Saturday, January 1, 2022

And then there (was) Max

I suppose every village has its share of eccentrics, and Quinson is no different. We have a few lost-looking souls who seem to get through their days stumbling about in an alcoholic haze, non-French-speaking residents who show up at the local grocery from time to time… and then there's Max. Max lives across the street from us in what appears to be a one-room studio apartment, if one can call it that. It's not clear that there is running water in his place — I mean, I think there must be a toilet, but I'm not sure there is a kitchen sink. And Max goes daily to his favorite watering hole — and this is meant literally — to some spring with a spigot on the other end of town, nearly out of town, to bring back jugs of water that he believes is more healthy and pure than other water available in the village.

I wrote the above back in December of 2012. Since that time, Max has died — specifically, in late spring 2019 at age 83.

And I wrote the previous two sentences exactly a year ago. “Minou”— the semi-feral cat whom Max fed and allowed into his tiny apartment during cold weather (at least when she was cold enough to want to be indoors)—is still alive, still fed by a variety of villagers in a variety of places, including in the “remise” next door to our little remise up the street. I don’t see her that often these days, nor do I hear much in the way of cat fights on the street, so I assume that she’s found more comfortable places to hang out. I did see her fairly frequently on top of our remise roof (but under the shade of the neighbor’s intensively overgrown rose bush) during the warm months this past late spring, which behavior I can only imagine continued during the summer. (For our part, we spent all of the summer and into fall in the USA, thoroughly enjoying being around a very limited number of other people after more than a year of strict no contact with anyone because of Covid-19.)

Ah, Covid (and Happy 2022 to us all, right?). Even though I’ve worked remotely for much of my post-French educational career, doing so under these conditions, where there’s really no choice, has quite a different feeling to it, and not a particularly positive one at that. However, while I miss the occasional on-site work assignments (having discovered that yes, I like working around other people), what I miss most are … well, I miss Berlin. I miss playing snooker there, I miss the restaurants and specialty grocery stores, I miss the ambience, the language, and I miss the choir— specifically, the Berliner Konzert Chor (BKC), whose Zoom rehearsals I have faithfully attended even from afar off (read: USA). Choral singing has been hit particularly hard by this damned virus, and even when (if? please, God, “when”) things can return to a semblance of normality in this regard, it’s not clear how many such choirs will be able to recover.

Even for the long-established and relatively well-funded BKC, not only is virtual attendance way down (many male voices being conspicuously absent), but even the restricted in-person attendance represents at the very best, maybe 45% of normal cohort size—and again, the already undersized men’s sections are still way below normal (at least so far as the Zoom camera has permitted visual confirmation). For the Grenoble choirs I sang with, Anne has managed to keep things going with Méli-Meylan (now Arcanum), perhaps in part by combining its efforts with those of the University of Grenoble choirs, which she also conducts. (I regret I could not go up to Grenoble at the beginning of December to attend the dress rehearsals for the Mozart and Michael Haydn Requiems, but it simply wasn’t worth the risk.) 

For all that Arcanum and other choirs survive, it seems highly likely to me that the only choir my former friend Marine was still conducting at the time I left Grenoble, Choral’In, will not come back. For one thing, it was a CE (“comité d'entreprise”) activity at Hewlitt-Packard, and a lot of HP employees, including Choral’In singers, are likely to continue to work from home even when no longer required to do so (as in this moment when the omicron variant is raging). And that makes it highly improbable that the CE will fund it going forward, though I hope I’m wrong about all this.

Choirs and Covid are quite a ways away from the late Max, whom I suspect would be among the all-too-many unvaxxed folks in these parts, though I can imagine he would wear a mask (which to me fits well with his personality). Another of his peculiarities worth mentioning is that he very rarely went in and out of his little studio via the door, preferring instead to climb through his street-facing window. Why this would be, I do not know, but he continued doing so pretty much up until the week he died. He hadn’t been doing all that well for a while — not since being left on the side of the road by a hit-and-run driver some months before. (One of the perils of fetching water from afar, I guess.) I witnessed his asking another neighbor to drive him to the hospital in Manosque (I think, though he may have gone first to the frankly pathetic clinic in Riez), where he died a couple of days later. 

I’d known that Max had first worked with his father and then continued to run the long-defunct gas station / little automotive shop not far from the village church (and whose antique gas pump was still a feature when we first moved here), but I learned a bit more from his eulogy about this never-married, not-quite-solitary soul, and one comment I heard repeatedly was how very opinionated he was. I never knew him well enough to engage, and part of that may have simply been the linguistic/cultural gulf (both real and imagined) that has colored a lot of my interactions here in France. Max and I would always say hello and he always remembered to ask about Youngest, whom he knew from her Olive Tree International days. 

Since Max’s death, two other Quinsonnaises of note to me have died—Annie Lartigaut, a talented artist from whose daughter I bought some paintings, sketchbooks, and art supplies, and who had the coolest art studio in the area, housed in a turret across from the church; and another woman whom I wish I had tried harder to get to know better — Hélène Bottet (pronounced “beauté”— “beauty” in French, appropriately enough). Hélène was well into her 90s and so very fragile when last we saw her a few months before she died—skin so thin as to be translucent, reliant on a full-time nurse for pretty much everything, but still quite intact mentally. (Note to self: Also Sabine, Nellie)

Not long after we began living in the center of the village, Hélène invited Mr Mo and me to her place for tea, and she told us about her father’s having hobnobbed with some of the pre-war jazz greats. Her house on Place de la Paix (what we saw of it) was filled with interesting art and mementos. The house still looks lived in (shutters are open and all). Her alcoholic and abusive son—and I say this knowledgeably—could scarcely wait for her to die, and barring that, was pressuring her to move into a rest home, wanting to get his hands on whatever he could of her estate even while she was alive. One warm evening I was passing Hélène’s place; the windows were open and I could hear the son’s absolutely vile invective directed at his mother. It was so awful and so upsetting that I ended up asking the president of the village social club what I could do about it, what could be done about it. She knew the sad story and suggested that I call the mayor, who as mayor has constabulary powers — in short, he’s the lone cop here. So I did.

“Bref,” there was nothing Monsieur le Maire could do about the son’s abusive behavior (which he knew all about, as it had been going on for many years), because his mother would not press charges, would not protect herself. The best he could do (and hopefully did do, though a huge and hopeless sigh accompanied his words) was to talk to the son yet again.

At least Hélène’s granddaughter seemed like a good soul. Mr Mo and I were too late for the funeral but went up to the cemetery to see where Hélène’s remains had been laid (more like… inserted horizontally into a crypt), and then went back to the church. The granddaughter was there and we told her about her grandmother’s kindness, and expressed the hope that Hélène had written down at least some of her life story. Alas, this does not seem to be the case. Yet another set of stories lost, all the more so when those who knew her also pass on.

Finally, given how long it’s been since I last published any writing at all, I want to close by mentioning that my dad died the end of August 2020, not of Covid, but of congestive heart failure. He was mentally intact right up until the end and when I’d said goodbye to him in mid-March 2020 — heading off to the Las Vegas airport to catch the last flight to Frankfurt before the borders closed — I knew I wasn’t going to see him again. The last three or so months of his life were pretty unpleasant for him and those around him, and my siblings all took turns helping Mom take care of keeping him cleaned up and so on. I couldn’t go to the funeral, but at Mom’s request wrote his eulogy and recorded it for the funeral. 

Mr Mo and I have also sat shiva with our dear friends who in 2020 lost their oldest daughter early on during the pandemic, and then their son-in-law to cancer early in 2021. I hope not to be forced to remain at a such a distance should Covid or other causes wreak havoc in the lives of other loved ones. So yes, here’s hoping that the latest variant peaks quickly and is not followed by yet another so that 2022 will end up resembling more 2019 than 2020/21. (Let’s not get into politics and climate and all just yet. Sigh.)