Thursday, August 20, 2015

the pretty old house with the long line outside

From the street. All cleaned up now.
Eventually a sign appeared announcing that the construction work that began clogging the narrow surrounding streets in 2013 had an interesting-sounding purpose--the grand building mostly hidden behind walls in Aix-en-Provence's Mazarin district was being transformed into an arts center.

It's been a year now since I officially lived in Aix, after calling this my home for nearly two years. But I've been nearby still--in a village outside of Aix and now in Marseille. Thus, I'm back in town fairly often. But this week I'm staycationing here (which is really just a short way of saying that I'm staying in my friends' apartment while they're away, watering their plants, working as normal, but trying to read a little more than usual). And it's been lovely to live here again instead of just passing through for a few hours here and there.
In the entrance hall, looking toward the
 front door.

Among my discoveries, some of them unpleasant (the bookstore on Place Richelme is a clothing store now? one of my Indian places has been transformed into something Italian or Spanish (I forget which)? and more...), has been the discovery that all that construction on Rue Joseph Cabassol has been replaced by long lines of people waiting to enter the new arts center. It's been unveiled!

And even better? I'm now 2 for 2 in testing out the policy many museums here have of letting journalists enter for free. I tried it for the first time in June at the Musée Regards de Provence in Marseille and have decided it's a very smart policy.

So, courtesy of that policy, come along with me on today's wanderings through the Caumont Centre d'Art, which was restored and is run by a group called Culturespaces. The center opened in May of this year in a former private mansion that was built in the 1700s. I feel a little like it's more "mine" than most museums since I saw it (from the outside, anyway) before it was made beautiful again. Knowing how new it is is a marker showing that I've lived some life in this corner of the world now. I've been here long enough to know which cultural venues are new and which ones predate 2012. That's something.

A fancy 18th-century bedroom, with a nice digital tour guide.
Anyway, back to the Caumont Centre. For starters, I'll just say that everything seems to be done really well. From their website, which is full of interesting info (and was clearly translated into/written in English by a real person who is not named Google Translate), to the exhibit, it was just all nicely done. The building is gorgeous, and the tour includes a couple rooms restored to typical finery for the wealthy nobles of the 18th century. There are also lovely gardens and a cafe.

Beyond all that, the Hôtel de Caumont will host major temporary art exhibitions. This first exhibit inside the lovely mansion is comprised of the paintings of Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal), an 18th-century Venetian painter. Check out this link to enjoy a virtual version of the exhibit and learn a little about Canaletto's impressive oeuvre.

But Canaletto's isn't the only art on feature. Until November 1, the main courtyard features the ethereal photographic work of contemporary (he's barely older than me) French artist Laurent Chéhère. The works are derived from his series "Flying Houses." To celebrate Caumont Centre's grand opening, Culturespaces commissioned Chéhère "to design an illustration announcing the venue's opening following its complete restoration," per a press release.

At the end of the exhibition, signs directed guests to descend from the third floor via back stairs, where at each landing, there was a collection of photographs from the restoration of the building. It was a great way to wrap up the tour, and I'm so glad they chronicled the process of bringing the house back to its former glory. You can see those photos and more details of the restoration process here on the centre's website.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

when that bill bryson guy traveled in europe...

Book One
In the fake war that has emerged between these two accidental combatants, courtesy of being read one after the other, Book One (aka: The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald), as pictured at left, versus Book Two (aka: Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson), see photo below, Book One wins hands down in the design category. It has the kind of cover that's frame-able and full of all kinds of writerly inspiration. Book Two was definitely not selected based on the merits of its very, very uninspiring yellow jersey.


I've recently finished reading Book One, mostly out of sheer determination and maybe partly to honor its gorgeous cover. Take all the depressing parts of The Great Gatsby and make them much longer, and that's this book. But I suspect there's something redeeming to be found, I just wish I had a book group to help me find it. And to be sure, there were a few passages that I noted with my reading pencil for their turns of phrase or literary merit. But mostly, I was so very glad to finish the book and move on to Book Two.

I'd never heard of Bill Bryson before my 2007 four-month escapade to Africa, but once there, I began to find his books prominently featured in bookstores across the continent, or at least the ones I went to in Kampala, Uganda and Cape Town, South Africa. Who was this ubiquitous guy? Once upon a time sometime after Africa, I finally read I'm a Stranger Here Myself, but, well, I didn't love it. What I read there did not merit this
Book Two
international notoriety I'd witnessed. But then I heard that that book was not his finest shining moment, so I gave him another try and picked up this ugly used edition from his vast oeuvre at the English bookshop in Aix-en-Provence. Determining the quality of the work within Book Two would clearly not in any way be affected by any assist from its cover.

So, anyway, that's the tome I'm reading now and enjoying more than poor Book One. And since I don't have a book group to discuss these things with, here are a couple of my fave quotes so far...

Chapter 3 - Oslo

"One of the small marvels of my first trip to Europe was the discovery that the world could be so full of variety, that there were so many different ways of doing essentially identical things, like eating and drinking and buying cinema tickets. It fascinated me that Europeans could at once be so alike--that they could be so universally bookish and cerebral, and drive small cars, and live in little houses in ancient towns, and love soccer, and be relatively unmaterialistic and law-abiding, and have chilly hotel rooms and cozy and inviting places to eat and drink--and yet be so endlessly, unpredictably different from one another as well. I loved the idea that you could never be sure of anything in Europe."

This is just really nicely said. Especially apropos while living in Provence is that part about living in little houses in ancient towns. There are so many ancient towns here that, well, after three years here I kind of understand how people eventually just have to get on with their lives. You can't necessarily drink in the wonder of your ancient town every single day.  At some point you have to stop wondering and wash your dishes already.

"When I told friends in London that I was going to travel around Europe and write a book about it, they said, 'Oh, you must speak a lot of languages.' 'Why, no,' I would reply with a certain pride, 'only English,' and they would look at me as if I were crazy. But that's the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don't want to know what people are talking about. I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."

Personally, I think what I enjoy more than the not-knowing is the feeling of accomplishment when you break the code and manage to understand anything at all because you've put all the clues together and deduced some aspect of heretofor unknown humanity.

Chapter 4 - Paris

" least [the hotel] didn't have those curious timer switches that used to be a feature of hotel hallways in France. These were a revelation to me when I first arrived from America. All the light switches in the hallways were timed to switch off after ten or fifteen seconds, presumably as an economy measure. This wasn't so bad if your room was next to the elevator, but if it was very far down the hall, and hotel hallways in Paris tend to wander around like an old man with Alzheimer's, you would generally proceed the last furlong in total blackness, feeling your way along the walls with flattened palms, and in invariably colliding scrotally with the corner of a nineteenth-century oak table put there, evidently, for that purpose."

Maybe the hotels have done away with these, but apartment buildings here sure haven't. You haven't lived in France until you've been trapped going up or down stairs when the light times out. Sometimes the switches have glowing lights to announce where they are on the wall, but not always. It's even better when you're moving in or out of an apartment or just plain carrying anything of substantive size (which is common since, you know, there's often no elevator, so anything that enters your house has to be carried up stairs). Stairs become very treacherous in the dark. It's the kind of thing horror stories are made of, and you don't even need to pay a scary bad guy to show up. This kind of horror is very, very cheap.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

pulling back the curtain on village life

One need not go far to find one of the picturesque villages that sun themselves atop so many of Provence’s hills. Views of their clumped-together, ancient, warm-colored stone homes and the church bell tower that usually rises from their midst make it easy to imagine the idyllic life that’s lived along these villages’ quaint and very old streets.

For the past two-weeks, I’ve been house-sitting for friends who live just below one of these gorgeous gathering places. I’ve walked through Ventabren village a couple times before this but never alone and never with real time for wandering.

But I’ve now done both. And it’s been one of the treats of this house-sit to climb the stone-cobbled chemin up to the city during a couple recent twilights and listen to sounds of dinnerware clinking and pleasant conversation as I wind my way through the close-set homes. I found myself wondering--and even assuming that it must clearly be so--whether life on this hilltop is as convivial as seems possible. Surely, everyone knows their neighbors—the several hundred others perched there together—and it’s one big happy French family. Right?

Well, sometimes assumptions don’t hold up.

Today I managed to rouse my night-owl self early enough to attend the village church’s 9 a.m. Wednesday morning Mass. It’s August, which is high vacation season here in France and a time when many things shut down, so I wasn’t 100 percent certain the doors would really be open. On Sundays the services rotate between this church in Ventabren and those in a couple other nearby villages.

But the doors didn’t disappoint, and I slipped onto a bench a few rows behind the three other women who composed the morning’s congregation.

When it was time to “pass the peace,” it was nice to see real warmth in their eyes as they greeted me, the interloper in their village community.

My other goal for the morning was to visit the village bar/café, but it wasn’t open yet, so I climbed up to the very top of the hill to enjoy some reverie and prayer with a cicada choir for accompaniment while I regarded the quiet, green valley below.

Then as I descended, I exchanged bonjours with an older man who was also descending into the village. We enjoyed a friendly chat as we walked down the stone stairs past the ruins of the 12th-century chateau of Queen Jeanne that put Ventabren officially on the map back in the day. The man was born and raised in Ventabren, though not in the village itself, and has always
lived in this corner of the world. Despite never moving away, renewing his passport is one of the tasks on his to-do list, since it expires soon. As we passed the former school turned present-day library, he noted that this is where he spent his elementary school days and pointed out the spot where a wall used to separate the back courtyard—pre-dating his school-time era—to provide one courtyard for girls and one for boys. There was a day when the genders didn’t mix at school here.

We parted ways, and I arrived at the tiny café. Its four round tables stretch across the small front terrace. Inside there’s a typical wood-paneled bar and some walls of shelves filled with beer. I learned that the area marked “private” to the right of the bar wasn’t seating for private functions as I first assumed. It’s the proprietor’s kitchen.

Throughout a pleasant hour and a half, I was busy. I gazed at things. I read. I took obligatory Instagram photos. I exchanged bits of pleasant conversation with other customers. It was all quite friendly. Just like village life should be. Right?

But the most interesting part of the day came while I chatted with the owner and finally got to ask all of my burning village-life questions.

And here’s what I learned. Sometimes assumptions don’t hold up.

Mr. Proprietor has lived in Ventabren for 30 years. Before that, he was from nearby Aix-en-Provence, for the first 25 years of his life. In addition to running his café/bar, he does some odd jobs for the town hall, which include providing transportation for elderly folks to a weekly meal at the school (during the school year) and delivering official documents to offices in Aix.

His café is only open during the summer – in part because there’s no space inside for tables and the terrace isn’t so pleasant in the cold, but also because most of his visitors, like all the other customers I talked with, are tourists, not locals. So he’s open during tourist season.

His café and one restaurant are the only businesses in the village. These survive, he says, partly
because they aren’t dependent on the locals to keep them going. But the village bakery, a staple of any French community, shut down 20 years ago.

And here Mr. Proprietor explained that there are three things needed to support a thriving local business culture in a village...and to support all those idyllic images of relaxed, sun-baked community life:
  • The village needs at least 1000 inhabitants. Ventabren village (the commune includes more than just the village, so “Ventabren” officially has a larger population than just the village’s numbers) only has 400-500.
  • The village needs a central plaza where the community can regularly gather. Ventabren doesn’t really have this. Apparently, twice a year village residents enjoy a potluck together, but that’s the real extent of the neighborliness. So much for all those idyllic images. Half the village is composed of renters who rotate regularly, so this affects village life. He said people are neighbors but not really friends.
  • The village needs not to be too close to other larger towns and cities with all their amenities. Ventabren, for example, is a 20-minute drive from Aix and 30-45 minutes from Marseille, with the region’s largest commercial districts lying between Ventabren and Marseille.

Thus, as a result of all these things, Ventabren is something of a really pretty dormitory. People go out during the day to their jobs and other activities and come back at night to sleep in their very old stone homes. And that’s as good as village life gets sometimes. If you want the quiet and want to keep to yourself, then maybe this still sounds like idyllic village life to you. For others of us with busy imaginations and dreams of community hugfests (or bises-fests, as it would be here), it might be good to remember that Ventabren—and other Provençal villages like it—looks good on Instagram but might not be your best French dream after all.

My conversation with Mr. Proprietor was interrupted by the arrival of a French girl from Aix with her French guests, an older couple from Paris. Eventually they started posing many of the same questions as I did about village life. It’s not only we Americans who are curious about the daily goings-on in the villages of Provence.