Friday, February 12, 2016

Off the beaten track in Avignon - rue des Teinturiers

"Do you think that we have time to visit that street that you mentioned?" "I think that we do." I was standing on the main thoroughfare of the rue de la Republique in Avignon, questioning the elegant Madame L. We had missed the bus back to the little village that we both live in and did not quite have time for a museum but only a bit of exploring. It had been one of those forays into the former Cité des Papes where nothing had worked out as it should have, from restaurants and errands and the like so I was bit sur ma faim, still hungry for a little something else. 

She had already mentioned the rue des Teinturiers a while back but somehow we had never quite made it, not having strayed far enough. With a click in her patent heel boots, she turned and we were off with only a pause as she asked directions from a gentleman smoking in the doorway of an epicerie fine

"Here we are," she announced with that warm smile of hers. And as I turned the corner, I sighed happily. Yes, I knew that the name of the street has sounded familiar, I had read about this area after all. I recognized it by the canals from the Sorgue River turning the neighborhood into a several block French Venice. The suns rays folded back the shutters of the surrounding hôtel particuliers on one side and ran down the terracotta tiles of the former ateliers on the other until they flicked the surface of the water into diamond-like beads. 

For an area imbued in such long-reaching history (of which I will share more with you in the next post), there was a playful spirit in the air, perhaps buoyed by ghosts from local theaters past and present. It turns out that many of the smaller venues home to the famous Avignon Theatre Festival's "Off" segment can be found here as well. We popped into a friperie where the salesgirl laughed at our trying to tempt each other into buying vintage Céline and Girogio Armani..."No for you," "What? I was thinking for you"...and continued on past a pair of old friends bantering over a pitcher of cider at a café under the plane trees. 

The light was warm, the day was beautiful, I wanted to clasp it tightly and hold it dear...until I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a monster, albeit in the form of a very small boy dressed in a wolf costume. He seemed especially proud of himself so I dared to ask if I could take his photo. He agreed with a silent nod of the head but was too frozen under the cameras gaze to acquiesce to my pleas that he scratch at the air with his "claws." His father looked on, biting his lips into a grin. And then it hit me. "Is it carnival already?" "Yes, of course," he responded, bemused at my ignorance as he reclaimed the little ones hand.

A time of trickery, of shifting sands then right below our feet and all given with joy once we dared to take those few steps beyond the well-known beaten path. A fine reward.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Contrasts in Provence - Whose Provence are you coming to see?

I saw a comment this morning on a friend's blog that angered me deeply and I definitely feel that it merits discussion. The gist of what was written was by someone who professes to "love love love Provence" but yet expressed disappointment after her most recent visit (she has made 12 to France in the past 20 years so is no neophyte) "to see that the country is becoming more middle eastern than french" (sic) due to the prevalance of an Arabic population, including at the local markets where certain stalls sold Arabic goods such as "hiqabs" (um, I guess that would be a cross between a hijab and a niqab?). She claims to be "not a racist but" (and don't you love a modifier? As in "I am not homophobic but" or "I am not anti-Semitic but") that when she visits a country she visits it "for its culture" and that she feels that France "has progressively gotten less French," something that she finds "so sad."

Right. Extreme right, actually. Marine le Pen couldn't have said it better herself.

These are dangerous, divisive and yes, extremely racist comments. Can you imagine how it would fly if someone declared that they were terribly sorry but they could no longer visit the States because there were far too many Latinos? You would think them insane. I had to take the dogs for a brisk walk in order to calm down enough to respond properly. For while I am a foreigner, after ten years of living in Provence I have come to love it dearly and if there is one thing that I am fairly certain of: Provence is nobody's bitch.

Let's back up quite a bit, historically speaking. As the territory of Provence is stretched across the northern shores of the Mediterranean Basin, it has been a melting pot pretty much since civilization arrived in the form of the Greeks establishing trading posts in the 500s BC (earlier in more eastern areas such as Marseille). Then came the Romans (Italian), the Visigoths (German), the Franks (French-Roman-German), the Moors or Saracens (African via Spain)...this is all in pretty rapid succession. And with these conquerors, also came explorers from near and far. Remi has even floated an idea by that the Phoenicians were the first to start trade on the Rhone River. The Phoenicians! As what was then known as Gaul turned into France, the flow of immigration continued. 

Now, let's fast-forward to after World War II and Les Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of rapid economic and industrial expansion, when recruiters from powerhouses such as Renault and Peugeot went deep into the North African countries on the other side of the Mediterranean Basin to find inexpensive labor to work in France. The consequences of both that action and what followed merits a very long discussion* - so I will just stick to my main point and say that the "Arabic" population - who are of mainly, as I mentioned, North African descent and so there is nothing Middle-Eastern about them - living in France have been here for quite some time (often three to four generations or as long as my paternal ancestors have been in the United States). Born and raised in the hexagone, this is "their" France as much as it is anybody's and "their" culture is part of France's as well. Of course, they aren't always treated that way, nor were the Italian and Spanish immigrants who arrived in that same wave either. But they are here, this is their home. It is why when someone from the area speaks of being of pur race or pure blood, not only does it infuriate me but perplexes me as to their limited knowledge of their own region as there has always been a mixité sociale. Let alone "a perfect vision" of any culture reminds me of the Nazis that patrolled the streets outside my door not so long ago at all.

Can we return to the comment that started this discussion? I am wondering...which Provence do we think that this woman was referring to? Olive groves under blue skies certainly but what else? It is wonderful that so many people want to come and visit this amazing region from all over the world but...Provence does not belong to those tourists any more than it does to those of us who live here, really. We are just tiny pieces of the puzzle, quick blips in time that is always evolving, moving swiftly on. It is amazing that we have things of great beauty that stay - such incredible remnants of the past in our Roman masterpieces and Romanesque churches as well as such proud landscapes and traditions. But Provence is alive far beyond what one reads in guidebooks or in the tales of Peter Mayle. Even "his" Luberon doesn't really exist in the same way as when he started writing the series in the 80s...already...Do you see what I mean?  Are visitors coming with the hopes of seeing his Provence? Or Patricia Wells' or Rick Steeve's' or Lawrence Durrell's or Pagnol's? Or are you coming with open eyes to find your enjoy what is**

Remi and I had a good conversation with someone who was in the region for a week on business concerning the end of an excellent art exhibition in Arles. He had gone to Avignon on a day off and yet did not make it to the Centre Historique because he had become so fascinated by the North African community by the train station that he had explored that instead - the tea shops, the hair salons, the interactions of Mom's picking their kids up from school. Granted, he is an artist himself but it was wonderful to see his finding the richness of diversity as worthy of being appreciated in its own right.

All of this doesn't mean that certain happy clichés about Provence have disappeared or aren't worth enjoying...on the contrary, the quality of living here remains as important as ever. On a gorgeous sunny day like today - even in winter - you can while away the hours at a terrace café with your face upturned while snacking on briny olives and sipping on a too sweet wine...there just might be someone whose skin isn't white sitting next to you...and unless it is sported with irony, I highly doubt that they will be wearing a beret. I know that we all love Provence for its dreams - I write about them all the time - but let's not forget that the realities can be, can be, just as promising too.

*Ok, so yes, we will need to have a long talk about the North African immigration, being Muslim (or not) in France, integration and racism as well as how much this is an issue in current French society. It is a big discussion and one that is hard to reduce down to a post size form. I also wanted to ask permission from Remi to tell his part of the story. He granted me that today over lunch so it will be a subject that I will need to work upon. But in the mean time, if you have not already seen Indigènes or Days of Glory in English, I would highly recommend it. You can find more information here.

**I do think that this post applies to more subjects than what is local to Provence. I have written a good bit here about expectations and certainly they pay a great part of our experience when we travel. It is worth thinking about what they are based upon. I will admit my part in ignorance - my Mom and I went alone to Egypt in 1992 and for my part I was looking for the glamour of "Murder on the Nile"! The truth of it is that we live in a global world now and that cultures are not frozen. So unless you are going to a very curated Club Med type beach vacation (for which I do not judge you in the least, please pass the umbrella drinks) or are taking a tour through Walt Disney World's "It's a Small World after All" be warned for chasing after a land that no longer exists or you very well may be disappointed. Nostalgia can do that to a person.


The other posts in the Contrasts in Provence series can be found: here, herehere and here.

Thank you for reading.