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Thinking Southern: In France

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Collioure, France sits in a Southwest corner of France, along the Mediterranean Sea, three train stops east of the Spanish border. Tucked into a bay, between some other little village-sized towns, it boasts all good things southern: sunshine, warmth, saltwater swimming, a slower pace. In October the temperatures have cooled a bit, mid-sixties is normal, and tourist-men wear shorts still some days. It’s school vacation time in France, so town is bursting with parents and kids and grandparents here en vacance. It can feel a bit like Disneyland at times with the addition of scooters and bicycles zooming along.

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But this place is also home to locals–including the old men who play boules or petanque  in the gravel parc near the car park mid-day. A small park that may host six separate games simultaniously, each team of four men abides by invisible lines that keep the balls apart and from flying into other players. It seems dangerous to me, but heads are down, concentrating, no one but me worried. They show off a bit when they see me taking photos.


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It is home to women of various ages. Some married with families, some widows who have stayed, expat Brits, French vagabonds. Some gather over coffee  mid-mornings at the Hotel des Templiers in the old town, along the canal that leads to the sea. They share the local newspaper,  L’Independant,  published in Perpignan,  in a sort of village way with the old men at the tables.

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Christie, Jenny and I strike up a conversation in the breakfast bar of the hotel, a sort of girl-talk chat that could happen anywhere. The subject: men. Christy, French,  is twice divorced from South American men and not exactly looking. She is an abstract painter in search of something besides the fantastic light here in the South of France.  “There are handsome men here,” she says, “but they have girlfriends in other places too. Who needs that? Or they are fifteen years older than me. I need to find balance and my work.” She calls the old men by name and smiles at them as they try to steal the newspaper from her this morning. It’s a village thing she says. A sort of flirting. Christy is fifty, barely.

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Christi flanked by historic paintings in the Hotel Templiers  Bar

Jenny, British,  is widowed and trying to decide whether to move somewhere else with increased opportunities both for employment and  companionship. But it’s hard to decide what move to make. “Definitely not back to the UK,” she says. She has owned a home in Collioure for years. She is fifty maybe, and full of sadness. She loved her husband and misses him greatly. It shows in her face, and her whispery voice as she tells her story. She seems adrift.

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It is home to Marie-Helene,  sixtyish  with her white-faced dog named Lily.  I meet Marie-Helene and Lilly at the Laverie, the laundromat.We exchange conversation about the book I am reading by Riad Sattouf. I am excited to meet someone who has read his work. My reading in French is a little slow but it’s working. It’s  a graphic novel in French, and it’s historically political.

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Mme Marie-Helen gives me her take on the newspaper sharing I witnessed this morning. She laughs hard at my report, then says “those men who go to the Hotel Templier in the mornings, they don’t even buy coffee! They just go to read the paper! They are just “radin” (cheap).” (Sort of sounds like rat, but I don’t know that they are related words. I had to look it up later to make sure I understood, but indeed I did the first time.) Marie-Helene is dialed into the village scene. She is a spry contemporary of the paper-reading fellows I am sure. She seems to know a lot about the entire thing, and has lived in Collioure for 45 years. Marital status unknown.

In the night we have a tremblement de terre or a seisme–an earthquake, 4.3 on the richter scale. At 1:30 am it’s not what one anticipates. Heck of a shake, but in the morning I learn Christie and Marie-Helene slept through. I was awake afterwards, waiting for the followup that never arrived. I really don’t care for earthquakes.

A full day later the quake makes front-page news, and we all scramble at the breakfast table to take a look.

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Later I visit Christie’s art studio and Marie-Helen appears suddenly in the tiny rue, with Lily. We chat like old friends although we are mere 48 hour-friends now. It’s like that in Collioure, people just appear.

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Marie-Helen, Lily and Christie; Christie with her painting: copyright Christies Patek Art

Things continue to change in Collioure, although you can’t tell at first glance. The movie theatre I remember from the nineties is gone. There is no hospital or twenty-four hour medical service available. A transient tourist population does not lead to a successful boulongerie or patisserie, says Christy. Most of the restaurants close in December for a few months, some of the hotels too. It becomes a very quiet place with wild winter storms blowing in across the Mediterranean  from Africa. The French spoken here has a Spanish accent.

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And yet it is a place of great beauty and charm, with outdoor cafes that line a boat-launch canal in warm weather, where Catalan specialties fill the menus,  grilled sardines are a favorite, crepes and ice cream cones abound. It’s easy to see why they come. The question is do they stay?


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Category: Indie It Travel

About the Author: Ann Bodle-Nash: A free-lance traveler since the age of 11 months, little moss grows on her soles. With relatives and friends scattered across the globe, she finds frequent excuses to travel. But travel in the West is best--those quiet corners of weirdness are like light to a moth, burning with intensity, encouraging curiosity and discovery. She imagines the glory of 30 days of continuous floating and fly fishing on the Yellowstone River after watching a documentary on same. Currently living in Washington State with her husband.

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