Saturday, July 21, 2012

I learnt a couple of things last weekend. One was the origin of the word barbecue. The other was the origin of Marcel Pagnol's family. (Author of Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources et al.)

In the 17th century, when French pirates set off to conquer the Caribbean, among them were Breton and Norman sailors. They had a habit of roasting whole animals over wood fires and took the practice with them. They would eat the entire animal, from its head to its tail, and referred to this way of eating as de la barbe à la queue. In the Caribbean, the saying was shortened to something approximating barbecue.

I read this in a book in a wood cabanon by the beach at Frontignan, near Sète, in the Languedoc. Picking up another book I read that Pagnol is derived from les Espagnols. Obvious once you see it. Pagnol's family originated in Spain.

The reason I mention those two snippets is because they reflect the pleasure of lazing by a wooden chalet at the beach, in the sun, in summer. You lie on the grass, pick up a glass of cold rosé, pick up a book, and browse casually.

The chalet belongs to friends who are kind enough to let us use it when weather permits. It's been in Jean's family for three generations, handed from father to son, and is a step back from the beach in a restful tangle of oliviers de Bohème, flowering oleanders, tamarisks, palms and fig trees. It's a small wooden construction with tropical-looking lattice-work which is actually traditional to the Midi coastline.

Though it's set on a small private pathway, along with newer buildings, no-one bothers about the fact that families trundle by every day in July and August, lugging deckchairs, children and picnics. It's a shortcut to the beach and the rusted sign saying Propriété privéé has long ago been pushed to one side and forgotten.

Arriving at the chalet is like an instant stress cure. Calm and relaxation flood over you as you open the gates and walk in. Inside, we found the usual tangle of cobwebs and leggy spiders spiralling away into corners as daylight spilled in. The spiders' webs drift down like super-fine fishing nets as you move around, or, invisible, take you by surprise when you walk into them face-first.

In the weeks or months when the chalet lies unused, ants and other creatures are the only residents. Little heaps of sawdust lie around where the beams have been burrowed into.

Naturally the old hoover doesn't work, so we sweep up and then lug the furniture out onto the wooden terrace. With the water and electricity turned on, everything's ready for the weekend.

The first evening, we dine Chez la Tchepe, a little restaurant on the edge of the Etang de Thau. It offers no-frills simplicity and a counter full of super-fresh coquillage, notably the renowned oysters of Bouzigues which have been hoisted up from the waters we're looking at.

We ask for a local Picpoul - Duc de Morny - but it isn't sold here so we select another. But as Morny is particularly light and fresh, we decide to go to the vineyard in the morning and buy some. Our meal of tielles, oysters, mussels, crevettes, violets, lemon, bread and butter and a bottle of Picpoul comes to 33 euros and we head back to the chalet full of good food and fresh sea air.

When we find the vineyard in the morning, we ask the owner why we never see his Picpoul in the shops. He shrugs and says he doesn't need to market it. He has private clients who order it each year, so he sells other cuvées to distributors, those which are less popular or made in greater volume. He has a few cases of 6 bottles left though so we snap one up for 24 euros. So do another couple who are here for exactly the same reason.

In the evening - 14th July, so a French national celebration - we head along to Frontignan where a local version of water jousting, in gondolas, is taking place. Two teams row past each other with a sturdy young man on each boat and the jousters attempt to push each other in the water. There's also a boat with a band playing trumpets and banging drums and a boat detailed to pick up the guys who get pushed into the water. There's lots of music and cheering and fooling around and the two teams each have their own supporters on opposite sides of the narrow sea inlet. The climax to the event is a spectacular display of fireworks which finished with an effect I hadn't seen before. It's a series of huge fireworks which appear to come ever nearer to you so that the last one seems to be bearing down right on the crowd. After the fireworks, an open-air concert and a dance start up, with an elaborate fair to entertain children.

Sunday is quieter. We drive to Marseillane, a pretty port, and have lunch by the water. The drive back takes us around the Etang with its waters shining in the sunlight. After a dip in the sea and a tidy round the chalet we head back to the Vaucluse. Frontignan and Sète have little in common with the Cote d'Azur. There's no glitz and no jet set. There's a different character altogether and one that takes time to appreciate maybe. The old wooden chalets which have all but disappeared deserve some recognition really and I mentioned to one of the friends who owns this one that it would be good to make a film about them. There must be a lot of stories behind those which have not been demolished and the land sold to make money on new villas. Joelle's a film maker and she agreed but is doubtful that a distributor would pick up on the idea.

But never mind. It's enough to experience the place. The structure and atmosphere, the sunlight and shade, and most important perhaps the sea air make it a blissful break. A lovely place.

Don't be the last person to read Present Tense. Buy it now:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Plumbers in Provence

So I haven't posted for a while. That's because I accepted a job with an American scholarly society in June and I've been trying to get my head round their internal systems. Not less complicated than the inner workings of a human being. Brain, digestive system, veins, arteries, spinal cord, nerves, vision.... all takes time to comprehend.

So, there I am, working away on my computer on a Friday afternoon, when the water pump starts to make what laymen refer to as funny noises. The water pump in rural Provence is roughly equivalent to oxygen when you are in intensive care. If you don't have water here in the Midi you can pack up and go elsewhere. Especially in summer. I don't have a thermometer or barometer but I'd say it was around 37° today and it was therefore not a good sign that the water pump was going clic, clac every 3 seconds. If that pump breaks, I need to book a hotel or sleep on somebody's floor until a new one is installed.

And installing a new water pump is likely to be a major event.

So I called the guy I've been seeing and explained the problem. Like any self-respecting Provençal man, he arrives with a toolbox and a set of strong opinions and after half an hour of tinkering around calls our local plumber. Amazingly, Pierre says he will come at once and, more amazingly, he does. There follow three hours of gushing water, no water at all, squeaky noises, drilling, filthy water spilling into sinks and baths, sparkling water spurting outside the house and large volumes of Provençal swearing.

At one point I am forced to intervene because the two men are discussing re-situating my cumulus and compresseur outside the house in an outbuilding that doesn't currently exist.

"Guys" I say (in French obviously).
"I don't want to build an outhouse for the water heater. Or the compresseur. (Whatever it may be.)"

Equality never really made it down to Provence and local guys are much clearer on fraternité than égalité.
Men still entirely expect to do the manual/technical/heavy work (and are often amazingly good cooks as well) and I'm frankly very glad about it. I am not one of those women who think it's liberating to bleed radiators or climb on the roof and clear gutters. Frankly, you're kidding? And if you disapprove, please go and access another blog.

So. Both guys are both somewhat stunned that I have an opinion on their plans for spending thousands of (my) euros on an outhouse for the water paraphernalia.

I see cogs turning in their brains as they adjust to my objections. And then they just get on with fixing the system where it is.

After a certain amount of competitive hooha ("I'm right", "No you're not, I am" and so on) the water pump stops going clic, clac when I turn a tap on and normality seems to have been restored.

Once again I have a steady flow of crystal clear, unfiltered water that flows silently into the house from, ultimately I think, but no-one is sure - Fontaine de Vaucluse, one of the largest Karst springs in the world.

It still amazes me that I have this natural resource flowing underground year after year and flowing into the house. I have friends in Isle sur la Sorgue who've put glass portholes or large sections of reinforced glass in their flagstone floors, through which they see the clear water flowing, illuminated as it runs by. The water below my house is far deeper, filtered by the limestone before the water pump draws it up, ready to drink.

At the end of the day - Pierre absolutely only had half an hour to spare but it has turned into the entire afternoon - the men are exhausted and ready for a glass of cold rosé wine. Both are soaked but their clothes are drying rapidly in the heat. Both are covered in dust.

Problems with water occur 2 or 3 times a year in the house and take priority over most other household problems. Ants eating the wooden beams or rain occasionally falling in through the roof doesn't compare to the possibility of losing the water supply.

Pierre reluctantly says that I owe him 60 euros (when my partner isn't around he simply asks for a hug) and I say I'll call round to his house with the cash over the weekend. Once the guys have gone, I stand outside under the pine trees, thinking, as I often do, what a delight it is to live here. A blue jay swoops down and takes a bath in a bowl of water that I fill every day. When he leaves, I hear a red squirrel making his way through the dry forest canopy to the same water source. He descends, headfirst, from a tall pine and takes a long drink, his tough claws gripping the edge of the bowl and his bushy red tail extended behind him. Later, the turtle doves will come and drink too.

It's a relief to have the water supply secured again. I know problems will still crop up from time to time. That goes with this particular Provençal pine and limestone territory. But I don't mind. It's just a small problem in a paradise setting.

You know, you really should read my book this year: