Tuesday, May 30, 2006

from Pierrerue: good men, bad men; good food, bad food; nudity and all beautiful things surrounding water and being fifty and then some

[Caution: this is an awfully long post. Tomorrow’s will be shorter, I promise.]

Should a woman, traveling alone, be cautious about putting herself in potentially troubling situations? Well, yes, but without necessarily avoiding potentially interesting (and information generating) encounters. I go with the motto that so long as there are people around, no harm can come my way. The accompanying motto is do not give out your real name or phone number if you are at all thinking that you may actually have someone make use of it.

On Sunday I had my worst meal yet of the entire trip and I had my sleeziest encounter as well. Not deterred, on Monday, I had a wonderful meal and a wonderful encounter. Both had innocent beginnings and, thankfully, innocent endings. I’m used to traveling alone and I am used to reaching out to strangers. And I am used to this leading to good outcomes and occasionally a not so good one.

I was psyched for trying out one of the three or four eateries in St. Chinian. This is to be my town, the place where the waiters will know me by name and kiss both cheeks every time I enter, the place where I know the menus by heart. Okay, I am eliminating from further consideration the place I went to Sunday eve. It may be fine by North Dakota standards (no insult there, it’s just that I’ve not heard anyone ever rave madly about an eating establishment in North Dakota), but here, you come to expect a lot more.

But before even sitting down to dinner, I was passing by a rowdy group just outside a bar next door. They were so exuberant! So I asked one guy to explain what was going on. It turns out they were supporters of a local rugby team. The team had lost that day, but this certainly would not keep anyone from coming out to cheer about their non victory.

The guy I asked was a chatty type. In providing full and detailed explanations of everything having to do with the sport of rugby, his home town and all in between, he bought me what he considers to be a local aperitif (kir, claimed as local by nearly every village in France) and he got quite close. You know, so that he could be heard. In the ten minutes I spent there in that crowd, I had nearly a dozen people come up and tell me that I should watch out for this dude. My camera and my entrance smile make me look quite like the innocent abroad. In any event, it’s never impossible to leave when you are in such public places and so I did. Only to have a bad meal. It was a gloomy and very dark fifty minute walk back to Pierrerue that night.

On Monday, I took a public bus (with all the village high school children from this area) to the big town of Beziers. They were going to school, I was going to pick up a car. I cannot move much without one and the intended motorbike rental turned out to be too difficult to contemplate.

In Beziers, I finally had one of those moments where you are in love with your setting. My setting actually wasn’t that spectacular – Biziers is just alright, acceptable only if you are passing through ever so quickly, but the cafĂ© and croissant were nothing short of magnificent.

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And so now I have this car. And I am on this morning close to the coast. I had wanted to see what the coastal towns and beaches were like here, at the point in France where it is almost Spain but not quite. And I wanted to see the first segment of the Canal du Midi.

You know about the Canal du Midi, right? It is more than a three hundred year old canal and it came to be built because of the pirate issue around the Rock of Gibraltar. One good way to avoid the pirates is to dig a canal through France between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

The canal is a fascinating 240 kilometers of locks and water slopes, connecting waterways all the way to Toulouse where it dumps boats into the rivers leading to the Atlantic. It is also a work of art, with the recognizable rows of old, evenly spaced trees making it all extraordinarily photogenic. So expect to see a lot of Canal du Midi photos in the next three weeks.

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resting places for barges and boats

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But the other body of water that I fell madly in love with on this day was the sea. I was driving along the coastal road up to the historic port of Sete and finally, I could not resist it. The sun was strong, the water was breathtakingly beautiful, there were gusts of wind and really, you cold not ask for a finer day to walk along hot golden sands.

Two things surprised me. There were cars parked along the side of the road and every several dozen feet there would be an umbrella or two, but not so many. Surely this place will swell with people in July and August, but now it is extremely uncrowded.

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one umbrella here

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on this windy day, another one here...

And the women are topless.

We are not talking about a nudist beach. There are those as well, but this is just one very public stretch of sand, right next tot the road, and there they were, not all, but a great many, old and young, walking around and wiping an occasional grain of sand from under an often sagging breast.

It was such a beautiful hour, there in that Mediterranean sun. I stretched out by a dune, rolled around some in the warm sand, walked by the water’s edge and studied these:

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...wait, friend or foe?

…and generally thought evil thoughts about Victoria’s Secret and the post sixties generation that rejected early attempts to burn that damn bra for good (except for jogging – I can see its virtues then).

I did not stay too long because, brown as I am, I am not brown all over and without sunscreen, you can do some serious damage to yourself on those beaches, but I have to say that this was one great hour of bliss this week.

In the town, my little info booklet told me that I should climb up a hill to take in the spectacular layout below. Surrounded by sea on two or three sides, connected to the mainland by strips of sandy beach, broken up by an old canal running through the town center, it really is quite the marvel.

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canal down the middle

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looking at it (later) from the top

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to the south, the beaches

And so I ask for directions of a person who looked like he might know the area.

Diego lives here, alone. He looks local, speaks local, eats local. Early in our conversation, he had been telling me about his beautiful grown up children and so I pointedly asked:
do you have a…(momentarily the word for wife escaped me)
Concubine? He asks, completely seriously. No.

He had once married a Parisian woman, had children with her, then decided she worked too hard and he wanted, instead, a life of beaches and fishing and singing late into the night (he is Catalan and earns money as a Flamenco singer). You could call that either romantic or foolish. She saw it as the latter and stayed up north. He’s been here for years.

He was giving me directions, in fact leading me up toward the proper roads when I interrupted to ask where I could get a good lunch salad. Sete does not lack eateries. There are lots and lots of them and so one must be suspicious, particularly after last night’s poor dinner.

Diego’s accent was thick and sprinkled with dialect, but he knew to speak slowly and I could easily follow along.

These places, they are mostly bad. For tourists. But there is one place that you will really like. Le Pique Boeuf. They make excellent salads, fish dishes, local foods. It is excellent. I know it well, I sing there every Saturday evening.

I ordered the bouillabaisse. Anyone who has eaten with me in seafood restaurants knows that I always order a bouillabaisse if it is on the menu. And here I am, practically at the birthplace of this flavorful concoction.

The staff was effusive. They brought tasting plates of mussels and olives and dates and on-the-house aperitifs (it’s a local one! Kir!) and I was there for more than two hours. Diego invited himself to accompany me, sipping on a cup of sweet tea and watching me find pleasure in eating.

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a little extra, on the side

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displaying what he'll place in the bowl

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almost ready

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He invited me as well to come back and hear him sing. I protested – it’s a two hour drive to Pierrerue. He assured me that I could stay over at his very large apartment, but that violates my motto number two and so I nodded and spoke of trying, but really I will not do any of it, interesting as a night of Catalan-Flamenco would be.

Several post scripts and then I’ll stop. First, The waitress there was thrilled that she could chat up an American. She has this dream. She wants to be a make-up specialist for film. The kind that puts on fake old noses and wrinkles the skin some, etc. She is adamant about this. She will go to study in the one school here that teaches this craft (in Strasbourg) but she feels sure there is in America a school that does it better. She was not able to find anything on the Net. I told her I’d ask around. Let me know if you know of one.

Secondly, Diego, my all around problem solver for the afternoon, also finally cleared away my coffee issues. I am renting the apartment from an English woman. The English haven’t the need to start the day with a great coffee and so their coffee making utensils are of the uninteresting kind. I wanted to purchase my own stove top espresso maker for my use here. But where? So far I had wasted time on this found nothing.

Diego told me that I needed to go to what he referred to as the Arab bazaar. Sete, as most cities in France, has a significant community of Muslims. They tend to form clusters in the poorer sections of a city and they operate a number of stores which are geared toward their own families. And sure enough, my Italian moka pot was there, at the bazaar, priced at 5 Euros (one fifth of what I would have paid in a department store).

Thirdly, so long as I was in this bigger town, I decided to also put to rest my search for sandals. I cannot find anything ever for the summer in the States that fits well, looks stylish enough and is reasonably priced. In France, none of these are a problem.

Indeed, I found two pairs in a cool store and I loved both. So much so that I was working hard on developing my justification reasoning so that I could convince myself that buying both was okay.

A woman, a shopper, herself stylish, of course, paused and looked at me inquisitively. I can’t decide between the two, I explained.

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which one?

She pointed to one and said: that one of course. The other, it is for a little girl.

With those words, she unwittingly dismissed half the women’s footwear sold back in Madison. Practical and like a little girl would wear.

And here is why I love being my age and in France. This is the age that you look forward to here. You have style. You have superior knowledge. You teach young women how to do right by themselves and young men how to make love with care. You are in your prime. People look up to you, admire you. Being young isn’t nearly as attractive as being in your fifties. A midlife crisis must manifest itself when you are experiencing great frustration that you are not yet there. Like purgatory, it is your limbo time. The summit has yet to be reached. And when it is reached, it appears to last for a long long time. It is an attitude I love and share.