Monday, January 10, 2011

Place Georges Brassens in Provence

Last week I invited some friends round for an aperitif. One of them said he had to leave around 8pm because he was going to another friend's place.

The other friend, Felix, was away in Figueres in Catalonia, Spain. He's Provencal but with Spanish origins and was taking a trip back to his (and Salvador Dali's) home town.

"Why are you going over there when Felix is away?" I asked.

"There's something I want to do for him before he returns" was the answer. "Can I borrow your ladder?"

Ladder lent, most of it sticking out of the back of his car, he departed.

I forgot about the incident but the other day I ran into him and Felix chatting in our local market. Felix was recounting how, on his return from Figueres to Isle sur Sorgue, he found someone had been onto his property and fixed a plaque in an outside seating area he'd created. In fact, to say it's a seating area is pushing it a bit - it's a sort of scrappy courtyard populated by trucks, building materials, old chairs and a tangle of kittens. Felix lives in a huge agricultural hanger that he's converted into a muscular, open-plan, bloke's living space. It's all heavy industrial wooden beams, woodburning stove, forged iron and inox. Sort of New York Loft meets Mad Max. A maçon with his own roofing business, he's also a former sailor, a former chef who cooks like a dream and an artist who paints sinewy, vaguely figurative paintings on large canvases dotted around the mezzanine.

He told us that the green metal plaque that had been installed had presumably been pinched from some town square and said Place Georges Brassens. Felix is an admirer of Brassens' work and was touched by the gift but he wondered who'd climbed over his wall to install it. He'd asked a few friends, who denied it, but now he figured out who it was. My neighbour laughed and agreed that it was his Christmas present to the builder/sailor/chef/artist.

I trundled off to buy Sortilège coffee, ("magic spell...", which I used to misread as Sacrilège.)

As I whisked my purchases through the self-service check-out at Intermarché I wondered about Brassens. I knew he was a singer and poet but other than that I had little idea about his work.

So I had a look online at Wikipedia and found that he was born in 1921 and died in 1981. He was born in Sète, a tough and interesting coastal and fishing town near Montpellier. As well as being a well-regarded postwar poet he wrote songs and set others' lyrics to music. During World War II, the Germans forced him to work in a labour camp, helping them manufacture BMW aircraft engines. Objecting, as you would, to furthering the nazi war effort, Brassens failed to return to the camp after getting a few days leave. He spent the last five months of the war in hiding in Paris. Brassens' view of the 20th century was understandably gloomy. "The century we live in is a rotten century" he wrote.

"Nothing but cowardice and baseness.
The greatest murderers attend the greatest masses
And are the greatest favourites of the greatest kings."

In lighter vein, he wrote - among over 200 songs - a song about a well-endowed gorilla which escapes its cage. Taking a bewigged and robed judge for a woman, the gorilla rapes him. The lyrics contrast the judge's cool and impassive voice when sentencing a man to death with his shrieks for mercy in the grip of the gorilla. The song was banned for a time but is still well known these days in France.

Brassens always credited one of his teachers with having sparked his interest in poetry and songwriting. The influence of this one man led Brassens on to study the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Hugo among others.

"We were thugs" he said "at fourteen or fifteen, and we started to like poets. That's quite a transformation. Thanks to this teacher, I opened my mind to something bigger."

Just the sort of sentiment that is appreciated in Provence (and Paris and Sète) and led to parks and squares bearing the name Georges Brassens.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Raising Rabbits in Provence

Provence has long had a much-deserved poetic image. The sun. The stunning natural beauty of the countryside. The coastline. The glamour. The richness of rural life. The heritage and culture. Provence is widely seen as a great place to live or take holidays, infused with joie de vivre and a lighthearted approach to life. Author Marcel Pagnol did a lot to reflect the beauty and poetry of Provence in his writing. But he hardly shied away from the tougher rural aspects of this terrain.

There is no doubt that Provence is seductive but it has plenty of darker, tougher aspects to its character than visitors may suspect. I've lived here now for six and a half years, discovering significantly more about life here every year. There's certainly a simplicity about life in Provence, but it's a complex simplicity, if that makes sense. Or you might say there's a complexity about life here, but it's a simple complexity. It's hard to convey. I'll write about some of these darker aspects of Provence in future posts.

For the moment I just want to make an observation about raising rabbits.

Lots of Provencal paysans - small producers - raise rabbits. (Saying you're a "peasant" here has no negative connotations, by the way. It just means you live mostly off the land. You grow fruit and veg or raise animals.) Pagnol wrote about Jean de Florette's project of raising rabbits to make a living. Anyone who's read the novel or seen the film knows how badly rabbit rearing worked out for the would-be farmer.

Still, raising rabbits in the Provencal countryside seems like a gentle rural occupation. The sun, the open air, the floppy ears, the furry bunnies...

I overheard a conversation about raising rabbits the other day. I was in Isle sur Sorgue in my local café, the Café de France, and a young American woman was telling her husband how wonderful she thought it would be to raise rabbits here. The picture she painted was of bunnies hopping around enjoying their freedom in the sunshine.

It's perfectly true that there's more poetry and more beauty in handling rabbits in the open air than in handling widgets or computer programs (just my opinion.) But the reality is, of course, more complex for the paysans here who breed rabbits for sale or to put on their dinner table.

My neighbour's mother bred rabbits. He still has the large rabbit cages they were kept in, piled in an old hen house. His sister-in-law breeds them too. Our local kiné and another neighbour both exchange their rabbits for litres of olive oil that several of us produce co-operatively. I eat rabbit but I must say I find the sight of a dead, skinned rabbit quite poignant.

Local people who keep rabbits (or pigeons or chickens or pigs...) say it's important to love your rabbits and feed them well. And then they'll make a good meal. That's not cynicism - it's just rural tradition. I know very kind-hearted and sensitive women here who think nothing of killing animals they've raised from birth. One friend told me his mother would bring a live pigeon into the kitchen under her arm and before she reached the kitchen worktop she killed the bird with a swift twist to its neck. He said it happened so rapidly you hardly saw the movement. Provence is not all lavender, honey and pink wine. There's plenty of muscle, sinew and death in the background too.

A housewife here who raises rabbits, or whose husband raises rabbits, will choose a rabbit for lunch or dinner and dispatch it rapidly. She holds it upside down by its feet, strokes its fur several times, (sometimes telling it gently that it was well loved and cared for) and then hits it abruptly on the back of the head. Those who are practised will kill the animal outright every time. Others may give a couple of extra whacks. The dead rabbit is then hung up. The owner puts a bowl or other recipient beneath it, takes out one of its eyes and collects the blood which flows. Once the animal is skinned it can be cooked with or without the blood added in various ways.

Raising rabbits in Provence may sound poetic and undoubtedly much of the work is. Still, it's not an occupation for sensitive souls.