Saturday, July 28, 2012



France celebrates its national holiday - Bastille Day - on the 14th of July. On this day in 1789 an enraged mob attacked the Bastille prison, symbol of royal power, killed its warden and, with the consent of the newly established National Assembly, burned it to the ground. The French Revolution had begun. 

Bastille Day Parade

Today, the event is celebrated with a huge military parade as some four thousand members of all branches of the armed and civilian forces march down the Champs Elysées, with hundreds of mounted cavalry, vehicles, flyover planes and helicopters, jumping parachutists and marching bands as part of the show. And an impressive show it is as it unfurls for several hours down the most beautiful avenue in the world before an admiring crowd of thousands of spectators. Here is the France that they feel proud of, the France of La Gloire, the France that helps them forget the shameful sell-out of General Pétain to Nazi Germany. These are the victorious forces of General de Gaulle, of Bir Hakeim, of battles engraved forever in the Arc de Triomphe. It is a proud moment, this Défilé Militaire which opens a long day of festivities that end with spectacular fireworks at the Eiffel Tower which this year rocked to disco music. 


Another July event is the Tour de France, a three-week-long grueling cycling race through flat and mountainous stages that include fearsome Alpine and Pyrenean passes, two individual races against the clock, and weather that can go from mountain snow to valley heat in the space of several hours. This year the Grande Boucle was nearly 3500 km long, starting in Liège, Belgium, and ending in Paris.

La Grande Boucle

The 2012 Tour was won by Bradley Wiggins who wore the leader's yellow jersey for most of the Tour. His team mate and fellow Brit Chris Froome came in second, which made this a solid victory for the Sky Team and a first ever for Great Britain.

Accidents do happen and are sometimes caused by spectators who get too close or a dog that runs into the cyclers' path. It's stupid and irresponsible and, given the millions of roadside spectators, almost unavoidable. But when someone throws carpet tacks onto the road, as happened this year in the foothills of the Pyrenees, it is clearly malicious and meant to cause havoc. Fortunately, no serious injuries resulted here.
Tour winner Bradley Wiggins

Doping scandals have long plagued the Tour de France, and this year again saw two riders (out of 198) expelled for positive drug test results. Seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong was disqualified from participating this year because of unresolved doping issues in the United States.

The Tour de France has a fervent kind of following that cuts across age groups and social classes, and many a French fan can cite past Tour records and winners the way Americans can spout baseball statistics. Live television coverage attracts millions of viewers worldwide, and numerous businesses (banks, insurance groups, telecom, mining, sportswear, broadcasting, the French lottery, etc.) sponsor the competing teams, while "official suppliers" eagerly hawk their products all along the route. It's a BIG business. That background hum you're hearing is not just the whine of fast-spinning wheels but the singing of cash registers as well.


This sign on a church door in Aix-en-Provence stopped me in my tracks. It reads: "The Church of St. John the Baptist will be closing for the summer. Last Sunday service on 21 July. Next service on Sunday, 12 September." I knew the French have long holidays. But the Church?...


The first serious summer fire has just claimed four lives and 23 wounded in the Franco-Spanish border area of La Junquera. The fire was fanned by very strong northwestern Tramontane winds that made the intervention of firefighting planes and helicopters impossible. The heavily travelled border-crossing highway between the French city of Perpignan and the Spanish town of Figueres was closed for hours due to thick smoke and stranded cars that were abandoned by people fleeing the approaching fires. The deaths occurred just off the French coastal road near Port Bou where people had left their cars to run down a steep hill toward the sea. A father and his 15-year old daughter jumped off a cliff to their deaths to escape the flames. Their bodies were found the next morning but the mother who jumped as well has not yet been found. Another French victim died of burns, while a Spanish man died as the result of a heart attack as he watched his house burn down.

Flames leaped sky high during the night and could be seen all the way from Barcelona, 150 km away. According to Spanish press agency EFE, the fire was caused by a poorly extinguished cigarette, which - helped by strong dry winds - was all it took to torch the bone-dry countryside which had just experienced the dryest winter in 70 years. Four days after this initial spark the fire was finally declared under control on both the French and the Spanish side, after 14000 hectares had been burned.


The French daily La Provence has published a full-page article on a large feline that was recently seen in the Hautes Alpes de Provence. Five witnesses have reported seeing a black animal with a long tail and yellow eyes, which they thought might be a panther or a puma. One man in the small town of Oraison spotted the big cat drinking from his swimming pool. As he tried to photograph it, the animal sprang across a dirt road, leaving footprints of 8-10 cm in diameter in the mud. After studying the footprints, experts have ruled out a dog or a wolf but have so far not confirmed that it was a panther.

Black panther?

The mystery recalls the incident near Marseilles in 2004, when the entire National Park of the Calanques between Marseilles and Cassis was closed to the public for three weeks in mid-summer while a track was organized to capture the panther that turned out to be a large black cat. Ridicule was heaped on the authorities, reminding them of the famous sardine that blocked the port*.

L'Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune has been presented with the evidence, but given its mistake in Marseilles in 2004 remains cautious and has not confirmed the black panther theory. Meanwhile Michel Vittenet, the mayor of Oraison, stands by his witnesses and is convinced that this time we're not dealing with a domestic cat but with a dangerous animal that may have escaped from a circus or been released by a private owner because it was getting too big.

"I would rather be ridiculous than regret a serious incident later," says Vittenet.  


The recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado, caused an American friend to send me the very telling statement below that, methinks, says it all.

(*) To read A Long Hot Summer about the Black Panther and the Sardine in Marseilles, see my book Taking Root in Provence.  Click here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012



The Rencontres Economiques d'Aix-en-Provence (*), a three-day annual meeting of international big players, took place on July 6, 7 and 8 this year under the banner: What if the Sun also Rises in the West... The New Global Dynamics. A wide range of subjects was discussed by representatives from the worlds of finance and economics but also politics, government and industry − among them Mario Monti, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Hubert Védrine, Mikheil Saakashvili (President of Georgia), Mario Draghi (President of the European Central Bank) and his predecessor Jean-Claude Trichet, Pascal Lamy (WTO), as well as professors from various universities including Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Harvard, Columbia and Princeton.

One memorable guest was Nouriel Roubini (NYU) who as usual did not mince words and painted a very bleak picture of the future. Many speakers had raised concerns about today's great imbalances, migration, out-sourcing, the role of government or industry or civil society in responding to the challenges of globalization, and of course about the crisis of the Euro in which they continued to have faith. But Mr. Roubini was unwilling to accept the "cautious optimism" that prevailed. What's there to be optimistic about? was his response. So last week in Brussels Angela Merkel finally agreed to use the European bailout funds to recapitalize struggling banks. Et alors? You have been talking for ten years and never took the necessary measures that would have avoided today's crisis. And now you are patting yourselves on the back because you took a tiny step back from the brink? Yes, that was his tone, and in case you still did not get it he predicted that Greece would leave the Eurozone in 2013, that others may do so later, and that the current situation is a slow-motion train wreck if we don't take drastic action in the next TWO WEEKS! Moreover, he sees a global perfect storm gathering and when it hits it will be worse than the 2008 financial crisis.

Nouriel Roubini in Aix-en-Provence

Doomsayer or prophet? It seems hard to believe his gloomy scenario, but we should remember that Roubini saw the American housing market's collapse coming long before it did and that he accurately predicted the financial crisis of 2008. 


So what can we do? Well, if we only have two more weeks before things go to hell, I say Carpe Diem and hie for the opera. Our season got off to a great start with Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (I liked it, the Parisian press did not) and Charpentier's David and Jonathan conducted by Franco-American William Christie (I loved it, the press did too). We also saw the opening production of the theater festival in Avignon, The Master and Margarita, based on the once-banned novel of Mikhail Bulgakov, directed by English actor/director Simon McBurney and performed in the magnificent Cour d'Honneur of the Papal Palace.

(The press: Masterpiece! - Me: Too long and convoluted, but saved by the fantastic special effects and the unique setting).


This year we celebrate the centennial of the birth of Jean Vilar (1912-1971), founder of the Avignon festival, who in his day was not universally appreciated but has achieved a god-like stature since. His dream of bringing great theatre to the people was looked on with suspicion, in particular by some Parisian intellectuals (read Sartre) who interpreted Vilar's notion of popular theatre as theatre for the proletariat. With stubborn perseverance and some savvy soothing of southern and northern sensibilities, Vilar (who was born and raised in the Mediterranean town of Sète) managed to reassure his detractors and open his first "Avignon" in 1947. Four years later he was named Director of the famous Théâtre National Populaire at the Palais Chaillot in Paris.

Actors loved him and he is credited with forming one of the best acting companies ever, with Maria Casarès, Jeanne Moreau, Philippe Noiret, Michel Bouquet and of course Gérard Philipe - all of whom played with him in Avignon. Today in its 66th season, the festival has grown beyond Vilar's wildest dreams and come to include a number of foreign directors (a third of all "In" plays this year are performed in a foreign language with French surtitles), and many original and avant-garde productions. Vilar famously wished the theatre to be considered a public utility, just like gas and electricity. The month-long artistic effervescence in Avignon with its thousands of devotees seems testimony to the fact that culture, including popular theatre, is indeed an essential human need.

We have four more operas to go and as many plays in Avignon as we can pack in before the end of July and hopefullly before Mr. Roubini's predicted blowup.


Another blowup − although one of lesser consequence to all of us − is the end of the Strauss-Kahn-Sinclair marriage that was announced by AFP and the French daily Libération on July 2nd, just days after the Strauss-Kahns had sued French gossip magazine Closer for invasion of privacy when they published a similar claim. Sources close to the couple have apparently confirmed that after 20 years of marriage Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair have been living separately in Paris for nearly two months now. 

This is another setback for DSK who is still facing serious legal problems in France and the United States. Although Sinclair's decision to leave him seemed predictable and inevitable, I confess to a pinch of pity for this brilliant modern-day Icarus. I know, I know, it's his own fault, and yet... This must be what the Stockholm Syndrome is like.

(*) For more on this Economic Forum, click here:

Monday, July 2, 2012



Summer means Opera in Aix-en-Provence. Six operas are performed here during the month of July (two world premières), and this year Master Classes for Voice, Chamber Music, and Direction (mise-en-scène) are held three times a week from mid June throughout July as part of the opera program. Also this month, the town of Orange presents two operas as well as Mozart's Requiem, all staged in front of the majestic backdrop of the Roman wall of the Théâtre Antique.

Opera in Orange

It's heaven for those who like opera, but for those who don't there are many other musical offerings in the area, such as Les Nuits d'Istres with the great Jessye Norman who will sing jazz, blues and gospel, and artists such as Gilberto Gil and George Benson.

In Marseilles "Jazz from the Five Continents" presents saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the band Earth Wind and Fire, and more. The Roman arena of Nîmes hosts Bob Dylan and Elton John, as well as the English group Radiohead, and the tiny island of Gaou just off the Riviera coast features Sting, Gossip (remember the fat girl at the Cannes Film Festival?) and Ben Harper.

Piano festival in La Roque d'Anthéron

This year, the international piano festival in La Roque d'Anthéron will pay tribute to one of its favorite and more frequent performers, pianist Brigitte Engerer, who was expected to play again this year but who died on June 23, 2012 at the age of 59.


Music lovers are particularly well served with summer festivities in Provence, but the most popular of all events may well be the annual Theatre Festival in Avignon (*) where during the sole month of July more than 1000 plays are produced in venues ranging from the vast courtyard of the Papal Palace to little makeshift theatres for some 30 spectators.

Palais des Papes, Avignon
Here you are likely to see big stars − most recently Jeanne Moreau and Juliette Binoche − in the major theatres at night, but also plenty of young talent during the daytime "Off" festival who may become tomorrow's big names. This year's Associate Artist is actor-director Simon McBurney, the first Englishman so honored, who will open the season at the Palais des Papes with The Master and Margarita based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov.

To give you a little taste of these festivals, here's a chapter from my book Taking Root in Provence:


The Opera Festival in Aix-en-Provence is the local highlight of the year, and as opera lovers we consider ourselves fortunate to be living here. The fun starts in early June when about three dozen young musicians arrive from all over the world for Master Classes—an honor they have won in an international competition. These master classes are open to the public and are a wonderful opportunity to see up close the hard work and the difficulty of the art of singing, cello playing, violin, piano, etc. Some of our past masters have included Isaac Stern for violin, Teresa Berganza for voice, and Pierre Boulez for percussion and conducting, but every year brings an interesting new crop. Some of the young singers may perform in the chorus of the operas to be performed in July, but all will give recitals and concerts in one or more of the lovely squares and courtyards in the old center of Aix in the evenings. A €15 “passport” gives access to all master classes and concerts during the month of June as well as to some dress rehearsals.
            The serious excitement starts in July with the opening of the Opera Festival. Six operas are performed throughout the month in four different locations, and the city literally fills up with opera lovers. Hotels are full, as are restaurants and the terraces along the Cours Mirabeau—the Champs Elysées of Aix-en-Provence.
            With a bit of luck you run into stars, but you don’t need any luck to see famous faces in line at the various venues. I have made it a habit to have dinner at one of the two outdoor restaurants on the Place de l’Archeveché before the opera. With my tickets safely in my pocket, I can take my time to eat and watch the crowd gathering while I savor my dessert. I am sure to see current or former government ministers, well-known newscasters and other famous faces of politics and television, and even Gérard Depardieu with Carole Bouquet. Most of them have summer houses in the area and the air snaps with air kisses as they find each other and thrill at seeing and being seen.
            Opera tickets go on sale in early February, and living steps away from the box office you might think that getting tickets is a cinch for us. Well, not quite. There are  a limited number of inexpensive, subsidized tickets that sell out fast, and in hopes of getting any of these you have to get up early. Very early (*). When Oscar got in line at 3:30 in the morning (the box office opens at 10:00 AM) he was number sixty-five in the queue, and when I replaced him at 7:00 AM the line curled around the block. I recognized a number of stalwarts from previous years and found the same convivial atmosphere of shared hardship in anticipation of our reward. Some people sat on little stools wrapped in blankets, others in heavy coats with woolen scarves halfway up their faces stamped their feet to keep warm, some read, others chatted. Snippets of family life floated on the still night air, and once in a while some lucky “liner” would be relieved by a mate and allowed to go home and to bed.
            Surprisingly, people seem to be getting up earlier every year and this time there were two couples who had camped out all night with folding chairs and sleeping bags to be first in line the next morning. Perhaps not unusual for a rock concert but this is a crowd of retirees with many a grandmother among them. Tough little grandmothers who will wait stoically in the February night for seven to eight hours so that they can get tickets for themselves or a beloved grandchild at the affordable price of €28 (approx. $40). For those of us who buy everything, i.e., all six operas, these inexpensive tickets are manna from heaven.
            Around 9:00 AM “breakfast” appeared in the form of trays of croissants and hot coffee, tea and orange juice, offered free of charge by the Office de l’Opéra to the chilled ticket line. It thawed the frozen crowd and sparked a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation. The end was in sight, the prize within reach, and the ordeal almost over. Another long night had been offered to the opera gods who would soon reward our devotion. Murmurs of “See you next year” were beginning to be heard and all of us bound for a night by our shared passion for opera were soon to disperse for another year. Perchance to meet again at one of the performances, where with a knowing wink we would proudly pat the “cheap” ticket in our pocket before finding our places among the expensive Orchestra seats. We can’t suppress a secret feeling of superiority over all those who paid full price, before we sit down to enjoy Wagner’s Walkyrie with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (no less), or Mozart, Monteverdi, or Janacek. Forgotten the long wait in the chilly night. What long wait?!

(*) Today some tickets are sold by telephone and Internet.

(*) To read the chapter about the Off Festival in Avignon featured in Taking Root in Provence, click here.