Tag Archives: France 09

Ma rentrée

Having witnessed the cultural phenomenon of la rentrée in France, in which the populace returns en masse from their vacances, shops open, streets and markets come alive, Paris is reinhabited by  fabulously arrogant Parisien(ne)s, and posters and TV commercials abound recommending ways to make the great return douce or moins chère, having felt just a little of the excitement of all that, I’m facing my own pale shadow, my re-entry. But before girding my loins, here’s a blog post of snippets.

• In Manhattan you can buy eyelash extensions.

• There’s a hamburger place opposite the Port Authority Terminal in New York that boasts that it’s the only one with its name, that it was founded in 2008, and it has served fewer than a billion burgers (so far).

• In Lyon, I was approached in the street by an unkempt man speaking in rapid (and therefore incomprehensible to me) French, holding up a euro coin in one hand and extending his other palm empty to the passers-by. I dipped into my pocket and gave him a couple of coins – it could have been anything from 50 centimes to 2 euro – and walked on. He called after me: ‘Monsieur! C’est pour manger ou pour boire?’ It sounded like a serious question: he was asking me to tell him whether the money was for food or drink. I called back, ‘Pour manger!’ ‘Pas d’alcool?’ he called back, like a little boy making sure his papa was really forbidding something he knew he shouldn’t have. ‘Pas d’alcool, oui,’ I said, then added by way of mitigating this sternness something that probably translates as ‘Me no myself drink any alcohol.’

• I know everyone goes on about the different light in Europe, but when I walked the dog this morning I kept wondering why everything looked so clear, the greens so brilliant and the sky such a sharp blue. Then I realised I was back in Sydney, in spring and this light that the first settlers thought so harsh and unforgiving is for me the light of home.

• A visit to Paris at the end of summer makes it much clearer what all the fuss is about than a visit in March, when all the trees are like dark, mutilated skeletons.

• The Eiffel Tower sparkles all over at 10 o’clock at night.

• M Eiffel built a kilometre long bridge to carry a canal over the Loire at Briare, and it’s a very pretty thing.

• It’s illegal to sell cheese made with unpasteurised milk in Australia, which means we miss out on some fabulous, richly stinky delights.

• In certain lights, the power lines to the southeast of Saint-Gervais (Gard) appear to be supported by an army of Hello Kitty silhouettes coming over the hills.

• One of the main delights of travel for me is being in an environment where the language is different from at home. I get far too much pleasure from deciphering untranslatable puns in shop names, like the bookshops Mona Lisait, or the restaurant (or resto) in Rue Mouffetard that’s called the Mouffe’tôt Mouffe’tard. This delight is just as strong in places where the language is English. In Brooklyn, for instance, a car full of young dreadlocked men drew alongside my taxi with its radio turned up loud, and instead of the undifferentiated bass beat I expected I was treated to a crystal-clear rendition of ‘No Woman No Cry’, and the next day, a car pulled into the street where I was staying and the whole small block was filed with Aretha Franklin. I know that’s not strictly language, but it’s communication.

• The prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ must feel completely different in a place where the custom is to go out each morning and buy just enough fresh bread for that day, from where you buy a sliced loaf on the weekend and eat slightly mouldy toast on Friday.

Jet lag has been intense this time, but I’m feeling almost human this morning after two nights’ sleep. Normal broadcasting may resume shortly.

Near les Halles


Déjeuner sous les épines


Pain de campagne, tomate, St Marcellin, tomate, des poires et – hors d’image – un pacquet de tranches de dinde plastique.

Greetings from La Grande Motte


In Egypt people were buried in them. The Aztecs killed people on them. At La Grande Motte, people go to them to wait for death.

Travel despatch 4

I haven’t exactly managed a daily post as we walked through the Loire Valley: points d’internet aren’t exactly common and those I have found, when they functioned at all, have had keyboards that drive me crazy. But here I am in beautiful Orléans, having now walked for 20+ kilometres four days in a row, with just one day to go. I’m sore of foot but it’s been fabulous. There have been mysteries, such as the siren that blared out at midday in one village, or the row of adult-sized high chairs made from tree branches, ten metres apart, along the side of a ploughed field (the latter probably something to do with hunting). There have been sublime moments, such as hearing the monks of Fleury sing Vespers at the magnificent church in St-Benoit. And horrible moments, as in the same St-Benoit where neither of the two restaurants was open the night we were there. We’ve got lost, but then been given directions by a kind boulangère. We’ve had wonderful meals, ranging from the one we scraped together that night to any number of lovely restaurant meals. We’ve had a salade avec grésiers, which tasted great, but looked like gobs of flesh that might crawl off their bed of lettuce any second.  The company who organised it for us, Sentiers de France, have done a lovely job, and the French system of walking paths is meticulously mapped.

I’m off to bed for an early rise to croissants, hot chocolate and a long walk.

Travel despatch 3

We’re now in the tiny village of St-Gervais just outside Bagnol-sur-Cèze to the north west of Avignon. Driving hereabouts is no longer a white knuckle experience, though there’s still quite a bit of adrenaline pumping around every time we make a left turn. (My adrenaline is entirely that of a passenger – Penny does all the driving.) We’re having fun being tourists, enjoying the tolerance and even kindness of the French as we mangle their beautiful language. I’ve reached the heights of being able to tell when I’m being corrected, as in when I asked for ‘un glace vanille’, the man behind the counter replied, ‘Vous en voulez une.’

I’ve just uploaded our photos so far to Facebook — pretty much unculled and no captions yet: the Eiffel Tower, the Musée du Quai Branly, views from the Aqueduc des Arts, Provençal markets, Nimes, the Théàtre Antique in Orange. I would have put them somewhere more accessible, but I don’t remember passwords for those places and mon ordinateur à moi, where they are stored, is navré.

One fabulously unnerving scene didn’t make it to a photograph. To avoid misunderstanding I should preface my description of it by telling you that in my childhood whenever my family came home after dark, my mother and sisters would go inside and line up at the lav, while my father, my brothers and I would relieve ourselves on the grass beside the garage, making frothy patches in the moonlight. So it’s not surprising I’m charmed by some of the spectacles of public urination that we’ve encountered here – a man and his small son peeing through a car park fence into a field, for instance, strikes me as a sociable, environmentally responsible act, and the two women standing near the car didn’t seem to mind the wait. I do discriminate. Like most people, I find the stench in some Parisian parks appalling. Today in Orange we saw something else entirely.

We were strolling along, enjoying the feel of the narrow street when a car pulled up just in front of us. A stout middle-aged man stepped out of it, crossed the street, and walked  briskly into a garage that happened to have an open door. As he pulled the door shut behind him, he was unzipping his fly and before we were out of earshot we heard the splash of piss. I looked back before going around the next corner, and sure enough he came back out into the street, hopped in his car and drove off.

If ever you move to France and live in a village, don’t forget to close your garage door.

My book club swag

Pam Brown, True Thoughts (Salt Publishing 2008)
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (Allen & Unwin 2008)
Peter Steiner, Le Crime (Thomas Dunne Books 2003, 2008)

Apart from the conviviality, the food, the cards, the ever expanding list of draconian (and largely ignored) rules, what I love about our book club is that it makes me read things I might otherwise not have touched – books about secret rendition and Guantanamo Bay, someone else’s favourite detective novels, intimidating poetry.

One of the welcome consequences of my self-imposed task of blogging something about every book I read is that it pushes me to reflect on my reading.

True thoughtsSo with Pam Brown’s True Thoughts I’m doubly blessed: without the book club I doubt I would have read it, but here it is with an affectionate inscription to one of the club members; without the blog my mind might not have lingered on it any longer than it took my initial bemusement to fade. But here I am, remembering that poetry usually requires the reader to do a little work, and knowing that I would be revealing myself as an unforgivably lazy reader if I just wrote something like, ‘I don’t get it,’ or even, ‘I don’t grasp how these pieces hang together to make poems — I can barely tell where one ends and the next begins.’ (By pure serendipity, after I’d written that para I heard a Poetry Off the Shelf podcast in which Matthew Zapruder talks about immersing himself in John Ashbury’s poems because they moved him somehow even though he didn’t understand them at all, so I’m clearly in good company, and I imagine Pam Brown would be happy to be discussed analogously to Ashbury.)

So, in spite of feeling that I needed someone to take me by the hand and explain how to read Pam Brown’s poems, I went back, took my time, ruminated, savoured, absorbed and, eventually, enjoyed. It was a fascinating process. At the start I was like a colour-blind person looking at one of those red-and-green patterns, then with sustained, though not strained, attention it was as if the colour-blindness healed and the formless array of dots and squiggles reorganised themselves before my eyes into elegant shapes. For example, ‘Peel me a zibibbo’ begins:

I could go [extra characters are spacers &  meant to be invisible]
oooooooin any direction
but it’s best that ooohere and now
ooI remain lesbian,
ooooo keep my vanishing cream

On first reading, this seemed little more than verbal noise, a bit like the start of an Ern Malley poem. And in the middle of the poem, there’s this:

imperfection in kindness
ooooooocomes with the void,
oyou need to
ithe ‘I’m feeling lucky’ google option.

To which I said, ‘Huh?’

I still don’t really get this second quote, but now that the green dots and the red dots have sorted themselves out, I do get that the first quote is meant to tease, and not meant to yield its meaning until the last line, where she addresses the poets and others whose names have cropped as the poem meanders with apparent aimlessness through a day in the life of the poet, and we realise they are all men:

Hi Kurt, ooooooo oooooooooohi John T,
hi Nick, oPaddy, oooohi Shakespeare,
opeel me a zibibbo
ooooooo ooooo would you,
ooooone of you guys?

(A zibibbo, as a note up the back tells us helpfully, is a delicious kind of grape.) The first lines suddenly yield their meaning. The busy-busy Lesbian poet, after making workaday contact with male poets and artists alive and dead, indulges for a moment in a fantasy that she’s some kind of Mae West femme fatale surrounded by male attendants. And I am amused.

tendermorselsTender Morsels an exception as book club books go: I would have read it with or without the BC’s agency. In fact, I’ve been wanting to read it since it came out nearly 12 months ago. I gave it as a Christmas present to one of our members, secure in the knowledge that it would come to the table at one of our meetings. When it did surface, I was a little taken aback when the person offering it, she to whom I’d given it for Christmas, said she’d stopped reading at about 40 pages because she didn’t want to go on reading a litany of suffering. And I confess that when it was my turn, I was close to giving up on page 40 myself. But I read on, and can report that on page 42 everything changes!

This is a wonderful book, and the gruelling first movement is absolutely essential. We need to know just how much the heroine suffers, so that we understand her need to escape, and when other characters (and possibly the back cover blurb as well) make assumptions about what she is avoiding, we know that they completely fail to grasp the strength of character that has enabled her to survive and function as well as she does. The fairy tale ‘Rose Red and Snow White’ plays through the story beautifully. The use of language is exhilarating. Though in one sense things are resolved by about the two thirds mark, there are unexpected twists and turns right to the very last page. Margo Lanagan walked across in front of my car when I was stopped at lights in the city recently. She looked like just another person on her way to an office job. I wondered how many of those others crossing the street were also total geniuses in disguise.

lecrime Le Crime‘s cover quotes compare Peter Steiner to John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Peter Mayle, Agatha Chsitie, Robert Ludlum, Alan Furst and Graham Greene. I have no idea how embarrassed the quoted reviewers are to see their phrases taken out of context like that. The book is not in the league of any of those writers. It creaks, its psychology is implausible, the plot is completely silly, and the structure barely holds up – but it’s a quick, enjoyable read. I liked it mainly for a flashback that lasts for three of the 26 chapters, in which the hero goes on a long walk through the French countryside, starting at Charles De Gaulle Airport and finally crossing the border into Spain (though we don’t go all the way with him). P and I have just booked in for a much shorter walk in France later this year, supported as befits our ageing selves, and these thirty-odd pages make it seem like a very good idea.

Ready for the next Book Club meeting now, I am.