Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Le franglais

In 1635 le cardinal Richelieu, minister of Louis XIII, made good on a promise of sponsoring a small number of people who met at l’Hôtel de Rambouillet to discuss literature. The group became l’Académie française, a highly-respected organization which continues to function today. The Academy acts as the official authority to advise the nation on the appropriate usage, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language; it is also charged with publishing an official dictionary and with distributing prizes for different literary genres and criticism, as well as for cinema, history, art history, philosophy, and in the area of Francophonie for French-speaking areas outside of la métropole. Because the official seal granted by Richelieu contains the motto À l’immortalité, the forty individuals who are elected to the organization for life are called les immortels. There is the possibility, however, of being unseated in the case of grave misconduct, as were members of the Vichy government such as Pétain after the Second World War. Since its origins in the seventeenth century, in over 700 elections, the French Academy has only selected five women as members, including Marguerite Yourcenaur and Assia Djebar. Poet, Senegalese president, and long-time French resident before his death in 2001, Léopold Sédar Senghor also became an immortel. In general, members are writers (e.g. Victor Hugo), politicians (Giscard d’Estaing), scientists (Pasteur), lawyers, historians, philosophers (like Voltaire and Michel Serres), and high level clergymen. In 2008, musician and songwriter, Jean-Loup Dabadie (pictured in center), joined the French Academy. Members meet on Thursdays sous la coupole (under the dome, as they say) of l’Institut de France in Paris. Their ceremonial clothing includes an embroidered green jacket, l’habit vert, and for the men a hat called a bicorne and a sword, une épée.

L'Académie is a conservative body which attempts to “purify” the language. In the past it has rejected neologisms such as the verb alunir (“to land on the moon”), prefering instead the longer and more clumsy alternative atterrir sur la lune. Recently, the use of the term ministre in the feminine to refer to women ministers was refused in favor of maintaining its original masculine form. (I have to think that Richelieu would be proud!) One of the French Academy’s most difficult challenges has been trying to limit the influx of English, or more correctly American, words from entering the language. It seems more and more to be a losing battle; on this visit to France we have been shocked at the amount of English words which have worked their way into French. Much of it, of course, is on television, where I assume people feel that it shows a certain erudition to use English. The vocabulary covers a wide variety of topics and situations: from simple exclamations such as “oops!” and “wow!” (Frenchified in spelling--usually but not always--to oups! and waouh! to suit their pronunciation rules) to adjectives like cozy and groggy (I assume admitted “as is” in terms of spelling). Not surprisingly, I suppose, computer phrases like un bug informatique and des spams are flourishing. Many times, though, it’s puzzling to hear English adjectives (like crazy, fun, or old-school) or nouns (like un break, un discount, un flop, un hobby, or le finish) when perfectly acceptable French words exist. And it’s not just on television that one sees or hears English. Billboards attempt to entice you to buy le mobilier outdoor (“patio furniture,” we would probably say) or des options low-cost for any number of products or services. Even the réparateur who came to fix the belt on our washing machine early in our stay used the word “spin” instead of l’essorage. A warning: pronunciation is always à la française and sometimes difficult to understand.

Last month a new comedy starring Sophie Marceau came out entitled LOL, which got me wondering about le langage texto, also called les mots SMS (for “short message service words”). Naturally, plenty of genuine French words make the texto list: ht for acheter (“to buy”), oqp for occupé (“busy”), vazi for vas-y (“go ahead”), and @+ for à plus [tard] (“see you [later]”). Le verlan is also well-represented in text messages, as it is in the spoken language; this kind of slang consists of words made by reversing the consonant sounds, a bit like “pig latin.” We find the French word for “woman”—femme—which becomes meuf, parents becomes renps, fou (or “crazy”--see, I told you they had a word!) becomes ouf, and méchant (“mean”) becomes chanmé. As expected, there are lots of English words and expressions: "4me" is used for pour moi, "kiss" instead of bisou, "sry"("sorry") for désolé, and "asap" stands for aussi vite que possible. There's a book out completely written in le langage texto by Phil Marso, Pa Sage a TaBa vo SMS, for anyone up for un vrai challenge to test their text messaging skills.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blog de ma terrasse

One of my favorite French authors, Daudet, inspired by a Provençal windmill in Fontvieille (Bouche du Rhone), wrote a collection of short stories under the title of Lettres de mon Moulin. What I offer here is in no way comparable to the works of that enormously talented and charming nineteenth century writer, but simple observations from time spent on the rooftop deck of the house where we are living. For about a week now the weather has been sunny and getting warmer, offering opportunites for reading outside and for surverying the surroundings.

For starters, let’s not neglect the obvious: towering above the deck are the church to one side and Mont Ventoux to the other. The mountain still has an expansive cover of snow on the top, but each day the patches of green seem to be widening. Looking down into town, I can see along the main street the tops of platanes (“plane trees”) which have been pruned to make them more resilient. Certain species of trees both near and far appear to be starting to sprout their leaves; for quite awhile now les amandiers (“almond trees”) have been displaying their striking pink blossoms.

A few smells waft up from down below, notably of the freshly baked bread from the town boulangeries (“bakeries”) and smoke from the fireplaces of a few homes nearby. In the distance, you spot another type of smoke: that from small fires that vignerons (“winemakers”) have set to burn les sarments (or “the vine shoots”) they have cut off their vines, readying them for the grape-growing period.

It is very quiet for the most part upstairs on the deck. The sounds of the bells from the church continue uninterrupted,of course, announcing the hour and half-hour. There are various kinds of birds flying by and one can hear the cooing both of the les pigeons at the church and les tourtereaux (“turtle doves”) from various spots around town. Dassault military jets sometimes fly over, too, disrupting the serenity by the ruckus they make. Bits of conversations from neighbors drift up, reminding me that I am indeed in France. During the week, at least twice a day, we notice the happy sounds of young children playing in front of the school at recess (à la récré). Every once in awhile young cats cross the rooftops, often attempting death-defying jumps as cats are wont to do. A young female tabby drops by on occasion to say “bonjour” and to lie next to my books and papers on the table.

Above all, what you observe up on the roof is the contrast of old and new. On the one hand, the labyrinth of the small streets and the architecture tell you that the town has been around for a long time. Especially old are the walls of the homes and the cobblestone on certain walkways. The tiles on rooftops vary in age and condition. Some are quite new, while others are broken or cracked; several are even held in place by heavy rocks. On the other hand, this is the twenty-first century and des paraboles ("satellite dishes") and cell phone towers take their place in the landscape.

Apologies to Daudet…

Friday, March 20, 2009

Off to Montpellier

Last Thursday on a gorgeous day we arrived in Montpellier, a city in the southern region of Languedoc-Roussillon where we had spent the spring semester in 2003. It’s always a relief to get to a place where you have been before, to walk right out of the train station and know exactly where to find the hotel. After dropping off our bags, we headed for the historic downtown, known as l’Écusson because on a map the area resembles a badge or a coat of arms. At noon we were able to enjoy a meal at an outdoor café near Les Halles, the covered central food market; it was so nice to have lunch out in the sun for the first time this year.

Close by is the bookstore Gibert Joseph, where we spent nearly an hour looking over new and second-hand books, DVDs, and postcards. From there it is just a short walk to Place de la Comédie, the impressive square that is the heart of downtown. We inquired about walking tours at the office de tourisme, but none suited our schedule. So, we gladly found a bench for reading our newly purchased books, overlooking the flower beds of the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle.

There is so much we love about Montpellier: its warm people (Coucou, les amis!), its narrow medieval streets, its mild climate, its nearness to the Mediterranean. One thing we’ve never been too crazy about, though, is its lack of fine cuisine. But on Thursday night, after doing a little Internet research on the French equivalent of Chowhound, called Où Bouffer (“Where to eat”), we were lucky enough to come across glowing reviews of Le Nhà-Quê. This restaurant of just ten tables, which is only open from Thursday to Saturday evening, serves delicious Vietnamese cuisine, probably the best we’ve ever had. The owner/chef/waiter, a very vivacious fellow, delighted us with his wonderful fare as well as his impeccable French. My mouth still waters thinking about le magret de canard laqué ("lacquered duck breast") that I had that night!

On Friday and Saturday we visited friends and explored some familiar and unfamiliar parts of the city: la Promenade de Peyrou (the elevated place royale in honor of the Sun King, Louis XIV), l’Arc de Triomphe (just across the street and restored since we were last in town), le Jardin des Plantes (where the hyacinths and mimosa were in bloom), la cathédrale Saint-Pierre (with its fortress-like towers), and next to it la Faculté de Médecine (where, believe it or not, Nostradamus and Rabelais studied in the 1530s!). We dropped by another favorite bookstore, Sauramps, where a helpful clerk searched his database for secondary works on Vargas for me.

To round out the weekend on Sunday we took the tram to Port Marianne and grabbed a bus to the beach. We were not the only ones to have the idea! The restaurants and shops along the canal and the boardwalk of Palavas-les-Flots were swarming with folks like us, who were eager to benefit from the warmer spring temperatures. A few people were playing games on the beach and there were even some brave souls swimming in the Mediterranean. The whole trip was a wonderful way to celebrate the true and long-desired beginning of spring.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Few Travel Tips

For those readers who have not had a lot of experience traveling in France, I thought I’d offer a few pieces of advice and general reflections. First of all, despite what some folks might try to tell you, French people are quite friendly and welcoming. Just learning and using a few simple phrases of their language can help to make things go a lot easier. Learning to say bonjour is number one; meaning “hello,” “good morning,” or “good afternoon,” it is, in my estimation, the most frequently employed word in the language as well as one of the most important. (Bonsoir, by the way, is used after dark for “good evening.”) One of the hardest things for Americans to grasp is that greeting people is extremely important in this culture and in other Francophone areas. This includes saying “hello” to people who are serving you in any capacity: the clerks at the hotel, bus drivers, ticket takers on trains, all salespeople, workers in a fast food restaurant or a bookstore, etc. In fact, you should greet practically everyone you make eye contact with, particularly in small towns. Not hearing “hello” from others feels very offensive to French people and the same is true in the case of “good-bye”—au revoir. Once you have the greetings down, just add s’il vous plaît (for “please”) and merci (for “thank you”) to your vocabulary and voilà, you’re well on your way to becoming a model tourist.

Train travel is one of the most comfortable ways to see the country. An easy thing for inexperienced travelers to forget is to composter le billet—you have to stamp your ticket to validate it in one of the many small yellow machines found inside the train station and on les quais, the platforms, before boarding the train. Le TGV (the high-speed train whose acronym comes from the phrase train à grande vitesse), which serves most French cities, can cover very large distances in a short amount of time. For example, you can travel the 490 miles from Paris to Marseille in just over three hours. On the high speed trains, you have assigned seats and before the train arrives you can consult an electronic sign which indicates la composition des trains; that way, you can be standing in the right spot on the platform when the train pulls into the station. It’s a good idea to keep your used TGV tickets on any given trip in case you need to change to an earlier or later train on the return. We learned the hard way that stamped right on the tickets is the phrase Conservez vos billets. Whether taking the TGV or the smaller train express régional (TER), it’s always a good idea to pack light…very light. Many stations are not equipped with ramps so travelers end up having to carry their bags up and down flights of stairs.

My final topic, if I may be so bold, has to do with public restrooms. There are very few, it seems, especially in small- to medium-sized cities and towns. We were just in Montpellier over the weekend and had to really scour around to find les toilettes. Nearly all department stores, bookstores, supermarkets, and the like do not have facilities freely available. Cafés and the large shopping mall had des WC, and there were some free-standing port-o-potties (that you have to pay for, of course) at the beach. While train stations have bathroom facilities, they, too, are often payant. Thus, the intelligent traveler is forewarned and has to plan ahead for such eventualities.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Visit to l'Hôtel-Dieu

The series Laissez-vous conter (roughly translated as “Listen to the story”), presented by the tourist office at Carpentras, ended its two-week run on the last day of the region’s school vacation on Friday. A small group of about eight of us took advantage of a tour of l'Hôtel-Dieu (or “the general hospital”). Eighteenth century bishop Monseigneur d’Inguimbert, who figured prominently in reducing the size of the town’s synagogue, had two big projects in mind during his time as a church leader: the building of a library for all of the residents and a hospital for the poor. He accomplished both apparently, including this imposing edifice.

We began the visit, buffeted by the mistral, standing out in front of the former hospital. Our guide, Isabelle, told us that stone for the building was brought from nearby limestone quarries, but that unlike most other structures in the Vaucluse which are built with their back facing the north wind, the hospital was designed to benefit from the frequent air currents to clear toxic fumes--évacuer les miasmes--from the interior. She pointed out nice touches on the façade created by the architect Antoine d’Allemand: the angelots (“cherubs”) in the pediment above the second story whose legs and feet hang down in a very charming way and the four sculpted "masks" which stand for the four periods of life or the four seasons. Inside there are other attractive structural elements, like the staircases, les escaliers suspendus, which hang as if by magic to the hospital walls. It seems that at first some parishioners were none too happy about the building, saying it was too nice for the poor: trop beau pour les pauvres. But the bishop was convinced that the beauty of the surroundings was important for healing the sick.

Isabelle gave an interesting account of the history of the hospital. The St. Augustine nuns were responsible for the care of patients and of les enfants abandonnés (or “abandoned children”) who were left in something that resembles a kind of dumbwaiter. In the hall of la grande galérie there are framed paintings from as early as 1755 identifying les donatifs (“donors”) who provided funds to run the hospital. Two of the loveliest areas in the building, which seem to be untouched since the eighteenth century, are la chapelle and la pharmacie. The chapel, decorated in the Italian renaissance style, is made of red marble from the Languedoc region of France. Behind a grill on the right is le chœur (or “choir”) where the nuns used to sit while attending mass. On the left is the tomb of the bishop, ornamented with statues of two women, one standing for la Connaissance (“knowledge” because of his creation of the library) and the other la Charité (because of his charity in building a hospital for the poor). The pharmacy, which was run by another order of nuns (les sœurs de la Miséricorde), comprises several rooms: the laboratory where medications were made, an office which held hospital records, a library, and a boutique.

The latter space is truly delightful: there are murals of cherubs (again indicating the four seasons--by way of flowers, wheat, grapes, and huddled around a fire) and amusing ochre renderings of monkeys making medicine on some of the cabinets. One scene shows un saigné, bleeding himself from his foot, in an attempt to get les quatre humeurs ("the four humors") into balance. In addition, the room has containers and pieces of built-in furniture kept in their original condition. Various sizes of pots and glasses, and over 160 drawers—some still containing flowers, powders, oils, waxes, creams, and pieces of bone and snakes—line the walls. Visiting the Hôtel-Dieu seemed like a real trip back in time.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Le mistral

Funny where inspiration for blogging comes from. For me, the idea arrived at two o’clock this morning when le mistral, the famous dry, cold wind that batters southeastern sections of France, started really raging outside. From the sound of it and the numbers of hours it continued during the night, you would’ve thought that there would be debris all over the place this morning. But no, everything looks completely normal, even though the wind continues to gust at over 120 kilometers (or around 74 miles) an hour. The town and its people are obviously prepared for and quite used to the mistral.

This northern wind, generated by differences in pressure and temperature between la Manche (the English Channel) and the Mediterranean, blows nearly 130 days a year in the Vaucluse. Mainly active from November through April, it sweeps down through the narrow Rhone valley, often reaching speeds of 170 km hour (105 mph) on top of Mont Ventoux. Some poplar trees, it is said, are permanently bent in the direction that the mistral pushes them. The plus side of such a violent wind is that it clears the air and usually brings in sunny skies of the most brilliant blue.
Like le foehn in Switzerland and la tramontane, the mistral's “sister” coming down from the north and out of les Pyrénées in southwestern France, this wind is considered part of the region's culture. It figures in a series of paintings of Cap d'Antibes by Monet and has been the subject of several petits santons (or “little saints”)--like those by Paul Fouque--that are lovingly placed under the tree at Christmastime. One of Fouque's creations, called le Coup de Mistral, (or roughly "A blast of mistral") is considered a masterpiece of the santons and features a berger ("shepherd") holding his hat and staff and fighting against the wind. For us today, the mistral only creates minor irritations like the power going off every couple of minutes which means that the Wi-Fi takes time to reboot.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hiking around Mont Ventoux

I’ve read that, upon seeing Mont Ventoux (official altitude 1909 m. or 6,273 ft.), some people immediately want to climb to the top…“because it’s there,” I suppose. Even more grueling is biking up the trails of the mountain; indeed, le géant de Provence ("the Giant of Provence") has figured prominently over the years in the legendary 2200-mile bike race known as le Tour de France. The ascent from Bédoin, considered one of the toughest in professional cycling, will be required of participants in le Tour once again this July 25th. While I would not go so far as to attempt to reach the summit of Ventoux on foot or by riding my bike, I certainly agree that there is a fascination with this peak of the Pré-Alpes, which dominates the Provençal landscape for miles around.

What attracts me the most about Mont Ventoux is its beauty, of course, as well as the richness and diversity of the forest surrounding it: la grande forêt communale. Our town library has a wonderful guide on the subject, published in 2007 and entitled Ventoux, géant de nature. Apparently, from the twelfth century onwards, wood from the mountainside was used for various purposes, including shipbuilding in Toulon, and at least 68% of the forest was depleted. Efforts at reboisement (or “reforestation”) were led by Bédoin’s nineteenth century mayor Joseph Eymard as early as 1858 and culminated in the replanting of oaks, beeches, and different types of pine trees. Cedars were brought in from the Atlas mountains in Algeria, then part of France, but, as is often the case in such situations (think "kudzu" in the southeastern U.S.), these trees from outside the area are taking over from other native species. Recognized as a réserve de biosphère by UNESCO in 1990, the forest of 6300 hectares (or over 3000 acres) and its flora and fauna will be protected for future generations.

Hikes (des randonnées pédestres) are very popular and trails (des pistes balisées) crisscross the forest; from here we have to walk gradually uphill for about a half-hour to reach the closest one. Just last Saturday we spent about an hour and a half getting an introduction to the trail just past Les Clop. Plant life on Mont Ventoux is abundant; there are more than 1200 different species. And because of the microclimates on the mountain, the vegetation is a combination of both Mediterranean and Alpine. Since it is just barely meteorological spring, not much is flowering yet, though we did see some pretty wildflowers and big patches of rosemary in bloom.

One day early in our stay here we met an older man who told us about the animal life in the forest: wild boar, mountain sheep, deer, and the like. So far, although we’ve seen and heard some birds in and around the forest, larger wild animals have eluded us. As a side note, a few times on our way back from our walks we’ve noticed one of the three remaining bergers (“shepherds”) with his dogs and flock of sheep; they were hard to miss given that les moutons are all wearing cow bells!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Market Day

Early every Monday morning, barricades are assembled, déviations (“detours”) are put in place, and a large part of le Cours, the main street in Bédoin, is closed down. A bevy of small trucks then trek in to town to set up le marché. As in every French city and town that I’ve ever known, the outdoor market continues throughout the year, but the amount of activity varies dramatically based on the weather. Rainy, cold days reduce the number of buyers and thus keep sellers away. But last Monday, even though le mistral was gusting at a pretty good clip, the day dawned bright and sunny and the town was buzzing with people.

The southern-most area of town, down by the cultural center, seems to be primarily devoted to non-food items. There are stalls and racks of clothing, shoes, socks, and slippers, brightly-colored Provençal material and linens, “industrial” pottery and wooden objects (like cutting boards), soaps, and small gift items. One marchand (“vendor “) even has a display of mattresses for sale! Because of the low overhead I assume, the prices are quite reasonable by French standards. By far, however, le marché is where you go to stock up on most of your groceries for the week.

Even though les Bédoinais have Shopi and Vival to rely on, nothing is as fresh or as varied as the produce they can get at the market. Each of three or four different stands we’ve seen has a stack of small plastic baskets for buyers to use while choosing their fruits and vegetables. One thing that surprised us last week was seeing a customer remove one rib of celery from a stalk, which the seller weighed and priced for him without batting an eyelash! (We saw the same thing repeated at Shopi, by the way, later on in the week.) There are several places which offer fish and meats: everything from salami made from sanglier (“wild boar”) to beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and horsemeat (I personally draw the line at chevaline!). The air is filled with the delightful aroma of grilling chickens; their price depends on their type and whether or not they are élevés en liberté (“free range”); you can usually ask for onions and mushrooms to take home with the chicken. The town butcher gets in on the action by having his own grilling chickens outside his shop. Other vendors add to the delicious odors by selling prepared foods like paella and Asian eggrolls (des nems).

The range of items for sale varies greatly—from big bowls of olives at one stall to plastic-lined burlap sacks filled with spices at the next. One lady from Gordes has a whole display of her homemade jams from various fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, and figs. Certain people try to make a sale by handing out samples of their cheese, pesto, or aïoli. You can also get bread, wine, and even a bouquet of flowers.

As one might easily imagine, vendors are as different as the goods they sell. A few marchands practically ignore you and continue knitting, reading, or eating breakfast; others are friendly and want to kid around. Some people remember us from before and engage us in conversion. Our fish man, for example, is always ready to discuss the weather, or the prevalence and quality of fish in la Bretagne versus the relative scarcity (according to him at least) of those found in the Mediterranean, or the force of the mistral in Bédoin (very light) compared to the same wind in Orange (very strong). Anyway, market day is always a lot of fun.