Swamp Bar

     “Le guignol!” said Annick, referring to her president.
     A guignol is a puppet character famous in France as a witty fool, a bit like a court jester. Annick freely expressed her disdain for President Hollande and the traffic tie-ups that accompanied his trip that day to nearby Marseilles.
     Evoking a big bird, she had short, tousled hair, wore a long, knit sweater, had leggings over her knees and hobbled slightly on a bad foot. She was unstudied, engaging and straight-forward in receiving us at the Neptune Hotel in St. Maries de la Mer.
     There are a total of four rooms in the hotel, all on the second floor. The price per night was 50 euros flat, no taxes or additional fees, a straight-up deal.
     Inside room No. 2, the bath was the kind you sit in and hose yourself off with a nozzle, with no curtain. A big window above it opened wide onto the street below and let in a light breeze from the Mediterranean.
     The place was completely simple and very clean. I laid down on the bed, also with a single big window that opened wide onto the street, and a complete sense of ease swept over me. It was only then that I truly felt on vacation.
     The hotel had been recommended by Sophie, the weathered manager of a brasserie in the central part of this small town, where I had felt similarly at ease.
     Annique, Sophie, everyone who worked in this town seemed weirdly relaxed.
     In a store dedicated to organic cotton, another Sophie, more flirtatious, sold me a light cotton, short-sleeved, olive-colored shirt and easily engaged in a conversation about the region – 2,500 people in an area of 40 square kilometers, half in town, half up along the river.
     She said the only rude tourists are the Germans. But most visitors are French, she told me, and for them, coming into the Camargue, the delta region of the Rhone, was like going to another country. It is so close to the rest of France, but so different.
     I always like to pick up a local paper when I travel, to see how the craft is practiced locally. The morning after we arrived, I walked into the center of town, by the church, bought a paper and had a cafe au lait.
     The dominant local paper, La Provence, turned out to be an excellent regional paper. It featured a long and articulate interview with Hollande who had been in Marseille to dedicate a multiculturalism center and a super-sized cargo ship.
     The paper carried very little international news, but plenty about local politics, business and courts. A story on a local trial involved a civil action by pilots against a budget airline over the way it had classified the pilots, as contractors, in order to reduce taxes.
     The article set the issues out cleanly, was informative and well-written. In the end, the airline lost and was assessed a few hundred thousand euros.
     On the way back to the hotel, I walked by the harbor which is filled with fishing boats. Two stalls were selling fish caught that morning, flounder and a regional fish called “loup” or wolf.
     Behind the stalls were wood bins filled with nets. A darkly tanned, old fisherman was mending one of them.
     Even though it seemed like the vacation started when I hit this unusual little town, it was in fact at the end of a three-week holiday. After one day here, and leaving for the airport the following morning, I took a walk with my girlfriend to a bar that had intrigued me based on its name.
     It was called “Bar du Marais,” Bar of the Swamp. Inside, the place was empty except for a woman bartender talking with a girlfriend. With a tinge of hesitation, she served me a calvados.
     Outside, a gypsy woman in a brightly colored, full-length skirt and jet black hair sat silently in a tall chair against the front wall of the bar.
     We sat in small sofas outdoors. The sun was going down, casting a warm, orange-red smear of light across the swamp.
     The huge wetland, separated by a spit of land from the sea, was alive with tweets, trills, hoots and quacks of birds and ducks. Swallows, silently, swiftly chasing bugs, swerved abruptly, this way and that, across the water and up over the town, as the evening came on.

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