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Sunday, June 10, 2012, in Toulon, France

Hi everyone. We’re still in Toulon. We’ve been immersing ourselves in Toulon living. One night, we attended a casual ballet performance by the Opera Ballet of the city. By casual, I mean that it took place inside two rooms of the art museum on a Sunday with free admission to the public, and though the rooms were sprinkled with rose petals around the edges, there were no chairs at all. We stood around the room, or sat along the baseboard molding, among admonitions not to lean back on the artwork.

The dance itself was fine, but very, well, conceptual. I mean that for about the first half of it, I wasn’t really sure that anyone had choreographed it at all. But the dancers were skilled, and when it came time for us to move from one room without chairs to another, we went. The second part involved more dancers and what appeared to be choreography. Sometimes, though, it seemed as though the dancers were like Saturday Night Live’s Garth and Kat, the folk-singing group who is always so unprepared that Garth makes the songs up as he goes along and Kat always just struggles to chime in, always managing to get there a beat behind. One dancer would make a move, and the other dancer, staring intently at the leader, would follow a moment later, like kindergartners in their first recital. It was a little confusing for me.

Another ballet, at least a metaphorical one, takes place every day after the gigantic Provencal market �� that’s what they call it; you can fight with Peter Mayle (“A Year in Provence”) as to whether we’re in Provence or not. Anyway, this half-mile-long market lines a pedestrian thoroughfare from the middle of the old city straight to the harbor, every day but Monday. Table after table of tomatoes, fruits, olives, and veggies, and then the list starts again and again. The tomatoes vary in size, color, and shape. Zucchinis in green and yellow, in grand and petit, and some festooned with yellow flowers. Baby and grown-up artichokes. Bags of herbs de Provence and bottles of first-pressed oils. Each stand appears to have its regulars. The produce is laid artistically, as if for a still life, so the farmers are constantly filling in the little holes left as their wares are removed. You could take a photo of nearly every one at nearly every time and it would be lovely. And after lunch, all of the vendors take their displays apart.

Here’s where the city comes in. By the end of the market, all of the tables and awnings are gone. Wooden crates that were emptied during the day are strewn at the side of the road, now in view. The outside leaves of a cauliflower or a squashed peach litter the street where they had once been hidden by the displays. The place is a mess.

An army of city workers with trucks and cleaning vehicles thunders through. In minutes the crates are gone and the street is washed, pristine and awaiting the next day’s market.

Darse Vieille (the old port), where we are staying, is adjacent to the passenger port. In one direction, yellow ferries transport vacationers to Corsica and Sardinia; perpendicular to us is the cruise ship terminal. The pedestrian passage to our pontoon is decorated with hand-painted signs telling cruise ship passengers that they’re in the wrong lane to go back to their ship. Make a left, one sign alongside the road says, and then a right. The left turn that it’s describing is to the left as you face the sign, or to go back where you came. I would follow those directions and walk into the shop that’s behind the sign.

In the morning and afternoon, we hear the four-tone xylophone crescendo that signals to cruise-ship passengers that an important announcement, perhaps about ice cream, is coming. The voice is too muffled to know whether they’re speaking French or some other language. I get jealous and want ice cream.

One morning, as we sipped early coffee, strains of the Marseillaise (the national anthem) were nearby. From the cockpit, we could see dozens of navy sailors dressed in blinding white at the other side of the harbor outside what might have been the Marine Museum. Maybe someone important was in town. Only in the military can you get a young adult to be ready and where they are supposed to be by eight in the morning.

While he was sitting in the cockpit one morning, Art noticed a black gash across the wood, oddly under the dodger. It couldn’t really be dirt, because it was inside the cover. He felt the varnish. It was a burn, as if someone had torched the spot from inside the cockpit.

What could possibly have caused this? Security is fine in the marina, and we always hoist the passerelle when we are aboard for the night or when we are gone for the day. Nobody had tried to take anything, and this would be too odd a place that someone might want to vandalize. You can’t really see the spot. It might have been burnt for weeks without us seeing it (being on the side of the cockpit dodger that I face when we’re sailing.) There’s nothing like making your revolutionary mark on the one spot on a boat that nobody can see. That would be like openly, viciously stealing water from a pond.

The problem stymied us, and then we realized that a hand magnification mirror we’d left on the outdoor chart table during the day had just fried the varnished wood, like a mean kid vaporizing ants with a magnifying glass. Another day, another thing to fix.

That was a job for a carpenter, and while we were sorting that out, Art was getting a little desperate for things to fix. One morning, he called for me to join him on deck because of some stains on the teak he wanted to remove. These stains got there by drips from a polish we’d used falling on the teak near or under various stainless handholds and accessories around the decks. But you couldn’t see the spots unless the decks were wet, where they’d show up as white stains on the darkened wet teak. I realized that Art was sucking on chore fumes when it occurred to me that he was actually removing invisible stains.

Toulon’s large port is home to several other towns, including a village called Saint-Mandrier. A ferry that makes a circuit from Toulon around the port saves pedestrians the long bus ride around the peninsula that encloses the harbor and makes several stops in Saint-Mandrier. The ferry is like a bus, with a bus schedule posted at the bus shelter, and with a bus route name.

Here are some of the people who settled in Saint-Mandrier: The Phoenicians, the Rhodians, the Ligurians, the Celto-Ligurians, the Massadiens, and the Romans. Here are some of the things that were once in Saint-Mandrier: a Phoenician tower in the 6th century, later a Christian chapel and then a church, a naval hospital in the 19th century, a naval aviation school in the 20th century, and two defensive turrets in World War II. Here’s what’s there now: none of that. Instead, though, there are beaches and restaurants and a boat chandlery across from the large marina.

The day we were there, the other side of the peninsula was hosting an “aquathlon” which seemed to blend long-distance swimming with long-distance running (although not at the same time.) We spent our day walking around the harbor, succumbing to the offerings of an open-market vendor, and having lunch in a quiet part of the coastal town. Our agenda wasn’t ambitious, but for the price of a local bus ticket, our investment wasn’t steep either.

Toulon had made its way to the rugby championship finals and was playing in the stadium across the road from the marina. Well, the teams wouldn’t actually be in the stadium, but large-screen TVs would show the match from Paris and admittance was free. Art likes to share in local sports, especially soccer (rather football), and I sometimes humor him. I understand that I’m just mutated not to understand why people are so interested in sports. It isn’t a gender thing. I don’t get excited about shoes, either.

Art was surprised to see that there’s so much interest in rugby, of all things, when we arrived in France in 2011. The barber he’d met in Port Vendres was transfixed by the Rugby World Cup. So Art was tempted to attend this Top 14 League match, even though he really doesn’t know how to follow rugby. That was until I saw – and heard – the fans after the game a week earlier that put Toulon into the finals as a Cinderella team against Toulouse. The air was filled with hooting and car horns and red-and-black flags eclipsed the sky after the semi-final win. And hours before the finals, the area around the stadium, rather the area around our marina, was filled with fans in red determined to use up all their air-horn air before the match started. Art would have gone, I think, but it was beyond my ability to compromise. The dull roar we heard from our marina vantage point during the game gradually subsided. Cinderella became a pumpkin and Toulon lost.

We have some commitments here for another several weeks, but life could be worse than being stuck in the south of France. The weather here is still springlike and sunny. Hope you’re all getting outdoors a little bit, too.

Love, Karen (and Art)