French Letters |

French Letters

Jeremy Bernstein
Les Baux de Provence.

Rene Goscinny was born of Polish immigrant parents in Paris on Aug. 14, 1926. After an itinerant career as a writer and illustrator, including a period in New York, he returned in 1951 to Paris. It was there that he met the artist Albert Urderzo. They had various collaborative projects but soon after they became, respectively, the editor and the artistic director of Pilote magazine in 1959, they had an idea. They knew that by 50 B.C. the Roman legions of Julius Caesar had conquered most of Gaul. Anyone who, like myself, suffered the high school study of Latin will recall Caesar’s commentary in his De Bello Gallico, “GALLIA est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.” In other words, “All Gaul is divided into three parts, of which one the Belgians occupy, Aquitanians (Spanish Iberians) another, and a third who in their own language are called Celts, while in our language are called Gauls.”

Goscinny and Urderzo imagined that there was an islet in the Celtic part in which the Gauls had managed not to have been conquered. They took this sliver of an idea and turned it into one of the most successful comic strips ever created. There are many books and even films. Goscinny died in 1977, but Uderzo has carried on. The post-1977 books are still signed with both names.

The hero is a small, but very pugnacious, Gaul named Asterix. He has a large oafish friend named Obelix. Neither of them would have been very successful against the Romans if they did not have the help of a Druid who, in the French version, is called Panoramix. In the British version ” the Asterix strips have been translated into innumerable languages ” he is called Getafix, while in the American newspaper version he is called Readymix. You can take your pick. In any event, the Druid has a magic potion, which he flavors with lobster to improve the taste, that when imbibed gives the consumer incredible strength for limited periods of time. This is tested by lifting a huge rock. When the potion has worn off, the rock crashes on the lifter, mashing him into the ground. The comic strips are full of puns, some of which are translatable from the French and some not.

The Romans from time to time make outbursts in Latin such as “vae victo, vae victis,” which would make sense if only half was stated. “Vae” is something like “woe to” and “victo” and “victis” are respectfully the singular and plural of “the conquered.” Repeated one after the other the effect is somewhat lunar. Asterix and his colleagues speak in modern, often slangy French. One of the Gauloise kids say to her friends, “Ze le dirai à mon papa, et gare à tes feffes [fesses].” (“I am going to tell my father and look out for your bottoms.”)

Used by the Gauls, the French is certainly anachronistic. I cannot tell from the map exactly where the Gauloise enclave is supposed to be but, in any event, they should be speaking Gaulish ” a Celtic language ” although by 50 BCE it would have been well-mixed with Latin. I am not enough of a linguist to give you the ins and outs of Gaulish but let me focus on the word “bau” or “baou.” It means a rocky promontory. The original plural “baus” or “baous” morphed into “baux” or “baoux,” the way “eaus” ” “waters” ” morphed into “eaux.”

I bring all this up because these thoughts are running, more of less randomly, through my mind as I am in the process of biking up a series of steep switchbacks that lead to one of the most remarkable sites in all of France ” Les Baux de Provence.

This is the second time I have been up this hill. The first time was in September of 1961-1961. The University at Aix-en-Provence ” “ais” incidentally is the plural of water in Gaulish and the usual “x” has replaced the “s” ” was hosting a conference on elementary-particle physics. It was, it seems, the first postwar international conference on the subject held in Europe. The “A” list of invitees showed up. Feynman gave the final summary talk.

Sometime in the middle one of my colleagues made a proposal. He was French and knew of a three-star Michelin restaurant in Les Baux called L’Oustaù de Baumaniere. By this time I had been living in France for almost two years and had eaten in more than my share of Michelin-starred restaurants. I have a 1959 Michelin with all the starred restaurants I had eaten in, in Paris carefully checked off. You might well wonder how I got the money to do this as I was living on a fairly modest fellowship supplied by the National Science Foundation. The secret was that my fellowship was paid in dollars and the French franc was in a state of collapse. In the 1950s the exchange rate was between 500 and 700 francs to the dollar. Keep this in mind when I tell you that the most expensive meal ” the one with the numbered duck ” you could order at the Tour d’ Argent, one of the most expensive three-star restaurants in Paris, was 4,700 francs per person. You can do the arithmetic. It maketh one to weep, especially if you look at the 2007 Michelin. The Tour d’Argent has lost two of its stars but nevertheless the comparable meal is now 427 euros! The euro is worth about $1.40.

I had never heard of Les Baux, let alone the Baumaniere, so when our group of physicists ” including a couple of Nobel Prize and future Nobel Prize-winners ” arrived at the citadel, it was a complete surprise to me. It seemed organically carved out of the rock. The restaurant with its large pool was set in a ravine below the town.

We, of course, had made reservations. Our group was taken into a very comfortable waiting room away from the dining room. The maitre d’ came in to discuss the menu. Choices were made, and we were served some sort of delicious blue cocktail (yes, it was blue) and a few amuse buches (delectable morsels). When the meal was ready we were called in and served one of the best lunches I have ever had. By 1961, the old franc had been replaced by the new franc ” 100 old francs to a new franc. About five new francs were worth a dollar. I have a 1964 Michelin. The most expensive meal at the Baumaniere is given as 48 new francs. Again, you can do the arithmetic. In the 2007 Michelin the Baumaniere has lost a star; the old chef died. But the same meal is now 192 Euros. When the new franc was created the great French chansonnier Leo Ferre wrote a song that had the refrain “Depuis je touch les nouveau francs, je ne bouf que les ortolans.” (“Ever since I am paid new francs, I only eat ortolans.”) “Ortolans” are tiny birds that are captured and force-fed to become a delicacy in the cuisine of the rich. There will no ortolans for this chic-à-bidi on this bike trip and no Baumaniere either.

Indeed, I have a salad niçoise in a very pleasant cafe. Before heading down I have a sentimental look at the Baumaniere from above. The swimming pool is as I remember and the parking lot is filled with very expensive cars, some with chauffeurs in them. It is easy to forget that France has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe and has serious economic problems. Not here, not now.

At the edge of town there is the so-called Cathedrale d’Images, easily one of the most absurd places I have ever visited. For a nontrivial number of euros one can enter some huge cavernous rooms that have been blasted out of the rock. They are dark and on their walls a series of images of Venice were being projected with a musical background. When the gondoliers appeared we were treated to Handel’s Water Music. It is all so solemn and serious that one wants to break out in hysterical laughter. It was a relief to get back in the open air.

On the way down the switchbacks a thought occurred to me. In 1961, when I was here with all those scientists, it occurred to none of us for what else Les Baux was famous. In 1821, the French geologist Pierre Bethier, who specialized in the extraction of metals from minerals, found that, from a mineral found near Les Baux, aluminum could be extracted. He first gave it the name “terre d’alumine des Baux.” In 1844 it was renamed “beauxite” and in 1861 it got its present name: ” bauxite.”

In the spring of 1947, I received a letter from Harvard saying that I had been admitted. This was both a surprise and a delight. It was a surprise because our rather small prep school, Columbia Grammar in New York, had already had one acceptance from my class. That Harvard would take two of us from the same small high school class and ethnic background was a surprise. The reason for the delight is obvious. However, it was not obvious to an uncle of mine, my father’s youngest brother. He had been to Harvard in the late 1930s for graduate work and, while he readily acknowledged that it was an intellectually marvelous place, he had otherwise had a pretty miserable time there. He said that anti-Semitism was all too evident, as was social snobbery.

I was much disturbed by this and contacted some recent alumni of Columbia Grammar who were still at Harvard. They assured me that, while what my uncle had experienced in the 1930s may well have been the case, it was not like that now. Among other things, this was only two years after the end of the war. The GIs had come back to Harvard, many of them having served in Germany, some even having liberated the concentration camps. Most of them were in no mood for anti-Semitism, to say nothing of social snobbery. In any event, I chose to go ” one of the best decisions I ever made ” and spent 10 years there getting three degrees.

Such social snobbery as there was had to do with what were known as “final clubs.” I think they were called “final” because one could join only one of them as opposed to the Lampoon, the Advocate or the John Reed Society, to which one could belong in any number if admitted. The final clubs, which had names like Spee, Owl and Porcellian, were, and are, all-male social clubs open by invitation to very select undergraduates. (I was much amused to see how rapidly Senator Kennedy bailed out of the Owl during the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings when Alito was criticized for belonging to a Princeton society that opposed the admission of women to Princeton.) Club life was an irrelevance to me. I did not even know where they were. As far as I was concerned, they might as well have been on the moon.

In fact I had an aversion to all clubs. Group activity did not appeal to me. I never joined any until I went to France in 1959. There I joined two; the French Alpine Club and the Tennis Club of Paris. I joined the former after I began to climb in Chamonix; it offered great discounts in the climbing huts and produced an excellent magazine, La Montagne. The Tennis Club of Paris was quite another story. At this time I was quite fanatical about playing tennis. My patron in Paris, the late Louis Michel, a very distinguished theoretical physicist, had promised to find me accommodations. With some apologies, these turned out to be a room with bath in the Cuban Pavilion of the Cite Internationale Universitaire, a vast complex where students from all over the world lived in various national pavilions. (This is not the place to describe what it was like living among the Cubans. In brief, it was a trip and a half.) The Cite had some terrible concrete tennis courts with steel nets. Moreover, they were always occupied by the cliques of various kinds. I explained the problem to Michel, and he had an idea. We were at the Ecole Polytechnique, an institution founded by Napoleon to train military engineers. Michel was a graduate. But the school had a very strong tradition in science, especially mathematics. Michel knew that one of the physics professors, Louis LePrince-Ringuet, was also a fanatical tennis player. He put my case to LePrince, and I was invited for an interview.

LePrince was a remarkable fellow. He was not an especially distinguished physicist. He once told me that he got as far as he had because the best people in his generation had been killed in the war. I learned that he meant the First World War. He was born in 1901 and died in the year 2000. He specialized in cosmic rays and had no use for theories, none of which he understood. But he managed to become a kind of avatar for French physics. He was elected to everything in France and invited to give talks, almost impossible to listen to, at international conferences such as the one at Aix. I stated my case, and LePrince said he would take me to his club where I could play a couple of sets with him. Then, if I liked what I saw, he would arrange a temporary membership for me.

The first part of this came to pass. He turned out to be a very stubborn opponent, a good club player. I loved what I saw of the club ” many wonderful red clay courts, along with a fine dining room, graced by very elegant and attractive women. “Yes,” I said, “Yes.”

The problem was that the club said “no.” I was not an ambassador or anything else, and they were not catering to itinerant Americans. But LePrince was not one to be told “no.” He pulled various strings and I got a full membership to the club at the diplomatic rate. It was heaven. But before I could enter “paradiso” there was a long period in “purgatorio.”

Although I was studying hard, my French was still very wobbly. It embarrassed me, so I found it hard to start up a conversation. I did not know anyone at the club apart from Le Prince and, having done his duty, he had returned to his usual group. A pleasant English-speaking French fellow finally took pity on me and we played several times. On one occasion, while we were taking showers, he asked me what I thought of French women. I didn’t really know any to speak of, so I muttered that they seemed very nice. He amplified. “I mean the married ones,” he said. “When you get tired of them, you can send them back to their husbands.” I was now in the Big League.

I soon came across another American member. His name was Wayne Van Vorhees. He had, as far as I could tell, two sources of income. He had bit parts in French films where he played Italian gangsters, and he got money by playing in amateur tennis tournaments. This was at a time when there was a fiction that tennis players did not get paid for playing these tournaments. They all got “expense” money that increased the farther along they got in the draw. The good ones made a very decent living out of it.

Van Vorhees had actually played Wimbledon. He told me that when he first joined the club no one would play with him because they did not think he was good enough. They had never seen him play. Finally someone did, whom he beat 6-0, 6-0. He then went through the entire roster of the club with similar results. There was one exception, Budge Patty, who in 1950 had won both Wimbledon and the French Open. Patty was living in Paris and he and van Vorhees practiced together a lot. Van Vorhees and I often had dinner together at the club. I kept needling him and saying that he was afraid to play me. One evening he said, “I am tired of this. We are going to play.”

You could play at night on the well-lit indoor courts. We started about 7 p.m. and quit about 11. I am not sure how many sets we played but I do not remember winning a point. It was not just that he hit the ball hard, but they were all within a few inches of a line. You would run like crazy to get one back, only to find it returned to the other line. This was also true of his serve. Van Vorhees explained that in tennis at his level they all had very big serves. The difference was in the ability to return. That is what distinguished the players. I wrote about him some years ago in The New Yorker. He called me from Florida. He was still playing and winning senior tournaments. I have no idea what has become of him.

In 1961, after my return from France, I began writing for the aforementioned New Yorker. A whole group of us joined the magazine at about the same time. They included writers like Renata Adler, Michael Arlen, Henry Cooper, Jane Kramer, Ved Mehta, John McPhee and Calvin Trillin. There were also artists such as Frank Modell and Jim Stevenson. The late Brendan Gill, then the New Yorker’s resident man about town, took an interest in our social lives. I felt that he took a little too much interest in mine after he propositioned one of my girlfriends. Brendan thought that I might like to join one of his clubs, The Century Association. This was at a time when I had just moved back to New York and did not know any women. I thought that the Century might be a splendid place to meet some. Brendan took me to lunch, and I quickly ascertained that there were none. In fact, the Century did not admit any until 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that unless the club went “distinctly private” ” meaning that it could no longer rent out its club rooms for public functions ” women had to be admitted. I decided after this lunch that the Century was not the place for me. I could do much better by joining the Museum of Modern Art and having soulful discussions with women about the meaning of life while standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica.

Around 1970, my New Yorker buddy Ved Mehta, who had been a Centurian for several years, asked if I would like to join. This time I was interested because I had by then developed an active social life in New York. I looked into it and discovered that the Century had grown out of something called the Sketch Club, which had been founded by people like Winslow Homer, who had a common interest in art. The Century itself was founded in 1846 and had broadened its membership to include authors and editors as well as newspaper people and patrons of the arts. Ved informed me that I would need to give him the names of 10 members who might write a letter of recommendation for me. He showed me the membership book and while many of the names were familiar, I hardly knew any of them. We finally cobbled together nine, mainly New Yorker people, and now needed a 10th. Once again I looked at the membership book and came across the name of George Plimpton. I had met George a few times at Harvard and recalled having played tennis with him. He had also invited me to his house with a large group of people to listen to Bobby Kennedy, who was just launching his presidential campaign. On this basis I suggested that Ved try him.

Ved showed me the letter he had gotten. Plimpton said that I sounded like a very interesting fellow and that he would like to meet me some time. Finally, a friend of my father, whom I had never met, wrote saying that while he did not know me personally, anyone who was my father’s son would make an excellent Centurian. Thus, in 1974, I became a member, another of the best decisions I have ever made.

The Century has reciprocal relations with similar clubs in various locations. There are, for example, four in London. I have visited two, the Garrick and the Athenaeum. The Garrick, which was founded in 1831, is named after the great 18th-century actor David Garrick. Its members, all male, lean heavily toward people in the theater or films. I went there a couple of times after matinees ” it is located in the theater district ” for tea. On one occasion there were three men seated at a card table, all of whom looked like people I had seen as character actors in British films. One of them asked if I played bridge. I said that I didn’t, but would be glad to play chess with any of them. There were no takers.

The Athenaeum, which was founded in 1823 and finally got around to admitting women in 2002, is quite different. It used to be known as clergymen’s club because of a large number of bishops that belonged. But it now has many scientists, artists and intellectuals of every stripe. It also has bedrooms. These are rather modest affairs, but with all the essentials and they are a fraction of the price of a London hotel. You also get to use the club facilities including the dining room. On one of the evenings, while I was staying at the club, there was an entertainment put on by the members. It was wonderful. There were small piano recitals, poetry readings and singing. Best of all was a fellow who got up to read what seemed at first like a serious historical document. It was an explanation of why British railway tracks have the width they do. The reason he said was that the trains were originally drawn by horses and the tunnels ” and hence the tracks ” were just wide enough to admit a team of horses. He then said that because of this the British deterrent nuclear rockets could not be hauled by rail because they were too wide to fit through the tunnels, whose size had been determined by the horses. All of this was said with great seriousness. I love this kind of deadpan British humor and was near convulsed.

We also have a sister club in Paris with the incredibly complex name Cercle d l’Union interalliee. It was founded in 1917 just before the First World War ended. It seems to have had women members from the beginning. My French friend from the Tennis Club of Paris explained to me that the difference between British and French clubs was that the British clubs tried to keep women out while the French clubs tried to induce as many as would join. It is located on the Rue Faubourg Saint Honore next to the British Embassy, which in turn is next to the Elysee Palace where the French president presides. The first time I went, even though I knew the address, I couldn’t find it. The entrance is so anonymous that I went right by it. Once I found it, I saw that the entry led into a large courtyard (See the photo ). Nothing has changed except the cars. There was a very elegant building surrounding the courtyard. I think that this is characteristic of old money in France ” its possessors try to hide it. I was once invited to LePrince’s for dinner. It was the same thing. The mansion in which he lived was hidden from the street by a high stone wall.

I had no idea of what to expect at the club. I showed my Century membership card, filled out a form, and was given a temporary “laissez passe.” The club rooms were wonderfully furnished in a style that suggested the beginning of the last century. What caught me by surprise was the swimming pool. It is an Olympic-size pool that, although enclosed, seems to extend back into the garden. Near the pool is a buffet with wonderful choices. There is also a formal dining room that serves food as good as any I have ever had in Paris. I once took a friend there for dinner. While we were eating, a dapper fellow came up and introduced himself as the Count Jean de Beaumont. He explained that he was president of the club and wanted to welcome us. I go back any time I am in Paris, and unlike my first visit, always remember to bring a bathing suit.

I took my Ph.D. in physics in spring 1955. I spent the next two years as the “house theorist” for the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory. It was not clear what this meant so I simply did my own work. I did enough so that, in spring 1957, I was accepted for the fall semester at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. I spent the summer as an intern at Los Alamos and then drove cross country to Princeton, arriving, as one might imagine, in a rather disheveled state. I went to the main building to get the keys to my new apartment and to be told that Oppenheimer, the director, wanted to see me. This seemed totally unlikely but I was told that indeed it was true.

He was in his office dressed in one of those immaculate suits he had tailored at Langrock, the Princeton bespoken tailor. The first thing he said to me was, “What is new, and firm, in physics?” What I knew that was new was not firm, and vice versa, and I had no idea of what to say when the phone rang. I thought that this would be a wonderful moment to escape, but he gestured that I should stay. When he hung up he explained, “That was Kitty,” a reference to his wife. “She has been drinking again.” Now I really did not know what to say and he dismissed me, noting that in his house he had a “few pictures” he thought I might like to look at some time.

I had no idea what he was talking about but a couple of months later I was invited to the Oppenheimers for a cocktail party. It was clear that the invitation had been by alphabetical order except for a few real guests such as the governor of New Jersey and the novelist John O’Hara. It was then that I saw it ” the Van Gogh in the illustration above ” on his wall. It was hard to believe ” a Van Gogh on someone’s living room wall. (A few years later, I had dinner at the art dealer Ben Heller’s apartment. He had married an old friend of mine. He had Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” on the wall of his dining room. I could not help thinking what would happen if someone got ketchup on it. Would anyone notice? Heller sold the painting to a museum in Australia for what was then a record price.)

When I came to write Oppenheimer’s biography, I discovered that his father, who had made a good deal of money in the clothing business, had bought three Van Goghs. This was early and the prices were not yet astronomical. When he died, Robert inherited two, the one above and “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux,” which he sold. His brother Frank inherited one, “First Steps (After Millet),” which he eventually sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The ones that Oppenheimer inherited are now in the possession of private collectors, and I suppose they are in someone else’s living room.

In May 1889, Van Gogh committed himself to the mental hospital Saint-Paul-de Mausole, a few miles from Saint Remy de Provence. It was in a former monastery and was set among the fields of the kind he painted in Oppenheimer’s painting. In the year he was there he produced 142 paintings, some of his greatest and some of the greatest paintings ever done. He lived in two adjoining cells with barred windows and occasionally took supervised walks. This was his universe. It is, as I have said, not far from Saint Remy and not far from Les Baux.

Indeed, on our way from Les Baux to Saint Remy, where we would be spending the night, we bicycled to the hospital. The actual rooms that Van Gogh occupied are apparently still in use, but we were given a guided tour of the sites he painted. Our guide was an attractive and very knowledgeable young woman. Her task was to show us what Van Gogh saw ” the fields, the flowers, the hills, the stone houses. I kept wanting to tell her that it was impossible. No one ever saw what Van Gogh saw either before or after he saw it ” never. I kept thinking of the line from Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”: “I mean the bells the children could hear were inside them.”

I have a genetic deficiency that may run in my family. I have no interest in ruins. I have been shown ruins on at least five continents. They have been explained to me until I am blue in the face. I just can’t, as a rule, work up any interest. My mind freezes.

An exception are the Etruscans. They seem like they were a delightful people ” much given to wine, women and song ” until the Romans took them over. The Romans adopted a good deal from the Etruscans, including most of their alphabet, which actually had been invented by the Phoenicians. The Etruscans lost their language, and we still haven’t fully deciphered it. I will go out of my way to see an exhibition of Etruscan mirrors or nearly anything else. On a bike trip I took to Italy, one of our guides was kind enough to drive me up to a village on top of a very steep hill where there was reputed to be an Etruscan tomb. It was empty; all the good artifacts had been taken to museums in Florence. But the view was awesome. That is about the limit of my interest in ruins.

On the other hand, when I used to take bike trips with my friend Bil Dunaway, I had to accept the fact that there was no ruin that Dunaway would not go out of his way to see. I cannot tell you the number of impossible roads we biked up to see stelae with inscriptions that neither of us could decipher. It was worse than those games you used to get for your birthday with no instructions as to how to play them. Given all this, you will perhaps understand what happened one evening in Athens. We were walking to dinner under a full moon with the Parthenon glowing above us. Dunaway was pointing at it and banging on about the Ionic and the Doric and God knows what. I interrupted the flow by asking, “What else does it do?” Dunaway’s response is unprintable.

This is our day for ruins. The Romans left all sorts of dreadful ruins in Provence. If they had had any decency they would have helped the Goths clean up the mess. As it is, you have the detritus of roads, villages, aqueducts and viaducts and those awful bridges. Much of this comes together in the Pont du Gard. It was made without mortar. Why? It should have fallen down long ago. But there it is, attracting tourists like moths to a flame. They have no more idea what to make of it than I do. The best are the teenagers who jitter about like a pack of bonobo monkeys. I would like to sit them all down in a room and ask them what the hell they think they are doing here. What the hell am I doing here? I buy a sandwich that has the consistency and taste of sandpaper and head toward Avignon and the anti-popes.

I love the idea of the anti-popes. It somehow reminds me of anti-matter.

My Harvard classmate, the late Harold Furth, who was a very distinguished physicist, wrote a poem which was first published in The New Yorker. I think he was the first physicist ever to publish something there. I was the second. Here is Harold’s poem, “The Perils of Modern Living”:

Well up above the tropostrata,

there is a region stark and stellar,

there, on a streak of anti-matter

lived Dr. Edward Anti-Teller.

Remote from Fusion’s origin,

he lived unguessed and unawares

with all his antikith and kin,

and kept macassars on his chairs.

One morning, idling by the sea,

he spied a tin of monstrous girth

that bore three letters: A.E.C.

Out stepped a visitor from Earth.

Then shouting gladly o’er the sands,

met two who in their alien ways

were like as lentils. Their right hands

clasped, and the rest was gamma rays.

Harold, incidentally, was the director of the controlled fusion project at Princeton.

In the late 14th century there were three popes, one in Rome, one in Pisa and one in Avignon. Which of these were the anti-popes is a bit in the eye of the beholder. I have a vision of the three of them on “Hardball,” debating with each other and Chris Matthews, none of them being able to get a word in edgewise. After its construction in the mid-14th century, the Avignon pope lived in a rock pile over looking the Rhone.

It is considered to be the finest example of Gothic architecture, although that appellation has nothing to do with Goths. They were too busy pillaging to construct much of anything. It is now a first-class tourist trap. For several euros you can follow a designated route through several floors of completely empty cavernous rooms. There isn’t a trace of humanity anywhere. After the first few rooms I thought that I had grasped the idea and wanted out, only to find that every time I tried a shortcut, I was stopped by a guard dressed like a priest. The only way out was through the gift shop. The gift I am looking for is fresh air.

The weather in Provence is rather odd. The average rain is average but it falls in bursts. There are several French equivalents for the phrase, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” “Il pleut des grenouilles / des cordes/ comme une vache qui pisse.” (It’s raining / frogs /ropes /like a pissing cow.)

String theory in French is “La theorie des cordes.” It’s funny about animals. To stand someone up on a date is to “poser un lapin,” to place a rabbit.

There is nothing funny about the mistral. It is a wind that originates somewhere in the Atlantic. It blows south over the Alps, where it is cooled off by the Alpine glaciers, so it arrives in Provence like a frozen blast that can last two or three days. It can be very strong. Indeed, one of our guides on this bike trip told us that on some occasions he has had to forbid people from riding because the wind would knock them over. Especially dangerous are the bridges over the Rhone. The mistral comes down the Rhone as if it were a wind tunnel. On the day we biked to Avignon there was the mistral. I walked my bike over the bridges.

You must all know the song, “Sur le pont d’Avignon”:

On y danse, on y danse,

Sur le pont d’Avignon,

On y danse tous en rond

On the bridge of Avignon,

we all dance there, we all dance there.

On the bridge of Avignon,

we all dance there in the round

I have always disliked this song immensely. The chorus drones on like a dentist’s drill. I started to write my own song. It has the title “I Missed Her in the Mistral in Marseille,” but I can’t think of the music. Where is Cole Porter when I need him ?

Readers of this newspaper with long memories, and time on their hands, may remember a Dispatch that I published a few years ago describing a ski trip that I took to Zermatt with a friend whom I identified only as “S.” I noted that while “S” is an excellent skier, I am, as the French would say, “une patate” ” a term that is often associated with a certain legume.

It wasn’t always that way. Before the new skis came in, the ones that are shaped like toboggans, I could nearly hold my own. In fact, over the course of time, long before our trip, I had skied every run in Zermatt that was not actually black. But on this trip there were no decent non-shaped skis to rent. The net result of this was that I could not ski anything. “S” and I worked out a modus vivendi. I went for walks, in which Zermatt abounds, and we would meet for lunch at some pleasant ski restaurant. It worked out quite nicely for all concerned.

My thing is bicycle trips. Dunaway first got me interested in the 1980s when we went to Bali. It was like biking in a sauna with snakes. I have never seen such a collection of snakes outside a reptile house in a zoo. Ever since, I have done at least one bike trip a year. I am no Floyd Landis, but by now I have built up a certain amount of experience. “S” is not a bike person, or was not a bike person. But I managed to persuade her to come on this trip. I was a bit concerned because she had never used a modern bike with all the gears and the rest. I thought we could train in Aspen, but because of the weather, and whatever, our training consisted of one ride. “S” rented a hybrid at Aspen Velo, got some instruction from the proprietor about the gears and brakes, and then we headed off on the Rio Grande trail, which is now a kind of paved highway.

“S” is a very good athlete with an excellent sense of balance, so she had no trouble in the actual riding of the bicycle. One time I slowed down to let her catch up, and she asked me not to do that because it only slowed her down. My guess is that she was still getting used to the brakes and thought that she might run into me. However, her biking outfit left something to be desired. She assured me that this was what she had worn when she did the America’s Uphill this year. I attempted to make the point that it was one thing to walk uphill for a couple of hours on the snow and quite another to ride a bicycle for several hours a day for several days in a row. Different portions of the anatomy would be involved, and it was imperative that, at least, she get padded bike pants. She agreed to consider the matter.

This was the last training ride we had before we left for our respective base camps ” mine New York and hers Cincinnati. I got the odd report about visitations to bike stores in Cincinnati and assumed things were proceeding apace. But one evening the phone rang. It was “S.”

“I am not going,” she said. The only thing I could think of was that there must be some sort of serious family crisis. “No,” she explained, “I cannot find a long-sleeved bike shirt.”

“S” has blonde skin and is unwilling to expose it unduly to the sun. She discovered that the only long-sleeved bike shirts that seemed to be available for women were meant to provide warmth, which was the last thing that was wanted, under normal conditions, for a ride in the spring in the south of France.

This was serious, and called for some activity on my part. I then did a Web search and came up with a company in Oregon called “Estrogen” ” yes, that is what it is called ” that specializes in biking clothes for women. I looked at their Web catalog and satisfied myself that they had a decent choice of bike shirts suitable for any climate. I gave “S” their coordinates, and she called them. They were apparently very helpful, and “S” came to France clad head to toe ” there were also socks ” by Estrogen. I was not prepared for the red leg-warmers shown in the somewhat blurry photo above, taken in the mistral. I do not know what you think, but I think they look smashing.

“S” had made it a condition of her coming that we spend an afternoon in Paris going window-shopping in establishments of grande luxe. We began with a swim and lunch at the club. The luxe there is sort of “vielle souche,” but pretty impressive nonetheless. Then we began the walking tour I had figured out. Our first stop was the Hotel Bristol, which is just across from the club. Although it has only a two-star restaurant, judging from its elegant lobby, if I had 600 euros a night to spend, that is where I would go to spend it.

The last hotel stop on the tour was the Plaza Athenee. This does have a three-star restaurant, Alain Ducasse. Its doubles start at 705 euros. We settled for tea in the lobby surrounded by people who looked like they had just disembarked from Monte Carlo. While we were having tea I remembered something. In 1996 Woody Allen brought out a film that was called “Everyone Says I Love You.” It had an all-star cast including none other than Julia Roberts. It came out when Woody’s breakup with Mia Farrow was in full swing, and the negative publicity from that sort of killed the film. What I remembered was that some of the scenes were shot in the Plaza Athenee. I even located an ancient concierge who recalled the occasion. On the way back to our hotel, we looked at Fouquet’s, which was closed. I had fond recollections of going into this luxurious food store before treks to Nepal or Tibet and getting a goodly supply of Fouquet’s instant coffee. There is nothing like a good cup of same when you are camped out in a snowstorm at 18,000 feet.

The pictures above were taken on our way to Avignon. This was the day of the mistral, so we walked our bikes across the bridges that go over the Rhone. “S” had been to Avignon before and knew where to find an outdoor restaurant that would have a salad niçoise. She also knew roughly the area to look for something to buy that she could wear to a wedding this summer. We landed in a shop run by a very amusing chap with the thick accent of the midi. As you go south in France, the accent becomes more and more Italianate, until you come to Corsica where the native language is Corse, a dialect of Italian. In any event, “S” hones in on a scarlet and white jacket that, to my untutored eye, looks like it was inspired by the costumes of toreadors. Many sizes were tried until a perfect fit was located. She and I and the proprietor were in an excellent state of mind when we left the store.

“S” indicated that she wanted to continue shopping and that I would be an impediment. The odd monologue, which I am wont to give, would break her concentration. If there were a Nobel Prize for shopping, I would rank “S” high on the list. She goes her way, and I mine, to the palace of the popes. I am confident that we shall meet again.

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