MY TOWN: SALIES

THE CLIMATE. Yesterday while I was working with a client over Skype a storm burst upon Salies, and burst is the word. Nothing announced it. Just suddenly there was this resounding slap of wind and rain against the side of the building and I turned to see literal sheets (cords, in French) of water blocking the view of even the closest trees. For a couple of minutes I proceeded to attend the person I was with through cyber space and then suddenly I remembered.

“Oh my god! The windows!” I screamed tearing the head set off my ears and bounding from my chair. When I reached the bedroom, which is only about five steps away, the rain was coming in horizontal to the floor and hit me straight-on in the face as I rushed to the window. Already the floor was soaked. I managed to close that window and run to the other room where there is a multiple plug that was in the process of getting soaked. None too soon I closed the window (rain now running down my cheeks and into the collar of my blouse), grabbed a cleanly folded towel from the side table and began sopping up what I could of the mess all the time yelling excitedly to my client about what a fantastic storm it was. I was so turned on. Nature is incredible and when it lets loose like that, wow! What a high!

By the time I got back to the computer, the multiple plug in the bedroom had shorted and the lights went out. At that moment, I thought the blackout was caused by the storm so I didn’t check the control box. The quiet allowed me to appreciate even more the force of the wind as I stood behind the closed window watching the trees bend and swerve under the onslaught. Then it stopped. Just as quickly and ferociously as it had started, it ceased as if some giant hand had shut off the spigot. As the black clouds moved sullenly towards the distant hills an enormously bright orange sun burst through from horizon level turning the world to gold. Even the gloomy clouds and the rain they continued to pour onto the countryside were lit like sheets of golden tissue sweeping over the land. I couldn’t move, not even to go for my camera: I wouldn’t have missed one second of the spectacular show Nature was offering up. Anyway, no camera in the world could have captured the splendiferousness of the scene. (And can you believe, my computer did not underline “splendiferousness”!)

. . . . . . .

THE PEOPLE. Last Thursday, I was walking into town as usual on my way to coffee when a French couple, obviously visiting from another village, stopped me to ask the way to the market. In my bumbling French and pointing to make sure they understood, I indicated that they should go straight, then turn right and then left. The man laughed.

“Just like the way we vote, right?” I looked at him and then we both burst out laughing: “Of course, first we vote for the right and then for left… and then back to the right.” He nodded. They thanked me and walked on. I think that was when I really felt that Salies is my town.

It’s not only being asked for directions and being able to give them, it’s that some complete stranger is relaxed enough with you to make a joke. People around here are like that, they are open and friendly and forgiving of one’s horrid accent in French. And it also was having understood the joke. Of course, the vocabulary was simple and straight forward, there was nothing circumvoluted about the expression or the reference so it would have been difficult for me not to understand it, yet the simple laughter and the feeling of being completely at home… I could have kissed him! But, of course, I didn’t.

The experience made me want to talk about the people I know here, the French people. First I should say that most of the people I know are not originally from Salies; I believe I have met very few if any native saliesiens. People come here to visit because of the thermal baths and end up moving here and staying. Perhaps because it is a town that has always been open to tourists (or curists as they call the people who come for the bath cures) nobody seems to differentiate between natives and non-natives. Anyway, no one in my building appears to have originated here.

To begin with, there is Jany. Jany is the keeper of the building. I presume she has an arrangement with the owner in which she receives board and perhaps some extra pay and she sweeps, vacuums, polishes and washes whatever needs to be swept, polished, vacuumed or washed in the communal spaces (hallways and stairs). Jany is sixty and from the looks of her you would not expect her to have a very active social life with men. She is short (comes up to a bit above my shoulder) and almost as wide as she is tall. That definitely rotund body which blooms out under the breasts and around the buttocks, is always clothed in a skimpy black frock of indistinct characteristics; she wears no jewelry and less make up and her hair is shorn so that its blackness is reduced to a mere shadow on her skull. She has a shrill voice that can be heard all over the building when she is talking to someone, and bears such hatred for Luc, the man that comes to cut the grass (no one would call him a gardener), that she locks herself in her small apartment when he arrives and even when referring to him with others, refuses to call him by name. In the beginning, I could not understand her abhorrence of him, but now I think it is that of a woman spurned. Jany receives male visitors almost every day, and not always the same one although there is one who seems to come more than the others. If she offers them anything more than food, wine and conversation it is a secret well kept, but whatever it is that she is serving up, it keeps them coming back over and over. Luc is sullen and bad-humored enough to have refused her charms and thus earned her spite.

When I first moved in, Jany invited me down for a nip of wine. I used the excuse of not drinking to politely refuse. Another time she wished me in for a cup of coffee and I made some excuse or other saying I really would love to but… This seems to have sufficed to stop the invitations. I have nothing against Jany, but then I have nothing going for her either. She is –as most concierges- known to be somewhat of a busybody and gossip. But she is helpful and kind, prompt to answer when there is a problem and willing to take care of Salomé for a price when there is no one else to do it.

Right below my apartment lives a somewhat single woman. What I mean by “somewhat” is that she is single part of the time and has a man the other part. They are not married and he is married elsewhere and continues living with his wife when he is not living with her, which is about half and half. My first contact with Danielle was when I went down and knocked on her door to ask if her shower kept running hot (scorching) and cold (freezing) all the time. She introduced me to a thermal spigot that controls the temperature keeping it at an even 38ºC (being adjustable up or down as one wishes) and told me where I could buy one. I immediately acquired the miraculous little bugger and had it installed; I have no idea how it works but never since have I been scorched or frozen in my shower.

The second time I visited Danielle was to inquire if the ball I threw for Salomé occasionally made too much noise. I was delighted to find that the floor is so well insulated as to not allow anything louder than a gentle tapping to pass to my neighbor’s apartment. Anyway, Danielle is my age, give or take a few months: she has straight, dull blond hair and blue eyes, a big French nose that hooks at the end, and an enormous sit-down, even bigger than mine which I consider ample; her relationship with Jean François has lasted thirty years. This I find fascinating. He comes usually once a month, stays a week or ten days, and then is gone for two weeks or more. I have queried Danielle and she says she is very content with things the way they are; I can understand that: for two weeks she is single and then for 10 days or more she is married. If things become boring or a hassle, he goes home to the other woman with whom he has children. About once a year Danielle and Jean François go on a trip, sometimes to visit Danielle’s family (everyone knows and accepts Jean François) and when he is not around, she hardly ever leaves her apartment. She lives with an enormously fat grey Persian cat called Bacará who never goes out either. Salomé and Bacará warily leave each other alone keeping always a safe distance. I consider Danielle a friend as we occasionally go out for a meal (she is very patient with my French and corrects me kindly) and if I need her to water my plants when I am away she is obliging. She is, however, quite dry, with very little joie de vie if any, and I have noticed that if I do not knock on her door every once in a while, I probably wouldn’t see her but twice a year when we bump into each other on the stairs. If queried, though, I would admit that I like Danielle and am grateful for the friendship she has allowed.

When I first moved in, I was introduced by Loic (one of my landlords; the other one is Jean Claude, his partner in life, love and business) to one of the neighbors who lives across from Danielle and immediately informed that she was “of his team”, meaning gay. Her name was Françoise and she was interested in learning English. We agreed to an exchange: we would meet once a week and I would talk in French and she would talk in English and we would correct each other. On the accorded date, I went down to her apartment. Maite, her other half was there. Although I have met several male gay couples, it was my first contact with a lesbian couple. Françoise is thin and wiry, cropped hair speckled with grey and much more reserved than Maite. Maite is fantastic; if I weren’t straight I would have fallen in love with her myself. She is pleasingly plump and just a bundle of joy. Her cheeks are always pink against her peachy skin, and the light that emanates from her eyes and smile is so contagious that it makes you just want to hug her. She is a nurse by profession and met Françoise twenty-six years ago when the latter was a patient in the hospital where she worked; they fell in love immediately and have been together ever since. Gay couples in France enjoy a union called “Pacs” in which they are legally a couple with all the rights a married couple has, and Françoise and Maite had been “pacs” more than many married couples I have known. We enjoyed getting together about once a week and they even invited me to play Scrabble in French when their niece was here. Now they live on the hill way over on the other side of Salies where they have built a “Gite” (French version of B+B) and a beautiful house with a breathtaking view of the Pyrenees in the distance. I am invited occasionally for a meal along with Loic and Jean Claude.

But, perhaps, my dearest friendship is with Marie Thérèse who is 83 and lives in one of the very tiny apartments at basement level (Jean Claude had terraces dug out for them so they have plenty of light and a place for plants and even an outside table). She is not only my favorite, but also Salomé’s. They adore each other and when I go to San Sebastián and tell Salomé she is to stay with the Mamie (as grandmothers are called here), far from cringing, she runs to the door and heads immediately for Marie Thérèse’s place. Mamie has very shiny, long, white hair which she wears loosely pulled back into a bun at her neck. She shows signs of having been a stately woman in her day and even now would not be considered overweight. She refuses to walk with a cane even though she has fallen down twice breaking an ankle the first time and her hip the second. Her attitude towards life was clear to me when I visited her at the hospital after her hip fracture. She was all smiles.

“It was great luck that I fell and broke my hip,” she said. “Thanks to that they ran tests to see why I was falling and discovered that both my carotid arteries are almost completely closed up. So now they are going to do an operation to open them both. If I hadn’t fallen and broken my hip, I might have died at any moment. So you see, what seemed like a terrible thing, has been for the best.”

That is the extent of my “friendships” in the building, although I know all the other tenants from our encounters in the halls and stairways. Except for Madame Toulouse on the first floor who lost her husband a month after moving in and has seemed tremendously happier ever since, and a lovely young lady called Veronique who lives next door to Jany, I know not the names of the rest of my neighbors and presume they don’t know mine, although Salomé’s name is universal knowledge.

And now I must end this blog for it has carried on too long, and I haven’t even begun to mention all the other French people I know who do not live in my building, neighbors who walk their dogs at the same town (Anne Marie and the man who owns the wirehaired terrier), owners of the restaurants where I eat (Viviane and François; Melanie and Eric), a large group of townspeople with whom I have begun to have coffee every morning (Josette, Josée, Gerard, Bibi, Isabel, Serge and the two Elianes) the lady who bathes and clips Salomé (Beatriz), the pharmacist, the couple that own the neighborhood supermarket… people I see every day, exchange words with, smile at and wish bon jour on passing, the people of my town, yes… my town, Salies.

3 thoughts on “MY TOWN: SALIES

  1. You offer such vivid description of Salies, makes me want to live there or someplace like that. No wonder you are so happy. But what happened to your lights after the storm? I´ve had some storms like that only with more wind than rain. I had to have my sliding doors to the terrace fixed and my artificial plants have suffered a great loss of leafs. I love to admire a good storm too. I can just imagine the beauty of your landscape with the Autumn, beginning today. You will see the difference more than me in here. Enjoy!

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