Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Meandered Down to the Med

For awhile this morning, I had my own private expanse of Mediterranean beach.

Not another soul within at least 500 metres. Just me, the ankle-deep sand sloping down to the sea, gentle waves cresting no more than a foot high, their crescendo rapidly rising like the audience appreciation at the conclusion of a symphony, then the peak and the applause-like sound quickly breaking into a burble of white foam lapping at the temporary footprints I'd embedded in the thin wet strip left by high tide.

Peaceful. So peaceful.

Reminded me of the time I was on the USS Ranger aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific. The night before, the ship had been a chaotic choreography of planes, signal officers, refuelers and myriad other Navy personnel, all focused on qualifying newbie pilots to land and catapult off the floating airstrip. We even had a "fire on the deck ... man overboard" scare that turned out to be a false alarm (but which required rousting all 5,500 personnel out of bed to literally count noses). In the breaking dawn, I had wandered out to the 1000-foot deck and, as this morning on the Med, there wasn't another human within sight nor earshot. As the carrier bobbed and the ocean melded into the horizon in every direction, I felt an incredible calm. It was the most peaceful I think I'd ever been - until today.

I had not planned to go down to the beach. It started as a walk to take some of D-L's no longer wanted clothes to the local Goodwill-type depository. She, Lydia and Barbara had driven off to Barcelona to renew Barbara's passport and have a little picnic in the park. The air was dry, for a change, and it was mostly blue over the Pyrenees, suggesting at least an hour or two of pleasant skies, and I realised that I'd been in Argeles-sur-mer for perhaps 20 days since arriving in Europe and not yet made it to the "mer" part. So off to the plage I went.

ASM has, I'm told, the largest family-friendly beach on the French Med. The tan sand is fairly fine, not rocky like what they try to pass off as a beach in Britain and other places. Yes, there are a few stones, most not much larger than a grain of rice or a pea. And there's surprisingly little liter and debris. As I walked around, I noticed only a bow broken off someone's bright orange sunglasses, a child's plastic toy motorcycle, an occasional cigarette butt, and a condom wrapper. (Remember the beach love scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in "From Here to Eternity"? Burt later complained about getting sand in places he'd rather not have sand.) Way up to the north, I noticed a tractor pushing the dunes around, which explained the broad smooth strips and tire tracks I'd crossed on my way down to the water. There were also some three-toed gull tracks; must have been too tired to fly.

For the past four years, and perhaps before, the ASM beach has been rated bonne qualitie blue, meaning it is one of the best water quality beaches in Europe.

At the beginning of the lone non-sand walkway down to the water, there's a sign pictorially showing how long it takes for certain man-made objects to decompose. For a magazine, 6 semaines (weeks). A soda can, 200 ans (years). Plastique, 400-450 ans. A nylon fish net, 6 centuries!

Other signs declare no dogs, no fires, no kite flying, no wind surfing, and no frisbees. In other words, you can relax, soak up some rays, build a sand castle or sculpture, and not worry about getting run over by rambunctious teenagers nor step in a warm turd overlooked by an inconsiderate chien owner. For those inclined to be athletic, there is a beach volleyball net. And there's always biking, jogging, or power-walking along the brick-paver promenade and a broad park of palms, grass and other greenery that separates the beach from the restaurants and merchants.

On the side of the lifeguard building, there's a legend explaining the various signal flags that might be raised. Red = bathing forbidden. Yellow = swimming allowed, but dangerous and not supervised. Green = the universal good to go. They also hand-write the weather; yesterday the water temperature was 17C and the air temp 21C. At the bottom, a lifeguard had drawn a smiling sun wearing squarish glasses.  

Yes, the water is salty, but only slightly.

I had started the day wearing a jacket, but halfway to the plage I no longer needed it. It came in handy as an impromptu beach blanket. To my left, nord, there was beach as far as I could see. To my right, sud, more beach, then in the distance Argeles Port with its protected rock-wall harbor, small yachts and the masts of large sailboats. Beyond that the more touristy town of Collioure, the mountains with their slopes covered in vineyards and olive orchards, and Fort Saint Elme guarding the peninsula. At sea, four ships, barely perceptible shapes on the horizon, three fishing trawlers and one that appeared to be a tanker, inexorably plowing its way southwest toward Spain.

The sun was fighting with and winning against the clouds, and its reflection on the water looked like hundreds of sparkling diamonds, shaped in a V with the point in front of me just off shore and the width disappearing into infinity. The clouds were several shades of grey and white, but were drifting off toward Corsica or Sardinia.

Well to my south, three figures appeared at the shore, a man monitoring two kids frolicking in the water. But they were at least three football fields away. I still had my privacy. But then an elderly couple showed up around 09h15; he plunked himself down perhaps 25 metres from me, and she had the audacity to interrupt my reverie by strolling up and down the edge of the water right in the middle of my view. Before long, a group of English-speaking teens chattered their way down the path by the guard station. My solitude ended, it was time for me to depart.

A helicopter whup-whupped parallel with the shoreline, about 100 metres overhead, which reminded me I have an article to write for a rotary magazine.

I thought I'd catch the "trainbus" back to the village, but it departs the beach stop on the hour and it was about halfway between the previous one and the next, so I set off on foot again.

The main road to the plage is dotted with restaurants (Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, a British pub advertising Sky Sports television), campgrounds, boutique hotels, souvenir shops, a foliage-encased mini-golf, velo (bicycle) rental, apartments, homes, recycle containers overflowing with weekend wine bottles, gardens, sidewalk grocers setting out the day's fresh legumes, one stand dedicated to cherries, a petrol station, and Fabien Tattoo - which advertises with about a hundred photos of satisfied customer's bodies depicting hearts or flowers, horses, scorpions, a cartoon cat, or a lover's name.

I passed a poster promoting a concert by legendary French singer Johnny Hallyday - with only one large word ... JOHNNY ... and everyone around here will instantly recognize him. Another poster of dolphins and whales highlights a photography exhibit. On the walk back, I passed a woman pulling a wire grocery cart; she looks a lot like Judi Dench, the British actress who played M in some of the Bond films. (Yesterday, I met Tony, husband of Carol, friends of Donna-Lane's from the UK; he looks like a short-white-hair version of Richard Branson.) A group of cyclists raced by, dressed like riders in the Tour de France, but they were older like me, and looked more like the Tour de Paunch ... at least they were out exercising and clearly enjoyed the camaraderie. There were several times on the walk down and back that I was thinking of getting a bicycle ... soon.

Before I could start writing my helo article, though, I was scheduled to do an inspection - in my unofficial, self-declared role as the village's chocolate eclair reviewer. Alas, the new boulangerie which I wanted to patronise was not open today. I'd have to make do with a different baker and a religieuse chocolat ... kind of a small cream puff mounted on a larger chocolate-filled cream puff.

Guess I'll have to reschedule my eclair inspection a demain.

 To the French, presentation of food seems almost
as important as the food itself. Pastries like the 
religieuse chocolate are carefully wrapped
in their own box to convey them home.

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