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Crepe on a stick

Crepe on a stick

One of the nice things about France has always been their approach to eating.   They sit, enjoy and savor finely prepared foods (even if that food is a goddamn snail).  In moderation.

I’ve seen that trend fading with the preponderance of fast food places and prepared foods at the grocery store (which I like to pretend are geared towards american tourists, even though logic tells me otherwise).

But I’m sorry, a crepe on stick?   Yes, this was at an outdoor festival of food.    I’m sure it’s lovely to be able to stroll around with one hand free while eating a crepe, but this just isn’t right.

Jeez, the next thing you know they’ll be making camembert-whiz and drinking wine out of berets.

Wine-Hatphoto of wine cap from www.likecool.com.

 

the 13-year houseguest


IMG_20140402_151515186-1If you’re anything like me (a public school educated American), you probably didn’t learn about Jean Cocteau in school.   You may have intuitively envisioned him (or her) as elegant, artistic and French. You might have sometimes confused him/her with Jacques Cousteau, or some famous old school French actress (hey, Jean is a girl’s name, right?).

cocteau

Photo of Cocteau at Villa Santo Sospir

At any rate, if someone mentioned Jean Cocteau in a conversation, you’d nod knowingly (knowingly, because the name sounds familiar) and say nothing for fear of embarrassing yourself by responding with something like “she was a great beauty, fine artist and a pioneer in deep sea exploration.

Turns out, Cocteau is pretty famous over here (male, FYI).   And he was no one-trick petite cheval.   He’s famous for poetry, literature, theater, art, ballet, films, music, set design, and the list goes on.   Dude did everything.   He was the first to adapt Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et le Bete) to film (yeah, I thought it was Disney, too).   He even designed jewelry! (I discovered this at the Musee de Cocteau in Menton).  Dear Lord and American school system, where has he been all my life?

jean_cocteau_theatre_de_monte-carlo_ballet_russe_karsavina_d5546324h
A few facts:   He was born in 1880 and died in 1963 (a few hours after his close friend, Edith Piaf’s death).   Not a bad run for a once sickly child before the invention of penicillin.  His father was a lawyer and amateur painter who killed himself when Cocteau was nine.   He published his first book of poetry at 19.   He was a hard partier and drug addict.   He was good friends with Picasso and Matisse.   Hell, it appears He was good friends with just about every famous person alive, from Coco Chanel to Marlene Dieterich to Igor Stravinsky.    Something tells me that if the E network existed in his time, he’d be top news everyday and much more popular than the Kardashians.   It appears, he was visionary enough to have his own Facebook page.

jmfbabbHe was bixexual, but his longest relationships were with men –Jean Marais was an actor (starred in most of Cocteau’s productions) and Eduoard Dermit a young writer he eventually adopted.    He struggled with opium addiction.   He lived like he was rich, but he wasn’t. Which is a nice way of saying he was a bit of a mooch; living well off of other peoples’ coin.   I guess he was just so wonderful, charming and clever, people just wanted to be around him and invited him to stay with them.

Which is how he wound up spending 13 years at Villa Santo Sospir on Cap Ferrat.

Cocteau, Weissweiler and Dermit

Cocteau, Weisweiller and Dermit

Francine Weisweiller, a rich socialite whose husband spent most of the time in Paris with his mistress, owned the villa. She invited him and his extremely handsome adopted 23-year old son, Eduoard Dermit to be her guest in the Villa for a week.   They wound up staying until over a decade later, when after a huge fight with Francine, Cocteau stormed out and they never spoke again.

IMG_20140402_150233772I’ve heard differing stories on the nature of Francine and Cocteau’s relationship.  I tend to think that putting up with a guest for that long without killing them indicates a love beyond reason, but that could just be me. One thing is certain, Cocteau never really left her. He left his imprint in the form of murals, tapestries, tiles and doodlings all over the house.  Santo Sospir was his sketch pad.

IMG_20140402_154519920After Francine’s death in 2003, Villa Santo Sospir was passed down to her daughter, Carole.  In order to avoid the huge inheritance tax and because the historic and cultural nature of the villa, the family had it classified as an historical monument. Unlike many historical monuments, it still evokes the essence of the people who lived there.  It seems unchanged, as if they’re all still present, possibly getting very drunk and having wild, celebrity/intelligensia-studded orgies on the terrace overlooking the sea.

The villa is open for tours, but unlike nearby Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and Villa Kerylos, you have to make an appointment. Eric, the caretaker and once caregiver to the aging Francine, conducts the tours, and offers unique, intimate insight, much of which I probably either miss or misunderstand because the tour is in French.

It doesn’t matter. The setting is spectacular and It’s like Cocteau opened his brain and splashed it all over this quirky place.  You can practically feel the stories that happened over those 13 years.

In many ways, Villa Santo Sospir is the embodiment of the epitaph on Cocteau’s tombstone: “Je reste avec vous” or “I stay with you.”

No kidding.

A tour of Villa Santo Sospir

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a little lesson in french law

law_ebay_french_courtThere are somethings that just aren’t covered in the books on living in France and can be only learned from experience.

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Michel, learned something new just last Friday night.   This is his story.

What he remembers:   He went to a friend’s house, drank a bottle of champagne, a bottle of rose followed by ¾ of a bottle of Jack Daniels. He headed home around 3AM.

His final memory of the evening was singing Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” while performing an awesome air drum solo as he walked home.

He woke up the next morning in his bed with a bad hangover, which was to be expected. What he didn’t expect was to find himself wearing a pair of boxer shorts that he had never seen before. They were definitely not his.

Clearly, there were a few blank spots, so he called the friend he spent the evening with to find out what he missed.

Turns out, somewhere between the drum solo and home, he was arrested.   He was quite incoherent, but managed to give the cops the name and number of the friend who he had spent the evening with (merci a dieu it wasn’t me).   The cops called him and asked him to pick up Michel and to bring some pants.

His friend went to the police station and found Michel quietly playing poker with imaginary cards and opponent.  He also happened to be buck-naked from the waist down.   As near as Michel can figure it, he must have seen the bus station which is very close to his apartment, figured he was almost home and started taking his clothes off.

Apparently, the neighbors complained about the noise and the cops came to investigate and found Michel singing, without his pants on.   They brought him in, not because he was half naked, but because he was loud, and very, very drunk. They were worried he was a threat to himself.

As you might imagine, Michel was feeling pretty crummy as he told me all this.   Being the pain in the ass I am, I asked him if he learned anything from the experience.

He thought about it for a moment and I could see see the sparkle of realization in his eyes.

“Yes!   It’s legal to walk down the street naked in France!”

all hail the mighty lemon!

Monet's rendering of a branch of Menton lemons

Monet’s rendering of a Menton lemon tree branch

Last year in French class, there was a discussion about the Menton Fete de Citron.   My friend Michel scoffed at the idea, wondering how can they have a whole festival for a goddamn lemon?   He wound up going and returned a changed man, with a newfound respect for both lemons and the French who gave the lowly fruit the love and attention it deserves.

This year, my friend Angela and I embark on the same pilgrimage hoping for a similar transformation.

Menton is two or three train stops east of Monaco/Monte Carlo (about 10 minutes), on the French/Italian border.   You can feel the Italian influence as well as hear, smell and taste it.

IMG_6954For a place you’ve probably never heard of, it’s quite beautiful with grand buildings built in the 1900’s when rich nobles wintered here. It boasts a long pebbly beach fringing blue, blue water, an old town splashed in the warm sunny colors of this patch of the Mediterranean. It’s surrounded by dramatic cliffs that seemingly drop from Alps to the Sea in a heartbeat creating a perfect micro-climate (316 days of sunshine a year, they say).

So, what is Menton’s main claim to fame?   Lemons, of course.   Well, citrus in general.   But the Menton lemon is special.   It’s larger, often misshapen.   It’s also supposedly sweet enough to eat like an orange (I beg to differ).

Legend has it that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve grabbed a big, golden lemon from paradise and took it.   When they finally settled in Eden-like Menton (which was probably called something else back then), she planted it.   An industry and tourism hook was born.

Every year at the end of February-early March, the town of Menton holds a Fete de Citron.  It’s their equivalent of Mardi Gras except replace the beads, masks, great music and young people with lemons and oranges.

IMG_6812The place is packed.  I’m a little frightened despite the fact that half the attendees are walking slower and more laboriously than me (the median age here, appears to be about 70—I feel like a spring chicken)..  This is my first major public outing without my walking boot, and one pushy German could ruin my hard won, still tenuous mobility for me.

Orange trees line the streets, full of ripe oranges, festive in their own right. There’s something very reassuring about a place where food grows on trees.   I put Menton down on my list of possible places to be broke and homeless.IMG_6845

The theme of this year’s festival is “20,000 leagues under the sea.” I honestly don’t know what it has to do with citrus, but what the hell. The parade is the strangest combination of floats: ships, fish made of citrus, mermaids and the most baffling float of IMG_6797all, a kangaroo made of citrus.   Possibly left over from the Australian themed Fete de Citron, or maybe the Marsupial themed one?  There’s also a garden of displays (like the Eiffel tower and pagodas done entirely in citrus) and fireworks at night, and all kinds of citrus based products being sold.

Rumor has it, the lemons and oranges used in the floats and displays come from  Morocco—which I suspect is true, given their uniform, smallish size.  Some of these Menton lemons are bigger than a pamplemousse!

Possibly the most exciting part of the Fete de Citron for me, is the Menton lemon honey I sample in the one the stores, Mille et un Miels.   OMG.   Give me a straw.   Hell, I’ll chug it straight from the jar.  I’ll eat it with my hands.   Angela and I both buy a jar.

When I get home, I sit down to Google Menton over a nice hot cup of Lemon Honey (with a little water).   I discover that Jean Cocteau the French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist, filmmaker. and general post-modern Renaissance man was an important part of Menton.   There is a Cocteau museum showing his work, as well as that of his friends’ Picasso and Matisse.   You can see more of his art in the Bastion, on the waterfront.

Being a person of taste and culture, suddenly, I’m obsessed with going back to Menton.  I’ve got to get more of that lemon honey!

french vocabulary for the lame

les bequilles

les bequilles

Since my recent Strasbourg trip (in every sense of the word), I’ve learned some new French words and phrases that have come in handy.  This list should prove invaluable to anyone who plans to break a foot in a French-speaking country.

English:  I need a doctor.

French:   J’ai besoin d’une docteur.

 

English:  My foot hurts.

French:   Mon pied me fait mal. (or just point frantically at your foot and say:  “ce fait mal!”)

 

English:  I climbed to the top of the cathedral and when I came down, I fell.

French:  Je suis montais au les hauts de la cathedrale et quand j’ai descendu, j’ai tombe.

 

English:  X-ray

French:  Radio

 

English:  Plaster cast

French:  Platre

 

English:  My foot is broken.

French:  Mon pied est casse.

 

English:  I hate these crutches.

French:   Je deteste ces bequilles.

 

English:   Kill me now.

French:  Me tuez maintenant.  (this is when you’re addressing someone formally.   The familiar would be “me tues”)

 

English:   No!   Wait!  Don’t kill me!  I’m not serious.

French:   No!   Attendez!  Ne me tuez pas!   Je ne suis pas serieux.

 

English:  I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaning on you.

French:  J’espère que cela ne vous dérange pas que je me penche sur vous.

 

English:  Do you deliver?

French:   Livrez-vous?

 

English:   Great.   Please deliver me home.

French: Superbe. S’il vous plaît me livrer à domicile.

 

English:  Excuse me.   Can I borrow your wheel chair?

French:  Pardonnez moi. Pourrais-je emprunter votre fauteuil roulant?

 

English:   Do you have a strong back?

French:  Avez vous un dos forte?

 

English:  Please carry me.

French:  Me porter s’il vous plait.

 

English:  I’m sorry if I smell bad.   Bathing is difficult with this cast.

French: Je suis desolee si j’ai un odeur mauvais.   Baignade est tres difficile  avec cette platre.

 

English:  Are you blind?   Can’t you see I have a broken foot?

French:  Etes-vous aveugle? Tu ne vois pas que j’ai un pied cassé?

 

English:  I’m sorry.   I didn’t notice that you really are blind.

French:  Je suis désolé. Je n’ai pas remarqué que vous êtes vraiment aveugle.

 

English:  Help me!

French:  Taxi!

what are these people smoking?

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Over the last couple of months I’ve been noticing them everywhere.   People contentedly suck on them (sometimes greedily) in airports, cafes, and the street.   And they’re exhaling billowing clouds of what looks like smoke.  They look like a a seductive mix of toy, high end tech gadget, and drug paraphanalia.   I don’t know what they are, but I know I want one.

ecigs

Turns out, they’re the latest trend in France. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes.   E cigarettes are supposedly healthier than smoking because you’re not inhaling burning carcinogens, just vaporized nicotine and flavor.   No smell.   No fire.   You recharge the battery in the USB port on your computer.  You can get them in various nicotine strengths and in more flavors than Baskin and Robbins.   They even have a cannibis flavor, which I was sad to learn, contains no actual cannabis.

IMG_3987

On a one-mile walk to Juan Les Pins the other day, I noticed five new e-cigarette stores have opened on Boulevard President Wilson. They display an array of lovely and varied e-cigarettes, pipes and even cigars as well as small bottles of the nicotine liquid.  There are also  necklace clips, carrying cases, stands, travel packs, fancy cartridges and so on.   It’s like buying a Barbie…the real money is in the accessories.

I’ve got to admit, I’m tempted by the concept.   I’ve even tried a disposable one, and while not as satisfying as a real cigarette, they’re not bad.

Granted, it might be just another ill-fated attempt to get people to quit smoking and spend a bunch of money in the process.   Not long ago, my neighbor Joc was smoking a lovely silver etched e cigarette.  Oh how I coveted it.    I asked her about it and she told me it was great.   She swore by the virtues of the ecigarette.    I was almost convinced, but the following week, she was back on the cigarettes. That doesn’t bode well for the long term.

IMG_4024But still, they’re so…shiny.  And they have the added benefit of being able to pretend I’m actually making a healthy purchase.    I’m tempted to get something really blingy.   Something that will make me feel like my name should be Zza Zza.   Or maybe something sleek and classic (in which case my name would be Inga).   Or one of each.

e cig bling

I can see it now.   I’ll convert to the ecigarette, my lungs will be purified, I will be healthier than I’ve been in years.  My skin will become  luminous and dewey. My apartment will always smell fresh, and there will be no new burn marks in my clothes.    Then I’ll choke to death on a loose Swarovski crystal.

why I’m particularly glad to be in France today.

IMG_4507Here in France, there always seems to be one service or another that’s shutting down in protest of something.   The trains.   The buses.   The airlines.  And then every time you turn around everything is closed for some holiday you’ve never heard of, that usually has something to do with some holy person ascending to heaven.

You can say a lot of things about the French and their work ethic, their politics, their bureaucracy,  but I can honestly say, I’ve never seen their government shut down.

So let me get this straight, America…

The goddamn idiots in the House are shutting down the government over a small point in a puny bit of legislation that they spent countless hours whittling down to nothing?   On our dime?

If they were working for me, I’d fire their lazy, pompous, self-righteous, entitled asses.   Oh wait….they do work for me.   Supposedly.  Can I fire them?   At the very least, don’t Americans have the right to stop paying their goddamn salary?

I’m going to avoid blaming parties and just say that I’ve seen our elected officials on both sides of the aisle take the exact opposite positions they’re taking now, all depending on which party proposed what.   They both sicken me equally (okay, maybe right now I hate the Republicans a wee bit more).   I can’t look at any of them without getting a huge churning knot of rage in my stomach.

Today in France, stores are open, and services are running.  Medical care is about 1/10th the price it is in America.  I’m happy and relieved to be in a country where the news and politicians don’t make my blood boil. Of course, that could be because I don’t understand them.

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