It's still pretty chouette here
A woman chasing joy in pandemic France - first in a series of dispatches.
What is France without her Michelin-mediated restos, her sun-dappled cafés, her dauntingly-comprehensive museums (you Louvre-lovers know who you are) and enchantingly idiosyncratic collections (see the corkscrew museum and walnut museum), her Liberace-esque palaces and looming chateaux-forts, her ski lifts and concerts and movies and theatre and sons et lumières?
This is the elemental question—asked more or less politely—by everyone who learns of the eight months I’m spending in pandemic France. The answer is simple:
She is gloriously still France.
D and I arrived in Montpellier the first week of January for his university sabbatical. He’s working, and I am enjoying the freedom of being without a job (for the first time in 40 years). A lovely small city-cum-university town in the south – close to the Mediterranean, and two hours from the Spanish border—Montpellier combines pretty much everything I’ve ever dreamed of: a medieval center of narrow pedestrian-only cobblestone streets filled with beguiling shops; an easy 8-mile bike ride to the beach; palm trees; and 300 days of sunshine a year. To a gal raised in Michigan’s endless winters, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Under Covid, the late afternoon sun still lights the stone walls of unremarkable little towns causing them to glow magically. The rows of plane trees—not yet in bud here—that line the roads coming into each town look like something out of an Impressionist painting. The carousel is still running somewhere in every village, the kids screaming as they try to capture the brass ring as they circle past.
French men still look inexplicably confident in yellow pants, and the women are intimidatingly chic: I watched a shop owner close up her store in a narrow pedestrian street—how can she be so graceful bending down in a tight leather skirt to reach the lock at the base of the door?—and then, in her skyhigh Louboutin black pumps, mount a bike with a giant delivery crate ahead of the handlebar and elegantly peddle home before curfew.
This is still a culture of flirting; masks may hide the mouth, but not the interest or query in the eyes. On our first foray out of the apartment we headed for the wine store, bien sûr. Still groggy with jetlag, still fumbling to retrieve whatever French I had retained from previous trips, I’m not completely positive, but I think that the owner of the store shared the history of his prior marriages and divorces (3-4 of each, if I was getting the numbers right) to lay down the primer in case I was interested in having an affair. There was nothing threatening about it….more like a fishing expedition. Conducted, I might add, within earshot of my husband.
From my apartment windows I watch the square below me. When a homeless person approaches someone there is always a conversation. And I mean always. Whether money or food is exchanged or not….words are exchanged. Sometimes many of them. D has watched passersby stop to provide and light cigarettes for people on the street. Our American habit of rushing past the person whose need feels threatening to us is not the French way.
Covid or no Covid, in France, you still engage with the humans around you.
Similarly, while pretty much everyone presumably has a cell phone, when you see people together—whatever their ages—they talk to each other, without a phone in sight. And for a country that is so aware of appearances, I almost never see anyone taking a selfie. The amateur sociologist in me wonders if the focus here is on experiencing the presentation, rather than capturing it and editing and saving it for posterity? (Hard to think of Snapchat as posterity.)
The food is still dazzling….you just get it for yourself, rather than paying a really professional waitperson to bring it to you in a restaurant. Montpellier’s Saturday morning marché, spread out below the limestone arches of the old aqueduct offers everything you need to eat for a week, from frothy displays of truly enormous organic lettuce (while much in France—including the people—have always seemed smaller to me than our US versions, their lettuce looks like it escaped from the props room of Little Shop of Horrors) and fruits and veggies grown no further from me than Spain, 120 miles away, to glorious, heart attack-courting cheese stands and to D’s favorite, the chicken stands.
D’s colleague took us on a reconnaissance tour of the chicken purveyors on our first trip to the marché. The colleague gestured at a squarely-built fellow standing behind a small refrigerator case neatly displaying dozens of birds, all taxonomically identifiable through their different heads and beaks.
“This guy is good: bio [the omnipresent word for organic], from the Cevennes [provenance counts in France] and he kills the chickens himself.”
We moved down the row of stands, and the colleague cocked his head dismissively at another array of dead birds.
“This guy,” a shrug, raised eyebrows, “I don’t really know anything about his chickens.”
After the colleague departs, we screw up our courage to purchase a fresh whole chicken. The best guy’s options have been winnowed down from a case full of unfamiliar species of fowl to a couple of fine-looking chickens. We point and roughly communicate that we are prepared to produce money to obtain a particular chicken.
“You want the head and the feet?” the fellow asks.
D and I quickly confer. No, we have no idea what to do with the head and the feet. A hatchet instantly appears and is decisively wielded and voilà, no head, no feet. It turns out chickens also have rather long necks, since that came home with us. Who knew? D has observed that bio French chickens, as bespeaks animals that really are free-range, have very long drumsticks. These birds walk.
I’ll save pastries and bread and wine and cheese for another day.
There are virtually no other Americans here in Montpellier. Between Brexit and what the French call, with lip-smacking satisfaction, le variant anglais of Covid, there are no Brits, either. Like many travelers, I don’t like feeling like a tourist. On previous summer trips to France, it was pretty obvious that I was just one of thousands of pasty-faced English-speakers flooding the south of France. Now I don’t ever hear English spoken on the street. It’s easier to nurse the fantasy that I’m blending in.
When I read a municipal poster on the street -- Tenir ensemble (We're in this together)—I feel that I am part of the ensemble.