Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Some Words About France

I realized the other day that although I've posted some nice pretty pictures of Montpellier, I haven't written anything here about what the city's like. So to avoid dozens of repetitive e-mails, here's what I like and don't like about the city, and other assorted thoughts.

I was very lucky to be introduced to CC, a professor of English at Montpellier University, by a mutual friend, and even more lucky to be invited to stay in his house, a huge sprawling apartment in a 16th Century hôtel, a word the French use to indicate a mansion in a city. There are lots of these in Montpellier which have been carved up into apartments, and naturally this is what I've got my sights set on for my own future home.

CC proved to be a great guide, meeting me at the train station and walking me back to his house, pointing out things here and there as we walked. He had to go teach an afternoon class, but I had no problems with roaming around the city by myself, because that's how I learn places, and it's one of my favorite things to do, the single thing (besides the money) that I miss from doing stories for the Wall Street Journal Europe.

As he explained, the inner city, the old part, is called the "escutcheon," because it's shaped roughly like a shield or the template for a coat of arms. At one point, this was the part of the city ringed by the city wall, bits of which still exist. Obviously, the city escaped these bounds long ago, so some of the outlying areas aren't so bad, either. But the centre ville, of which I've posted photos, is magical.

It's also very hard to get an apartment in, although reading the signs in the windows of real estate places proved that it's hardly impossible. The cost of an apartment there is about 30% higher than in Berlin, but some of the other costs are less, most notably telecom charges, which are the lowest in Europe, or so he said: €30 a month gets you a telephone, cable, and DSL. The reason the centre ville looks pretty uniform is that much of it was burned during the military campaign against the Cathars, religious breakaways who dominated the Languedoc region of France, of which Montpellier, because of its ancient university, was the intellectual center.

In many ways, it's just a typical French city: loads of bakeries, a central covered market with local produce, and, on the periphery of the escutcheon, a couple of very nice parks. There's a huge square called the Comédie, which ends at one of the city's opera houses, and which looks to be a very attractive site for cafe sitting when it's not below zero outside. But the Comédie curves around and funnels into a street which takes you to the Polygone, a huge shopping mall. I like having the thing there: it's not obtrusive (its most notable building is a weird pyramid-like one which turns out to be a huge bookstore), but it houses everything from the Gap to Galeries Lafayette to Inno, a supermarket that almost had me in tears, it was so loaded with good stuff.

If you go out the back of the Polygone, you're in Montpellier's most controversial district, Antigone. Frankly, I had a weird shock of recognition, because this almost brand-new development looked eerily like Berlin's own Frankfurter Allee, where the Russians replaced the bombed-out buildings with astonishing Stalinist apartment buildings to show their dedication to the new society they were building. (Its former name was Marx-Lenin-Allee, and it makes a great stroll, especially during August's annual Bierfest). Antigone, though, is supposed to be ironic, according to the architect. Other people use the word "fascist." The good thing about Antigone is that it's close to the centre ville, not to mention the fact that not too many people want to live there, so it's relatively easy to find an apartment. The bad thing is, it ends at the river, and the river floods.

Off on the other end of the escutcheon, Montpellier has its own Arc de Triomphe, which has pictures of Louis XIV, I believe, crushing the nasty Germans and Austrians. Through it is another park, which ends at a long, long aqueduct in the Roman style (but 19th Century) that brings water from somewhere far away to Montpellier's many fountains, which fountains were encrusted in ice while I was there. Looks like a nice park: Montpellier is, as its name implies, up on a hill (mont), and the park looks off into the distance from atop that hill, with the whole north end of the city visible, not to mention some mountains way in the distance. If the wind hadn't been so cold I could have stood there for a while looking at it, but it's pretty exposed up there, so I scurried back to the shelter of the old buildings.

There were a bunch of random things to see, and I'm sure I missed a lot of them, but it had been ages since I'd seen anyplace that looked like this (since I went to Italy about 15 years ago, to be exact), and I confess to being seduced into a tourist-like state. The icy weather did save me from taking too many photographs, though. In the time it took me to whip out the camera and turn it on pain was coursing through my fingers.

In the end, the story seems to be this: there are about a quarter-million people living there, and 90,000 of them are students or connected to the University, which means, among other things, according to CC, that the only time you have a decent shot at an apartment is during the six weeks school is out in July and August. I talked to people in the city's two English-language bookstores, and one word that came up repeatedly was "provincial." I had to assure them that Berlin was provincial in its own way, although I realize that Montpellier doesn't have three world-class museums and an internationally famous film festival. On the other hand, I almost never do anything around the film festiva, and I only hit these museums four or five times a year, if that. (Montpellier also has a very good museum, I'm told, but it's being renovated head to toe and won't re-open until next year). But the population is a fraction of Berlin's, and I can see that as being good and bad.

The city, though, is served by two discount airlines, Ryanair and Buzz, and there's TGV (fast train) service virtually nonstop to Paris, which takes three hours and 15 minutes and isn't all that expensive. It's also easy enough to get to Marseille, Nice, or Barcelona. It's clean, as cities go, and I'm told that when the wind isn't blowing out of the Alps in the wintertime the climate is very, very nice: it gets up into the upper 80s in the summertime, but the houses are built for that, and the Mediterranean isn't too far away.

There is, however, something I can't allow myself to forget: it has always been my contention that you move to somewhere because there's something there for you, not away from someplace because you don't like it. I have yet to find the thing to move to. As it is, I only know one person in this place, and I've only seen a fraction of it. I have an idea for a project I might be able to mount there, but I have no idea if I could get any help, if there would be funding, or even if it isn't a bit presumptuous for a newcomer to jump right into something like that. When I moved to Berlin, I had a job waiting, starting the day after I landed, which was good for three months. I don't believe there's any such thing possible in Montpellier, and wouldn't know where to go about looking for it if there was. On the other hand, when I decided to move to Berlin, I didn't have a clue how I was going to do it, or what I'd do when I got there. Much like I am now, in other words.

Clearly, more research is necessary, both here and there. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, but the question is moot for the time being, since my next trip will be to Texas in a month, and I'll be there for a couple of weeks. Maybe around mid-May, though, answers to some of these questions will have begun to come into focus. One thing's pretty certain, though: with the state of American media as it is, it's unlikely I'll be able to raise the funds doing what I've been doing for a living for the past 40 years. That in itself is frightening, but there's no current demand for writing about places and events beyond the U.S. borders, so introverted has the country become since 9/11, and what little space there is in magazines wants short, dumb articles for the most part.

Two things are absolutely certain, though: this is a challenge, and I'm up for it.

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