Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Midsummer East Coast Tour, Canada And Back

Why the train is relaxing.
There are better times to visit Montreal than the ones I've visited in the past. When I lived in Europe, I'd go as I left the country after SXSW, stopping in New York, then heading north. The trouble was, late March up there is like early February in other places, and I've had to make my way through loads of snow and slush just to get from one place to another. Not to mention the time the train back to New York froze and the rescue vehicle coming to fix it fell over on its way up from Albany. But summer, summer's very different.

In fact, this year, Montreal was suffering higher temperatures than New York, which was odd indeed, and I was beginning to regret having packed the jeans jacket I figured I'd be needing. Not to worry; it rained the day I spent on the train, and by the time I got there, it was considerably milder.

This was to be a quick trip, to come down from the New York experience before heading back to Texas to start doing publicity for one of the two books I have coming out this year, so I wasn't in any particular rush to do anything when I got off the train except check into my hotel and get dinner. Fortunately my friends Terry and Patricia had done research on the latter and were at the station to hustle me into a cab. Dinner turned out to be up a side street around the corner from the hotel in a restaurant called Bonaparte. It was first-class: absolutely traditional French cooking -- I had a goose-leg confit with a mushroom ragout, and Terry and Patricia had skate wings and veal -- done perfectly. The big surprise was the wine: it was an extensive list, so I stuck to what I knew, and picked a Pic-St.-Loup I'd never heard of from a winery that seems to be brand-new. A glance at their website doesn't show the wine we had, which had a Japanese name, but I know the area they're located in, and the rest of their stuff looks very interesting.

On the way to the restaurant we noted a video projected on the side of one of the buildings: a black woman was running towards us, fleeing a wall of flames. Terry said there was a 19th century woman who was accused of arson who'd become a symbol of racism and sexism. On the way out, though, she'd been replaced by a young Jackie Robinson, who'd gotten his start in the minor leagues in Montreal. Apparently there are a number of these things around the city, called Montréal en Histoires, with an app that can help people discover where and what they are.

Terry was anxious that I see the Pompeii exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, so Sunday we hustled down there to discover a line out the door and down the block. So much for that, but there was also the Redpath Natural History Museum at McGill University, right nearby. Terry described it as an instructive look at an institution of a previous century struggling to catch up with changing attitudes, particularly in its cultures-of-the-world section. I knew what he meant: the natural history museum in New York features quotes from Theodore Roosevelt about Manliness and Duty set in metal letters right in the marble walls, and as I waited for my ride to Nyack, I gazed at the huge bronze statue of him outside, on his horse, leading the inferior races -- an Indian in a big warbonnet and a mostly-naked Negro -- into a glorious future. They may have to deal with that some day. But for some reason the Redpath was closed on Sunday.

Trying to salvage the day, we headed to the Fur Building, a nearly block-sized structure downtown that had held the warehouses for furs, back when that was one of Montreal's biggest businesses. Today, the fur companies have left, and artists and galleries, happy to have such huge rooms with long windows at their disposal, have moved in, along with a couple of dance studios, martial-arts instructors, and yoga studios. We'd been there before, and the galleries never seem to be open at once, so you pick your way down the hall to see what's open. Of course, it was August, hardly high season in the art world, so there wasn't much to see. A couple of galleries were open, but I doubt they were showing their A-list clients. There was an amusing video shot under some elevated subway tracks, the images heavily treated, and one mysterious and effective installation where objects were placed in square columns of frosted glass. Some of them were moving, some not, and the amount of visibility on each side varied. It was clever, which was more than you could say about most of the rest of the stuff.

Having arted, we made it back to my hotel, rested our feet, and finally set out for an experience we knew would be deeply satisfying: dinner at Cuisine Szechuan, which I consider one of the best Chinese restaurants in North America. Since the last time I was in Montreal, Terry and Patricia have befriended the owner, who happened not to be in this time. Still, the place was superb again, and since they turned the ordering over to me (except for starting with both Szechuan-style -- in a tart sauce with Szechuan pepper and toasted sesame seeds -- and Hunan-style -- in a peanut-based sauce -- dumplings, traditional favorites going back years in this place) we wound up with a bunch of stuff nobody had had before: a meatball soup with glass noodles, crispy chicken with a lot of stir-fried vegetables and a sauce I'd never heard of before, and a casserole of eggplant and fried tofu in a garlicky sauce. (I think there was one other dish, but it's not coming back to me: it was one of the ones whose leftovers they packed up for the next day's breakfast). Two great meals in two nights.

Terry and I got into the Pompeii show on Monday, and it was very much worth it. A lot of what one goes to see at Pompeii isn't exactly moveable, nor were all the first-class artifacts taken on the road for this, but the show (which I can't seem to find moving elsewhere, although it showed in Toronto last year) brilliantly exposes daily life in Pompeii (and the other two towns that got hit by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Herculanaeum and Stabiae, the latter a tiny resort town that never gets mentioned) through intelligent labels and well-lit displays. Sports, sex, business, daily life, all get their rooms, and then one walks into a room with a dramatically-lit cast of a dog that died in agony and the four walls projecting the progress of the disaster, the chronology of which we know because the Plinys, father and son, were living nearby and went to rescue friends of theirs from the eruption. Pliny the Elder's lungs got filled with volcanic dust and he died during the rescue, while his son, when it was over, wrote a detailed letter to the historian Tacitus about what had happened. It's a dramatic use of space: after we've seen all the artifacts, the decorations, the silverware, the shrines to the household gods, the statues of unknown people, we're in the destruction. The next room has casts. Everything was covered by ash so quickly that people were suffocated, and when the ash hardened, their bodies disappeared. When these hollow areas are discovered, casting material is poured into them and the cast is excavated. There are men, women, a child, all at the moment of death. In the next room, a film shot by U.S. Army personnel stationed in the area documents a 1944 eruption, the latest major one.

After this bravura display, the rest of the museum could have been a letdown, but it wasn't. A fine Toulouse-Lautrec show had many of his familiar images, but put them into the social context of his circle and Bohemian Paris in general, and was just large enough. The permanent collection, like those in many regional art museums, is largely filled with the best work of second-tier artists, enjoyable in its way. At least that was true for the older stuff: downstairs there is some first-rate stuff by "name" modern and contemporary artists and some surprises by folks I'd never heard of, not all of whom were Canadian. There was a separate gallery for Canadian stuff, a design gallery, and lots more, but I began to get art burn after a while, so we left and headed to the Redpath, which was quite a let-down after what we'd both seen and, yes, trying its best to put things into the current cultural context.

I was pooped, so we headed back to the hotel to meet Patricia, who'd been studying at Terry's office at Concordia University. She was going to take a French proficiency test, passing which will mean she can work in Quebec. Make no mistake: French is the first language in Montreal, even if it isn't for a lot of its population. It's a shred of cultural identity for Quebec to hold on to, and they do so like pit bulls. We took a bus to Point St. Charles, the tough Irish working-class neighborhood that's very slowly gentrifying, so I could see the current progress on their house. (Others who are interested should check out Terry's blog on the subject). We had no idea where to go for dinner, so we decided not to go far. Across the street, as a matter of fact. Chez Dallaire is a hipster bar in a non-hipster zone, but it seems to attract enough people to keep going and has added a small but interesting menu. Across the street is a place I have yet to try, Boom-J's, run by an affable and savvy Jamaican. So while it's a bit premature to suggest the Point as a destination for dining, I bet in five years it'll have some great stuff to offer. As for now, we had pork rillettes in a little glass jar for appetizers and "grilled cheese" sandwiches for the main course: toasted high-quality bread enveloped a wad of smoked meat -- Montreal pastrami -- and had a tangy cheddar-like cheese melted over it. Along with the craft beers they pour, a satisfying meal. These guys look like they'll make it.

Happy diners, Chez Dallaire


Having had a "sandwich vietnamien" that was made from canned tuna in the museum, I was anxious for the real deal, and Montreal's Chinatown was just down the street from my hotel. With Terry and Patricia sidelined by work for much of the day, I'd have time to find the place Terry had told me about when I was expressing my disappointment with the museum sandwich: real Vietnamese banh mi. I had Terry's instructions with me, but no such place was in evidence. I walked the streets of Chinatown, untempted by the Chinese places (I'd just been in the best of them), and finally settling for a place with a specialty of "soupe tonkinoise," which, because Quebecers don't like foreign languages, means pho. This place had a line in front of it when I first passed, but by the time I'd scoured the rest of the neighborhood, it had calmed down, and despite its weird name (Pho Bang New York, possibly connected to a New York restaurant also called Pho Bang) I went in and had a pho that had the best tasting broth I've had in a long time. It's at 1001 Boulevard St-Laurent if you're in the neighborhood. And another cool thing was stepping into a tiny shop to see if they had gong fu shoes, which make wonderful house slippers, and not only finding them, but finding big enough ones to fit my feet, a sign that Chinese people are indeed getting biger. Ten bucks Canadian, too. Can't beat that.

The latter half of the afternoon was meeting up with Terry and taking a whirlwind tour of the magnificent Atwater Market to pick up groceries he needed and admire the just-in Quebec strawberry crop, which I wished I could teleport back to my place in Texas. The tomatoes also looked great. After depositing this at the house, we decided to visit another gentrifying neighborhood, this one with a lot of history. For a long time, much longer than was healthy, Terry was married to a woman he'd met in college (we both went to Antioch). I performed the ceremony, in fact, with my Universal Life Church credentials. Eventually, the marriage fell apart, divorce papers were filed, and much ugliness ensued, with the bright spot being Terry's deepening affair with one of his students, Patricia, whom he followed to Japan, where she was teaching. During Terry's previous marriage, they'd lived in a suburb called Verdun, where I visited many, many times. It was gritty, working-class, and not that easy to get to on the Metro, either. But it did have potential, and now some of it is being realized. Terry remembered that Wellington, a main street a quick bus ride away, had a number of good restaurants on it, so we headed down there. Alas, it may have had, but like many pioneers, they'd gone out of business or been forced to change menus. True, there were two Indian places, which I certainly would have appreciated way back when, but we stumbled on a fish joint that doubled as a market: Queue de Poisson. They do excellent fish and chips, the grilled monkfish I had was perfect, and there's a good selection of Canadian craft beers. (A note on these: Quebec microbrewers seem to be chasing French beer as an ideal. Folks, French beer just sucks. Try to embrace a teeny part of your English -- or even American -- heritage for at least a couple of your beers. Thanks.) Once again we ate outside, once again the young folks who ran the restaurant did a great job. First Point St. Charles, then Verdun. There's hope for Montreal yet.

Sunset, Hudson, NY railroad station


I said good-bye to Terry and Patricia when they got off the bus and then rode it the rest of the way to my hotel. The next morning, Amtrak took its sweet time getting me to New York, but I managed dinner and a good night's sleep, then spent the next day shopping for salt-cured anchovies (at Eataly, of all places, and a good sight cheaper than in Oakland) and got to JFK with lots of time to spare.

I was headed home, and happy about that. Less happy, though, that that home was in Texas. Not that I'd gotten any inspiration where to go next (which won't be for a while). Jersey City has pockets that are real nice, and much larger areas that just exude despair. I hadn't seen enough of Nyack, Hoboken was out of the question, and forget Canada. Still looking. I've got time.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Midsummer East Coast Tour, The U.S.

File under "offer you can't refuse": my agent, David, asked me what I was doing around the beginning of August. His wife is from Hawaii, and every year they head down that way with their kid and visit the in-laws. Would I be interested in house-sitting for him in Jersey City? Oh: and cat-sitting a ten-year-old cat. How hard could that be? Jersey City is a couple of stops on the PATH rapid-transit system from Manhattan, and although it was August, there'd be stuff to do there. My publisher for The History of Rock & Roll, Vol. 1 was having a typical publishing August -- ie, not doing much -- and wanted to sit down and chat about the book. Playing around with Google Maps with a vague idea of renting a car and going somewhere for a day came up with all kinds of interesting suggestions. And best of all, it'd be free, at least up until the last day, when I'd hop on Amtrak and head to Montreal for a few days.

So I said yes.

David's house is about a mile from the PATH station, Little India, and many other attractions. I was determined not to over-plan anything, except to nail down a lunch with the publisher and explore JC. I'm still planning to leave Austin as soon as it makes sense -- ie, not for a while yet -- and wanted to see what the place was about.

After a conversation with last-minute details (which I should have taken notes on) I went back to the Ramada (the only hotel except for that weird Indian one I stayed in a couple of years ago in that part of town) and crashed. The next morning, I checked out, carefully picked my way down JFK Boulevard, and arrived at the place I'd be occupying for the next ten days. No sooner had I arrived than Maud, the cat who I'd been assured would mostly sleep while I was there, emerged and started yowling, hissing, and spitting at me. No matter that, over the rest of my stay, I would feed and water her and clean her litter box, she didn't ever warm to me. Far from it.

Maud, none too happy
I actually had no clear plan for touristing, except I did want to go to the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's collage of medieval buildings in Ft. Tryon Park at Manhattan's northernmost point. I hadn't been there since I was a teenager, and by now I've seen lots of stuff of the sort it contains, as well as having visited the church in St. Guilhem le Désert where they got one of their cloisters. Plus, I heard they had a piece by the Master of Cabestany.

My first day, though, was spent finding a grocery store and familiarizing myself with the surrounding neighborhood. There would be a farmer's market the next day at the PATH terminal in Journal Square. Didn't expect much from that, but it'd be worth looking at. I took a quick look around Lincoln Park as the sun set and walked back to the house.

Monument to the early settlers of JC who fled the Irish potato famine, Lincoln Park
There was no doubt where I wanted to eat that night: Deccan Spice in Little India is one of the best Indian restaurants I've ever enjoyed. Thing is, I forgot something important about them: as you approach Newark Avenue from JFK, you see their sign, so naturally you suppose the restaurant on which it hangs is Deccan Spice. It's not. Deccan Spice is two doors down, and if you're walking up Newark Avenue, there's a sign facing your way on the right building. I chose the wrong restaurant, and paid for it: it's called Home Kitchen, although it also has another name, too. The menu is confusing, but not as confusing as something I thought I spotted on the way in: a Bible, a picture of Jesus, and a rosary with a crucifix on it. The chicken dish I had was very ordinary, except for the effect it had on my intestines an hour later. That was impressive.

That farmer's market was also a surprise the next day: only one farmer was represented, along with a Puerto Rican food truck and a bakery, but the vegetables looked top-notch. With the idea of making a salade niçoise, I bought lettuce, a red potato, some green beans, and some black cherry tomatoes. Now all I needed was some good tuna and I was ready to rock. And I knew where to get that: David's printed guide to JC mentioned Carmine's Italian Deli, where he said cops and firefighters went to get sandwiches. It wasn't far.

Not, that is, if you read the address right. Instead, my brain told me it was on a nearby street, albeit a fair walk down that street. So, after walking the mile back to the house and resting up a bit, I started walking down that street. And walking. And walking. Finally, a sign I was looking for came into view, but not Carmine's. Cool Vines was the wine shop David had mentioned, so I went in and looked around. They seem to import everything in the shop themselves, so there was nothing I recognized, which was good and bad. The proprietor was a bit sniffy, but I bought a couple of interesting-sounding bottles and walked all the way back to the house. I sat around until I got hungry and realized there was no vegetable steamer in the house with which to make the salad. I consulted the list again, and started walking down that same street to downtown JC in search of Razza, an upscale pizza joint. For some reason, pizza was just what I wanted, and there was apparently no old-school pizza joint in JC any more. Razza more than fulfilled my expectations. Let's just say that I rarely eat all of the crust. I ate all of the crust. The heirloom tomatoes with a chive vinaitrette was also a perfect opener. And let's face it: after all that walking, I was ravenous. I took a cab back and collapsed into sleep.

JC Astrology #1
I was annoyed enough the next morning that I'd made so many mistakes that I decided to do something I knew how to do: go to the Cloisters. And I did. It was a beautiful day for it, too: the Hudson's palisades were as lovely as I remembered them, and Ft. Tryon, or at least its site (Washington thought he could invade New York City from there and boy was he wrong), a cool and quiet place to spend time.

Note to Founding Father: you can get there from here, but it's not a good idea.
The Cloisters' collection had been added to considerably since I was there last, and I was gratified to see that I could pick out pieces from places I'd spent time, most notably Catalonia, Germany (a bunch of Tilman Riemenschneider wood carvings) and of course the Eastern Languedoc.

And there it is: the cloister from St. Guilhem le Désert!
There was a lot of stuff to see, and yet the place was small enough that I believe I saw it all. One note I made was that the familiar yellow Valencian pottery that had unexpectedly entranced me all those years ago in Castellón was using identical colors to Moorish pottery made in the same vicinity. I found this exciting because I will be in Valencia in a little over a month and am hoping fate steers me into more information about this. I realized after visiting the Cloisters that I seem to have picked up a hobby after all these years: figuring out the three-part society of pre-expulsion Spain, as the Moors, their fellow North Africans the Jews, and the Spanish worked out a way to live together, albeit with some tension. I attribute this to the pieces that clicked into place this spring in Girona.

And here's the Master of Cabestany's piece, considerably larger than I thought.  If he existed, this is by him. 
I left the Cloisters feeling great: between the weather, the views, and all the stuff I'd just seen, I was in a good mood. I pulled out my phone to send the Cabestany picture to a friend in Austin and a grandmotherly black woman with a teen in tow asked me if I were playing Pokémon Go. I told her no, I was trying to send a photo, but had just discovered I couldn't, and also told her that seeing me with my phone was a rare sighting indeed. She clearly approved. I walked a bit further and came upon a setup where a photographer was erecting lighting and tripods and such and a tall, thin black man had a drone in his hand. A couple in full wedding gear were sitting waiting and suddenly I put the pieces together. "If you don't mind," I told the drone pilot, "I'm enough of a geek that I'd like to watch this." "Sure, just stay out of the shot." Easily done from the bench once the couple stood up and too their places. The drone hovered in front of them and then shot out over the Hudson River. Then it hovered a bit and he brought it in, more slowly, as they waved. Man, they don't do wedding videos like they used to.

Bride, groom, drone

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Critter Report, Summer 2016

Any day that starts with a lizard in my pants is okay with me. This morning, I walked out of the bathroom, put on a t-shirt, reached for my pants, and saw a swift motion out of the corner of my eye. Fortunately, I didn't reach out to smash whatever it was, mostly because I thought it was a roach, and those guys are filled with goo that you have to clean up. Nope, I could see it clearly, looking up at me: a tiny lizard. And I knew just which one it was.

• • •

Don't make it sound too good. Tell 'em we got bugs that'll hurt you bad. Plants that'll poison you. There's rattlesnakes and other critters that don't mean you no good. People should think about that before they decide to move here.

Hondo Crouch, in an interview with me, Luckenbach, Sept. 26, 1976

* * *

I grew up in a lizardless region, the New York suburbs. There were salamanders, and I always liked our vacations in Vermont because there were toads and frogs around the lake the cabin we rented was on, but there were few critters around the place I spent most of my time. 

But, as Hondo Crouch (who died the day after I interviewed him) made clear, that simply isn't the case in Texas. You've got to be careful in Texas. The plants can get you: I've never seen such opulent poison oak as used to thrive in the woods by my old house on West 9 ½ Street. Pecan trees were everywhere, and you could pick up a snack any time from the windfalls. If, that is, you were willing to crack them and then very, very carefully pick out the membrane from the meat. It contains so much tannic acid that your mouth will pucker so badly you'll be hard pressed to get anything in it. And of course, there's cactus, but nothing as lethal as the cholla that's all over the place in Arizona. 

Some of the animal life seems incredibly exotic, too. One morning my dog got very excited, the hair standing up on his back as he ran around on tiptoe, growling. I was still asleep and yeah, I heard something walking outside the window, but it was moving quickly and after a while the dog calmed down. After breakfast, the dog and I went on our customary walk in the woods and found two cops with Stetsons and rifles on horseback, and a very excited little Latina girl, about six. "Did you see the pantera?" she asked. "Yeah," one of the cops said. "We got a report on a panther on the loose around here." It happens, I guess. The lady next door to me complained about armadillos digging up her garden, and I'd see them occasionally when I went to pick up my girlfriend in way-far-north Austin (hardly way-far-north these days, of course) and once, on Thanksgiving, I was invited to dinner out in the country, and took a British friend who was about to return home. "I've really enjoyed my stay here," he said, "but I'm sorry I've never seen an armadillo." As if by magic, two appeared at the side of the road. They were, um, making more armadillos. 

So far, there's been a decided lack of such critters here in suburban far south Austin. There are birds, of course. My office looks out on my back yard and I can hear birds with the windows open, which alerts me to their presence. For a while, I had a woodpecker who pecked a wound in one of the trees he visited daily. The wound bled sap, which was sweet, ants were attracted to it, and the bird would show up to eat them. I'd always assumed there were bugs in the wood that they were after. There's also a cardinal couple, who seem to hunt as a pair. He is the most brilliant red imaginable outside of the tropics, a magnificent bird. She, conforming to the ways of birds, isn't. She's a kind of drab brown with a tiny bit of red on her head. That seems to be how bird love works: "Darling, I've seen some drab females in my life, but you're really drab." "Ooh, listen to mister sweet-talk." 

The one bird I've been wanting to see, but hadn't until recently, was the monk parakeet. Friends tell me of them visiting their yard, but they don't come here. Finally, one day when I was walking to the nearby middle school to vote -- it might have been the primary -- I heard a familiar sound, and sure enough two green birds, bickering loudly, swooped over my head and onto a branch. I have no idea why they don't come to this side of South First, but I've never seen one here, although I'm about ⅛ of a mile from that sighting. I also enjoy them in Barcelona, where they seem to outnumber pigeons. 

Bigger than a budgie, and surprisingly omnipresent. Wikipedia photo


But this year I made the decision not to mow the back yard. This was in large part because of the regal toad that used to come every night and sit beneath the light on the back of the house, which also attracted bugs, or, as he thought of them, dinner. I hoped there were more critters out there. Benign ones, of course. And there were: as springtime came on and the rains let up a bit, at sunset giant clouds of lightning bugs would lift off of the plants back there, a luminous flying carpet. That was nice. And I knew I was getting somewhere when I found a small brown Cuban anole hanging out on the deck sunning himself. 

The toad hasn't been back, but the back yard wasn't my only concern. The tree in my front yard was host some days to a magnificent Texas spiny lizard, which I'd never seen before, and whose commanding presence (at about 11") just plain looked good, even though he was expert at dodging the camera. 

Not a great shot, but not mine, either. Wikipedia.
He hasn't been back yet, either, but I gather they have a pretty good range they wander, eating bugs as they go. Welcome back any time, dude. 

And I was aware that there was other critter action in the front, dating from two years ago, when I found a J-shaped toad turd in the driveway, and running up to early May of this year, when I returned from shopping to find a small snake waiting by the front door. I ran inside and grabbed a camera (or maybe it was my phone) and found he'd stuck his head under a pile of leaf litter, so I took a stick and pulled him back to photograph. His head arched up and he took a good snap at the stick, hard enough that I felt it. Then he sat back and let his picture get took:

Healthy snake, wounded stick
A Texas garter snake, a useful website told me. 

I haven't seen him since, but I suspect he showed up because a bit up the hill Google Fiber was putting in cable. This has resulted in a bunch of eco-upheaval, because there's a tiny stream up there, right where they're working, and its critters are abandoning it. The most remarkable one I've seen was hanging out in the parking space in front of my house, fortunately when I was carrying my phone. 

Somewhat traumatized by the speed at which he was moved, a red-eared slider,  who later moved on to another small creek. 
You can tell by the pattern on the shell that he was just hanging out in a diminishing stream when the decision was made for him to move. Nine inches long, and plenty heavy. 

Then there was the night when I went out to light the grill and this guy hitched a ride on my shoe and hopped off when we returned to the house.



Not a great photo, but he was jumping around like crazy, and I wanted him outside where he could do some good: a tiny, tiny toadlet who could have perched on a quarter. Progeny of Back Door Toad? Maybe, maybe. At any rate, a quick ride on a piece of paper, and back to foraging for bugs. 

Because there are bugs. Anybody who lives here knows that. The most common one is the ant, of which Texas seems to have 23,847 kinds. My computer hasn't gotten clogged with Raspberry Crazy Ants, fortunately, but there are small ants who manage to squeeze through the windows, and, recently, great big ants I call Iron Ants because you step on them and they kind of go "ow" and keep on walking. They hold regular love-ins in my shower, where I literally pour cold water on their assembly, and they either go down the drain or retreat behind the shower lining into the wall. Last night, though, I saw something odd that I've never seen before: an Iron Ant walking with another one in its mandibles, a kind of a T walking across the living room floor. I have no idea what that was about. 

And, sadly, there are roaches. Mostly, there are the big ones, the ones you can't step on unless you want to get down on the floor with a paper towel or something to clean up the ooze that results. My research, though, says that these so-called palmetto bugs or waterbugs don't want to be in the house, since it's not their natural habitat. The way I deal with them now is to stun them with a broom and then go all Canadian on their asses and play curling with them, opening the door and launching them outside. Sometimes I say "cheeseburger" to alert the neighbohood reptiles and birds that a sumptuous meal awaits. (Or any Thais who might be around: I found a small Thai grocery here that sells them canned, and in Montpellier there was a Thai restaurant with an insect menu that I never went near). They're not real smart, but they are real fast. And, according to Wikipedia, they're properly called American cockroaches. The ones you don't want because they do want to live in your house (and which you can whack with impunity) are brown, or German cockroaches. I never saw one in my 15 years in Germany, so maybe this is a xenophobic leftover from one of the World Wars, like "liberty cabbage" for sauerkraut or the more recent Freedom Fries. 

Another new visitor this year was one I found irrationally scary. I routinely approach the bathroom by my bedroom with watchful eyes, because there appear to be a couple of entryways from outdoors, and the big roaches get in. Well, the other night there wasn't a roach, but under the sink was a three-inch scorpion, reddish brown. There are over 1000 species of scorpions, none of the ones in Texas are lethal (for that you have to go to the Sonora desert in Arizona), but I, a Scorpio, freaked out, whisked it out with the broom, and stomped the hell out of it. Then I swept it out the door and waited for the adrenaline to subside. 

Right there, on the wall, under the brace, that's where it was. 
But wait, the lizard in your pants, aren't you going to tell us about that? Well, yes, because the above photo is about that, in a way. 

A few weeks back, I was passing in and out, grilling something for dinner, and a two-inch brown Mediterranean gecko (not unlike the Moroccan geckos who occasionally visited in France) ran in. I tried to dissuade him, but no soap: he ran to where I couldn't get him and it was at a crucial part of dinner so I gave up. Anyway, I don't mind a gecko in the house. They have prodigious appetites, and the summer I moved away from Austin to go to Berlin, my house suddenly had two of them in the kitchen. There had been a problem with German roaches, as there usually is in a house with no central air conditioning and open windows and doors. There was, within 24 hours of these two moving in, no longer a problem with German roaches at all. And, with his propinquity to the shower and the ant love-ins, I suspect this one had found a good place to hang and was hanging and dining well. I tried to photograph him, but it was before I'd had my coffee, so it didn't happen: the camera refused to click when I had him in focus and when I returned with the phone (and its clip-on fancy lenses) he'd vanished. But I was curious why the camera wasn't working so I aimed it at the under-sink area, and hence the above photo. 

I'm blessedly without mammals, although a large, fat white cat with black blotches saunters through my yard each day. He is manifestly not welcome: I caught him staring at an area where the toad hung out during the day last year, and wished I had a pan of water to throw at him. Cats are stupid hunters and predators, and with the cardinals and the various reptilia, I just don't want them in the yard. And yes, there are squirrels. I don't pay them much mind, but this spring, there was a very cool sighting. Remember Pizza Rat? He was a thing on the internet a few months ago, a tiny rat straining to take a mammoth slice of pizza down the stairs to the New York subway. Well, one day this spring, I noticed a squirrel behaving oddly, and saw that it had a slice of pizza in its mouth. No camera nearby, no phone, and he was moving quickly: he was, after all, bigger than Pizza Rat, and the slice was smaller. And I kind of felt sorry for him.  Pizza Rat was rewarded by a luscious New York slice. Poor Pizza Squirrel probably had Domino's. But no matter where it was from, it didn't matter: none of us critters in Austin have access to good pizza. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

On Returning, Part...Uh...

Lord, it's been a while since I touched this thing. I have to keep reminding myself it's not just a travel diary, but, then, what else has been of interest recently? I've been contemplating using my new camera to keep a log of the critters that have been in and out of the house, but I'm waiting for a moment when there's a critical mass of critter-to-photo data. Anyway, the summer's only just settled in. I'm sure there'll be more.

As for the rest, I'm mainly just hanging around waiting for the books to come out. Not a lot to write about there. I'm reading, doing very little writing, taking the opportunity to grab DVDs from Netflix while they're still trafficking in physical media, and, well, that's about it.

But it was that last bit that inspired me to write something today. A friend recommended a film, suspecting that I might have a reaction to it. Since none of the things I actually want to see on my Netflix queue are coming very quickly, this one got delivered last week and I watched it last night.


Having been elsewhere during his ascent as a filmmaker (although I think I got screwed by Mother Jones under his leadership), I'd never seen this one, but the premise intrigued me: Moore visits ("invades") a bunch of mostly-European countries, "stealing" good ideas to take back home as the spoils of his invasion. Thus, we learn about why Finland's educational system rates as the highest in the world, how workers in Italy get so much time off but still manage to be productive and competitive with other economies, why the French take school lunches and sex education so seriously, and so on. So I watched it, and fired off this e-mail to the guy who suggested I watch it. I've edited it somewhat, but this is mostly first-draft, top-of-the-head stuff.

* * *

On your recommendation, I checked out that Michael Moore film last night. Knew most of it, of course. Some random comments. 
 
As you might expect, I looked for counter-arguments and/or hidden nuances behind the rosy pictures he presented. Here are a few of them. 

FRANCE: Despite the nutritional benefits of those school cafeterias, he tiptoed around the big issue, which is that they also have to accommodate Jewish and Muslim students by observing dietary laws. The good news is, Kashruth and Hallal are almost identical. The bad news is, nativist right-wingers are using this as a wedge: several schools in more right-wing parts of the country have refused to stop serving pork. This became a major issue in Denmark, actually, where the Right is blooming like the Occupation never happened. 

ITALY: Yeah, that lifestyle looks good, but a lot of Italians don't pay the taxes that support it and it's a good question how much longer they'll be able to keep going unless some serious enforcement among the titans of industry takes place. On the other hand, Berlusconi is obviously dying, and I would imagine his type of "legit" "businessman" (ie, non-mafia) is also becoming a thing of the past, since there's no postwar economy to build up and make obscene profits from these days. 

GERMANY: Yes, they're hyper-vigilant about any possibility that fascism will return. So much so that neighbors like Austria and Denmark worry about the effect on free speech and the foreigner-in-the-street wonders why the few undeniably positive things that can be said about German culture and history are so rarely mentioned. In fact, that's one of the things that made life there finally unbearable for me. Well, that and the food and the weather. But the fact that they've hidden the remains of the Old Synagogue in Berlin always spoke volumes to me: starting in the 18th century, it spawned a revolution in Jewish thinking, leading to a renaissance in German intellectual life, German business, and, not coincidentally, the birth of Reform Judaism. But not a peep about that on site, and Libeskind's much-vaunted Jewish Museum, like much contemporary German thinking, continues to present Jews as victims. 

(I'm having zero luck finding the photos that went along with this blog post and hope they're still recoverable, and the post makes far less sense without them, but whaddya gonna do?)

NORWAY, FINLAND & SLOVENIA: One thing missing here is the lives the ordinary people live, and the spaces in which they live them. Mile after mile of postwar identi-housing, very small living quarters, dreary public spaces. Of course, some of this is inherent in the physical properties of the countries themselves. My guess is that prison in Norway isn't quite as cheerful in February as it was when Moore and his crew visited, and yes, the old town of Ljubljana sure is pretty but I'd guess that a ten-minute walk in any direction from the central square puts you smack in the middle of a bunch of Tito-era kleenex-box buildings. And it's nice that the Finns enforce equality the way they do, but it's a very small population they're dealing with, so micro-solutions work. 

TUNISIA: Moore's surprise ending may well present an over-optimistic view of the situation here, the one country in the film that I don't have as much first- or second-hand knowledge as I'd need to comment with any authority. The reactionary Islamist forces aren't as benign as the old man with bad teeth who comments here, especially the ones operating out of the country's neighbors like Algeria and Morocco. My optimism is a bit more guarded than what's on display here. 

The film seems to naively suggest that these solutions -- made, as several Europeans note, out of American ideas (Thomas Dewey, among others, I imagine) -- could work if applied here. The problem with that is that they *are* in fact American ideas, and they've been tried and discarded here. Not always for good or even desirable reasons, or with enough of a trial period to make a reasonable assessment of their viability or worth, but there is definitely a large, well-funded, powerful opposition to them. Barring a catastrophe, our grandchildren will die of old age before even modest progress will be made along those lines. In other words, I continue to believe that this country is doomed. Self-doomed, at that. 

As I am not the first to mention, Moore is a very clever polemicist and propagandist. It's just that it feels nice to be in the choir being preached to. For a change. 

Moore does not look well. He's gargantuan, and it's all fat. Expect we'll be losing him soon.

* * *

If you think the above touches on my ongoing deep ambivalence about my repatriation to the US, well, you don't win a prize. For a long time after my last blog post, way back there in April after returning from France and Spain, I struggled to make clear an idea that had formed during the trip, and finally it came to me. I had returned from a civil society to a highly uncivil one. This goes way beyond the events of this past week here, the various cop shootings and shootings of cops, or the candidacy of the most manifestly unsuited candidate for President in American history. For me the annoyances are far more granular: the way people drive, the astounding amount of self-absorption, the refusal to give an inch in compromise, even when all that's gained is getting to the red light faster. I try not to let it get to me, and I fail a lot. I got too used to something different, and it's not that I'm having trouble adjusting, it's that I resolutely don't want to adjust. 

I'm pretty sure by the time we figure that all out it'll be way too late. As for me, I have two books coming up that I have to promote, as well as another one to plan and, I hope, write. So for now, I have to stay where I am, get out when I can, and put one foot in front of the other. Live like the alcoholics, as I always tell people, one day at a time. And plan my escapes wisely: I may well be house sitting in Jersey City and then go to Montreal next month, and I'm planning a trip to Spain at the end of September and the beginning of October. Then back to taking it as it comes. Which is okay, given that I'm living somewhere I don't particularly like. But hell, I've done that before, and at least I'm pretty capable of expressing myself in its native language. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part Five: Spain Again and Out



I'll admit to a certain relief as I steered the Peugeot out of Montpellier and on to the motorway (which was, along most of its length, the old Roman Via Domitia) towards Perpignan to return it. Maybe if I'd had someone with me to whom I could have shown bits of my past, perhaps driven up to Pic St. Loup and up the tiny road that leads to the ruined castle hanging off its companion escarpment l'Hortus that I thought I'd hallucinated until I actually was able to stop and photograph it. Or maybe I needed the down-time as a day of drawing a deep breath before heading into the last couple of days of this trip.

Spring in this part of the world announces itself with wind. Cold winds sweep out of the mountains and lower the temperature until they're countered by warmer winds from the south, the Mediterranean, and Africa itself. I used to sweep up a fine yellow dust that blew into my apartment, and someone who knew told me that this was sand from the Sahara in Algeria, picked up and transported to coastal France. The winds were in full effect on the highway, and I had to pay attention to stay in my lane, and make sure that the gigantic semi-trucks stayed in theirs. Fortunately there weren't many campers on the road: signs in French, English, Spanish, and German appeared every dozen or so miles warning against violent cross-winds.

But at least I didn't have any problem finding the Center of the World again, even if I did make a misstep finding the parking garage and, then, the rental return. It was okay: I had plenty of time before my train to Girona at 3:17. I was concerned about the scratches -- very concerned -- but just as concerned that Europcar had closed for lunch and there were various customers milling around. My body was sending me signals, so I went to the main waiting room, found some packaged sandwiches, and found a French BLT, speck, lettuce, marinated tomatoes on a seeded baguette. I knew I'd burn off enough glucose toting the case of wine that this wouldn't be an issue. Then I headed back to the Europcar area to wait. Apparently someone had tipped off the cops that someone arriving on the train from Marseille, a teenage boy, might be trouble, and a number of suspects had their luggage searched. Another pair, who looked to be in the demographic, were apparently undercover cops, checking in with the uniforms from time to time.

Eventually the agent reappeared, several families pushed ahead of me and got their cars, and I returned mine. She didn't seem unduly concerned about the scratches and I still haven't heard anything. My American Express card showed only the $100 I'd charged on it, so who knows. And the train to Girona, when I finally got on it, was impossibly crowded and noisy, but it was only 45 minutes, so I arrived in Girona, got a cab despite the fact that my hotel was only a few blocks away (luggage again) and checked in to a once-elegant hotel (cigarette burns on the desk? really?) crowded with British and Scottish golfers. I went out as soon as I'd stashed my luggage to look at the town, but the weather had other ideas and I returned, somewhat damper for the experience, about a half-hour later.

For dinner, I hit the city's oldest restaurant, Casa Marieta, and had some odd pâtés to start, then a dish of squid with green peas, which was interesting. But I'd read a description of the place as "tired," and that's just how it seemed. Surely there was someone doing something more interesting with Catalan food here. Fortunately, there was.

The next morning I set off to see the obvious sights and to figure out what the story was with Girona. I'd read that it had the best-preserved Jewish quarter in Spain and deduced from that, mistakenly, that the Jews hadn't been expelled from Girona with the rest of the Spanish Jews in 1492. A visit to the Jewish Museum set me straight, as well as inadvertantly providing me with a perfect first stop in figuring the place out. The Jewish quarter, El Call, had apparently existed in one form or another since before 1000 CE, and besides becoming a center of trade, it was a center of Jewish intellectual life, epitomized by Mossé ben Nahman (1194-1270), who must have been a busy guy, since he penned famous commentaries on the Talmud, systematized the Kabballah, wrote poetry, practiced medicine, and found a little time to preach at the synagogue, which at the time was located atop Girona's hill next door to the cathedral. He left town in his old age and died in Acre, which the museum puts in Israel, but I seem to remember as a Jordanian city. By the time of Mossé's death, though, Gironans had become suspicious of the Jews, and demanded a wall be built around the Call. Riots and laws persecuting the Jews began in 1381, and a lot of them converted, at least outwardly, but they continued to socialize with the unconverted and also made mistakes when practicing their new religion's rituals. The Inquisition finally came to town to see what was up, mostly because Barcelona, where they'd been working, kept having bouts of plague, and Jews started emptying out the Call. The usual punishment for being a Jew was burning in a bonfire, but so many had left by the time the Inquisition's bureaucracy had found them guilty that straw dolls were used in almost every case. And by 1492, of course, the Jews had all left. The Inquisition proved so popular with the people of Girona that in 1820, during the Riego Uprising (unexplained in the wall caption), the House of the Inquisition was burned to the ground, destroying all its records. With the Jews gone, they'd gone after herbalists, homosexuals, witches, Lutherans, and anyone else they didn't like.

If you wanted to sum up the history of the Jews of Girona, a rather ugly sculpture in the museum's courtyard does a great job:

On one side, the Zodiac, an astrolabe, various navigational instruments, and Mossé with a book...



...and on the other side, Columbus sailing from a Jew-free Spain using those instruments.



It was time to climb the hill, where the rest of the story would unfold, and explore the cathedral and its surroundings. The Museu d'Art is located in one of the buildings where the cathedral's bureaucracy was once housed, including its prison, and it has an impressive amount of mostly older stuff (ie, right up my alley), including a minor work by the Master of Cabestany, a long painted beam of unknown provenance, showing a procession of monks,





Rather badly captured here, but click to enlarge

the ubiquitous lion-eating-a guy carving, 

There's one in Montpellier, too. No idea.
and lots more. Impressive. Eventually, you leave into the plaza in front of the cathedral, where, letting my eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, I saw an act of rather shocking violence: I was noting the seagulls that were up there among the pigeons, because they were about two feet from one end to the other. As I was trying to decode whether or not the cathedral was actually open (it still serves as a cathedral, after all, with several Masses a day) I noticed that one of the seagulls had taken a small black pigeon in its beak and had broken its neck, and was bashing it against the pavement to hasten its death as it flapped its wings, ever more feebly. I'd always known that seagulls were eaters of every sort of junk available, but had no idea they'd hunt live prey. 

Although, in its odd way, it set me up for the cathedral, which is big, filled with Baroque chapels as over-the-top as any Spanish Baroque art can be (and that's plenty, althoug I do like that period's organ music), lots of depictions of martyrdom (Spanish Catholicism is gory) and its treasury has, as its central display, a very old tapestry depicting the Creation. I liked that a lot: it was a cheapo way of teaching the bible to the illiterate masses and it's crowded with bible stories and other goodies, like the pair of Jews at the bottom who serve as an informal logo for the Jewish Museum. 

Outside again, I descended the hill and headed for the grandly-named Archaeological Museum of Catalonia, housed in the former church of San Pere de Gallegants, which has a nice cloister and good paintings in the museum part showing how ancient people lived here (burning the dead, putting them in ceramic vessels, and burying them surrounded by mini-Stonehenges of rocks) and were influenced by the Greeks and, later, the Romans. Christianity seems to have arrived early, around the 4th century, possibly with Roman colonial settlers, and there are apparently small basilicas out in the countryside dating from then, centered around the cult of St. Felix the Martyr, who remains the city's patron saint. 

Next I went to the "Arab baths," so-called not because they were made by resident Arabs (a people who seem missing from the city history, interestingly enough) but because they were in the style the Arabs employed: first a cold dip, then outdoors, then a hot  room for the steam. The building dates from 1194, but there really isn't enough of it to warrant a visit, and it was made less pleasant by a couple of those cult-kids making new-agey music on what looks like an overturned wok with dimples in it. Those suckers are loud!

It was time for lunch, and as I made my way down the street, I passed the City Museum, which would be the perfect knitting-together of the various threads I'd gathered so far, but I wasn't going to miss another meal and get goofy, so I went to a place in the Call and had the one signature Catalan dish I'd missed in my visits to Barcelona: botifarra amb mongetes, which looks like this: 

Right: sausage and beans
It wasn't all that distinguished, but it was just enough to fill the gap, and I was off for my last museum of the day. 

The City Museum starts out with one of the weirder rooms I've ever been in. It was once a Capuchin monastery, and when the monks died, they were arranged in a seated position and placed in the dessicarium. 

Dry up, bro!
When the corpses were mummified by the air circulating around them, they were dressed in their old robes and displayed in another part of the monastery. Memento mori, dudes!

The city museum is big on history and light on artifacts, which was okay by me, and the period between the Romans and the Inquisition is wisely left to other institutions in the city, but come the 19th century and the city's realization that its economic growth was stunted by its still being encircled by the age-old city wall, the citizens decided to tear most of it down so the city could grow. It became a printing center and had a few other industries, but it also suffered badly when it was bombed (by the Spanish government) during the Civil War in 1938. There is an amazing small display of children's drawings of the bombardment, all done in typical primitive kid style with bright crayons, and it reminded me that, starting with that, Spain became ruled by a fascist dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, with full support from the Church, and that it remained so until 1975. With the current stirrings of reactionary right-wing politics fuelled by extreme conservative religion in the United States, remembering Spain's history during these times is a disturbing and, I'd say, necessary thing to do. 

After that, I was museumed out, and started strolling back towards the hotel. Along the way, I passed a restaurant that looked interesting enough, wrote down its name (incorrectly, but thank heavens for Google Maps, where I just zoomed in further and further until its name appeared) and, when I eventually got back, I checked out their website. There, I thought, would be a meal worthy of Girona's spirit. 

Because there is a spirit there, as there is in Barcelona, but it's more concentrated because the town is smaller. The place thrums with activity: Lance Armstrong, Gerry told me, took a house here because the hills were great training places for him and his team, and although I'm used to being a minority group as a pedestrian in Austin, not until Girona was I outnumbered by bikers. Had it not been for a book festival in the evening that drew crowds to its entertainment part, between the golfers and the bikers, I might not have seen any civilians at all. I liked this place, and once I arrived at my interesting-looking restaurant (where I'd reserved: you have to, I'd say), Llevataps, the deal was sealed. I started with a warm salad that contained calçots, a uniquely Catalan cousin of the green onion and leek that's usually roasted, touched with a bit of romesco sauce, went on to an absolutely amazing dish of grilled artichokes and razor clams, which concentrated the artichoke flavors while charring the leaves -- a tour-de-force -- and finished up with tender octopus whose method of preparation I didn't note, because by then I was too full and had to regretfully leave half of it behind. With this, I had a bottle of Io Masia Serra, a brilliant combo of Cabernet Sauvignon, black Grenache, and Merlot, one of those creative red blends I've favored recently, and which paired with the artichokes and clams spectacularly. Without question, the best meal of the trip, and not nearly the most expensive. The staff was friendly and the whole experience underscored my belief that Catalonia is well ahead of France in experimenting and creating within the tradition, extending it instead of merely preserving it. I gotta get back to this place. 

Obligatory cliched pic of houses along the Onyar River

Non-obligatory picture of feline residents of the river's edge

* * *

I had no train to meet to get me to Barcelona the next day, but I wanted to get going, even though I knew the hotel wouldn't have my room ready. But I seemed to have trouble getting out of hotels on this trip: construction workers hit a power line in Narbonne, trapping everyone inside (the front door had an electric eye to open it) for an hour or so, and Sunday morning in Girona, there was the city's annual 10,000k run. The brilliant folks who organized it managed to cut off the three big streets surrounding the hotel so no cabs could pick anyone up. This lasted for 90 minutes, with one of the desk ladies getting testier and testier with the cab company, who didn't seem to have any idea if there were a solution or how long the race would last. I hung out in the lobby, watching runners dash in to use the john and then dash out again, and finally the thing ended and a cab took me to the railroad station, where I was offered a fast train and a slow train. The fast train got me into Barcelona ten minutes earlier, so I chose the slow one, which took a different route and went through some lovely countryside. Had I but known, I could have gotten off at the Paseig de Gracia station in Barcelona, two blocks from my hotel. I also realized that, if one left at about 9, one could do a day-trip to Girona from Barcelona. Llevataps is open for lunch, too. 

Monday I checked out, but I also met a friend from Austin who arrived that day to start a trip with his girlfriend that would also take in Florence, where they would do some work on a film they're making. She wouldn't be in until later, so I took him to try to get a cheap phone, then to the hotel/housing agency that handled the apartment they'd rented to get the key, then to the apartment, and then back up to the housing agency's next door neighbor, a stellar northern Spanish tapas joint called Pulperia Bar Celta. A perfect last meal in Barcelona!

* * *

I'd also booked this end of the flight badly, and had to overnight at an overpriced, dingy hotel at Heathrow, a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone. After that, though, I had a long time to think about the trip (and, much as I'd disliked the Austin-Heathrow nonstop on the way out, this flight wasn't nearly as crowded, so I had some room). And I did. Beauty had clearly been encountered and enjoyed -- luxuriated in, even -- both natural and man-made. Love was, of course, unchanged, except for a nagging realization that a lot of women I'd been encountering in the States thought it unseemly that I could still be interested at my advanced age. Of course, my friend who was just starting his Barcelona trip was with a woman ten years younger than me -- and he's nearly ten years older than I am. I landed in Austin to discover a text from him: "What a big lovely city, Paris with a better attitude." Can't say that about the city I'd just landed in, and I'm going to have to cope with that somehow. I'm about to embark on a period where if all goes well I should see some changes in my material and professional life, and I intend to take as much advantage of that as possible. I would dearly love to get out of Austin: it's a bad fit, and had I known, I needn't have come here when I realized I couldn't stay in France any more. This isn't the place to bitch about that now. Just do your work, keep the love and beauty thing in your mind, and keep on. 

* * *

Two days after I got back, I ran out of coffee and headed up to Anderson's to re-fill. The next morning I poured some beans out of the bag into the grinder and took the egg man's rubber band to close it up. It snapped. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part Four: Montpellier: You Can/Can't Go Home Again

Ahhh, Montpellier!


There was little enough reason to stick around Narbonne, when I knew that the road I'd parked on eventually turned into the road that'd drive me straight to my next destination, Montpellier, the city where I'd lived for five years before having to return to the States. I'd booked four days in a hotel there, planning to use it as a base of operations as I went out into the countryside visiting wineries and seeing more of the landscapes I'd loved.

I left Narbonne early enough on Monday that I realized I could drop down to Sète on the way and grab some fish for lunch. Once again, it was a grey day, and windy. At this time of year, I remembered, the sun could warm you if you stood in it directly, but it wasn't making an appearance, and as I drove into Sète, I saw big waves in the Mediterranean crashing against the seawall: there was a storm out there somewhere, and it was a big one. After parking under the canal, I came up and walked around the main drag, then a couple of other streets, working up a hunger and noting that almost nothing had changed. I had in mind a tielle for lunch, a local specialty best described as a pie with octopus cooked in a spicy tomato sauce as filling, but the best place in town, the place that, in fact, was credited with inventing the tielle, was closed for the season. I settled for one of the canal-side restaurants -- one of the few that was open -- and had a fish soup with croutons (not so hot) and a rouille sètoise, which, the last time I'd had it, was cuttlefish under a blanket of hot, saffron-scented mayonnaise on a bed of rice, and this time was cuttlefish in a spicy tomato-based sauce with a dish of spaghetti on the side. It was far better than the soup, but the place wasn't exactly doing a lot of business on a Monday out of season.

It was too cold to do any more wandering, or to go up the hill the town is built on, so I got in the car and headed towards Montpellier. I'd arranged this trip so that I'd wake up at the hotel on Tuesday, walk downstairs, and go to the Tuesday market, which stretches out across the street. It wasn't the best season for the market, but I could tell just what time it was by visiting it, I'd spent so much time in the past buying my food there. Meanwhile, there was Monday to kill by strolling around the center of town, seeing what had changed and what hadn't. The hotel itself was much improved from when I used to stay there on my visits from Berlin: no more rickety furniture and lumpy bed, no tiny shower booth leaking all over the place. It was too cold to take breakfast in the hotel's wonderful garden, but it would be possible later in the year.

A quick stroll confirmed a few things. First, despite the Virgin Megastore's demise, the covered market was still open, although I'd heard otherwise. Neither the Musée Fabre nor the Pavillon Populaire had shows up currently, which, in the latter case, was too bad. Not having to endure the surliness of the Fabre staff was fine with me. Wandering out onto the Comédie, there were no patrons at the outdoor cafés, and slipping down the side-street towards my old place revealed that the former jeans store was now a beer-bar with an actual good list of beers (must be the American exchange students). The biggest disappointment was when I came to my old house, and the Lebanese snack bar was still in operation, but redesigned, and with someone I didn't recognize manning it. Had my pal Hani disappeared? Apparently: he wasn't there when I passed a couple of days later, either. There was a new burger joint where there'd been a nail salon, and I recalled the words of a Facebook friend whom I don't actually know who'd preceded me by about a week: he said that food in Montpellier had changed to pandering to students, and that cheeseburgers were now a fixed thing, even on the menus of decent restaurants. There was no reason for France not to have great cheeseburgers: they have good beef, many different cheeses, and great bakers capable of crafting a bun, but when I lived there, there was only one place that did a decent burger, the Vert Anglais (which, I saw, was now called something else). Now, burgers are omnipresent, and, at least in France, they ain't for dinner. Still, I wasn't worried about getting a good meal.

The saddest change was the old hat store on the Rue de la Loge, which had been run by an old man with a great story: he was Jewish, but didn't know it, and when the Occupation came, concerned Montpellierians hustled him out of town, ran the store for him, and got him out of hiding when it was safe again. That's as much a story about French laïcité as anything. But it was shuttered (I'd considered buying a straw hat there) and the few hats in the window were dusty.

Back at the hotel, I took care of some other business, calling my Apple tech support guy, Etienne, to tell him I had my old iPad and an old iPhone he'd asked me to bring, along with some sort of memory card for an Apple Cinema Display he'd bought. He'd wandered into the English Corner Shop one day, and impressed Chuck and Judi with his abilities, although back then he was only a teenager, and now, at 21, he's at loose ends, buying and selling computer stuff, and kind of vaguely thinking about coming to America. He's also into cars, and wants either a Cadillac or a Ford Crown Victoria, of all things. But his automotive knowledge would come in handy.

There was no question of where to eat on Monday: I'd already checked, and the Chat Perché, my absolute favorite restaurant, was open on Mondays. The menu in the window looked unchanged, but inside, it was a different story. The people running the place looked different, and there on the menu was the dreaded cheeseburger and fries, where the seiches a la plancha once were. There were other things, though, and I started with a fresh green pea soup, cold, and went on with a roulade of chicken breast stuffed with Conté cheese. And, of course, I had a bottle of Mas de la Seranne Sous le Figuier with it. My favorite winery, clearly keeping up the quality, I noted, waiting for the food. The soup was good, but the chicken was dry, and the vegetable side-dishes, always a highlight there, were bland. Bland! Clearly the Chat had fallen on hard times. Very sad. I remembered so many meals with friends (including the young woman whose philosophical conversations I remembered in the first part of this travelogue), and my sister's surprised "Who puts mint in mashed potatoes?" when she had dinner with me there. The Chat did. But not any more, apparently.

Montpellier's Muslims have tacos instead of cheeseburgers. I have no idea if this is a common North African street food, if one of them is called "a tacos," or whether some Moroccan guy thinks this is a taco. 


Of course, for the Tuesday market, the heavens had opened up and it was pouring. There were stands set up, though, and I decided to see if the storm would pass, and about 11, it relented, and I made a quick tour of a much-diminished market. The egg guy was there, and, moreover, he remembered me. We had a genial chat, and I almost asked him for one of the rubber bands he uses to keep the egg cartons closed. I'd been using one, my last physical connection with my Tuesday-Saturday market ritual, to hold my bags of Anderson's coffee shut back in Austin. But I figured he'd never understand why I'd want one, so I didn't. It was obvious that a lot of folks had bailed on showing up, but the Italian guy with the fresh pasta and salumi was there, busy as usual, the quiet guy with the best vegetables (usually) in the market was there, of course (most of his trade is with restaurants), but not many others had ventured out. The herb, spice, and soap people were obviously not there, because you can't display dried herbs and soap in a downpour, and I'd promised to bring back some of their famous Marseille soap, but there was a little guy with some hiding under a canopy, so I got it from him. It was kind of slippery because it had gotten wet, but it'd do.

The rest of the day, I just left the car in the hotel's newly-leased underground parking spot and did some random stuff. I visited my friend Kirsty, a Scottish woman who seems to have defeated the various crises she was going through when I'd left, and she filled me in on the latest idiocies that the city was perpetrating (not that, when a major hunk of the city is torn up, it wasn't obvious that something was going on), surprised the hell out of the woman who used to cut my hair by dropping in for another trim (this, too, was something I'd hoped to do), and, later, met my friends E&J, who made plenty of appearances in this blog back in 2011, for a catch-up at an Armenian restaurant, of all things (well, J is vegetarian, after all). A good, relaxed day.

The next day, Etienne had asked if he could tag along while I visited some wineries. Despite a surname that means "wine jug," he declared that he didn't like wine, but was curious as to why people did. The weather had turned brilliant, and it was a good day. And Etienne's car-geekery came in handy, too: I'd scratched the paint getting into the parking spot in the hotel's lot, and although it wasn't dented or a very serious scrape, I know that these things can come back and sting you, so I'd asked him if there were someplace I could get a quote for a quick buff-and-paint job. I managed to scratch it again getting out of the space and then out of the garage -- this wasn't a big car, but damn, I'd forgotten about French parking spaces -- so our first visit was to a Peugeot dealership on the edge of town, near where we'd get on the motor route towards wine country. The only guy who'd talk to us there kept us waiting for about 20 minutes, did a superficial look at the car, and, no doubt smelling panicked rich tourist, said if we left the car now, he could have it ready by the end of Friday for €3000. Um, no. Thanks, but no. But this was a concern, and it was preying on me a bit: I'd declined CDW when I'd rented it, and although people with more experience than I said that it might not even matter, I was hoping not to have to deal with insurance.

But now, our job was to get to Aniane, and the first winery on my list. Well, there were actually only two, but I was keeping my options open. Mas de la Seranne has been my favorite Languedoc wine since I tasted my first bottle on an early visit to Montpellier, and some of my favorite wine experiences have involved it (and one of my least favorite, when I spent €13 I didn't have on a bottle of one of their higher-end wines, Clos des Immortels, for a birthday treat and...it was corked).  I'd always wanted to visit the winery, and now I had an excuse. I'd ordered a swell piece of luggage from a company that makes a collapsible suitcase that can contain cushioned holders for a dozen bottles of wine, which you can then check like normal luggage. (You declare 9 liters of wine for personal consumption at Customs, and the government charges you something like $1.35 a bottle). I'd bought one and had it delivered to a friend in Nîmes, whom I'd see later.

We got to the winery just as they'd reopened from lunch, did a tasting, and I discovered that they had a new high-end limited-production wine in the range, and upon tasting it, added it to the rosé and Clos des Immortels I already knew I wanted. Mme. Venture put up with us nicely, and let me take a photo in the room where the magic happens:

Well, some of the magic: the rest happens in the fields.
The next stop would be St-Saturnin, the traditional last stop on the little driving tour I'd give visitors, whisking them up and down the hills through medieval villages and UNESCO sites and, finally, stopping at the Domaine d'Archimbaud for a tasting with Mme. Cabanes, who was always gracious about it once she'd bullied me into trying her III Pierres white. I told her I didn't drink much white wine, but I'd loved her rosé at the Estivales, Monpellier's summer-long wine festival. Turned out the white was as good as the rosé, an astonishing feat for a region that isn't particularly regarded for white wine. This time she let me taste it again and made another sale, and so I made off with a white, a rosé, and her top bottle, Robe de Pourpre, a thick, intense red that calls out for a winter evening and a hunk of roast beast. To my surprise, Etienne declared that he'd never had a wine like that (well, I could believe that) and he loved it, so he got a bottle, too. As we drove away, he was making plans to serve it with a dish of magret, the breast of a duck that had been raised for foie gras.

It was a little early to head back, so I remembered that on the way in to St.-Saturnin, we'd passed Mas Conscience, which was not only back in the Terrasses du Larzac appelation like Mas de la Seranne, but, like them, had made an early transition to all-organic, certified and monitored. Their wines had been hard to get in Montpellier, but I remembered them as excellent, so we decided to check them out. Mme Ajorque was rather surprised to see tourists draw up, but arranged a tasting. Not only did I score two bottles, but I talked her out of a straw hat with AOC TERRASSES DE LARZAC on the band, decorations that had no doubt been part of the presentation at this year's Vinisud, the big biannual wine trade fair held in Montpellier. So now I really would look like a tourist returning from vacation on the plane! I also got a catalogue of their wines: starting this year they've imported a few pallets of wine to San Francisco and New York, and seemed open to talking to a Texas distributor. So next time I visit Austin Wine Merchant, I'll hand it off and see what happens.

It was a good day out in the country. The fields were yellow with wildflowers (ground cover, no doubt) with the occasional bright red poppy, and the vines had been grafted and were spindly green. Back in Montpellier, I parked in the outdoor lot near the hotel. No more scratches for me, and birdshit washes off. I dropped my haul off at the hotel, and fielded a text on my phone: "Headed in, traffic jam." It was from Gerry, the guy in Nîmes to whom I'd shipped my wine suitcase, who I was expecting to have dinner with the next night. It hardly mattered: I had no dinner plans tonight, and I was glad to see him. We had a fine chat over a nearly inedible dinner at Le Vieux Four, a restaurant I'd never really liked, but I was stupidly obsessed with having seiches a la plancha, a favorite that had disappeared from the Chat Perché's menu in favor of the cheeseburger, and I was also obsessed with eating someplace that didn't offer a cheeseburger on the menu, thereby narrowing choices greatly. The seiches -- encornets, actually; cuttlefish of a larger size -- could have been used to patch the tires on the Peugeot, and I struggled through two of them before giving up. Memo to self: never go on a restaurant search with low blood sugar due to having skipped lunch. I got back to the hotel, saw that Merle Haggard had died, and fired off a tribute on Facebook, then crashed.

The next day was my last in town, and I did...essentially nothing. Etienne checked in with two more shade-tree body shops he'd found who offered to do the job for €700 and €1100 (he'd taken pictures with his camera), and I decided that, with a $1300 hold on my credit card, I'd take my chances. I actually liked having nothing to do after all of the intense activity of the past week, and Friday would mark the last segment of the trip: drive to Perpignan, turn in the car, take a train to Girona, Spain. So Thursday, I wandered some, stopped in a restaurant Etienne had recommended for lunch (Les DouSoeurs, which had just opened when I left, and specializes in dishes from the Aveyron, in the north of Languedoc where there's no wine grown, but they make up for it with pork: the charcuterie-laced salad I had here was the best meal I had in Montpellier), wandered some more, found a small wine shop with a bottle of the Trois Lunes wine I'd had in Perpignan in the window -- the last bottle in the store, and the last of its vintage, the woman said -- and then wandered into a comics store and found that my favorite French comic artist, J.C. Denis, not only had a new book out, but one featuring his long-time character Luc Leroi, whom I thought he'd abandoned. I spent some time at the hotel packing, goofing off, and went back into town for a non-memorable meal.

There's no doubt in my mind that I'll return to Montpellier next time I'm in France because of the many friends I have there and the memories I also have, and because it's still the best place to base yourself for explorations of the surrounding countryside, and there are still places I want to see. And it was empowering to walk its streets now with no fear that my being broke was limiting me. I had spent a lot of time there frustrated, wanting to do things that I couldn't because my carefully-planned move was sabotaged by the capricious cancellation of a project I was working on with a music-biz sleazeball, and the subsequent $20,000 hole it left in my plans. Now I could walk into a good restaurant, drive a car into the hills, buy whatever I wanted (although I didn't want much). But knowing the town as I do, I no longer want to live there -- or, most likely, anywhere in France. The whole country still exerts a powerful pull on me, but, well, I don't know. At any rate, there's time to think before acting, and I have work to do.

And, I thought, turning out the light, there were still a few days to go, once again in unknown places.

Next: Spain And Out
 
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