Driving around the French countryside, one often spots little signs pointing out local objects of pride. The ones for menhirs especially intrigued me, but I always was rushed, especially when passing a certain sign, and when I did have time, I wasn’t on that road–out of sight out of mind–I didn’t have a checklist of “when have 20 free minutes, go check out this stuff,” with menhir at the top of the list.
I finally stopped to check it out. Simple pleasures, something cultural that is out in the fresh air. Monoliths were in the news, and I had tons of them, much cooler than the modern metal things sprouting around the world. These weren’t social media stunts but something more mystical. Imagine the work they required, back when just getting enough to eat was hard work. They must have been pretty darn important.
Menhir comes from a Breton word meaning “long stone.” Menhirs can be natural or hewn, big or small, alone or in groups, but they are planted vertically, which separates them from dolmens, another Breton word meaning big table. Dolmens are structures made of several big rocks, some vertical and some placed horizontally. Don’t be fooled!
Menhirs figure in a beloved French-Belgian comic series about Astérix and Obelix: Astérix is a warrior in ancient Gaul who outsmarts the invading Romans and has great adventures with his sidekick, Obelix, who is extremely strong because of having fallen as a baby into a magic potion. Obelix walks around carrying a menhir and has a little dog, Idéfix. Everything is a pun in these comics. Idéfix = idée fixe = a fixed idea, i.e., an obsession. His name in English is Dogmatix, which is also pretty good. The Asterix movies are hilarious. Christian Clavier (also has played Napoleon), followed by Clovix Cornillac, is Astérix, and Gérard Depardieu plays Obélix. My favorite is the one where they go to Egypt, followed by the one where they go to England (with Catherine Deneuve as the queen). Puns upon puns. When I was in Belgium, where these comics are revered, my French tutor, Geneviève, used them to teach me, because they are so rich with language play. She had a friend who knew the entire oeuvre so well she could quote it for any situation. (Goals.) My Astérix comics are annotated with Geneviève’s penciled explanations. It’s where I learned, for example, that having une poil dans la main–a hair in one’s hand (not holding it but it’s growing in your palm)–means being lazy. Stuff like that–I knew poil is hair and main is hand, but how would anybody ever put those together to get to “lazy”???? Such are the secrets of languages that are both frustrating and fascinating.
This particular menhir sits alone, half a kilometer from Malves en Minervois, surrounded by very fine Minervois vineyards. It is five meters (16.5 feet) tall, and there’s another four meters (13 feet) underground. It’s 1.5 meters (5 feet) wide and 40 centimeters (15.5 inches) thick. It’s estimated to weigh 15,660 kilograms (17.26 tons). Interesting note about the height: supposedly experts have tried several times to measure the depth but haven’t been able to get to the bottom. And 150 years ago, it was noted to be barely as tall as a man, which means it has pushed up or that the ground has given way, but which, according to the plaque next to the menhir, might also be attributed to supernatural powers that allow it to grow.
I wanted to write about something very un-French, and while I have lots of photos, they are all in storage. They date to 1988, well before digital cameras. That’s when I went to Burma, as it was then called. Watching the news about the coup in Myanmar makes me think about my trip there, just a few months before the Aug. 8, 1988, uprising that is the subject of the movie “Beyond Rangoon.”
I backpacked across Asia for a few months, taking the long way home after my Peace Corps stint in Africa. I wanted to see Burma, as it was then called, because it was hard to get to. Tourists were allowed in for no more than seven days. It sounded like a crazy place–a military dictatorship, exotic, closed from the world. I had been living in a dictatorship, but it was early days and the oppression was still fairly light (though we all made a point to get hold of and read all the banned books), and I had visited Zimbabwe, which had only just won independence and Robert Mugabe was still a hero and not yet an autocrat. Before Burma, I was in Thailand, where I learned that Burma had a thriving black market, so I loaded up on cigarettes though I’ve never smoked in my life and knock-off Polo shirts, which apparently were highly coveted. I had gotten used to this kind of stuff (my round-the-world plane ticket had been the result of exchanging my direct return flight, via a travel agent named Fast Eddie, and the new ticket was hand-written….and legit), but even I was surprised when nearly every Rangoon airport worker muttered offers to buy stuff–anything–or to change money.
Speaking of money, it was in odd denominations because, as a way to devalue at some point earlier, the government had simply demonetized notes of 50 and 100 kyats–those bills were no longer valid. They came out with notes in denominations of 15, 35 and 75 kyats. Just before I got there, the government demonetized 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes and introduced 45 and 90 notes. Wikipedia claims it was because the then-dictator was into numerology, but I had heard it was just to make sure the old notes were good and dead. The locals must have been arithmetic geniuses–imagine making change for 90 kyats using 35s and 15s. Crazytown. No wonder everybody wanted U.S. dollars.
The taxis were museum pieces–even in 1988, cars from the 1950s were old. I sold my cigarettes to the taxi driver, stupidly. I should have sold the cigarettes individually later, upcountry. A lesson learned that I have never again been able to put to use. At some point in the journey, I even sold my jeans, to a man, because women didn’t wear pants. People dressed traditionally, both men and women wearing a longyi, a wide tube of fabric that was folded to fit like a sarong. They often wore Polo shirts on top. Women applied some kind of white paste on their faces, drawing circles on their cheeks. I remember an old woman, squatting and smoking a comically huge cigar.
I stayed in a hotel that had long since lost its colonial elegance. I want to say it was the Strand, which Wikipedia tells me was in bad shape pre-1989. That sounds about right. The ballroom had been sectioned off, with dividers around the perimeter to make tiny individual rooms. There was a lock on each cardboard-thick door, and a bare light bulb dangled from the wire mesh that passed as a false ceiling; the ballroom had a magnificently soaring ceiling with crumbling molding. So when any of the other backpackers turned on a light during the night for a bathroom break, the entire ballroom lit up. Geckos passed freely from one room/cage to another. The acoustics were amazing; the smallest whisper traveled to every bed.
There was a fair–I don’t know whether it traveled or was permanent–with a Ferris wheel, made of wood, frighteningly artisanal. It wasn’t motorized. three young men climbed around the spider-web of its structure, using their weight to make the wheel turn, sending the riders around in staccato half-circles. I was fascinated, watching them dance around the wheel, making it swing down, then scrambling, before it got to the bottom and lost momentum, to the middle and then to the top to repeat the cycle.
I took an overnight train to Pagan, origin of the word “pagan” because of its many temples. Passengers were sprawled on the seats, on the floor under the seats, in the aisle–anything to try to sleep. There were metal shutters on the outside, and at some point, the train stopped and these were pulled down. That was a little scary, like we were being sealed in, plus, even though it was night, it would have been nice to look outside. At various points along the trip, we could hear blows against the shutters. Rocks? There were military on the train. A coup would happen months later.
Leaving was stressful. I’d heard that there were never enough seats–they used Hunger Games-style seating (still favored by Ryanair, unless you pay an outrageous supplement, which kind of defeats the point of flying on Ryanair). If you were too timid in the mob and didn’t get a seat, you had to try again the next day, with big problems if you were over the seven-day limit. The waiting lounge was like a set from the movie “Casablanca,” with lazily turning ceiling fans, the place looking like it was last renovated in 1932. There were no announcements, signs or information boards or anything like that. I guessed which door might lead to the tarmac and took a seat close by, keeping my backpack on. Eventually an airport employee walked toward the door and looked nonchalantly out the window. But I saw him discreetly unlocking the padlock on the door, slipping it out and replacing it, turned it so it would look like it was still locked. This was the door. As soon as it opened, I sprinted to the ancient plane, as did about a hundred other people. I got a seat, just barely. On takeoff, a seat a few rows in front of me came detached, sending the passenger flying (in more ways than one).
Myanmar looks much more modern now. I saw a TikTok of a young woman doing acrobatics in a park, oblivious to the tanks and police cars trundling by in the background. It’s pretty sad to think of all those people, in such a beautiful place, just wanting to live their lives and having to put up with so much craziness and cruelty.