The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                         PAGE FIVE
 
NOTES FROM NARBONNE  - Something in the Air of Narbonne: L'esprit d'elan and grit
                                                                                                                                                            by Marlane O'Neill
Marlane O'Neill
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .

So it is with life in Narbonne.  While we sit in a construction zone 24 hours day 7 days a week, the cafés, restaurants and bars keep their doors open as normally as possible while the patrons pick their way through debris and carefully walk along the metal planks covering the huge troughs that run alongside the dozens of doors of the various businesses that are in the midst of the huge makeover here.  Ironically, there are more patrons than ever before in the four years I have lived here despite the major hurdles of walking around the construction sites.  Even in the chill of the autumn evenings I see people enjoying the sidewalk café scene.  It is also curious that ancient buildings which have been neglected for decades - perhaps centuries - are suddenly alive with scaffolding, plasterers, painters, plumbers and all their trucks and equipment.  Hmmm . . . are the owners preparing for a New Narbonne once the city has finished its work around Le Canal de la Robine?  It certainly appears so.  I walk along La Rue Droite, an ancient narrow pedestrian street, and marvel at how the workers have managed to fit their bulky machines on the path but leave just enough room for people to squeeze by.  One ornate medieval building which I regularly admire for its masonry - and is normally buttressed against collapse with a large beam against its neighbor - is getting a major makeover.  It has been on the verge of collapse for years.

We also have the pleasure of welcoming two new bar au vins along the canal that have enjoyed tremendous success in a very short time.

People often complained there is nowhere for the adult singles to meet there are discotheques for the young and indefatigable, but recently only cafés for adult celibataires to congregate and imbibe good local wines.  Finally, with the arrival of Le Bar Macar and Le Bar des Barques there are two news places where they have the ability to meet each other on a regular basis, enjoy good music and conversation right on the new pavements that have been set only days ago.  Live music and DJs are a regular feature the patrons are mostly those who live in the city Le MirabO - Photo credit Marlane O'Neill 2012.   All rights reserved.center and finally have the opportunity to gather in large numbers and make friends with each other face to face in a convivial atmosphere.

Along with these two new venues there is another resto Le MirabO - that just opened outside my door.  They welcome Spanish jazz guitarists and the clientele tends to be very Catalan I usually hear more Spanish and Catalan spoken than French there.  Perhaps this is because many people from Spain are arriving in France seeking work.  The well-educated and young professionals are escaping la crise in Spain seeking better opportunities in France.  Engineers, architects, scientists, teachers and others who can speak French see France as a welcome mat and a chance to better their lives.

While nearby Spain is experiencing tremendous manifestations of hundreds of thousands in Madrid and other large cities against the proposed austerity plans, France has yet to have the financial pains present in Spain and Greece.  People feel some financial belt tightening, there is some increase in chomâge and a lot of complaining (it is very French to complain) but, so far, the severe austerity plans in Spain have yet to set foot in France, so there is no tremendous outrage against governmental forced austerity.  Real estate is moving slowly and some clothing stores have closed but there is always another business that wants to move in.   The number of tourists visiting Narbonne has steadily increased; however, the hotels are not getting the same amount of business as before.  The number of people staying in camp grounds or with friends and family has grown as the number staying in hotels has fallen.  Restaurants and bars seem to have no problems.  In fact there are more crowds than ever in the streets and sitting in the cafés.  The more social venues, the merrier it gets.

About the new currency  Photo credit Marlane O'Neill 2012.   All rights reserved.Having said that, there is a new movement afoot.  La Monnaie Narbonnais is a grassroots citizen program that is taking hold to create another currency in Narbonne.  I attended a press conference during which a handful of citizens proposed that the city of Narbonne create a new monetary base.  The reasons presented were the rocky state of the euro and USA dollar, the need to give artisans, wine makers and farmers a more equitable exchange of goods and services, and the fact that historically the region used to have more than 17 currencies available to people to use all at one time.

How the new currency will be backed is still a question.  Were it to be backed by the euro, then its fate will be tied to the euro, and what is the Citizens committee on the currency.  Photo credit Marlane O'Neill 2012.   All rights reserved.point of having an alternative currency in that case?  Perhaps, if the new currency were backed by silver, gold or other metals it would be more seriously considered.  Narbonne is not the only city grasping at a solution against potential financial disaster.  Toulouse, Montpellier and other nearby cities in the southern part of France are also considering currency alternatives.  Northern Europe is looking at a new currency called the 'neuro', short for northern euro.  The economy is stronger there; their reasoning is to keep the economy separate from the economic perils that threaten the southern European regions.  The question of currency is all over the newspapers in Narbonne, and opinions range from a classic French shrug of 'what's the point?' to passionate arguments for and against. 

But, enough of the drama of the economic crisis.  The month of August in Narbonne brought all the festivities of the past few years back to town.  Our Festival Charles Trenet had to move away from the canal due to the construction work but its new place behind Les Halles seemed to work very well.  The streets were closed off so that the crowds were able to swell into the roads and parking lots.  The dancing and music generally started around 10 PM and lasted until 3 AM.  Living in city center as I do, I could not escape the noise and crowds so I just adapted to sleeping from 8 to 10 PM and partying from 11 PM to 3 AM for three days.  C'est la vie.  When in Narbonne, do as the Narbonnais do.

Many more Americans, Canadians and Australians are visiting our fair city.  The Australian and Canadian dollars are strong and they get a lot for the exchange with the euro.  The guests in the little chambre d'hôte of Place des Jacobins have been delighted with their vacations here in southern France, and we have had a record number of Aussies this year.

More people from France are also discovering Narbonne and its charms.  We've experienced a recent increase in new residents - about 2,000 more new Narbonnais have settled into the city.  In particular, I have noticed an increase in artists, musicians and street performers.  The summer was full of music as each resto and bar had a group or a duet performing to attract more customers.  All the better for the Narbonnais who enjoy the café life just as much as the tourists. 

Winter is coming and has already arrived with temperatures well below 10 degrees now at the end of October.  September was fair and summery as was much of October, but we are now lighting our fireplaces and pulling out the scarves and gloves.  Many new chic fashions are visible in the streets.  Lots of shopping going on for new outfits and les soldes are more tempting than ever.

The American custom of trick-or-treating has come to France, and the city was awash with children in brightly colored costumes excitedly banging on business and residential doors for treats on Halloween.  The adults accompanying them were also in their own elaborate costumes and everyone was having fun.

Frightening Faces of Halloween  Photo credit Marlane O'Neill 2012.   All rights reserved.Children on Halloween. Photo credit Marlane O'Neill 2012.   All rights reserved.

As I said, it is the best of times and the worst of times.  While the stress of dealing with the constant construction and mess continues, the people are envisaging a future of prosperity despite watching neighboring countries fall into hardship.    Narbonne is known for its independence in commerce and forward thinking regarding financial survival.  Most of our businesses are owned and run by individuals as opposed to large chain stores.  It is one of the reasons our farmers market, Les Halles, is the oldest existing one in France (over 100 years old) and has never closed its doors.  The managers regularly inspect the supermarket competitors and give counsel to the vendors regarding quality and prices.  I know because I personally watched two vendors from Les Halles taking notes and photographs in a large chain supermarket publicizing itself for fresh produce and local goods.

We continue to listen to the musicians play, attend the various vernissages and enjoy the local wines with friends.  The Narbonnais are tough and have a long history of economic ups and downs.  Il faut persister it is in the air, a feeling of anticipation, excitement and creativity.    Tough times call for new ideas, rolling up the sleeves, getting together with new projects and optimism.  It seems like nothing gets Narbonne going better than a challenge.  It looks like that challenge is being met with elan and grit a strange mix but très Narbonnais.   The wine revolutionaires of 1907, who established Narbonne's character of hard work, independence and stamina as strong characters with a lust for freedom, created pride and strength in this medieval city where the canal runs through it.  Il faut persister, bien sûr.
 

Wine Notes

One of the secrets of French bubbly is les vins mousseux.  This is a variety of sparkling wine.  France produces many sparkling wines which go by different names according to the region where they are produced.  We have crémants, clairettes, and blanquettes among others.  The word mousseux refers to the foam created when the wine is poured.  This particular vin mousseux creates a nice thick foam on top that quickly evaporates as the bubbles inside the glass rise up.

It comes in a bottle that looks just like Champagne.  They are not produced in the region of Champagne so they cannot be called Champagne.  However, many are quite good and much less expensive. 

I like to promote wines that are good quality and available for under five euros a bottle and this one certainly fits the bill.  Alliance Demi-Sec is produced in Tournan-en-Brie and is a fabulous alternative to buying cheap Champagne because it is better than many of those at low-cost.  It is low in alcohol at 10.5% volume as opposed to the normal of 12 to 13.5% for regular wines or Champagnes.  With plenty of bubbles, the bottle gives a nice 'pop' when opened, and I have had many compliments on the flavor.  I keep a good supply on hand.  It makes wonderful cocktails with a little grenadine syrup and orange juice.  It is also delicious all on its own.  The price?  Well, I hesitate to tell you because it is ridiculously low at 1 euro 19 centimes per bottle.  Keep it a secret!

Vocabulaire
 

bar au vins wine bars

celibataire- singles

resto short for restaurant, a commonly used abbreviation

la crise the economic crisis

manifestations demonstrations in the streets

chomâge - unemployment

chambre d'hôte a privately run guest room or apartment with breakfast

les soldes reduced prices in stores; sales

vernissages art shows; private viewings

Il faut persister, bien sûr one must persist of course!

For additional information about living in or visiting Narbonne 
by land or canal boat, or for a lovely bed & breakfast stay with Marlane O'Neill
[http://www.narbonnegites.com] contact info@narbonnegites.

  [Photo credits:  Marlane O'Neill 2012.   All rights reserved.
Mouse over photos for additional credit information and descriptions.]
 


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