Trans-Atlantic Travelogue #12 – Olivet, France

The Festival of Music and the Muskrat Lovers
Olivet, France
June 27, 2001
Scoreboard: 12,205 miles; 6 Countries, 20 states

This has been a relatively slow period of our journey, so let me open by saying a few things about speaking foreign languages. I am no linguist. I lived in Germany for nearly thirteen years as a kid, so I speak some German. I lived in Ocean Beach (San Diego) for six years and went to Tijuana a few times, so I can order beer and tequila in Spanish.

I took French 101 my first semester of college, 21 years ago. I got a D. I had to promise the professor not to take French 102 in order to get the D. My French has never been, how do you say, magnifique.

But I remember, on those rare occasions that I attended the class, the professor drilling us unmercifully on pronunciation. Oui was pronounced “ooooo-eeeeee,” not “we,” or “wheee.”

How shocking to realize that all of the locals just kind of slur “way” like South Dakota cowboys with beanstalks between their teeth.

I brought this up with the head of the local Volkswagen club, who will figure prominently in this week’s installment. “Yes,” he said, and in school I was taught to say ‘Yuh-esss.’ I go to America and all I hear is ‘yeah,’ and ‘yup,’ and ‘uh-huh.'” Quelle scandale!

Of course, Europe is a wildly diverse frontier, culturally and spiritually. Lots of different sounds in lots of different languages. Some of the languages don’t line up particularly well. Like the difference between jumping and rolling.

So far my favorite is the Danes trying to speak French. They sound like furbies with fifteen clothespins on their tongues. “Bweee-ach-eyow-uh-err-errr,” is the typical rendering of bonjour, which itself has a significantly different pronunciation in Orleans and Lourdes. Think of someone from Gros Tete, Louisiana on the phone with a townie from Bunkport, Maine.

Myles getting a haircut

Myles is better behaved at haircuts than his father was

There has been some excitement, beyond my contemplation on the variety of human sounds and how it can translate into so few notes, musically. Myles had his first haircut.

Summer solstice has, in France, twenty years ago, been declared The Festival of Music. Every year on the summer solstice musicians gather in town squares and strut their stuff. The Minister of Culture did it. Maybe America should have a Minister of Culture, I hereby nominate Kurt Vonnegut. He writes, he paints, and he recently accompanied Fishman of Phish during a vacuum cleaner solo.

Anyway, the Volkswagen President, Norbert, has taken it upon himself to shepherd us around Olivet and Orleans while the local Alfa Romeo mechanic fixes up Sweet Pea. He’s a very kind and sensitive man, obviously, and can’t bear to stand such a brilliant rush into European culture stalled at a camp site. So off to downtown Orleans and The Festival of Music.

The Festival is a great idea, if only because it’s a holiday and everyone gets out on the town. Restaurants are packed, bars have people lined up out the doors, the sidewalks are crowded, the ice cream concession was doing several months worth of business. The Minister of Culture figured out how to stimulate the economy.

Statue equestre de Jeanne d'Arc

Local kids party at the feet of Statue equestre de Jeanne d’Arc

We started out at Place du Martroi (Square of the Martyrs), so named because it has been the site of so many politically motivated public executions. A statue of Joan of Arc graces the square. I asked if she was from Orleans.

“No,” Norbert laughed, “but she drove the British out so everyone loves her.”

Kind of like Americans and George Washington, I guess. The problem with making the world your empire is that eventually every locality has a patron saint, who drove you out.

The gratitude of the French may be even more heartfelt than most. The tourist bureau considers Maison de Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc’s house) to be a major tourist attraction, even though the link between the martyr and the real estate is tenuous at best. “Joan of Arc slept here for a month or so while holding off those awful Brits in 1429” would be accurate.

The music was very loud and fast for the most part. My favorite way. Punk, grunge, and speed metal have found a home in the hearts of the youth of France! The big difference that I noticed is that there is an emphasis on the band making loud comprehensive noises, as opposed to the American tradition of having a lead guitarist wanker around and noodle in glorious celebration of the individual.

Most of the bands were of the garage variety, could never get booked on Sunset Strip. Knew it. Didn’t care. Their friends were dancing. They want to sound like Kurt Cobain, no matter what happened.

The largest crowd surrounded a big brass band, in the middle of the street. The Jules Verne streetcar would occasionally come by, briefly dispersing the crowd and splitting the band, but the band played on and regrouped in its wake.

There were also several religious groups singing spirituals, and one religious group singing children’s songs. They tended to have smaller amps than the rockers but sang with at least equal intensity, and one particularly charismatic leader got a good chorus of “hallelujah” going, which we gladly joined in.

There was no animosity between the groups, even when they were drowning each other out. In fact the crowd, there must have been 30,000 in a few blocks of narrow roads and alleys, was unbelievably well behaved by American standards.

I saw a grand total of zero arguments in progress. I only saw one guy who had obviously drank too much (no, it wasn’t me). There were no desperate young men saying strange and languid things at young ladies, or old ones.

It was very nice. It felt like a big small town gathering.

We eventually made our way down to the spectacular cathedral where Norbert assured me that I lacked sufficient flash to take a decent photo. He was right, perhaps I can take a daylight shot next week.

It’s a beautiful cathedral, it’s very strange to think that one of the mains goals of various invading hordes was to burn it down and/or blow it up. As a result of rebuilding from such outrages it now enjoys an especially appealing mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles.

We left a little after midnight with the party in full swing and no sign of riot cops or police helicopters. I remember in O.B. we didn’t consider a party complete until at least two police helicopters hovered over the place with spotlights. Happened at least once a week.

The French have different priorities, as I learned when we attended the annual Olivet art sale on the river. The art, by locals, ran the gamut from classical to modern and was all reasonably priced. A little girl had a particularly faithful rendering of Matisse’s Blue Nude that I should have picked up for the equivalent of eighty cents. Oh well, if I had she might have stopped producing originals because of their lack of commercial value. I should have got a couple of both…

The most amazing part is that the river walk, several miles along the banks of both sides and several tributaries of the Loiret, was only recently opened to the public. It was previously the property of an old and wealthy family.

Apparently the mayor and town council decided that it would be better used if given to the public, drew up the appropriate paperwork, and gave the landowners a pittance against what the fair market value would be.

“Can’t they sue?” I asked, my head full of imminent domain and takings cases from the states.
“They could. It would be a waste of time,” Norbert explained.

The Retirement Home for Comedians

The Retirement Home for Comedians

Not all of the land had been private property. One especially nice building has long been a retirement home for comedians. It was much nicer than the retirement home for normal people, though both were quite nice.

Speaking of comedians, here comes the city exterminator guy. He’s been laying traps along the Loiret to catch muskrats. There do seem to be quite a few of them.

The girls like the muskrats, though. They’ve been throwing dirt at the traps, springing them, rendering them impotent and thereby allowing the muskrats to get inside and eat the apples with impunity.

Tune in next week. We should be to London, unless we’re arrested for aiding and abetting criminal rodents, or our freshly revived Volkswagen is seized in the name of the people.