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.
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.
Sunday morning. I shaved my face, donned a fresh black t-shirt and walked up to the Mairie to witness the climax of this most confounding and portentous election.
Charlie, the mayor of Maury, did a double take, smiled warmly, said “Ah, Ron”, and came to shake my hand. He introduced me to all the other poll workers, who nodded as they recognized “le photographe’, and said of course it would be fine for me to take photos as people voted. I shook hands all around the room and one woman said I had taken a beautiful picture of her father, Adrien. I remembered it, found it on my phone and showed it to her. “He died last year,” she said.
Charlie asked: “What’s going on in America, this Trump?” I gave my best French expression of disgust, a vehement “Beh!” Then said: “C’est pourquoi je suis ici.” “That’s why I’m here.” Everyone laughed and welcomed me back to town.
There are stacks of cards for each of the candidates and I asked if voters had to take all of them into the booth. “No, no, minimum two.” So you present identification, take at least two cards and an envelope into the booth, put one in the envelope, throw the others away, have your name checked off against the roll of eligible voters and your voting card stamped, deposit the card in a clear plexi box as the official calls your name and adds: “à voté”. But I noticed some voters took no cards, apparently intending to deposit an empty envelope in protest against all the candidates.
I told Charlie I’ll return for the results and went home to lunch.
Envelopes are collected into batches of 100 and placed in larger envelopes, then opened, passed to someone else who reads the name aloud, which is then hand-tallied by two other officials. When the envelope is finished the count is read aloud, agreed and recorded. The room is absolutely silent except for the reading of names and results. No groans, no expressions of dismay, no wringing of hands although everyone I had talked to was appalled at the thought of President Le Pen. I had a good chat with Charlie, a test for my French but we made it. He really didn’t think she could be elected but he was certainly aware of the anger and uncertainty here, and everywhere and understands the decline of the traditional party structure and how many fear globalization and, of course, the anti-immigration fear of the “other”. And the alternatives are not terribly attractive. Mélenchon is a demagogue from the left, Fillon, a dinosaur on the right, Macron is pretty but who knows what lurks behind the façade.
Maury gave Le Pen a victory by about 25 votes over Macron, Mélenchon third, Fillon fourth. It surprised me—this area is traditionally solid Socialist—but maybe it shouldn’t have. Like many small villages, Maury is suffering. There are many houses for sale as the older generation dies off, few services for those who remain, and no jobs for the young. People are angry, confused, certain traditional politicians have let them down, but unsure where to turn. But it’s worth noting that about 75% of the Maury electorate voted, about a dozen cast blank ballots. Democracy may be unsettled in France, but people still care enough to participate.
Conventional wisdom says the French vote with their emotions in the first round, their brains in the second. We’ll see. I was watching Charlie during the count and saw him receive a text, smile, and raise a clenched fist. I’m guessing Macron is doing well nationally.
Late results before a dinner of leftover chicken and salad: it appears to be a Le Pen/Macron runoff with Macron, supported by the political establishment, the heavy favorite. Le Pen will no doubt run hard against the elites, charging them with abandoning hard working and struggling French citizens by allowing manufacturing jobs to disappear, then opening the public treasury for immigrants.
I returned in a rush, feeling as if every chore needed to be dispatched with a life-saving urgency. Part of the reason I left San Francisco was the feeling that my $2000 per month junior one bedroom never felt like home. I needed that feeling. It wasn’t about ownership. Having grown up in rented apartments, I never had a great need to own a home and my one attempt to do that in SF was an emotional disaster and a financial wash. I am, perhaps, the only person in the last hundred years to manage to lose money in San Francisco real estate, so my ownership share in the Maury house was not the emotional balm I was seeking, it was simply the feeling that I could make this place my home. I needed that and I was in a hurry to make it happen.
I collected eleven boxes of books and clothes I could not live without from a postmistress happy to regain the space in her small office and amused that I would move here from San Francisco. “Trump?” She asked and I agreed that was part of it but said I was concerned about the imminent French elections as well. She shook her head, gave me a classic French shrug and “Beh. Everywhere. Who knows?” Then she smiled and said “Bienvenue à Maury”. I thanked her, said goodbye and turned to find a warm welcome from Marie-Laure and her grandson from Mas de Lavail. Noticing the boxes, she asked if I was returning to stay, smiled when I said yes and said she was happy to see me again. This scene would be repeated a number of times whenever I ran into someone I knew. It is genuinely welcoming, there is nothing false about it, but it goes only as far as the front door. An invitation to lunch or dinner is rare. It’s not personal, the French, at least the Maurynates, do not often invite people to their homes. They do not socialize over a meal the way we do. Sunday lunch is a family tradition, usually only for the family. A very acute sense of privacy allows for extended conversations in the markets and bakeries before going home to close the door and shutters.
Geneviève came by as I was unloading boxes and told me Pappi had died in February after a fall. He was 95 years old but I loved seeing him work his garden and hoped he’d go on for a while longer.
I tried to call Mary Ann and Larry to tell them the sad news but the phone wasn’t working. I don’t use the landline much but its unlimited free calls to the US are essential for Mary Ann who has to continue to run a business while visiting here. I rebooted the internet box but that had no effect on the phone and killed the WiFi. Got the WiFi back but still no phone and now no internet access, got that back long enough to find the SFR service page but the online reboot didn’t work before the connection was lost. Off to the SFR boutique in Perpignan where I managed to explain the problem to two twenty-something sales reps. They looked at the box as if it just been recovered from a pyramidal tomb and told me they would exchange it for a new, more powerful model. That is, I should exchange it, I should probably bury it, but they couldn’t do it there. I had to go to the depot in Rivesaltes where I could leave the box and in three days I could return to pick up the new one. Three days without internet, in baseball season – impossible. I begged, I pleaded, I told them I was old and internet was my lifeline. It worked. They conferred, went into a backroom and returned with a new box that I could borrow while waiting for the exchange. Why they had the new box, could loan it to me, but couldn’t make the exchange is one of those perfect French mysteries. Now that I had the loaner I didn’t have to take in the old box immediately, instead I should wait (three days) until they called, then pick up the new box at the depot and return the loaner to the boutique. Don’t be concerned if you can’t follow the logic in all this but do keep in mind this is the kind of bureaucratic nonsense the French live with and accept every day. I was so grateful I bought cellular service from them, extended many, many merci beaucoups with my au revoirs, and went to lunch.
The new box worked like a charm and I returned to unpacking, which soon revealed an immediate need for more furniture. A large armoire with drawers for socks and underwear would be ideal and Michel had one he wanted to sell. I agreed to buy it, but we could not find a way to dismantle it enough to get it out of the warren of small rooms that was his mother’s house. The house will now be advertised for sale as partially furnished and I will return to Le Bon Coin, a kind of French Craig’s List. I filled both of the existing armoires with clothes although I’ll have to empty one to accommodate Walkers and guests, hung my tuxedo in the garage, ordered bookcases from Ikea for the five cartons still unpacked, and called Michel to tell him the upstairs toilet didn’t work. He came by, remembered he had shut off that water line because the terrace shower was leaking and promised to take care of it, later. We went to look for a shower to replace the ungainly Jacuzzi-like tub that was becoming a hazard.
After seeing a couple of possibilities, we returned to the house to look at the plumbing under the tub and immediately fell into the rabbit hole of a Peter Mayle opus as Michel morphed into a crusty and taciturn old craftsman muttering untranslatable expressions that could only mean things were more complicated than they appeared. He decided it was necessary to bring in another plumber he knew, just to be sure it could be done. He thought it was possible, but wanted another opinion. He’d go home now to his dinner and to call the man. He’d let me know when they could come back.
Then the lights went out.
I was only trying to make dinner, turned on the oven, everything went black, but I didn’t immediately make the connection. I looked outside, it was dusk, the streetlights weren’t on yet and everything looked dark. I thought it was a widespread outage. Went in, lit some candles, looked outside and the streetlights were on. I called Michel who said yes, he had electricity and suggested I check with my neighbors but I saw no one and no lights in the houses. If people were home, they were watching their TVs behind tightly closed shutters, and I was reluctant to knock on doors that had never been open to me. Of course, many houses were empty—one friend told me there were more than one hundred houses for sale in Maury—and a funeral every week.
It finally occurred to me to check the circuit breakers—I’m a little slow on this home ownership thing—and sure enough the main breaker was tripped. I reset it went up to turn on the oven and was plunged back into darkness. Re-reset the breaker, made a sandwich, opened a bottle of wine, and watched the Giants new closer blow the opener.
Just because I’ve returned to San Francisco doesn’t mean I’m divorced from France, it’s more a trial separation. A conversation with the Walkers trying to answer the question “what is a novel?” brought up a number of issues about how we fictionalize our lives. Selective memory enables us to rewrite the past and, in the present, we choose what to see and retain, especially when we travel, much as we choose what to include in the frame when we make a photo. So we’re always making stories and a novel is just one way of telling stories, something humans have been doing for a very long time.
J’adore la France, but it’s not easy to explain: I’ll always be a foreigner there and the French do not welcome strangers easily, yet I’m pretty comfortable and could probably live there, although not in a small rural village. I’m too much a city kid.
There’s still lots of Maury in my life: making prints for Tom and Susan, writing about Marcel and Carrie for Helen Tate’s company:
followed by a short Facebook conversation with Jean-Roger and Marie.
And there’s fiction too, but that’s not ready for prime time.
San Francisco is home and I’m happy to be here – although I might reconsider if the Giants don’t start playing better – but I miss the friends I made there and I’ll go back.
In the interest of fair play for California wine I stopped off at Tank 18, an urban winery and a new venue for Ann Walker Catering. It’s a nice industrial space South of Market with about six wines purchased and bottled under their own label.
Mary Ann did some business, Larry and I tasted and then I played with the iPhone’s panorama software and discussed mounting an exhibition here.
Early November and the Festival of St. Brice returns to Maury. You remember Brice, a man of less than saintly youth transformed into holier than most. Pretty much the same program this year as last, small carnival, rock band, mass, tea dance, kind of something for everyone.
The carnival was much the same outfit: bumper cars, merry-go-round, cotton candy, all a bit worn and a year older, just like the rest of us.
Different band this time: last year we had a group who played in their underwear, this year we had a fashion show courtesy of a band named California, who also played and sang some stuff for a very small crowd. Last year there was a cross section of the town’s population: babies who fell asleep, kids who chased around the hall, teenagers studiously ignoring the opposite sex, the kids’ parents and some older people who left early. This year seemed to be all teenagers: girls dancing with girls, boys standing around looking uncomfortable. It’s universal.
Went for a walk this afternoon and met a man who was fishing in the swimming pool. Well, not exactly; he was downstream of the pool, fishing in the water that runs through the pool and into the town’s garden irrigation system, but the amazing thing to me is he was catching fish, small, but plentiful. The pool is drained for the winter, but the stream still runs through it, so I went up to get a closer look and couldn’t see any fish. I still don’t know where they were coming from but they liked his worms.
His gear was a bamboo pole about 10 feet long and about 8 feet of fishing line, just enough for him to lean over the edge and get a worm in front of these little guys. I think they were baby catfish but when I asked, he mumbled something I couldn’t understand, in fact the rushing water, my hearing and his reticence made conversation very difficult. I had never met him before; I believe his name is Lafage but wouldn’t swear to it. I asked if his family were the winemakers Lafage, but never really got the answer. In any case, Lafage is a common name around here, so we’ll go with that, figuring he must be related to someone who makes wine. I spent about 15 minutes with him in which time he bagged about 8-10 little fish that would make a nice lunch.
I walked on and had the vineyards pretty much to myself: harvest is over and the vineyard workers have moved on. Pruning won’t begin until after the leaves fall, so the winemakers are on vacation or getting reacquainted with their families.
This is the beginning of the quiet time around here, life moving indoors, wood smoke in the air, overcast skies and heavy sweaters. The wind this week is from the east, warmer but wetter, but it will change and I’ll need to add the down vest to the heavy sweater. Everyone says last year was unusually cold but I’m willing to bet they’ll say that again next year. Weather is just getting more extreme, ask a New Yorker.
I’m thinking of making a change: a move to Perpignan. I like the city and I’ve always been a city kid at heart, never quite comfortable without the feel of concrete beneath my feet. So I’m looking to rent an apartment right in the heart of town, close to the Place de la République which has a daily food market and a lively café scene.