Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shark! Only kidding. It's (more or less) safe to stay in the water.

Various scientific studies of sharks in the Med in recent years have concluded that populations continue to show a drastic decline. There are nearly 500 species worldwide but fewer than 50 are lucky enough to cruise the shores of Cannes and St Tropez. The most common species here, and most commonly seen on fish stalls and menus, is the roussette or saumonette – the dogfish.
It seems sharks are however increasingly ending up on quayside fishmongers’ stalls and in town fish markets such as the phenomenal market at Sete by the coast. One fish merchant was recently offered a 3 metre, 400 kg shortfin which he divided into three huge chunks and sold to local poissoneries. His experience is that fishermen are bringing in sharks more frequently in recent years. And one local fish merchant adds that they’re larger sharks than he was seeing several years ago. Happily the shortfin, like most sharks, isn’t interested in eating you or your lilo. As long as there’s plenty of seafood around, and tuna and mackerel, you’re pretty safe - shark attacks in the Med are extremely rare. It doesn’t mean Mediterranean sharks aren’t scary of course. The basking shark can be 15 metres long and would give you a bit of a shock after your bouillabaisse and half bottle of cold Picpoul de Pinet. But when sharks come close to the coast, to the beach, it’s usually just because of the currents, not to check out the bathers. The 400 kg shortfin, for example, wasn’t caught by a guy standing on the rocks (obviously). It was caught 54 km off the coast. That’s about 30 miles.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Siamese cats and red squirrels in Provence.

Here in the country between Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Isle-sur-Sorgue everyone has a cat or a dog, or several of each. Often supplemented by hens, kids, geese, goats and a sad-eyed donkey.
A couple of neighbours resolutely refuse to castrate their cats – vets' bills being moderately expensive – so we have a never-ending supply of new kittens which vary on ginger and siamese themes. The cat which lives at my place left his previous home as a kitten and wondered up the hill to my house over a period of several months, arriving on a very hot July day in 2007, emaciated, with dull fur, and crying for food and water. He probably left home because the little hameau where he lived with a neighbour was too full of other siamese and ginger cats and kittens and he didn’t like scrapping for territory. He’s a peaceful soul and once he'd eaten some tuna and drunk some water he realised he’d found a haven of tranquillity, cat-free apart from himself, and promptly settled down on the terrace for a couple of days, then moved into a cupboard in the front room, built into the bibliotheque.
Most animals like their routines. The first one established by Coco (previously Canicule, which means Heatwave) was that starting early each morning he chased the lizards whose routine in turn was to slip onto the terrace at daybreak and catch ants. As long as the ants and lizards played their part, there was no deviation from routine. Every morning the cat waited with bated breath. Every morning the ants arrived. Every morning the lizards pitched up.
Before long, in true Darwinian style, the lizards had all left or been eaten and I had a house full of ants.
So Coco’s attention turned to the squirrels.
Their routine is to descend from a sloping pine each morning at sunrise to drink from the water bowl kept full for them and periodically shared with passing dogs during the day and sangliers at night. There are four squirrels, a deep rusty red-brown, two rather slight and two more sturdy. They had a habit of thundering across the tiles every day to get to the water but started to find the cat lying in wait on the roof. (There's a good joke about a cat on a roof chasing squirrels - if you don't know it Google it.) So now they arrive safely through the trees, making the final ascent with jerky, noisy movements as their claws grip the bark. Coco watches them from a couple of yards away, mashing his jaws silently in his desire to bite into their squirrelly thighs. They used to stay high in the tree and make rapid, cross little scolding noises if I was outside, coming down only when I obediently went inside for a moment. But now they’re used to me and don’t bother. It’s been too hot to sleep in the house recently so I’ve slept on a mattress in the garden and each morning they wake me as they arrive, keeping one foot on the tree, and one eye on me or the cat as they drink from the bowl.
Creatures of habit, they do the same thing every morning, and every evening at sundown.
And twice a year they have a mad half hour much as some cats do daily. At the beginning of spring and the start of autumn they all get together in the trees nearest the house and dash crazily up and down and round and round, chasing each other in a frenetic display that lasts about an hour. After that they calm down for six months and don’t seem to deviate from their routines for a single day.
They stick strictly to their feeding habits too. Day after day they sit on the high branches eating pine kernels, stripping the cones and chucking little bits of discarded cone into the garden. The first winter I was here I offered them some hazelnuts which they resolutely and completely ignored. Provencal squirrels eat pine nuts and that's that.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Driving in Provence

Is often dangerous but also often surprising and funny. Hordes of people get killed and injured on the roads and it's easy to see why. The driving style is eclectic and rules are interpreted fairly approximately. One of the first things you notice driving here is that there is always another car practically driving into the back seat of yours. Drivers seem to find it impossible to keep any distance behind a car. It's as if there's a rule saying you must get as close to the car in front as you possibly can. Discussing this with my neighbour a while ago he disagreed that this happens. The same week he braked in town and the car behind ran straight into him.
Overtaking whenever possible and preferably when it's dangerous also seems to be a rule. I watched a driver today tailing another car on a long straight stretch of road and just as we all came up to a bend he decided to dodge out and risk everyone's life. Recently, on the same stretch of road I started overtaking a guy (on the straight bit) and a young driver behind me started overtaking me as I was overtaking. Naturally another car appeared from the other direction and we all narrowly avoided a crash.
Almost every week the papers report young drivers and their friends hurt or killed in accidents. It's not necessarily down to alcohol - the driving is too fast and too impulsive. I have many friends and neighbours who, like practically everyone I know in Provence, are courteous and considerate as a rule. Get them behind a steering wheel though and it's like they've had a brain transplant. I mentioned this to one friend last week. We were driving back from the Saturday market at Coustellet and he had to stop to let a woman driver turn in front of him. After much swearing and instant bad temper from someone normally completely laid back, I mentioned my observation that driving here seems to bring out the worst in people. He looked completely blank for a moment and then, like my neighbour, denied it...
If drivers interpret the rules flexibly, the police sometimes do too in my experience. Thankfully. Driving the wrong way up a one-way road in the village a while ago I realised my mistake when a member of the Police Municipal came dashing out of the tiny police station. Assuming she was going to fine me I wound the window down and started apologising. 'Oh,' she said pleasantly 'I just wanted to remind you it's a sens unique. I'm sure you'll remember next time.' And I have remembered, every time since. That's what policing should be like. A service to the public.
I also got stopped last year for not displaying my insurance ticket on the windscreen. I'd received it the day before and, forgetting to display it, had left it in my bag at home. The very pleasant cop pointed out that he couldn't know whether or not I had insurance. When I explained that I had but had forgotten the ticket he said that was OK but I should attach it when I got home. He could have fined me I guess, but he was using his discretion and figured I didn't look like an insurance dodger.
The police also seem to take a driver-friendly view of speed cameras and radar controls. Every week the papers publish the locations where you might get caught for speeding. I used to think it meant people drove more slowly knowing they were being monitored. But it's also possible that locals, reading La Provence, take the back roads while tourists, reading their Rough Guides, drive on in blissful ignorance and are the ones who get pulled over.
Last point about driving here. Don't buy or rent a big car or a smart car or an expensive car. Big cars have been known to get firmly lodged between the walls of houses in narrow medieval streets. And big cars, smart cars and expensive cars will get scuffed, bumped and dented giving you lots of expense. Best practice is to do what everyone else does round here and get a small, cheap car that will get cheerfully bashed and dented several times a year and wear its dents permanently, without worry.
And last, last point - when you park prepare to find you've been blocked in when you come back to the car. Don't worry though. After a minute you'll hear someone call in a smiley voice: 'J'arrive. C'est moi qui vous bloque!' Anyone who double parks is only parking for a minute and will courteously keep an eye out for you returning.
It's not, clearly, part of the eccentric driving etiquette - they're not behind the wheel when they come to release you.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ramadan in Provence

Ramadan starts on Saturday. There are between 5 and 7 million muslims in France, 200,000 of whom live in Marseille. The local paper, La Provence, writes that it’s estimated that until the third week of September around three quarters of muslims will try to abide by the custom and obligation of not eating, drinking or having sex between dawn and nightfall.
In temperatures of more than 30 degrees at present the restriction on drinking will be tough and clearly risky for health.
A regional representative of islam from the Marseille mosque Ennasr (‘victory’ in English) explains the idea is to become ‘morally stronger’ and another muslim commentator adds that during ramadan ‘fatigue prevents us from hyperactivity that can allow us to escape ourselves.’
Participants are expected to be on their best behaviour all month and then try to continue on the same lines for the eleven months to follow.
The region’s mosques will be busy. Last year 3000 packed into the single prayer rooom at Ennasr for the final day of abstinence (Aid el Fitr). The figure has risen steadily in recent years, boosted by the presence of many youngsters. 63% of French muslims are aged between 15 and 34 and use the internet to engage with islamic sites and muslim networks.
The financial crisis is unlikely to play much part in ramadan. Despite the much talked of crise du pouvoir d'achat – crisis in purchasing power – many muslim families spend a little more than usual. Though two meals fewer are eaten each day, the evening meal which breaks the fast tends to be richer amd more elaborate than usual.
And complementing the idea of spiritual strengthening or cleansing, one woman from Martigues explains ramadan is also a time for ‘cleaning the house from top to bottom. And eating on all-new crockery.’

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Buying a car? Renting a car? A Renault? A Peugeot?

Nothing duller than cars unless they're being discussed by Jeremy Clarkson. At least then you get some seriously controversial rubbish, some laughs and a few bits of common sense to lighten up a deathly topic. Plus, the floppy-haired other ex-public-schoolboy, James May, who's quite compelling in an irritating way. And the little handsome one, Hammond, who's sweet and clearly insane.

But, if you live up a track in a forest, you have to have a car. The track is Grade A bumpy and the white dust makes any vehicle filthy within 500 metres. So I wanted a no-frills-at-all, bump-along-the-track-and-park-in-the-forest car.

Being here, the obvious choice - almost the only choice, looking around - was between Peugeot and Renault. I had a Renault Megane in Scotland and it must have been the worst one they manufactured. It quickly developed a fault and started making grating noises as loud as a plane taking off. And would then just stop. In town. On the motorway. On a junction. Every time it did it, it had to be towed somewhere to get fixed. And sometimes it started again on its own and the mechanics insisted there was no fault because the onboard computer said there wasn't one. Useful.

Every time you set out on a journey you had the comfortable feeling that it was likely to turn into a major problem involving the hard shoulder, the (wonderful) AA, a trip home sitting in one of those towing lorries that are so huge they make you feel like a child, and another discussion about the infallibility of the onboard computer at the garage.

So, with very little thought, and some very bad advice from an ex, I rejected the Renault option - Renault Megane or Renault anything- and got the smallest cheapest Peugeot I could find. And hoped for the best.

Hope wasn't effective. The car goes, and it's OK on petrol. But I overlooked the finance. The ex persuaded me to get the thing on a personal lease and it's turned out to be the most expensive Peugeot 206 the world has ever known. 6 years at hundreds of euros a month. Including elusive insurance and maintenance features which reliably result in more bills every time you try to make use of them.

I could have bought the car twice over with the money I've paid if I hadn't trusted advice simply because it was about a car and came from a bloke.

The calamitous exchange rate hasn't helped either. Every time I've looked at the OANDA currency exchange site in the last two years it's made my hair stand on end.

The good-looking charming salesman who sold me the deal has transformed dramatically as the contract has progressed. He started out young and smiley but is now bald and unhelpful. Probably unrelated to my car hire. Perhaps he looks at OANDA too.

I recently asked him if there was any way he could quietly drop the lease and let me just go away and buy a car in a normal way (ie. from one of the many roundabouts where people stick their old cars with AV signs and outrageous prices on them). But he remained rock-solidly bald and unhelpful. He flipped his laptop lid up, tinkered under the bonnet for a moment and then displayed one of those revolting Excel files with thousands of cramped little cells showing that my only exit would be through a new bill for several more thousands of euros in order to ‘buy’ the car. He was deaf to the argument that I've already bought the car at least twice.

So I’m stuck with it. The only other forms of transport I’ve got are an old bike leaning against a tree, with flat tyres, and legs. Which are not willing to walk thousands of miles a year.

A group of neighbours share the swimming pool here.
Perhaps I’ll suggest a car pool too.

The crucial question of water in Provence

The weather this week is officially a heatwave - a canicule. The countryside is flagging, with crisp or wilting vegetation baking in the sun. It's hot all day and all night - sleeping outside in the forest is little cooler than sleeping inside. It has the advantage though that you fall asleep to stars and moonlight and get woken by sunlight filtering through the pine trees at dawn. Straight away you feel the heat. It's dry - not a drop of humidity in the air. And it feels good. But not to the crops and the natural vegetation. Yes, the farmers have their watering systems. But they cost money and can't always save a crop in heat this intense.
For smaller producers and people with gardens, watering is a constant preoccupation. Everone's seen Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources...
The leaves on the few dozen olive trees here are looking pretty crisp and thirsty now. I've resisted putting automatic watering in, partly because of cost but also because the idea of looking at the (forest) garden and thinking of yards of plastic piping and little whirry motors just under the surface is unappealing. When it comes to gardens, I like nature as natural as possible.
So I lug the hosepipe up the garden, threading it through the trees and plants and drop the end into the dip of a tree and leave the water to run for ten minutes. Then go back and move the thing to the next dip. It's a pain, but olive trees need to drink and there's been no rain for weeks. And hardly even a breeze. Inspecting the olives yesterday they were absolutely still on the branches, like they were holding their breath for a raincloud to develop. A storm is forecast for Thursday or Friday. But the forecasts are often wrong. I've had many J de Florette moments, running out of the house at the sound of thunder, staring round at the sky to see if rain's arriving, only to see dark heavy clouds passing over the hills and dropping their rain frustratingly somewhere else but not here.
Rain, when it comes in summer, tends to come during the night. Often accompanied by dramatic storms and thunderclaps that practically shake the house. The thunder and lightning can be frightening but it's always good to hear the rain fall. (Just breaking in to say a little red squirrel - a family of four live here - has interrupted his morning journey past my window to the water bowl to stretch out and lie down on a branch outside the window. He's just lying there and has been for several minutes. Absolutely flat and elongated along the branch. Almost concealed if I hadn't seen him arrive. So-o cute. He's not eating; maybe he's just having a rest. The cat was on the roof earlier trying to catch one of them, as usual, so maybe he's thinking twice about crossing the roof...)

Where does the water come from in Provence? Rainfall, the rivers and melted Alpine snow. The great thing about the region is that the ground beneath it is saturated with water, in the nappe phreatique, coursing through caves in the rock. At Fontaine de Vaucluse nearby, a very well-known source, water gushes out of the rock in an astounding waterfall supplying the Sorgue river and surrounding towns and villages. Well-managed canals, notably the Canal de Carpentras, also supply water to farmers and householders, and supplement the eau de ville.
Water here has a beauty not seen elsewhere (just my opinion.) It's partly that it's so clear and clean that when light catches it, it reflects and sparkles like a diamond. Flowing in the town and village fountains, passing in the Sorgue, beating down on parched vegetation in scarce storms, it's always present. You're always aware how important it is, and how beautiful. It has a crystal-clarity and a sound and movement that lift the spirit.

Many households rely on well water. At my place, water comes only from the well as the commune has never extended water pipes into the forest here. The pump is at a depth of 40 metres. The house here was originally just a cabanon, a single room built by a gendarme from Marseille who came out here to hunt. Whether or not he knew there was a good water supply here I'll probably never know, but he built right next to a well which, touch wood, has supplied water to the property for around 40 years.
Water diviners are still used here - understandably because if you need to sink a well you don't want to pay a forage company to bring their drilling equipment out to the countryside up dirt tracks and sink half a dozen wells before they find water... Anything that increases the chances of hitting a veine first time is worth trying.
My neighbour arrived at the house one summer morning crying out: "Il n'y a plus d'eau. Il n'y a plus d'eau." He's a big handsome guy who maintains the local plane trees in town and has a ramshackle home over the hill from me, filled with kids and dogs and cats and geese and sheep. I ran to see if my water was still running. Luckily it was. But he had to have several wells sunk before hitting a good seam of water.

My own lesson in not taking water supply for granted came this month. (The squirrel just rose suddenly and skipped off down the tree. Taking the ground route to his drinking water then.) The water pressure dropped one morning. What? There's always been water. It's a heatwave. I need water. Then it stopped running. Panic. What about showers and cups of tea and watering the garden and the dishwasher...? I examined the various tanks and dials which meant, frankly, nothing to me.
And then consulted neighbours. It turned out they were having their own trouble with the pump bringing arrosage water from the canal. However, they allpitched in and gave opinions and advice. (My experience - the French lo-ve to give advice. It seems to be part of the culture. When dealing with anyone in authority, or just anyone really, never complain or challenge. Just ask for advice. You'll be immediately awash with it and it will be helpful.)

So, further to the Jean de Florette water crisis....one neighbour's imagination went into overdrive and moved from his initial assumption that the pump was broken and would have to be replaced at huge cost to the certain conclusion that the nappe phreatique must be exhausted and I'd never have water in the house again.

Let's. wait. until. the. plumber. arrives, I said.

But he and Pierre (plumber, neighbour) & Stephane (neighbour) all had to get involved of course, throwing their arms around, hotly debating the problem - having a little flirt with me on the side, just because they're men and they expect that of themselves. There followed a certain amount of very male behaviour where they all tried to display their superior geological and mechanical knowledge. It could be a veine that had been diverted underground by a rock fall. It could be the pump. How old was it? I don't know. It could be the compresser. Or calcaire might have blocked the system somewhere. (I don't have a filter for the calcaire. It flows into the house along with the water, dusting the taps and sinks, crockery, cutlery and shower curtain with white deposit. People say, variously, that it's wonderful to drink - good for the bones - or that it'll be the death of you. What I notice most is that it turns your hair to straw when y ou wash it.)

Anyway, the fact was, the plumber knew what to do and mended the thing, even though it took all day.

Haven't got the bill yet but guys often take a lo-ng time to present bills here. I've found three months is not uncommon. The last time he mended the water system I asked how much I owed him and he threw his arms wide and said with great (harmless) gusto that he'd accept a hug from a tall blonde. Bill settled.

Good thing too - I've just had a look at Metcheck, THE best weather website in the whole world, and the temperature'll reach 36 today. That water supply is absolutely crucial.

Oh and the last thing. I use a lot of water. It flows underground to the Mediterranean. When some of it is drawn up into the house and used, it goes into the garden via the fosse septique. It waters the forest. And the more I use, the more dilute are the various detergents used in the house. If I don't use it, it will just flow into the sea and turn into salt water.

Very last thing - have a look at Metcheck. If you don't already know it, you'll quickly see why it's worth looking at. So-o many good, useful features.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A question on the Gillette family

This post has nothing to do with Provence but it's French-related. Like me - I think. Here's the question.
My mother's grandmother was a Gillet, pronounced with a soft g, French-style.
She lived in the north-west of England and we know nothing much about her family. My mother was always given to understand though that she was of French extraction, and that her family were Gillettes, and I wonder if anyone knows more about the name's history?
There are a zillion genealogy sites of course but most relate to the US and not England / the UK. The only notable Gillette I've come across was the bizarrely-named King Camp Gillette - he of the disposable razor - whose family was ruined by the Great Chicago Fire.
I found out that he set up factories for the razors in England in the 19th century so possibly he sent a male relative to the North West.
Gillette was a bit of a nutcase as far as I can see. He was a Utopian Socialist, which is pleasant if, well, utopian. (We've all been there.)
He wrote a work called The Human Drift arguing that the US should form a single gigantic industry owned by the public and that Americans should live in a single vast city, Metropolis, with electricity generated by Niagara Falls.
Hmm. Nice.
To follow up, he wrote World Corporation - a programme for creating this US Mammoth Corp. - which sounds a bit like a....job application. Anyway, having had his Big Idea - the ra-zor - he obviously became a Big Thinker. Or perhaps he just took his first name very seriously. He offered to pay Theodore Roosevelt a million dollars to be World Corp. president. But Roosevelt was already, um, American president and he refused the offer. (Probably rolled his eyes and said to an aide: "Do me a favour. Write some sort of polite Not-on-your-life, go-away-and-stop-hassling-me note to that weirdo Gillette. Him and his goddammed World Corp....")
Anyhoo - the business was eventually sold to Procter and Gamble, in 2005, where his razor joined all those other things you use in the kitchen and bathroom. But Gillette died long before, in the 30s. He'd lost a packet during the Depression but was still rich enough to frequent the Desert Inn in Palm Springs, turning into one of those anonymous squillionaires who wanders around in a tatty old dressing gown. The owner, asked how come this vagrant was tolerated, replied: "...that's King Camp Gillette. He has practically kept this place in the black the last few years."

Apart from the vast fortune, it sounds horribly like he could be one of my forebears. But, how would I find out?

Restaurants in and around Isle-sur-Sorgue

Three favourite restaurants - excellent but not too expensive:

Le Vivier http://www.levivier-restaurant.com/

Michelin-starred and with a chic, urban feel to it even though it's right on the Sorgue and a stone's throw from open country. Le Vivier is great for a special occasion, a celebration. You can eat inside or outside looking over the river.

Sample menu? (with cheerfully mixed French & English from their site):

3 plats:
43 euros: menu du marché [le midi en semaine, hors jours fériés]
28 euros: menu Gourmand
70 euros [Menu pour l’ensemble de la table]
Le Chef Arnaud Vaumerel vous propose une variation de 7 plats au fil des dernières créations et d’une sélection des plats à la carte.

• Choice of starters 16 euros
Seared rare tuna, tartar of duck breast with ginger, zucchini flower & coriander oil
Salad of baby vegetables, tender leaves & flower,summer truffles & pata negra
Crabe royale au curcuma, guacamole d'avocat, jus de tomate « green zebra » (sup. 10 euros)
Foie gras and smoked eel terrine, pedro ximénez and rhubarb
Tapas style selection

• Ensuite 25 euros
Filet of lightly salted cod, fricassee of summer ceps,coco beans & baby onions
Filet of giant sea bass, squid ink risotto, razor clam and shellfish emulsion
Roast new season lamb, artichokes & sweet peas
Veal sweetbread, coffee flavours, macaroni with morels & braised gem lettuce (sup. 10 euros)
A pigeon pie with foie gras and porcini mushroom

• Desserts with the choice 11 euros (à commander en début de repas)
Farmhouse cheese
Roast black figs tart, blackcurrant crème brûlée & ewes milk sorbet
Selection of chocolat dessert
Melba Peach, lemon verbena infusion and bitter almond emulsion
Homemade Ice-cream or sorbet
Raspberries & tapioca pearls, green tea & jasmine mousse

More laid back in style is the wonderful Jardin du Quai


You can eat inside, but why would you? The garden is a rambling haven - greenery everywhere, fountains, tables well-spaced or tucked away in leafy recesses. A great place for a relaxed meal with friends.

The menu is Selon le Marché so you always eat what's best and most fresh that day. Check the website for prices.

A sample:

La mise en bouche: Oeuf poché Lard et Truffe
L'entrée: Feuilleté de langoustines
Le plat principal : Saint Pierre à l'oignon doux
Le dessert : Meringue à la griotte

Sounds simple? It's excellent.

And the third is Chez Udo. http://www.udophilipp.com/

You can eat outside here too but the interior feels right somehow. (Just an impression.) The dining room feels like a converted front room, which it is, but it's large and airy and relaxed. Udo appears from the kitchen from time to time to chat to diners and the place has almost the feel of a club where people know the chef and his wife, Carola, or get to know them in the course of an evening.

There is always something innovative or surprising on the menu - Udo is endlessly inventive:

Grimod de La Reynière

Comme éperon bachique espouma de citronelle aux agrumes et figues du jardin de Udo

Velouté de salade aux girolles

Carpaccio de saumon mariné à la badiane et noix de Saint Jacques

Gigot d'agneau des pays d'Apt, ratatouille à l'orange

Chêvre au confit de romarin

Sorbet d'ananas de Provence, du coeur de boeuf , green zébra et basilic


Three recommendations then. Vist any, or preferably all, of them if you're visiting Isle-sur-Sorgue and want to eat really well.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sex in Provence

Not sure if I've talked about sex yet but now's a good time as I was tinkering around on the net earlier and read some coverage of the BNF's (Bibliotheque Nationale de France) exhibition of porn and erotica last year. On display in Paris was an historical trip through the human mind's endless preoccupation with sex. The writings and images which had all previously been squirrelled carefully away from public scrutiny covered every practice imaginable, demonstrating that whatever your fantasy or fantasies may be, someone's already had 99% of those thoughts in a similar degree of garish detail. What struck me was a comment by a UK commentator who said it was surprising that the BNF would show such material to its visitors. But maybe he forgot he was talking about France and the French. Having lived here for some years, what surprises me is that the collection wasn't on show long before. Sex is hi-gh on the Gallic agenda and perhaps even higher on the agenda here in Provence. The midi throbs with sensuality and sexuality and relations between the sexes are red-blooded and, thankfully, not Politically-Correct. Sex is discussed very openly and usually not in the silly, smutty way that you often get elsewhere (just my opinion.) Just like food and eating, it's totally integrated into the way of life and seen as necessary to a good quality of life. I get the impression there's a lo-t of casual sex going on, at practically all ages. There are also plenty of sexual dramas in the vicinity - jealousies, infidelities, ill-concealed mistresses, estranged husbands and wives, uncertain sexual preferences and sexual diseases. I've heard of several people in the immediate area who have AIDS or HIV. Another with syphilis. Several others with lesser infections. Use of Meetic for casual encounters seems to be rife. And all this stuff is going on among people of my age group (early 50s) just as it does among people in their twenties. When my relationship of 19 years broke down a while ago (rather spectacularly but that's another matter) I was a bit surprised to find I was suddenly viewed more or less like a likely sexual partner by quite a few local men. One called round and suggested, suggestively, that I give him English lessons. Another came up to me in the supermarket and told me he was looking for a partner, not just a woman to have sex with. A guy in town tried to chat to me for a few minutes and then tried to kiss me. Another guy simply asked, after a meal with others, if he could sleep with me. Another just put his hand on my thigh after dinner with friends and asked to walk me home.
All a bit of a shock as I was not yet in anything like New Guy mode.
However, I quickly found out that if you go out with no rings on your fingers it's a bit like having a profile on Meetic. You get approached. I also found out that as soon as you live alone people assume you must want a sexual partner and start trying to fix you up with one. I also discovered how openly and frankly sex is viewed and discussed and enjoyed or refused round here. Young guys chat about their adventures with girls. Not necessarily in a disrespectful way, just factual. Older women talk about the nuisance of their husbands still wanting sex. Friends recount anecdotes about a woman who left her husband because his penis was so large she couldn't bear it any more. A neighbour complains that his wife kicked him out because she couldn't accept he has a mistress. Another friend introduced a colleague and his mistress - as his mistress. (When I said later 'Should you have done that?' he dismissed me saying 'Oh she's been his mistress for years; everyone knows that. His wife knows.') Recently a friend of mine complained that her husband was growing old very quickly. He won't go out as often as he used to, travel or go to theatre or exhibitions. Casually she added 'If he's not careful, he soon won't be interested in anything except his sudoko and his internet porn.'
Sex gets into transactions here as much as money and human courtesy. You spot, and experience, flirting everywhere - in shops, at petrol stations, in the markets, bars, cafes - little glances exchanged, loaded gestures, the hug and the bises that take just a bit too long. And men really notice, and appreciate, and comment on women's behaviour, style, gestures, appearance. There's no neutral pals act between Provencal men and women. The undercurrents are strongly sexual. Vive la difference is a genuine attitude. Men really take notice of women. They notice physical detail. They accept imperfections and ageing. They appreciate women sexually and socially (again just my opinion and observation.) And they're comfortable around women. Women in turn seem to see men pretty much the same way. I think all that ties in with the lusty, healthy, frank French interest in sex. And I'm pretty glad it works that way.

For details of the BNF's pornography and erotica collection in Paris go to: http://www.bnf.fr/

60 thrushes and an ex-wife for dinner

A friend invited me to dinner to celebrate his 60th birthday. An ex-chef and sailor turned stonemason and painter, Felix is a big, barrel-chested, expansive, local guy of Spanish origin. His new girlfriend has a little girl, conceived late during what her mother mistook for the menopause. He lives in a large agricultural hangar which he's converted into a muscular, masculine, open-plan home with a mezzanine and a bar and large easels here and there holding up big paintings that never seem to be quite finished. His soon-to-be-ex-wife moved out a while ago, to a house in Avignon.
So the idea, he says, is to eat 60 thrushes accompanied by good red wine from Chateauneuf du Pape. 'You probably won't eat a thrush' he said, with a certain disdain 'because you're English. They're not wild, trapped. They're elevage.' I still wasn't keen. So he said he'd give me fish.
On the evening, I arrived with another friend to find him standing over a huge cauldron of fish stew - a bourride from Cassis. He'd made tapenade and laid a great long table for 22. Wine was decanted. His son and girlfriend were handing out aperos. A friend who makes wine arrived from Chateauneuf du Pape with a present - a red wine bottled in 1929, the year Felix was born.
But where were the birds? Why was he cooking bourride? In between stirring the great stew and chucking in additional herbs and seasoning he gave the explanation. His ex still has a key to the place. His girlfriend had recently stayed for a week and the ex had come in one day to be confronted by a cot next to her husband's bed.
Hearing from mutual friends about the dinner plans, she'd returned on the day of the celebration, let herself in again with the key she'd hung on to, opened the huge fridge where the birds were peacefully laid out - and swiped the lot of them.
It was a great meal and a great evening even so, finished off with champagne, cheese and sorbets.
A good birthday but not an amicable divorce in the making...

Learn French - or English - in Provence

Read other posts here and you'll see that I'm based in the Provencal countryside near Isle-sur-Sorgue in the Vaucluse. A beautiful area with a great climate. Many friends have holidayed here, staying in the apartment adjoining my house. After several years of organising and delivering free holidays in this way I'm pretty experienced at all that goes with hosting visits, including translation and taxi services. So I'm inclined to invite paying guests now too, for those of you who may be looking for a lovely place to stay, in a great region, with the sea (and swimming pool obviously), horseriding, golf, local markets, medieval towns and villages and Roman ruins close by. There are masses of festivals too, ranging from the internationally known Avignon Festival to smaller but excellent festivals in towns like Pernes les Fontaines and surrounding villages. The range is very wide - festivals of music, dancing, theatre in the street, strawberry festivals, melon festivals, cheese festivals, and wine of course.
If you want to spend some time here and learn French, or English if you're French or other nationality, that would work too. Contact me for details that can be arranged to suit your plans. (Just use the Comment box.) I've taught English in Rome and Canterbury and have friends here who teach French. And if you don't want to learn French or anything else but just have a blissful holiday, that's very easy here too. Airports nearby are Avignon, Marseille, Nimes - lowcost airlines to get here from the UK are Easyjet, Ryanair, and Flybe. Or Aerlingus from Ireland.