Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mais Oui: A Culture of Contradictions


AIS-EN-PROVENCE, France -- At the Musee National Picasso in Vallauris, where the master painted War and Peace on a chapel ceiling, photographs are forbidden. Visitors must check bags. But one tourist shared the chapel’s wonders with his toy poodle, tucked under his arm.

The museum’s exhibits were well lit and beautifully displayed. In high-heeled leather boots, one of the guards looked straight off Paris’ Champs-Elysees. But the seats had been removed from the men’s and women’s toilets.

To an American visitor, these might seem jarring juxtapositions. But then, this museum is quintessentially French.

In our more than four months here, my wife Kathy and I have found this to be a culture of sometimes startling contradictions.

Nowhere have we encountered greater courtesy than in the stores, cafes and casual encounters in the sunny city of Aix. Stop by Monoprix, a middle-class department store in its midst, and the counter clerk would sooner sell us a ripped shirt than ring up our purchase without first saying, “Bonjour monsieur et madamer,” fixing us first with a warm smile. It’s the same elsewhere. Face to face, the French of Provence are gracious, warm and embracing.

But in the anonymity of their cars, the Provencaux turn ferocious. I live in Boston, America’s rotary capitol, and I was trained for combat driving in the madness called Manhattan. But I turn with trepidation onto narrow mountain roads here. I’ve had French drivers hug my bumper at 40 and 50 miles an hour, either bursting past on “straightaways” a block long or forcing me to pull onto the shoulder to let them through. On the single-car wide lane where we live, drivers play a different game of chicken. When I hesitate as they bear down, they keep coming, stopping nose to nose, a few feet away. Then one car – well, mine – backs up, teetering on the edge of a ditch or under a hedge while the other inches past. (I have heard there are rules of etiquette on such narrow lanes – men back up for women; younger women for older women; and younger men for older men …. Perhaps I look really young for my age?)

Questions of pace are equally perplexing. Mealtime is sacred. Food must be eaten slowly, one course at a time, with plenty of time to digest in between. We’ve learned that evenings demand a choice: One can eat, or one can do something else. Because from appetizer to after-dinner coffee (typically course four or five), dinner takes three hours

In a hurry? We’ve managed a single-course lunch in 90 minutes, the last 30 reserved for smiling and waving a few fingers for the check every few minutes as the waiter walks by without a glance our way.

Given the pace of cuisine, one might expect the French to wait patiently for a concert to begin or a line to move. One might, but one shouldn’t. The other night, the Flamenco performance we attended began 15 minutes late. After five minutes the audience began clapping rhythmically. A second and third round of clapping, each louder, followed before the show began.

And these little outbursts don’t compare with the experience of getting on a French ski lift or a crowded bus. It’s a little like trying to escape through the single door of a burning theatre.

Peter Mayle, who has chronicled all Provencal, describes the idiosyncrasies of French impatience in his book, Provence A-Z: “It’s odd, this urge to save a few minutes, since the normally easygoing people of Provence are not noted for hurrying. My theory is that it has something to do with … a fierce joy in overtaking, whatever the conditions – a competitive instinct that is always there, whether on four wheels or two legs.”

And then, alas, there is the nagging question of “facilities” in a country where the perfect look is nearly as important as the perfect meal. Perfection does not apply to the plumbing, however. Not close.

Our second week in France, we stopped with a French family in an expensive, refurbished mountain cafe. The renovators had forgotten one thing. The old-fashioned stand-and-stoop toilets remained.

Our acquaintances were embarrassed. Such ancient facilities, they said, should be relegated to the past. But even in Aix, with its picturesque shops and people who not only dress well but, as Kathy notes, almost “in costume,” that has yet to happen. Walking through the Saturday market here -- with sparkling stalls of green, yellow and red pepper; bins of fragrant and pungent spices; and shoppers dressed in flowing, colorful skirts, scarves knotted just so, makeup applied to perfection -- is sort of like walking through a Hollywood set. It is a place of sparkle and elegant sensuality. We’ve learned, however, that choosing where to order coffee in the crowded cafes lining the market squares requires strategy. If nature calls, the wrong choice of where to sit can mean no seat at all.

Undoubtedly, like the 35-hour work week, this way of life will soon vanish. I may miss those topless toilets on future visits. But at the Musee National Picasso, in the village of Vallauris, I collected my camera and knapsack, said goodbye to the guard, and looked for a more modern W.C.


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