Posts Tagged ‘france’

Mediterranean Gothic

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008


On an island in the middle of the sea, in a city with a sleepy old port cut with the vertical lines of masts, and the mountains jutting up behind it, green with feather white clouds drifting across the tops, and closed in by two lighthouses, a green and an orange, protecting the tiny opening, or just pointing out its edges, we know we have left the continent.

The city pressing against the port is run-down and crumbling, the paint peeling off in sheaths. The shops smell of almond cookies — a thing you can get anywhere in the Mediterranean; they go by 101 names — and pungent ham and hand-wrapped soaps. Glistening bottles of liquor stand on shelves, a thin layer of dust crowning each one.

And we walk in the heat.

The hotel is horrendous, windowless, with two hard, narrow beds wedged into a corner and an enormous, tiled bathroom that does little to compensate. I feel as though I’ve been shoved underground, stuffed into darkness. I am too ashamed to take a picture. At night, I cry myself to sleep, hoping J____ doesn’t hear but I know she does.

Me and my bad French screwed up the reservation. All my fault. I could understand so well most of the time, though. Most of the time is not all the time. It is best never to make assumptions in a language that is not yours.

I still cannot eat. My stomach turns over at the sight of food, and the waiters feel terrible. Bring us free shots of limoncello and pastis. Because they think we haven’t enjoyed our dinner. But we did! We tell them. We’re just… not well. Not totally well yet.

We find the chapel, the enormous sun pattern created in tiny little stones on the ground outside. There is a painting inside, I read, that depicts the circumcision of Jesus — a rare and strange subject for a painter, and I want to see.

The chapel glitters. The walls are hung in red velvet. Crystal chandeliers gleam in the low light. I am agape, admiring the art, the carved ceiling, a gilt tabernacle, the things that make it seem more like a ballroom in a French chateau than a tiny chapel on a hidden street.

“Laura…” says J_____ from behind me. “There’s a coffin.”

“Oh… God.”

It is utterly plain, a wooden box like in a Vampire movie, little handles on the sides. It sits on a bier in the main aisle.

“There can’t be anyone in it, right? They wouldn’t just leave someone here, would they?”

She ignores the mounting hysteria in my voice and goes to look closer. To learn whether this is some tradition or preparation, a leftover sliver of some ancient ritual, or whether we are simply alone in a church with a dead body.

“It’s a woman,” she says, peering at a little gilt plaque on the top of the coffin. “June 8, 2008.”

“Please, let’s go.”

“It’s OK,” says J____. “She had a long life.”

“Good. I’m going outside.”

Under the flood of daylight, standing on the sun mosaic, I am still shaken. I am not a particularly phobic person, but coffins. Funeral parlors. The smell of gardenias, sticky sweet and cool. These things double me over, turn me to jell-o. Even as a joke. Even at Halloween.

“At least I get to be cremated ,” says J____. We walk up a ragged little back street full of shuttered shops and flaking plaster. “I can’t imagine being put in a little box like that.”

“Well, you don’t know you’re in the box. Well. I hope you don’t know you’re in the box…”

We tread back to the square, past an obscenely muscled statue of Napoleon, laurel-crowned, done up like Caesar in a toga. Local boy made good. A pack of kids plays at his feet, squealing at the tops of their lungs, tossing fistfuls of dirt in each other’s faces, or just sitting, sifting it through their little fingers in clouds, watching it slide to the ground.

Pushing Southward

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

J____ is back in Paris and I’m in Sardinia.

I came into Golfu Aranci and a man. The nicest man in the history of nice people. Brought me in a taxi. For 80 kilometers. And changed me half of what he should have. On a Sunday.

And pointed out towns and rock formations that vaulted out of the ground in odd shapes.

They used to film westerns here, he said. Because it looks like… name me some places.

Colorado. Arizona.

Exactly, he said.

And it does look like that, like Colorado on steroids. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on the moon. On some other baked, orange planet.

But, he said. They stopped filming them here when they paved the road.

As a good friend of mine would say, pay that forward. I’m going to try.

I’m staying in something called a tukul on a beach, which is like a tent with hard sides and a little orange roof. I arrived all exhausted in heavy clothes and I thought, what do I do first.

Swim, was the initial thought.

There’s no WiFi in this town. At all. So no photos. No artypants essays. Until I get back to the mainland.

Going On Alone

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Citadel, originally uploaded by Miss Laura M..

You can go to Calvi with one dress and a bathing suit in a bag and maybe a bottle of sunblock, and you can stay in a grass green room above a courtyard full of hibiscus and hydrangeas and you can take a tiny little train through the mountains to get there.

You can rent a chair and an umbrella for about $10 and swim in water that is clear and waveless except for the ripples made by the wind.

You can spy the snow on the tops of the mountains and remember a story that a guy told you once about how you can only see the snow and the sea at the same time in a scant few places on earth, and then he named the places. But he didn’t name this one.

And you won’t appreciate in the moment how this is all making you better, or teaching you something, but you can sense the shape of that change coming, how it might seem in hindsight when you’re on a sun-baked sidewalk a thousand miles away or on another beach somewhere else, under some other palm tree.

You can miss everyone and no one and two or three specific people so much that it aches, and you can be almost sure that they don’t miss you. Because they’re not on a beach, on an island, in the middle of the sea, waiting to go somewhere.

Mal au Ventre

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

J____ thinks it was the quiche and it probably was the quiche. The actual culprit of the thing. But for me, the thing that finished it was beignets de fleurs de courgettes and even saying the words makes my stomach flip over onto itself, makes me want to curl into a ball and stay there for a month.

I would describe this culinary delight for you, but I can’t. I’m sorry. Maybe someday.

We feel horrible. We feel horrible in The Safari Room of a hotel in Nice, France run by crazy people who attempt to clean our room no fewer than four times a day and who will not tell us a specific check out time, and who insist that we need to switch rooms. Twice. Except we haven’t switched rooms yet. And we’re leaving tomorrow. And no one seems to have noticed. The owner will not speak to me in English, which didn’t seem like a totally weird thing until I heard him through the door, speaking to everyone else in English.

Also. Safari Room = Antlers.

Yesterday, we found a store that carried Canada Dry ginger ale and bought up their entire supply for fear that we may never find it again in France. Or maybe in Europe. When we saw it, winking at us through the beverage case like a gleaming green eye, J____ got more excited than I’ve seen her get in a week — a testament to the general timbre of things here in Nice.

Our current diet consists of the ginger ale (Sprite was holding us over, until we found the amazing secret Canada Dry store), rice cakes, “biscottes,” which basically amount to small pieces of profoundly dry toast, and the occasional banana, for when we’re feeling adventurous. Culinary boredom and fear of protein deficiency drove us to buy an overpriced jar of French peanut butter — it ain’t no Skippy, in other words — but neither of us has the heart or the stomach to actually eat it. We bought it along with two bananas, and the guy at the counter winked knowingly when we put them on the belt.

“Ah,” he said. “You’re going to eat these two things together!”

Finish the sentence: You stupid Americans.

It’s difficult to articulate how much and how hard this sucks, although at least we’ve discovered the secret to visiting the French Riviera on a budget.

Stay tuned for our next action-packed episode: We’re Taking a 5-Hour Ferry and We Have Food Poisoning.

Doubled Over

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

Toward the Corniches, originally uploaded by Miss Laura M..

And in the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Water like a jewel and pastel-colored houses and villages clinging to the cliffs as though even a breeze would nudge them into the ocean. I am sick too.

Awesome. Awesome!

I am not Deathly. Not Horrible Miserable. But still. You don’t want to be sick in the Riviera. Sick in the Riviera and lugging 20 kilo of luggage in an enormous purple suitcase. Sick in the Riviera when there are so many beaches on which to be lazy and tanned. Sick in the Riviera when hikes between those villages seem once-in-a-lifetime.

More reports when I’m out of bed.


Tuesday, June 10th, 2008


Imagine Paris in a nightmare or a dream, post-apocalypse, with graffiti splashed across its pretty face, all the Haussmann buildings nine stories tall with the paint chipping off the shutters. Riveted steel bridges stretch across the streets, hanging in midair, connecting one building to another or else there are winding staircases between them, marching up the hills, twisting around corners, like Montmartre after the bomb, the Ice Age, all the steps going the wrong way. Imagine Paris with “Guantanamera” blasting out car windows and the smell of pizza and curry and tapas everywhere. Imagine Paris with 85 percent humidity every single day of the year. Imagine Paris sunk on one side into pearl blue ocean and rimmed by scorched white cliffs. Imagine it with a man in a doorway singing a prayer in Arabic and a kid kicking a red rubber ball on a playground and two dogs fighting in the same playground, biting each other’s faces but cautious, as though they’re trying to find the line between “play” and “hurt.” Imagine Paris with trash pickup at 9:00 on a Monday night, the truck setting off one, two, three car alarms as it passes. Imagine it with homeless people and school kids and an empty fountain full of liquor bottles that are full of piss. Imagine tiny shops here and there, hidden but not, their owners laid back and a little defiant, young, bespectacled, and the signs in the windows that say No Photos, Please in English. A dumpling house. A bistro with a full vegetarian menu. A hostel with free WiFi. Buds on the vine, a new guard creeping in, bringing new money to the empty boulevards, a new paradise sprouted out of the old one than died and everything it left. But just the murmurs of it now, something that everyone knows is coming, the looming shadow left by a gleaming city on a hill.


Postscript. The Cours de Civilization et Langue Francaise de la Sorbonne?

Right. I passed it.


J____ is sick in a bad way so we’re staying another night in Marseille, until she’s able to walk.


The boat tour of the Calanques — the shear white stone cliffs that rim the southern coast of Marseille — takes three hours and could probably make its point in two. The cliffs loom above and stick jagged into the sky like the fins of giant sea monsters and reach into the ocean like wrinkly toes. There is the occasional village of pastel cottages or a sandy beach between them like multi-million dollar toejam — a boat lazily at anchor, a naked Italian sunbather. Purple jellyfish traverse the lightening blue water. Sea caves, hundreds of feet above, hide twigs, old sweatshirts, cigarette butts in their shadows.

And maybe three hours of Calanques would be amazing if the weather was not sweltering and oppressive, if the entire city was not blanketed in smog. If it was a sunrise tour, maybe. A middle-of-the-night tour. I spent the second half of the trip dozing on the boat’s shady bottom level and wanting to swim.


It’s weird being so lonely right now.

But it’s weirder telling you about it.


“You can go to this beach,” he says, pointing with a ballpoint pen. “It’s like California, maybe. But if you want to go to a real Marseille beach, go here.” He circles a knob of coastline and tells me which bus to take.


Within Marseille proper there is a fishing village like a thumb print, a perfect little half-moon, carved into the coast, and surrounding it are stone cornices that reach into the ocean and I step over one, over the sleek white rock, and plan to pick a spot with a view until I realize that they all, in fact, have views. Of the pale coast. Of the ruined Chateau d’If, the fabled home of the Count of Monte Cristo, glimmering on its little island. Of the horizon line, shifting and sparkling in the late-afternoon sun.

And all around me, the Marseillaises chatter and swim and soak in the sun. A woman, not a day younger than 70, sports a chic haircut, a bootleather tan, and an astonishingly pert pair of breasts. An old man in a cap shouts about the economy to a friend while he steps back into his clothes — pleated dress pants, collared shirt, socks, dress shoes. A couple enjoys the surf. A woman nuzzles a giggling baby’s nose.

And I’ve wondered so many times. Do I really love this country or do I just love what it symbolizes to so many Americans — cultural awareness, style, elegance. And will I want to come back after this? After seeing so much of it. Does it make sense to come back to a place three, four, five times?

In that moment, against a watercolor sky and hemmed in by white cliff and smog and murmured conversation that sounds like a song. I thought. How could I have thought. Honestly. That this was the end of something and not the beginning?


Two things:

Out of nowhere, J____, all green and sick on the bed, tells me that Anne Murray’s son was in her limo at her senior prom. I’ve known her for three years, and she tells me this now?

Later, while she’s watching the BBC, she points at the screen, at a bald-headed reporter with a major Scottish brogue and says, “Hey, that’s my ex-boyfriend.”

And so he was.

La Marseillaise

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Old Port Under Stormclouds

Marseille feels better like blue sky feels better, ocean after miles and miles of deadlock and checkerboard farm. There is noise. Traffic. Kebab stands. Garbage. Blinding sun. Pale white cliffs that tumble into blue. A seafarer’s church on a hill.

The old port in its neat horseshoe is crammed in with blue water and the toothpick masts of little boats and big boats with names like Tetris and Eileen 1932. Fish mongers sell little fish whose sides flash like mirrors, and one mustached man, with a shout, plops the biggest lobster I have ever seen on a counter. The biggest lobster. As long as my arm. Tourists cram in for photos. Another man sells seahorses while escargot wriggle in a tin cup beside him, their sticky antennae flailing, looking a little desperate.

We are only just arrived but in the afternoon we knock back pastis — cloudy like milk in the glass — on the terrace of a corner bar while everyone watches the Europe Cup on a wide-screen TV that’s been moved outside for the occasion. The clouds roll overhead but we are unhurried, minding the sting at the back of our throats.

We start walking five minutes before it starts to rain in fat, splashing drops and we’re soaked to the knees an instant later, even with umbrellas, and a solid thirty minute walk from the hotel. The sky is half blue-black clouds like a bruise and half shimmering white behind a lighthouse and the stones of the old fort. A mile away, a single bolt of lightening flickers out of a cloud and touches down on the hill near the church. The thuderclap shakes the pavement.

After the rain, it doesn’t get cold. It stays balmy like summer and that’s how I know I’ve come in the right direction.

The Colors

Saturday, June 7th, 2008


I get wind burn on my face. I wish I were kidding. This is the kind of wind I’m talking about. Enough wind to make me pink-cheeked and flush. Wind that comes in actual gusts, strong enough to alter a walking path, to make us nervous about getting nudged into oncoming traffic. Wind like a constant hiss out the window, like the sound of rain but not.


Vacation is not all vacation. In both Aix and Avignon, we try on bathing suits. Horror of horrors. The Absolute Worst Thing. Not because we look terrible. We don’t. But because finding the right bathing suit usually requires the trying on and off of about 100 different suits, because ultimately. Let’s face it. It chooses you.

We go to Etam and H&M and I try three. The first is Wannabe Riviera in fake Hermes yellow and in it I look like a dumpling. The second is a pale blue bikini with silver polka dots and its effect on my body is more or less Mariah-Carey-two-years-ago-without-the-ice-cream-cone , which is not altogether unsexy but not altogether me either, seeing as I am not altogether 16-years-old or altogether losing my mind. Plus, I have no roller skates to match. The third involves a ruffle on the ass and looks like a Van Halen video. And. No.

I decide to stick with last year’s suit.


We take a tour.

Shoot me in the face, I know.

But when you travel without a car in a place like Provence, you are often left with a choice: See it on a tour, baby, or don’t see it at all.

So we see it on a tour.

Tours are interesting because the people who take them are always crazy or old or both. (When my sister and I took a bus tour to Mont Saint-Michel a month ago, we overheard a woman two seats away saying something about a place where she’d recently traveled, and she said, “It was horrible. There were huge piles of garbage in the street, just like New York City.”)

On this tour, our guide is squat and English and a little nuts and his French accent makes me feel fantastically good about my own flat-voweled Americaine way of speaking, but he’s fearless about it — speaking French, that is — and we can actually understand most of what he’s saying, if we listen hard.

And he takes us places in his little silver van.

Past vineyards and cherry orchards and away, away, away, thank God, from Avignon and its windy, empty streets. Into the mountains to little villages perched on the tiptops of mountains, one so different from the other. Past lavender fields that aren’t blooming yet but the shape and the smell are there, the deep purple buds swinging in the breeze, promising bonanza in a few weeks. Past truffle trees and apple orchards and olive groves with their twisty-limbed trees, some of them older than the oldest person on Earth.

We see a village of pale stone and blue doors, one built on a rock so that the streets all end in a cliff, in a dropoff to the sky, the vineyards below, to nothing but open air. In the countryside around it, there are little stone huts stacked together without mortar, built by farmers and shepherds, their pointy roofs sticking out of the grass, as old and silent as the pyramids. In the village center, the insides of a church are stenciled yellow and lavender . Above the altar, white stars dot a pale blue sky. Earthquakes have crumbled the city twice. Religious wars. La Revolution. And still it stands, gleaming in the sun, a pile of little pebbles that didn’t budge, bright enough to hurt your eyes.

We see a red village built on a vein of ochre that has stained everything but the sky. It seems as though it could color your fingers, the soles of your shoes, just passing through. I don’t know who lives here, because everyone around seems to be just snapping photos and gawking and shading their eyes and touching the stone walls of the church or the pharmacy or the prefecture, just to see if they’re real. The cliffs around the town slide in rainbows, from pink to scarlet to vermillion; it’s illegal to take any of the pigment home with you. They sell it in the shops in dusty little bags. Driving away, it’s as though you can’t see color quite right, as though the ochre has reached everywhere, into the backs of your eyes. I wondered if that’s illegal too.

We see the Marquis de Sade’s crumbling castle where he lived only until he went to jail, its white stone walls clinging to the side of a mountain, the poppies, blood red, sprouting in heaps, little explosions, around the foundation. It is lonely on that mountain, that one decrepit castle. Pierre Cardin bought it ten years ago and turned it into a theater. Now he’s trying to sell it.

We see a rainbow village of blue shutters, yes, but green too. Azure. Pink. With ivy crawling over the walls. I will remember nothing of this village in five years or even five days, I know, because this is the village that looks like every village. Café. Gift shop. Old man painting with an easel on a street corner, a scene of lavender plants in neat rows, the blossoms that don’t exist yet. A painting only from memory.

There is a wedding. On the cobblestones in the square, pink vellum hearts woosh in a circle caught in a little tornado of wind, mixing with piles of leaves and dry grass. Little girls in white patent leather shoes hobble by with bouquets of peonies wobbling in their hands. Someone escorts an old woman in a blue flowered dress. She is bent in two over a cane, moving slow and deliberate, careful with the cobbles. Later, there is a family photo under a stone clock tower, a white chiffon shawl, the smell of the flowers. I won’t remember the town, but that I’ll remember.

L’on n’y danse pas.

Friday, June 6th, 2008

Sur le Pont

Dancing on the bridge at Avignon — all in a circle, if you please — will cost you €6. It will also require some restraint, seeing as half the bridge is gone, fallen into the Rhone thanks to decades of war and surly tide and wind.

We did not dance or even walk on it, partly because to do so would cost as much as lunch, and partly because the bridge at Avignon is just a bridge. Actually, if we’re being honest here, it’s only half a bridge. It’s a lovely half-bridge, I assure you, with its handsome stone arches that stretch out into the river from the fortress walls that hold Avignon in its neat circle, but it is ultimately only a piece of what was.

We’re staying at a budget hotel/camp ground on the other side of the Rhone and it truly feels like camping in that we are continually freezing and swatting at the mosquitoes that have somehow, some way, infiltrated our room. J____ has issues killing bugs (I just asked her why and she said, “Because it’s gross.”) so this has become my job. Me. The girl who once held a live roach captive for three weeks under a bowl because she was too scared to feel the crunch of its little exoskeleton under her shoe. I’ve been brave to this point, even going so far as to swat a black flying something-or-other, mid-flight, between the palms of my hands, rather than have the thing chewing at our faces all night.

In short, I kind of hate this hotel. Actually, I kind of hate Avignon too. I say that while simultaneously recognizing that hating an entirely famous and mostly picturesque town in a gorgeous region of a gorgeous country just seems… ungrateful. But I mean. There’s only half a fucking bridge.

The streets are desolate save a few ragtag tourists who all look a little bewildered or lethargic, as though nothing seems compelling enough to warrant the removal of a camera from its padded bag. I have no idea where they keep all the people in this town, but we have yet to find any. Even the sunshine here seems watery and half-assed, as though God were channeling all the really good sun over to the Cote d’Azur. And then there’s the wind.

I have not gone an hour here without eating wayward strands of my own hair or having to flush dirt out of my contacts. The wind is unbelievable . Resolute. Never-ending. And strong enough to toss a girl — or at the very least, her hat — headlong into the Rhone, never to be seen again.

To be fair, Avignon is not famous for its beauty or its sites as much as for its convenience as a “base city” for touring the countryside. Tomorrow, we’ll be doing just that. And in spite of all this, we found some interesting things — a small but strong art collection (one that includes the only Van Goh still in Provence) housed in a lavishly decorated mansion; a hilltop garden behind the looming Palais de Papes with incredible views of the city; a tea salon with homemade cherry tarts; a store that sells heaps of green olive tapenade. There are good things to be had here. We’ve just had to tease them out a bit.

The Aix Files

Thursday, June 5th, 2008


In the city of the fountains.

That’s such a Calvino way to start an entry.

In the city of the fountains, through the tiny squares and past the clock tower, we stay in a hotel with pretty printed bedspreads that makes us want to do nothing but sleep for fear that we will never stay in a place like it, will never sleep its real, splayed out, deep-cushioned brand of sleep, again.

In Aix en Provence, we fall through the rabbit hole and find a whole other France. A France in which there is sun and blue sky and in which people are actually kind of nice to us. In which no one seems bothered by our French, and no one hesitates to use it with us as though it were a an actual, practical means of communication and not an ironclad cultural symbol, the barricade between La France and The Onslaught of Mediocrity. In Aix, we need not carry another nation’s baggage on our weary North American shoulders. We are free to chat amongst ourselves.

A woman in a take-out pasta place recommends a travel guide. A sales clerk at a Kodak photo-printing kiosk hands us a city guide and a map.

“Do you mind that it’s in French?” she asks.

“No,” we say. “We don’t mind.”

We have spoken more French in the last 48 hours than we did in four months in Paris.

And maybe it is the sun or the water, the constant sound of it around every corner so that it becomes almost a game to find its source, or the odd cathedral with its six different styles and no-neck statues of saints, or the tiny winding streets, or the big-shuttered windows in pale yellow and blue — seriously, like all the books tell you — or maybe just the people. Like the old Vietnamese man in his tiny shop, who took ten minutes to prepare our order even though the food was cooked and ready under the glass, to wrap the rice in paper and pour sweet orange sauce into a little packet and put fresh cilantro into a bag, to recommend the tofu, even while the line outside stretched around the corner and no one complained. Or maybe because we ate it in a garden surrounded by a high wall under a tree whose green-y, unripe fruit we could not identify.

But neither of us wants to leave.

We miss the train to Avignon because we tarried in the flower market and took too many pictures of the tiger lilies, because we sat too long over espresso and little squares of chocolate in a grass-green-painted coffee shop watching the mechanism of a hot chocolate pot spin its contents — lush, curiously dense — in a lazy circle.

As divine punishment, our only transportation option becomes the spendy TGV. J____, seeing as she’s not insane or Catholic, doesn’t believe in divine punishment, and I hesitate to make uneducated intimations about karma and its workings, but even she agreed that it was hilariously, ridiculously expensive. How expensive? As a rough calculation, the train cost about €2 per minute of travel time. (That’s $3, for those of you playing along at home.) As we say en Anglais, holy shit.

At any rate, literally, we’re here. Here being not Avignon or any other town in France, any other pretty place on Earth. Here, right now, just feels like not-Aix-en-Provence. It just feels cold. But maybe, somewhere tomorrow, there’s sun.