Wednesday, October 24, 2012



The annual Fête du Livre has just concluded its four-day celebration in Aix-en-Provence, this time under the banner of Bruits du Monde. From October 18-21, four writers from China, Hungary, Israel, and Spain discussed their work that despite war, exile or censure has found an international audience. The books of Yan Lianke from China, Peter Esterházy from Hungary, Juan Goytisolo from Spain, and David Grossman from Israel all auteurs engagés resonate with their views as critic, satirical or otherwise, of the society that surrounds them or banned them. Israeli David Grossman, who is known for his pro-Palestinian stance, was particularly compelling in his even-handed and articulate response to the challenges of a conflict-riven Israel that claimed the life of his only son.

This encounter, as much about geopolitics as about literature, was a thought-provoking occasion to appreciate the spirit of resistance and the triumph of art over adversity.

The event ended with an homage to Carlos Fuentes, guest of honor at last year's Fête du Livre, who died in Mexico City in May 2012 at age 83.


Throughout the 1990's the city of Bordeaux underwent an extensive urban renewal with spectacular results, crowned in 2007 by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In early October I finally had a chance to pay a long-overdue visit to Bordeaux to see for myself.

The first thing that struck me was how pedestrian-friendly this city is. The large historic center of town was not only beautifully restored but also largely closed to traffic and set aside for pedestrians. The banks of the Garonne river, which used to be crowded with dilapidated depots and docks, were transformed into airy spaces of landscaped walkways and promenades as well as a much beloved Water Mirror which floods and drains itself with 2 cm of water at regular intervals, a delightful feature during hot summer months. In-town public transportation is assured by a sleek-lined silent tram, and cars are routed along large avenues that skirt but never seem to traverse the pedestrian-only city center. In Bordeaux the din of urban traffic with its attendant pollution seems to be a thing of the past.   

The neoclassical Grand Theâtre which houses the local opera and ballet companies, has been restored to its former glory including the twelve life-size sculptures of muses and goddesses along its roofline. We managed to see the magnificent gold-and-blue interior as well when we found last-minute tickets to a delicious production of Donizetti's opera The Barber of Sevillle.

Bordeaux Grand Théâtre

Opera House interior

Yes, Bordeaux was a pleasant surprise. With its splendid historic center, its large parks, its wide river banks reserved for bicycling, jogging, walking, picnicking, and of course its surrounding wine country and famous chateaux, it is today one of the most attractive places to visit in France.


Biarritz, some 100 miles south of Bordeaux, is the largest seaside resort along the Atlantic coast known as the Côte Basque. It started life as a whaling village but as whales disappeared from the Gulf of Biscay, so did the area's principal means of living. It revived when in the late 1700's doctors began to recognize the therapeutic value of sea baths in the area and patients were soon joined by tourists and even by Emperor Napoleon I and Josephine in 1808. When their nephew and future emperor Napoleon III married a local girl in 1854, he built the magnificent Villa Eugénie for his bride on a promontory overlooking the sea (today's Hotel du Palais). This sealed the reputation of Biarritz as the royal resort of choice, and during La Belle Epoque the city became a symbol of progress with a tramway, a salt-water spa, a casino, a concert hall, and a theatre where Sarah Bernhardt played to the rich and famous.

Today, Biarritz has lost its glamour of old but survives nicely on summer tourism and its renowned Thalasso spa. It is a bit more dowdy and seems less "Basque" than its southern neighbor, Saint Jean de Luz, just 10 miles down the coast.

Saint Jean de Luz

Though only about half the size of Biarritz, Saint Jean de Luz (population approx. 14000) is more dynamic, largely due to its thriving fishing port which provides an interesting contrast with the historic center where several stately houses from the 17th and 18th centuries still attest to its rich past, much of it created by shipowners and corsaires (pirates in the service of the king). Among the town's proudest claims, however, is the fact that future king Louis XIV married the Spanish Infanta Marie-Thérèse here in the church of St. John the Baptist. Although the marriage was contracted for state reasons it seems to have been a relatively happy one, as evidenced by a downcast Louis XIV who said at his wife's death: "This is the only time she has given me trouble". From the mouth of a notorious womanizer I suppose this is a compliment.

Stretch of beach at St. Jean de Luz

St. Jean de Luz is situated in a corner of the Bay of Biscay where frequent storms used to cause serious damage until in the 19th century three large dikes were built offshore to break the waves and protect the seafront. Every year some 50 tons of boulders are sunk to replace those displaced or swept away by turbulent seas. As a result, Saint Jean de Luz can boast one of the best beaches along the southwestern Atlantic coast which, along with its Basque-style houses, its exceptional church of St. John the Baptist, and its proximity to Spain makes it an attractive destination.

Basque architecture

San Sebastian

The third and no doubt the grandest seaside resort on our Bay of Biscay itinerary was San Sebastian/Donostia, a provincial capital of some 180,000 souls on the Spanish Côte Basque, barely 20 miles south-west of Saint Jean de Luz. Here we are in Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, a proud and independent place where Spain is strangely absent and only the Basque flag flies from government buildings. Many road signs and other directions are written in Euskadi only, a strange language full of k's and x's and resembling no other. A certain harshness or belligerence seems to speak to you from the banners on some windows or balconies, but soon these thoughts are wiped from your mind as you approach the bay.

City Hall -- Note absence of Spanish flag

A beautiful wide esplanade with ornate multi-armed Belle Epoque lanterns runs the length of the wide curvy beach, and some impressive 19th century "grands hôtels" still pay testimony to the days when Donostia (as San Sebastian is called here) was the choice of summering Spanish royalty and nobility. To this day, Donostia is considered the chic resort in Spain.

In 1813 a fire destroyed much of the old city and provided the impetus for building a new resort-style city around the bay, à la Biarritz where the new fashion of thalasso therapy was taking hold and drawing royalty. Later developments have included a huge Kursaal which holds a casino as well as a new-technology health center for water cures, and a large university with a modern campus. Recently, San Sebastian/Donostia was named (together with the Polish city of Wroclaw) European Capital of Culture in 2016, beating fellow candidates Burgos, Cordoba, Las Palmas, Segovia and Zaragoza.


Notwithstanding a recent decision by the French Supreme Court that found that bullfights where bulls are killed are constitutional in France, anti-corrida forces are having none of it and are organizing protests. In its edition of 20 October French daily Libération reported that 300 (police estimate) to 1100 (organizers' estimate) protesters marched in Paris to demand an end to the "torture of bulls". Forty Belgian demonstrators had made the trip to Paris to join in the march. An estimated 300 protesters marched in Nîmes, clad in black T-shirts that read "Corrida? Non, Merci!", and in Toulouse some 200-300 people demonstrated on the Place du Capitole to demand the abolition of bullfighting.

Various animal-protection groups have vowed to "keep the pressure on" until their demands are met. It seems that the legal response was not the last word on the matter. Or as they say elsewhere: "It ain't over until the fat lady sings". 


In my last blog I mentioned that the city of Marseilles "gave" France its national anthem, La Marseillaise. A correction may be in order, since the French national anthem was written in Strasbourg in April 1792 by French army engineer Rouget de Lisle in response to the declaration of war between France and Austria. He named his creation "War Song for the Rhine Army" in honor of his garrison. Several months later a group of revolutionary soldiers in Marseilles volunteered to join the Tuileries uprising in Paris and set off on foot while singing this war song. When they arrived in Paris on July 30, 1792 the stirring song caught on and was renamed "La Marseillaise". On July 14, 1795 it was officially designated as national anthem of France.

Rouget de Lisle, singing La Marseillaise

Tuesday, October 9, 2012



In my September blog I mentioned the spectacular performance of Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomás in the Roman arena of Nîmes which reignited the debate on whether bullfighting should be banned in France, as it had been in Catalunia in 2011. Following that ruling in Spain the French Supreme Court was asked to rule on the constitutionality of bullfighting in France and the Court's decision has just been announced. Les Sages (the Wise Men) have ruled that the traditional corrida where bulls are killed is indeed constitutional in France in those areas where this event has been a long-time local tradition. The practice had been condoned in the Penal Code of 1951, and since this tradition does not infringe on any right that is constitutionally guaranteed, it remains valid under the law, the Court said.


Every year in early October a week-long regatta is held in the bay of Saint Tropez where sailboats of different types compete. Crews from Australia, New Zealand, England, Italy, France, Spain and elsewhere sail everything from magnificent wooden three-masters dating from the late 1800's to today's latest fiberglass models all against the pretty backdrop of the red-and-yellow church of Saint Tropez (colors of Provence) and its attractive restaurant-lined harbor. 

Les Voiles de St. Tropez

Competition may be fierce during the day, but in the evening the mood is one of jolly camaraderie as the international crews of men and women (yes - lots of girls among the crews) fill the local bars. Tourists, paparazzi and showy yachts are finally gone, and French sailing enthusiasts are happy to fill the void and take back their pretty little town from the summer hordes.


The already less-than-pristine image of Marseilles has been seriously tarnished by a police scandal that erupted in early October. This ancient port city with its large immigrant population has long been plagued by drug-driven crime, and turf wars between rival dealers have claimed 15 lives so far this year. Le Grand Banditisme of old seemed to focus on bank heists and holding up Brinks trucks, which usually caused little or no collateral damage. These were the pros of the underworld, you might say, with a certain "honor among thieves". But lately a younger criminal element largely consisting of young men from the impoverished Quartier Nord is entering the picture, heavily armed and seemingly unafraid. Unemployed and unschooled, they made quick money as lookouts or messengers for the drug lords before they started to buy and sell drugs themselves. Where simple pistols were used before, machine guns (read kalashnikovs) are now the weapon of choice to settle scores among the various criminal groups that are claiming a share of the drug business.

A special police force, the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité), has been working for years, often undercover, in the most troubled areas of Marseilles, including the Northern District of the city which is known to be fertile ground for drug cartels, where a top dealer can make up to 100,000 per month. Despite increased manpower over time, the police did not seem to make any headway in this drug-infested Quartier Nord. No wonder. A week ago it was discovered that the men from the BAC had been sharing the take of small drug dealers all along. In a double ceiling of the BAC Nord police station a stash of drugs and cash was found, as well as stolen jewelry. It appears that after eleven months of an internal police investigation, which included hidden microphones in police cars where BAC members were overheard to discuss the splitting of their confiscated loot, the necessary evidence was finally in place.

Manuel Valls
Manuel Valls, Minister of the Interior, came to Marseilles to announce the first arrests last week and vowed to get to the bottom of the local police corruption. To date, seven members of the BAC Nord unit have been jailed while awaiting trial, and 23 others have been relieved of their duties, with pay, for further investigation. These 30 policemen constitute nearly the entire BAC Nord unit whose duty it was to fight drug-related crime and clear out the dealers. A black eye for Marseilles!

This second-largest city of France and its largest commercial port has always been a rebellious city and often at odds with the government in Paris. It gave France its national anthem, La Marseillaise, a revolutionary call to the citizens to rise up against the invading Prussian armies, which later became a rallying cry in the French Revolution. Since its founding by Greek sailors in 600 BC, the ancient city of Massilia has known many masters but has never been subdued for long, and today it continues to go its own way. The recent revelation of wide-spread police corruption, however, may have been one scandal too many and could provide Interior Minister Manuel Valls an opportunity to apply the drastic measures and zero tolerance he announced at his appointment by President François Hollande last May.


On October 2nd a French prosecutor in Northern France announced that the rape case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been dropped, but that the Court has deferred its ruling on the charge of aggravated pimping until November 28th. While the civil suit filed against him in New York is still pending, DSK is trying to get back on his feet and has decided to open a consultancy in Paris.

In early September he registered his international consulting firm with the Paris Tribunal of Commerce under the name Parnasse - possibly derived from the Montparnasse neighborhood he moved to after his separation from his wife Anne Sinclair. His qualifications as an economist and savvy international negotiator are well established, but it remains to be seen whether women would sign up to work for him. 


Always on the lookout for tasty bits of franglais I just came across another one for the records. In a recent article about a swimming meet, a local girl who lost was called a "loseuse".  Amazing how unacceptable the French version appears to be these days, when a perfectly adequate "perdante" would have done.  

Amazing also how the French, who have difficulty pronouncing English, insist on adding letters where they don't exist and dropping others. For instance, after my husband had had a brief blackout his doctor told him: "Open your heyes; open your heyes. Now squeeze my end." (... my hand, to you and me).   

Blue jeans are usually translated as "un jean" or spelled "jean's" in French. And a workout suit or sweat shirt becomes "un sweat" (pr. sweet). Who told them that?

(*)  To read more about Marseilles, check my book Taking Root in Provence by clicking here.