Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Lingering signs of tradition; hints of change

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, May 26 – Continuity and change.

The signs – on billboards, bumper stickers and store names – can be seen across the South of France.

From Secrets Dessous, this city’s lingerie store that whispers of “Secrets Beneath,” to the 2,800 poems advertised by Chris of Cassis on all topics from romance to heartbreak, there are abundant signs the French still take quite seriously their responsibility as the standard bearers of amour.

We’ve seen that on the rotating billboard we've passed daily for four months on our walk to downtown Aix. A few months ago, in the early weeks of spring, it featured a young, scantily clad, woman leaning back. Avec moi, pas d'abstention -- “ with me, no abstention” --read the words below. By late May, on the eve of the holiday of Pentecost, the fifth and last French school holiday in the month, the same billboard featured a leggy, long-haired blonde in flowing white dress atop what looked like a wooden, carrousel horse. This time the words – vive les mamans sexy -- seemed aimed at a slightly older set: mothers. But the message hadn’t changed much.

Perhaps such signs should not surprise in a culture in which young men and women pass each other on the sidewalk and, in mid-stride, plant a kiss on both cheeks, a culture in which a middle-aged couple seated at our table at a town festival in the village of Venelles suddenly began kissing passionately in mid-main course and the grandmother ahead of us in the butcher shop line wore miniskirt, orange headband and silver heels.

A warning triangle in the back window of a high-end Peugot sedan in the tony village of Lourmarin seemed to sum up both the country’s passion for and humor about all things sensual. It alerted others that the driver stopped suddenly – for women in high-heeled shoes.

But if some things remain the same in the South of France, there are signs others are changing. Frenchmen, it might be argued, love their dogs nearly as much as les femmes. Enter a restaurant, bar or café and you can expect to find a cuddly Newfoundland curled in a ball beneath a table, a golden lab nibbling du pain from his master’s outstretched hand, a French fou-fou cuddled under papa’s arm.

Those days, however, are rapidly becoming as endangered as the 35-hour French workweek under the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The signs are subtle: a new breed of triangular warning signs has cropped up in several stores and restaurants here in recent weeks with a sketch of a dog, a line drawn through it: No dogs allowed.

This is quite shocking in a land in which canines have demanded – and been granted -- their share of egalite. But as more dogs are left at curbside, they at least appear to be exhibiting more grace than French students, angry at rumblings of change in the higher education system.

No protesters here. Just yesterday, outside Aix’s best butcher, the Boucherie/Charcuterie du Palais, a young husky, no leash or collar, stood patiently for awhile, ears perked, awaiting his owner. A new sign – dogs forbidden – had been taped to the window.

Inside, the human line moved slowly. And so, after a few minutes, the dog lay down, crossed his front paws in front of him and rested his chin on one, a bit sad perhaps, but accepting of the inevitable winds of change.

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