- 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 seem like a happier place. And it reminds me of Hawaiian Punch, a favorite beverage when I was young.
- The English Book Shop on the Rue de la Bras Fer, crammed with English language books of all sorts and offering 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.
- 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, filled 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.
- Tuesday evening organ practice at St. Michel’s church just around the corner from my apartment.
- 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€. Ditto, 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.
- 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.
- The fedoras. Everyone–male or female, young or old—wears them.
- 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.
- 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.
- The quirky bicycle art scattered around the city. 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 the 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 various 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 Promenade 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.
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 a 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 reasons? 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 trees 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 big 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
Montpellier: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
After nearly four weeks here, it’s time to admit it. I don’t particularly care for Montpellier. I don’t wake up with a smile, eager for some new adventure every day the way I did in Valencia. Somedays I haven’t really wanted to get up at all.
Perhaps it’s the mostly cloudy weather. Or that this apartment is depressing. With its ancient ceiling beams, marble fireplace surround, monogrammed linen lamp shade and antique prints on the wall, it looked so charmingly French in the online listing. And it is in many ways a very typical old French city apartment: small, dark and smelling slightly of damp and mildew. What else would you expect from a building several centuries old with stone walls nearly a meter thick?
I knew the apartment was small—45 square meters (about 480 square feet) when I rented it. What I hadn’t realized is that there would be about 18 inches of space between the bed and the closet wall. And that only about half of the reasonably sized shower cubicle shown in the pictures is usable space. If you fail to draw the shower curtain which divides it in half or turn the shower on full blast, you turn the entire bathroom into a wading pool. And because it also has a nicely inclined floor, the deep end is near the door. Ask me how I know.
There are two nice-sized windows, which might, in theory, let in some reasonable sunlight. But the apartment is on the ground floor (admittedly a relief after schlepping up four flights of stairs in Valencia). So opening the curtains means you can easily carry on a quiet conversation with the folks sitting at the café no more than 8 feet away, across the narrow street. In fact, the squeal made when you open the window shutters usually prompts most of the café’s patrons to turn and look. They nod hello and smile, and I adopt a rueful grimace and shrug an apology for the noise. At night, one draws closed the heavy wooden shutters and it’s pitch black inside the apartment. In fact, it’s still pitch black at midday the next day. If it weren’t for calls of nature, I might sleep right through from one evening to the next.
Though the apartment offers some theoretically nice modern conveniences, I am somewhat puzzled as to their operation and/or usefulness. The small bathroom, for example, has a large electric towel warmer rack. But getting up two hours before your morning shower to give it enough time to warm up rather dims the appeal of using it. Also, it’s located right next to the narrow 18-inch-wide opening to the shower, so I’ve got scorch marks on my arms from squeezing by.
And you’d think the combination washer/dryer would be a great convenience. But after two hours of drying time, a small load of laundry is still very damp and requires hanging it on a rack in the kitchen overnight to reach a wearably dry state. (No lovely Spanish sun beating down on a window clothes line here.) The stainless steel hood over the ceramic range looks great, but the fan doesn’t seem to be connected to any exhaust vent. Glad I’m not frying any fish.
There’s no oven either—something I probably should have anticipated from all those International House Hunter episodes I’ve watched. This, I admit, doesn’t bother me much. Why bake, when you can buy such good bread and luscious pastries, right down the street? Roasted chickens, too.
As for the city of Montpellier itself, the gray weather has done little to brighten the appeal of street after street of monochromatic limestone and shutters, by ordinance, painted a uniform cement color. Flower boxes, climbing vines and other greenery–so cheerfully prevalent in cities I’ve visited in Germany—are missing here. Many of the pedestrian-only streets in the old quarter are unattractively—and poorly–paved with asphalt, though some retain the original stone.
Still, the city does have some charms. Thanks to the zeal of religious reformers who tore down many neighborhood Catholic churches during the religious wars of the 16th century, there are many open spaces scattered throughout the city–small plazas filled with open-air cafes. It’s often frustratingly slow to catch a server’s attention and order, but there’s also no rush to turn the table. Servers don’t hustle you out once you’ve finished your meal or glass of wine. Indeed, they don’t seem to mind if you linger for hours over a single, long-since emptied glass. Meanwhile, there’s usually entertainment nearby–street performers of all ilks, including a New Orleans style band and a troupe of swing dancers.
It’s a kick, too, to step into the boutiques and restaurants nestled into the ground floors of Gothic mansions. Whether to spare the expense of remodeling or to evoke some historic charm, many expose the original stone vaulting and heavy beams. Touching the carved arches around a 14th century door and the iron rings where peasants tied their donkeys when they came to town connects me to history in a very real way. My special guilty pleasure: Reimagining the scenes from my favorite historical novels.
I’m guessing that in centuries past, the dog poop that litters the streets and walkways was even worse and almost certainly accompanied by donkey and horse poop. I’d forgotten what it was like to have to watch where you’re walking. Like the haze of cigarette smoke in restaurants, shit on U.S. sidewalks was common not so long ago. But Americans now take the absence of both for granted.
In the last few days, the weather has brightened; the sun is out, the skies are blue and daytime temperatures are toasty.That’s done a lot to improve my mood and help me remember why I wanted to come here. But what’s probably done more is escaping the city. Montpellier and the surrounding area have a remarkably good and wonderfully cheap public transportation system. For one euro, I can take the tram to the far outskirts of the city. For one euro sixty, I can take a regional bus to a variety of charming towns within an hour or two’s travel. Suffice it to say that I’m aiming for at least 5 day trips a week from now on. Today, I went to see an acre or two of irises in bloom. Tomorrow, there’s a goat cheese festival that’s calling my name.
So how would you expect a French supermarket to differ from your average suburban Safeway? Some of my expectations were right on the money. Others, not so much. The French cheese selection was pretty phenomenal–got that one right. Ditto, the wine department. The variety there dwarves the pretty meager selection of soft drinks–the reverse of what you’d find in a U.S. supermarket.
But the prominence of Red Bull? That was unexpected, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. I didn’t realize that it was a European (Austrian) company. Slurping up sweet, super-caffeinated soft drinks seems so quintessentially American.
The French don’t have Americans’ mania for low-fat, low calorie versions of everything. Lots of yogurt, for example. But in that whole big dairy case, there were only two low-cal fruit-flavored versions. Plenty of “cane-sweetened” ones and lots of plain–aka.”natural”–yogurts-plus a smattering of Greek style yogurts. But no flavored Greek yogurts with low-cal sweeteners. I miss my Chobani!
It was surprisingly difficult to locate the milk in the store. That’s because the packaging in France makes it look like a cleaning product and it isn’t located anywhere near a refrigerated case.
Prepared entrees are more exotic than in the U.S. That “Lapin” in the lower corner…it’s rabbit.
And if you think Americans demand convenience, check this out: The French can buy their bread with the crusts already trimmed off!
And finally, the French are known for their design esthetic, right? But neon-colored toilet paper? Really?