Saturday, June 23, 2012

stoop bombs, bathing suits, carousels

Three things:

1. dog shit
France does not have any laws or cultural expectation that one should clean up after their pets. Therefore, I've become familiar with all types of dog shit: neatly piled logs made by large and polite dogs who shamble away from the mess they've made, haunches swaying slowly: shy hershey squirts created by nervous little dogs who don't look back; aggressively messy dark brown patties humming with flies: delicate little nuggets caramelized by the sun; horrific stewy puddles tracked up the street and around the corner by a car; and the crusty poo-pies with a single footprint stamped in the middle.

I've quizzed people who are French or who have lived here a long time, asking them to give me insight into the heart of a culture that so values beauty, yet allows dog poop to accumulate on the streets. And not on side streets, but on the major boulevards of cities like Paris, Cannes, Antibes, and Nice. Not to mention the smaller villages that boast beautiful walkways and cobblestoned streets, their quiet beauty punctuated by a pile of dog shit smack in the center. Many theories, few answers. Some would say that is very French.

It's not unusual to see deposits directly in front of doorways, or on the stoop, and you really have to wonder about people who are okay with leaving that behind for their neighbors. On the other hand, I can think of a few of my own neighbors in Oakland I would love to stoop-bomb with some dog shit. One afternoon, craving a moment of outdoor relaxation, I went to a little park nearby to curl up with my book.  I carefully picked my way through a minefield, looking for a clear spot where I could lay out my towel. I found a bare spot up against a large and leafy tree.  People walked by and looked at me like I was crazy. Stubborn, I stayed for a good 20 minutes before the smell drove me away. Who can read when there is a pile of dog shit in your site line that is so large, it actually has a presence? Unfortunately all outdoor spots in the little town of Vallauris where I am staying are like this. Thankfully they do not allows dogs on the beaches.

2. bathing suits
Vallauris is on the Riviera, which is perfect because I like the beach. The humanity splayed across the sands of the Riviera is an education on what my body will look like someday. Also, what my body used to look like. I'm in that strange middle age, where my youth and seniority are in almost equal play, and I can take great pleasure in committing to neither.

But let me back up and tell you about the bathing suit I bought this spring: for the first time in my life, I bought a tankini. I have worn a bikini my entire life and for me, a tankini is a half-assed attempt to spare witnesses of my slow decline. I refuse to wear a one-piece, which I've always believed makes me look like a squashed fruit. A tankini is the halfway house of the bathing suit world. I'm willing to be more modest, but I still want the option to flash some belly.

 In France, even if the bod is not as tight as it as 50 years ago, that is no reason not to show off as much of it as possible. The beaches are covered with old people wearing next to nothing. I saw these 75+ year old ladies hobbling across the sand in the little bikini bottoms and no top on at all and I thought, "fuck this tank." It's way too much suit for the Riviera, and way too much suit for me, period. Witness my slow decline, because that's what we are all doing, together. Declining. I bought a teeny bikini top at the Monoprix for 15 euro for those moments when I feel like wearing a  top.  I may be 41, but I can still rock it, especially when I stand next to these old Riviera ladies

3. carousels
Old-fashioned merry-go-rounds are in almost every city I've visited. These are elaborately crafted carousels that can easily be over 100 years old with hand painted images and beautifully stylized details. I have a deep attraction for these carousels. My love for them are a symptom of my overall love for the embellished details of Europe.  Homes that look like cakes, the delicate filigree of the iron balconies adorning apartment buildings, the vaulted and faceted ceilings of ancient cathedrals, the colorful scalloped edges of awnings pulled over sidewalk cafes everywhere you go. It's like nothing is too small, nothing is too mundane to deserve some extra attention and beautifying. It's living the beautiful life.

I was thinking about these carousels as I made a stack of cake stands that I made in the shape of cakes.  I did not even begin to go as far with it as I could. There's always a part of me that wants to restrain myself if I start going for insane embellishment. I don't want to seduce with eye candy. I like to seduce with perfect form and function. Thats why I'm very hard to pick up in bars, or at least I was back when I was a single girl.  I don't want people coming on to me because they think I'm pretty. I want people to come on to me because they think I'm smart with a great fuckin' personality. This always leads to conversation that kills any chance of anyone getting laid.

What does this have to do with my work? Everything, really. I want my pieces to be pretty, but also be intelligent and functional. What does this have to do with carousels? I will let you know as soon as I figure it out.  .

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

take the time

Another week has gone by in the life of my France residency. I've been wrestling with all kinds of fear. Fear that time is going by too quickly and all the things I want to make will not get made while I am here.  And then, fear that I seem to care more about getting down to the beach every day than I do about making stuff. Where's my drive, my ambition? In the face of a clear blue sea, I have neither.

the beach at golfe-juan, 8 am
I realize that this residency is all about tapping into another well of work, but not today (pas aujourd'hui) . And not tomorrow either (et pas demain) (Sorry, but these are actually phrases I've learned from my French audio tapes.) Maybe next month, or at the end of the summer, or some other time that takes place in the future. I like the idea of letting go of the need to tap my well, the creative reserve.

 After a few days of waffling around last week, and feeling some guilt that I was working on my tan instead of ideas, I figured out that it is best to just stay in the moment. Open the mind and heart, that's all.
picasso in antibes
While I'm at the beach, it's another opportunity to observe the French culture in action. There is one thing I really love about the beaches around here: they are pretty packed with people, but they are very quiet. French people, in general, are very quiet compared to Americans.  That's not a big surprise. I notice the same thing at restaurants. The place where I live with the other artists-in-residence is right next door to a very busy and popular restaurant, and dinner service can easily go past 11 or 12 at night. But again, the patrons are so low-key that I often fall asleep to the sound of French voices, babbling so quietly that it almost sounds like a stream or a fountain. Very soothing.

rae and chris at cafe du coin
I love the pace of eating in a restaurant in France.  Lunch usually runs for 2 hours, easily. Dinner can go for 3- 4 hours. And the staff expects that pace, there is no hurry to flip your table, that's not how they clock it. As an American, the pace can be a little disconcerting at first, because we are used to very fast and attentive service, and if you have no idea what to expect, it can seem like you are being ignored. Mais non, that's not the case at all. You are being allowed to take your time, the biggest luxury and gift that you can ever be given.

When the residents all go out for dinner, we've started making it a game to see how French we can be with our eating habits.  To make a dinner last for 3+hours, you have to take a tiny bite of food, and then put your fork down while you chew.  When you are done chewing, you talk for a bit.  Then you take sip of wine and talk some more. Then, another small bite.  Food usually comes out pretty slowly too, and in courses, so you are not suddenly flooded with a big plate of food. We were very proud of ourselves last night: we were seated at 8:15 for a special dinner of bouillabaisse, and we walked out of there way past midnight, outlasting all the French people who were seated around the same time. I may not go home with any new work, but I will definitely go home with a new approach to how I'm serving Thanksgiving this year.

studio, neglected

Sunday, June 03, 2012

brief from vallauris

I've been in Vallauris for about 10 days now, and I've been finding my rhythm and establishing a pace. I'm the type of person that tries to integrate as much as I can into my surroundings.  It's like adjusting my personal frequency, so I can tune in more acutely to what is going on around me. But still, I never feel more American than I do when visiting a foreign country. 

This is the thing about travel: the everyday things you do at home can be fraught with cultural misunderstanding and confusion when you are doing stuff in a place where you don't speak the language. I think that's why a lot of people don't like to travel. It can be exhausting.

My fellow residents and I rented a car to explore the Avignon region, and renting a car meant an encounter with a foreign gas station. A gas pump is a gas pump is a gas pump, but it's the small differences that can throw you for a loop.  I did some research ahead of time so I would know the French name of the type of gas we needed to purchase (diesel=gazole) and a general idea of what to expect, but still, the loops came fast and hard.   

First of all, there were about 12 pumps and 4 islands, but only one way to approach, one line.  No organization, no first come first served, just one line that quickly devolved into chaos as you snaked your way closer to the pumps. It was slow going. You had to wait. This immediately made me anxious, especially when we were expertly bumped in line by someone driving a Citroen, almost certainly a native who could smell our tentativeness.

I closely watched everybody fill up, looking at what they were doing and how they were handling the whole gas pump interaction.  When it was our turn, I was armed with observational knowledge and ready for battle.  After we figured out how to open the gas door (something my husband, Andrew, would know by simple osmosis but I have to read the owner's manual to figure out.) I pulled out the hose, stuck it in the tank, and pulled the gas trigger.  Nothing.  I looked at the little window that tells you the amount of gas you are pumping and how much it's costing, and noticed the last person's transaction was still there. Was there a button I needed to push? A lever I needed to pull?  I ran my hands over the pump like a blind person. Nothing. I looked around at other people. Everyone was pumping gas, and seemed to be avoiding my eyes. I pulled the gas trigger a few more times.  James, one of my fellow residents and on the gas mission with me,  commented that the person who was in front of us before had seemed to be standing around for a minute, so maybe we just needed to wait. 

James, by the way, was unfazed by all of this.  He was intrigued by the level of female beauty that was circling around us in this little gas station, and temporarily distracted.  I was readying myself for a major confrontation with the gas pump or worse, ask for help, when the window suddenly zeroed out, and the gas started pumping.

The price increased at an alarming rate.  I don't know if you have ever purchased fuel by the liter, but it's a small unit of measure, and the price quickly went from zero to 50 euro for less than a half tank of gas. Again, expected, but still rather shocking to experience in real life.

Not only was there a single line to get to the gas pump, there was a single line of cars to get to the lady to pay for the gas. "Oh my god," I moaned, as I again watched the chaos of little euro cars leaving the pumps and jockeying for position in the pay line, "how can people live like this?  Why doesn't somebody do something about this? How many people get punched at 8 in the morning at the gas station? You have to block out your whole morning just to go get gas!" God, I felt so American, but if there is one thing we have down that the French do not, it's convenience.

"Hmmmmm..." James said, as he waved a pretty lady into the line, ahead of us.

My studio work is going very slowly, because I have frankly been spending way more time checking the temperature of the Mediterranean Sea with my entire body, comparing cheeses, seeing where the best farmer's market is in this region, and running daily tests to see how much French wine I can drink before I get a hangover. As it turns out, a whole lot.