Saturday, March 28, 2009

Artists in Tarascon

Just over a year ago, the Artist and I noticed that someone in our street had opened what looked like an atelier, or gallery. There were paintings on the walls and a man could be seen in the back painting on an easle. It was like a reconstructed scene of the life of Van Gogh in a TV documentary (I know I keep going on about Van Gogh, but he was local). We were intrigued, as we have always talked about opening an atelier on the ground floor of our house. Anyway one day, as I walked passed on my daily walk with Molly and Ralph the man came out onto the street and he introduced himself to me as Francis and said that he had heard that my husband was an artist and was wondering if he wanted to join the Artist Association of Tarascon. I passed the message on, and after handing over €50 to Francis, who turned out to be the treasurer of the association, the Artist became a fully signed up member.
The first event that we went to was a dinner at Le Bistrot des Anges, a restaurant in le place de Marie (real name le place de Marche). It started, as all these things do, with aperos (aperitifs, pastis or wine) and speeches. The president introduced himself, his name was Christian, and he welcomed everyone and talked about all the things the association was hoping to accomplish. Various other people also spoke, including the Mayor himself who had popped in on his way home to give the event his blessing. There was a photographer taking photos throughout the speeches and aterwards all the members gathered outside for a group photo. There was a good turn out, maybe 50 people or so. I had no idea there were so many artists living in Tarascon. Most of them were over the age of 60, but there were a few youngsters, (under retirement age) like ourselves. Over dinner we met Fred and Nadine. Fred owns the house where Francis has his gallery and Nadine is his girlfriend. Fred is short with spikey salt and pepper hair and makes teeth, Nadine is slim with short cropped hair and does painting and decorating. After much eating and drinking and making conversation with the other artists about what kind of art they made and what inspired them, Fred invited us back to his house for more drinks. Fred had been married to an English woman and loves all things English (maybe not his ex. but he didn't say). On the top floor of his four storey house, he has a jacuzzi (the French are mad for Jacuzzis and it seems they always want to put them on the top floor of their houses, what happens if they spring a leak?) Opposite the jacuzzi is a mural of a classical landscape which had been painted by Francis in lieu of rent for the gallery space, where he also lived. Francis used to be a builder, but had given it up to paint full time. He was also in something like the French equivalent of the territorial army.
The next artist association event that we took part in was a weekend when all the artists showed their work in Les Halles - the street leading to the Marie with covered arches on either side. There was quite an eclectic mix of work of Provencal landscapes, poppies, lavender, bulls and women in traditional costume. The man next to us specialised in 3D ceramic reproductions of classic cars; they were very detailed and he had been very inventive with what he used for details like a spoked wheel or a steering wheel. Unfortunately not very many people came to look at the work, and even fewer bought anything and other than a cavalcade of classic English cars like 1930's MGs and Daimlers, which happened to be passing through Tarascon that day, sounding their claxons, (the man next to us got very excited) there was very little passing trade.
At some point in the day, Francis turned up. He had a row with the President, (Christian) because he hadn't been told about the weekend and hadn't been asked to participate. The cracks were beginning to show and we feared that the writing was on the wall for the Association.
That was the last we heard about it until The Artist got a call from a woman inviting him to attend a meal at the restaurant Le Provencal last week. Unfortunately I couldn't go, but he related the evening back to me. None of the original members were there, the President is now a woman and Francis, who has since been kicked out of Fred's place for not paying any rent or bills was last seen painting a mural in the Kebab/Sandwich take-away cafe on the main road around Tarascon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ghost of a Kat

One of my favourite films is Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. I love the opening scenes of him trying to feed his cat. He has run out of cat food and makes some horrible mess with tuna and yogourt which the cat quite understandably dismisses. He then goes to the supermarket in the middle of the night, but they have run out of the only brand the cat will eat, so he buys another brand. He then goes home to the waiting cat and transfers the cat food he has bought (having locked the cat out of the kitchen so he can't see what he's doing) into the empty tin of the cat's favoured brand of cat food, he then lets the cat in the kitchen and puts the ersatz food in the cat's bowl. The cat isn't fooled and goes off, never to be seen again and Elliot Gould, who plays Marlowe, is left devastated and lonely, searching for his cat (and various other missing persons) for the rest of the film. Anyone who has a cat, knows how accurate this portrayal of a man (or woman) and his feline friend is. Cats cannot be trained to do what you want, (I've never seen a cat riding a bicycle at the circus) they only do what they want and you become a slave to their whims. Our cat is called Kat, formerly named Ghost. Ghost came to us with his brother, Rocket, both ginger tom kittens, Rocket, the darker of the two, was far more gregarious and loved to be picked up and stroked, Ghost was shy, ran away from people and with his pale colouring seemed to disappear against the stonewall of our courtyard. The kittens lived in our new house which was being done up whilst we lived in our much smaller old house which had no outside space. We came over and fed them everyday and the builders looked after them when we weren't there. This worked very well until the kittens became older and bolder and decided they wanted to go out and see a bit more of the World. The last time we saw the kittens together, was one evening when we were walking passed the house on our way back from the restaurant Le theatre. They were both hanging out the second storey window screeching at us like tortured prisoners, as we went by. I made a joke about kamikaze kittens and the next day they were gone. We stuck a photo of them with our phone number onto the shutters of our house, asking people to call if they had seen them. A few people called, one lady to say that she had seen the kittens at our window a few days before and another to say she liked the photo; in fact we had to reprint the photo as it kept getting nicked and another person in our street had rather suspiciously put cat food outside her door. After a few days we got a call from the Print/Fax shop down the road. A little Moroccan girl had found one of our kittens and when we went to pick it up, it turned out to be Ghost. We have never seen Rocket again, though there have been reported sightings in the next street of a very handsome ginger tom wearing a red collar..... And then somewhere along the line Ghost became Kat and has been Kat ever since. He is still weary of people and you can only stroke him if he wants you to, otherwise he will get up and leave. He likes to go out at night. He rushes across the road and runs up the gates of Souleiado, (how do they do that?) which is the fabric museum and shop opposite us and disappears into their courtyard. He usually comes back the next morning, howling to be let in before the morning traffic starts (around 7am) but sometimes he is gone for a few days and in the past has stayed away for as long as a week. I often wonder what he does and where he goes and wish I could put a little camera on his head to see what he gets up to. Maybe he doesn't get up to much, maybe he just finds a dark spot, curls up and goes to sleep. What I do know is he comes back ravenous and like Elliot Gould's cat in the Long Goodbye, he is very fussy about his food. He won't eat from a tin that has already been opened and kept in the fridge and he won't eat any food that he has left in his bowl. Hence we give him sachets of food which are about twice the price of the tinned food. As we are in the middle of a 'Crise' as its called here, I am always trying to think of ways to fool him. I add a bit of hot water to his food and stir it around pretending I have only just put it down, or I add a bit of new food and stir it in with the old. Anyway, hours are wasted and usually to no avail. Recently there was a deal at my local supermarket for 8 tins of Whiskas for the price of 6. I snapped it up, thinking that if Kat liked it, I could get back into buying tins. Huge success, Kat loves it; so much so that he is eating a whole tin of it a day and doesn't care how long its been lying around. I went back to the shop to buy the rest of the stock on offer, but they had sold out and I am now left buying vast quantities of the most expensive cat food on the market to keep Kat satiated and my bid to economise hasn't worked at all. My friend Celia who lives near Uzes, says she thinks they put something in Whiskas that makes the cats frantic and into Whiskas addicts; she feeds her cat frogslegs, you can find them frozen and cheap as chips in most supermarkets, I might try them next.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spring at last

What a difference a day makes! The Mistral only lasted two days after all and today felt like Spring had finally arrived. Provence doesn't suit the grey, or the cold, it needs sunshine and warmth to bring out its colours, and they were all out on parade today! There were bright flowers freshly planted on les rondpoints (roundabouts) and the cyclists were out in their yellow, red and blue lycra shirts. People had taken off their heavy winter coats and were walking around in t.shirts and I suddenly remembered why I live in Provence.
This morning being Tuesday, was market day in Tarascon and it was full and bustling again after the quiet winter months. There were even parasols up to shade the produce from the sun, a far cry from last week, when the wind would have blown them away. I went to the stall where I buy my goats cheese and eggs every week. The woman whose stall it is, no longer comes to Tarascon, even though she still produces the cheese and the eggs from her small holding. I rather liked her, she had unevenly dyed reddish brown hair and traces of lipstick around her mouth, she was permanently bent over and her hands were twisted with arthritis but her nails were always painted pink. I once asked her why she'd not been at the market for a few months after Christmas and she answered that the baby goats needed their mother's milk and the chicken weren't producing very much so it hadn't been worth her while. Her daughter now manages the stall, but she told me she won't take over from her mother when she finally stops working. Apparently the old lady still does Arles market on a Saturday, she has to be in her late seventies.
I decided to buy some chicken livers and went to the poultry trailer. The couple who run it raise all their own chickens, ducks, rabbits, turkeys and geese at Christmas. They also carry different types of game, probably given to them by the local chassueres to sell (they practically shoot everything that moves here). Around Christmas he had some phaesant priced at €17 each. I told him that in Shropshire, where we used to live, you could buy three brace for £12! "I know" he said, "You already told me that last year!"
Anyway I bought about 800 grms of plump chicken livers from him, more than I needed but I reckoned I could put the ones I didn't use in the freezer.
I then went home and made a chicken liver salad. Recipe to follow:
You need about three livers per person, a head of lettuce, preferebly freshly cut that morning, washed and arranged on individual plates, a tablespoon or so of butter, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, or balsamic and about two tablespoons of oil, ( I use oliveoil but you can use something more neutral like peanut oil).
Cut the livers in half, rinse them and discard any bits that don't look like they should be there and pat dry with a paper towell. Then heat the butter in the pan and when it is hot enough, but before it turns brown, add the livers. They will hiss and jump about, so put some sort of cover over them. Turn them over and cook them for between 3 and 8 minutes in total, depending on how well cooked you like them. Place the livers on top of the lettuce on each plate. Then deglaze the frying pan that you have cooked the livers in with the wine vinegar, scrapping any bits from the bottom of the pan, cook for about half a minute, and then take if off the heat and add the oil, mix it in with the vinegar and pour over the livers, add salt and a twist or two of the pepper mill. Serve with crusty French bread (bought that morning in the market!)
Easy peasy, and more delicious than foie gras, which is far too rich for my taste.
I also like to make Chicken liver pate, my favourite is Nigel Slater's Chicken liver and mushroom pate from The Observer, (Google it).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Day 2 of the Mistral. Imagine standing on the top of Beachy Head during a gale, that is what it feels like when the Mistral is blowing, only its all around you and there's no getting away from it. It flattens the grasses in the field, and even in our courtyard, which has three storey high walls, it knocks over flower pots, tears the washing off the line and takes off with whatever isn't tied down (like the artists tent one summer, which he had put up as a temporary studio).
Anyway, as this is bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, and there's quite a lot of things Darwin going on, I thought I'd add my little bit. This morning I got up to find a sock which had had the entire foot bit eaten away, on the kitchen table. The Artist told me he had put it there as evidence and it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out who the culprit was. All fingers pointed to Molly. For as long as we have had her she has had a fetish for the Artists socks. "Why does she always eat mine?" He asked. I pointed out that it probably had to do with the fact that he has smelly feet and I don't. His daughter too, has the most stinky feet, even at the tender age of 12. "It's a gene thing," I said. "Some people have smelly feet, some people don't, like halitosis". I then wondered aloud whether smelly feet were a throw back to when we walked on four legs and our feet gave off an odour so that other people, or ape people, or whatever we were then, could track each other, for mating purposes or to keep tabs on one another. I then surmised that because I don't have smelly feet, I must be further evolved than the Artist. "Put that in your blog then," the artist said. So I have.
Speaking of Van Gogh (previous blog) I have just seen my first Iris of the year. They just grow randomly by the side of the road. Also the almond blossoms are beginning to bloom in the orchards.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Le Mistral

People are always surprised when they come to Provence in the winter time, that it gets as cold as it does. There are days, in fact New Year's day a couple of years ago, when you can sit outside and bask in the sunshine in a t.shirt, but there are also days when the wind blows so bittingly cold, that it feels like Siberia. The wind of course is Le Mistral and it comes rushing down the Rhone from the snow capped Alps, bringing with it the freezing cold air of the mountains. Before I moved here, I had heard of le Mistral (how poetic to give a wind a name, in England we just have Easterly or North wind) but never quite understood how hugely it figures in the Provencal life and landscape. It is not until you live here that you realise why all the tips of the trees are bent, and why Van Gogh's landscape paintings of this area look like swirling kaleidoscopes; he was painting the effect of the Mistral on the countryside and it looks exactly like that. Obviously what he saw on the outside was mirroring what he was feeling on the inside and they do say the Mistral can make you go mad. In retrospect, it was probably not the best place for a painter with a tendency towards mental instability to spend his winter months. But then his pain has been a lot of other people's gain.
When the Mistral blows, no one goes out. The streets are empty and it becomes the topic of every conversation. The local people even have a saying as to how long it will last. It can blow for three days, six days nine or even twelve days (something like that anyway). The longer it blows obviously the more exasperated everybody gets. Its not all bad though, they say it blows away decay and disease and it is why the vines of the Rhone valley (Chateauneuf du Pape for one) don't succumb to mildew. And once the Mistral has gone, there is a great sense of calm and relief, the sun feels warm and everyone is happy again.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Scotty dogs in Provence

Back to us and Tarascon. The Artist was only in Mr Bricolage (the local DIY store about 4 kms away from us) the other day buying nails, when the man serving him said, "Aren't you the man with the two scotty dogs?" only in French, and he probably didn't say Scotty dogs either, he is far more likely to have said 'les Scottish', 'les Black and White' (after the whiskey), or 'les Chippies' (a clothing company which uses a Scotty dog as it's logo). Also, being in Provence, he wouldn't have said chiens, but chings, as down here they finish off all their words with a ing. So lapin becomes laping; the Artist once had a very confusing trip to the local Casino to buy some prunes for a rabbit stew I was cooking- Rabbit with Agen Prunes, Rick Stein, A French Odyssey - and being a chatty sort of person, he told the woman at the till that it was for the lapin, which she repeated back to him as Laping, and so they went backwards and forwards (you say lapin, I say laping....) Anyway Scotties aren't a very common breed in France and therefore they get a lot of attention when we take them out; in fact they're not that common even in the UK, of course George Bush changed all that in the US with Barney - one of our favourite Private Eye captions is the one written under the photo of him disembarking from Air Force One carrying Barney that reads 'George Bush winning the War on Terriers! - (how we howled when we first saw it), consequently we are constantly stopped in the street and asked if Molly and Ralph are twins, probably for lack of anything else to say. I suppose they do look quite similar if you don't know them, but to us they look very different. Ralph is quite large for a Scotty, and were his legs a bit longer, would be a decent sized dog, he's also quite heavy (back to the George Bush photo, you wouldn't be able to balance Ralph on your arm whilst disembarking from a plane). He is very handsome, and no doubt could win a lot of prizes. He has slim hips and a large head, which is good according to Crufts, but unfortunately there isn't much between the ears and he is, sadly, thick as shit! Molly is more of a round ball, she has a much smaller head and tends to pin her ears back making them disappear and giving her a snake-like look, she is however very sensitive and intelligent, in fact a philosopher, according to the Artist.
So you can imagine our surprise when we first went to the local vet and he announced with glee that he too is the proud owner of a Scottish Terrier. Whenever we take either of the dogs to see him (generally Ralph, he's overbred and there's always something wrong with him) we are made to look at photos of the vet's dog on his computer. Most of them seem to have been taken at his birthday party and feature him (the dog) wearing a red bandana sitting in front of a birthday cake decorated with sparklers. The vet then, almost with tears in his eyes regales us with stories about how stupid his dog is, how he watched him trying to navigate a sprinkler in the back garden, only with him ending up walking straight through it, or something like that - he told it in French, so I may have missed a bit; meanwhile there's a waiting room full of wheezing old men and their sick dogs, patiently waiting for their appointments, but that doesn't stop the vet from telling more stories and telling us how disappointed his dog will be to hear that Molly has been 'done'. He is probably the only vet in the country to have discouraged us to have Ralph 'done'. This led to Ralph spending many months in a lampshade, as for some reason or another (probably because they're so close to the ground) his balls got infected and he had to be stopped from licking them (apologies for the squeamish). Anyway we finally had them off, and he's been a much happier dog since (less like a Glaswegian at closing time, sorry Glasgow, that's the Artist's joke, not mine). The vet also suggested that Ralph might need to go to a dog psychiatrist in Paris, I can't remember why and needless to say we didn't follow up on that one.
One evening, when we were over at Chantal's, she told us about the amateur dramatics, singing and dancing show she had been in at our local theatre (a beautiful miniature baroque theatre, complete with cherubs carved out of the stone facade) and she lent us a DVD of the 'spectacle' which somehow we had manage to miss. We put it on our DVD player as soon as we got home, and there were Sylvie and Chantal singing away in Victorian costume, twirling their parasols; next on, and you can imagine our surprise, was none other than our vet, wearing a stripy t.shirt with a beret and a very similar, if not the same, red bandana that his dog had been wearing in his birthday photos, singing old chansons! We nearly rolled off our seats!
Sadly the vet has now left his practice and set up a second-hand bookshop in Tarascon. Taking the dogs to the vet is just not going to be the same.