Off with his Head!
By Andrew Hamilton
Junto Senior Staff Reporter Bio
I've been in Sète going on three months. Been using up all my textual ruminations in e-mail exchanges with the old ladies who went to an old school of mine when I lived in Paris. I take the TGV to Paris next Sunday, stay three nights, and catch a flight to San Francisco on Wednesday.
I haven't been doing much. Swimming in the Mediterranean on the few sunny days and trying to avoid going to the same restaurant twice.
I did get a haircut, and talked about politics with the barber. He asked what I thought of Obama and I told him I waited 40 years, and I'm sticking with him. I asked him what he thought of Sarkozy, and together we concluded that Obama is better. Sarkozy's approval ratings are down in the 30s, and were never of any account in the south. This région went almost entirely Socialist in the elections a couple months ago. The only region with a majority for Sarko's party was Alsace, which is practically Germany.
At the pizza shop yesterday, another customer buying six pizzas said something to me, and I said I didn't understand. He told me something uproarious about cutting a head off, and everybody was howling like hyenas. After the other customers left, I asked the pizza cook what they were talking about and he said that it was the anniversary of cutting the king's head off, and since I was English that was the funniest thing ever. I asked if it was Louis XVI and he said yes, and I'm still wondering why telling an Englishman about decapitating a French king is so hilarious. These are a mysterious people in their humor (By the way, I'm an American).
The pizza cook wanted to know about southern-France style wildfires in California, and he knew that the Terminator is governor. I gave as my excuse for being in Sète that I was looking for a place to live, but that the language is a problem because I can't speak French so well. He said yeah but that I do OK in 'the ensemble,' which was encouraging. I explained that understanding was the problem, and he said, of course you can't understand us, we are sètois. The people of Sète are proud of the incomprehensibility of their lingo.
I had the 'Royale': ham, mushroom, and cheese. Best pizza yet, by far. I'm going to go back next week and get the merguez and poivron. By the way was that Louis XVI Royale?
Sète is Georges Brassens' home town. Paul Valéry, too. But Georges is the one they name everything after. There is a music-hall on the other side of the Pont de Pierre called "Les Amis de Georges", subtitled "Brassens chanté par ses amis." Being a friend of Georges is like being, I don't know, a Kentucky colonel or a Daughter of the American Revolution, or maybe a guy whose University of Minnesota dorm LP's were stolen by Bob Dylan. At this club, a bunch of old guys sing Brassens songs, and for 35€ you can have dinner and listen on Friday and Saturday nights. Sounds like spectator karaoke.
A couple of days ago, I took the municipal bus to Baleruc-les-bains across the lagoon and walked along the shore to judge the recreational potential of beaches. There was a place on the trail with a mural and plaque commemorating the shack of the fisherman "Lolo," which was torn down when they built the path and rip-rapped the shore. Lolo was an ami de Georges. Georges and Lolo would go swimming in the lagoon and collect oysters and mussels and snails, and louncher on them. Louncher is a sètois word meaning something like "slurp down with gusto."
At Lolo's shack, Georges would play the guitar and they'd sing songs. Everyone visited Lolo in the 50s and 60s. Brigitte Bardot and Manitas de Plata are named on the plaque. Salvador Dali said if he visited he would enter through the chimney, and according to legend, he did. He's in the mural, his head poking out of the chimney. The total effect of the monument to the absent shack between the rip-rapped shore and a hedge screening condos was pretty sad in the cold wind and drizzle.
It started raining hard. Tourist restaurants were deep into serving lunch, so I had to duck into a pari-mutuel café, one of those betting bars full of hard-asses who don't particularly like you. Had a café express and waited 20 minutes for the bus; read the newspaper. There was an announcement of the American Day fête in Frontignan. There will be American football, baseball, basketball, cowboys, and Harleys.
The craze in France for the past few months has been the apero facebook. That's an apéritif party announced on Facebook that snowballs so thousands of people show up. In other words, to make a Philly allusion, it's like flash mob on South Street, but everyone drinking red vermouth. They've occurred in several of the cities and large towns, in a central plaza or park, with general rowdiness and a few people trampled or dying of choque éthylique.
An apero was one announced for Sète at the Poufre, which is the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville where there is a fountain with a monumental sculpture of an octopus. Poufre is sètois for poulpe, octopus, which is a local export base and the main ingredient of the famous tielle sètois or poufre pie.
For the apero facebook at the Poufre they had plainclothes cops circulating, and squads of uniformed cops and paddy-wagons. The Red Cross set up a first-aid tent and an ambulence stood by. The city council decreed that only plastic cups could be used, no glass. It was the eve of the Pentecost extended weekend, so it was going to be big. But hardly anyone came. The newspaper said that a few people grimly filled, emptied, refilled, reemptied, and refilled their plastic cups, but nobody went into shock. Many more people stood for a while around the outside of the square or on balconies to watch. The paper said a lone street trumpet player did his best to keep things lively.
It was speculated that either Sète already parties enough without Facebook, or that the apero craze has peaked and subsided.
Yesterday and today we have the neighborhood fête at Pointe Courte, a scenic fishing enclave a few blocks from here. There were kiddie rides, and sea jousting in the lagoon. That's like renaissance jousting, except you ride a ramp on the stern of a rowing boat instead of a horse. A couple of musicians in straw boaters sit at the base of the ramp playing haut-bois and drum.
I asked that pizza man who told me it was the anniversary of the regicide if the sètois liked Louis XVI, since His Late Highness' grandfather created this town out of the mudflats in the 1606s so his kingdom could have a port on the Mediterranean. Pizza man said we don't like the king; same way we don't like anyone important. I asked if they disliked Sarko, and he said, yes, Sarko more than anyone.