“Ils font une fête dimanche.” Those are the words spoken by our landlady on our way to dancing rétro. It’s what they call ballroom dancing here. We had just driven past a dance club, but she decided there were not enough cars in the parking lot, a strong indication in her view that the band was not very good. But she was quick to add that there would be a big party at this place on Sunday. When asked what was the occasion, she simply responded there was none. So such is the ease of life here in Provence, along the Mediterranean. So we continued our journey across Toulon to Seyne-sur-Mer to a different ballroom with expectations that the orchestra would be a better one. And we were not disappointed. We arrived at the dance hall about 3:30 in the afternoon. The hall was packed. Obviously, this is not the working crowd; they were mostly gray-haired folk like us. There were many couples for sure, but, like our host, there were many unescorted ladies for men without partners. The music had a distinctive European flair, dominated by the accordion with fewer brass horns. The popular dances were samba, tango, rumba, rock (swing), cha-cha, Viennese waltz , Paso Doble and merengue. Popular dances also included line dances European style (la tarantella).
The style of dance was different as well. Practically all the waltzes were Viennese; dancers glided across the floor in a fast-moving tempo. The quick-step was also popular, a fast-moving foxtrot. The other dances were more measured. Though line of dance was lacking; the dancers typically moved within a confined space, their dance movements more closed and controlled. Watching them dance reminded me of two of my favorite Renoir paintings, The Dance at Bougival and the Dance in the City. Melanie and I are accustomed to the Arthur Murray style of dance as taught by our dance studio, Dan O’Day, that includes larger steps that travel across the dance floor accentuated with expressive body movements and, depending on the dance, wide outstretched arms. Only one waltz (They call it le Boston) was played at the moderate tempo, and although we do not do the quick-step, we did manage a couple of foxtrots, and we squeezed in a couple of boleros, foxtrots, cha cha, rumba, and tango. All in all, we had a grand time. We’ll go back next week with our host to a different dance hall and dance the afternoon away.
But dancing is certainly not the only fun activity we’ve had. We’ve been feted to wonderful evenings of dining with friends. Last Saturday evening we drove with Gabriel to Brignoles for dinner at Karine Tournier-Sol’s family. Karine was the exchange professor from Toulon two years ago. The pouring rain made the drive less pleasant, particularly in the dark, among the rolling hills. Laurent and Karine’s three children, Lucie, Noé and Tom are just delightful (Tom, the youngest, is missing in the picture because he went to bed early). The next day, Sunday, the winds (le Mistral) were howling. But that did not prevent us from taking a walk along the coastal cliffs, which was interrupted by a posted sign advising us of soil erosion and deteriorating conditions. So we had to abandon that journey, but we’ll try again in a different location, perhaps next week. The cliff walk abandoned, we took a casual stroll along the beach where we watched a game of pétanque, a very popular game played mainly by men, similar to horseshoe, and of the young and athletic, wind surfing.
Sunday was also election day. Melanie and I were amazed at the large numbers of people walking on their way to vote. We learned later that 69% of the eligible voters participated. If only we can have that caliber of interest in the United States!
On Monday, we explored the neighborhood, walking downtown, visiting the small, but very nice park in the center of town. A circular small path in the park offered several exercise stations, several of which we tried. During our trek homeward, we walked through a wooded garden and followed a path up a hill that ostensibly would lead to our apartment. Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn that led us back to the main street in town. Next time, we’ll hopefully choose the right path.
Tuesday, we explored an old Roman village, Fréjus, about a hour and half drive from where we live. We had a lovely day exploring the old parts of the village but were disappointed to find only vestiges of Roman ruins. On top of the old ruins of the ancient Roman theater and arena, the city had built modern steel and metal structures that were not aesthetically pleasing. However, we could take comfort that these places have been repurposed and continue to retain their original functionality.
Underneath the arena, we were able to walk through the passageways where placards told the stories of Roman times. We also visited the Episcopal Group, the collection of buildings (the church, the cloister, the large baptismal fount with its Corinthian columns, the cathedral) that housed the bishop and served as the center of the diocese. Most impressive was the archeological museum attached to this conglomeration of buildings. This small space had beautiful stone and marble sculptures and a representative collection of ancient decorative and household artifacts
In Fréjus, we were surprised to see hordes of police downtown, particularly around the town hall. Our curiosity piqued, Melanie asked a vendor at a local boulangerie why. Apparently, the far right wing party, the Front National, made significant gains in the elections and the police were preparing for any troubles that might ensue. Though we stayed the majority of the day, things remained calm; there were no demonstrations, at least from what we could tell. Here in Le Pradet, in the mayor’s race, the right won, displacing the current mayor, much to the chagrin of our landlady whose political persuasion is on the left. As she related to us, the right is not good, but the far right is worse (in her words, pire).
Wednesday, we lunched with a friend at her home. Marie-Hélène is the former university librarian who came to IUSB in 2000 as a Fulbright Scholar. Also invited was the current head of the library, a delightful and charming guy. In my academic career, I’ve never met a head librarian with whom I haven’t good relations. Generally, I find that librarians have a genuine openness to others and a friendly demeanor; and, they are fascinating people with inquiring minds. In the afternoon, we toured the Asiatic Museum here in Toulon. For a small museum, it had an impressive collection of Asiatic art and artifacts dating centuries before Christ up to the late nineteenth-century. We thought the Chinese collection of jade and ivory artifacts was the most impressive. It was a wonderful way to cap off a lazy afternoon.
Thursday’s activities are captured in the opening paragraphs. Friday we spent a lovely evening with Jacques and Daniele Martin dining on Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops) on a bed of creamed leeks, ratatouille and lamb chops, followed by the requisite cheese plate. Dessert was a delicious serving of vanilla ice cream topped with grillotines, a small tart cherry in liqueur. We arrived at 7:30 and didn’t finish our meal until 11:45pm. But no complaints here, a sumptuous meal and great conversation aided by exquisite regional wines and tasty cheeses made a perfect evening à la française.
To cap off the week’s events, we spent the afternoon at La Sanary-sur-Mer beginning with lunch at Le Bar d’ô overlooking the Mediterranean. Melanie and I both ordered salmon dishes but prepared differently. She had salmon prepared on a plank over a hearty serving of lentils, and I, marinated smoked salmon with fennel. Sitting on the sunny terrace with beautiful Provençal homes on one side of us and the expansive blue horizon of the sky and the sea with the wind slightly blowing were moments of unparalleled spiritual peace. I feel so fortunate to be here, but more on that in a later blog.
Time is passing so fast I’m wondering if we should have scheduled three months instead of two. I say to our friends here that we’re fast becoming Provençal. The weather here has been ideal – moderately warm days and cool nights, so unlike the cold weather and snow that continue to assault northern Indiana. Perhaps spring will arrive by the time we return to Granger.
This is Melanie in italics again. I wanted to add a few things.
In the cloister in Fréjus, there was a wooden ceiling, which we had never seen before and along the top of the wall there were dozens of plaques of wood that had been painted with scenes of daily life from the 12th century — scenes of devils, animals real and imaginary, a woman washing her hair, people working. Beautiful colors were illustrated in a video, though of course, they had faded on the real plaques. A really unique artistic look at that time.
We’re really impressed with the parks here. The one in downtown Le Pradet, in addition to having the exercise course, also has a huge aviary where there are all colors of parakeets and related species and a large gazebo where we speculate that marriages are held in good weather. (Many people here get married twice — once in the church and the obligatory civil ceremony at the Mairie afterwards on the same day.) There is also the ubiquitous monument to the citizens who died in the “Grande Guerre” 1914 . Even in little towns the list is long. But here in Le Pradet there was also a list of sailors who died in the Second World War. As we looked at the list it became apparent that all of them had died on the same day or a day after in August of 1944. This history lesson was about the “débarquement” of the Allies in Southern France.
In the park on the sea coast in Toulon we saw 5 or 6 matches of pétanque, a skateboard course for kids on scooters and bikes too, two huge trampolines for little kids, basketball courts being used, the activities on the ocean that Alfred described, lots of dogs being walked, people sitting in- and outside in cafes and restaurants, soccer balls being kicked around, cyclists, families with strollers and lots of people out for a stroll. Lots of facilities for the young and old and lots of people taking advantage of them.
One more comment about the Asian museum in a lovely old house on the coast which belonged to the son and grandson of Jules Verne. The city runs this museum and you can go for free. Most of the artifacts were brought back by sailors from Toulon who had been in Southeast Asia or other Asian ports. A history lesson also of the town and it’s opening to the world because of its position on the Mediterranean.