Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Europe is Opening Up

I never tire of this view of La Place de la Comedie, the main square in town. It always makes us think of Jules Verne...


We're going to Italy! It's so exciting! We'll be driving; I expect it will take about seven hours. Certainly longer than flying, but we really don't want to spend an hour or more in that long metal tube. And don't even get me started on the crowds at the airports! Having our own (well, a rental) car seems safer.

There’s this saying, It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I read that somewhere once. Perhaps in a Scrooge McDuck comic book (I always liked Scrooge; perhaps because he was so up front about his greed). It seems to mean that even in the worst of circumstances, some good may be found.

The good we’re hoping to find during the very ill wind of this pandemic is a lack of other travelers. I expect the roads may be a bit emptier, but the real payoff (if that’s the word) will be that Florence, that jewel of Italy and ongoing artistic and architectural inspiration, will be much emptier than last time we visited.

And that was in 2017; you can read about that trip here. On this trip (much like the one in 2017) we will be driving to Lucca, ancestral home of the Menconi's (really! In fact, both my paternal grandparents were born near Lucca), where we’ll stay for a few days. We’ll take the train into Florence (it's about an hour and a half), where we’ll stay for a couple of nights. The last time we did this it only took two hours to convince us that not even the magnificence of the Florentine renaissance could offset the tourist morass we encountered. But since Italy has only just opened its borders only this month to visitors—and then, only to European residents—we expect crowds to be thin.

         Stay tuned to find out!!


Florence in May of 2017--what we don't want!

 

             Social Distancing in Montpellier

 Life is slowly returning to normal here in Montpellier. The sounds of the city have returned, the streets are full of cars, the sidewalks… well, still fewer people there, I think. Some of those walking down the street are wearing masks, but most aren’t. We don’t, while walking down the street. Inside it’s a different thing, of course. Some larger stores have people checking to ensure customers are masked up, others just post signs. But I think we’re all getting tired of it, and we all SO want this pandemic and its consequences to end. Mask compliance is flagging; many shops don’t seem to care anymore.


A pleasant shop in the old town of Montpellier


Public transport, the trams and buses, are strict on their mask requirements. At some tram stops a slightly comedic voice comes on as the tram approaches, saying “You! Yes, you! Be sure to put your masks on before boarding the tram!” Overall, compliance on the trams seems to be around 90%. Some riders just don’t seem to care. (On a recent tram ride we saw several young women in animated conversation with no masks; at one stop a police officer leaned into the car and gave them a no-nonsense order to mask up, which they quickly did. Of course, as soon as the door closed the masks came down and conversation resumed…)

It’s easy to criticize, but vigilance is hard to maintain. We celebrated the birthday of a friend recently with a picnic by the river (not so bucolic where it runs through the city, but still, it’s open space with grass!). It was outside and there was a lot of room around our group. Still, the 15 of us exceeded the suggested limit of 10, and we were all pretty close together. Someone passed around a bag of chips (not so common here in France, but all the more desirable because of it!). I certainly wasn’t going to stick my hand in the bag, and so poured some out on a plate. Then, as I enjoyed my second bite, I realized that everyone else had been sticking their hands in the bag. Oops…

 

Not that time at the river, but a time at the river!

 Meanwhile, we are slowly learning to get out in public more. We had our first dinner out recently. Outdoors, of course. The nights here are soft, and so long and mellow that we’d have been outside in any event. There weren’t many other diners, so we were well spaced; the servers wore masks, and did not linger at the table. It went well; we thoroughly enjoyed the friends we were with, the food, and the long slow twilight (we’re almost as far north as Salem, Oregon, here, so this time of year the sun is up early and sets late).

Panorama of the city from a rooftop apartment




It seems that art is everywhere in this city!

It was a joy, too, to sit in a café at mid-day and enjoy a coffee with friends, on the once-empty Place Jaurès (named for Jean Jaurès, a French politician from the beginning of the last century who must be highly regarded, since every town in France has a street, a place, a school, or all three named after him; in our apartment there is even a mug that says “What would Jaurès do ?”). The place wasn’t as full as it was… before, but there were still plenty of people out enjoying the early summer weather. We sat upwind, as we always do, to avoid the ever-present smokers—and I thought of how the wind was also carrying whatever viral load there might be away from us. We felt pretty safe even in the crowd! 

Place Jean Jaures, today, and during the confinement

Paula was noticing the other day how the loops on her mask tended to push her ears forward, something we see on everyone who wears that style face covering. It caused her to wonder, will we all have more prominent ears by the time the pandemic is over??

 

We return to the beach, this time to stay for a while! It was pretty unpopulated this day.

Paula, Mark, and Debra on a lazy, cloud-strewn day.

A common site on the beach each summer: carts come by often selling ice cream (of course!) and coffee

We got a package in the mail today. It was a couple of cloth masks. The City of Montpellier sent out two to every household. This, in addition to the two masks we each received last month from the city. It’s a good feeling, thinking that someone (the government) really is concerned about our health and welfare!

 

Yet more street art.  As we were admiring it, the artist, who had just finished, came by, guarding against graffiti (an on-going problem!). 

(To see a short news segment on this installation, click here.  The words are in French but a picture is a picture!)



And, finally, pétanque! Also known as boules (balls), this is the quintessential, almost legendary, game of the south of France (although it’s played all over the country, these days). The name derives from the Provençal dialect of Occitane, the traditional language of this region. It has some similarities to the Italian game of bocci, although pétanque uses smaller, heavier metal balls which can be tossed or rolled. Pétanque courts, or boulodromes, are found in every neighborhood here.



Playing on our "home court" with Xavier, our French friend

We have, of course, bought some pétanque sets, and make it a point to get to the boulodrome near us at least once a week. A short bike ride away is another court, this one heavily shaded by plane trees, were we meet with another group for a few rounds with lunch afterwards. It feels good to connect in to the local traditions!


Another day on another court, a short distance away.





I've learned that this rounded corner, to match the odd angles of the streets, is a hallmark of architecture in Montpellier. That, and the wrought-iron railings, are common in the South of France.
Who lives in the little window at the top?


Up next: sooner or later we'll report on our trip to Italy!



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