Sunday, June 11, 2006

from Pierrerue: painters and parties

I went to Ceret in the late afternoon both because it is at the foothills of the Pyrenees and because it was once a place of escape for artists and intellectuals. They left traces of their work behind: Picasso, Chagall, Kisling, Cocteau among countless others. I wanted to see the place for myself to see what the draw was (besides freedom from oppressive and belligerent regimes).

Of course, I am curious about other stuff too. Ceret is just a few kilometers from Spain. When faced with a border, I want to cross it. What’s it like on the other side?

And so before proceeding to Ceret, I turned south, dug out my passport and recalled a few Spanish words I thought might be useful. Ola. Mui rico. They’re all greetings, or comments on food.

I must admit, crossing over to Spain was one of those bad decisions. I had sped south for two hours and was due back at Pierrerue before 8. My time was limited and should not have been given over to border towns packed with shoppers buying up tobacco and motorbikes and God knows what else.

The snaking line of traffic was discouraging and I was prepared to spend even more time at the border itself. Thankfully, the Spanish control person chose at this hour to take a nap and I was happy to see traffic whiz by his booth without him so much as opening an eye. I thought for a minute he may be dead, all sprawled out as he was and so I was relieved to see his stomach move up and down with some regularity.

Having snuck past that, I breathed a (premature) sigh of relief. Seconds later, however, I was pulled over by a very pleasant if official looking woman. I watched with envy as all others sailed through without attracting hers or anyone’s attention.

Where are you going and how long will you be there? She asked.
Ashamed of my reasons for being there (for the hell of it), I eeked out: twenty minutes.
Not staying overnight?

And you are driving a rented car?

Is that it? Am I not allowed to bring in a rented car here? I should have checked. Still…
Yes, it’s rented. Listen, I can turn back… Interest in a peek at Spain was vanishing. I’ve been in Spain plenty. Why this detour? Foolish.
Just one more thing. How old are you??
Now that just gave me pause and so I asked why do you want to know?
For the survey, of course. I am from the Tourist Bureau and we are conducting random surveys of visitors.
It seems prudent to disclose this information at the outset, but I am not here to make a fuss, so I tell her my age and drive on.

Reflecting that Spain is a pretty place even if this particular spot does not adequately display her splendors, I decide to at least find a café that would do me up a fine cappuccino. And I did find a restaurant off to the side somewhere, boasting fresh ingredients and Catalan food and so I ordered a Catalan Cream in addition to the coffee and proceeded to have a fine discussion on the merits of the Catalan Cream over the French Crème Brulee. The former, I’m told, has flavors of orange and honey and a richness that I am assured cannot be found in something as plain as a Crème Brulee, which, after all, is merely eggs, cream and sugar.

It was past five when I finally arrived in Ceret. That turned out to work in Ceret’s favor. The colors of houses, the dappled plane trees, the mellowness of a late afternoon light all made the town lovely to behold.

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In the Museum of Modern Art, I saw a more somber story, of course. Artists escaping war and repression are inevitably going to work through their stress in their creations and indeed, Picasso’s gift to the museum was a painting depicting evil and Chagall’s magnificent painting on the theme of war could not be more moving in a very sad sort of way.

True, Picasso also left behind ceramics depicting bull fights, which were very a propos, this being a town that goes in for that sort of thing. And there was an occasional Dufy and we know Dufy can paint no evil, so that was a bit of a relief.

I also went to a bookstore and asked if they had any book at all that would help me out a little with the finer nuance of French grammar. I was tired of hearing myself speak incorrectly.

Ceret’s bookstores are a bit on the pretentious side. They have serious little volumes on art, philosophy and on the human condition in general. There was not a grammar book to be had, but I was assured that I would do well reading to myself the memoirs of a Catalan woman – something about having to leave home and suffering separation anxiety from the village of her youth. I was flattered that my French was pegged at such a level. Or maybe she wrote in a particularly accessible way. In any case, I have the book with me and will get to it as soon as the tempo of life here in the south of France slows down for me even more.

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In the evening there was, of course, the annual Pierrerue Fete. I went down with great trepidation. I knew hardly anyone in town. Why had I thought this to be a good idea?

Madame Marie-Rose rescued me. Literally, she saved my life as I managed to, early on, choke on a tomato wedge and without her resounding slap on my back, delivered with the force of a woman who has seen death and would not like to repeat the experience just that evening, I would have been but ashes in the cemetery at the bottom of the Pierrerue hill.

The Fete itself was possibly the highpoint of highpoints. 160 people showed up from Pierrerue and its sister village just down the hill (Combejean). The village youth prepared and served the food, counting on a profit that would allow them to party to high heaven later in the season.

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Of course, this being an intergenerational kind of place, on this night both young and old mixed, ate and danced together late into the night and I am told in July the old will again show up to the party of the young and, just as on this night, they will start with the slower dances, move right into a multiage bunny hop and wind the evening down with some hearty disco stuff.

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my table

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taking it in

Such an evening! I will long remember Celine* (my age) explaining across the table to Marie-Rose what life is like in America. Her daughter had done graduate work in San Francisco and so she knew the scoop. America, from a French person’s perspective: there is great concern that we do not use trains enough and that we lack bread stores in every village.

Celine works at the wine cooperative. Her father and grandfather were “wine growers” (vignerons). If you asked her if she ever thought about leaving Pierrerue she would laugh. Entre deux. Pierrerue is an entre deux village – it lies between the two: mountains and sea. It is, in the eyes of its residents, a perfect location, like no other on earth. They love this place. Me too, outsider that I am.

*where people have offered personal stories out of friendship rather of a service, I have disguised identifiers – the most obvious being names. I’ve changed most of them.