Sunday, July 5, 2015

THE MUSÉE EXTRAORDINAIRE CELEBRATES ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY

Georges Mazoyer, founder of the Musée Extraordinaire.  Photo by Susan Manfull.

Forty years ago, Georges Mazoyer (1925 - 1996) opened his Musée Extraordinaire in the tiny Luberon village of Ansouis. Deep-sea diver, artist, and world-wide traveler, this extraordinarily unusual man spent ten years refurbishing the small space--a former stable--adjacent to his studio and filling it with the souvenirs of his adventures. Encouraged by friends to share his passion for underwater life, the museum was a labor of love that today is carried on by his daughter, Nicole, and her husband, Claude.

Exhibit in Le Musée Extraordinaire. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Last night, Nicole and Claude hosted a bash for the whole village to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the museum. I attended the event, along with Jerry Clark and wife Benedicte and at least 100 other people (at last count when we departed at around 10 pm). The Polynesian dancers had the crowd swaying and smiling. As an integral part of this community of around 1000 people, this was an opportunity to pay tribute to the man who founded this museum four decades ago and for the Mazoyer family to demonstrate their appreciation to the community for their support.

Benedicte and Jerry Clark (left) and Nicole and Susan Manfull (right).  Photo by Susan Manfull.

My invitation to this soirée stemmed from an impromptu visit to The Extraordinary Museum one very hot day last week.  Donning hats and hugging the walls of the narrow cobblestone paths and steep stairwells to escape the fierce Provençal afternoon sun, friend Barry and I made our way there from the maison village where I am staying.

Barry Quick in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

For the nearly twenty years that my family and I have vacationed in the neighboring village, Lourmarin, I have wanted to visit this museum with the unabashedly ambitious name but, for various reasons, had not done so. 

Exhibit in Le Musée Extraordinaire.  Photo by Susan Manfull.

Often and understandingly referred to as "quirky" (and sometimes dismissed entirely in tour guides), I had long been intrigued by the science-fiction size statues of sea creatures that grace the grounds of this small museum, located some 60 kilometers (35 miles) from the sea in the middle of a village that rose up around a château that dates back over a thousand years ago. It is just not what one expects to see in a medieval village.

Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Visitors are told that they will find "fascinating objects" including prehistoric objects such as fossilized fish and shellfish that once thrived in the Luberon countryside. Paintings, stained glass, and ceramic sea creatures, all created by Mazoyer, add color to the collections. Some antique Provençal furniture makes the rooms feel cozy. The highlight is said to be the "magical blue coral grotto" depicting a deep-sea dive, not unlike one of the hundreds Mazoyer took.


Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

This menagerie is housed in a series of 16th-century vaulted rooms once stables that kept the mules that carried the stones to build the village back in the Middle Ages. The grotto stands where the original entrance to the stables once was.

This painting was prompted by the devastating effects of an oil spill off the coast of Brittany in the early 1970's.  So moved was Mazoyer that he donated the profits from the sales of lithographs of this painting to the clean-up effort.  The three "balls" of oil were found in Sardinia following an oil spill in the late 1970's.  Photo by Susan Manfull.

The museum is part of the house Mazoyer bought in 1955 when he moved to Ansouis from his birthplace Marseille to be with the woman who would become his wife. Referred to as a "troglodyte" house, it is built into the side of a cliff (especially appealing on a very warm July day).  He created a studio on the second floor and later spent ten years renovating the first floor to exhibit the aforementioned collection.  The museum opened in 1975.

Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

On the day that Barry and I went, we were warmly greeted by Nicole Le Drean, daughter of Mazoyer, who with her husband Claude La Drean, now oversees the museum and continues the tradition of creating ceramic sea figurines. 

Nicole and Claude Le Drean. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Nicole, who divided her time between us and another group of visitors, was filled with the same passion that undoubtedly drove her father to create his museum to showcase his collection of "extraordinary" objects that express his love of the sea. She told us her father's story as we toured the museum.

According to Nicole, her father's love of the sea and underwater life began at a very young age. Around 14 years old, he began diving in Marseille and quickly expanded his exploration to include Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, and Spain. Then, he went to the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean.  One of the highlights of his life was diving with Jacques Cousteau.

When he wasn't diving, he was painting.  In addition to his work as a creative artist, he was a professional (restorative) painter, a job that took him to the Château in Ansouis where he assisted in restoration work there.

In 1991, for one of his last dives, he traveled to Polynesia which had a particular impact on him, as it did Nicole and her husband. (Hence the Polynesian dancers!)

Polynesian dancers performing for the 40th anniversary celebration of Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Nicole said that her father stopped diving in 1992. He died just a few years later in 1996 at which time his wife took over as curator at the museum. Later, Nicole and her husband joined the effort and today the couple is dedicated to maintaining, curating, and hosting visits in the museum full time.

Exhibit at Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.
Mazoyer's studio may be visited, too. There, one can see the kiln, built into the rock wall, which is still used today. The large table in front of the fireplace is still a centerpiece of family gatherings. Nicole and Claude live adjacent to the studio.

Nicole, one of three daughters, was very close to her father. She shared his love of art and the sea. She often dove with her dad (although not as deeply he would go). After a 40-year career in managing a beauty salon in Apt, during which time she visited her parents and helped with the museum on the weekends,  she retired and moved back in Ansouis about two years ago.

Exhibit at Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

If you find yourself in Ansouis (or in nearby Lourmarin), I definitely recommend a visit to Le Musee Extraordinaire.  The collection, as has been described by others, is "quirky," but it is also, in part,educational and, most importantly, the museum offers a window into the heart of one man and his passions.  Mazoyer's various collections clearly evoked emotions in the adventurer that were manifested in his ceramics, paintings, and his stained glass. How fortunate is he or she who chooses to live life with such relish?  The world might be a better place if a few more of us enjoyed such a zest for life, however quirky or eccentric the effort may appear.  Barry and I left smiling and feeling inspired.

Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Le Musee Extraordinaire de Georges Mazoyer is located on rue du Vieux Moulin 84240 in Ansouis.  It is open every afternoon from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. (and until 7:00 p.m. in the summer). tel/fax:  04 90 09 82 64. Admission is a nominal fee. (Reduced rates for groups, children, and students.)

Notes:
You may also be interested in reading: SLEEPY ANSOUIS: ONE OF "LES PLUS BEAUX VILLAGES DE FRANCE"



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Sunday, May 24, 2015

BREATHALYZERS AND OTHER CURIOUS ITEMS LEGALLY REQUIRED WHILE DRIVING IN FRANCE

A bowl at the Château St Estève de Neri tasting room filled with breathalyzers for their guests.  Photo: Susan Manfull
With a trip to Provence on the horizon, I looked into the status of the legal requirement to carry  breathalyzers in one’s car. The answer, as I write this post, is that at least one is required. However, don't hold your breath, things could change by August.  Such is nature of this law and, to some extent, many of the laws pertaining to driving while in France.

While researching the status of the on-again, off-again breathalyzer requirement, a story I have kept an eye on since it first surfaced back in March 2011, I discovered a very informative website, all about driving in France. There, on Drive-France.com, Dave Griffiths of Redditch, England—who apparently crosses the Channel frequently or is just simply fascinated by the bizarre nature of French motor vehicle law—details the equipment and, for lack of better words, "stuff" that people who choose to drive in France are responsible for stowing in their cars.  Oh, and I hasten to add: it matters where in the car, you store these items. Mais oui. It's France.

To purchase more sophisticated breathalyzers, visit: http://www.breathalyserstore.co.uk/ 


Since I (moi) will be driving much of time while in la belle Provence, I wanted to make certain I would not stray from the straight and narrow roads of French law. I’ve had only one encounter with gendarmes while driving—or rather while parked—in France and, because my French-speaking husband returned to the car before my charm wore thin, the matter was amicably resolved.

For those who are curious, I was parked illegally in the center of Avignon, a centreville where the streets are narrow and devoid of anything resembling a legitimate parking place.  My husband had popped out to pick up concert tickets we had already purchased, a quick transaction we assumed. The officers were smiling when they asked me to move the car, but something was clearly lost in translation as I spoke, probably because the thought never occurred to them that I didn’t know how to put the car I was driving into reverse. Just as our conversation was about to take a different course, my husband returned from his "quick" errand and confirmed that it was indeed true that I hadn’t mastered reverse in this rental car.

Beyond the typical requirements for operating a rental car found in other countries—for example, to carry one’s driver’s license, passport, and the rental agreement (or proof of ownership)—there are other paraphernalia  you might never have considered stowing in the car. Some of the items make sense and may keep you safer; other items defy logic.

Public service ad featuring fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld -
"It's yellow, it's ugly, it doesn't go with anything, but it may save your life."

The reflective triangle is a good idea. If your car has broken down, it is required that you place a warning triangle on the road, or on the shoulder, behind the car.  If you don’t have one, the fine can be as high as €135. (I have always found this item in our rental cars.)

The high visibility vests—you know the fluorescent yellowish-green ones with prominently placed reflector strips—also make sense. Until you read the details. There must be one for the driver and every passenger and they must be stored in the car. (That is, not in the trunk.) Mr. Griffiths had me laughing out loud as he described the hapless driver digging through beach balls and suitcases in the trunk to find the vests that should have been in the car, when the gendarmes pull up. As Mr. Griffiths also points out, even if they are lawfully stowed in the passenger area of the car, most people would probably put the vests on outside the car, in which case, he wonders if the driver is still liable for the fine, upwards of €135. And, is the fine levied per general infraction or per person donning the vest outside the car?  (The last time I checked a rental car, the singular vest was in the trunk.)

Then there are the requisite spare bulbs, a completely impractical requirement since many headlights nowadays require professional installation. That’s a (maximum) €80 fine. (I have never noticed these in my rental cars but that's not to say they are not there...I promise to get back to you on this subject.)


If you wear eyeglasses, you are required to carry an extra pair with you, while driving in France. A good idea but it hardly seems necessary to elevate this commonsense to law.

Saving the best for last, the breathalyzer requirement, Mr. Griffiths discusses the history of this law, including its unorthodox impetus. The law was initiated, not on account of pressure from some safety-conscious group like the French equivalent of M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) but, rather, due to the lobbying efforts of a group called “I-Care” which was spearheaded by the director of one of two companies that manufactured the breathalyzers. Passing this law created a huge captive customer base. Furthermore, drivers were advised to carry two breathalyzers to ensure that there would be one unused one in the event that, mon dieu, the driver was pulled over by the gendarmes just after using his or her breathalyzer, in good faith, to make sure that he or should was legally able to drive.  In fact, the demand was too great to meet and the date by which the breathalyzers would be required was postponed again and again.

According to Mr. Griffiths, in May 2012, when President Sarkozy (who had signed the law into effect) lost the election, the breathalyzer law was relegated to a dormant status, meaning that it is still on the books but that it carries no fine if one is caught without one.

"Visit the Rhône Valley wineries in total security!" Photo by Susan Manfull


The crazy part of this whole ordeal, Mr. Griffiths writes, is that people are still buying them to the tune of as much as €20 a packet. Even when there was a proposed fine (never put in place), it was only €11. Mr. Griffiths, who sells the breathalyzers, advises folks not to buy them. But, they still do, he says. (I've never seen one in my rental cars.)

To make matters even more confounding to the rational person, the breathalyzers do not hold up under extreme temperatures. Already fairly unreliable under optimal circumstances, in the heat of a typical summer day in Provence, they simply don’t work.

What seemed like a good idea for drivers and all people on or near the roads in France, was really only a good idea for the manufacturers of breathalyzers. The best advice is simply not to drink and drive.

So, there you have it. If you will be driving in France, make sure that the aforementioned equipment is stowed in your car (in its proper place) and that  the required documents (and extra eyeglasses, if necessary) are in your possession. Consult Mr. Griffiths’ highly informative and entertaining website for other details, including legal alcohol level (.05% in general and .02% for novice drivers), mobile phone usage (strictly prohibited even with headphones although Bluetooth setups are legal), and seat belt usage (mandatory for all occupants).

Aside from required stuff in the car while driving in France, my biggest concern is the motorcycles that weave in and out of cars and travel between lanes, a frequent practice of cyclists and one that, incidentally, is illegal. If you will be driving a motorcycle in France, brush up on what you are legally required to carry. Breathalyzers are required equipment, as are high visibility jackets although, as of January 2013, they no longer need to be worn at all times. Reflective triangles are not required.

Check Mr. Griffiths' site before hitting the road in France, no matter what you are driving. Are breathalyzers required gear on tractors?

On the way to the cooperative in Cucuron. Photo: W.T. Manfull



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Sunday, May 10, 2015

THINGS TO KNOW IN PROVENCE: WHAT IS L’APÉRO?

Photo by W.T. Manfull

Recently, I told a group of people we are meeting in Provence that “It all begins Sunday evening with l’apéro,” prompting many of those people to sheepishly inquire exactly how Sunday evening would commence.

What is l’apéro?

It is a derivative of the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” and refers to opening the palate for a later meal. It’s the beverage—called an apéritif—that is served to whet the appetite, but its full meaning encompasses the whole social occasion in which this imbibing takes place. It’s the drink—always accompanied by a little bite to eat—and the convivial experience of getting together with others, making conversation, unwinding, and transitioning from the end of the day to the beginning of the evening (although in many restaurants, you may be offered an apéritif before lunch).

The typical aperitif has less than half as much alcohol as the average American cocktail.
In the South of France, it is so commonplace that it is like a ritual. I suppose it is like the American cocktail hour, but the American version seems more focused on the alcohol than the social experience (although maybe it’s just the way it typically manifests itself with my family and friends). And, in France, the apéritif is more bitter than sweet (don’t expect Piňa Coladas on the menu).

Photo by W.T. Manfull
If you are invited to someone’s home for l’apéro, it is important to understand that the hosts will expect you to enjoy your drink along with a small bowl of olives, nuts, or even potato chips, make some conversation, and be on your way in less than an hour. There is typically just a couple of drinks.

It’s a wonderful tradition, a great way to connect with friends, family, or colleagues at home and yet it is such a casual rendezvous that doesn’t entail a lot of work on the part of the hosts. In Provence, in the summer, folks may gather around a tiny table, sans table cloth, in a corner of the garden with only a bowl of pistachios for sustenance (shells to fall on the ground).

Photo by W.T. Manfull
Or, a cloth-covered table may be adorned with what appear to be more elaborate nibbles like tapenade d’olive, caviar d'aubergine, chêvre, pâté, or saucissons, along with toasts. But, even this presentation doesn’t require much preparation…you know those market stands with stacks of small jars of various spreads? Now you understand why they are so popular!

Wherever it falls on the continuum of possibilities the host keeps it simple and, if you haven’t been invited for dinner, the guests follow the rules—nibble, imbibe, be in the moment, and then be on your way!

L’apéro doesn’t have to happen at home. I’ve enjoyed many an aperitif at Café Gaby in Lourmarin, always accompanied by a tiny bowl of salted nuts. (No charge—it’s part of the custom and expected.) Friends come, join in the camaraderie, and then depart for home, a nearby restaurant, or wherever the evening takes them.

L’apéro is also the prelude to dinner in a restaurant and if you are traveling, this is probably the most likely venue for you to partake in this tradition.

“Désirez-vous un apéritif,” the waiter will ask. And how will you reply?

Photo by Pamela O'Neill
Ordering rosé or sparkling wine would be an easy way to quickly rectify that deer-in-the-headlight look you may be project if caught unaware. A variation on that theme, Kir, a white wine with a splash of crème de cassis (a rather syrupy liqueur made from black currants), is a popular response or, a step up, Kir Royale, made with champagne rather than still wine. But, it is much more fun to order something more interesting and, besides, David Lebovitz reports that the Kirs are passé.

Most apéritif are wine-based and laden with secret mixtures of herbs, spices, and citrus peels. In many cases, the closely guarded recipes have remained the same since their creation, a couple of centuries ago.

Take vermouth, for example. It is the main ingredient in today’s dry Martini and part of the Manhattan and Negroni, and it is one of the first apéritif. The recipe and production are said to be the same since its inception in the 1700s. It is basically a mixture of wine, neutral alcohol, liqueurs, lots of herbs and spices that is aged in a combination of oak vats and oak barrels.

There are basically two types of vermouth: sweet and dry, also known as red and white (although vermouth is now made from rosé, too). The former was created in Italy where the two most widely known brands are Martini and Cinzano, and the latter in France where Noilly-Prat dominates the market.
The name vermouth comes from the German word for wormwood (Wermut), originally an ingredient in vermouth and absinthe.

It was just outside of Provence, on the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier, that Joseph Noilly, an herbalist, created the dry, white vermouth and later, when his brother-in-law, Claudius Prat, began working with him, the company was formally christened Noilly-Prat.

Order vermouth straight up and chilled or on the rocks.

Photo by W.T. Manfull

Saint Raphaël, Dubonnet and Lillet are wine based—Lillet is a fortified wine aged in oak barrels—with the addition of quinine, added initially to help troops in North Africa keep malaria at bay. In fact, it was the bitter taste of quinine that was the impetus for the development of these drinks. Later, presumably to attract a larger market (outside of regions with malaria), these drinks were advertised simply as beneficial to health.

Order these elixirs straight up and chilled or on the rocks, perhaps with a twist of lemon or orange.

In Provence, one of the most popular apéritif is certainly Pastis. It is an anise-based drink laced with the essence of the region’s famous garrigue—wild lavender, thyme, rosemary—that has macerated in alcohol. A healthy inch is served in a glass, accompanied by a small pitcher of ice water. When the water is poured into the glass, a cloudy green liquid emerges (reminiscent of a high school science experiment) that, in spite of its appearance, is very tasty.

People say that it is an acquired taste—I acquired it immediately—and, come summer, it is one of my favorite drinks. Like its predecessor absinthe—the Fée Verte or green fairy—it is pretty potent.

Photo by W.T. Manfull

Absinthe, as you no doubt know, was the preferred drink of artists and other creative-types in the 19th century until it was outlawed in France in 1915. If you believe the literature from that period, everyone was addicted to it and it was the culprit of all of the failings of humanity in the 1800s (at least those manifested in the French). Until recently, it was thought to play a role in van Gogh’s outburst with Gauguin that ended in him slicing off part of his ear. Wormwood—more specifically thujone, a component of wormwood—was thought to be the cause of the degenerative effects, but it’s now agreed that while thujone may have some hallucinogenic properties, it is impossible to ingest enough to cause such effects. It’s a long story—see an earlier TMT article—but it is legal again, as of about 25 years ago, so you can order absinthe and be confident you won’t see any whirling green fairies. Darn. 

Order pastis or absinthe and the waiter will bring a glass filled with a little of the drink with a carafe of ice water so that you can add the amount of water you prefer, generally with a proportion not exceeding 1 part liquor to 5 parts water. When pastis or absinthe is served in its glory, with all its accoutrements, one would be served a ceramic pitcher of ice-cold water, a small bowl of ice-cubes, a saucer of sugar cubes, and, to the uninitiated, a curious perforated flat spoon. Arrange the spoon atop the glass, add a sugar cube or two, and pour the water over it (to sweeten its bitterness). Definitely use the sugar for absinthe and, caveat emptor, absinthe is an acquired taste!

Photo by W.T. Manfull
All parts of France produce regional apéritif. In Provence, look for Orange Colombo, Noix de la Saint Jean, RinQuinQuin, and Gentiane de Lure, all produced in Forcalquier. Each can be enjoyed chilled before dinner (and in other ways such as in cocktails or with dessert or fruit!).

You prefer your apéritif without alcohol? Pas de problème. Ask for un jus d’orange (freshly squeezed orange juice) or un citron pressé (freshly squeezed lemon juice to which you add water and sugar). And then there is always l’eau gazeuse (sparkling water).

So, now you know how that Sunday evening in Provence will begin and you have a few responses for the waiter when he asks, “Désirez-vous un apéritif.” So, what will it be?




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