenly shear off a 30-foot wide, 40-foot high tree canopy?

And why do it, anyway?   It’s not as if this public park is an immaculately kept formal garden. It’s pretty much a IMG_1284big  litter-strewn gravel square, though it does lead up to the rather lovely classical Chateau D’Eau, which, coincidentally, sits on its own hunk of natural rock in a reflecting pool.  At least in this case, though, the natural rock base is strewn with flowering plants. Incongruous perhaps, but pretty