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rage against the machine (and the jerks who drive them)

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jackass on loud motorcycle

I have a terrible confession.   I entertain dark thoughts.   Violent fantasies.

It usually happens when I’m sitting on my balcony and one of those motorcycles with the cranked up mufflers comes thundering down the hill at 9 million decibels.   I imagine that, with perfect timing, I pour a bucket of water down, drenching the motorcyclist and the street.   It makes me feel good, no great, to see the shocked driver spin out of control.

The daydream continues as the driver, with the motorcycle on top of him skids out, violently ricocheting between the parked cars and buildings lining the narrow street.   He is smashed.   Bloody.   Most probably dead.   I am now a murderer and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

On one hand, the guilt is a heavy burden.  But something had to be done.   Not just for me, but for all of mankind.   Well, at least whoever falls in the audio range of the bike, which I’m fairly certain includes Northern Italy and Switzerland.  But murder…Can I live with that?

Now that I’m confessing, I might as well also cop to the fact that the other day I heard a skid and a crash followed by anguished yelps.   I ran to the balcony to see what happened and saw it was a downed motorcycle and driver.   I did a happy dance before calling emergency services.

Before you label me a terrible person (which I probably am), you have no idea how obnoxious and annoying they are until you’ve lived in a fairly popular French village.   Mere de Dieu!

I can block out a lot of noises, but that particular din pierces through everything.   It’s like a jackhammer to the head.  I don’t know what the decibel level is, but I do know it’s the worst form of noise pollution, probably qualifies as torture and offenders should be prosecuted.   No tortured.   No, executed.   No, tortured AND executed.

I mean seriously, only a dangerously insane person wants to make THAT much noise.   Who else would want to inflict that kind of suffering on innocent people who are just trying to have a thought, conversation or watch a movie?   Clearly they must be  card-carrying sociopats.   Either that or they’re recklessly overcompensating for something.   Some shame or deficiency.   Small ears, perhaps? A high squeaky voice? A complete lack of physical presence?  Whatever,  they’re a danger.

Worse, these mother effing a-holes, use their size to muscle their way through pedestrian zones and quaint ancient villages.   It’s disturbing the peace at the very least.  And illegal.   I guess the French legal system deals with loud vehicles in pedestrian zones the same way America’s deals with assault weapons (which are also very loud, I’m told).

Lets not forget that the insufferable noise itself poses a threat, and not just to eardrums   I’ve come precariously close to injury when the sound exploded through my windows, shattering my focus, which left me unable to maintain my balance during a yoga pose.

IMG_20140913_185645921_HDRI read somewhere that there are some enthusiasts who argue that the horrific noise they inflict on humanity makes their lives safer from accidents because the noise forces other drivers to notice them.   To them I say, bull hickey!   You chose to ride that infernal machine.  Don’t inflict your goddamn choice on the rest of us.   Drive defensively, wear a helmet and put a cork in your goddamn exhaust pipe, you goddamn self centered sociopath with small ears and a squeaky voice and zero physical presence!

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.   I’ve seen people shake their fists and middle fingers at them as they roar past. Some people grow red with rage when discussing them. Some peoples’ blood pressure rises precipitously at their mere mention.   We hate them with a white hot passion.

Someday, we’ll all rise up against them.   In the meantime, I’ll be sitting on my balcony.   Watching. Waiting. Dreaming.

finding something to fear in marseille

view from train station

view from train station

Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”

Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos

 When people talk about Marseille, there’s no grey area, it’s either black or white.

On the “love” side you hear things like: “one of the great cities of the world!”; ”a beautiful Mediterranean melting pot”;   “it’s becoming an art and design center on par with Barcelona”.   On the hate side we’ve got:   “I would rather watch every episode of the Kardashians than go back to that God forsaken place”; “Filthy” (ironic for a place famous for its soap); “It’s like the middle east without the charm”; It doesn’t feel safe!(this from a guy who feels comfortable in downtown Beirut). And we’ve also got good old Jean-Claude Izzo up there, scaring the crap out of me.

I visited Marseille once about a gazillion years ago (I’m avoiding telltale numbers).   I was with my parents and we drove from Aix to Marseille to go to Galleries Lafayette to find a certain tablecloth that my mom had to have. Construction was going on near the port and they had just dug up an ancient boat. We had lunch somewhere along the port.   I remember my mother felt sorry for the multitude of African guys trying to sell carved wood animals . My memory sees it then as being a little run down, but I didn’t really form an opinion one way or another except to watch my purse.   And while I survived, a vague sense of foreboding rises inside of me when I think of it.   But that could have been the fact I was a teenager on a family vacation.

Since I’ve lived in the South of France, the closest I’ve been to Marseille is looking down on it from the relative safety of the Marseille St. Charles train station.   It’s a pretty great view and it has made me long to venture down the hill and into the heart of it, however dirty and dangerous it may be.  But then fear takes over and I decide to go back later when I have more time and a flak jacket.   Which of course, I never have on me.

It’s a bit of a slog for a day trip (2:15), but hell, that’s a one way commute in the Bay Area.   And since I’m taking the train, the stress level is very low.   Well, as long as I don’t think about the danger I may encounter in Marseille.   Dirt.   Disenfranchised North Africans.  Germs.  Ebola.  Did you know the plague probably entered France here?  Racial unrest. Violence.   It seems the only thing I fear that isn’t here in Marseille is the IRS.

I’ve got to say, Marseille is beautiful.   I visit the old port, Fort Saint Jean, the brand new MuCEM (MUsee des Civilizations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée) and its phenomenal building and public space designed by Rudy Ricciotti in collaboration with Roland Carta, and the old town, which is called “le Panier” (the basket). I’m tempted to ascend to the omnipresent Notre Dam de la Garde perched on top of the hill, but it wasn’t long ago I was downed by a cathedral and I’m already pressing my luck by even being here, so I skip it.

Except for the prospect of climbing the cathedral, I feel no fear.   I have a perfectly lovely day puttering around aimlessly smelling soaps, admiring views, looking at art, taking pictures, eating lunch…   I don’t get food poisoning.   No one mugs or murders me (that I know of).   No terrorists attack. There are no race riots and by the end of the day, I’m still not convulsing with fever and bleeding from every orifice.   I made it!

I board the train home triumphantly.   I plop down into my seat with relief.   I made it!   I congratulate myself in between looking at the scenery and the photographs I took of Marseille on my phone. Jean-Claude Izzo was wrong!   Beautiful pictures.   Nothing terrible happened.IMG_20140909_175111324

But when I get up at the Antibes stop, I realize something is wrong. I feel a slight pull, look down and realize tragedy has indeed struck.   Goddamn merde de putain, somebody left gum on my seat!   My cute skirt is ruined!

***

While Izzo was right about Marseille-related tragedy, he was still wrong about Marseille not having beauty that can be photographed.   As you’ll see in the pictures below.  Fortunately, he was also wrong about the death thing.

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my name is lesley stern and I am an addict

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My first taste was during the Menton Citrus Festival in February.   Some pusher on the street was handing out samples. I guess you could say it was peer pressure…I was trying to be agreeable. I generally pass on samples because I’m afraid they’ll make me buy something. That was the least of my worries.

The substance? Mille et un miels, Delice au miel au Citron de Menton (Honey with essence of the coveted Menton lemon). I’m pretty sure whatever they put in Starbucks Mocha Frappucinos (a habit I had to move to France to break), is also in this honey.   Something evil and irresistible.

I remember the flood of pure bliss when the honey first hit my lips.   My body was unprepared for the seratonin surge of lemony-honey goodness.   I think I blacked out for a few moments.  My friend Angela found me dazed on the sidewalk with a huge smile on my face and the plastic spoon still in my mouth.

I talked her into trying the honey (please don’t judge me, my intentions were good—I just wanted her to experience the pleasure, I swear!). The next thing you know we were both in the store buying a couple of jars each.

Since then, all my thoughts and actions have revolved around this nectar of the Gods.

Honey paraphernalia

Honey paraphernalia

I’ve been stocking up on honey paraphernalia.   I’ve googled the health benefits of honey.   The side effects.  Honey recipes.  The dangers of eating too much honey.   The history of honey.   Honey as medicine.  Signs of an overdose.  You name it.  Sometimes I have to rush home and indulge when the vague thought of a baguette, goat cheese and lemon honey has me jonesing for a hit.

Two jars don’t even last me through the following week. Granted, the jars are small (about 2/3 of a cup per jar) but it’s clear this is going to be a problem.   Especially since the minute I opened the second jar, I began to worry about how to get more.   As the jar empties, my worry rises to panic. The voice in my head becomes shriller:   Gotta get more.   Gotta get more.   GOTTA GET MORE!   QUICKLY, BEFORE I RUN OUT!    The mere thought of facing a morning without lemon honey slathered on toast/yogurt/fruit/ricecake/oatmeal/baguette/croissant/my hand… fills me with despair. I long for simpler days, when a cup of coffee was enough.

I make the 50 minute train ride to Menton a few days later under the pretext of visiting the Cocteau museum on the waterfront. It’s very nice; a glaringly modern (yet elegant) building that stands out with Menton as its charming old-world background.   It seems entirely fitting. There’s a lot of art, ceramics and stuff.   But enough about Cocteau!

I buy four more jars of honey and head on home.   On the train, I begin to worry that four jars isn’t enough. I’m already giving a jar to a friend as a thank you gift.   Oh jeez.   That only leaves me three jars.   And I will probably give another jar as a birthday gift.   Two measly jars?   That won’t last two weeks!   They need to make these jars in a large economy size!

I consider getting off in Monaco and going back for more, but I’m tired and the four jars of honey are pretty heavy.   And then there’s the embarrassment of going back in and buying more jars the same day. The shop girl will judge me.

Then I notice the flyer in my shopping bag.   There’s a website .   Maybe they sell this stuff a little closer to Antibes.

I hurry home and peruse the website over a refreshing cup of iced honey.   I discover there’s an online boutique and immediately order five more jars which will be delivered in two days.

The e confirmation arrives.   For the first time in weeks, I have this overwhelming sense of peace and that all is right with the world.

 

Postscript: I gave one jar to Michel, who called me immediately after trying it and told me his mouth had an orgasm and he was about to smoke a cigarette and take a nap.   I gave another jar to my friend Joc.   The following day, she chased me down the street holding out wads of cash, asking me to get her more next time I go to Menton.   Hmmmm, this might be a good way to support my habit.

the sharks of monaco

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I’m just going to say it:   I don’t like Monaco.  I mean, look at it.    It doesn’t exactly ooze charm, does it?

It’s a shame, because it’s actually an excellent piece of real estate, nestled in among dramatic cliffs and the Mediterranean.   The views are spectacular, as are the famed Monte Carlo Casino and gardens. Even the old town of Monaco would be cute and picturesque if it functioned as anything other than a tourist trap.   There’s no butcher or baker, so dont expect to see locals picking up groceries and a baguette.  A Chinese family buying “royal” key chains and tee shirts, well, that’s another story.

Monaco is separate from France; its own little  0.7 mile country (hell, I’ve been to bigger parking lots).   It’s not only the most densely populated country in the world, but also has the most millionaires and billionaires per capita.   I’m not sure if they’re attracted by Monaco’s natural beauty or her status as an international tax haven (I kid).  At any rate, I should probably spend more time here if I want to marry a billionaire.

The Grimaldi family have ruled the principality since 1297AD.   Like most royal families these days, they’re pretty much the European version of our very own royal family, the Kardashians (with smaller asses, of course). We’re not sure exactly what they do, but whatever it is seems to be front page news.

Prince Albert, the son of Prince Ranier and Princess Grace (as in Grace Kelly) is running things right now.   His sisters Caroline and Stephanie used to be glamorous Euro playgirls and he was always a bit of a schlub (hmmm, this Kardashian analogy works on so many levels).   He’s not my idea of a fairy-tale prince, but he is a prince.

So, what brings me to this god-forsaken tax-free monarchy?  I’m visiting the residents of the Musee Oceanographique de Monaco.

The building is stunning on it’s own, perched on a cliff with the sea churning below.   Inside, there are over 4000 fish and 200 species of invertebrates (sea creatures with spimusée océan261010nes).   There’s also a museum of sea exploration upstairs and a roof that overlooks groddy old Monaco on one side and the sea on the other.   It’s a nice aquarium, but probably wouldn’t be anything to write home about except for one thing…well, dozens.

10364471_10152361994966928_1813794450_nBefore exiting into the obligatory museum shop, there’s a darkened room with a large shallow pool of water surrounded by people.   Bobbing in and out of the water are the heads of baby sharks (requins), no bigger than a foot long each. The way they pop their heads up and open their mouths reminds me of baby birds. But here’s the piece de resistance: YOU CAN PET THEM!!!!!!!!

10362667_10152361995386928_1623031024_nThis is almost as good as swimming with dolphins.   Better, because I don’t have to put on a bathing suit.

I ascertain that nobody is screaming and bleeding from the wrist and nervously dip my hand in the water.   The little sharkies kind of butt against your hand like a cat and swim by, rubbing against your palm.   As one would expect, they feel pretty slimy.   But damn, these future ruthless man-eating machines are sooooooooo cute.

After petting every shark in the pool, we head out through the gift shop.   We stop to admire/laugh at some ridiculously expensive bejeweled swim goggles.   Then we both feel it …danger. I can almost hear the Jaws music. We’ve got to get out of here. There are Russian tourists circling and we’re pretty sure they’ll rip us from limb to limb for these goggles.

 

 

 More pictures of Monaco

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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?).

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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?

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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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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!

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