The Bonfires of St. John, a Midsummer tradition particularly popular in Catalonia, dates back to pre-Christian summer solstice celebrations but has become associated with the birth date of St. John, June 24. Here in Northern Catalonia, we add the association with the Canigou flame, a symbol of Catalan identity, by simulating the bringing of fire down from the mountains.
There was a time when the children began in the nearby Corbieres hills and ran down to the village of Maury carrying torches through the forests and vineyards, but contemporary safety standards and a persistent drought have limited the procession to the streets of the village.
Still, there’s not much more fun to be had in this town than for children and firefighters to run through the streets carrying torches that are then used to ignite a bonfire of grenache vines in the kiosque square.
The mayor grills sausages, the council serves wine, the kids get to run off all that energy and the parents get a good night’s sleep.
I decided to skip the major concerts of this annual music festival. Four years ago, I shot for two days and got a cool t-shirt in return but the t-shirt still fits and now everyone’s a photographer. I don’t think they needed me and I didn’t need another black t-shirt.
But I did want to take in the free festival events and brought a camera along. Les Femmes à Barbe do not wear beards at all, but they did manage a few costume changes during their performance in the sweltering Place de la Mairie. A high energy trio featuring lively harmonies and a variety of musical styles that began with some French Pop, segued quickly through a brief Marilyn Monroe interlude into an Almodóvar film. Bedsheet saris accompanied Polynesian rhythms and on to Africa by way of James Brown.
The heat drove most of the crowd away from the stage into the shade, but didn’t slow down the unbearded singers at all.
The lovely old Chapel of St. Roch was the venue for a duo known as NUT, a singer and guitarist performing vaguely folky tunes in French and English; a mélange of pop, reggae, soft blues and ballads. Pleasant enough to listen to, not compelling enough to keep me in the airless church with sweat in my eyes, while thinking of a cool shower and a glass of rosé.
The photo above was made on September 30, 2011 and christened The Olive Tree Salon. The small park is actually the Place du Bicentenaire (1789-1989), but to me it will always be the set for the Olive Tree Salon. The women gathered on warm summer evenings with their knitting, or not, and spent an hour or two talking over their day, exchanging gossip and recipes, and, no doubt, complaining about the ailments of age. Groups of two or three men sat at the trompe l’oeil café or down by the bus stop and I expect their conversations were not very different. Geneviève (left) was the natural leader, as she was throughout town. Formerly the secretary at the Mairie and, as such, a reliable source of information about everything in the village, she is now the head of the Club des Ainés, organizing activities and support for the village’s growing population of senior citizens. But seniors’ groups have built-in population controls and at least two of the members of the Olive Tree Salon have died: Pierette on the right and Lucienne, seated next to her. I’m not sure about Colette but I haven’t seen her since I’ve returned and it’s a small town.
So the Olive Tree Salon is no more but the park is still a gathering place. Houses heat up in the late afternoons and the cool shade of the olive tree welcomes a new generation. The kids are young and energetic—a girl teaches her younger brother some dance moves—the clicking of knitting needles has been replaced by music struggling to be heard from smartphone speakers. Not my music, but a welcome addition to my soundtrack. Like many rural villages, the population of Maury is aging because a lack of local employment opportunities forces young people with ambition to look elsewhere. But there are still kids here. Their lively chatter and hip-hop music adds to my day, brings a smile to my face and a bit of comfort to my night.
Sometimes coping with The French Bureaucracy is a straightforward commercial transaction. I drove up to Montpellier yesterday for a medical exam and interview with the OFII, the national office of immigration and integration, a name that implies some effort will be made to help newcomers adapt to French society. I wouldn’t count on it.
After finding the nearly anonymous Centre de Radiologie Victor Hugo, which in the letter was said to be located at 10 rue Victor Ugo, but the Waze app correctly found at 10 Boulevard Victor Hugo (I suspected as much), I was quickly ushered in, told to remove my shirt and cozy up to the x-ray machine. Zap! Back to waiting room for ten minutes, handed an envelope with my films and shown the door with an assurance that the next address wasn’t very far away.
Waiting room, a little longer this time, until a woman in a white lab coat calls my name and shows me to an office where I’m asked my height and weight, requested to read an eye chart, and told to return to the waiting room. Twenty minutes later a woman in colorful civilian clothes calls my name, shows me to an office, asks for the receipt that shows I paid 250 euros online for this experience, returns my x-rays, and puts a shiny new stamp in my passport authorizing me to be in this country for the next year. Pay to play. Simple if you have it.
By the way, many people, experts even, have said mine were among the most beautiful chest x-rays they’ve ever seen. They may be the best x-rays any president has ever… oh wait.
I was chewing on an immense magret from a steroidal duck and washing it down with Coop wine when an old friend from past visits came in and I immediately launched into my insurance saga.
“This is wrong. I can help you.”
He went to another table, talked with one of the men, and returned with a business card.
“Franck can help you. He says it’s not a problem. Just go to his office Tuesday morning.” I bought him a beer, but I had seen enough to withhold optimism until Tuesday.
So I rented a car for the drive to Tours to visit with John and Mary Priest and family for a lovely weekend of good food, great wine, and better friends. Returned Monday and quickly fell asleep only to dream of losing all my money. Totally wiped out. Everything. No explanations. Just gone. I awoke with the pigeons and checked my bank account which was intact but the news did not significantly lower the level of anxiety.
I went to see Franck. As I was driving the road leaving Maury, a truck coming in the opposite direction flashed his lights at me, the signal that the gendarmes had set up a check station just ahead. Visions of the guillotine danced in my head, but I was allowed to pass. Made it to St. Paul without incident, Franck welcomed me and turned me over to his colleague who would fix me right up, no problem. She echoed his optimism but unfortunately her computer was down and she could not process my request, but no worries, she’ll take copies of my paperwork, and when the computer is fixed this afternoon, she’ll do a quote and call me. Right, I’ve heard that before. I took the long way home. By five o’clock, my fears were confirmed, I turned on yesterday’s Giants’ game and poured a glass of wine.
I called the US Embassy and found out that France has driving reciprocity with only a few states and California isn’t one of them, so they will not exchange my license. I have a year in which to go to driving school and take the test for a new French license. But there was no reason that I couldn’t get insurance in that time. It was up to the companies. There’s no law against it. I called Franck again and his colleague suggested I give her a mailing address so she could send me the quote. She’s eight kilometers away but how long would the post take?
“I’ll come to your office.”
“You will come? OK. I will call the company after lunch—it was almost 10 AM so I guess there wasn’t enough time before lunch—and then you can come. Four o’clock?”
“OK. I’ll be there.” She didn’t ask and I didn’t offer the information that I’d be driving my uninsured car to her office.
The country cousins have come to visit my pigeons but they don’t seem to have much to say. Their voices, limited to a single long whooooo, argue ineffectively with the locals.
Woo, wooooh, wuh. Whooooo
Woo, wooooh, wuh.
I talked to Michel who said maybe I could sell him the car and when the new registration was complete, he could put me on his insurance as a second driver. The French just live for this stuff. There’s a workaround for every bureaucratic obstacle, but I could only see reams of paperwork and months without a car. I told him I would go see Franck.
They were both smiling when I arrived a few minutes before four, but I didn’t expect that to last and, indeed, when she turned to her computer, a shadow passed across her face. She asked me what level of coverage I wanted, then swiveled the monitor to show me the options and rates. This was progress but the numbers were not a reason to smile. I decided to go for the all-risk coverage, the highest number on the board, and while we’re at it let’s throw in the 24-hour roadside assistance. That brought a smile to her face: “It is best.”
Then the smile faded as another potential obstacle loomed. “You have a French bank?”
But I had this one covered. Not only do I have a French bank account, I knew how much was in it and I had the numbers with me.
She put the green official coverage form in her printer but then turned back to her monitor and shook her head. This, I was sure, was the disaster I was still expecting. But she simply removed the green form, printed out two copies of the contract, handed them to me for signatures, printed the form, and smiled. “You can drive.”
Poof. Anxiety gone. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to kiss Franck. I settled for handshakes and the most profuse expressions of gratitude I could muster in French.
The cooing of doves haunts the present and the memory. Woo, woooh, wuh. Short, long, very short. Somber, wistful sounds, they make together, or alone. They roost in the eaves of the church above my house and the sound carries down to the bedrooms. I hear it early in the morning when I’m not yet ready to start the day, and all afternoon when working in the office. The pigeons hang out at church into the evening but today, they’re strangely silent, or maybe just taking a long lunch like everyone else around here.
I’m being pummeled by the bureaucracy. My car is finally whole so I went to buy insurance. Now, I’ve done this before: when I moved here five years ago, I bought a car, registered it, bought insurance. Not so fast. The first agent told me he could not sell me insurance because I have not owned a car in the last three years and so he cannot check my driving record.
“But I had a car and insurance here four years ago.”
“That is too long. Perhaps you can try the company you used before.”
Woo, wooooh, wuh.
Of course I can, but no they can’t. Not with a California drivers’ license.
“But you insured me four years ago.”
“Yes, but it’s different now.”
“What do I do?”
“You must exchange your license for a European permit. You can try the Mairie in Maury. They may be able to do that for you, if not, the Préfecture in Perpignan.”
I’m at the Mairie in the morning when it opens, with every document I could possibly need. And I nail it. When the paperwork’s done, I ask for an Attestation stating that I have made the application and ask them to telephone the insurance company and ask if that will suffice for temporary coverage. The agent takes my number and says she will confirm after speaking with a colleague.
Well, I didn’t really expect her to call, so I carefully drove to the office this morning hoping for an answer.
She had my name and number on her desk and appeared to be waiting for me. Perhaps I misunderstood. “I will help you now,” she said.
“Good. Can you issue the policy?”
“We will see.”
Terrifying words in this context. She made a call. Uh oh. She made another and shook her head. “The Préfecture may reject the exchange.”
“Why would they do that? At the Mairie, they said it would be fine.”
“I will try another.” This time, I saw a smile as she spoke and when she hung up she said: “D’accord. Pas de problème. I will do the devis.”
She turned to her computer and the shadows returned.
“Non. C’est pas possible.”
“But why. You said it was no problem.”
“Regardez. These are all the companies.” The red type on her monitor screamed at me. “They all say no.”
She turns back to the phone.
“He says California is not compatible. They usually reject California.”
“So what can I do?”
“You can try the American Embassy.”
Someone brought her the number. She waited patiently. “Tapez un, tapez deux. OK”
She waited in the phone tree. She started running bills through the postage meter. She waited. Her colleague brought more bills. These were the lucky drivers who had actually been able to buy insurance. She waited a little longer. “Impossible.” And hung up. She handed back my license, passport, registration, attestation, and, finally, the number of the embassy. “Tuesday,” she said. “It’s almost time for lunch.”
I drove back to Maury and carefully parked in the garage. I tried to call the lawyer I had used for the initial visa. “He will call you back – probably this afternoon.”
I thought of asking the Mayor for help, but it was lunch time.