Monday, January 4, 2010

Curious characters

Arles is a small town. Amongst the virtues and riches of a small town is the range of our own personal town fools, or curious folk. Living in Arles for more than ten years, I came into contact with a clutch of interesting individuals who are known, appreciated, protected, and fully accepted as belonging to Arles. They range from completely coucou, to simply mildly deranged, to highly colorful. None are dangerous. None are scorned. The locals call them nias or niase, fada, or maybe they simply think that une favouille mange leur jugement (a crab eats their brain, i.e. a screw loose). I don't think I ever truly experienced this before in my prior city and town lives. New Rochelle is simply too large and too suburban. Seattle had its downtown folk -- enough to please the local photographer population. But did we protect and accept them? We don't have the naked cowboy singing on Times Square, nor do we have the flamboyant cross-dressers of the Village. But I can honestly and proudly say we have ours and we cherish them.

When I first arrived there was a delightful woman perhaps in her late 60s, or low 70s, who would arrive at the market on her moped. Made-up in bright pastel tints, her helmut under her arm, she would make her first stop at the police station. Striding in a most official way, she would salute the officers as her fellow colleagues, and then head out to visit on the market. I would often see her leaning upon her elbow at the Charcutier Milhau -- the best-known in town -- with its owner and patriarch graciously listening to her, shooting the wind if you will. Our favorite vegetable seller -- Jean-Denis -- had pride of place in her Saturday morning routine, stationed as he was just in front of the gendarmerie. She didn't make much sense when she spoke, but that never bothered anyone. She was such a harmless and delightful fixture to market day. It has been years now though that she is either no longer with us, or perhaps just no longer able to come on her own.

César is no longer with us either. Already in his mid-eighties when I met him, you couldn't miss him (and many a photographer visiting for the photo festival in July captured his likeness) with his prominent dyed black mustache and his gentle demeanor. Nor did you pass in front of his former tailor's shop windows plastered with images of Pancho Villas and Clark Gable (something about those mustaches...) without giving it a long glance. He would come to the local bar in his white cotton pants and bright shirts, joining Erick's friends for a drink or simply an afternoon chat. My father-in-law told me tales of his younger years when he'd been rather notorious for having been caught photographing under-age girls. But at the time of my arrival, he was simply a gentle fixture. Friends would take him to his doctors' visits, keep an eye out to see if he was okay, and simply include them in their morning coffee and afternoon pastis rituals.

We've a fragile and ever-smiling cross-dresser as well. His hair was short on top and long in back last I saw. Quickly recognizable in his belly button revealing tops and tight white jeans, string underwear occasionally visible from the rear. He walks a bit uncertainly down the street in his high heeled clogs and sandals. Always pleasant, discreet, gracious, we worry when we don't see him, hoping he isn't sick, or otherwise indisposed. He's not very tall, and doesn't seem very strong physically (health-wise). At times he tries some make-up -- mascara and lipstick --, but in general, his style choices keep to the clothing and hair. Again, just like César, he is accepted and included at our local café. A fixture on the Place Voltaire.

And then there's Harmonie. Whereas the first three were relatively discreet, if highly visual presences in our town, Harmonie is someone you hear before you see her. Tiny, skinny, a little old lady with straggly gray hair, she lives in the local home for the not completely there folk and is free to roam the town during the day. She has a preference for the bar down our street, and I'm afraid does imbibe perhaps more than her minimal body-weight can handle. I try not to cross regards with her as she swishes her hips agressively home from the bar. When this has occurred, I've been treated to a stream of French cursing and vulgarity to turn my ears redder than a cooked lobster. She's really quite amazing. If you slow down and just listen, you can learn quite a bit -- as a foreigner that is. She is as harmless as they come, but has a terribly agressive front that led me to turn in the other direction whenever I spied her. Yet she too, is protected, known, watched, and assisted when necessary. She may be a bit wacko, but she's our wacko. And as pleasantly as a neighbor will come to our door to warn us our car lights are still on, he would equally accompany her back to her group home should she be too wobbly to get there on her own two feet.

In perhaps the colorful category, but completely sane and in command of all her powers is a marvelous woman who is to be seen everywhere and anywhere a cultural event is happening. With a red dot in the middle of her forehead, her gypsy style skirts and jewels, and her three dogs in their red bandana collars, she is a visual delight, and -- if you will -- a stamp of approval to the worthiness of your chosen show. Some say she used to be the editor-in-chief of Vogue in Paris, or if not that, a higher-up in the fashion world, before choosing her relatively simple life in this southern town. She most definitely has a strong sense of style and presence. Head high, her dogs in tow, she is on a first-name terms with the mayor and many of the movers and shakers in town. If I remember rightly, I believe she did us the favor to sign papers to permit Leo to attend the kindergartent across from town hall -- outside our district. I missed that meeting, but, her kindness and good will are not to be forgotten.


Airelle said...

hello Madeleine,
back to Avignon? hope your trip was fine. I'll be back in Provence tomorrow - if I get there from the snow!
your text got me thinking about a lady that sits many a time in a Forum square cafe terass with her dogs. used to be a miss or something, very colorfull lady. owns the house behind the hotel de ville, full of sign posts, flags and other cuddly bears on the front, see the one I mean? tourists allways stop in front of the house to photograph it, it's a real landmark. a town is the richer for these characters, what a drag if everyone was "normal".

Cyril said...


it's always a pleasure to read your blog... nice description of Arles and its inhabitants.
Did you already visit Uzès ? It's near Avignon and you'll enjoy it ?

Cyril, a little french which learns english with your blog

Madeleine Vedel said...

Cyril, I'm glad my blog is helping your English! I do know Uzès, but I do not know it well enough to know its characters. I've only visited three times, to lunch, to wander a bit, to see the countryside. Take care!