Light Entertainment

Driving down the road, I noticed a large number of young, black bulls grazing in a field. These animals are bred here for both their meat and the curious and incredibly popular ‘sport’ of bullfighting. Not every bull ends up in the arena, however. Every little town has its summer ‘feriá‘ or Feast – usually overlapping or close to the festival of the Assumption. Whereas in England, such events are characterised by grown men rolling large cheeses down hills, here it’s a little more red-blooded. This is mining country – I was reminded irresistibly of Wales, not only because of the geography, but also the stocky brawniness of the locals – including the women – and the brass bands. Everywhere. With almost no concept of noise pollution. Standing almost in the middle of a nine-piece outfit in a café in Quissac – they set up wherever a space exists, it seems – left me feeling (and probably looking) like Quasimodo.

I was directed up the hill to the arena, which was a space about sixty metres in diameter with an ominous barred lorry at one end and bars, seven feet high and two inches thick circumscribing the space. Young men, perhaps with something to prove to appraising female eyes in the crowd, stepped into the ring and waved their shirts as the bull was released. The aim of the game, it seemed was to bait the animal until you were chased by it, leaping nimbly over the barrier or climbing the scattered bales of hay out of reach of the eighteen inch horns. These were padded, but a number of the contestants retired ‘hors de combat’ with alarming bruises, keeping the Croix Rouge busy. If the beast, which could accelerate rapidly and corner astonishingly fast, actually caught someone they were tossed in the air like a rag doll. I was told that if anybody has to be hospitalised, they might stop the show. Thus, young men returned grimly to the arena, sporting antiseptic-coated welts and bruises.  The bull had a disquieting habit of charging the barrier randomly, so, for the most part, I maintained a discreet presence behind it. The finale of the evening was a bull run. Camarguien cowboys armed with long, steel-tipped staves and riding their small white horses, wearing trademark leather hats and flowered shirts, corral a bull and drive it through the narrow streets, barricaded in the same way as the arena. Meanwhile, the local youth run in between the horses and the bull to try to wrestle it to the ground. A five hundred kilogram bull which is disinclined to be so treated can lose its temper very fast. The stench of fear, adrenalin, testosterone and, well, bullshit was quite unforgettable.

With thanks to the anonymous Flickr poster whose daylight image was so much better than I could get at night.

Bridges and Other Remarkable Objects

The Romans were here for quite a while and their presence is everywhere. The Arena at Nîmes is better preserved than the Coliseum in Rome and is used for both bullfighting (but more of this later) and also rock concerts; Mark Knopfler was here in July. The town of Uzès still has a duke in residence complete with a castle in the centre of town. Should marauders wish to invade his lordship’s privacy, the battlements overhang the walls, presumably to facilitate the pouring of boiling oil.
At the head of the Ardèche is the Pont d’Arc, a natural rock formation carved out by glacial erosion. The image isn’t great since i got there about an hour before nightfall, but you get the idea. Further south is the spectacular Roman aqueduct, over the Gardon, the Pont du Gard, built to take water from Uzès to NÎmes. The angulation is exact ensuring a smooth flow of water along a 40km stretch; these guys knew their sines from their cosines, for sure. Apparently, the engineering is so exact that even with modern methods its accuracy cannot be duplicated.
It would have been so helpful if everybody still spoke Latin since as I travel further south, words become more and more difficult to understand. I was reminded of the line from “Kingdom of Heaven” ‘ east until they stop speaking Latin and start speaking something else.‘ That’d be about here, then. Occitan is not a dialect, it’s a completely different language and even when the locals speak French, the accent and intonation is as thick as wet cement. With much grunting and shrugging. Beh, oui. Bieng.

In Rebel Country

The Cévennes are rather like the Appalachians. It might be Scotland, but grander and warmer, with purple heather and pine. Old mountains, worn down into gentle, rolling woodland, the landscape stretching grey and blue to the horizon. Tiny villages with dwellings clustered around either a church or a simple Huguenot Temple. This is the land of the Rebellion where for a hundred years  Protestant Camisard guerillas fought the armies of King Louis for the right to worship freely in much the same way as Wallace harried Longshanks’ troops. “Braveheart” could have been filmed here.

During the rebellion, the austere theology of Jean Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon shaped understanding and family Bibles were read illegally while the women watched the windows for approach of the King’s troops. Meetings were held out of doors or in specially camouflaged dwellings – a mobile pulpit could in seconds be transformed to look like a small grain silo. This temple was erected after the Revolution when freedom of worship was finally transformed into reality. Many are still in use, while Catholic churches have fallen into disrepair.

This is a disused mill. Brits are buying up these old places, and the old crafts like silk-weaving are dying out. Shame.

Higher Ground

I miss the mountains. Apart from a brief trip to Lebanon, I haven’t seen them for ten years. Being close enough however to Annecy and the gateway to the Mont Blanc massif was too good to miss. The wild woman herself was more than worth the trip. Standing 4810m, the highest peak in Europe, gave me tantalising glimpses as she shrouded herself in cloud, the summit only partially visible for most of the day. Had I been thinking on my feet, I might have managed a morning’s skiing on La Vallée Blanche but the cable car ride takes an hour and I didn’t have equipment.

 Instead, lunch at a restaurant recommended by a friend at the top of the Col de la Croix-Fry  – no Parisian ‘nouvelle’ here, with chic little diddles of balsamic –  the ham slice on offer would have been sorely missed by its parent animal and sausages the size of cucumbers – then down into Chamonix – inevitably full of grimy unshaven climbers, some of whom, quelle surprise – were English. I spent the afternoon on a glacier, as one does hereabouts. The cable car takes you to its base, and the snowline, blue-black in parts, finishes about 300m higher, torrents of meltwater finding least path distance to the valley below. I must be getting old, the climb – probably no more than half a dozen flights of stairs, at 1450m left me breathless.  Dinner in St Gervais, pleasanter and cheaper than the tourist overkill in Chamonix. Elderly persons go there, you know. For their health.

An Accidental Pilgrim

Heading south from Porte d’ d’Italie. The original intention was to drive to Lyon, where I spent a summer in 1976, the year of what the French still call ‘la grande sècheresse’ when there were no fireworks on July 14 in case of fire. Vagabondage (does this word exist?) has its rewards, however. Three hours down the autoroute  I caught sight of a single sign. “Communauté de Taizé, prochaine sortie”.  I wondered why a tiny hamlet, its significance, perhaps, known only to a relatively small cross-section of population, and miles from anywhere, might warrant its own signage off the highway. On impulse, despite the fact that it was early evening without accommodation booked, I followed a hunch and turned off. It took an hour, getting lost, winding through rolling hills and tiny villages, some with familiar names, like Chardonnay.  As I approached, the number of young pilgrims walking up the hill seemed to increase by the yard. Brother Roger’s original building, acquired seventy years ago, is now dwarfed by a vast, modern structure, slightly reminiscent of the glass-floored church in Capernaum, extended at least twice, flanked by an armada of  large well-organised communal tents and a flotilla of smaller ones. Wooden outbuildings housed barracks, meeting rooms and cookhouses.  I followed the sound of the singing, and overcoming a strong sense of déjà -vu – found myself in a vast covered amphitheatre, dimly lit, listening to the iconic sound of Taizé worship. And this, apparently, was the overflow building. There were at least three onion domes (picture) plus the church itself. Thousands of people sat on the floor, the singing led by a small number of white-robed monks – I had arrived at the beginning of evening prayer. Feeling like a Samaritan at the gate, I stood awkwardly at the door and listened. Services at Taizé are characterised by singing, silence and prayer. During one of the silences, I wandered outside, and found myself outside what appeared to be a crèche – there did seem to be a large number of the congregation inn their 20’s. A calm-looking young woman in a long blue seersucker dress and the obligatory sandals answered my questions, holding the hand of a three year old as she patiently walked him again and again around a tree. “How many people are there here?” I asked. “Oh, this week, about three thousand six hundred”, she replied with a smile. “Is this a special event?” I asked. “Oh, no. Every week the same numbers come”, she said, her German accent making her English sound clipped and rehearsed. “Perhaps six thousand at Easter. If you wish, you can stay.” I didn’t, instead nosed the car down the hill and ate well in Cluny, little changed for five hundred years, beneath the abbey walls. How appropriate.

Oafish Chic

The land I know and almost love – the one east of the 30, that is, is a sham. A cardboard cutout, a mirror image, a Romford Rolex or a Chinese Calvin Klein. Here, in the birthplaces of the iconic names in food, wine and fashion, chic has a totally different connotation and is not exportable. Copied, transplanted, yes. The real deal somehow floats effortlessly above all attempts at plagiarism, even with the right labels. Buying Louis Vuitton in an airconditioned bus station somewhere off the Sixth Ring doesn’t quite have the same cachet as buying it at the iconic architectural masterpiece at 101, avenue des Champs-Elysées. As a matter of interest, I ran across a 1920’s Louis Vuitton trunk in a B&B in Burgundy the other week, complete with the name of the original owner on the front and its own unique lock with hand-made brass key. At auction, it would have fetched the price of a modest house.
Shopping (window or otherwise) in and around Place Madeleine  – yes, it’s the Magdala again; amazing how she seeps in and out of my consciousness – reminds me how lumpen and oafish I really am. Coffee at the original Fauchon. A tea shop containing possibly five hundred different varieties of tea, a crowd gathering outside the discreet caviar store where 1kg of best grey Caspian sells for 3500 euros, to watch the sturgeon swimming in the aquarium window, a fish I have to admit I have never ever seen in the flesh. A shop selling over a hundred different varieties of mustard.
I had to go into the church and restore balance. It’s a beautiful building – I missed the free concert by an hour – a Romanian choir were doing Byrd, Mozart and Fauré. Never mind, Verdi’s Requiem is being sung there later in the month.
Food at one of Paris’ little secrets. At 7:30, I nodded to the maître d’ and secured what looked like the last available table. Simple French food, no frills at a price that didn’t make the eyes water. When I walked out, a hundred people were waiting in line. I swallowed my pride, pretended to be a tourist and photographed the napkin.

The Myth in the Closet

Visiting Le Marais gave me food for thought. Universities offer classes in everything except how to be a ‘mench’ – in Yiddish to be a valuable human being. I share the belief of many that whether they profess faith or they do not, “truth reflects itself in many different ways” and everyone has experienced a sense of mystery in their lives that enhances their quest for divine truth and self-discovery.  This is not bland pantheism, God ‘is that he is’ but the quest for glimpses into who and what the ‘is-ness’ of God is, is hardwired. ( I thought this last quite rabbinical) Man’s individuality is flexible allowing endless strategic possibilities for discovery and expression of what C S Lewis called Grace. Much as light is separated and broken up by dispersion, the determinism of God is metamorphosed  through the prism of humanity. Freedom means that I do what I ought to do, not what I like to do and Man’s individuality is flexible allowing endless possibilities for expression. Light. Is it a particle or is it a wave? It makes no sense to be both, but the instruments don’t lie – the truth is that light is in fact both – teaching the inflexibility of the wavelike nature of light denies its particulate nature.
All this arose because I have been in conversation in recent times with a ‘closet believer’, someone whose pragmatism is occasionally ruffled by glimpses of the river of the water of life. Some months ago, a friend wrote this…Italics mine.
“I’ve had a thought …maybe mid-life crises of faith, or even changes in direction actually happen because we are confronted with an ever growing menu of reality entrees and it’s just too much.”
Being spoiled for choice does indicate a certain sophistication, perhaps. The trick, I suppose is to actually choose.

Falafel with Philosophy

A twilight walk around the shared Jewish and gay district is educational with an art-nouveau synagogue and the house of alchemist Nicolas Flamel. Not forgetting the best street falafel north of the Damascus Gate. Hasidic Jews sell tracts cheek by jowl (metaphorically – the men wear ringlets or peyes in Yiddish) with well-toned cruisers oveflowing the bars – educational on a number of levels – I’ve never seen so many men’s underwear shops; the walkabout subsequently decanting me into the Place des Vosges – one of the most beautiful squares in Paris, formerly home to Victor Hugo. Note the philosophy students in conversation.

A Walk up the Hill

Sacré Coeur has been described as ‘the ugliest cathedral in the world’. According to a prominently displayed placard, JP2 was impressed, however, on his visit, and so was I. I haven’t wandered, aimless as a cloud, around Montmartre for a while and, usurious prices and tourists notwithstanding, it still has a village feel about it, and one might imagine the smell of linseed from painters, scratching and starving in chic little garrets, as women in need of a shave with husky voices eye up the punters at the pavement cafes and small children whine at the number of stairs they have to climb.