Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Snapshots of Montpellier

It's the small things, isn't it?

The woman coming out of her restaurant to put a paper bag of something beside an elderly busker as he packs away his violin to go home.

Two men playing some kind of board game at an outside cafe table. A woman on the Place de la Comedie walking to catch a tram whose skirt flies up in the best Marilyn Monroe style as she crosses over a ventilation grate. The fact that every woman in the place is at least chic, even if only wearing jeans, and mostly beautiful and sexy at almost every age, colour and class.

The melee of street musicians meeting for a chat before they go their separate ways to earn a few more euros elsewhere. The lonely painted horses on the beautiful carousel that for some strange reason suddenly doesn't seem able to capture customers. The bag woman digging into a commercial-sized rubbish container. The troupe from I know not where dancing arms across each other's shoulders at a festival in the park.

The neat green jug of house red in front of me in the Italian restaurant where I'm about to have a pizza and wine meal that probably will leave me plenty of change out of twenty-five euros.

And, of course, the sunshine that has just set in the Mediterranean somewhere beyond Montpellier, which is what allows most of the above to be.

I'm out for pizza because, though I was invited elsewhere, I really have had enough of French uppercrust cuisine on this short trip. That happens. It's an Irish thing, I think, that we really appreciate plain food more than fancy. And anyway, I have my own thing about Italy.

But on this, my first real visit to Montpellier, I'm seriously impressed. It has old and very new architecture living comfortably together. It has a pedestrianised heart of which la Comedie is the pulse. And it has a stretch of public park that links with a quite extraordinary development of public buildings and civic facilities, designed in a style that in a modern grand manner manages to echo the over-the-top architecture that has been a feature of the Mediterranean hinterlands since the Roman emperors.

In reality, I've only had a few hours here, as yesterday was all taken up with very technical conferences and then one of those haute cuisine dinners, and today had me out on a race track an hour and a half away testing shock absorbers. So I got to look around only a couple of hours before sundown. And at five-thirty tomorrow I leave for the airport to come home to what I've heard today is a typically dull and wet summer Ireland.

Which is maybe why, on these brief visits abroad, the imagery seemes to be very concentrated. I walk around like a camera, my eyes and brain clicking thousands of images, hoping they'll lodge in memory as do those from my digital camera in its flash card.

And that's a thing. I've been a professional photographer - among other allied disciplines - for some thirty years now. But, while I manage to get some pretty good pictures from time to time, it's the ones that I flash in my own mind which are probably the best. Like most of the ones I've mentioned at the beginning of this piece. I only managed one or two on digi. The rest I hope I've helped you to imagine.

Interlude: I just had a long conversation with the thirty-something woman looking after my table. She's from Holland and came here eleven years ago to look after a friend's child. Today she has four children of her own, and her husband is gone, and she just wouldn't leave Montpellier, because it 'has a life'. Which is what I've just been writing, I guess. Her father doesn't understand, but her mother, on the times when she comes here without him to visit their daughter, admits that she does.

But, back to the original thoughts. As the Bard put it, 'here's the rub'. I'm very fortunate that my work brings me to many places, in Europe and around the world. But I never get a chance to stay long. I do 'smell the roses', but I never get to see them grow, and certainly not eventually wither. I'm constantly expanding my collection of places that I want to go back to and see properly. Only a very few times have I managed that.

So a lot of this stuff I'm writing from such trips is 'snapshots'. Which is, actually, apt, because that was the title of my first collection of poems, way back in the last quarter of the seventies.

Some things just don't change. Just like, as I contemplate leaving at five in the morning to get to the airport, I really want to come back here some day to Montpellier and live it with the luxury of a little time.

Meanwhile, though - and it is only a very small consolation - there is a quite sinful Copa Cappucino waiting to be addressed ...

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