Tag Archives: France

Gold Rush, Blue Jeans and Earthquakes

Golden-Gate-from-San-FranciscoIn my recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that this town, having been subject to multiple booms and busts over the years, is on the move again. Headlines in the San Francisco’s  Chronicle explained that yet another technology bonanza is the culprit for the current housing boom – an effect being especially felt in the “City by the Bay” more than anywhere else.

An explosion in technology jobs, IPO’s by cutting edge start-ups and big money buy-outs by larger companies have created yet another generation of instant millionaire buyers thrown onto the city’s housing market. Even run-down old buildings and warehouses in the SOMA (South of Market Area) and away from the Bay Bridge are being renovated with a renewed vigour – becoming outposts for new social technology darlings like Twitter and Yammer.

googlecarLuxury busses with wi-fi and tinted windows zoom through the city to provide a free regular service for Google employees to Mountain View in Silicon Valley – a practice followed by numerous others like Genentech and Yahoo!, while the driverless (yes, driverless) Google car passes by to demonstrate innovation in action.

Some say this is due to a West Coast hippy mentality of the 1960’s which left a legacy of radical thinking, others because of the concentrated brain-power of Stanford, Berkeley and another 20 or so universities. Although much research has been traditionally sponsored by the military defense companies in the past, today there is a far broader spectrum of investment and speculation, with companies such as Apple, Facebook, Oracle, and other emerging tech leaders dominating from their positions in the famed Silicon Valley. The list goes on but, whatever the impulse, one third of all the venture capital in the United States is concentrated in the “magic triangle” between San Jose, Marin County and Pleasanton/Livermore in an area with a total population of around 7 million. Thanks to all this, the iconic city of San Francisco, situated in the middle of it all, is booming once again.

Historically of course, the Bay Area was not always so active. Protected by fog, mist and unstable weather, the Bay offered shelter but only to ships that could find it. The Camino Real of New Spain, its governors and the Dominican/Franciscan missions only reached out to claim possession. The Yerba Buena settlement which became San Francisco originally had a population of only 469 and very few trees.

The defining moments for this city were really the great Gold Rush of 1849 and the earthquake of 1906. Early discoveries of gold and the staking of claims caused a frenzy of landgrabbers and easy money.The 10,000 newcomers of 1848 became by 1849 a throng of 25,000 from all over the world. Among them only some 300 women, many of them prostitutes.

Sailors rushed inland, leaving a graveyard of 800 abandoned ships on what became known as the Barbary Coast, named after the infamous dens of North African pirates. Highwaymen averaged 500 killings a year on the Camino Real. Desperate ships captains resorted to kidnapping to raise their crews. Ex-convict elements from the Antipodies attempted a takeover which was only crushed by crowds of self appointed vigilantes. There were imprisonments, hangings and deportations back to Australia.

Interestingly, the gold seekers were only able to extract a small portion of the gold in the foothills, more 70% of the gold is estimated to still be there. However, very real fortunes were made during this time – mostly by enterprising suppliers to miners or by those involved in the construction of the rapidly growing city that was springing up as a result of this growing activity.

user2425_1172627992The classic case is the legend of Levi Strauss who originally attempted to sell brown sail cloth material for tents to gold miners but found greater demand for sturdy work clothing. The predominant material used at the time chafed so a hard wearing but smoother cotton was sent for.

This had been a major export from Nîmes in France (hence from/de Nîmes or denim) to the dockworkers and sailors of the dominant Mediterranean port of Genoa (known as Gênes to the French , hence “jeans”).On sea voyages this denim clothing could be laundered by being dragged behind the ship in a net.

For the miners however, it was not strong enough at the seams and the final commercial breakthrough came only when Jacob Davis applied copper rivets at strategic points. He became a partner and patent holder. It then became the single best selling item of clothing in the world and today is virtually a uniform in Silicon Valley. Corporate headquarters are located on Levi Strauss Plaza in San Francisco, the company is still privately owned by Levi Strauss descendants and a “blue jeans” museum has been opened in Buttenheim, Germany, from where the founder had migrated.

As much as California and the Bay Area is famous for, it also has its share of infamy – not least of which for the perceived prevalence of Earthquakes in the region. A fracture, the notorious San Andreas fault was the cause of some 400 quakes recorded after 1848. Early in the morning of April 18th 1906, however, the ground moved along the fault and suddenly shifted 16’ to 20’ north. By today’s measurements it would have registered around 8 on the Richter scale. 28,000 buildings were destroyed and half the population made homeless. However, the major damage was done not just by the force of the quake, but rather by the 50-some fires that raged for days and weeks after the quake, The prevalent rumor of course, is that a healthy percentage of those fires started, not as the result of ruptured gas lines as commonly thought, but by distraught residents who torched their own homes to claim on fire damage in the absence of any available earthquake insurance. It took 9 years to rebuild the city to a state resembling its prior glory.

6787638359_e031d7b26a_zSeismic activity is a primary concern on the famous bridges. When the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937 it was thought capable of resisting any conceivable earthquake. It is still considered a technical masterpiece, but recent research suggested the possibility of a collapse at the city side, Fort Point supporting arch, leading to a 392 million strengthening retrofit.

On the other side of the city, the 8.5 mile Oakland Bay Bridge is having problems too, ominously with bolts breaking. During the 1989 earthquake a 50’ section collapsed. Now a whole section between Treasure Island and Oakland is being replaced.

There is , of course,  constant research on how to minimize earthquake damage, particularly in Japan. New buildings now consist of an exoskeleton fitted with hydraulic dampers that absorb energy and convert it into heat which it dissipates. Architects in Tokyo believe indestructability is now a given. “You could keep working at your desk at Rippongi Hills if there were a big earthquake beneath Tokyo”, say specialists. 
San Francisco is taking note , thinking of “The Big One” to come.

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The Golden City on a Hill

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I only met Marc Chagall once. It was on Oct 9th, 1978 having just emerged from the inner rooms of the Chagall National Museum ( Cimiez, Nice) in somewhat of a daze from the mesmerizing combinations of his colors, dreamlike compositions and floating figures that inhabit his characteristic pieces.

I saw a short man, with fine wispy hair, a long raincoat and a quizzical smile. The face was familiar to me from photographs, and he was exchanging a few words with the attendants by the entrance. I guessed immediately it was Monsieur Chagall.

A French president described Chagall as the painter of Joy in Life –  those large canvases on the museum walls, inevitably leading to the smaller rooms with the brilliantly colored themes from the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs, was in itself a joyful journey into the deep Mediterranean sauce of our European culture. Although Chagall himself had cautioned that his painting was not really European, but rather partly oriental.

I was particularly fascinated with the scenes of paradise in the earlier pictures, but it was the lovers floating or flying over Jerusalem that caught my attention as the image of the “shining city on a hill” was that of St Paul de Vence.

I introduced myself to Monsieur Chagall, said “Bonjour”,  “Merci pour votre vision!”, then  asked him about the portrayal of St Paul de Vence. He replied kindly, explaining that, although he had a studio for some years in nearby Vence, it was St Paul that was really special. It was there, in his home known as “La Colline”, that he felt most “en place”.

“We all carry a vision of Jerusalem in our hearts”, he added, “remember Psalm 137” (which contains the famous verse “if I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning”). He took a small illustrated book from the kiosk, signed it, gave it to me with a smile and was gone.

When wandering through the crowded streets of St Paul, you eventually emerge at the far end of the Rue Grande, where you can find a narrow gateway leading to the old village cemetery There on the right is a simple stone slab over the remains of the spiritual dreamer and sublime colourist, where I like to pause and place a pebble.

ImagePS : Currently an exhibit entitled “Chagall between War and Peace” is showing at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, until July 21

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A Home for the Wanderer

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Among the artists associated with Saint Paul de Vence, Marc Chagall is the most fondly remembered. He lived in many places throughout his life after having been forced to leave his native Russia due to “differences” with the post-revolutionary soviet bureaucrats.

He made his home in Paris and later left for New York  during World War II. Once there, comfortable in his house in High Falls, he decided that “America is more dynamic, but also more primitive. France is a picture already painted”. At the same time, his cosmopolitan side made him exclaim “I’m a foreigner here, and at the same time, I’m at home because I’m a Jew”.

Returning to France, he decided to live in Vence itself before moving and settling permanently at his last home, “La Colline”, in St Paul de Vence. One of his neighbors in Vence, the existentialist writer Witold Gombrowicz, claimed that “any artist that respects himself, ought to be in every sense of the term an émigré”. Marc Chagall certainly fulfilled that description.

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Heart of the Riviera. St Paul de Vence and the artists

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Ever since Lord Brougham was turned away at the France/Italy border-crossing in 1834 (due to an unfortunate case of “foot & mouth disease”) and by lucky chance  discovered the charm of the bay of Cannes with its unique microclimate – the French Riviera, or “the Côte”, has been a legendary destination.

Not only the azure blue color of the sea but, as many artist-residents explained, “it’s the light” which inspired the brilliantly coloured paintings by Matisse (in Nice), Renoir (in Cagnes), Picasso (in Vallauris), and particularly Chagall at St Paul de Vence, the old town which in itself may be the most interesting objective for any traveller, both for its physical presence and its various memories and meanings.

It is worth leaving the cities and dramatic coastline of the Riviera to drive into the valley of St Paul de Vence. This once frontier-town, situated between France and the former state of Savoy, sits comfortably around the upper contours of the hill slope, rising to a high point at the ancient chapel tower and still surrounded by the ramparts of the defensive wall.For many moments of the day, it looks from a distance like a floating mirage, a ghost from the past. In fact, although lovingly preserved and only accessible on foot, the town could not be more alive and is much used both by permanent residents and transient visitors.

Before reaching the approach to the main gateway, the huge letter “M” of welded steel beams by Alexander Calder points away from the town towards the celebrated Maeght Foundation, one of the most valuable contemporary collections of European 20th Century art.

albertoFounded by Aimé Maeght in 1964, it contains, amongst many others, works by Chagall and a whole courtyard of 60 Giacometti bronze sculptures, including two of his famed “Walking Men”.Asked to describe Giacometti, Chagall once explained “he feels profound forces of nature.!”In 2010, a Giacometti “Walking Man” ,“l’homme qui marche”, was sold by Sotheby’s in London for a then record breaking £62M – cheered on by the late Aimé’s granddaughter Yoyo  who later said that her feeling at the time was “Bravo Papi!…. and after that, of course, I was furious because I thought of the insurance!” (Referring to how much she’d have to insure the two remaining ones in the courtyard, never mind the rest of the sculptures there!).

If instead of taking the turn towards Maeght, one continues towards the historic town, the outstanding landmarks on its approach are the Colombe d’Or and the Café de la Place – each an unforgettable destination in itself.

The Colombe d’Or, a comfortable but rustic hotel/restaurant, came into its own when the Côte became the center of bohemian artistic France.Matisse, Chagall and Picasso were regulars at the inn and the Roux family owners built up a now fabled personal collection  by accepting paintings and sculptures, from the then unknown artists, in lieu of payment for hospitality.  The collection is still displayed in the dining room walls.

There, it is rumored, Chagall exchanged words with Picasso. The latter had suggested “when Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is” – to which Chagall countered saying “what a genius that Picasso, it is a pity he doesn’t paint”.

Amongst the many famous guests were Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Greta Garbo, Jean Paul Sartres and Simone de Beauvoir, Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Ustinov, and many more.The actor Yves Montand and later Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones liked the unique ambience so much that they even had their wedding receptions there.

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Looking at the town from the valley below, is the 17th century farmhouse of Bill Wyman, whilst Roger Moore, after his James Bond appearance at the Cannes Film Festival, purchased a home nearby and was a regular at the Colombe d’Or with his actor friend and restaurateur Michael Caine, until forced to relocate to Monte Carlo when his 3rd marriage broke down.

On many occasions the Café de la Place across the road from the Colombe d’Or saw a cheerful crowd on the terrace cheering Yves Montand on to victory, in the boules/pétanques game played on the Grande Place in front of it – and roaring with laughter when the losers had to kiss a ceramic lady’s bottom, known as “Fanny”, hidden behind red velvet curtains near the bar.

It is this atmosphere that attracts visitors to St Paul from around the world, making it possibly the single most visited town along the whole French Riviera with something to offer to everyone in its antique shows, art galleries, original souvenirs,panoramic views and a living record of the past.

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The Camargue and the Spirit of Travel

ImageTo capture the essence of a place, one needs to explore the local imagination. Such is the mysterious Camargue, with its saline water, pink flamingoes, white horses, and wild bulls.

There are echoes of ancient Rome throughout the region, and at its tip the Saintes Maries de la Mer – where a ship without a mast or rudder arrived from the Holy Land after the crucification, carrying the biblical Marias – including Mary Magdalen (the suggested bride of Christ in “Holy Blood and Holy Grail” as well as the “DaVinci Code”).

Were her remains buried in nearby St Maximine or spirited away to Vezelay (the “sacred hillslope” of Burgundy), crossroads of the great pilgrim routes? Certainly these are some of the ancient stories told throughout the region – Not just of the “Marias'” but of their maid servant Sarah as well – patroness of the gypsies, the ancient nomadic migrants, once from Himalayas, who come annually to her festival in the Camargue in search of healing and health in the sprawling delta of the Rhone. 

It is also here that the Gypsy Kings wrote songs of love and where Bizet’s “Carmen” came to life in an atmosphere of bullfights, gypsy lore and music. 

The unique feeling of Arles – where Van Gogh painted what he felt;  Picasso mused that “It takes a long time to become young”; and Ernst Hemingway, inspired by Cezanne’s blocks of colour in his paintings of Mt St Victoire, arranged his paragraphs into acute formations. 

The fragments of these and other ideas spread throughout the Camargue is representative of the “soul” at the heart of every traveller – for as Italo Calvino (the famed Italian writer) offered in his lectures, “Who are we if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined”. 

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