Friday, December 30, 2011

Marcel Pagnol and Marseille

Every now and then I read a book or see a film that I think is truly wonderful and want to talk about it and share it with friends.  I don’t like to write reviews nor do I like reading them, not long ones, that is.  I don’t care much for critique, although I do sometimes like to know what the book or film is about so I can decide whether or not I want to read or watch it.

Because I expected that TV on Christmas evening was going to be slim pickings, I bought myself a DVD, and now feel compelled to tell everyone about it.  It is a DVD of a trilogy that I had seen some 15 years ago, although the films are much older.  In the last few years I wanted to obtain it and see the films again, but these being old, classic films, it seemed the only DVDs were collector’s items and priced accordingly.  But when I looked again in November, I found they had become affordable.

Anyone who knows of Alice Waters or has eaten in her restaurant will be familiar with the names of the films and/or the major characters.  This is the Marseille Trilogy (also known as the Fanny Trilogy) and the films are titled Marius, Fanny, and Cesar.  Panisse doesn’t get a title, but he is one of the main characters in the films, and if you’ve had the good fortune to have eaten at Chez Panisse, you will be familiar with the posters of these films that decorate the walls there.  Waters named her main restaurant after one of the important protagonists, her bakery/café after another, and her tapas bar after Cesar, who actually is the heart and soul of the three films.  Apparently Alice Waters was a Pagnol fan before I had ever heard of him.

The story, briefly, is about Fanny, who has loved Marius since they were both children growing up in the same neighborhood of Marseille – the Old Port.  Marius loves Fanny, but he also loves the sea which has a very strong pull on him to sail and discover far-off places.  Cesar, is Marius’s father, and Panisse is Cesar’s good friend.  The story shows us how these people and a few others form a community within the neighborhood of the Old Port of Marseille, and how sometimes strong community leads to extended family.

Pagnol’s dialogue is wonderful.  I don’t understand the original French, but even the English subtitles tell me that the dialogue is wonderful.  There is drama, romance, and a good measure of humor. The conversations are real, and the humor is natural, never resorting to jokes.  Much of the humor is delivered in anecdotes and those always contain a grain of truth.

Marseille is the setting and the source of inspiration for these films.  Pagnol said that he didn’t know he loved Marseille.  Moving far away (he went to Paris) and seeing it in his mind’s eye, he realized he adored this city which he didn’t like as a youngster.  This often happens – that we discover our attachments when we’ve been away.

The culture portrayed is Marseillais, and the French spoken is Marseillais French.  This is not the Marseille of gangsters, but of the neighborhood of the Old Port that has since disappeared.  Still, you get a marvelous sense of place when you watch.  I visited Marseille on my first trip to France with Manuel several years ago, so I especially enjoyed seeing the scenic and outdoor shots. 

Marius was made in 1931, Fanny in 1932, and Cesar in 1936.  Although the films and the people come from a different time and place, you need no explanations to understand them.  These were very early talkies and at the beginning, you notice the old-fashioned style of acting, particularly in the dramatic scenes.  In fact, Marius was first a hit on the stage before it was made into a film.  Pagnol brought all the actors from the stage production to the filming and continued with the same cast for the second the third film.

Pagnol’s characters are true heroes.  There are no base or vile characters in his films.  No villains, no nasty people.  Pagnol likes his characters and makes us like them too.  They are human throughout and delicately portrayed.  They are complex, not easily or immediately understood.  We discover their different facets gradually as the trilogy unfolds.

In Marius there is a scene of a card game that Pagnol at first didn’t want to include, thinking that it was only a sketch.  Now, everyone in France (of a certain age, perhaps) knows the lines and it is part of their national consciousness.  I’m hoping to learn those lines one day!

If you want to read more about Marseille, I like M.F.K. Fisher’s A Considerable Town.
My favorite Pagnol books are the two memoirs he wrote of his youth, published as one volume: My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle.  These were also made into films (but not by him) and the films of these books are also wonderful. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Squatting in the Plaça Sant Jaume

Christmas is upon us but it’s pretty much passing me by.  For one thing I’ll be alone that day which isn’t really all that merry, but with that I could cope with my two cats for company.  Seriously important is that little Felix the cat is sick.  He’s at the vet today and will remain there overnight, probably suffering from Pancreatitis.  Little Felix is a cat who is normally full of beans, so I’m hoping his natural vivacity will help him to rally and overcome this illness.  And when he feels better, he will have a lifetime of vet prescription, high quality, low-fat cat food to dine on.  No roast goose Christmas dinners for him.  Tomorrow I will know more.  All I want for Christmas is for Felix to recover and come home.

I had planned to write about the Catalan Christmas but have lost any inspiration that may have been lurking so this will be brief. 

Catalans spend a lot of money at Christmas, although a lot of that is on food for fancy dinners.  Gifts are given mainly for Kings on 6 January.  Santa Claus and Christmas trees have made inroads here, but the traditional and most ubiquitous Christmas decoration is the Nativity scene.

The figures in a Nativity scene might be just the holy family, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, or might include angels, the three Kings, villagers, and farm animals.  They might be small and simple or large and very elaborate.  Although it all sounds very religious, typically, the Nativity scenes in Catalunya include one extra figure – a man, somewhere at the periphery, squatting and shitting.  He is called the Caganer (which means “shitter”).  It’s good fun trying to find him in shop window displays or in large public displays such as can be found every year in the Plaça Sant Jaume, the main square of Barcelona where the City Hall sits on one side and the Palau de la Generaliltat (equivalent to a state capitol building) sits on the other.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Red Army!

One of the few benefits I enjoy living in a house intended for tourist rental is that I have British television via satellite installed.  I wouldn’t have done it for myself.  I lived the first eight years in Spain watching only Catalan television.  But since it’s here, I do watch it and there are definitely some broadcasts that are excellent.

One of those excellent broadcasts was on BBC3 radio recently.  I tuned in planning to listen to classical music while I read, but the host and his guests were talking.  About to turn it off, I realized that they were talking about the Red Army Chorus.

I grew up with the Red Army Chorus.  That is to say, my parents had one of their albums and it was always one of my favorites.  My parents’ musical taste tended towards the Russian and Eastern European, no wonder as they were Eastern European themselves.  We had recordings of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Borodin, a lot of Chopin, the Red Army Chorus, and Les Paul and Mary Ford.  (Although they tended to classical and Eastern European, they did (my father especially) have eclectic taste.)

It’s hard to say which of the songs on our Red Army Chorus disk I liked the best.  They were all wonderful, not only the songs and the music, but the voices.  The bass solos were extraordinary, the tenor solos lifted you to the sky, and the whole chorus could move you to tears.

Perhaps one song stood out for its emotional quality.  I never paid attention to what the song was about.  For me all these songs were just beautiful music.  But on the BBC they were talking about more than just pretty music.  This song, the penultimate on our old disk, called Ukrainian Poem, is about the German occupation of the Ukraine in 1942 and its eventual liberation by the Soviet army.  When you know that, the song becomes even more powerful.

The Red Army Chorus (and band, and dancers) were (and perhaps still are) made up of members of the armed forces.  They originally performed folk and war songs for the troops.  Eventually they began to tour the world and broadened their repertoire.  In 1948 they were invited by the international forces in Berlin to perform at a concert devoted to peace.  Thirty thousand people came to stand and listen for three hours.  They can be heard performing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in the movie Das Boot.

The Red Army Chorus (called the Soviet Army Chorus) on this disk, has had several names and is now called the Alexandrov Ensemble.  Whatever you call them or however they choose to call themselves, I think they are one of the great musical groups of all time.  There are other disks, MP3 tracks, and also a DVD with the chorus and dance troop.  I haven't seen the DVD yet, but it is in my shop and on my personal wishlist.

As with other of my favorites, you can buy the disk in my Amazon shop or use my portal to enter Amazon and buy thousands of other things.  Thanks, by the way, to those who did exactly that last week. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dreaming in Terrassa

Terrassa is a mid-sized town with 200,000 people about half an hour inland from Barcelona.  It is where my friend Gracia has the house she inherited from her parents and where I usually go to visit her when she is in town.

Architecturally, Terrassa is famous for its complex of three 12th century Romanesque churches, Sant Pere, Santa Maria, and Sant Miquel, all three declared an Artistic-Historic Monument in 1931.  These are beautiful ancient buildings, but we didn’t enter the complex to see them.  My photo is from a previous visit.

Terrassa is also birthplace and home of Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s outstanding (best in the world) midfielder and one of my favorite players.  We didn’t see him either, although Gracia knows his aunt.  We did, however, enter the 14th century Castell i Cartoixa de Vallparadis (Castle and Carthusian Monastery) and had a good long walk up and down the Park of Vallparadis, a beautiful park that follows what my architecture book calls the Vallparadis water course.  I thought it was a river that had been channeled underground.  I guess it isn’t really a river but a dry riverbed where water flows when there’s a heavy rain.

This linear park offers a lovely environment for a walk, passing under the castle and the three beautiful churches, lined with lawn and dotted with trees, some of which were in fall color.  The olive, carob, and pine trees that decorate my landscape don’t do fall color.  The Vallparadis park also has two hippopotamuses -- statues that lend a bit of whimsy to the environment, two or three cafes, and an amazing swimming pool consisting of several very large scattered sections that give the impression of a lagoon with clear, fresh water.  No photos of that, my batteries went dead during the walk.

Terrassa grew and became relatively wealthy in the 19th century when it became a great textile center.  Modern wealth translated into public, industrial, and private buildings built in the modernist (art nouveau) style, although many Catalan modernist buildings (including notably those of Antoni Gaudi) are far more fantastic than anyone else’s interpretation of the style.  This building, by the way, is NOT by Gaudi.

Gracia’s husband Miquel is an architect, but the three of us were more focused on lunch and talking about what we all wanted to do with our lives than with the fantastic architecture of Terrassa.  Gracia and Miquel are here for an extended visit, trying to figure out if they would want to move back to Catalunya, stay in California, or somehow arrange to have the best of both worlds.  Whereas they have more resources than I do, they are unsure of what they want.

I know exactly what I want.  I want to sell my house and move to a small apartment, although where that apartment will be is still somewhat up in the air.  It’s not that I don’t know where I want it to be.  I want to move to France.  But there are some problems with that dream and as time goes on, I am less sure of that plan working out.  If not France, then I will remain in Catalunya but move further north, where at least the landscape will be more to my liking.  Further north is also closer to France so that maybe I will be able to zip across the border from time to time to shop the French markets and buy cheese, even if I can’t live there.

Gracia, Miquel and I had a long lunch, talked about all these plans, possibilities, and dreams, and decided nothing.  Except for that annoying tow truck, it was a very good day.  

Friday, December 2, 2011

Giving Thanks in Terrassa

Sometimes you don’t have to take a big trip or venture far from home to have an adventure.  This I managed to do last week when I went to visit Gracia in Terrassa.

I met Gracia about twelve years ago when she married Miquel and moved from Terrassa to California.  Since then, she’s become one of my best friends, even though we only lived in the same area for a short time.  A couple of years after we met I moved to Catalunya, but we’ve managed to stay in touch and try to see each other when she comes to Terrassa.

Both Miquel and Gracia are from Terrassa, a small city to the west of Barcelona and about an hour and a half driving time from here.  At first Gracia used to come regularly to visit her mom.  Since her mom died, she’s been coming less frequently.  I’ve been to Gracia’s house several times, but I was living in Barcelona then and always went by train.  This would be my first time driving there.

I printed out directions from Via Michelin.  I’ve compared their directions with those of Google Maps and find they do better in Europe than Google does.  ViaMichelin told me the trip would take 1 hour 37 minutes, would be 153 kilometers long, and would cost 39.81 euros in estimated gas and road tolls.  That was one way. 

The trip would have cost considerably less if we were living somewhere else in Spain, Madrid, for example, because Spain concentrates most of its toll roads in Catalunya.  Going by train would have been cheaper, but it would have taken about three hours each way, instead of 1-1/2 and wouldn’t have left much time for the visit.  Ultimately the trip didn’t cost me 80 euros, it cost much more.

There was no where to park near Gracia’s house so she jumped into the car with me to go in search of a parking space.  We went round in circles and finally found one only about three blocks away.

At the end of the day, after a long walk, lunch, a lot of sitting around and chatting, Gracia walked with me as I headed back to the car to start the drive home.  It was about 5 pm, but I wanted to do as much driving as I could before it became dark, plus there was a Barca soccer game on that night that I wanted to get home in time to see.   Coming up to the car Gracia started to run forwards and shout.  I had no idea what she was so upset about.

And then I saw it: my car hooked up to a tow truck!  Good grief!  It turned out that I had parked in a loading zone.  Well what do you know.  Do they actually give parking tickets and tow cars away?  Or was I the first one?

The loading zone extended further back where other cars had also parked, and the sign was somewhat hidden by a telephone pole, but not completely out of sight.  That explained why I hadn’t noticed.  Spanish driver’s license or no, I wouldn’t knowingly park in a loading zone.

So the trip cost me the gas, the tolls, and 73 euros for the tow truck.  I paid the truck, and asked about the parking fine.  The tow truck driver said the fine would, or possibly would not, be sent in the mail.  Since I lived out of town, he wasn’t sure if they would bother to send it.  But until then, I didn’t have to pay the fine.  He was only authorized to collect the tow truck charges.  If and when the fine comes it will be an additional 32 euros.

So it was a far more expensive trip than originally figured.  I had been parked in that spot since a little after 11 am.  I returned at about 5:20 pm.  If I had arrived just a couple of minutes later, the car would have been gone.  Just thinking about what I would have done (my first assumption would probably have been that the car had been stolen), makes me dizzy.  How long would it have taken to find the car and get it back?  There would have been the possible confusion of ownership because even after all these months and the filing of papers with a lawyer, the car is still not registered in my name but in the name of a man who died several years ago.  Would the police have released the car to me?  And then there would have been the additional cost.  Paying for the tow truck to come was 73 euros, but paying for actual towing would have been double that. 

This visit took place on the day before Thanksgiving.  We didn’t have turkey (we had risotto with cuttlefish).  Having just remembered that Thanksgiving was the next day, we had a special toast and said our thanks.  But in addition to what I said at the table, I am thankful that the whole debacle wasn’t worse.