Thursday, January 31, 2013

Get Your Kicks On The...

Autoroute designation sign

            If you're an American who wants to live overseas, oh, wait, before I forget, I'm marking today, the 30th of January, 2013, as the day I saw someone actually pick up after their dog. Had I been able to competently express myself, I might have said, "Madame, I am moved by your civic pride, public spirit and sense of self-sacrifice! You, and you alone, have disregarded the indifference and selfishness of your peers by putting your community and country first. You are a hero of France and I salute you!" Or, "It's about fuckin' time."
            So, where was I? Oh, right, living overseas. Anyway, if you're determined to leave North America behind, as I see it you have two options - either live where they speak the same language or where they drive on the same side of the road. If you pick the latter it leaves you one less thing to worry about as you're trying to figure out what the hell the road signs says.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bordeaux 15144

            For the eight years that Cynthia and I lived in Florida, we spent a lot of time looking around public places and saying, "We're the youngest people here." For the past 4 months we've been looking around and saying, "We're the oldest people here."  This is definitely better but I'm still not too shot in the ass with being 60 so it's good to be living in a place that reminds me of the United States I grew up in.
            Like Springdale, where I was raised, Bordeaux sits on a major river, the Garonne. It is, however, missing the array of smokestacks that bracketed both ends of town. But Springdale is missing the ruins of a third century Roman amphitheater like the one just down the street from our apartment. In fact, this city like the rest of France, has places that went up centuries before the sprouting of the trees used to built the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria. There is evidence that people lived here in the sixth century B.C. and they settled permanently a few hundred years later. The Romans came along at the time of Julius Caesar and the oldest building in town is their aforementioned amphitheater. In fact there's so much significant stuff here that Bordeaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site, an honor not likely to ever be bestowed on my hometown. But as beautiful as it is here, none of that is what takes me back.
             Four months isn't enough time to start drawing any hard and fast conclusions about the natives and their attitudes. I have noticed, and already mentioned, that they don't seem to mind stepping in dog shit every five yards. And our French friends claim that "The customer is always right" hasn't really caught on here in a big way but we haven't seen much of the stereotypes we were given to expect. But is does seem to me that, apart from the architecture, there's a continuity to life here that I think is missing in the U.S.
            When I was a kid, my hometown must have had a dozen little grocery and variety stores and they are all long gone. The bakery, butchers, shoemakers and hardware stores (two) are, likewise, memories.  Even Shoop's, the tavern and the town meeting spot that had been there as long as my mother could remember, closed up a few years ago and downtown Pittsburgh is almost unrecognizable as the place where I went to work in 1972
             Walking around Bordeaux, I can still find these sorts of places. Within spitting distance of our apartment are two different cordnonniers that look like they've been there since de Gaulle was a corporal. Every time I walk past it feels like Johnny Basilone ought to be inside. Johnny, Springdale's shoemaker, was a little guy with black curly hair who didn't say much and always had a lit Pall Mall in his lips that was generally about 2 1/2 inches of ash. I was at least 20 before I ever saw him take a drag or heard him talk. If one of these places does happen to be run by the same kind of guy smoking a Gaullois, at least I won't have to worry about talking to him.
            The Wal-Martization of America seems to have made it certain that the Steve Mikus, Lou Mazolli and Pete Cincilla kinds of store are gone for good. But those places still exist here in spite of and side-by-side with mega-stores like the Auchan at Mériadeck. This French chain’s local branch takes up 3 floors and sells everything from bulk walnuts to washing machines. (I admit, though, that I love it, especially on what we've been calling Alsatian day, when they set up a big wok-like tub and cook choucroute garnie, sauerkraut with sausage, ham, potatoes and anything else they can think of, and it’s only €13 a kilo. I like to stand right beside it for a while and just breathe deeply)
But everywhere there are little épiceries, charcuteries/boucheries, patisseries, boulangeries and variety stores that I’m too lazy to look up the French word for. Sometimes there’s more than one of the same type on a block. How they stay in business, I don’t know but a few of these shops have on the wall a little photograph of the place from about a hundred years ago as the same type of business. (These pictures almost always contain at least one woman that looks like my Aunt Min, a sturdy farmer’s wife.) A hardware store near us has been in business since 1831, although it has been forced to move a couple of times.
There's a possibility that I’m over-idealizing all of this. I did, after all just have a birthday and there’s something about having that 6 on the front of it. Like all those things from my hometown, my youth is gone for good so maybe I’m just fighting against the day when I have to admit to being old. But I can tell you that being in a pâtisserie in France is just like being in the Springdale bakery when I was 9 years old.  And I still can't have one of everything.
It's also occurred to me that a big part of my motivation to come here in the first place was the fear of aging. Some guys buy Harley's, some dump their wife to chase women half their age. I brought my wife to France and so spent more than one, less than the other and more wisely than both.  

Ruins of Palais Gallien

Photos ©2013 Cynthia Hinson


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

In Sourzac

            The day after Christmas, 2012, marked the 60th anniversary of the birth of a poor white child in the hospital at Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, so Cynthia and I planned to celebrate by renting a car and driving into the country. A few years ago we had visited Sarlat, a village in the Périgord, known to people like my wife as one of the best preserved medieval towns in France, and to people like me as the place that served one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.
            To get to Sarlat from Bordeaux you take the A89 east toward Perigueux, follow it for about 20 miles, realize how boring it is and how much the tolls are going to cost, then get off and find a more picturesque route.  Fortunately, in this part of France just about any two-lane road will do. For us it was the D6089 which parallels the Isle River and the D47 from Perigueux, much of which reminds me of U.S. 30 between Ligonier and Gettysburg in western Pennsylvania. The scenery is the same kind of rolling farm land but missing the barns with the faded "Chew Mail Pouch" signs and the "See Indian Caverns" billboards. I swear that more than once as we rounded a curve I expected to see Storybook Forest.
            Not missing, however, was the inevitable line of cars trailing a pensioner- piloted RV and the experience here is exactly the same as on Route 30. There is virtually nowhere to safely pass and when an opening finally comes, the opposite lane, which for the last ten miles has been nearly deserted, okay, right, you know what I'm talking about.  Here the problem's compounded by the Citroën C1 you're driving being able to accelerate to the requisite passing speed only if it's driven off a cliff. And the European Manual of Conduct for Men over 65 apparently prescribes the same headgear for operators of slow moving vehicles as the American version, because the vieux chevres here, like the old goats at home, are always wearing the same hat. Again, you probably know what I mean.  My sister used to say they looked like toilet seat covers.
            So when your chance comes, you whip and flog the little C1 to within a red centimeter of throwing a rod until, finally, you make it past M. & Mme. Hulot. This will all turn out to have been futile when within the next kilometer will emerge a scene that your wife absolutely has to capture in pictures. In this case it was something you definitely won't find along Route 30 - a tiny village built into the hillside and, according to the roadside sign, the site of continuous human habitation for 24,000 years. (I guess if you believe the earth is 6,000 [or is it 9,000?] years old, this could be metric years.)
            In Sourzac, a little town on the Isle River, we found something else you won't see in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else in the U.S.  Next to the little riverside park where we stopped to eat lunch was the town war memorial. Every city, town and village in France has one of these and I always feel compelled to have a look. The inscriptions are often touching  and usually include the names of the enfants who never came home. Even in small towns the numbers from 1914-18 are astonishing. But here, along with the names of dead soldiers was also inscribed "FUSILLES PAR LES ALLEMANDS LE 11 JUIN 1944" (Shot by the Germans, June 11, 1944). Below this were the names and ages of 18 men, the oldest being 47 and the youngest 16. Across the street was an old, rusty street sign reading, "Avenue du 11 Juin 1944."  
            If you're French, you don't need an explanation. Over 350,000 French civilians were killed in World War II,  230,000 of these between 1940 and 1944 in reprisals by the Germans. But I wanted to know what happened here and found the story on the internet. On the night of June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day, Resistance members attacked a German troop train in the neighboring town of Mussidan. The SS troops involved easily fought off the guerillas, killing nine of them in the process. The next day, in retaliation, every man the Germans could find, 350 in all, were herded into the town square. Those over 60 or disabled were eventually let go. The remaining 52, including the 18 from Sourzac, were shot.
            As an American I have a hard time trying to imagine this since nothing in our history compares. What was it like to have your country invaded, your army beaten and then to suffer the humiliation and indignity of over 4 years of occupation? What was it like to live day in and day out knowing that the armed strangers might someday decide you were the one to shoot. And what effect does an experience like that have on a country and its people?
            Then I  thought about what's gone on in the United States since 9/11.  As bad as it was, we were never seriously threatened with anything remotely close to what Europeans suffered and yet life in the U.S. has been fundamentally altered. Americans now seem to live in a state of almost constant fear, so exercising a constitutional right isn't the only reason there's a firearm for almost every single person.  The current state of discourse in America has the country being split almost 50-50 and intransigence is the order of the day. Conservatives don't just disagree with liberals, they hate them. Mass killings have become so commonplace that most don't even make the front page.  Not even 20 children being rounded up and shot can make the National Rifle Association consider that arming everybody might not be such a hot idea.  And, in anticipation of the next time, more people buy guns. 
            Americans don't need the Germans. We've got each other.