Cannes: the City of Promises

There are two high seasons in Cannes: the first is the brief manic intensity of the late spring film festival. The second is the much more protracted, but only marginally less insane, summer period.

It seems that in the same way that swallows find themselves with an irresistible impulse to migrate south in September, for about six weeks from the middle of July onwards vast numbers of human beings from across the world acquire a similar incomprehensible urge to head to Cannes. The result is an extraordinary and frequently chaotic flock of cars, people and dogs.

Cannes, you see is more than a tourist destination. (In fact as a tourist destination it isn’t terribly wonderful: there are a lot better locations around the Mediterranean.) No, Cannes is more than that: it is a place of pilgrimage; a very secular version of Jerusalem, Rome or Mecca. You can see people standing on the seafront gazing around with a look of wide-eyed wonder at the palm trees, the yachts, the cars and the stores with names like Gucchi, Chanel, Cartier and Armani, and on their faces you can glimpse that expression of accomplishment that says “Yes, I’m here!”

Part of the almost mystical attraction of Cannes is that it holds out promises to those that make the pilgrimage. One promise is that here you can be who you ought to be. Here, the whispered offer goes, amid the sun, the palm trees and the yachts, your dream becomes the reality. You can too can be wealthy, famous and honoured. Not for nothing is Cannes twinned with its equal in fantasy, Beverly Hills. Here, the promise goes,  you will walk with the stars. (Actually the stars are for the most part hidden away behind high walls and barbed wire in exclusive villas miles away; they want you to buy their music and watch their films but they just don’t want you too near to them.) To see your image reflected in the carbon-fibre bodywork of the latest Bugatti is to acquire second-hand something of the glamour that you know you really deserve.

Yes you too can buy a handbag with a masterpiece on it for €5,000.

Another promise is that here you can have what you ought to have. If you have the money Cannes is a consumerist heaven. Here you can hire a Lamborghini, rent a helicopter or charter a yacht the size of a frigate. You can buy handbags, shoes and or a jacket for a month’s salary. You can buy breakfast at the Carlton Hotel for the price of a good three-course meal in a fine UK restaurant. Thankfully however Cannes does not alienate those with lesser incomes. There are coffee stalls and sandwich places which even in these devalued days of the pound (yes Boris, we know who to blame) are no more expensive than those sold to those shivering on some rain-swept British beach. And there are very good free beaches, even if they get so crowded that you feel you need to apologise to your neighbour when you turn over.

The final promise Cannes makes is that here you can do what you want to do. It is a place characterised by self-indulgence. Here, mild-mannered, well-behaved citizens of impeccable morality throw restraint to the wind. Straightlaced clerks from dull offices in Paris take selfies of themselves with idiotic grins in front of some Saudi princeling’s Ferrari. Prim mothers from Belgium lie on the beach in front of passing thousands wearing a only a bikini bottom the size of a handkerchief. Sober German bankers wander around wearing lurid shirts and eating icecream. People flaunt tattoos of all sorts on all parts of the anatomy written in bad English. This encouragement of self-indulgence is so pervasive that many people feel that normal rules no longer apply and quite happily park straddling pedestrian crossings.

Of course all these promises are illusory. But briefly in August Cannes is full of those who dream dreams. Us? We just live in hope of finding a parking place when we go to church. As they might say in Swansea “There’s dull, we are.”

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Les Médiévales des Arcs (part 2)

As we mentioned in a previous blog, we are doing a run of three on the biannual medieval-fest at our neighbourhood town of Les Arcs-sur-Argens.  It was colourful, photogenic and, hey, it’s August.

Anyway as we said last week, this was the whole medieval experience: or at least the Middle Ages as we prefer to think of them in the south of France; good-looking squires, elegant wenches and a cheerful peasantry with not the slightest thought of a revolution, all doused in an abundance of sunlight and rosé. Apart from the band of lepers there was little hint of the fact that in reality life was nasty, brutish, short and generally flea-ridden.

“Unclean, unclean!” a remarkably clean bunch of lepers

One of the central features was a procession from the camp at the edge of the town into the market. Because in the south of France we don’t do things in a regimented fashion it was all somewhat loosely managed. Not exactly chaotic but you got the feeling that no one really knew what was about to happen including the organisers.

Some debate about which way they’re going next, the man on the right is a local police municipale

Clearly too the word medieval was not tightly defined. So the procession included a king and queen, assorted knights, Saracens, lepers, medieval peasants, dancers, jugglers, sheep and so on. There was a rather fine dragon, various ghoulish characters on stilts, some rather alarming dancing skeletons, an extraordinary set of gargoyles that could have given the average small child nightmares for a week and a number of unpleasant creatures that should really have been captioned “based on an original idea by Hieronymous Bosch”.  At one point there was also a gendarme who was probably trying to impose some sort of order on the event.

King and queen, with bodyguard behind

Gargoyle

And did we mention the dragon?

One interesting omission was the almost total absence of nuns, clerics, abbots, friars, monks etc. Clearly the French attempts to erase religion from popular culture – la laicité -actually works backwards. It was also interesting that most of the French soldiery appeared to be dressed for the Crusades. For some reason or other there seem to be no references to the mediaeval wars that we Brits are used to: Crecy and Agincourt are clearly not popular in French history.

One other interesting phenomenon is worth noting. Whereas in Britain you would have to have paid at least £10 a head to get into the centre of a medieval pageant even remotely approaching that of Les Arcs, this was entirely, completely and utterly free. There was not even a charge for the car parking. Probably underneath it all the town, the Department, the Region and ultimately the state paid a lot to make this happen. Anyway, whoever did pay, much thanks!

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La canicule

We will continue with our pictures from the Les Arcs medieval weekend but we’ve had a number of people emailing us asking about the heatwave – la canicule – and how we are doing. The impression one gets from some of the concerned emails is that the British press at least is portraying the Côte d’Azur as some sunburnt, charred and devastated landscape: a sort of Mordor with the heating on.

It’s been tempting to respond along the lines of “yes it’s been terrible; we had to put ice cubes in the rosé, we’ve run out of suntan lotion and it’s been murder trying to use a computer in the swimming pool”. But we do appreciate the concern.

Actually it hasn’t been too bad. Yes the temperature has hit 40°C (104° Fahrenheit) on one or two occasions, but it’s a dry heat which means you don’t sweat. Keep lots of fluid in and don’t do anything silly and it’s fine. It’s not even particularly unprecedented: heatwaves down here are not uncommon although this is the worst for ten years and nowhere near as bad as the annus horribilis of 2003 where France alone saw over 15,000 extra deaths.

There is in fact a fairly well established routine for heatwaves. You go round at 7 o’clock in the morning opening all the windows and doors in the house and let the air that has been cooled overnight get inside. Then a couple of hours later you go round again and shutter up everything, thus trapping the cooler air inside. We also been helped because we have a new extending blind on the balcony which keeps the sun’s rays off the walls of the bedroom.  And we have three air conditioning/heating units downstairs which actually we have rarely used this summer. The bedroom has been just about manageable at night, where temperatures have come close to 30°C, by us opening windows on both sides, shifting air through with the fan and us sleeping under nothing more than a sheet. So we have been managing but then we did survive Beirut in the days when there was no air conditioning, and while the temperatures may have been the same the humidity was far worse.

Our house with the new blind extended . Taken on 14 July, hence the flag!

But things have got very dry. The ground is cracked and has the texture of concrete. All grass everywhere is now a pale parched brown and at midday the landscape looks bleached. A lot of plants are looking distinctly unhappy.

Looking towards our house and Taradeau

Not wanting to use the motorway on Saturday – it’s the season when stretches of the French autoroutes seem to compete for which can have the longest traffic jam – we headed up inland to Lac Sainte Croix hoping that at 500 metres altitude temperatures would be a lot cooler. In fact it was still 40°C there and the air actually felt hot when you breathed it in. Nevertheless, the lake was splendidly refreshing and there was shade among the trees at the edges.

Someone who found it very warm on Sunday was Alison because she preached at Cannes. For those readers who struggle over the phrase “she preached” you could rephrase that along the lines of “she taught under the joint authority of her husband and the Minister”. But she did very well and will doubtless be asked back.

As a closing note, the word canicule is a fun one.  It goes back to Latin for “dog days” and it’s widely assumed that it refers to periods when the temperatures are so high that you see dogs panting away like expiring vacuum cleaners. In fact it’s more subtle. It refers to the period that begins when Sirius – the Dog Star – appears to rise more or less at the same time as the sun. And with various adjustments the “dog days” can range from 3 July to 11 August or from 30 July to 7 September.

On Tuesday however we actually had a minute of heavy rain. Perhaps the dog days are coming to an end.

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Les Médiévales des Arcs (part 1)

One of the small towns near to us is Les Arcs (strictly Les Arcs sur Argens to avoid the careless Satnav user ending up here instead of Les Arcs the Alpine ski resort). Although the lower part of the town is pretty drab the upper part is a wonderfully preserved medieval quarter full of narrow twisting narrow lanes flanked by high, ancient houses and crowned by a tower. In the mid 1980s some people from Les Arcs were inspired to start an association to bring some of their history to life through plays and pageants. Over the years this has expanded into a biannual festival which this year took place over four days, taking over not only the medieval part of the town but the whole of the centre and main street, earning attendance figures that must have run into many thousands.

One of the squares in the medieval part of town, with a stall selling willow baskets

It’s the whole mediaeval experience and those truly involved in it wander around in allegedly authentic mediaeval garb. So there were squires, Saracens and sorcerers dressed with the sort of detail that extended to accessories, including leather sandals and waistbags for your money. (We did note however, how wonderfully convenient the medieval leather drawstring purse is as a smartphone holder.)  Mind you this being France, the Middle Ages that is evoked is curiously stylish, outstandingly elegant, scrupulously clean and inauthentically devoid of rustic smells. Even the peasants seemed freshly showered.

Smartphone, backpack and medieval dress

There’s a big market, selling everything you need from swords to wimples and from maces to potions, a camp complete with 12th century type tents, cooking pots, an alchemist, an armoury, and even a leper’s camp on the edge complete with lepers bearing authentic-looking sores. In the old town you could find all sorts of craftsmen and artisans demonstrating hand-thrown pottery, fresco painting and writing on parchment. Troupes of musicians, some of whom doubled up as dancers and/or jugglers, entertained the crowds, occasionally with the use of slightly anachronistic amplification. And of course there was plenty to eat and drink, some of it cooked on spits or roasted over huge fires. And did we mention the farm animals, the horses, the processing gargoyles, the figures of dancing death and the dragon?

So in Les Arcs the present yielded to the past and so here’s a selection of pictures from the market and the artisans. Because it was so visually interesting we took lots of pictures, so we’re going to run this over three weeks. Next week, the procession, and finally, we’ll get to the knights and the sword fights.

Leather sandals, belts, purses and that all-important drinking horn

Donkey’s milk and snail slime as beauty treatments really do seem medieval…

Everything from (wooden) swords to headdresses

Pottery workshop

A  sobering note however was that in a nod to the state of emergency there was an extraordinary level of security which involved every entrance to the central area being blocked off by security staff, in places, strategically placed council vehicles. Connoisseurs of irony with a sense of history would have noted that a medieval town fortified against the Saracens had now once more become fortified. Plus ça change eh?

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Incendies

We were going to post a series of photographs from the bi-annual Fête médiévale at our neighbouring village of Les Arcs, a spectacular, colourful and well-attended event. All being well, we will blog on this over the next couple of weeks but instead we need to talk about the event of the week, which has been the sad and widespread fires in our region. We mentioned in spring the concerns, given the low winter rainfall, that this would be a bad summer for fires and these have proved to be justified.

There haven’t really been any fires particularly close to us, although we have been able to see the smoke from some of them 20-30 miles away along the coast. We could hear and see the water bombers flying over us throughout the days of the fires. (Click here to see a video clip of them picking up water from the sea.)

Smoke from one of the fires taken from just above Taradeau. Our house is at the near edge of the brown (non-vineyard!) area to the right of the photo.

Two things are worth mentioning about the press coverage. The first is that the region is a very large one – PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) is one and a half times the size of Wales –  so that the fires have been only on a very small percentage of the area. The second is that fires near holiday beaches (“Hell comes to Paradise!”) make for spectacular imagery in what is a quiet news season. Nevertheless a number of firefighters have been injured, some badly, and the damage to property and the environment is enormous. All being well, with careful management, the environment should recover, but it will take some time. We’ve included some photos we took in spring when we walked through the site of last year’s big blaze near Correns. The lower vegetation was coming back, but the trees will take much longer.

Someone had left their old camper van in the woods…

Some of the causes of the recent fires are straightforward. Too many people down here, including some who wilfully ignore the excellent fire regulations. At least one fire was apparently caused by an open barbecue, something banned for the summer period. There may have been arson, say the police. Climate change is also probably a contributory factor.  Also interesting from an environmental point of view is the fact that the decline of agriculture in this region – it simply doesn’t pay enough in what is one of the most expensive parts of France – has given rise to the spread of forests over abandoned fields. A distinctly wacky view has been aired by one mayor: namely that it’s all  to do with the wolves!  He reckons that the rising wolf population has scared off shepherds and stopped grazing, allowing reforestation. Sorry M. le Maire it’s just economics.

More positively however the scale and frequency of forest fires has actually decreased also over the past few decades, due to better prevention and intervention.

As we write this the fires appear to have died down. Nevertheless, we still have August ahead of us and it’s unlikely that any of the firemen are going to be taking a holiday. On the other hand, some of the ‘African’ bird species that we get here seem to be enjoying the hot conditions. Below is a European Roller in one of the very dry fields near our house.

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Dunkirk etc…

We have just been to see Dunkirk or more precisely Dunkerque on the big IMAX screen at Toulon. It was in French of course and we confess to failing to follow some of the dialogue. Despite an over-clever structure it was certainly very impressive on the big, big screen with the floor-shaking sound effects. With lives that have included being shelled, shot at, bombed, and in Chris’s case escaping Lebanon in the hold of a cargo ship, we can vouch for some degree of authenticity.

Dunkirk is an interesting event because the Vichy regime who ruled France under Nazi control painted it as a betrayal of France by the British. In return the British were happy for Dunkirk to be considered the result of French incompetence and cowardice. Although neither allegation is true, accusations like these linger over the years and the French press in particular has had to explain the background to the film.

Animal Symbolism 1: A grasshopper re-enacting Dunkirk in our swimming pool. We rescued it.

Behind this is the interesting way in which Britain and France have differed in how the Second World War is treated. At the risk of grotesque oversimplification the British have tended to look back nostalgically on the Second World War as a heroic, glorious confrontation between good and evil in which Britain came out bloody but triumphant. In contrast the French have no such memory of the Second World War as being the glory days. For them the war was marked by the appallingly sudden fall of France and then the humiliating and evil puppet regime of Vichy. Yes, there was the heroism of the Resistance and the very important French contribution to the liberation of Europe, but overall 1939-45 was a messy, ugly war for France marked by defeat, occupation and betrayal. The result was that, with the war over, France chose to largely ignore what had happened and instead looked to the future. (Tellingly, there is no official French history of the Second World War nor is there ever likely to be.)

Animal Symbolism 2: A tortoise depicting the current UK Brexit negotiating position in the road by our house. We rescued that too.

The repercussions of these differing views continue to the present day. Shaking off the troubling war, France chose to identify firmly with the creation of a new Europe. Britain, still focused on the past war they won, instead stumbled blindly forward through the loss of empire into a future that only tentatively involved Europe. And that of course ultimately has spilled into the current Brexit debacle. Indeed, in the current debate one does hear voices speaking of “the Dunkirk spirit” and Britain “going it alone”. History can cast a very long shadow.

 

 

By way of contrast and apropos of almost nothing the lavender is out on the high plateau and we thought it would be a nice idea to include a picture.

A field of lavender by Lac Ste Croix with the Gorges du Verdon in the distance

 

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Special anniversary edition!

We apologise for the brevity of last week’s blog. The reality is that we had been in the UK visiting Chris’ parents in their nursing /residential home. Among other things we have tried to set Dad up with an iPad so it’s just possible he is reading this: Hi Dad!

Anyway this week was what we are now calling our “anniversary week”. Remarkable as it seems we have now had three years of residency in France, having arrived at Les Courmettes on 12 July 2014. It’s been an exciting, challenging, exhausting but endlessly stimulating time and no, there are no regrets whatsoever. In some areas we have done more than we could have dreamed of; in some areas less. Some things have turned out to be much easier than we imagined, others far more problematic. In some ways we now feel very much at home here but then you come across some piece of French slang or an obscure piece of legislation that everybody knows about and you find yourself totally baffled and somewhat humbled.

Faced the appalling slow-motion multiple pileup that is Brexit we are, like many Britons here, counting the days until we can apply for citizenship. The current rule is that you need five years of residency unless, as is perfectly possible, M. Macron rewrites the book. So our anniversary date is not simply a looking back but looking forward. Mind you, of course, a lot can happen in two years.

We were going to have a day out on Tuesday to celebrate but after the best part of a week in the UK we had a lot to do. Also with the temperatures between 34 and 36 degrees (mid 90s for you Fahrenheit people) a protracted exploration didn’t seem all that attractive. So we stayed at home working but we knocked off early from the computers et cetera at 4 o’clock and then took the fast road to Sainte Maximine where we cut through the suburbs to avoid the traffic jams caused by everybody trying to head west to St Tropez. (First-time tourists sometimes talk excitedly about “taking the St Tropez road”; anyone who’s ever experienced the reality at this time of year shudders at the very phrase.) However if you go east rather than west, as we did, there are a whole string of very pleasant little beaches and we were able to get to the one at La Nartelle within 40 minutes of leaving the house.

It’s not a bad beach with a fine view of the Esterel mountains and the water was absolutely lovely. Lurking at the back of the beach is the tilted and rusting remains of a Sherman Tank inconspicuously commemorating the fact that this was one of the landing spots in 1944.

It’s fun to think we can get La Nartelle from the house within 40 minutes. After a swim we drove on down the coast to the very popular Saint-Aygulf to get a meal and then home.

Along the coast

More sandy beaches

Yes we did enjoy ourselves and it’s nice to think that after three years down here the honeymoon has still not worn off. Yet it raises a deep and profound question: if we can do this sort of thing at the end of the workday why would we want to go on holiday?

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