Mimi, Rodolfo, the Spacemen and the Mime

Formerly known as La Bohème.

Unusual, provocative, a new approach, absolutely, but how it relates to the music and libretto I cannot tell you. It seemed like the management had double-booked the theatre. There were two unrelated productions on the stage simultaneously. On stage-right you have Mimi and Rodolfo declaring their love, falling out, and reuniting before the inevitable tragic end, while on stage-left mute spacemen wander around a white moonscape of an unnamed planet. Except when they’re inside the doomed spaceship and the spacemen are floating outside the window. They never seem to merge until the end when instead of a quiet death, Mimi walks through an annoying,  shimmering silver curtain and wanders off the planet.

I get it. I think. In a world without hope, only love and art make sense. Or something like that. But all this spaceship nonsense was totally unnecessary and impossible to reconcile with the action. So the production team led by Claus Guth stopped trying and just let the spacemen hang around while the lovers played out their fate.

I can imagine the early meetings when Mr. Guth presented his concept:

“To make this romantic trifle relevant to today, we must move ahead in time to make the demise of our civilization real. Exaggerate, exaggerate, it’s the only way. Their love can only be meaningful to us if it takes place in a world where love is impossible. Their art can only touch us if it exists beyond the end of the world.”

“Brilliant, Claus. Make it happen. Make this music speak to us again.”

Then they get into production and the questions begin: “Excuse me Claus, but if we open on a spaceship, how do we bring in Mimi?”

“No problem. Stop thinking literally. We do not need to hold the hand of the audience. We’ll just bring her in as if she was in another room. It’s a big ship.”

“They were on the same ship but had never met?

“As I said, it’s a big ship.”

“Excuse me, sir, but is it big enough to hold the Café Momus?”

“Hmm. Yes. I see what you mean. Think, people! Outside the box.”

“I’ve got it, sir. It’s a dream. Rodolfo takes a little nap and dreams the left bank of Paris, which, of course, doesn’t exist anymore. That world is dead.”

“Brilliant. That’s what I mean, people, outside the box. Now, let me tell you something else I hate about opera. The house is huge, the singers are small, the world is dying. The audience has to see the emotions to feel them but they’re so far away and they’re checking their phones or reading those damn titles. How do we grab them?”

“I’ve got it sir: video. We bring a camera on stage- it will look like all the other tech spacey garbage already on stage – and we project a huge close-up of the singer on the wall behind him.”

“Good, I like it. But remember, exaggerate! We’re talking really close. I want to see his tonsils.”

“I’m not sure the Rodolfo still has tonsils, sir.”

“Nobody likes a smart-ass, junior. OK, video, I like it but it’s not enough and we can’t do it for everyone. How about a mime?”

“Everybody hates mimes, sir. Those guys on the Pont des Arts can’t even make a living anymore.”

“Good. They’ll work cheap.”

“But no one likes them, sir.”

“Exactly why I want them. This audience needs a good slap in the face.”

“The critics will hate it. The audience will boo when you take your bow, maybe even during the performance.”

“Perfect. Better to give them something to hate than something they’ll forget. What time is my train to Berlin?”

A final word: not even this kind of nonsense can kill this music:

Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel with Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi and Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo, it really was possible to close your eyes and listen to Puccini.

This is a photograph from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of La Boheme in San Francisco in 1978. At the time, it was considered to be provocative, the work of a willful director imposing an inappropriate vision on a classic. But it was beautiful, affecting, illuminating and it has stayed with me all these years.

La Bohème, San Francisco Opera, 1978

Settling In

It’s getting dangerously close to real life around here. I found a new doctor, joined a gym, shopped for groceries, and went to the movies in my neighborhood.

But this is Paris and I came here to make sure my life was more than shopping, cooking, eating, and sleeping.  So I stopped by a favorite wine bar last week, did I mention drinking? I ordered a glass of Brouilly and the bartender replied: “Non, non, monsieur, aujourd’hui c’est le Beaujolais Nouveau. Of course it was. All over Paris were signs proclaiming the arrival of this year’s vintage and I was lunching at ground zero. Tasted pretty good, too. More a testament to the context than the wine, but still.

I jumped into the cultural life of the city when Tia and John, the lovely propriétaires of my building invited me to Paris Photo last week. This is a gigantic marketplace: galleries from around the world displaying and selling contemporary and historical photography create a comprehensive survey of the history of the medium. Two hours was as much as my brain could absorb, but just being there made me feel part of the city.

Square Saint Lambert

Then I got carried away and booked tickets for a futuristic La Boheme at Bastille. I’m not sure what to expect—the only image I’ve seen looks like a spaceship has crashed in a snowy forest— but Dudamel is conducting and I can always close my eyes, listen to the music, get off the spaceship and return to Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This all followed a propitious return to the city. I rented a van to haul my stuff and what Jess had stored in our house and as I approached the city, a rainbow appeared. No kidding. A rainbow. I’m not making this up and it gets better. We unloaded at her house, drove across Paris to my apartment where I found a parking place in front of my house just as the clutch gave out. Couldn’t drive another meter. When I finally reached the rental company they told me not to worry, those Renault vans are famous for faulty clutches, and they’ll send a tow truck.

So I’m getting there. The bureaucratic details are being ticked off my list, I have a comfortable work space in my little house, central heating, a good baguette only a block away, and all of Paris within minutes on the Métro. I’m home.

Square Saint Lambert

©2017 Ron Scherl

Moving On

I never planned to spend the rest of my life in Maury but when I came back in March, I thought I’d live here for a few years, save lots of money, then move to Paris. I knew what I was facing, the town would not have changed much from five years ago, but that intrigued me because I had begun work on a rewrite of my novel about that time and planned to write now from the perspective of today as well as of that time: to report on what really happened and comment with five years of hindsight. Being here could only help, but I’m now far enough along that future revisions won’t require geographic proximity.

Autumn Vineyards: Maury

As temperatures began to drop, and posters for the next Bingo night began to appear, I started to look north. At first, finding a place to rent in Paris appeared to be a task of insurmountable complexity. I contacted everyone I know with any connection to the city but failed to turn up a lead. I worked my way through hundreds of ads throughout the city and learned that the good ones go fast. I would have to be there to jump on something quickly, a five-hour train ride might cost me the place of my dreams. Well, probably not, my dreams are bigger than Paris apartments—that’s why the cafes are crowded—and kitchens are almost an afterthought—that’s why there are two bistros and a brasserie on almost every street. But I wasn’t going there to sit at home, but to be part of this city that I’ve always loved, despite the fact that more often than not, I’ve been there in unhappy times. San Francisco and Paris were the only two places I could see myself living and the remarkable news is that rents in Paris are about half of what they are in San Francisco. I could make this work.

I spent a lot of time looking at ads and learning my way around the numerous agencies and aggregators online. I booked a trip and when I tried to start making appointments I got a wake-up call. Before I would even be allowed to make an appointment I would have to submit a complete dossier which consists of references, letters of employment, and pay stubs showing income of three times the monthly rent. Or, I could provide a guarantor who is French and has the same credentials. Or, as a last resort, some owners would accept a year’s rent paid in advance. Maybe I couldn’t make this work.

Paris: Le Marais

Then, for some reason, Craig’s List popped into my head and there it was: a small house in a courtyard of the 15th arrondissement. I responded immediately and the owner was positive but said she had four appointments booked and how soon could I get there. I was still five days away from my scheduled trip so I called a Paris friend and asked her to go see it. She attested to my sterling character, her boys poked around and asked questions as if they were going to be living there, the owner was charmed and now I was real to her. She checked out my blog and said she would wait to meet me before making a decision. I got to Paris about 4 PM on a Sunday, we had a deal by 5, and I moved in Tuesday for ten days before returning to Maury for a couple of weeks to pack, sell my car and close the house.

I’ll be back from time to time to see the few friends I have here, to visit with the Walkers when they come and, I hope, to work on another book with them. But I don’t belong here. I’m a city guy and the thought of living in Paris after so many years of dreaming about it is perfectly right.

Paris: Statue of Henri IV

©2017 Ron Scherl

A Basic Right

I have (too) often railed about the French bureaucratic morass that can make the simplest transaction an interminable nightmare, so it is only fair to report on the most positive development of my time here: I have received my social security number, my entry ticket to the national health insurance program. I am not a French citizen, but I am living in a country which believes that every resident is entitled to health care, and has a government able to pass legislation to make it happen. Amazing.

First order of business was to designate a primary care physician, so I went to see Docteur Mathilde Lemoine, whom I had seen once before. Dr. Lemoine was recommended by my friend, Carrie Sumner, and I went to her several months ago to ask her if she could write prescriptions for the medications I’ve been taking since the stent was implanted a couple of years ago. She did, and I had them filled at the local pharmacy. When I told the pharmacist that I was not yet on the insurance program, he apologized for the cost and said he would give me a facture. I wasn’t sure what it was for but was pleasantly surprised that the cost of the medications was approximately equal to the co-pay under my Kaiser plan. I filed the factures and forgot about them until I received my social security number which came with instructions for reimbursement of any medical expenses incurred while living in France before I entered the plan.

I was stunned by the generosity of this program, but, wait, there’s more. When I proudly gave Dr. Lemoine my new number, she asked if I understood how the French system works. I said I knew that 70% of medical expenses were covered and that I would have to buy a top-up plan that would pay the remainder. She said: Yes, that’s true, but…” Here it comes I thought, there’s always a catch. She explained that because I had a stent, 100% of any expense related to the heart would be covered. I had to ask her to repeat that, thinking my French comprehension had failed me. She said it again, a little more slowly, and I just sat there shaking my head in disbelief and thinking I must learn the words to the Marseillaise.

In other words, and this is directed at almost every U.S. Republican lawmaker out there, in a system that actually benefits people, pre-existing conditions generate more comprehensive and generous coverage. People who are sick need help. This is not a radical concept, it is government by and for the people.

Election Day 2017

Dr. Lemoine then told me that she would file the necessary papers with the insurance office and call me next week to schedule an appointment with a cardiologist. She printed out her facture and I reached for my checkbook but she said: “Non. I only need your signature.”

Compassionate governance is possible.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Searching for Vincent

Finally managed to get my butt out of Maury for a few days, motion triggered by an invitation from my friends Mike and Martha to join them for a few days among the swells of St. Tropez.

First stop, Arles, where I thought I’d catch a few photo exhibitions from the Rencontres and stalk the ghost of Van Gogh. Most of what I wanted to see at the Rencontres had already closed—especially disappointing to miss a show of early work from Joel Meyerowitz, a photographer I’ve long admired—but I did get to a survey of Latin American photography that was interesting but marred by a terrible installation with inadequate lighting.

Bridges Across the Seine at Astières

On to the search for Vincent. The Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles had a small exhibit of eight paintings of portraits of ordinary people and field workers from the Bührle collection that nicely traced the development of his modern style of short brushstrokes and saturated colors. Segue to Alice Neel, a “painter of modern life”, left wing New York from about 1940-1970. Mostly portraits, they are more artifice than documentary and led me out into the streets to resume the search for Vincent – with cocktails.

John Perrault, 1971 by Alice Neel
Andy Warhol by Alice Neel

Found both on the terrace of the Hotel Nord-Pinus: Cocteau, Picasso, bullfighters, and fashion designers in historical photos, a lovely Negroni in my glass, and Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night just across the Place du Forum. Tourists like me fill the streets, restaurant terraces cover the Place and overwhelm the statue of Frédéric Mistral, while the café at night offers an €18 Van Gogh salad, still this is a remarkably pleasant place to sit and sip and make notes for a new novel and plans to move to Paris.

Arles: Place du Forum

The streets of Arles are quiet on my way back to my hotel, the tourists have retired for the night and the ghost of Van Gogh is silent.

Arles

A drive north and east to the village of Grimaud, which was the seat of the Grimaldi family before they went off to Monaco and lured a movie star out of Hollywood to become a princess and live in a castle. The villa was almost as nice and the aesthetic shifted from Van Gogh to Hockney.

Villa in Grimaud

A couple of days of luxury with a group of accomplished and interesting people wasn’t hard to take.

©2017 Ron Scherl

An Interesting Sunday in Maury

I walked down to the kiosque for the annual Vide Grenier which translates as “empty attic.” It’s a village-wide garage sale that all the communes around here host from time to time. There were about forty venders who had taken the time to clean out their garages or attics and haul the stuff down to a central location only to discover their neighbors had exactly the same unwanted junk. They’ve all lived in this little town all their lives, they all have the same stuff. So a few items are sold, some trades are made because a neighbor’s trash always looks better than your own, then you hope the tourists show up because the last thing you want is to have to lug the stuff back home, which would mean you still won’t be able to get the car in the garage.

Michel Abdelli
Ancient artifacts

I wandered, finding nothing I couldn’t live without, and was about to head off when drums sounded and a demonstration came down the street.

The Demonstrators

Maury is hosting Camp Climat, a gathering of environmental activists to share information and plan activities to combat climate change and promote renewable energy and sustainable food production. There are about 500 participants camping on the outskirts of town near the swimming pool that is closed for lack of sufficient water, and holding meetings and exhibitions in the Centre de Loisirs.

Here and now, for the future of our children

Today’s demonstration turned out to be a bit of street theater with activists facing off against other activists posing as police. This was the kindest, gentlest confrontation imaginable, ending in smiles and hugs all around and, frankly, I’m not sure what the point was. One of the participants told me they wanted to show they can more effectively get their point across with non-violence, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that is a message that needs repeating today.

A Gentle Confrontation

©2017 Ron Scherl

Harvest

Around here, the start of harvest is like opening day of the baseball season, full of anticipation and uncertainty.

Is all the fruit truly ripe? Are the rookies ready?

Will the old vines continue to produce? Do the veterans have another year in them?

Will this year’s pickers work hard and well? Will the free agents produce?

Picking the Terra Nova vineyard

Yesterday, I went out with Marcel and Carrie and the crew from Domaine des Enfants who were picking the first whites of the season: Muscat, Grenache Gris and Blanc, Maccabeu. Not all the fruit is ripe, but sample testing had shown some vines that were pruned early were ready to go.

Marcel Buhler
Marcel, Bernard, Carrie
Carrie Sumner

Marcel and Carrie feed me often and keep me in wine; in exchange, I wanted to update their photo library. My pix from five years ago were ready for retirement. I also needed to see if I still had the legs to scramble up and down a steep hillside vineyard, kind of like tracking down a liner in the gap. Not bad. I may have lost a step but I was able to keep up with the kids. My average wasn’t great but it’s early and I did manage a few hits.

Laura, Bernard

Back at the cave, a little cathartic foot stomping before refrigeration and pressing, followed by a sausage grillade lunch, which I followed with a nap.

Cheers.

©2017 Ron Scherl

14 Juillet

The frenetic pace of rural life is killing me. I need a break in some escargot-paced haven like, oh, I don’t know, New York. Yesterday was of course Bastille Day, otherwise known as “Let’s tear down the prison and behead the king” day, but here in Maury it is an occasion to honor France’s soldiers and for that we need to put aside politics, ignore the immorality of colonialism and simply say: “Merci”, because the only surviving ancien combattants in town served in Algeria. So while Macron was beguiling Trump with war toys in Paris, Charlie, the mayor, was pinning another medal on an old soldier.

The Mayor says a few words
Les Pompiers Salute

The day began with citizens, elected officials and the fire brigade marching from City Hall, looping around town to the cemetery where flowers were laid at the war memorial and after a few moments of respectful silence, Charlie said a few words about sacrifice and the responsibility of all of us to remember the terrible cost of war. I talked with the Mayor as we walked and asked him why Macron was hosting, and thereby honoring Trump. He said he thought Macron honestly believed he could make some progress and perhaps persuade the American to reconsider his position on climate change, but also the young French President wants to be the leader of Europe and saw an opportunity when it became obvious that Trump and Merkel will not be buddies.

The Mayor, members of the Council, honorees

The procession made its way back through town to City Hall where the old soldiers were acknowledged, pictures were taken, and most everyone adjourned to the Maison du Terroir for an apero. I had to skip the drinks because a Brit from my French class had invited me to a village meal in Palairac, a tiny commune about 40 minutes away in the Corbières mountains. Lovely melon with a bit of smoked ham, squid stuffed with pork, rice, ice cream, and lots of very nice local wine. There was music, dancing, and a lively mix of French and English. I was introduced as an American but endorsed as anti-Trump.

Palairac
The Musicians
Band Uniform
Lunch

Back home, I met Bardot in the garden who blessed me with a sack of the summer’s first tomatoes. There was time for a brief nap until Michel came by to fix a leaky faucet and then off to St. Paul for dinner with Marcel, Carrie, and Marcel’s parents. As quiet and darkness settled in on us, and Carrie put Jordi to bed, I went back to Maury to end the day with fireworks and a glass of Maury, along with the largest crowd I’d ever seen in town. I’d guess there were around 300 people there, including an unusually large number of children, an optimistic note to close a full day of gentle wholesomeness, the best of village life.

©2017 Ron Scherl

The Feast of St. John

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.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Voix de Femmes 2017

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.

A bit of Marilyn.
A touch of Almodóvar.

The heat drove most of the crowd away from the stage into the shade, but didn’t slow down the unbearded singers at all.

An intense sun drove the crowd to shade.

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.

NUT

©2017 Ron Scherl