Monday, November 18, 2019

Montpellier Ville

            The Streets of Montpellier

Montpellier is a medieval city. I know this, its part of the city’s heritage (patrimoine). But wandering the streets, with their modern, brightly-lit shops, cafés and restaurants overflowing with patrons, and, increasingly, the tattoo parlors and CBD shops, it’s easy to forget its medieval beginnings.

The photo on this poster shows that this is no new town. The narrow streets, the red tile roofs, the very layout of the city make clear its ancient origins. In the lower left is Sainte Anne’s (no longer a church, now a community center) whose tall steeple we often see rising above the surrounding buildings. We regularly pass through this area, but until I saw this poster I really didn’t get how long this city has been around!

My photo of a poster showing a fantastic aerial view of a neighborhood in Montpellier

Since seeing this poster I’ve been paying more attention to the streets of le vieille ville. Here’s some photos of streets we pass through every day…

Ok, so this one is just outside the the city center. That's the steeple of St. Anne's on the left. While Napoleon's Droits de l'homme guarantees freedom of religion in France, the impact of traditional Catholicism is still evident.

Yup, St. Anne's again, from within the city

Let's take a stroll through some of those narrow streets and see what we find...

This one is a real treat!

And here's a great shopping street

There is a some very quirky art in the streets of Montpellier. I don't know where these tiles come from or who puts them up, but it's fun to find them on the corners of buildings!

Ah. What else would you expect on Street of the Swan?

...and some funny little mosaics!
Some funny little characters on tiles...

My favorite, though, is at the top of our street, Rue de la Merci or Thank-you Street...

Because de rien—it’s nothing—is the perfect reply to "Thank you"!

             Morning Bells
Every morning we hear the bells. Oh, it’s not obnoxious. In fact, it’s pretty nice. Charming, even. We can see the belfry from our window, less than a hundred meters (ok, yards) away. We can’t actually see the bells—it’s an enclosed belfry—but we know they have to be in there!

Paula's watercolor of the belfry, seen from our bedroom

At first we thought maybe they rang at sunrise. Either that, or 8 AM. (Yes, sunrise at 8 AM in October!) It wasn’t until the time change (the Daylight Savings Time change which happens at the end of October here) that it became clear: every morning at 8 AM.  And then again at 7 PM.

These bells have a very distinctive pattern (making me wonder: do different churches have different patterns, so listeners will know which church to attend? Kinda like lighthouses, each with its own flash sequence?) First, a deep bell; then a smaller, higher bell just lays into it, with a steady stream of tintinnabulation (such a lovely word, and so few opportunities to use it!).

We occasionally hear the bells while lying in bed, although more often awaken after they’ve finished. (I do recall, once, hearing the bells after having lain awake in the darkness for some time; I remember the beginning, but not the end. It seems the reassurance of the bells allowed me, finally, to fall back asleep.)

Just this morning I was able to capture the sounds. Click the link…

Morning Bells

(And if that doesn't work, click here!)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Our Month in France

            Van Gogh in an Abandoned Quarry
Last spring we visited a sound-and-light show in Les-Baux-de-Provence (about an hour east of here) called Carrières de Lumières, with images of Van Gogh paintings and Japanese art projected onto the walls of an old quarry. (I wrote about it in a previous blog here.) It was extraordinary, and we were very happy to re-visit it.

It was every bit as good the second time around… and this time I brought a better camera.

The projections on the multiple walls, and on the floor, where mesmerizing. Here’s a little video Paula and I put together including some of the music used in the show:

And, a few still images from the exhibit...

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             The Gazette Cafe
After our first two weeks overcoming jet lag and getting settled into our new life we have begun to explore the many cultural opportunities available here in Montpellier, which is, after all, a college town. We’ve met people through cultural meet-ups, we’ve reconnected with friends we made when we were first here. Paula has started watercolor lessons taught by a wonderful young woman who has only recently arrived in Montpellier herself from the east of France (the Alsace region).

On previous visits to Montpellier we discovered the Gazette Cafe, a cafe and performance venue an easy walk from where we live. We’ve heard some good folk, jazz, and even blues there in the past. So we were ready to go last night when Paula found that Djamel Djenidi, an Algerian musician, would be playing with his orchestra, El Djamila.

Now, given France’s former colonies in North Africa—in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco—an Algerian musician living in Montpellier is not unusual. What caught my attention was that he would be playing the music of Georges Brassens, very much a French musician. How would that play out, I thought: mixing Algerian / Arabic music with French folk? Certainly worth checking this one out!

We were met at the cafe by another American ex-pat, Debra. The three of us ordered a bottle of wine and prepared for some serious listening. The eight or so players on the stage started easy, with some popular French songs, some of which had been translated into Arabic. But it wasn’t until the break, half-way through, that things really got swinging.

Given Montpellier’s proximity to North Africa it is no surprise that there are a great many residents from France’s former colonies. Most of those in attendance that night had come expressly to listen to Mr. Djenidi, a well-known musician… and, they knew all the words! By the end of the evening most of the room was up, dancing and swirling to the compelling Arabic rhythms.

But there was still a surprise in store. Mr. Djenidi, announced he would play the most popular French song ever. We were waiting for... La Vie en Rose? Je ne Regrette Rien? Frère Jacques?

No, it was Autumn Leaves. What?

“But I miss you most of all my darling / When autumn leaves start to fall”. That’s not French! No, that’s the English version written by Johnny Mercer (who wrote an astonishing number of hit songs in the US, and sang a good number of them; his version of Autumn Leaves is here). But the song originated in Paris, written by Joseph Kosma, a Hungarian, with the title “Les feuilles mortes (The Dead Leaves). The original French lyrics were written by Jacques Prévert, well-known poet and screenwriter. (A young Yves Montand does a fine job of singing it here.) While the lyrics of the two songs are quite different, they share the theme of a lost love, with the falling leaves of autumn a powerful metaphor.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli.

The dead leaves we gather with shovels
Along with our memories and regrets
And the north wind carries them
Into the cold night of oblivion

We walked home at midnight through the still boisterous streets of Montpellier (did I mention that it was a college town?), stunned, yet buzzing with the melodies, the spirit, and the adventure of the evening!

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Le retour en France

For our last night on the Central Coast we were treated to a most spectacular sunset...

A sunset kiss by the Back Bay

             The Departure
Just a few months in California, and it was time to return to France. No worries, though; this would be our third long-stay adventure. We are very seasoned travelers. We started packing and getting ready a good two weeks in advance, so by departure time we were ready to go. Since our flight was leaving from San Francisco, about a four-hour drive from where we live, we picked up our one-way rental car the day before. With our flight leaving at 8PM we had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and a careful departure.  These years of travel have taught us that good planning and taking the time to make proper arrangements allows us to stay calm, and enjoy every aspect of the journey.

So about 10:30 we were backing out of the driveway, our suitcases stowed in the trunk (Jeeze, cars in America sure have enormous trunks!). It was a relaxed, easy departure, no need to hurry. First we’d stop at a friend’s house where we would drop off what food we had left, and then it would be on the road to the airport.

At the end of our street Paula said, casually, “Do you have the passports?” Of course, I knew exactly where they were. Our passports were snuggled safely in the top drawer of our desk, in the office back in the house...

I did a quick U-turn, and we had a chance to rehearse our arrival, one year hence, digging through the backpacks to get the house keys, then remembering where we hid the office key. Yup, here’s the passports, right where I left them! Not too long after that we were back on the road, trying hard not to imagine what would have happened if Paula had not asked that simple question…

             The Trip
Arriving in San Francisco hours early was not a problem, as our Business Class flight came with entry to the United Polaris Lounge, voted the best Business lounge, period. Relaxed, softly-lit, quiet, comfy chairs, full bar (a bit too early for that, though!), full restaurant, and prepared foods laid out left, right, and center. Now I regretted stopping for lunch. But even though we were not hungry, we did visit the restaurant and order a meal because all of this was included in the price of our ticket (which we’d “paid” for with frequent flyer points). Eventually we took our seats on the plane, and were soon plied with more food and wine. Ouf! Travel can be so difficult.
Bar at the Polaris Lounge in SFO
It was a long flight. Even with the go-flat seats, and the bit of sleep we were able to eak out on the 11-hour flight, we were both groggy when we arrived in Zurich. Two more flights to go! We finally arrived in Toulouse, in the south-west of France, near midnight (local time). After a decent night in a hotel we were wandering around in the morning near the train station looking for breakfast and an ATM.
(It really is "the only way to fly!")

I realized I was having a real problem dealing with all people out and about in this moderate-sized city. A few months earlier, when we first arrived in California, we were overwhelmed by all the cars. Now, back in France, it was the pedestrians I found overwhelming. How ironic…

Eventually, though, we took our seats on the train, and watched the French countryside flash by as we headed east towards Montpellier, our home for the next few months.

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            The Arrival
It’s been a rough week. Jet lag took its toll; for the first few days we were sleeping at noon and waking at odd hours throughout the night. But it’s the weather that has been really disappointing. Before we left we watched the weather reports here in France: rain, rain, and more rain! Entire 10-day forecasts showing little but rain. As it’s turned out, we’ve actually seen very little rain. Lots of overcast, though, with just a bit of sun.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and by the time we were settled into our new apartment night had fallen. We headed out to explore our new neighborhood, which isn’t really all that new, since it’s only a block from where we lived the first time we came here three years ago. While it’s good to re-visit our old haunts, I do miss the thrill of discovering new streets and monuments. Still, the city is beautiful, especially at night.

Louis XIV on is horse in front of the Water Temple, Peyrou Park, Montpellier (another sunset!)

Montpellier's Arc de Triomphe with the spire of St. Anne's in the background, under a full moon

St Annes's, seen down a narrow street

This time around we are living on Rue de la Merci, literally, the street of thanks, or Thank-you Street. Or, as Paula likes to call it, the Street of Gratitude.
(Gratitude is everything!)

The street where we live, Rue de la Merci (Thank-you Street!), with the Arc at the top

             The New Apartment
It’s always exciting to come into a new place. What surprises will we find, what great equipment/devices are in the kitchen; And what will be missing? Ah, induction stove top! Excellent. Nice oven, big refrigerator, adequate counter space. Oh, dull knives! Always, dull knives. I’ve taken to carrying a knife sharpener, because knives in rental kitchens are always dull. And sometimes, like these, not very good at all. So this time, since we’ll be here for a while, we bought a couple of knives. Good, solid, sharp knives. Check that one off…

Our tiny balcony overlooks a courtyard with huge trees, plus the characteristic red tile roofs

Since we’ll be here for a few months, and have a good kitchen, we’ll be needing some food. We’re already familiar with the markets and grocery stores in the area, but we found something this time around: home delivery! Instead of loading up our backpacks and struggling the mile or so back to the apartment, we can buy shopping carts-full of groceries and have them delivered! And this is all the more significant when our apartment is on the fourth floor with no elevator… (and “fourth floor” in Europe means up four flights of stairs! The ground floor is always “0”.) Well, we’ve been looking forward to getting back to Europe to increase our step count. Be careful what you wish for!

View out the bedroom window: the belfry with the bells that ring (and ring and ring...) every morning at 8; in the distance, the Water Temple at Peyrou
With some of our basics taken care of it's time to meet up with old and new friends, plan small day trips and practice our French with the many inter-cambio groups. And with the weather cooling off, it's time to make delicious soups and stay cozy in the rain.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Worlds of Light

 High Tech Near Home

As we travel, we love to find special displays, performances, and events that connect us to that locale. Recently we’ve found a very special event right here near our home on California’s Central Coast: the Field of Light. This installation of LED-powered light-bulb-sized spheres covers several tens of acres of gently rolling hills. The globes are about waist high, spaced a foot or so apart, and feel powerfully organic as they bob and sway in the gentle wind. While evenly spaced over the hills, the globes are organized around light emitters, each emitter lighting perhaps a hundred globes via fine fiber optic cables. Each emitter, and its many connected globes, change and shift color independently over the course of several minutes, providing constantly shifting rivers and paths of light.

In the words of the web site: "Field of Light at Sensorio [the official name] is comprised of an array of over 58,800 stemmed spheres lit by fiber-optics, gently illuminating the landscape in subtle blooms of morphing color that describe the undulating landscape."

Arriving just after sunset we caught the glow of the evening sky

The central light sources seemed like ganglion, with nerve fibers radiating out to the light globes

We spent over an hour wandering hill and dale, marveling at the beauty (and technology!) and sipping our wine. There was live music, a group playing Celtic tunes near the entrance. which we could hear even from the furthest reaches of the installation. Eventually the paths, marked by their complete absence of light, took us back to our starting point. We ended the evening contemplating the vast display while we ate a fine Mexican dinner (a delight we have yet to find in Europe!).

Truly a memorable experience!

For more information about this extraordinary installation near Paso Robles, CA, check the web site:

Van Gogh in the Quarry

The lights in the fields near Paso Robles reminded us of another artistic experience we had shortly before leaving France. We spent a couple of weeks traveling with Paula’s brother and his wife, Mark and Brenda, last June. One of the many places we visited was Les Baux-de-Provance, a medieval village not far from Arles in the South of France. Paula and I had been there a decade or two ago, and I remember being impressed with their recreation of a trebuchet, a Medieval siege engine.  It is quite a picturesque place, and one of the 100 or so Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages) of France. But its beauty was upstaged—for us, at least—by a relatively new art installation:  Carrières de Lumières (literally, Careers of Lights).

The ruins of Les Baux

Les Baux has been used as a quarry at least since Roman times, and probably long before. Of course, many of the quarries have been abandoned sometime in the last 1000 years or so. One quarry that has seen little use since the 1930s is now the site of an eye-popping, mind-boggling multi-media display.

The quarry with the lights on
The quarry is a vast underground space with walls some 30 or 40 feet high, divided by massive pillars from which the huge stone blocks were carved. Images are projected on the walls and floors. The projectors are coordinated in such a way that the pictures move across the walls, around corners, into and through side passages in a seamless steady flow, accompanied by a custom soundtrack. And what pictures! While we were there it featured Japanese prints and—the big draw—van Gogh. Seeing Vincent’s characters and images sliding and pulsating to the music was truly an astonishing experience!

I'm turning Japanese! 

Classic Japanese themes, waving and undulating on the walls.

Amazing! But not the Main Event...

No one does yellow like Vincent...

The observers merge with the art... which is, after all, the point!

Vincent did well with his violets, too.

A particularly memorable moment for me was watching the vibrant colors of van Gogh’s sunflowers burst from the walls 100 times life sized, accompanied by the wail of Janis Joplin. I didn’t recognize the song, but her voice is unmistakable. The juxtaposition of these two artists, born a century apart and working in very different media, but sharing similar tortured and misunderstood lives, was a moving experience that remains with me still.

You want sunflowers?

We will be back in France in October, and shall certainly return to Les Baux for whatever show they’ve got!

More information--and some fantastic videos--about this powerful and moving exhibit can be found here:

PS:  We've got our tickets in hand and will be flying to Toulouse, France, on October 8. We'll take the train to Montpellier and settle in there for a while. Because, also in hand, are our passports with our long-stay visas for France! We are now able to stay in France for one full year, without having to leave every 90 days.

We'll be posting more blogs on our experience in the coming year, fer sure!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Chasing Tulips and Windmills in Holland

Black swans we saw in Holland. Not too many of these in Montpellier...

What have we been up to lately? Well, among other things, we we went to Holland. We went expecting to see field after field of tulips, stretching to the horizon with colorful flowers. What we found wasn’t quite that extreme, but was still quite spectacular. Tulips, and windmills. We learned more than I expected about both of them.

First, the flowers. It turns out those flowers aren’t grown merely as a tourist attraction. They’re actually grown to make money for the farmers. Imagine that! And most of the money is not made selling the blooms, but rather the bulbs, so that someone else can have the joy of growing these extraordinary flowers. But healthy blooms detract from healthy bulbs, so the flowers are cut to allow the bulbs to grow. Each plant will have maybe three or four bulbs, which are harvested in the fall. This year, the year we visited, there was some very fine warm weather early in the spring, causing the flowers to pop out, resulting in an early cutting. What we saw were vast fields of flower stems. Awesome, but not quite what we were hoping for!

Some of the many, many varieties we saw at the farm we visited.

A VW bus cutout down on the farm. (They also had fabulous apple pie and coffee!)

We chose not to go to Keukenhof, The large garden park that IS just for tourists. The photos look fabulous, but crowds numbered in the 10,000s deterred us. Instead, we drove along the very narrow roads giving access to the fields, and we visited one farm with a demonstration garden. I never would have imagined there were so many types of tulips! And many with delightfully imaginative names.

Ice Cream Tulips! How cool is that?! (yuck yuck)

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment in a rather nondescript building on the outskirts of Leiden. (The Netherlands* is small enough that it doesn’t really matter where it is, it’s close to everything). We found Leiden a totally charming town. We were in Amsterdam last summer, and while it too is charming, it’s also crowded, expensive, and, during our visit, hot (ok, so that doesn’t happen much!). Overall, a mixed experience.

 * To clear up a misunderstanding I had: the name of the country is The Netherlands, which means, essentially, the Low Countries. Holland is in the western part of the country: the provinces of North Holland and South Holland can properly be called Holland; since we spent our time in these provinces I feel OK about using Holland as a designator for where we were. Glad I got THAT cleaned up…

There were a few fields left!

Us, near the flower fields (the farmers really don't like it when you walk into their fields to take selfies...)

The canals in Leiden were every bit as charming as those in Amsterdam (although there are fewer of them!), the cafes just as refreshing, the people no less friendly, and the bicycle culture also amazing. But perhaps having less of everything helped us appreciate it more (particularly when trying to avoid getting run over by the bicycles!).

Scenes from Leiden, a very pretty city (well, the old town is; the new part, not so much...)

Another place we didn’t go was Kinderdijk, the windmill museum. Apparently it has a collection of windmills with extensive demonstrations and explanations. Instead we drove around and found three mills in a field, very picturesque! It’s what we came for, why look further? Actually, to get a better understanding of how the mills were constructed and used, we walked across Leiden to the Museum De Valk, a re-built windmill open to the public for a modest fee (5€, I think). There we saw a brief video on windmills in the Netherlands, where I learned that these mills were essentially Holland’s entry into the Industrial Revolution. Originally used to pump water to drain fields (polder mills), they were also used to grind grain and eventually became prime movers for a number of industrial processes. The rapid development of the steam engine, though, quickly replaced windmills for many applications.

The Museum De Valk, in Leiden. Once up on that platform, those turning arms look very dangerous...

The ground floor of the multi-story Museum De Valk mill consisted of a house for the miller, also restored and available to visit. The life of a miller was not an easy one. In addition to lugging the heavy bags of grain and flour, and overseeing the grinding operation (which included removing and dressing the heavy stone grinding wheels every couple of weeks), the miller had to watch the wind and constantly orient and adjust the sails. (Electric motors are SO much easier…). I must admit, being on the top floor of that very high mill and watching the sails turning and those big wooden gears spinning made me glad I could just leave at any time! Being up there in a storm would have been no fun at all…

Molendriegang, three ploder mills near the village of Leidschendam built in the 1600s

A closeup of one of the polder mills, and wooden gear from the Museum De Valk mill. The finely-turned wooden machinery fascinated me! (That big wheel on the polder mill? It pulls on a chain so the mill can be turned into the wind.)

Me, with one of the stone mill wheels in the Museum De Valk.Imagine pulling this out every couple of weeks to "dress" it!

What else has been happening? We've been living in our classic apartment in Montpellier, visiting with the people we’ve met here; viewing apartments in town as potential rentals when we return; and certainly enjoying what the city of Montpellier has to offer. Oh, and preparing for our canal boat trip, long in the planning, that’s coming up next week.

Our time here in Montpellier draws to a close, and we are very sorry to go. Although admittedly, we've been too busy getting ready for our canal trip, and the arrival of Paula's brother and sister-in-law, to be feel sad. We've still got a month in France, and we will make the most of it!