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.

The flowers!
Just another French castle…

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.

Minervois, not Myanmar. Minervois wine is fantastic and not well-known because it’s a very small region.
The path to the menhir.

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.

23 thoughts on “Monolithic

  1. This is my new favorite post of yours! You had me at the word “menhir”, which instantly conjured up Asterix and Obelix before you mentioned them. We their books in my high school French class, and even with my limited grasp of the language, I would tell how incredibly witty they were. I have never seen any of the movies, and am now on a mission to do so. I LOVED the Burma stories! They reminded me of my own travels in the 1980s, when we did things that make me shudder today…keep ’em coming, and get those photos out of storage!

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    1. Where did you go? Backpacking was so different then. I hitchhiked! Sometimes it was the only way to get somewhere, not having a vehicle and public transport being non-existent. Never had a problem. Crazy.
      Asterix & Obélix: Mission Cleopatra and Asterix & Obélix: God Save Britannia are the best, IMHO. Asterix at the Olympic Games has Benoît Poelvoorde, who is one of the most insanely funny comedians in the French language, if not in the world.

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      1. Well, I was “only” in Europe, which seemed much safer than Asia – obviously they hadn’t made “Taken” then, huh? I rented a car with friends and started around England and Scotland, then public transport to Paris and Switzerland, then trains to Germany where I stayed with family friends and got a job. I wrote a whole post about that period on my blog https://mksadventure.com/2020/04/22/the-high-life-in-deutschland-living-in-germany-in-the-1980s/. I remember those train cars that transformed into sleeping compartments for 6, and how you’d sleep in a tiny space with 5 strangers without thinking a thing about it!

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        1. I had to look up “Taken”–it was set in FRANCE! Not even an exotic location! It is very daring to drive on an early vacation.
          Yes, sleeper cars are great, but on that particular trip to Pagan, they were just regular cars, no beds. VERY uncomfortable.

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  2. SO the PRINCESS of BURMA was in exile in Italy when I was there!She escaped with the clothes on her back……….
    I took a cooking class from her in her dilapidated Italian farmhouse!
    Her ENGLISH was very GOOD!
    YOU were a VERY BRAVE AMERICAN GIRL!!!!!!!!

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    1. It didn’t feel risky. I’ve done worse.
      The princess sounds interesting. You never know who you’re going to meet when you get out of your own little world. You have met some incredibly interesting people.
      I was surprised by how many people in then-Burma spoke good English. It was well before Internet and cell phones. They were very savvy. That said, I didn’t get out into the far reaches of the country.

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  3. So wonderful to read your posts again after such a crazy year! Though I haven’t explored the menhirs in France, my husband and I hopped several busses in Scotland in 2019 in search of the standing stones in the tiny village of Aberlemno. The friendly bus driver even told us where to find them, and said he would watch for us on his return trip several hours later. The stones were made by the Picts and date back to 700, I think. Very intricately carved, standing by the side of a country road with not a tourist in sight. Then we discovered an old churchyard with more stones and lits of fascinating headstones. The Scots tend to etch the deceased’s entire life story, which makes for interesting reading. Can’t wait to travel again! Been to France 3 times and need to return.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. VERY cool. Apparently, monoliths are a thing the world over for millennia, and they are all different. This one had nothing carved, but it could be the stone eroded or that it wasn’t the fashion in this region. Who knows! The sad thing about headstones is that many of the old ones have been replaced by newer burials. If you don’t keep paying for a grave, it gets a new occupant! Visigoths aside (I did a post long ago about the Visigoth cemetery, which was not far by car but too far to walk from the menhir): https://francetaste.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/visigothic/

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      1. And when we revisit France, we will be sure to check out those Visigoth tombs near you! We have been to Normandie and the Loire so far, and like nothing better than abandoned or “in ruins” type areas. Our favorite castle in western Germany was a 15th century ruin near Staufen in the Black Forest area. And in Scotland, we absolutely loved the ruins of Arbroath Abbey near Dundee, from the 12th century. Again, very few visitors. Those are the places we actively seek. Thanks for the link!

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  4. What a fabulous post! I love how you’ve tagged it ‘Travel Tips’! I must remember some of them the next time I’m headed for a zany, dictator-run country on the cusp of a coup! Your time in Myanmar sounds fascinating and I’m sure if your parents knew the half of it, they’d not have been sleeping at night in their cold sweats … Although you must have thought it was all a bit of a lark after Africa, everything being relative.

    Astérix and Obelisk need more time in the sun, they are incredibly witty, even in English. What a clever way to polish your French and to have been left with annotated books is a fine legacy of your educational road.

    Speaking of, I’ve recently read an intriguing book, based upon a PhD thesis about pre-literate memory-gathering, called “The Memory Code” which theorises convincingly that standing stones and other intriguing tools are giant markers for concentrating all manner of detail about the culture which raised them. That your menhirs are unmarked is of no consequence, the fact that each stone is subtly different in shape is enough to find tags and bumps upon which to focus memorised stuff in the form of some kind of story (the memory palace idea, writ large) which (it is posited) would have been recited or sung as people journeyed about, thus imparting important information to anyone who knows how to “read” it. Not terribly well explained by me, but such a good theory as to their whys and wherefores!

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    1. That’s fascinating about the “Memory Code.” And why not leave information in the form of bumps rather than, say, letters, if what people knew how to read were bumps? Here I thought menhirs were just phallic symbols.

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  5. Oh there is SO much to take in here – your incredibly complicated and adventure rich travel story, but also the menhir tale. I learned a lot and send you many thanks for all the info in your post.
    I also didn’t know that the minervois wine seems to be ‘limited’. That was never my impression, I always had plenty of that rather earthy, heavy bodied red drink. It IS special, like no other wine and to me it was ‘aah, that trip then, that holiday when…’ stuff.
    Some other question, in my books 15.600kgs are exactly 15.6 tons – are you speaking of English pounds or American ones – although you state the weight in kilos… 1000kgs are one ton. I’m intrigued.

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  6. Great post! I always enjoy your lessons on French history. I backpacked around Asia in 1972/73 going overland to Australia from England, taking 20 months to make the journey before needing to replenish the money supply. I spent $900 in that time and yet I don’t feel we were impoverished or begging travelers at all. We just did it very simply and lived as the locals did. We still managed to eat well and sleep in clean but basic accommodations. I’m sure the Burma I saw was not much different to what you saw. We also went by train and bus to Pagan. I still vividly remember the absolute stillness surrounding the temples. We could only go for a week back then too. Since then I have gone back a few times and it still remains one of my favorite countries. It is so sad what is going on there at the moment and my heart goes out to its people.

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    1. When I was traveling in the mid/late ’80s, I kept hearing about how it was REALLY great in the 1970s. You are so lucky to have seen so much at that time. The world has become increasingly homogenized. Development is great–everybody should have clean water, safe and clean energy, good medicines and enough food–but a lot of it seems to come with everybody eating the same foods, wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music.

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      1. I was very aware when writing my comments about how cheaply I travelled how they could be taken completely wrong. I hesitate to write such personal things sometimes but I thought it was worth a try and I would learn my lesson if someone wrote how insensitive I was, wanting to “keep the natives in poverty” or whatever. About 20 years ago, after college, my son went backpacking in Asia and I was struck at how different travel is these days. For one thing they are totally connected by email to the outside world whereas in my day it was whenever you picked up your mail at Poste Restante or the American Express. Parents couldn’t get hold of you in an emergency even if they wanted to. And yes, there is a sameness to everything now but at the same time I do believe it’s possible to get off the beaten track in many places if you want to. And I totally agree with your comments about Development.

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