Friday, June 29, 2007

Some thoughts on windows

The houses on my street were built somewhere in the 1600s with little distance between them. My attic loft looks out across the way to a house now owned by a Danish film maker. Much of the year the house is empty, but as soon as someone comes in I suddenly need to be more modest as I run from shower to closet.

However, there is an advantage. In an era of emails and telephones, much of the conversation to people in the house is window to window not unlike a TV program from years ago where Molly Goldberg and her New York neighbour talked through their tenement windows. Over the years, I have chatted in this way with misc. tenants from the Danish entertainment industry, artists, a French-American child and friends of mine that I have installed in the house because my space is too small to put my guests for a long time.

But at least two weeks a year, the communications become special. There’s a little Danish boy, a special needs child, who spends his holiday in the house and sleeps in the room with the window opposite mine.

Over the years as he visits his development has produced tears of happiness as he exceeds all expectations given his parents when he was born. He has grown into a lovely pre-teen.

We have a routine, established on his original visit, where he says good night to me before the shutters close for the night and good morning as soon as they open.

Although he speaks no English and my Danish is less than minimal, our sign language has gotten more complicated over the years. I do understand when he calls to me, and I never fail to go and wave. And then big smiles don’t need language skills.

A few years ago a French friend climbed out a window because she was bored with using doors. Sometimes windows open to more than the outdoors.

Good Neighbours and Black Thumbs

My street is considered one of the most beautiful because of the flowers in pots and vines. For years when I spent summers in Geneva with only the rare weekend in Argelès, I didn’t hold up my part in creating the beauty.
Then I bought two blue ceramic pots. Over the last few years I have planted and watched die a number of plants to the despair of my green-thumbed Catalan neighbours who give me lots of advice.

When I arrived for my holiday this year, I found one of the pots had been replanted with one little seedling and rocks placed around it to keep Bianca and Lola, the neighbourhood cats, from considering the pot a kitty litter box. The leaves had spread. My next door neighbour, a Catalan gentleman, so in love with his wife of 50 years that he makes her breakfast in bed every morning, proudly told me how he had rooted it.

The other pot held pansies, which slowly wilted as the season progressed. I had planned to buy more flowers for it, but was waiting.

Little Mrs. Martinez, part of another Catalan couple, had been keeping a flowering plant for me, when I went back to Geneva. Leaving it alone in my flat for the time I would have been gone would have been a death sentence, although it seems any plants I have lately tend to give new meaning to the phrase bite the dust.

Yesterday I came down and found the plant happily in my pot, the sad pansies swept away to some plant purgatory.

Senor and Senora Martinez had big smiles on their faces. I only have a couple of more weeks before I go back to Geneva. I hope I can live up to their expectations and keep everything alive until then when they will take over.

I have heard from others that they say behind my back they still hope to teach me how to be a proper gardener and that except for my lack of skill, I am still a nice person. They are nice people, nice neighbours who accept me and my black thumbness

Citizens not Consumers

I suspected after 9/11 when Bush told people to go shopping that American citizens had been reduced to consumers whose function was not to maintain their democracy but the economy at the price of the democracy. Democracy more and more seems to be equated to the out-of- control capitalism that is ruining the planet and millions of lives around the world.

The people lined up to buy the new iPhone seems to bear this theory out. First that it should even make a news story is a bit bizarre considering all the things that are going on in Congress, Iraq and with the environment. (I was cheered when a major newscaster didn’t give in to the Paris Hilton drivel

One man on the iPhone story was quoted as saying “I need an iPhone.” Well maybe he does, but what America needs is less consumers and more citizens who line up to fight for habeus corpus, against torture, universal health care, an end to private military armies, an end to Iraq, an end to the School of Americas, etc.etc.etc.etc.etc.etc.etc. not to line up to purchase a phone.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Raw, naked love

The baby sat in the push chair, one hand holding his bare foot, the other on the bar that also held three plastics disks in blue, pink and green, which he ignored. He must have been around nine months. His face wore the innocence you see of children on Christmas cards.

The street was more or less deserted for it was Sunday night and the green grocer’s, fishmonger, jewellery shop and book store had been closed since noon. People in the apartments above the stores had their televisions on. Bits and pieces of the programs drifted down to the narrow sidewalk. No cars were driving by in the late summer evening light.

Three teenagers surrounded the baby and all four were engrossed in a game. The teens would take turns taking the pacifier out of the baby’s mouth and then put it back in. Each time the baby laughed opening his mouth to receive the gift. His face showed no doubt it would arrive and when it did he gave a few sucks only to let another hand swoop down and he would drop it and the routine would begin again.

The teenagers were all intrigued speaking in low soothing voices to the baby. They were part of a bond of enjoyment.

What I found delightful was that all three teens were boys, one with a tattoo, two with earrings, all dressed in jeans and T-shirts that showed muscles that did not hide tenderness nor did any act like they wanted to cover up their raw, naked love.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

La Fête de St. Jean

The origins of the fête de St. Jean goes back to the pagan celebration of the summer solstice paying homage to light and hope. The Christians (as they were want to do) co-opted it during the reign of Clovis, the early French king 481-511. A little thing like a new religion shouldn’t spoil a good party should it?

It is still celebrated throughout francophone regions of Europe and North America. I don’t ever want to miss the one in Argelès. Pictures don’t really capture the feelings, the music, the steady beat of the drums but this is the best I can do.

The village children, dressed in the Catalan yellow and orange, all march into the square with their faggots to help build the fire. They carry yellow and orange sticks to beat to the music.

The choir, dressed in traditional Catalan costumes, serenade the crowd before the dancing starts while everyone waits for darkness (around 22:15)

St. Jean watches the festivities. At least 18 feet high he will lead the parade into the square when the flame is brought down from the top of Mount Canigou to light the bonfire and he will join the dancing crowd.

The bonfire that is lit with the flame is encircled by women and men doing the Sardana. This tradition is so much a part of the Catalan tradition with its not-so-simple three steps right three steps left, hands clasped and raised and lowered, that Franco forbid it, seeing the sense of unity it gave the dancers as a threat to his government.
The cobla, a small group of musicians accompanying the dance with a selection of brass instruments and lead by the flaviol a type of flute whilst the tambourine sets the rhythm, whines through the sound system as the bonfire snaps and crackles and threatens to catch the banners hanging above.

The fête organizers hand out sweet biscuits, Muscat and Banyuls, the local aperitifs.
A dozen drummers approach from outside the square, their beat growing stronger and stronger. The organizers encourage the people to move back to allow the Societé des les diables et les socieres to do their work.

The centre is enflamed with men and women dressed as jesters, witches, devils and one man with a Mohawk in loose yellow pants and bare shoulders. They dance with huge sparklers some throwing their sparks twenty to thirty feet as they skip and turn and circle and counter circle and jump and circle and the drums beat, the drums, the drumsm the drums...

A dragon is lit and he dances and circles with the others and the drums and the drums and the drums… (you must look closely to make out the jester and the dragon)

For almost a half hour the spectacle continues until the air in the centre is yellow from the fireworks surrounding the performers. Then the fireworks stop but the drums continue and the crowd joins in dancing and circling. We are touched by the primitive hidden inside us all.

The bonfire has died down, but the sun that lit the torch lovingly carried down the mountain during the day, will rise in the morning shining on the fields outside the village ripening the grapes, the olives, the vegetables, giving strength to the livestock.
Summer has arrived.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The House ALMOST Acts Against SOA

Sometimes I am so proud to be from Massachusetts. Jim McGovern, a MA Dem. Congressman proposed an amendment to the Foreign Operations and Appropriations Bill to close the school of Americas. The 61-year “school” has trained Latin Americans in torture and other techniques that the US government says they don’t do.

According to School of the Americas Watch and other sources its graduates were responsible for the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador; the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; and the massacre of 14-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos, and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador; among hundreds of other human rights abuses. And some of the successful graduates were tyrants: Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzar Suarez of Bolivia.

Sadly 214 members of Congress (not mine, I checked) decided to keep funding in place. It does not make me proud of the blue passport that I hide in shame.

However, the school may close on its own as Latin American countries withdraw from the school. Costa Rica was the latest.

Friday, June 22, 2007

My street

Yes, I have a new toy and even as a non techie I am bursting with pride that I learned to upload this stuff. I have often said how pretty my street is.
Now I can show it.

Shar pei tomatoes

It’s not their real name but a couple of years ago they started appearing at the green grocers and during the marchés. Naturally it was necessary to taste and they are far superior to normal super market tomatoes. Only recently have I learned that they are part of a project where farmers use old seed from produce no longer grown in an attempt to recreate the food of yesterday. Of course GM produce is still forbidden and any imported GM foods must be labelled.

Meanwhile I will continue to buy fresh, locally grown, unmodified fruits and vegetables not just because it is eco friendly, but because they taste so wonderful even when the skin of my tomatoes resembles a Chinese puppy. So bring out the fresh basil and the locally pressed olive oil a bit of salt and pepper...

TIme Suspended

The Fête de musique is not just in Argelés but throughout many European countries. In Geneva groups play in the stations, the street corners and parks free. The concert halls are filled.

Here in Argéles it is no different. The Ecole de Musique with its brick building at La Place de Republique had had concerts all this week with different types of music including gospel and jazz.

The first summer street dance with a live band was held last night. Tourists and natives intermingles on the marble slab centre that earlier in the day had held automobiles. The restaurant had extra tables under the trees where they served wine, pastis, beer having cleared away earlier diners.

Dancers of all ages swiredl by. Some women wore dresses with full, flouncy skirts. Others wore shorts. Children twisted through the dancers, their laughter mixing with the woman singer.

It was there I found one of the Danish couples for the first time. I knew they had returned. This is a village and people say… “I and K are back.” Their progress up the street had been recounted so many times, I wondered if they had been cloned into several couples.

I had already talked to their daughter out our facing windows. She has a week of freedom before her son arrives.

These are my favourite weeks in the village, not that I don’t love the other times, but it is truly a vacation mode. I can hear my daughter saying “Vacation HAH” the same way she says “Retirement HAH” because I don’t stop writing during this period.

The longest day has come and gone and we are now heading toward the darkest, but not before we have many long summer nights in cafés, listening to music and talking to people of all nationalities. We all have other lives elsewhere but this becomes a temps suspendu in a way. We are carried into a special place of friendship, laughter, good food and muic.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The snore source

I woke in the middle of the night to loud, loud snoring. I am alone in my flat. Perhaps I had dreamed it, I thought as I made a trip to the loo. Even with the door closed the rattle penetrated the wood.

If someone had broken in they wouldn’t take a nap, and in a studio there is no place to hide.

I walked to the window. The house across the street is almost in handshake distance. Four hundred years ago when the houses were built this was normal.

This particular house is owned by Danes and is usually rented to Danes. As I get to know them we often make plans by chatting window to window. When Alexander stays I am part of his morning routine. Although he is a budding teenage, a birth accident has left him much younger. He will be here next week and I look forward to our greetings.

This week the house is occupied by yet another Danish couple, and like the others, they are drop dead beautiful. I suspect the owner makes beauty a rental requirement.

But the window was the source of the noise. I closed the window, went back to bed with a pillow over my heard, grateful, that as handsome as the man was, he belonged to the woman and not to me.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

46 mpg

The G8 clowns postured about global warming. Some nations like Sweden and Iceland are acting seriously and are hoping to be carbon neutral within the next 20 years. Some states in the US are pushing standards.

However, the thing is every individual can act, not wait for his government. I am amazed at how many people don't believe each of us is responsible for our planet.

I am not claiming I have answers. Nor am I claiming I am innocent of killing the planet. Yesterday I took an unnecessary drive with friends to a spot not accessible by public transportation. That they would have gone anyway, doesn’t mean that by taking that drive I didn’t help kill the planet. I felt slightly better that the car got 46 miles to the gallon.

To assuage my guilt I am noting mileage I rack up in cars and at the end of the year I will buy trees to counter those miles. There won’t be that many because between what I drive and friends who drive me it won’t be 500 Kms a year. However I weigh each offer of a ride. There is no way I would let someone drive me across Geneva when there is public transportation most of the time. But I don’t qualify for a conservation halo. Make it 10:30 at night when buses are rare—let me open the car door for you and hand you the keys. If I see a bus on the way, then I stop, get out of the car and onto the bus, so less fuel will be burned but that’s the best I will do.

Supposing everyone owned a car that got 46 mph. (my friend’s car is not a hybrid—I think it is a Rover, but one car looks like another to me). Supposing everyone made sure 95% of their driving was necessary and instead of making two or three trips to accomplish tasks mapped out the distance to use the absolute minimum gas? Supposing people made good mileage the first criteria for owning a car?

Supposing everyone stopped using ready-on appliances, or shut them off when not in use. What if everyone turned off lights—I do have friends who leave lights on 24 hours a day—and used energy efficient light bulbs?

What if people gave up dryers and turned their air conditioners up one or two degrees?

Imagine the impact if no one ever brought their own bags to the supermarket?

If everyone did it all it would make a difference. Most people wait for their neighbours or someone else to do it first.

There was a song once about bringing peace into the world and let it begin with me. I say lets bring conservation into the world and let it begin with me.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Perolles, Picnic, Prehistory and Pumps

The abandoned village of Perolles is on a plateau at the top of the white calcared peaks of the Pyrenees. Its existence can be traced to at least 1397 when the Signor Raymond went on a pilgrimage to Ireland, the first mention of it in history.

Now only a few stone walls of former houses, a church and a well stand far from civilization. In the early twentieth century residents had deserted the place for villages in the valley.

I stood with my three friends listening to the bird song, the wind and the buzz of insects. Poppies and purple wild flowers grew along the paths. A fig tree, ladened with fruit, dipped its branches. Butterflies of all hues flew by. The air smelled summer hot.

We walked to the cemetery where crosses in the mid-19th century style, were propped upon stones carved with dates difficult to read but several centuries older. Outside the crumbling church wall was a single cross.

“Maybe it was a Jew,” one of us guessed despite the cross. There had been a Jewish nation here before centuries were marked with four numbers.

“Or an Arab workman.”

“Or a suicide,” I volunteered.

No matter how we guessed, there was no way we could know. Thus we went back to the car to find a place for our picnic and we did.

A stone table and two benches were under a small group of pines. A barbecue had been set up and we had brought Catalan sausages along with the charcoal, potato salad and the last of the season’s cherries.

Below vineyards stretched across the valley until the Pyrenees rose into the blue sky. We ate slowly, talking about the Perolles. We even played a game of Boules while we waited for the last of the sausages to cook.

Our last stop was to check out the caune de l’Arago (cave) where the Tautavel Man was found.

At the bottom of the peak where the archaeologists were working a young woman brought down a sieve full of debris to wash in the river. The water was clean and clear so we could see the trout swimming. They varied in size from that of my thumb to large enough to feed two people.

Another archaeologist, this one a young male, came by to check her, and we talked with them about their work. The two flirted and she splashed him. He lectured her on respect, but his eyes were twinkling.

There is something about being in a place where history isn’t 400 years old like Boston, or 4000 years old like Europe or even 6000 years old like Syria. But 440,000 years old.

Slowly we made our way back to Argeles, stopping at Fitou for wine. One cave had won several gold, silver and bronze citations for the quality of their wine. The walls were wood lined and there was an old red marble sink with wine glasses from tastings were drying.

My friend had plastic containers and the woman filled them from a tank with a nozzle not unlike those at the gas pumps. I wished my wine snob friends could have seen the process.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Another ride with Monsieur Kamalt

I press the buzzer to open the door as the taxi pulls up at rue August Blanche. Monsieur Kamalt jumps out. He is dressed in avocado pants with a matching print shirt that would do well in Florida. His hand is out stretched. I notice he has cut his hair short, but his beard is still long. As always he is immaculate.

Comment-allez vous, Madame Nelson?” he asks and thrusts my suitcase and computer in the trunk and when I tell him well he asks, “Gare du Lyon? Charles de Gaulle? Orly?”

When I say the train station he asks if I am going to Geneva or the South of France. I tell him the later.

He makes sure I am seated before shutting my door and we are off riding along the Seine. For the first time I notice he has a GPS and he tells me he always has it, but doesn’t always use it. There is a sense of relief. I don’t like to be unobservant.

I half watch our progress, half watch the pretty houses as we drive through Neuilly, the home of Sarkozy at least until he moved last month into the presidential palace. Monsieur Kamalt is not the least happy with the results of the French election – too pro American, too pro Israel, he says of the new president.

Again we discuss the situation in the Middle East. He asks how long the American people will put up with Bush? I cannot answer that. I sigh when I think of Cindy Sheehan saying people have more interest in American Idol than what is happening with the war.

He asks me when I will go to the US again, and it is too complicated to explain that I don’t want to go until Habeus Corpus is restored, although I will if there’s an emergency with loved ones.

Nor do I show him the Amnesty International map cut from Le Bleu Matin that has countries with a long list of human rights abuses colored purple. The US is purple. With the map is a list by country of which abuses each country indulges in and the US has one of the longest. I am too ashamed. Becoming Swiss has not alleviated my guilt of not doing enough to protect the democracy that gave me the strength and the skills to be whom I am today. These are not things I want to share with my cab driver no matter how lovely he is.

He asks me about my friend with whom I staying. Why isn’t she married, he asks. I explain she has been too busy with her studies. He thinks she should be married and says he will look for someone. He asks as always about my daughter, who he took to the airport a couple of Christmas’s ago, aware that he was transporting the thing most precious in my life. I only tell him she is still working in human resources.

We scuttle around the Arc de Triumph. The route is well known, not just from these cab rides, but from so many Paris visits.

On other cab trips he has called friends and relatives to introduce me, but it is so early there is almost no traffic, and friends and relatives are either in bed for just making their coffee.
We promise our next conversation will be about what Sarkozy has done as he pulls into the train station.

He hands me my suitcase and computer. “My computer is like your taxi, we cannot work without our tools of trade,” I tell him and he laughs.

He doesn’t say au revoir but A bientôt, and I get final wave as I tug my luggage toward Le Train Bleu for my petit dejeuner and to wait for my train. There is a comfort in the personal.

Long, long days in Paris

Although it was after 10 at night the red colour of the tiled Paris roof top across from my friend’s apartment was still visible in the late spring evening light. We’re in pajamas watching a DVD but the mood is so different from the December night when on another visit we drew the curtains from the spitting snow cocooning ourselves inside albeit it with a another DVD.

We are coming up to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Long days create extra energy, night seems never to come and the desire to sleep disappears with the dark.
Dawn is for going to the beach long before the swarms of children with pails and their carping mothers appear.

I will head to Argelès tomorrow, to be there for the arrival of the Danes, the Swiss, the Swedes, the Dutch and the French from the North, people I greet each summer. We spend the long nights going to street dances, outdoor concerts or sometimes just bringing our chairs onto the narrow street to talk, perhaps with champagne, perhaps with wine, olives from local trees, some black, some green, some stuffed with anchovies pulled from the sea and sold in the next village from anchovy outlets. Others will have the nut still inside. And there may be saucisson cut in red little circles. And if we don’t nibble too much there will be decisions on which outdoor café to eat or to retreat to our own places.

For 400 years Catalan women have been sitting in the same spots it as part of their daily lives, snapping beans as they gossip and watching their children and grandchildren play up and down the street. For them it is not an escape from winter lives someplace else. Still the sitting, the talking nourishes our spirits for when we are back in our respective countries and once again facing the cold short days.

We will once again have a bonfire as the flame is brought down from the top of Canigou, the highest mountain in the area, for the fête de St. Jean celebrating the solstice. There will be music and dancing until the drums arrive and the men with fireworks shooting from their backs as they dance frantically to the beat of the drums around the dying bonfire.

The weather has been strange this year. When I left Geneva in April I was searching for my lightest clothes, but when I came back in May I reached for sweaters and woolly socks.

Today it is raining, scuttling my plans to wander an area of Paris I had missed but spied from a cab on my last trip to this flat. Instead I will treat myself to lunch at one of the neighbourhood restaurants and buy the makings of chicken soup to feed my ill hostess who stumbled off to work this morning despite it all.

There is an Arab fruit and vegetable hall with bins of bunches of fresh parsley, carrots, onions, eggplants and the apricots each prettier than the next, full of juice. The last of the cherries have been brought up from the south. Yesterday I began to establish a relationship by using the few words of Arabic I know. It worked with the internet café owner whom I cultivated on other visits and now we chat each time I time I come in. Even in a city in Paris it is possible to create a small village feeling. At the green grocer my Mahaba brought a smile that was not given to the three women in front of me even though I explained I really only know a few words of politeness.

When I serve the soup to my hostess, she will tell me I shouldn’t have and we will put on another DVD as in the window behind the TV set the sun lingers late into the evening as we eat.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hair cuts out of the ordinary

My hair dresser is not your average hair dresser. He is so good that my daughter considers a cut and head massage a necessity on any trip to Switzerland. For many years his salon was also an art gallery as well and the discussion while he cut my hair were about music, art, events in Geneva, my writing, etc. In fact I even held a book reading and apero in the salon. My writing group used the salon to launch one of their anthologies.

Yesterday I was in for a much overdue cut and relaxed. The conversation was much about reading. He asked me if I could read in French. I said yes and read a book in that language at least once a month to every six weeks. We went on to other topics often breaking into laughter. He has a silly sense of humour and appreciates mine as well.

Finished I used the loo prior to paying. When I came back, he had disappeared. Although I was tempted to pay his brother who is co-stylist in the salon, I waited.

Jean-Pierre rushed in with a bag from Payot, the bookstore next door. He handed it to me.

Un cadeau,” he said. A gift of one of the books we were discussing written about Kabul. I promised him a report (oral not written) for my next hair cut.

I could find hairdressers less expensive. Some might be almost as good. None would make a hair cut an experience and I doubt if I would find one who adds to my library.