Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Letter "F", Of Course ... *

Having some pears to hand, and vague memories of having seen a tub of mascarpone in the fridge, I'd rather set my heart on a pear and mascarpone tart to follow the roast saddle of lamb: sadly, it was not to be. There was indeed a tub of the stuff, lurking at the back behind a jar of pickled beetroot, and even though I am normally of an optimistic disposition I have to admit that seeing that the use-by date was late August did make me a bit dubious.

But wait, there's worse to come!

So I got it out, and put it on the bench, and finally, being terminally fool-hardy and somewhat retarded on occasion, I opened it. You ever have one of those "It's Alive!" moments? Where something gross and greasy, with a mouth out of Alien that looks like it's borged the waste disposal unit, leaps out of the toilet bowl thirty seconds after you've vomited in there, frantically waving foul tentacles at your face? Well, this was kind of like that, only it was orange, and seemed friendly enough. It heaved itself into the sink and gave a cheery wave as it disappeared down the plug-hole, leaving only the tub and a lingering smell of rotting milk as souvenirs.

And a vague farting noise, which persisted for some time, but personally I put that down to the drains.

Looking back on it, I guess it got opened in Savoie back in June, then made it down here in the half-thawed chilly bin on our epic voyage and promptly got put into the fridge, where it had evidently been lurking with intent (and botulism) ever since. That kind of put dessert on hold: I suppose I shall just have to go and buy some more, but I shall try not to let it get quite so ripe this time. Being accepting of different cultures is one thing, but having lactose-based life-forms squatting the fridge is another.

Out here in the wops we is so far from civilisation that gravity has only recently been installed in some houses in the village (some of the older residents don't actually want it, arguing that being able to float in their wheelchairs up and down the stairwell is in fact rather convenient - think Dalek - but we must move with the times and in any case the mairie has finally coughed up for a bulk delivery which must be got rid of somehow, before the mayor's idiot nephew's wine cellar turns into a proto-black hole, one of the things they don't warn you about in the T&C on Amazon by the way), and we are far enough from any major conurbation that the street lights don't in fact light up the sky, which thanks to the eternal wind is clear and dark blue - which means that we get a wonderful view of the stars, shining so hard.

I am far from being an expert but I can pick out the Pleiades (that's the little fuzzy blob where you can never count how many stars there are if you focus and actually try, but if you look away and pretend not to be paying attention it's obvious that there are in fact seven but I always get paranoid because I'm pretty sure there's one more trying to sneak up on me from behind while I'm looking at the others) and Charlemagne's Wain (which would be the Big Dipper, for those across the pond) and Orion, currently low in the east, is a snip. But I will never see it in quite the same way again, having looked at this.

Anyway, for your general edification and just because I feel like it, back to Perpignan ...which is, in fact, a lovely city. Apart from the bloody wind, which I am told is not - despite appearances - perpetual. In summer, for instance, when you could really appreciate it under the baking sun, it's not there.

So Perpignan was one of those bits of France that used to be Spanish - or vice versa, depending on which side of the frontier you happened to be on, and where the frontier actually was at that point - but that's rather moot because back then neither Spain nor France existed as such so I suppose it just belonged to whoever happened to be living there at the time, which is not so bad if you're talking about a house but could be unsettling for a country. Whatever, Jaime the Nth of Aragon waltzed into the Balearic Isles one day and took over: being a tolerant chap, as things went back in the day, he hardly slaughtered any Jews (he needed their cash to keep coming to fund his wars), and even went so far as to leave the DJs and the ravers undisturbed in Ibiza.

An act which has come in for much criticism from modern historians, who tend to be a moralistic lot and who dislike having to pick their way between recumbent mostly-nude bodies on their way from the cheap hotel to the beach in the mornings. Which just goes to show that they should have taken up something more profitable than ancient history, upon which they would have been able to afford decent holidays in a hotel where the interior walls don't actually fall down if you sneeze in the wrong direction, and the crap that washes up on the beaches is mostly driftwood and not drunken pasty-faced London twenty-somethings after a hard night on booze and ecstasy.

But I digress. This James left Aragon and Catalonia to his eldest son, as is only right and proper, but he happened to have a second son, also name of James (are royalty always that boring when it comes to choosing names?) to whom he left the kingdom (as it now was) of Majorca and associated territories, which just happened to be a few strategic cities on the Mediterranean littoral, Perpignan being one of them. (This went down like a cup of warm snot with the older brother, as you can imagine. They were not, apparently, a happy family.)

Whatever, young James comes into his inheritance when his father shuffles off this mortal coil, has a bride lined up and everything: small problem, no palace. This is important because a) queens like palaces and b) a court with no palace is basically a bunch of people in fancy dress crapping in a paddock which c) may give the peasantry Ideas, never a good thing. Bigger problem, no cash. (See "Jews, extracting money from, wars, for the fighting of" above.)

So they went ahead and built the thing anyway. I'm not saying it was done on the cheap, just that dressed stone costs the earth and takes bloody forever, so they built it with courses of brickwork and flat river stones, laid herring-bone fashion to distribute the weight correctly. And stone facing when and where they had the money, and everywhere else - well, stucco did a pretty good job of covering it up.

It's an impressive heap, all things considered. Vauban, military engineer par excellence, got sent in later on of course, when the Languedoc and Roussillon were assimilated asked to join the kingdom of France (Louis XIV sent an invitation, and "non!" was, apparently, never the correct answer), probably giggled a bit but decided there wasn't much more he could do and settled for fortifying the rest of the city. According to the plans that must have been something: it's all gone now, torn down and used for other things.

(Another thing I did not know: Louie had 3-D relief models built of all the major French cities, with special attention paid to the fortifications. Fairly obviously, they were not 1:1 scale. They were stored in the Louvre, and available for consultation by his generals any time the neighbours or the peasantry started to get uppity. Perpignan has on display a replica of the one Vauban had built.)

But the city got rich: being a port city there was trading, of course, but in the 19th century it got even richer on, of all things, cigarette paper. (Well, to be honest, a couple of families got obscenely rich.) In those days, if you wanted a fag you'd take your paper, cut a square out (for it came in big sheets) and roll the baccy up: now this guy had two brilliant ideas - first was to pre-cut the paper into just the right size, second one was to package it in a cunning cardboard box so that when you pulled one sheet out, a bit of the next sheet was pulled out and sat there shyly, ready to be taken in its turn.

He patented the idea, and came up with a trade-mark: his own initials, with the losange of the city of Perpignan between the two: sadly, everyone thought that the losange was just a capital O and so to this day it's JOB cigarette papers.

In any case there were vast quantities of cash floating about and before developing a social conscience and going off to improve the lot of the poor and indigent (who doubtless deserved to be that way anyway, as witness the fact that they were indeed poor and indigent) it was deemed reasonable and proper to spend it on monumental piles to house the family, the cigarette paper factory and, down in the cellars, the poor and indigent workers. And for some reason, one Viggo Porph-Petersen, from Denmark (or Sweden, whatever, Scandinavian, lots of blondes running about with no tops on in summer), turned up one day and got taken on as architect.

His style was - eclectic. An incestuous coupling between Gothic, Flamboyant and neo-Classical, but the odd thing is that it works. You want turrets? Got turrets! Dormer windows? The cuter the better! Iron ghost-chasers on the mansard roof? Hell, let's have three! Sadly, a lot of his buildings seem to have seen better days, but even dilapidated as some of them are they are wonderful.

Later on art nouveau became the in thing, and one of the major boulevards is still lined with the swanky apartment buildings and private houses from around 1910, and the cinéma Castillet is still standing - and still used as a cinema. Although it did get upgraded to include a sound system, something which would have been redundant back in 1911 when it was built.

The history lesson is over: I am going back to soaking up the sun under the clear blue sky in what's left of this wonderful golden Sunday afternoon, and you lot can get back to your barbecues.

* I know, I know, "What is the capital of France" is definitely a trick question. Just checking you were still awake.

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