Picture Post: Ladies Lunch in the South of France

A couple of weeks ago, Sheila, Fi and I decided to throw caution, obligations and their kids to the wind and have lunch together on a Tuesday afternoon.  We had a delightful meal at a tiny restaurant called La Grange, just behind the Palais du Justice. It was a quirky little place run by a husband and wife, with her cooking and him hosting. Every time he brought a plate out, he would say, “La fameuse…” and name the dish.  I loved every moment of it.

La Grange
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Montpellier’s Renegade, AWOL Mardi Gras

Dateline, Montpellier, France: Le sigh.

So, Montpel had their annual Mardi Gras celebrations last night. Kind of. Sort of. Well, in a way. Actually, unsurprisingly, in the only way that seems fitting for this town. Read the story after the jump.

Montpellier

The foundation of caca-pipi-talism: Two bikes and an IKEA shopping cart, just like the pundits say.

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French on Strike: Cry Me a River

PARIS, France (CNN) — A day of strikes dubbed “Black Thursday” in France looked more like “Gray Thursday,” with officials reporting a mixed impact across the country.

Maybe it’s because they realize they’re protesting something that DOES NOT AFFECT THEM?

This strike is about the French worrying over the lack of job security. IN FRANCE. They can’t be bitching about the credit crisis, since no one here has credit; they all have debit cards.

France is the only place on the planet where there IS job security, except maybe Cuba. NO ONE loses their job here, ever. Ever, ever, ever. Everyone has their job for as long as their contract stipulates, no matter how awful they are at it. This is why, for example, customer service people don’t give a rat’s ass about you. Go ahead, call and complain! You know what happens? They get a little note stuck to their file somewhere in some back dusty room’s filing cabinets.

Remember that guy who bilked Societe Generale of like, a kabillion dollars?  Even HE had a job until the lengthy bureaucratic process of firing him was completed.  After everything he had done, he could have walked into that office every single day and played Free Cell on his computer until he got the official word that he was canned.

A friend of ours has not been paid since November. The company screwed something up, and now they have no money. But because of the labor system, they can’t lay anyone off. And employees can’t walk out, either. So everyone in her office is sitting there, not being paid, and working. They wouldn’t even give her the day off to attend our friend’s dad’s funeral last week. Tell me, gentle readers – would you have even asked permission?

The daughter of a friend of mine is a waitress at a restaurant. Her boss is beyond cruel. So, she has been counting the days until MARCH FRICKING FIFTH when her contract is up. In the meantime, she’s an insomniac and has other stress-related physical problems.

There are many, many things I love about this country. And there are many, many things I cannot stand about it. This is one of them. Next up, I will be writing about something I love, to balance out the bitching.

A Trip to the Doctor’s in the South of France

Cal and I got up super early last week and went to Dr. Navarro to see what was up with this dry, hacking cough I’ve had since Paris. I don’t usually need someone to accompany me, but my knowledge of French doesn’t extend to medical terms. It turns out to be bronchitis; but, in the surreal world that is Montpellier, there is more to the story than that.

Dr. Navarro's Office
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Succor

Usually, when people come to visit me, I provide information, guidance and a base for their otherwise autonomous vacations. I’m happy to do so; it’s fun to see one’s city from an outsider’s perspective. It also makes me realize that I am not as much of an outsider as I feel sometimes – for a brief time, I am the expert in all things European.

Other times, friends are just plain jazzed to know someone who lives in Europe, and are happy to pretend to live here too, if only for a little while. They arrive with no agenda, and couldn’t care less if they see the sights. They sleep late, eat long lunches, and happily tag along on even my most boring errands. They bring to my daily life a sense of magic that reminds me how blessed I am.

And then there is my cousin Louis. He calls me on his way to the airport, and when he arrives we simply pick up where we left our last conversation. He has a startling ability to know instantly the lay of whatever land in which he finds himself. By the time I moved from Rome, he knew four ways to get to my house and was taking dinner requests from my roommates.
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Update on Expat Life

“What’s it like?” is a question I often get from people about being an expat freelance writer living in the South of France. “Wanna trade lives?” is another one. I’m living many people’s dream; hell, I’m living my own (albeit one country west of where my dream waits patiently for my return). I wish everyone who truly longs for expat life could experience it; but, to be honest, it’s not for everyone.

Although I’ve lived an expat life for years, this is the first time I’ve been involved in any kind of expat community – not only here in Montpellier among the usual suspects, but in the greater online expat community as well. In learning about everyone’s reasons for following a path similar to mine, and in watching the comings and goings of their daily lives, I’ve often wondered what it is that we have in common.
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Severing Ties: Mail Forwarding Services for Expats

Ever since I high-tailed it to Europe six (!) years ago, my parents – or rather my father, the errand runner – has sent me all the mail that comes to their house addressed to me. it seemed easiest this way.

But now, it’s just annoying – for them and for me, especially since I tend to flit back and forth between Montpellier and Rome several times a year, declaring each time I am there to stay. While I’m not sure exactly where I’ll wind up and when, I am in the general vicinity of Western Europe for the foreseeable future.

So, I’ve been looking into mail forwarding services that cater to expats scattered around the world. I’ll include some links below to the ones I’m considering – I’ll be making my final decision tomorrow morning, when client funds are deposited – but I wanted to give some general thoughts about this service for expats who are thinking of doing the same.
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Bastille Day 2008: This Is How We Do It

The Internets are abuzz with news, links and historical background for Bastille Day, the Frenchiest of all French holidays. It’s a celebration of the origins of the French tendency to want exactly the opposite of whatever their leaders want for them. Sometimes, they’re right. Other times, they’re just being contrary and should shut up.

It’s a beautiful day, so the French will head out to the beaches or to the mountains to frolic and picnic. Tonight, at least here in the south, an enormous amount of seafood will be grilled and eaten.

But for us expats, it’s just another day in paradise. Continue reading

Expat Life: A Distinct Lack of Stuff

While writing about the French sales yesterday, it occurred to me that we – Cal and I – have a lot less stuff than the average American couple in their late 30s who share a home. Part of this is simply having a lack of desire (and funds) to acquire a lot of stuff; but, part of it is living with the feeling that we could go anywhere, and with that feeling comes a way of thinking that lends itself to wanting to be tied down by less stuff.

Before I moved to Rome in 2002, I had a lot of stuff. Pavlov Memento and I had a lovely apartment that I had decorated beautifully – with stuff. We got rid of mountains of stuff, and what remained we put in storage.

That stuff is still there. At some point, probably this year, I’m going to have to fly home and get rid of it. Sell it off, and probably end up with a box or two that I’ll FedEx back here. At the time, all that stuff was the bare minimum of my life. But now, five years and two countries later, it’s just stuff. I miss my candelabra, and a photo book about Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange that I stole from the Copper Union library my senior year in college. I’d like to give Pavlov’s travel bar set to Bart, who’d appreciate it more. Pretty much everything else can go.

Now, we’re not living in an empty apartment. And since we started living together, I’ve supplemented or replaced some of Cal’s crappier bachelor housewares. But the stuff we really couldn’t live without? I could fit it all into two suitcases, easily.

One day, I’d like a permanent place. I can’t imagine when that day would be, or where it will be, but I trust that one day I’ll see a place I love, and I’ll make it mine. But even then, I don’t think I’d fill it with a lot of stuff. My thinking has changed, and it feels good to live with a minimum with stuff.

Sunday In The Garden With Expats

**This is an entry from way back, summer of 2006, I believe. I’m on a deadline with a client, so you’re getting archive treats!

Brunch at Auntie Lu’s English Restaurant – most of their tables were outside, accommodating a group of 12 women celebrating their friend’s impending trip around the world by taking her out to a different ethnic cuisine every day/night. Lu gave them an English Culture Quiz and the winner got a bottle of wine!

So there was a lot of room inside the restaurant, and I looked up from the Times Culture section to see Cal, Gwennie, and Lu dancing. I think Lu might have had a spatula in her hand. Merlin the dog was also frolicking around. Anna, Louis and Natalia came in to pick up the pub’s lunches for takeaway. Shelton ate a hangover brunch outside, then moved over to the outside lounge area so that Jeremy and Paulette could have their hangover brunch. It felt like the first scene in a play, set in the place where everyone comes in and you get a bit of each character’s persona by hearing what they did the night before., and seeing them interact. I was a blissful, quiet observer and I left fully satisfied.

Later that day we went to Fiona’s for a huge pork feast. Her youngest, Flo, chose to pick this day to feel unloved and so she was dramatically flung onto the couch wrapped in blankets and weeping amongst the kittens and cats. Rose and various other teenage girls were slinking around, looking conspiratorial. Fiona’s two-room cook’s kitchen was a mine field of mess and splatters and bowls and pots piled high in Dr. Seuss-like fashion. It is obvious she loves to cook. The younger kids jumped with abandon into the pool or crawled up into the cherry tree to feast. Margot was on a platform built into another tree, cooing at a kitten she had brought up there for company.

The terrace was taken over by the grown-ups. Two enormous wooden tables and a motley assortment of benches, wicker sofas, and Adirondack chairs were dragged from every corner of the property to accommodate the stream of people coming in all bearing wine and beer. Mismatched, beautiful plates were brought out in huge heavy stacks and 25 of us feasted on roasted pork, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, and an assortment of salads.

Dessert was an ENORMOUS Pavlova, and huge piles of mismatched and elegant bowls were brought out, and everyone had at least seconds if not thirds.

Various unnamed people hijacked the kids’ stereo and we sang cheesy ’80s pop songs at the top of our lungs and corrected each other’s misheard lyrics and screamed laughing. One of the kiddies brought back fresh eggs from the chicken coop and we marveled at their warmth and there was an egg toss that ended badly for Cal and Jeremy.

Wine and stories were traded back and forth. Eva sang and played guitar, and I sang, and Dave played some great oldies on the guitar for us to scream to, and then we settled back into laughter and more stories.

Cal left early with Andy, and I shared a taxi back around midnight with Lu, Mu, Sam and Janet. It was raucous and when we got out, Sunday night in Montpel welcomed us back to its silent streets, little bits of songs and lost logic and we bade goodbye in the street and we all made it upstairs and into the correct apartments.

I think that rereading my journal from Rome has taught me that it’s up to me to seek and capture a magical life, which this weekend was the determined and successful start of. If New York is my first great love, and Rome is my one true love, Montpel is the one who you accept a date with on a whim, and you can’t get a taxi to the restaurant, then it’s closed and you go to another place and wind up getting some kind of food poisoning, and you lose your cell phone, and the kiss goodnight is clumsy, and you wrote his number down wrong, but you wake up the next morning and realize you had a really great time and he’s a really good guy.