I heard them the moment I arrived yesterday, in the not too far distance, making a racket with their mewling-squawking cries that rang out over treetops and buildings. Someone said it was mating season for peacocks so, understandably, they are extending their raucous invitations to all and sundry in this newly developed part of Montpellier and I am to listen to them while writing this post.
I don’t really know where to begin: the five hour drive across the south of France, the accidented arrival, the unkempt city, the homeless drunks in the center, the marvelous salad I just made myself, the hanger-less closet, the enormous amount of “stuff” I had to go out and buy to make this tiny studio livable, the coffee pot I broke upon first use, the wild red poppies I just picked in the field, the evening star outside my window against the backdrop of a fading sunset on the horizon and a deepening sky, the undependable weather forecasts that promised 20ºC all week and has me sweltering in long sleeves at 28º today, the fact that I forgot my mouse and have not found one to buy (I hate the finger pad) or the fact that the French classes were great today and I am exhausted enough to consider not writing this piece at all. I guess peacocks will do for a beginner.
The last thing I expected to find in Montpellier was peacocks: Seagulls maybe, pigeons undoubtedly, sparrows and crows and other big-city vermin, no doubt… but peacocks? Nonetheless, the moment I opened the window to this small studio, their unmistakable and unmusical call entered my ears. Somewhere between a caterwaul and a squawk, the peacocks announced their readiness to mate. It was Sunday and here, in this area of the city with is completely under construction, nothing seemed to be moving but the dust from half finished constructions and unpaved roads. Cars were parked all along the yet-to-be-paved boulevard that had stubbornly refused to show up on my GPS as I desperately looked for my assigned residence; construction machines stood immobile like prehistoric pterodactyls waiting for Jurassic Park to be planted and grow; something that eventually will be a sidewalk lay in the afternoon sun like a discarded strip of masking tape. The streets and the future boulevard (already with a center walkway and recently planted trees that will, someday, shade it) were devoid of people, and in that hush that Sunday can sometimes bring, the peacocks were having a grand time announcing their peaking sexuality. I immediately considered the problem of sleeping with the window open, but there was too much to do to dawdle over future problems so I mentally blocked out the noisy birds and contemplated the chore of setting up house for a couple of weeks in the 18 sq. meter space.
I made myself a strong cup of un-decafinated tea for energy, drank it and headed down to the garage where I had parked the car an hour before. I was nervous about moving it because all aspects of getting to the Student Residence had been difficult and venturing out once more into an unknown city held the possibility of not being able to find my way back (save if one could hear the peacocks all the way downtown). How on earth we used to manage these things without a GPS I will never understand? The road (or rather the stretch of dirt and potholes which someday will be a paved road hopefully) where the Residence is, isn’t even on the maps I found in the room.
I decided to brave it because I needed to organize getting to the School by 8 a.m. the following morning and that meant finding out if I could use the tramway whose station was at the end of the “Boulevard”. So, I typed the address of the school into the GPS. Jacques (the name I gave my GPS) immediately told me that cars could not go into that area of the city. I knew this already, but I wanted him to take me as close as possible in order to see if there was a parking lot near enough to the school to be able to drive there each morning if necessary. Jacques acquiesced on my third try and we headed off for the historical center of Montpellier.
The drive was through the most dismal, uninviting, gone to ruins, dirty, graffitied stretch of city I have ever seen. Not one saving grace appeared to cheer me up and give me hope. Even when I finally found a parking lot that promised to be near the center, the entrance was so narrow and foreboding that I was certain I would scrape the sides of my car. Fortunately, I was able to wiggle into a free space without a scratch.
If the drive down had been uninviting to say the least, what I discovered on foot was even worse. Under a cloudy sky, the rundown buildings spoke of misery and abandonment; the sidewalks were strewn with discarded beer cans, empty bottles, paper cups and empty cardboard boxes, and the center itself seemed to be populated mainly by groups of forlorn men that frightened me, invariably drinking beer and accompanied by large menacing-looking dogs. As I looked for the street where I hoped to find the school, I clasped my bag to my chest with all my might expecting to be assaulted and robbed at every corner. Thanks to a taxi driver who was kind enough to give me directions, I found the street and the school. It was installed in an ancient building on a pedestrian street lined with boutiques and eateries. Of course, being Sunday, everything was closed. My trip, however, had been successful for I discovered that the tramway stop I needed was but a block and a half from the school (the starting station is a block away from the residence) so I could save myself the expense of driving in every day.
I hurried back to the car, squeaked out of the parking lot without a scratch and headed to what would be my home for the next two weeks. Naturally, as feared I got lost. Jacques, miffed no doubt at the fact that I had used the computer to program him, had erased the address and the directions from his memory and when I tried to put in the name of the street, he refused to recognize it. I drove around for a while wondering if I would end up spending the night in the car and then I remembered the name of the tramway stop that was nearby. I put that in Jacques and he took it and lead me there.
This first experience left me with the impression that the most attractive thing in Montpellier is the trams. Painted each a different color and design (mine is red with white and yellow flowers; another is sky blue with white gulls outlined; still another has a modern mandala-like design) they brighten up the otherwise dull, disheveled and dirty streets.
After supper (a salad I had bought at a roadway café on the way and fixed up with extra goodies) I decided to try and solve the mystery of the peacocks. The sun had just set, although there was light on the horizon still. The street lights were on. The peacocks were going all out for mating and it wasn’t hard to orient myself with the sound. I discovered a high wall surrounding a densely treed property that covered more than a whole city block. It was therein that the peacocks wooed. I could see very little inside the wall because of the vegetation, but I did find a large tree in which I could make out the long, elegant silhouettes of the love-struck birds. On the way back, my path crossed that of a young lady who had stepped out for a smoke. I asked her about the property. She did not know the name of the owner, but he was a very rich man that had owned all the property around for as far as the eye could see and sold it to the developer who was responsible for the building explosion that had so horrified me when I arrived.
“That’s some racket they are making” I commented in my lame French.
“At any rate, it is much better than the noise from the freeway” she said smiling. Yes, I thought: she is so right. I bid her goodnight and walked back home with a gentle smile on my face. I had the conviction suddenly that I was going to like this trip.
The following morning I found a city transformed by sunshine, warmth and people on a busy Monday morning, and suddenly all the misery I had thought to see the day before disappeared.
Peacocks, partly paved streets and persons without a fixed address, as they are politely called in French… I wonder what will come next.