Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Time To Eat

So once the stuff was semi-unpacked, the bed constructed, and the kitchen stuff all packed away in my cool new pantry (a very nice touch I never knew I wanted), it was time to start eating at home. I've still got a want-list of restaurants in town I want to visit, but that gets expensive after a while.

Plus, I was anxious to try the local food. Now, there's probably no worse time to arrive in a heavily agricultural part of France than the onset of winter, which is when I got to Montpellier. I dutifully took myself to the markets and stared at carrots and such, and concluded that, for a while, at least, I was going to have to eat out of supermarkets.

Not that there was anything wrong with this. I have two supermarkets within a couple minutes' walk, both of which belong to the Monoprix chain. One is a Monoprix with an okay-sized food section balancing its clothing and housewares and drugstore sections, and the other is a Monoprix Inno, their larger and somewhat more upscale store, and, since it had the larger selection and wider aisles (and fewer people buying single cans of 8% beer in line), that's where I went.

For the first couple of weeks, it was like visiting a museum: too much to take in at once. There was a fishmonger with more kinds of fish than I had any idea what to do with -- and shellfish, too, which I hadn't had available to me for 15 years. There was a two-aisle "world grocery" with stuff from the French Caribbean, Spain, Italy, and Israel: need kosher frozen pizza? After years of having my choice between orange and blood orange juice, I was suddenly confronted with about twenty alternatives. There was, of course, a huge selection of wine, a considerable percentage of which was devoted to local stuff, much of which was quite good and quite inexpensive. There was an entire wall of fresh pasta: ravioli and tortellini with such exotic fillings as green asparagus and grilled vegetables.

I tried to stare at my shopping list and stay focussed so I wouldn't go broke. First stop was the vegetables, which weren't so impressive in the wintertime, and first stop there was a basket of top-quality garlic, hard and unsprouted, big heads with meaty cloves. I went to weigh it and noticed that the code was 1. Right! (Although it struck me later that this might have been alphabetical, garlic being ail). Also: things not in season? Not there, another change from Berlin. Which is not to say that the occasional carbon-gobbling vegetable wasn't around: there was asparagus from Peru around Christmas, and I once bought green beans from Burkina Fasso.

The huge difference from Germany seemed to be that there were multiple options for products. You could buy this kind or you could buy that kind. There was actual acknowledgement that a consumer might prefer one brand over another, because there is a tacit understanding that the French customer has at least a rudimentary connoisseurship. It's heartening to stand on line and see what people are buying: there's less junk food, more fruit and vegetables, more stuff, to put it simply, that I might buy myself. There is an astonishing lack of MSG in the prepared food. It exists, in things like flavored potato chips, but not in canned soups or prepared meat products.

There were, of course, things I didn't want to buy at the supermarket. Cheese, for instance, was going to be better (and, as it turned out when I compared prices, about the same price) at a cheesemonger in the Halles Castellanes, across from the Vert Anglais. This is a covered market where various merchants rent stalls, and there are a couple of cheese stands. The biggest not only has a mind-boggling selection of French cheeses, but, from time to time, high-quality English Cheddar and, always, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bread, another thing I don't need Inno for, is available on the corner from a baker whose sourdough culture and I see eye-to-eye about the exact degree of sourness bread should have. Things like olives, saucisses secs, which are France's take on salame, capers, salt-cured anchovies, and the like are available from a guy who sets up in a garage across from the Halles, again at prices that beat the supermarkets. And, I've noticed, chickens at the nearby butcher shop are the same price as at Inno -- so why not support an independent merchant?

I'll admit: I still haven't gotten into the routine. I still tend to mooch around the house until 6, then head off to the store. But as the weather improves and more local crops start coming in, I'm hoping to hit the Halles, at least, and, with luck, the Saturday morning market down at the Arceaux, on a more regular basis. Often the stuff at the Arceaux is so ripe that it's sold cheaply because it's going to start rotting soon, and always it comes in from farms within a couple hours' drive. I'm also going to train myself to go to Figuerolles, the Arab quarter, on occasion, because that's where the good spices are, the good parsley and cilantro, and stewing lamb for when I want to make a lamb curry. I've also discovered an "Asian" store in the vicinity, so I've got tofu and green chiles covered (although I hope to grow the latter on my balcony this summer), and am keeping an eye out for an Italian grocery store I saw once while lost -- although I know approximately the area it was in, it has yet to reappar, and it was closed the day I walked past it.

One thing I might also do is to subscribe to a service that delivers fresh weekly baskets of vegetables to a nearby health-food store for you to pick up. That would be a great way to explore the region. And finally, I'm anxious to get out to the local wineries. They actually came to me, in the form of a Montpellier Agglomeration Vintners' Fair in the Comédie, just before Christmas, but I'd given myself a financial panic by expecting a check which, it developed, had already arrived and been spent. For five euros I could have bought a tasting glass, but...I didn't have five euros. I did, however, pick up some pamphlets, and discovered that one of my favorite local wineries, Domaine de la Prose, claims to have shipped wine to Thomas Jefferson! Cruising the wine wall at Inno has sharpened my ability to discern variations in local reds (and a couple of local rosés, about which I suspect I'll be writing as the weather warms up), and now I want to get out to the producers and see what's what.

Make no mistake: food's a lot more expensive in Montpellier than it was in Berlin, or at least it has been so far. I'm hoping that when the influx of local stuff starts, some of the prices will go down, but in the meanwhile, I do remind myself that you get what you pay for, and even at these prices, I'm getting a bargain.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Veuillez Patientez

Those of you who've downloaded something from a French site recognize those words instantly. They mean "please be patient," although in French "to patient" is a verb, not to be patient, as in English. 

It's good advice. 

I wanted to hit the ground running. It was getting on to December, and I wanted to have a phone and an internet connection now. Well, not so fast. 

To get a phone, I had to have a bank account. To have a bank account, I had to find a bank that would take me. Everyone recommended the Poste, which, as in most European countries, has a bank attached to it. 

They threw my ass out so fast I had to stop for breath. No residence permit? OUT! Ah, commiserated one of the regulars at the Vert Anglais, I know a bank that'll be glad for your business. His son and I went down to talk to them. The guy we needed to see was out for lunch. Could we come back in three hours? I could, and did. The guy was happy to practice his French on me. "We are a bank for French people, and you are not French," he said, rising from his desk so that I'd leave quicker. Funny; the guy who'd recommended it was British. 

Okay, so that wasn't going to work. The day I'd arrived here, I'd had to buy a phone charger from a shop around the corner, a chain called The Phone House (yes, in English). So maybe I could get a French cell phone. Maybe even an iPhone! And mirabile dictu, here was a salesman who spoke English: he was from Montreal! "You need your passport," got it, "proof of residence" I was carrying my lease around with me "and what they call a RIB, which you get from your bank, as well as checks." Um. Bank? Checks? "Yeah, we need a physical check for the registration process." 

I was about to tear my hair out. I bought a cheap pay-as-you-go phone, which was my only lifeline, except for the computer time I used at the Vert Anglais every morning and early afternoon. It was from Virgin Mobile, and I could buy recharge cards at the supermarket, among many other places. 

Finally, someone agreed to accompany me to his bank to see why I couldn't get a deal, but before we got there, he asked me how I'd been getting money. I told him that BNP Paribas Bank has an agreement with the Bank of America, so that there's no service charge for withdrawing funds with your BoA card. "Well," the guy said, "let's go talk to them first." And we did. 

And the guy we talked to was cool with it as long as I registered the account at my U.S. address. Which I did, or at least I started the process. It required a letter from the resident of the house, a copy of a recent utility bill or other proof that he lived there, and a copy of his passport. And, although the Christmas holidays were now closing in on us, the guy in America jumped into action, bundled all that stuff into an envelope, and mailed it. 

And it took 22 days to get here. I had 30 to hand it in to activate the account. With all the holidays, that meant I was 29 days into the process by the time the stuff arrived. I ran to the bank, and the guy looked at all the paper, and told me they'd be mailing the official documents to Texas. 

Which they did, and they arrived quickly. Again, the guy tossed the stuff into the mail, but this time it actually only took about a week. I grabbed the documents which would get me a checkbook and a bank card and ran to the bank. (This isn't as strenuous as it sounds: it's just around the corner, actually). 

Much consultation, much going in and out of offices. Sorry, monsieur, it appears we have lost these documents. We will start again. 

Meanwhile, my puny little phone had run out of credit. Trying to punch in the number of the refill I'd bought, I apparently misunderstood the recording and did it wrong twice. You get three tries. I dragged the phone to the Vert Anglais, and again, one of the nice folks there fixed it. He also told me the sequence to follow when I needed to refill it the next time. Which turned out to be a week later: the credit you buy here expires if you don't use it immediately. At least in Germany you just get credit, too: here you need to buy onto a plan -- so much SMS, so much phone, blah blah blah. All of which is too complicated to follow, even if (as I do) you read the fine print. 

Still, I had my original banking documents, and with them I was able to initiate getting the phone line in my apartment, which had never, according to France Telecom, been used, opened. The guy from Montreal at The Phone House at least was able to do that. "When you get the visit from the France Telecom technician and the line's open, come back here and I'll sell you a plan that'll give you free phone calls to most of the world, and cable TV for €30 a month." Cool!

But it could still receive SMS messages, and one morning very early it buzzed and there was a message that my checks were ready and I should come pick them up. Great! This meant that I could get the iPhone! I went straight from the bank to The Phone House. And M. Montreal had been fired. 

But I got one from France Telecom, at least. Which was nice, because I was waiting for the line to be opened. And on the day it was supposed to happen, it rained. I mean it really rained. The River Lez, which runs through town, flooded badly, dumping whole trees onto its banks. It was a frog-strangler, make no mistake. But I was told that if I didn't report the no-show, France Telecom would assume that it had happened, and charge me for it. So I went to the central office, where a guy made a phone call, handed me the phone, pointed to a couch, and said "Tell them when they answer." 

Which was 45 mintues later. Much bad French followed, but I was assured they'd be there in 48 hours, and that the technician would call before he came, between 10 and 2. 

A week and a day later, at 7:45 am, the doorbell rang. "France Telecom!" I threw on some clothes and buzzed the technician in. He futzed around some, and finally said something I didn't understand. He called a number and handed me the phone. The guy on the other end spoke English and said that the line was in a place where they were going to have to bring in a truck with a cherry-picker on it to access it. This would happen in 48 hours. 

Meanwhile, I had already registered with Free, a telecom which does everything the one the guy at The Phone House was going to do, and which comes highly recommended by everyone who uses it. But they had to have the line open before they could do anything. They shipped me all the boxes to connect with, though, and started the meter ticking. 

In case you're losing track, it's now about February 7. Veuillez patientez. 

A week and a day later, February 16, three months since I moved here, the guys in the truck appeared. They came in, checked the line, and said everything was groovy. As soon as they left, I plugged in the Free boxes. Bingo. I had an internet connection! 

Phone didn't work, though. 

I'd deal with that later. I was on about four deadlines for work that needed that internet access, and work comes first. I jammed the stuff out, and good that I did: the system crashed on Thursday. 

Okay, back to the Vert Anglais to abuse their wi-fi some more. Went to the Free site, and sure enough, there was help available by e-mail or by "tchat." I felt better with an e-mail, and the next day "Mustafa" wrote back with a list of 29 questions (including essay questions) that he needed me to answer before he'd go to a technician. Oi. 

By Monday, I had most of the questions answered, and had removed a little black box France Telecom sticks in the wall-receptacles to block other telecoms. Neat, huh? There would be some more questions to answer, though, and I was dragging my feet. Tuesday came. I felt defeated. I came home after my session at the Vert Anglais and...the box was working! I turned on the desktop computer and bingo! I was back up. I pushed a button on the phone. It worked! I called a friend in Germany for free. I called a friend in the U.S., but he wasn't home. 

Which was too bad, because I wanted to remind him that my new banking documents were on their way and I wanted them FedExed to me as soon as they arrived. Almost forgot about that. 

The next morning, as I was reading online, the box crashed again. 

One of the guys at the Vert Anglais is a very well-trained systems analyst. He and I got on the phone and walked through the problem. "I gotta say, you've done everything you needed to do. The fault is with the line, not with you." 

Convincing Free was another matter. But meanwhile there was this FedEx package. Where was it? I'd stupidly forgotten to ask my friend the tracking number, and it was taking forever. It finally arrived on Friday, five minutes after the bank closed, although the hippie who delivered it, to make himself look good, put down the delivery time as 11:55am. 

I finally admitted defeat on the language front after trying to access Free's tech support on the phone and begged a French friend to help me out. On March 11, he met me at the Vert Anglais, called Free's tech line, and yelled at them until they agreed to send a technician the next day. 

He came as expected. He futzed around with the wall box. He saw the black box. "You take this out?" I did. "Good." He futzed around more, and made a phone call. From the amount of time he spent on hold, I knew he'd called France Telecom. (Also the music sounded familiar). They hung up before they answered. He called back. This time he got through. There was no signal from France Telecom coming to my wall. Could they please fix it? 

48 hours, they said. 

I knew what that meant. 

But...I got a call in the middle of the afternoon of the 12th, from a technician in the street telling me I was on. I checked the box. I was on. I picked up the phone. I was on. 

I was on. I turned on the desktop computer and got to work. 

Three hours later, it went into a kernel panic and crashed. I haven't been able to start it again.

In 36 hours, I was going to head to Texas for my annual visit. I'm typing this late at night on the 12th, on my laptop. I'm going to try to get this blog up and running before I leave. 

The next post, I promise, will be about food and wine. 

Veuillez patientez, mesdames et messieurs. 
Site Meter