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The following article is by Brian Buchanan, freelance writer residing in Vancouver BC © 2004
In the fall of 2003 Charlotte and I caught a British Air flight to London, stayed three weeks in Westminster, a mere bomb's throw from Buck Palace and Big Ben [another story], and then flew off to southern France for a month. In the land of the southeastern Gauls, we stayed two weeks in Aix, and same again in Villefrance sur Mer, a small town about 10 klicks north of Nice. The following postcards from the med's edge represent our recounted impressions of those days in Luberon and the Cote d'Azur.
In the Aix area we expected to roam the villages of Peter Mayles' books, and poke among the Roman remains in Arles and Avignon, then travel northward into Provence's mountain edges (mere hills with more attitude than altitude, really), aka the Luberon, that begin the Alps' procession northeast to the Swiss and Italian borders. We did. Yet there were strange and unexpected experiences, too. I will explain a few in the vignettes that follow.
In the Cote or Riviera region we expected to follow the road system northward to the Italian border near Menton, visiting plush little seaside towns providing haven for the world's more exclusive rich, and displaying beach and mountain scenery made famous by a thousand artists and ten billion postcards. We did, and the scenery and ambience was as advertised, and it was all truly interesting.
My perspectives reflect through the prism of events of the times: Britain and the U.S. and their allies were busy in Iraq, while political controversy roiled about Islamic terrorism and France's and Germany's loyalties and national courage ["Who won the war?" "Whose side was/is France on?" "A new Franco-German alliance attempts to take over Europe." "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys!", et al.] Meanwhile, the World Cup Rugby tournament raged on in Sydney, Australia, beaming its results to a particularly avid British and French fandom. The French were contenders into the late stages of the tournament. England won. An Australian friend and sports expert expressed the sentiment that as good as the French team was, they were far too erratic to win the big one. To be fair, in recent times the French have won both the soccer and rugby world championships, hardly quitters' credentials. Still, many westerners tend to cast aspersions on the character and tenacity of the French. They remember the six week collapse, surrender and collaboration of WW II. They recall French foreign policy "independence" in the cold war. They remember atomic testing in the southern hemisphere, in the face of wide-spread protests. The French are cultured, but fragile. Skilled, but erratic. They're not quit made of the stern stuff of Anglo-Saxon societies, the North American and British conventional bias suggests. I couldn't help but look for such wobbly traits in my interaction with France's south-eastern denizens. Not prejudice, you understand, but ....
As a Canadian, I was, of course, sensitive to French issues more than the garden variety American, since France has interfered in Canadian politics for many years, and French cultural influence, both ancient and modern, makes Quebec an interesting, though particularly alien segment of Canadian political and cultural patchworks. Quebec too bears the incongruous elements of sophistication with artistic and hedonistic allure, combined with malignantly corrupt politics and strong, rapacious unions. Canada as a whole has come to accept the bright lights and dark alleys of Quebec's cityscapes, culture and politics . We found the wellspring of much of the same traits in that province's mother culture in Europe.
Most who have visited France will tell you how proud and shy the French are, yet how essentially decently they behave, however politically illiterate, anti-semitic and leftish they might seem. I share that tremulously accurate general impression of France's 60 million people.
In our days in Provence and the Cote, we consistently found French folks of the street opportunistically helpful and friendly. After you make the first overture or create the situation where they might come to your assistance, they are helpful with a quiet dignity that verges on backwardness. Staring at a parking meter in Aix, we encounter a passerby happy to try to explain what to do, or where to put the coins, even if he or she knows no English, and we clearly do not utter much French. In every-day incidents that form part of common concourse, the French are "real nice people," as an American might say.
But power, authority and responsibility, or worst yet, decision-making discretion, bring out the worst in our wine-swilling, mustard-flavoured cousins from the Old Sod. Put our typically warm civilian French person into uniform, and he morphs into a martinet, hostile and hapless in the face of reasonable demands from a customer, and inflexible and unsympathetic to alteration of service or product. Pick up your rental car. A cold first degree at the counter. Plenty of paper to fill out. At Eurocar's Marseille terminal, a porky 30 year old man in rental car uniform thrust a breathalyser in my face as I talked to his frosty female colleague about the details of the rental contract. I warded him off at first, then complied eventually. Local crude custom, I eventually concluded. It was 10:00 in the morning. I didn't look drunk. Gimlet-eyed insistence predominated. I requested a copy of documents I signed. Big inconvenience, evidently. I asked for directions to Aix. A languidly surly, uninterested reply.
While I escaped (barely) with my dignity, I couldn't help wonder what song and dance I would face when I turned the car in three weeks later in Nice. As it turned out, the process was smooth; so much so that I had to chase the woman checking in the car to sign off on its pristine state. "We will send you the documents" was the attempted brush-off. Yeah, but since they had my credit card numbers and I would have no apparent confirmation of safely returning their property... you get the idea. Eurocar's French folks didn't, at least not without a bit of arm-twisting. I did get a scribbled sign initial out the woman. In the end, my credit card bill was roughly as it should be. What's the French for "service"? No empathy for the customer at all. No wonder McDonald's perky customer orientation offends French bureaucratic sensibilities, but continues to be a big hit with most French people.
La toilet is yet another Gaulic comedy. French businesses deeply resent providing bathroom facilities to the public. Try using a loo in a French bistro. Great consternation if you haven't first bought something. A bit rich, considering most French pub toilets are dank and filthy holes, hazardous to health even if you don't use them. Perhaps businesses have become jaded and bitter about vandals. Certainly graffiti smears a gigantic number of flat surfaces. Clearly the scribbles and filth, physical and verbal, is rarely cleaned up, except on and in churches. Similarly the streets contain many a dogshit shoe mine. In Aix we walked by a dog poop station in the middle of a sidewalk, in a sandy enclave. The enclave was pristine and poopless. The sidewalk all around the station was replete with crap, a common sight. No-one helps clean up. It's not their job, apparently.
Similarly, try getting a different set of utensils or laundry, or a different time frame for room service. C'est impossible! Behold, a big, fat, unhelpful, blank stare. The French are pleasant, but they keep their heads down, mind their own business and view altruistic initiative at work with flaccid hostility. I'm reminded of an Economist international survey done in 2003 in which national cross-sections of citizens were asked to exhibit their attitudes toward optimistic self-reliance. Only Americans and Canadians on balance thought their futures were not dependent on government or state generosity and bureaucratic genius. Europeans are often seem statist robots, pessimistic about independent action, mired in ruts of rules, accepting their station or condition in life, and expecting everyone else to do the same. Their demonstration of individuality seems to extend no further than soiling the sidewalk and refusing to clean it up. I saw few glimpses of the old revolutionary spirit in the sunny pastures and shores of southern France.
The French do not seem to greet strangers, but respond in a formal "Bonjour, Monsieur" if you initiate the saluation. Mired in taxes, regulation, bureaucracy and plenty of gendarmery of every shape and size, the French seemed a bit oppressed, even a bit broken. "Yours is the country of the future," a 70ish man remarked as we chatted about directions and origins on a windy and wet Aix street one afternoon. I didn't ask him why he made that remark. Its complementary assessment implies France's future is behind it. However, I caught glimpses of what he intimated, both in the street experiences of this trip and in the events on the world's political stage.
Trains, planes and automobiles. Gatwick Express from Victoria Station (just one hour ahead of your average rail disruption--- whew!), a flight to Marseilles, the chippy interchange with Eurocar described above, and onto the A5 freeway to Aix. Smooth sailing, or driving until we reached the inner burbs of Aix: we couldn't find the hotel's street. Eventually we did, having driven by it half a dozen times. The problem: the street was an obscure-looking side alley, one-way, which led excruciatingly close to edge of the hotel, but just up another alley the wrong way. We finally found a path to get at the flat from the right direction, through a bus lane, around parked and idling cars. We were not yet enured to the traffic-choked roads and narrow tracks of French provincial towns. The hotel/flat, one Pierre Vacances, was a clean, well-lit affair with a central courtyard, breakfast room, three floors of furnished flats. French biffy fashion. The toilet by itself in a sideroom off the entrance. The sink, bidet and bath shower 5 meters away, on the way by the spartan kitchen. Cleaner and more modern than the usual British equivalent, the flat had no kettle, teapot, no cups other than demi-tasse thimbles. We found our way through the careening traffic near our door to a Casino grocery store. We shopped for teapot and a kettle. The hotel came up with larger cups, or "grande tasse." Farewell, demi-tasse. Small victories.
Reviewing our first day in Aix, we remembered the three kind direction-givers we met on our flat search over the previous hour: a lean, unshaven young guy and his pretty, raven-haired girl friend who drove in front of us to lead us the right way; the elegantly dressed, attractive, trim 60ish woman who tried to explain the route to us in French and suggested that we were so close we should consider walking, and coming back for the car later; a third woman, most concerned that we find our way, told us to make two turns " a gauche." All their advice was helpful more in its encouragement than in actually getting us there. But we did arrive, by the sheer accumulation of directions' common threads, and our experience with multiple wrong turns.
A walking day on the town in Aix takes us through the narrow streets of the medieval centre, by elegant stores cheek to jowl with run-down student quarters (there's a very large university population in Aix), and various cafes, bistros, restaurants and even the odd faux British pub. The alleys lead to open squares in three places in central Aix, each venues for public markets several times a week. Here the European penchant for al fresco food and hardware sales goes on as it has for hundreds of years, although it has a touristy kisch to it, too. "A trifle twee," I believe one says in London about such things. Hygiene looked dodgey, too.
The state of French doors is always fascinating. Many look hundreds of years old. Most need paint, though the odd portal is a gold-handled, green and blue wonder. Above the street level commercial structures are louver- windowed living quarters which often look weather-beaten, but usually appear beckoningly comfortable. The narrow alleys of Aix seem to open up as one looks up, and the old religious gargoyles of past centuries catch the light of the shifting sun as the day progresses with our journey through Aix's streets. The names resonate: down to the Cours Mirabeau (popular guy for place names, Mirabeau was), up Thiers to Place des Precheurs, lunch, then to the Place de l"hotel de ville (City Hall to you). Then on down a series of angles cobbleways named Foch, Aude and Masse, and back down Mirabeau's big, wide, main drag built for the 18th and 19th Century's grand promenades of the rich and fatuous, re famous.
Off at night down Rue de Couronne to Le Latin Bistro, where we partake of the delicate mysteries of French cooking: a salmon cheeze pie starter, followed by lamb stew and red snapper mains, and chased down with crème brule and chocolate pudding (avec raspberry sauce) sweets. All that for $58 Euros and a 5 Euro tip. As French formal dining goes, Le Latin Bistro had much to recommend it, as we were to discover as we explored other places in Aix and region. Like many North Americans we found the formality and small portions in France tended to push us slightly off balance, though the French waiters' quiet solemnity never seemed offensive. Just a different scene, made more stiff by language barriers. Still, French formality at the table does help explain the rapidly growing popularity of American fast food restaurants in France. McDonald's with a sensible French twist allowed me a cold beer with my Big Mac.
On our way across town we encounter a former Iranian guy in his forties who proceeds to give us an extended sociological lecture on the French: reticent, eyes downcast, the French are ready to accept much and expect little, he says. Having escaped the Mad Mullahs, the former Iranian finds himself a perpetual alien in a France that admits but never accepts outsiders, so, of course, the immigrants never become truly French. Melting pots are not part of French cultural or political cuisine. The foreign-born are forever low voltage pariahs, creating a recipe for perpetual discord, or worse, as the French Jews discovered 60 years ago, and "Islamic" enclaves notice now.
Off the A8 and N7, we drop into the walled Avignon on a big, broad Rhone. Running in a broad curve across the face of the town's huge walls on one side and massive dikes on the other, the river provides a beautiful backdrop on either shore. Large stretches of open land face the old Papal Palace, a grand structure left over from the days when the Catholic Church wasn't satisfied with mere one luxuriating grandee presenting God on earth, so the Roman Church had one here, another in Rome. The local tax base was undoubtedly impressive, or more accurately, repressive. Some things don't change. Like so much of the old church's property now, the palace and grounds provides cash flow through tourism rather than via religious tyranny.
A partially destroyed medieval bridge leads out from the palace's river gate, ending abruptly about two-thirds the way across. This is, in fact, the famous "Sur le pont, D'Avignon" song from our elementary school days. The inevitable Romans built the first crossing in the 1St Century. The present structure, prompted by a divine revelation, apparently, went up in the 14th Century and fell into disuse (in fact part of it evidently fell into the Rhone) after the 17th Century, accelerated by the events of the French revolution. A walk out on its remaining portion is a tourist requirement. Avignon's streets are wider than Aix's, and the weekly market is a more massive affair, where the huge variety of Provence tapestries dominate the number of stalls. Of course, had we waited until Nice, we could have bought the same cloth cheaper there in the less-quaint shops on Nice's side-street alley markets. But why not pay a bit more for the country town ambience of Avignon? We did. Avignon is a livelier, more spacious and better watered burg than Aix, although Aix's main throughfare is just as impressive, with a bigger fountain. We dove into the roller derby traffic at 4:00 (1600 hours to locals), and made it to our Aix hearth with hardly a wrong turn. Well, maybe a couple.
Deep in hilly Provence back country north-west of Aix, L'Isle sur la Sorge's village streets lie clumped along a canal and river system that drives a strong flow of pale green/blue water from the Alps to the med lowlands around Marseille. The Village itself is about as photogenic as a river village can be, near Fontaine de Vauclause and on the way to Apt, Lacoste and Bonnieux on lovely, winding roads through rolling hills adorned with vineyards and large, square grey houses standing upright in a mist decorated by fall colours of green, gold and red. The village displayed the inevitable market and bistro attractions. Our lunch steak was tough, the chips, beautiful. We watched an American couple attempt to walk in for a quick loo break at our café across from the bustling market. No dice, of course. No meal, no pee. We attempted to understand our bill's service charges, to little satisfaction. French customs run deep into the pastoral backwaters.
Connecting the backroads routes are large wide two-lane arteries some apparently built for traffic and populations that haven't arrived yet. Maybe the Mayles-driven land boom has faltered. One such artery, the N7, took us through a large park or reserve on our way back to Aix.
Winding our way across the hills above this lovely village on the med, we follow the signs to town centre into a dead-end parking lot on a hill overlooking the town. Another day on the signage mystery tour. A middle-aged man on a motorcycle wheels alongside to help. Apologizing on behalf of the locals, of which he is one, he notes that tourists often find it hard to navigate their way into Cassis via ambiguous and misleading signs. We find the town, and lovely little burg it is, surrounding a boat-laden harbour and cafes and restaurants. A rock band rehearses for a video on the beach. A few women sunbathe. We buy a chicken and chips sandwich, with the chips inside the bun with the chicken. We loll back on the stone wall for lunch, and watch a few tour boats ply their trade on the sharp-angled coastline nearby, as they explore Les Calangues, the narrow, rocky inlets replete with caves and other crannies. In spite of the upscale ambience, the two public loos are execrable, in the best French tradition. Where do they find that black-green mold, I wonder? Cassis evidently provides haven for the quietly wealthy of the area, and opens its doors to heavy tourism in deep summer. We saw it at a quiet time. A good thing, considering what a demolition derby a lot of lost tourists would make of the town's high hills, narrow streets and mysterious road directions in August.
Down the Rhone from Avignon, Arles harbours the intact outer shell of a Roman coliseum, the tattered remains of music amphitheatre, and a narrow pretty streets connecting to the customary main shopping street selling fabrics, food, art and various and hardware and furnishings. The Rhone provides a lovely backdrop to the Arles as it does to Avignon. A walk along the river's wide, high dike is particularly enjoyable, as we skirt the market streets and come at the Roman artifacts from the river side.
Some 170 kilometers on a six lane freeway takes us from Provence to the Cote d'Azur on a sunny, misty autumn day. Montaine Ste. Victoire's sheer, white cliff walls loom up to our left as we drive eastward. French freeways are lovely, well-ordered byways, whose drivers are able and courteous, though many drive fast. Generally European drivers' skills put the rest of the world to shame. We found our flat in Villefranche after traversing Nice's waterfront and driving by its airport, and venturing up into the hills along the med's edge, through Villefranche and by its gigantic medieval castle. Just before turning downhill to Beaulieu sur Mer, up on a hill overlooking the Villefranche bay, we found our Pierre Vacances' big, deserted (truly vacant!) resort.
A giant swimming pool shimmered beneath our windows. A warren of perhaps 250 modest apartments with lovely views of the ocean framed the gardened grounds. A clay court tennis club and small restaurant inhabited an edge of the grounds. A train track lay between the beach and the resort, and beyond that luxurious homes on the immediate hillside, and further east and down on the water's edge, a public beach which led round the corner of the harbour to Villefranche's seafront of restaurants, hotels and cruise ship terminal. Immediately north or up the coast toward Italy, lay St. Jean Cap Ferrat, a spin of exclusive real estate dominated by homes and hearths for the rich and famous.
We explore Beaulieu's and Villefranche's beachfronts and cafes after the usual organization of Pierre Vacances' staff to clean up our fridge and get the black mold off the bathtub's and kitchen counter's edge. We minimize our need for purchasing our own utensils here, since we brought our own from Aix. The facility is spectacularly beautiful, though our flat is too close to the very noisy main coast road, an arrangement unchangeable, of course, even though the resort is largely empty. Playing with the name Pierre Vacances would produce "Pierre creates vacancies," or " Pierre employs the vacant," or "Pierre, quel vacancy." All these would be both cruel, but a little true. Nevertheless, onward.
Through a maelstrom of traffic we reach Menton near the Italian border, where we dine in an attractive beachfront restaurant, the waiter a French youth fresh back from Montreal. He spoke glowingly of how much cheaper and easier life was in Quebec, and expressed a determination to go back to make his fortune. When asked where one might get change for a meter in public parking lot, a young, inevitably slim and well-groomed French woman offers to give me the money. The myth of the surly and distant French takes another hit. The harrowingly obscure signs and crowded and glutted roads make driving hard work. Breathtaking views often give way to equally breathtaking near misses, as trucks and other vehicles park everywhere, and often on blind corners, facing traffic. Considering the roads and number of vehicles, the pace and antics of the driving seems inevitable. The trip back to Aix, through a Monaco torn to bits by diversions and construction and repair, was particularly arduous. Neither of us had much of chance for sightseeing, one clutching a map and peering about for signs, the other grasping a steering wheel and gear shift, looking out for hazard and the next turn.
A large, economically diversified town, Nice's ambience reflects an economic balance beyond mere tourism. The main beachfront street, as in every town on the Cote, follows the usual pattern of long beach, wide road and plenty of hotels and markets behind. But Nice is clearly an industrial and commercial power, too. An internet café we used allowed us to look down from a second story window onto a shopping street stretching off in three directions. An accordianist played recognizable French tunes. A long avenue running obliquely up from the beach into the heart of the city displayed parks, fountains, sculptures (some in the shape of office buildings), a museum, modern art gallery, library and auditorium or concert hall. Oddly, but in keeping with the old French truism that all portable artistic glory goes to Paris, we found the modern gallery shallow. The nearby natural history museum consisted of a meagre little octopus display worth a five minute look. The traditional art gallery on Nice's beachfront street we found closed. The best art in the French provinces lies in the streets. A gigantic rabbit statue dominated the modern art gallery's courtyard, and was its best piece. On a later visit, we saw the giant hare lying forlornly on its back on a flat-bed truck heading off down a broad boulevard. To the capital, perhaps? Art? Go to Paris. But shopping? Nice has plenty of fine examples of that.
In Nice, we poke and prod along a series of shopping streets, some with a medieval look, others with the feel of a modern Parisian shopping area. In a café , we speak to charming young Frenchman of travel. Working in the tourism business, he expresses a faint interest in America but apparently his girlfriend couldn't stand the cold, he thinks. I haven't the cheek to tell him that central heating the Americas works better than it does in Europe. We found giant shopping malls, similar to those we explored in Cascais, Portugal, though this particular specimen seemed partially in renovation mode, and not showing its most shiny face. If one had a non-tourist job on the Cote, it would be in Nice. And your house would up on the hills above the city, looking down on the sea and the bustle of the coast road and its string of towns.
Along the beach edge, the high-cropped palm trees swayed as they do, the water lapped in stiff little rifts and several kilometers of two hundred meter wide sand led the eye away east and west , round the edge of the Cannes film festival theatre, out to the edge of a curve and beyond down the unseen Mediterranean coast. North and eastward, cliffs cut off the winding shore abruptly. Cannes lay back from the beach's edge, held away by a four lane road, beachfront kiosks and concrete abutements. Another Med beachfront town. Same format. Big beach with centre-street boulevard in wide road. Hotels and restaurants down the entire town's seafront. Kiosks and various forms of the cheap and cheezy, even tacky (in a French and tasteful way, of course.) Cannes was Nice written small. Or Monte Carlo, or any of the other beach burgs dotting the Cote d'Azur. Old bits of town, interspersed with market streets and the odd new shopping mall. Up on the hill, or way out on peninsulas into the sea, the rich. Casinos near the water, on quieter stretches of town. Public parks? Yes, a few, usually near a promenade leading to the sea. Pedestrian walks? Few. Bicycle paths? Forgedaboudit. Just about as common as public loos that wouldn't gag a slaughterhouse dog. The exotic charms of the rich and famous? Ho hum. Now some few weeks away from our flat in Westminster in London, we were finding Marseille, Aix and Nice and environs a bit of bland. But we pressed on, determined to find the quintessential alien experience - a sedate and middle-class sort of way, of course.
And for aliens, we encounter on the third week of our French visit a large, pretty, fat, very black woman, lying naked on a bit of wooden flotsam, some two or three meters from the concrete promenade curving round toward the large clump of buildings that is the film festival locale. Big smile, lovely dark skin, large darkish nipples erect in the cool wind... is she wearing a black bikini bottom, or is that her? It's hard not to stare, of course, and the subject seems happy that you do. Two French-speaking guys go by, evidently giving her a bit of ribbing, at least the banter seems friendly enough. Perhaps they are suggesting she put in on? An old joke. A few more groping glances as we saunder, and we're at the edge of the film festival grounds.
Blocked off. Surrounded with cordon ribbon, and the ubiquitous French official, eager to tell passerby where not to go.The familiar French routine: broken or inadequate facilities or services, guarded by insolent and officious factotums. "You may not come here," says the guy in uniform. Meanwhile, trucks and hoses litter the area. This is official business. Public convenience? What would that be en francais? I suspect Clint and other movie stars would get better treatment when they come the big movie party. We decide to return then, in Hollywood entourage, to a warmer welcome and more svelte bimbos.
November 23, a long last look
We take a last wander through the modest and quiet streets of Beaulieu, along its beachfront park and down the path leading by Cap Ferrat's north-western side, on by David Niven's house , thinking of the ghosts of wartime intrigue and lovely parties that no doubt haunt its deserted rooms, and to the small harbour near Cap's end. We look again at the lovely comic statues of half-man, half animal creatures, and at the clamshell flowerpots adorning the dock edges. We wander home through our flat's back gate, treading the deserted pink corridors, by the giant shimmering swimming pool's glassed blue sides reaching two stories up in the air beside the lower reaches of the complex. Later we wander down to Villefranches' beachfront cafes for a final dinner of pizza and German beer. Tomorrow, it is automobile, plane and plane (no train this time). Of the French trip, we think that we were happy to have come, and will take plenty of time before we come again. Our canal trip to Burgundy was more fun. Our Paris trips were about on a par. Our auto trip of the Loire Valley was better than all. There: the experience has a French perspective.
Brian Buchanan, Vancouver BC, Fracas.com publisher and contributing writer. © 2004 Canada
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