Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Bike Ride Along the River

A panorama of the etang, with Montpellier in the distance
These days, we’re not avid bicycle riders. I used to do some extensive riding, but lately (say, the last couple of decades) I really haven’t ridden much. We’ve talked about riding bikes here or there, but nothing ever came out of it.

But Montpellier provides a compelling option: publicly-available rental bikes. Run by the same public organization that operates the trams, the bus system, and short-term rental cars, the bike system is called Velomagg (vélo is a French term for bike). It is similar to public bike rental systems in many major cities (Paris and San Francisco come to mind): stations are set up around town, bikes are locked into a rack and are released when you rent them; you ride around and when done, leave the bikes at any station.

A Velomagg station in Montpellier
 What got us to actually rent a bike and take a ride was the urgings of our ex-pat American friend, Debra. She’s rented cars from the corresponding car rental system (we took one to Aigues-Mort; I talk about that trip here), and wanted to ride to the beach, with us. So we said, sure!

We met at 11. It was a cold but gorgeous fall day. We were initially concerned about the temperature: exposed fingers, ears, and noses were gonna get cold; but by mid-day the sun was warming things up, and soon we were shedding our heavy coats. First, though, we had to figure how to unlock the bikes from the station racks. That little task took 20 minutes or so, but eventually we were thrilled to be finally riding off on our bikes. For about 100 feet.
The Territory: Montpellier to Palavas
I stopped to help Paula adjust her seat height. Then, for some reason, my rear wheel locked up. After futzing with it for 10 minutes or so, we dragged the bikes back to the station and shoved them back into the racks.

10 minutes later and we’d walked to the next Velomagg station. Now more experienced, we got away in much less time, and were soon happily peddling on the bike path along the river Lez. We had walked this way a couple of times, but things go so much faster on a bike! It was really lovely, riding along the river with bright autumn sun low in the sky.

The fabled pink flamingos, on the Etang du Mejean

Here the coast consists of sand dunes with large swampy lakes—étang, in French—just inland. As we got closer to the sea the bike path ran between the river and the Étang de Méjean. We stopped a couple of times to watch the pink flamingos. They weren’t doing much, just standing around (on one leg!), but it was a thrill to see them.

An exercise bar along the bike path, in the shape of a fanciful flamingo
Before long (well, 11 km; that’s kinda long) we reached the town of Palavas-les-Flots at the mouth of the Lez. It’s a fishing town, known for its beaches and tourist amenities, pretty quiet at this time of year. After locking up the bikes—in front of the police station, just to be safe—we headed a few blocks into town to find a place for lunch, happy to have arrived and to be walking again.

Paula and Debra lock up the bikes

We settled in for a fine seafood lunch, all the while looking at options for getting home. Yes, it was a fine ride, but after almost 7 miles we were hoping to find a shortcut. Montpellier’s tram system, fine as it is, does not come all the way to the beach; it stops about 5 km away. No problem, we could ride that far. Sadly, though, there was no bike station at the tram stop! No? Why is that? If only we could drop the bikes there, and take the tram home! But no joy, we would have to ride all the way back…

Palavas-les-Flots and the Lez, seen from the restaurant windows

Now the sun is low in the sky; we’re moving into the photographer’s “happy hour”—the time within an hour of sunset when the light is all golden. The flamingos on the étang are starting to move about, and we are getting very tired. While the bikes are great, they very are solid and massively heavy, probably about 50 pounds. (My very fine but very old road bike at home weighs in at less than 30.) And moving all that weight takes a lot of effort! But we kept on keeping on, having no other choice, and eventually, after about an hour, made it back to the city. We were very happy to get back before dark, lock the bikes into the racks, and walk the last 15 minutes to the tram stop heading home!

We cross the Canal du Rhone a Sete that connects the Canal du Midi with the Mediterranean
Public art on the way home

Interesting graffiti under the highway overpass!

All in all, it was a good day. We covered 23 km (the bike keeps track of the distance traveled), or about 14 miles. Not bad for a first time (in a long time)!

Ah… the joys of a hot bath were waiting for us. Good as new, we’re ready to go again.

Looking across the etang towards Montpellier, with the distinctive shape of Pic Saint-Loup in the background

This will be our last post from France for a while. We leave tomorrow (Sunday) for Seville, Spain, for Christmas and New Years (and Kings' Day!). We'll catch up with friends, and my daughter and her new beau, Ricardo, whose family lives there. So, we'll be meeting them, too! We are looking forward to these holidays with great delight.

Then, at the end of January we'll fly back to France. After a few days in Marseille (the plane lands there) we'll move into new digs in Montpellier.        Stay tuned to hear allllllllll about it!!

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Trip to the Countryside

A panorama from above the St Guilhem, seen in the lower left; to the right is a box canyon 

When we were here three years ago we went with some French friends to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.This medieval village is about an hour’s drive from Montpellier, and, as the name suggests, it’s hot and dry. Our visit that summer confirmed the first: it was, indeed, hot. Now, we’ve just come back from a second visit, this time with our former host, Nicolas (we stayed at his apartment last spring, when we were last in Montpellier). We were pleased to go with him, because it is not easy to get there. On a previous attempt to take public transport we got only to a nearby town before the threat of rain and an unaccommodating bus schedule sent us back to Montpellier. This time we were able to visit in cooler weather.

The town square

Overlooking the square

St Guilhem was founded early in the 9th Century, and was a stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Spain along the Santiago de Compestela Way (le chemain d Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, aka the Camino de Santiago). Today it’s a delightful picturesque stone village with a Romanesque church, rare in France.

View from the cafe where we stopped for coffee, past the church to the gardens

Back in the 1970s, shortly before I came to Europe for the first time, I visited New York City with a friend who took me to the Cloisters Museum (it’s in Washington Heights, Manhattan). I remember being impressed, and somewhere along the line I heard that the cloisters came from France. Now, just a few days before our recent trip to St Guilhem someone mentioned that the cloisters of the church there had been sent off to New York. Ah ha! Now I had to see this church and its cloisters—or what was left of them.

The Cloisters, in Manhattan, NYC
(photo by Elisa.rolle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I think the cloisters that are now in NY went along this wall...
Looking out to the gardens, St Guilhem

Inside the cloisters

Nicolas introduced us to another aspect of the village: it’s the starting point for a number of hiking trails through the hills that surround the town. Every Christmas Day he joins some friends of his, avid hikers, and they make a 5-hour circuit. We weren’t nearly that ambitious, but we did spend an hour or so walking up the well-marked trail.

Looking back at St Guilhem
Nicolas stops to admire the ruins on the peak across the valley

We got a nice view of the village, and the surrounding peaks, some crowned with astonishing ruins of ancient fortifications. I was particularly drawn by the fall colors on the hillsides. Spotted around among the subdued greenery were splashes of yellow and orange, bushes that were in the process of losing their leaves. The colors and textures of the landscape seemed a perfect complement to the textures of the village itself.

The church, on the way out of town
All in all it was a delightful fall adventure, complete with cool but not really cold weather. Oh, and a little splash of rain as we were leaving…

Ruins of the Castle of the Giants look over the town

Monday, December 2, 2019

Fall in Montpellier

This window represents autumn in Montpellier, with Pic St Loup in the center, and the aqueduct below it. The cadceus, bottom center, recognizes the medical school, the oldest in Europe

We Do Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Non-religious, uniquely American, it’s a chance to be together with family and friends. Of course, it’s not recognized outside the States, so when traveling we have to work out our own celebration. The last time we were in France in November, our trip to Paris in 2015, we ended up at a fabulous wine festival on that special third Thursday. (Our blog about that event is here.) During our travels over the last few years we have managed to get invites from other ex-pats. This time, though, we (well, Paula) decided to host a dinner for some of our foreign friends. (And having Thanksgiving at our place seemed particularly appropriate, since we do, after all, live on Rue de la merci—Thank-you Street.)

Not quite dinner, actually. In our apartment we have only a table for four, clearly not large enough to seat our 10 guests, plus ourselves. Instead we had what we called an “Apéro Party.” Apéro is a reference to aperitif, a beverage (alcoholic, generally) drunk before a meal. It wasn’t intended to be a full meal, simply an introduction, a mere taste, of what a full-on Thanksgiving dinner would be.

Ah, la belle bete, er, bird in this case. Only 7-1/2 lbs; we didn't want to be eating turkey for another month!
In keeping with our own traditions over the years we made it a potluck, and asked each person to bring something. We found a turkey (not unknown in these parts; in fact, we learned that the French often have Turkey for Christmas dinner), spent days reading up on preparation and cooking, and rearranging the furniture to accommodate our guests. I had my trepidations, but Paula’s enthusiasm and commitment overcame them.

The big day came and we began to gather about 3 PM. It was a good mix. We had about half-a-dozen French guests, most of them long-time residents of Montpellier; a couple of Brits (excuse me: Gary from England, and John from Cornwall), Trisha from Ireland plus Debra, our new American friend. Things were a bit slow to get started, since nobody knew anybody else. But, as usual, once the food was served conversation started flowing.

Now, there was one thing: potlucks are not unknown in France, but not particularly common. I think of a classic French meal as something of an orchestral piece, with dishes specifically chosen to compliment—and occasionally contrast with—each other. But a potluck is more like free jazz, every one kinda doing their own thing. Assuming that everyone knew the drill, Paula suggested an appetizer, a vegetable, or dessert. Our guests did what they normally do when invited to dinner: they each brought a dessert or three (we ended up with 10!). So while dinner was a bit thin on variety: turkey, of course; mashed potatoes and gravy; Paula’s excellent cranberry sauce (a big hit, actually); and fruit salad, we had a very full dessert table. (And French desserts are amazingly good!)
The dessert table

Paula explained that a good Thanksgiving dinner included Family and Friends, Food, Football, and Fun. To everyone’s relief we skipped the Football part. Debra, another American ex-pat, did a great job of telling the Thanksgiving Day story, in French (a bit of a stretch for her, but well done!). Finally, after coffee and third desserts, it was time for Fun.

Paula had settled on Charades. She’s always liked the game, and besides, it is a French word. She spent the week or two before our Apéro Party thinking of topics. The group was a bit slow to warm up to the idea, but then we had a good time with it. The French speakers found it a bit bizarre, as all the titles were in English. But it is always fun to watch someone struggle to mime something. We had more than a few laughs!

Our Thanksgiving was very satisfying. Not only did we get to prepare and eat the turkey and trimmings, but we were able to share our meal and our ideas with our friends here in Montpellier. We hope that your Thanksgiving was equally satisfying!

Autumn Leaves

Fall is well and truly underway here in the South of France (like in all of the northern hemisphere). Living in California, though, with all our deciduous trees, we don’t really notice it much. Here, though, the trees have now turned yellow and are increasingly bare. The trees in the courtyard visible from our living room French doors have nearly all fallen. From our bedroom window we can see the trees at the convent with the belfry—our really really favorite view—have shifted from green to yellow to brown. Each morning, with great expectation, I check the leaf count. So far, though, they’re clinging tightly. I do hope they fall before we leave in two weeks

Of course, in the heart of the shopping district we don't find too many trees, but displays in the shop windows are showing signs of fall. We’re seeing coats and sweaters and big thick scarves, browns and rust and orange. And, signs proclaiming Black Friday! In fact, this year there is something new: Black Week! A whole week of sales! (Black Week does make me think the week after Thanksgiving could be a good time to celebrate African-American culture. The reality, though, is that it’s all about selling stuff.)
A small sample of Black Friday store fronts
I don’t think Europeans have any clue of why this Friday at the end of November is a special day for sales. (For that matter, I’m not sure many Americans do, either!) Of course, it fell to us, the experts on all things Thanksgiving, to explain. TG is really a four-day affair, extending from Thursday through the weekend to Sunday. This much is an easy concept: the French are very clued in to the four-day weekend. They even have a name for it: faire le pont, make the bridge; the bridge from Thursday to Saturday, so you are safely into the weekend!

Ah, a new thing: BLUE Friday! Now what's that about??
We went on to specify that in the States, after the family has gathered for dinner, told their tales, and had their fun, the next day is seen as the perfect day to… go shopping! Massive sales on that day push stores into “the black” (a reference to the accounting term, where red ink is used for expenses and black ink for income). And so Black Friday was born.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Black Week, a Montpellier exclusive! (Maybe...)
While the Family-Friends-Food-Fun part of Thanksgiving has bypassed Europe completely, the commercial aspects of the start of the Christmas buying season seem to have taken firm root. How disappointing!

Ah, but what's this? "Black Friday is DONE!" The fine print says that responsible consumption can help prevent global warming. And at the very bottom: "Make Friday GREEN Again!)

"Our" belfry in the early morning. Now, when will that tree drop its leaves?!

Ah, time grows short; it's getting compressed. In less than two weeks we leave for Seville, Spain, where we will be spending Christmas. We'll return to Montpellier, though, in February. Our blog will, of course, continue!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

We had a busy day...

The ancient walls of Aigues-Mortes

In our last blog we spoke of the opera we attended (the simulcast of AKHNATEN from the Met we saw in a theater in Montpellier). That was in the evening. We’re gonna back up in time a bit here and take a look at what we’d done earlier…

The opera came at the end of a long and eventful day. In addition to the evening performance at the Met, we’d been invited to a birthday party at noon. We’ve been attending language exchange events, intercambio, that are intended to bring people with differing language backgrounds together. Never mind that the French generally wind up talking to other French, and the Anglophones to other English speakers, these events are a great way to pick up some practical language skills, and to make new friends. And one of our new friends, John from Cornwall (and he is very clear he is from Cornwall specifically, not from the larger landmass known as Great Britain), put together a surprise party for Franҫoise, his new French girlfriend, and invited us.

We were happy to attend! Except, they live in Aigues-Mortes, a small ancient town about a twenty-minute drive away. And, we don’t have a car, and public transport is problematical (i.e., there’s very few buses and they don’t leave until after noon, for some reason). But Debra, our American ex-pat friend, had a solution: a rental car. She’s been here in Montpellier for the better part of a year and had discovered that the municipality of Montpellier, in addition to operating the tram system we love so much, also offers rental vehicles (cars, trucks, and bicycles). For this event she had reserved a car for the three of us.

The forecast was for rain, rain, and more rain. But on this day, while the streets were saturated from the storm that had passed during the night, the clouds were thinning. We had blue sky showing as we made our way out of the city and towards the swampy land around the mouth of the Rhone River, a famous region in France known as the Camargue.

It’s an area worthy of significant exploration, and Paula and I have spent many days there on past trips. But today we were just driving through, as a quick overview before heading to the party in nearby Aigues-Mortes. We caught a few glimpses of the famous black bulls, and saw the other iconic image of the Camargue, the white horses. The pink flamingos were harder to see, and, sadly, Debra missed them all together, as she was driving. But we’ll come back again, in the spring, when the weather is nicer and the days longer.

A tower in the walls seen from the marina

Aigues-Mortes is a sweet little town today, but was apparently a pretty miserable place to live when it was built in the 13th Century. King Louis IX wanted a port on the Mediterranean, and in spite of the swamps (the name of the town derives from the old French for dead water), this was the spot. Louis used it as a jumping-off point for the Crusades he led (the Seventh and Eighth). What makes the town really worth seeing (apart from our friends having a party) are the walls, still well-preserved after all these centuries. (As we were walking around after the party, John was pointing out to Franҫoise and me the marks left by the masons on each stone, probably a signature showing who had cut which.)

Arriving at John's boat
Done with our quickie tour of the Camargue, the three of us arrived at the boat to mild sunshine and a dock full of people. And a very surprised Franҫoise! John had done an excellent job of keeping the surprise, no mean feat on a 30-foot catamaran.  He’d had some help from his boating neighbors, most of who were there. We sat around tiny tables set up on the dock of the marina, looking across the canal to the ancient walls, sipping sparkling wine and chatting in various languages (some of John’s neighbors are Dutch, and fluent in both French and English).

Another view of the walls from the marina, with the 13th century Tour (tower)
de Constance
on the left

We had a fine time, and much of it, at least for Paula and me, was the familiar joy of gathering with fellow boaters on the dock. (Or the beach, or in someone’s cockpit!) It’s been 15 years since our boating days in Mexico, but it felt good to celebrate with boaters again!

Inside Notre-Dame des Sablons Church

A fountain in the main square

Inside the town the walls are never far...

Oh my, two blogs in one week! Time is getting compressed, as our date for departure draws near: we will be spending Christmas and New Year’s (and Kings Day, Jan 7!) in Seville, as we have done for the past two years. But we’ll be back in Montpellier in February, moving to a new part of town where we’ll stay through the Fall (and who knows, maybe longer). Meanwhile, we’re hosting a Thanksgiving Day event for our foreign friends. Stay tuned…

Old walls of Aigues-Mortes, with another view of Tour de Constance

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

We Go to the Opera

Akhnaten approaches his god, the sun (a promotional photo for the opera AKHNATEN)
We are not opera fans. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever been to an opera (well, excepting some Gilbert and Sullivan stuff). Yet, yesterday we went to the opera. And not just any opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (the one in the USA). Well, we weren’t there physically, but we took advantage of the Met’s HD Live program, where performances from the Met are simultaneously telecast at theaters in some 70 countries around the world.

We saw AKHNATEN, by Philip Glass, the story of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh who established a monotheistic religion worshiping only his sun god. The story did not end well: Akhnaten died at an early age and the city he built was destroyed. His son, Tutankhamun, reverted to the old religion (and got a lot more press than his father).

The performance was remarkable for several reasons. The technology—and concept—of simultaneous telecast is amazing. The opera house in New York was packed, and while that audience was watching it live we were watching it on a huge screen in Montpellier, France. Our friend Karla was watching it in Oaxaca, Mexico, and friends of Debra, another ex-pat American sitting with us, were watching it in Salt Lake City, UT. Tens of thousands of people around the world were watching the exact same performance, at the exact same time.

But what I’m really having trouble getting my head around is the performance itself. It was stunning. Surreal, incomprehensible; as unimaginable as it was imaginative. I often saw no sense in the actions on the screen; all I could do was stare and let the powerful images flood through me. The costumes were overwhelming; Akhnaten’s robes were golden, and covered with tiny doll faces with jewels for eyes (?).

During an intermission interview the designer talks about Akhnaten's costume. (these are photos of the screen in the theater)
Every aspect of the performance aided the sense of unreality: the rhythmic and hypnotic music of Philip Glass; the slow, effortless movements of the performers; the voice of Akhnaten, sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo. He sings in a register (countertenor) I’ve never heard before, high but not falsetto, maybe something like a castrato (although there’s not so many of those around these days). His co-star, J'Nai Bridges, playing his wife Nefertiti, sang in a different, lower register, making for some interesting and mind-spinning duets.

And… juggling. Really? Every member of the chorus held a ball or three, and most scenes were punctuated with balls flying in the air. The juggling clubs were particularly effective in the battle scenes, where they doubled as, er, bows and arrows? (I'll note here that during the intermission it was pointed out that jugglers did appear on some Egyptian tombs.) The whole three hours flew by in a flood of emotion-stirring audible and visual imagery that made sense to me only in retrospect.

WTF...? I think these three, backstage for an interview during intermission, represent the priests, the military, and--the guy with the skull glued to his top hat--economic interests.
Each of the performers’ movements was calibrated and precise. Nothing happened quickly; everything flowed slowly, yet powerfully, like lava. Everything was in slow motion. The pinnacle for me was at the end of the second act: Akhnaten mounted the stairs of the temple to approach his god, glacial step by glacial step, to finally stand embraced and engulfed by the massive golden orb of the sun. We were not just speechless, but totally emptied.

One scene from the third act (there's a lot going on!)
Close up of the stage, also during the third act

The three of us left the theater in an altered state. It was as if in a dream we mounted the tram and rode back in the dark, under the rain. We rarely go to this part of town, and we almost never ride the tram at night, adding to the sense of unreality. I was happy for the clang of the iron gate of our apartment building behind us, and the familiarity of the trek up the four flights of stairs to our comforting apartment.

The next day, Sunday, we were curiously reluctant to let go of the sense of unreality we had achieved the night before. We just did not want to let go of that powerful, surreal, ethereal alternative we had been drawn into…

Try this link for a trailer of the televised opera ...