City as Mistress

Philip Kobylarz


The mistral is a wind. Technically speaking, it is born by the presence of a depression in the Gulf of Genoa. Cold air from the peaks of the Alps funnels into the Rhône valley, picking up speed near Valence; this mass of air becomes an entity of pure energy and blows whatever is in its way away. Its duration lasts from one to three to six, even up to nine days.

It comes in bursts, ebbs and flows of dry air. Sometimes, it arrives as a constant force, knocking over trees, uplifting roofs, downing antennas, dispersing clothes from the laundry line, and causing the usual havoc it is known for.

Cats commit suicide when the mistral arrives. Beach-goers morn the loss of their new, expensive kites. It clears the skies and brightens them, and tempts the unknowing to leave the safety of their homes. It keeps hat makers and milliners in business. It knocks on doors and windows throughout the night.

Basically, it pisses everyone off.

It has been known to reverse the direction of those on mopeds. It has raised boats from their moorings. It has tumbled fences of stone. It deposits leaves and refuse on well-kept terraces. It efficiently dries laundered bed sheets hanging outdoors, minutes before it rips them to shreds. It de-fruits trees. It disperses seeds into the sea that will eventually become buddings in foreign countries.

It inhabits your clothes, when walking in it, and tries to remove them, by force, or by its deposits of sand and sycamore seeds. It creates new hair styles. It increases gas mileage if you happen to be driving in its direction. If riding a bicycle, it blows directly into your face no matter what way you turn to avoid it.

It is the topic of small talk when it's in town.

The mistral howls and screams in celebration of itself. One suspects that fish swim deeper the days it is around. It prunes unsightly shrubbery. If it also happens to be raining, it is better to hold up in a telephone booth, for days, until it has calmed. It tinges the air with a bitter pill of coldness, as sharp as an icicle.

In its ability to dismiss fog, mist, pollution, it brings the surrounding mountains closer, and gives to them the appearance that they are moving seaward. It tears clouds into wispy shreds, knots the threads, and then burns them with matches of sunlight, spears of reflection off the water.

It bankrupts outdoor markets and stalls racing horses.

The mistral is a reminder that we are merely the pawns of nature; the forces that engendered us, and human folly in general, are so much larger than can even be calculated, that it's best not to even try. Stay inside, lock the windows, close the doors, and wait it out over the pleasant weather of steam rising off a hot cup of tea.

Notre damE

The cathedral bears the gunshot wounds left there by Germans. It is a fortified building, with ramparts and a draw bridge over where there was once a moat. Inside, piped in voices of monks sing. The smell of candles burning. Votive paintings done by locals and treasured as secret works of art. Wooden boats hang in mobiles. The ceiling adorned in a Byzantine mosaic of angels and requisite Christian glory. In an adjoining alcove, long white candles can be bought, or stolen. But the interior of this majestic work of architecture is a frail man-made rival to the real beauty this focus point of the city dwells on.

The view from the church's hilltop position is three hundred and sixty degrees. From its terrace, the mountains that hem in the populace look like solidified waves not going anywhere. The Mediterranean stretches out into a blue of distance, towards the orient—and cargo and ferry ships languorously cruise its sheet metal waters.

What the cathedral's function is, and its placement serves, is obvious. What so many American cities lack is such a center point—a location from which everything can be seen. The golden virgin poised atop the dome can, in turn, be seen from anywhere below. It is a point of observation, where perspective can be achieved. And it, unlike a Sears Tower, or World Trade Center, or Sky Needle, or HOLLYWOOD sign, is not overwhelming in its signification. It merely is what it is. A centering of the immediate cosmos.

Here, fidelity to religion is nothing other than lax. In a country almost completely Catholic, only around fourteen percent of the population attends church. This is not the point. Catholicism is on a continual back burner of the mind; its traditions are not forgotten, rather melded into a way of life, and existing as such (in non-existence), so a balance is met. The famous craft of Santons, figurines based on a local rendition of the biblical myth, is one example.

These clay painted figurines sport the local dress and occupations of the region. A man carrying a bundle of sticks, a woman with a slaughtered rabbit, and the Ravi, the village idiot enraptured at the birth of that famous baby. It is what differentiates France from the commercialization of religion (especially Christmas) in the U.S. Everything is done with style, a twist and blend of location and semi-logical mutation of thought.

Once, meeting with an American who has made this corner of the landscape his home for the last fifteen years, he complained of the lack of spirituality of the city. Did he know St. Victor's church contains underground crypts and dates from the fifth century? That Fort St. Jean was a Templar establishment, now containing remnants of a chapel. That there is a street celebration of the black madonna. Perhaps the community-oriented brand of religious theatricality no longer exists, but the deep, Jungian, mythical connections to religious ceremony are still vibrant, pulsating as regularly as quartz stone.

What acts as a distraction to the option of the monastic way of life is as plain as day: topless beaches, sensuous rock and sand playgrounds, U.S.-modeled fast food restaurants, the mentality of one person to a car, the filmic drivel from southern California that surmounts the kiosks (more so movie billboards in the south), the fascination of the American invention of an invented way of life.

In the pâtisserie, the shelves are stocked with more kinds of edible works of art than a clairvoyant could dream of: pains au chocolat, sablés, millefeuilles, religieuses, paris-brests, jalousies, forêts-noires. What they're pushing now is a round plop of dough with sugar on top, a hole in the middle. When asked what this too familiar thing was, the baker said, shrugging, it was a gourmet American recipe—le donut.


Things you don't see much in America profoundly strike your attention here. The occurrence and recurrence of circuses. If not broadcast on television, then live, in fair grounds, under a real big top. At least once a month. It is always the same menu: high wire acts, women riding elephants, strong men, expert jugglers, flame/sword swallowers, maniacally acrobatic men, more clowns than are ever necessary, very skimpy costumes. Soundtracked American and British background music, sometimes with added verses in French.

Random productions of Guignol—his bright red and yellow mug on nearly every corner. Endless variations on this one particular puppet theme. Pagan religious ceremonies diluted into the kitsch of the contemporary. Homunculus with stick, whose consummate act is to hit others.

Parades and public masques, with music and Halloween-like costumes. Sugarcoated apples. Traveling carnivals, the rides named in English: Dragonfly, Whirl, Twist, NASA Rocket, and Speedway of Thrills. A difference in the carny culture, the people here are relatively well-dressed, lack tattoos, and are friendly and don't harass passersby into wasting their money. They are quite willing to give away their plastic, or stuffed, junk as prizes.

Telephone booths lack vandalism and graffiti. Pigeons stay up in the rooftops. Seagulls on the beach don't beg for food. Less trash on hiking trails. Restaurants empty on weeknights. Streetlights don't blink on and off, flooding the quiet empty rues at night in pools of yellow.

La mer est d'un bleu presque violet, au listel de l'horizon.
–André Suarès
"Paysage Antique" de Idées et Visions


The Mediterranean is a liquid crystal desert. It represents, on good days, infinity at its calmest. Unlike the beaches of, say southern California, the intersection of sea and land here is not a huge sandy border, a margin that says: the beach. Instead, it invades the land, in bays, it laps at the earth at the delta of the Camargue, it beats a certain rhythm on the rocks above which the city resides.

On windy days, it raises a surf, one- to five-foot swells hardly grand enough for the desperate surfers to make any use of, but still they try. Currently, wind surfing is the rage—brightly colored sails, like flags of yet-established countries crisscross the water's surface in a sea parade. Sailboats are numerous, usually small versions of the larger, older types. Rarely are the mostly uninhabited islands visited; from a distance they look desolate and inviting.

Under the water, aquatic life teems. Sea slugs, schools of fish, anemones, starfish, eels, crabs, and urchins move about completely undisturbed in the cooler months of the year. In the spring and summer, these creatures bear with the disturbances and fondlings of curious humans, and wait out infrequent storms with the patience of sirens.

Around Marseille, the hills seem to gradually rise from the basin of water, then quickly and steeply staircase. They form formidable cliffs and outcroppings in the surrounding wild areas, the calanques, south of the city, and serve as remote, weather-eroded, in places lush, in others, barren, refuges from city life and virtual stockpiles of solitude.

There are underwater caves with famous pre-historic paintings, one featuring "penguins" and hand prints. There are white stepping stone rock hills that sink into the below. There are grassy plains and plateaus that diminish abruptly in the snow of returning waves. There are rock and sand beaches that soon will be full of beautiful, tan, more than half-nude sun worshippers, but are quite empty and spacious in the off-season months. An endless amount of wandering awaits those willing.

Less than an ocean and more than a great lake, the Mediterranean is just what it is. In moonlight, it offers an enchanting mirror that dares you to attain its surface. It smells of salt and iodine, is clear when viewed from close, deeply (unrealistically) blue from afar on a sunny day. It has the ability to flux from every color within the gray, blue, green, and white spectrum. It strums its instrument constantly, putting those susceptible to sleep and looks good enough to drink.

It offers up shells, seaweed, polished stones with Zen inscriptions carved into them, driftwood, and minutely sculptured peach seeds. It replenishes the mind in its being a body of water that, perhaps, shouldn't be there. Something about it, a vastness, a lucidity, that evades even the finest-tuned of senses and requires one, upon leaving it, to almost immediately want to return.


There is more stuff than anyone could ever, would ever want to buy. All things under the sun, anything that is "fashionable," arrive here and are replicated, cheaply, without threat of dearth. From every type imaginable of sunglasses, to clothes, to shoes, computers, cars, motorcycles, trinkets, books (who is translating American & British fiction so quickly?), toys, bicycles, basically your whatever-you-want.

In the downtown, in small stores, fabrics from the east can be bought cheaply, from Turkish rugs to African tablecloths. Secondhand traders stock the most current titles of American, Brit, East African, Algerian, and Japanese popular music (including U.S. independent labels). Junk markets are held once a week and sell everything from wallets, to plants, to spices, to fresh fish, to herbs, really the recipe for the alchemist bent on living well. Shopping, in the general, browsing sense can take up to two weeks of constant investigation into the numerous stores, and small-time vendors, department stores, sadly modern super malls, and merchandise districts. It is a consumer's dreamland that represents what the West is all about: treasures from lands near and abroad, so much useful and non-useful items that this business of capitalism generates in partnerships of crime. There's no hint that this money-based system is an idea that has run its course: after purchasing anything one can desire, it becomes almost a monotonous theatre of mime—exchanging shiny silver & gold coins (representing nothing) for the unneeded item of desire (formed, colored, shaped, nothing). And if the particular vendor doesn't have exactly what you seek, he or she will know someone who does. An endless, vivid circle that represents only the idea of wholeness, large and empty in its center. Making life the same anywhere you go.

Vers toulousE

It is a city that is much nearer to the West. It is a maze unto itself, full of stores and shops selling the latest clothes, music, sunglasses, gadgets. Strange how many of these newest of new items look as if they were designed in the late 1970s. But that is mere trend, as trends are excuses for what is unneeded, with the requisite undercurrent of statement.

Toulouse is surprisingly large, the country's fourth city, with a mélange of inhabitants, although this is hard to discover when in the centre ville. The people look oddly pale for being denizens of a southern French city; the women seem to have larger bodies, the men look more "northern," but these might be tricks of perception. Perhaps the race of Cathars, who are said to have invented the kiss as a greeting (as an exchange of breath), had truly been obliterated from the genetic pool, and the populace is now represented by the conquering Albigensians. The fantasy of speculation.

Though large, the city lacks a self-portrait. Situated on a plain in between mountain ranges, it doesn't have much of a characteristic topography, other than a bisecting, slow-moving river. It is a mass of old, beautiful architecture—cathedrals, chapels, villas, monuments that rise unexpectedly out of the mishmash of well-cared-for ancient lodgings, and of course, the eyesores of modernity.

The eeriness that it evokes is most felt when one is within its interior. There is no view. There is no off-in-the-distance. There is nothing to gauge a pedestrian's smallness, or relationship to the larger world, other than the reflections of its grand architecture in the most immediate shop window.

Perhaps this larger view is unnecessary. There are many bookstores that have extensive libraries about the Languedoc-Roussillon area, hundreds of tomes on the city's architecture, history, and lore (it seems the extinct Cathars are a goldmine in this respect), books in English, German, Spanish, and Italian, a slew of World Art stores, and more restaurants than a human could possibly eat in, given the brevity of life. Toulousians need not venture outside their city's boundaries to get a taste, feeling, sensation of the riches of earthly life.

Les ponts de toulousE

The smaller, less used, older ones are the most beautiful. Pont Neuf is the most famous. They connect the two halves of the city like vertebrae. What lies beneath them is more interesting, for the bridges provide the architecture of an underworld.

Along the quays of Toulouse people satiate their desire for the sea, an open space. Students, a large amount of the populace (at least a quarter and a quartier), lounge in the sun, read, juggle and reenact other medieval pastimes. They smoke, drink, talk of love, life, and sex, read newspapers, and creatively exist.

It is along the river where one can find Moroccans eager to sell their contraband of hashish sticks. They call out to passersby, "cigarette," simply to purchase attention. When responded to, they let you know that they have hashish, powerful stuff, too, homemade. Though you have passed a street musician sporting a Visa-Mastercard sign, the spicemen take only hard currency.

They'll ask where you're from and tell you about their lives back home, across the sea. They won't cut you the best of deals, but they'll share a few moments asking about the greener pastures from where you come. They'll give you a cheeky, stained-teeth smile, shake your hand and tell you to come back when you have enough pocket money you don't care about. Salut, mes amis.

Aside: Coastal memorieS

And so it is almost a desert. With a cold wind, freezing even pools of sand in the hills. Puddles of salt turning into balls of crystals, rock near ocean. Pebbles washed up—finely-crafted layers, a beach of worrying beads. Like a hand-rolled cigarette, only it tasting better, not the metallic rasp in the throat. Hair and veils receding. Needing to wash.


It blows and it blows and it blows. It blows through you. It penetrates bone. It is as bitter as smoke. It dries the laundry quick. It burns holes of salt into your clothes. As the woman in the world of her, your life, that one desired, just look—every movie—the one that gets away. One you cannot have.

Around her, and her city, there are hills painted Turkish, that is blue and light green, always black, always white. Outlines of jagged obelisk-tipped topography, a calcite horizon layered in brushstroke green, mint needles of dry pine.

Wind from the north, worse than light.

Crusades, spoils of victorY

Because the hostilities in the former Soviet block countries serve as a modern little crusade and wet the European, or Western (two terms yet to be defined), appetite for a theater of war spectacle, habits die hard. We bomb Babylonia sucking the fruits of its gardens, the taming of the Bower, our bad habits never stop dying.

Being greatly disliked on the basis of foreign-ness, a chin or a nose cast in a certain way, helps to hurry exodus. A wonderful historical period, mind you, but the time's right up to it, one long wait in the anteroom of the mechanic. Chicks in swimsuits on the wall calendars.

The beach remains undivided, for the most, adult parts. The etymology of adultery made apparent. A mathematical equation for the numerical relation to the amount of articles of clothing not there. Yet, there.

Mediterranean full of beautiful, easily the world's most beautiful, women, and men, bathing, together. The men selling boards of junk, some indeed needed, multi-wonderful colors, sunglasses, bracelets, friendship bands, these flags. Then the same men out of their skull yellow red black caps in the lousy bars filled with older, tiring men, smoke and the smell of old dreams predictably quixotic, in half-reality, it all going out with its 2 a.m. lights, dingy and fluorescent. They go home yelling, singing, pissing where the dogs earlier did, kicking the trash in the sewers like bills of their own spilt paychecks.


Looking up from a depth of ten feet below the sea, the waves breaking into surf on rock present another weather. The surface of the water resembles clouds erupting with rain or snow, the cliffs covered in sea vegetation, with creatures such as urchins and mussels, look like the sides of not-so-arid steppe, and fish, swimming singly or in bands of many, seem to be spacecraft going through docking maneuvers. Otherworldly is the feeling, yet its deterioration into cliché gives a clue to a truer nature.

This is the first world, a primeval one that is immediately recognized. The quietude underwater is eerie. The lack of horizon and surrounding blueness obliterates a sense of perspective: all that can be sensed is within feet from the viewer. It leads one to think fish have a concept of the future, or even distance in a greater meaning than what is continuously arriving within the range of sight. There is no meaning in this realm, other than the bizarre phenomenon we label life. The maritime world is clearly existential.

Breaking the threshold of surface, where distance reigns, are arid islands, white, barren, torturous in contour, ironical reminders of the inherent contrast and the paradox of being. Thorns of desert relentlessly weathering amidst plains of life bearing water.

Easy access clarity. On the crowded summer beaches, approximately five- to ten-percent of sun bathers even enter the sea. The secrets of the underworld can be revealed for the minimum price of a pair of goggles or a diving mask. It seems the topographies of almost-nude human bodies hold more interest than the kingdom of Poseidon, constantly churning in life, just below a blue extending horizon.

Matters of a more earthly devicE

There is, as we all know, the French kiss. Especially famous among grade- and high-schoolers, it is an initiation into the seductive powers of the culture(?), language(?), passion of the stereotypical Latin populace. More interesting, although not as pleasing, is the French greeting.

We all know what it is, but for those who are in need of briefing, this gesture/movement/ritual is extended to friends and family, never strangers (unfortunately, thus making get-togethers among friends more fun). It might be described as a near hug, with the placement of each cheek next to those of the one being greeted (cheek to cheek), touching or near touching, with the addition of actual kisses (what we call "pecks" in American) to the aforementioned cheeks or, most often, in the air slightly above and in the direction of the cheeks of the one being greeted. In some regions, this process is repeated, making it four kisses in two complex, bird-like, mock-courting ritualistic movements. In other regions, it is done only once, and in some rare cases, an odd thrice.

Let it be said that it is an interesting, intimate, wonderful way of bonding. Especially when the one to be greeted is an attractive member of the opposite sex. A nose full of his or her hair, cologne or perfume, and the proximity to his or her ear and nape enhances any social situation. The problem that arises with those of non-Franco cultures, for instance Anglo-American, is that one is never sure when exactly to extend this type of greeting, since it can be extended to children up to the age of twenty (young men included and depending on the personality) and older women, depending upon geniality.

The greeting has eroded into a somewhat forced practice, thus, and this is only supposition, the kiss-in-air mutation, with theatrically practiced and pronounced kiss sounds and puckering. If we dare delve into the meaning of the practice, so late into the twentieth century, it seems to announce that there are close bonds that link family and friends, beyond superstitions that build walls and carve out personal spaces, without the need for extensive elbow room. Yet today it is becoming a ritual of days gone by, is practiced as heartfelt as children in catechism cross themselves, and is a routine disconnected from its sense of meaning, un-revitalized, the curse of all tradition.