Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Return p.1 - Back to Business

I just dropped back into my other worldly existence. The skies were full of sun, blue. It seemed the sea was too. Some pink flamingo’s just off the shore then immediately, the runway. Boom. We landed and with that this life lived temporarily began again in earnest.

The immediate idea is the paperwork, grab on to the social security net and let that support me awhile. In the meantime I can find some menial labor here or there to fill the holes that are inherent in every net no matter how finely they may be stitched. Luckily France has as finely stitched a net as perhaps anywhere in the world. They lay it out for everyone, even for the likes of me.

The work though is to weave yourself through the multitudinous layers of official levels that string this net together. Each bureau, consulate, minister, society or administration has its own degree of superfluous weight that it is forced to carry just so that it can seem more necessary, official, and weighty than the actual sum of its functions. It leads to much bluster and confusion. My terrible accent though sparking curiosity, doesn't help any and I am passed around like a joint at Woodstock.

I need to get to the Assedic, the Caf. the MSA, the CCAS. You see I need to sign up for the RMI, CMU, perhaps HLM or any other allocations that will keep me from becoming an SDF.

The return p.2 - At the RMI bureau

It's a folly this world of papers Francaise. I arrive back in the little bureau / basement apartment for what has become my weekly rendezvous with Mme. M. I descend the stairs as usual and arrive in an empty office. I guess the one good thing is that there is never a wait. I’ve never seen another person in here. The office is barren of souls save Mme Montserrat’s. Though on one occasion I did see the long gone maintenance man and his wife haunting about.

Mme comes out and I notice her face fall a bit when she sees it is me. She tells me to wait a bit and crosses across the waiting room (the ancient living/dining room) into the kitchen. She begins fiddling with the hot water tank, evidently trying to get it to work. I sit and watch her for a few minutes before speaking.
“problems with the heat?” I ask.
“it won’t come on, and It’s cold in here”
“yes” I respond “these basement apartments are damp and cold on a day like today”.
You have to hear that just as sounds when I say it in French.
“Oui, il fait froid et humide dans les aparts sous niveau. Specialement sut les journees comme aujourd’hui.
Short, direct, curt almost, and with an american accent as thick as your local qwickie-mart man.
She turns and says nothing, evidently aggravated by my reference to her place of business as a basement apartment.

I get up from my seat to go over and have a look, it seems obligatory. The fact of it being a question about the functioning of a hot water heater and me being a man, her a woman. Never mind the fact that I know nothing about their operation - you see my predicament. I couldn’t just sit there watching.

She explains that normally she just turns the thermostat and voila, the heat arrives, but today no luck. She opens and closes the cover to the control panel once again. She stares at the three dials, one button and two flashing lights - one yellow and constant, the other red and intermittent. I join her with my stare. I then re-turn the button which she just turned. I say something inconsequential along the lines of “these things are always breaking down” and then, add that perhaps she should burn the cardboard cartons in the long abandoned fireplace behind the chairs in the waiting room.

She cracks her gum. She has all the chutzpah of a big american city welfare worker, but with just a little bit less of the hard edge they carry and that she seemingly aspires to. But it’s a little village here and well, that edge is hard to come by without having been brought up under its tutelage.

“How about this button” I proffer as I push the only button that is there.
“I don’t know what that’s for
“Sometimes that will work” I add with de rigour’ manly confidence.

She looks at me with her pretender bad ass look as all the lights go out. Then in the next instant I can see that it immediately goes soft as the yellow light pops back on. Then the machine clicks, then the gas ignites. At each rapid fired event she outwardly maintains her bad ass office bitch look while it simultaneously melts from her eyes. I gesture her gallantly towards her office, “ it should be warm in a little while”.
I see clearly that Mme. M will be helping me today.

High on the mountain

Some days there is nothing to do here. Or at least nothing gets done. It’s profitable to remember your myth and carry on even if that means climbing up the road to Roqueronde to score some high grade local product. You know it’s not the best thing to be doing with your scarce resources and borderline state of mental health. You persuade yourself that at least it gets you out of the house and into the exterior world. It does. The road that climbs up the mountainside is only less dizzying in relation to the descent, but there is almost no one else on the road and the views down into the cirque below are spectacular in all senses.

They said in the provinces, on the out lining edges of the empire, that the land was sunny and cheap. The way of living was easy and one could eat from a table of plenty. In a way that was all true. But there are other truths they didn’t talk about. They didn’t talk about the solitude and despair of distance, and so neither will I, but only because they both seem best out-fitted in silence. It’s just to say that whether your going from JFK to Charles de Gaule on air france or from Rome to le Gaul on the via Dominitia, your home is a long way away.

The ride up the hill was a success. We met on a road above the forest. We talked, smoked, then hunted down some mushrooms. Cepe du chataigne, not the top, but not too bad either, and they were plentiful, lightly toasted brown colors, sometimes with streaks the color of dried blood red. The ride down was like a private carnival ride of grand scale. There are moments when we forget ourselves, and the petite psychological pains we nourish.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Do you have something better than first class

It’s funny the little things that we don’t realize we need until we have them. It’s all part of the weight of being rich. This access to a world of extreme material comfort. The ways of ease we have at our disposal are so many. But it never seems enough.

Slowly an item, once deluxe, becomes commonplace, then a necessity. Then we begin to feel need again. It’s a vicious cycle, and it is this I speak of when I say the weight of being rich. Perhaps this weight is the reason Jesus spoke about how it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. This access to more can have grave negative effects.

It’s a dilemma, this fact of living with so much. Mind you I am not complaining - just explaining - and only because it has happened again. I must tell you too, that by modern western world standards, I am a poor man. What’s even worse is when, forgetting the other 90 percent of the world population, I begin to believe it myself.

I came back from the states the other day to my home in France on the Newark to Paris Flight. Yes, already the needles eye is shrinking, but it can always get smaller. I had come in for a party in Manhattan, at the university of my deceased father. It was a big fete in his honor and it was five days of food and drink and family without end. I imbibed them all just to the point that I could no longer keep it all inside me, and the next day I left.

As I was getting on the plane, and here I tell you I am also rich in that I am neither grossly disfigured or mentally debilitated, I chatted with one of the flight attendants who evidently took a shining to me. Through a series of maneuvers she got me bumped up to first class. Being a member of the working leisure class I had often walked through this section of the plane, but had never spent any flight time in its confines.

I can tell you now it is so much better than being cramped in the back. There is a seat that folds into a bed, a full screen movie monitor in front of you, and a stewardess literally at your beck and call. You watch a movie, eat dinner, have a cocktail and go to bed. You wake up comfortably as a soft spoken attendant opens your window shade onto a new day, a hot towel at the ready, “orange juice, coffee, perhaps an espresso?” Do you have enough of everything, if not, just ask.

For the first time I walked off the plane rested and feeling good. I had always felt good just having the luxury of flying back and forth as I needed, but that was before. Now, rich man that I am, I have a new need.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hanging by a wire

My story is unraveling. It has become much too confusing. The trajectory has just taken a turn for the worse. I should have known the story would turn like this, they always do. Sure there is the one or two that don’t and they’re held up as the model that is looked to, but look at the untold numbers following that model. Statistically it’s a very long shot. But that’s the seductive nature of the model, it’s so attractive it refuses shear logic; or the clarity of numbers.

The whole thing just peaked out, the gradual slope upwards just ended, I hit the peak at 1:48 pm on may 14th 2007. I had just spent the morning in the vigne. It’s like a guardian angel that I refuse to listen to, it’s always gently whispering in my ear when I listen. It always has something to say about the beauty of consistent action. The rows, up and down, back and forth, put up one wire, put down another, move to the next. Pause at the end of each row, regard where you are, what you have done, what needs to be done next. All the while earning your daily bread. I mean really what more can I want.

The work is as mentally focusing as a word jumble on a crowded plane. It’s the one repetitive job I’ve done in the vine that isn’t physically debilitating, that doesn’t consistently pick at one tendon or muscle in your body until it swells, aches or both. It’s just like taking a hike in a beautiful spot, only you have to stop every three quick strides at a metal pole, attach the hanging metal wire on the middle hook (that was taken down last month) and detach the metal wire on the top hook and let it hang down (to be hooked back up in two weeks). There are twenty hectares that need to be tended, two people, 25 hours each. It’s a lot of walking , but really not tiring, except for the fact that I can’t stop looking at it like work.

So today we started, and after a week off that was full of sun and fine times, at 8 am the skies were threatening. By ten the threat had been made good and we where in the rain again. At first, I don’t mind, it’s not cold and the rain is steady but light. The vigneron, with the first drops goes to his truck and pulls out the rain jackets. He has to force one on me with his constant offers of an extra lying in the truck. My laziness often passes into stupidity, if one can’t come inside when it’s raining, at least put a raincoat on, and if the coat has a hood, why not wear it. The vigneron, like a good mom, keeps telling me to use the hood. In any case in an hour, my pants are soaked, the last row of the grenache finished, and I gladly agree when he says “let’s have a coffee”..

At first when we got in the truck, I was expecting a thermos, which he often ports after lunch, but instead we start driving and I realize we’re heading up the road to his mother’s house. It appears the morning is over. I am always overjoyed to leave work early, even more so when it’s unexpected. It’s the same level of excitement I had as a kid when a snowstorm would cancel school in the middle of the day. We’re going to wait it out at her house, and if it keeps going I may be done for the whole day

I can use the money in a bad way. I am down to my last 700 increasingly faible US dollars from the last stint in the cab and I have 275 euros cash here - total. Even the 8.27 per hour for a few hours is starting to seem like big money, but like I said, I’m an addict to that ecstatic feeling of things being canceled, and having more time to do nothing. I have the same excitedly sleazy feeling as I had on Friday afternoons cutting out of the history of film class at the state college to kill that time at the pinball arcade. It was so strong, this attraction to laziness that even when I wanted to watch the film they were showing in class I would duck out. I’m a creature of repetition, even when it means my own demise.

“Don’t worry about the shoes” she says as I start taking off my muddy boots to enter the house.
I’m happy to see mrs. S. again. She is exactly as you would wish your french mom of the vigneron to be. She clucks at us to sit down and let her make us comfortable. She frets whether we are chilly or need dry clothes, she offers hot drinks of any sort as she puts out some cookies on the table.
“Christian get some slippers for him” she insists as I wash up in the sink.
She rubs my shoulder saying “oh you’re all wet, do you want a dry shirt”. I insist I am okay and she tsk’s at me, wagging her head lovingly at my stupidity.
It’s one of the few places in the french world that I feel wholly comfortable, happy, at ease to be.

“Ah, the weather is terrible” she says and I quickly add, thinking of the afternoon off, “yeah, and it looks like it is going to be this way all day long”
“That’s what they said on the forecast”. the vigneron adds. I get a rush of hope at these words.

As we drink the coffee and chat about this and that, the rain slows, but as we finish it recommences with renewed vigor. “If the weather doesn’t stop by noon it will rain all day” he proclaims. It’s 11:20, the morning is now officially finished, and as we have another cup of coffee, we all seem to silently agree that the whole day of work is probably over too. The talk turns to the forecast for the week, and the weather patterns in general.

I am sitting at the table as they describe again with a quiet pride the intricacies of the local weather and it’s particular patterns. The focus is on prediction, and the signs one can count on. At one point after pooh-poohing her son for his prediction of a hot summer because of the rainy springtime she says matter of factly, “If it is windy for three days after the feast of St. Mathias, it will be windy for forty more days”. Her son talks about the rain and the wind and the effects on the new vines, the weight of the water and the speed of the wind acting together to rip the new shoots from the vines. They go back and forth discussing weather trends and grape production.

She has watched the weather, and it’s subsequent effect on the vines, first with her father, then her husband, and now her son, from that little village on the side of the Larzac Plateau, in great detail. When she says “It always rains the week during the feast of St. Fulcran” (the patron saint of Lodeve) or “even though the Pentecost is in late may, it’s nine times out of ten chilly” I thoroughly believe her, who else would know. It seems to me it would be like not believing an indian chief when he says it looks like it will be a cold winter.

I am riding the wave of good feeling listening to them talk and knowing I will be heading home soon for the day. At 11:45 the vigneron says “well, I guess that’s it for the day, do you want to head back to your car”.. I feel the happy calm of a shot of morphine coursing through my vein, as I try to say unexcitedly
“we might as well, we can get at it tomorrow”.

I head home to Lodeve to eat with the kids on their lunch break, we are all feeling good about the weekend of fun just passed and they are riding too, the coats of my lazy mans freshly found day off buzz. We are all feeling good. At 1:40 my cell phone rings, I see the name of the vigneron on its screen. I quickly realize it has not only stopped raining but that the skies outside are markedly clearer. I answer the phone reluctantly.
“Hey it looks like its going to be clear this afternoon, do you want to come back to work”. I stutter something out, and then say with conviction, “oh, it’s still raining here”.
“Really”. he responds.
“Well just a little”.
“I know you’re in Lodeve, it’s your call, you don’t have to come in if you don’t want to” he says. I can think of no good reason to say no, but that is my goal, so for a while I just stutter away in incoherent french. Something about already showering and attacking it early tomorrow, and “I would but...”
“Well I’ll be out in the vines where we left off whatever you decide” I can hear his voice register a bit of disappointment but I stick to my guns, and then try to explain to my kids why I don’t feel like going to work even though I am always broke and have nothing to do at home. They look at me as I would imagine the vigneron would have looked at me had we been talking in person. They go back to school, I take a nap for an hour.

When I wake at 3:00pm I am rested and ready to go, but it is too late to go back to work, and I have nowhere else to go. I head into the other room of my tiny apartment and turn on the computer. I check my empty email, and then surf through some porn on the web before deciding to watch a quick pirated episode of the soprano’s before attacking something productive. It’s almost midnight when I’ve finished the whole fourth season of the sopranos series before I decide it’s time for bed. Work starts at seven tomorrow.

43.66° North - 3’ 75” East

Greetings from 43.66° north latitude, 3’ 75” east longitude.

Or to put it more romantically - the South of France just west of Montpellier. The sole problem with romance being that it really works best in the abstract. Once I moved here with the wife and two kids, the abstract, for the most part disappeared. And though the sun here does shine colors quite particular - shades that often make one (and that one - on - to be exact, in this case, is me) take notice, carrying out the daily chores as a stranger in a foreign land almost always trumps a romantically setting (or rising) sun. It’s the life of an immigrant as opposed to that of the tourist, and like any good immigrant anywhere, I’m out of my language and place and culture. Consequently I’m poor.

And I’m only telling you this because when I moved here and traded in my 3000 square feet of living/working loft space in modern metropolis chicago usa for the 60 square meters of stone village house in pre-historical languedoc france, where I live now. I was forced to trade quite a few other things too. But that is always the immigrants story, its always about giving up all the things that are most important in the life, the close family and friends and language and culture and ingrained rhythms of life, just on some romantic hope that somewhere else things are better. And this I’m telling you not to gain any sympathy or allegiance, but merely to give you a context for my tale.

Because you can see, that unlike many migrants escaping destitution, or war, or famine, I ended up here for some other less tangible, more abstract reason. So in a sense the giving up is even more rending, because it was done with volition. Or is volition just a part of the romance. It all was just a spin of the wheel - just a chance, and this time the ball stopped here, under the sun in the south of france. Double zero green just seems less likely than another. In truth it could have been 26 black. Just a different spin of the wheel while driving my cab on the streets of Chicago and instead of picking up, and then marrying a French woman, it could have been someone from Ohio. And my lament of expression would radiate from Cleveland.

But ah yes! the south of france, who can begin to describe the extreme variety, the subtlety, of the looks and tastes that one has access to at this degree and hour. And if it’s all chance, the push and pull of tides outside our reckoning (and what immigrant hasn’t uttered the forlorn words ‘what am I doing here’) what good luck has fallen on me, to be stripped of my romance in such a romantic place.

I guess what I want to convey is the day to day of actually living, which is so often often void of any romance, and yet which can simultaneously expose the roots on which the romantic myths of this part of the world feed. This part of the world, along the Mediterranean coastal region has been tracked, and traversed and inhabited since prehistoric times.

The 450,000 year old “Homme de Tautaval” and his people lived 35 minutes down the road from the village where my family and I live now. I don’t know if the Homme de Tautaval had any wine in his cave or not, but when the villages here were acquiring their present day form, circa 9c. - 12c. A.D., the viticulture had already been active in this area for more than 1500 years. It still is, and it is breaking my back.
The south of france, languedoc roussillion, l’herault. Layers of human history

Le homme de tautaval. Greeks romans and carthegians, visigoths and vikings, sarecens, cathars, inquisitions and crusades. Crossroads. Castles and keeps, artists and troubadours, knights, sunlight and seas. It all sounds so romantic, and I guess it is.

It’s what pulled all those folks here in the first place. But what do you do once you get here. It’s one thing to just be passing through, like Hannibal, you can see the scenery and taste the local flavors, and then move along where you’re going. But what do you do when you stay here, when you live here.

When the retiring roman legionnaire moved from his Latin speaking homeland and set up in Narbonne 150 AD he had the same question. The questions of the stranger setting up shop in a foreign land. It gets you thinking about what it means - to live. It seems made up less with the big ticket events of our memories and self myths, than with the quotidian business of the everyday.

You know - Going about your business. Arranging papers, making schedules, moving about, in short trying to make your daily bread, and that’s bread like in a buck, a george, a piece, a note, a Dollar.

That’s the point of this portal. It’s in english. In this case of the american species, but others too will arrive. This portal will be le vie locale for those who want to see it with english speaking eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It's another regard, it's why we all are here, huddled around this big man made lake filled with red water, volcanoes and inundated villages. This backwater region that began with vines and housing developments and constant invasions of foreign tongued people and has never really changed.

They all came with different desires, but never-the-less they came, and they have never stopped coming. Now we have come too. Here we are - dans l'herault. In a sense you could say that we are all just passing through. Locals and new folks alike. Intruders into an already existing society. In any case we’re all in it together.

So now we’ll open a small corner of the lacsalagou were you can find out what the life looks like with an invaders eyes. I mean speaking english, never mind being from england or america or ailleurs, you arrive with this. English. It’s the lingua franca of our days. And like any good invader, it has a keen eye for the riches. Vive le nouvelle pax romana baby.