Tuesday, June 30, 2009


On Tuesdays and Saturdays, when I set out to go to the market, I always choose the route which goes up the hill, through the center of town, out the Rue Foch, through our Arc de Triomphe (Paris isn't the only place with one!), and then take one of several routes through the Peyrou, a kind of park with a triumphal bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV in it. From one side of the Peyrou, you can see the Cévennes Mountains, of which this one, which I think is Pic St. Loup, is one of the closest.

And I look at the mountain and I think of how much I'd like to go there. Just take a day, get in a rented car, and drive out there. Pic St. Loup is a noted wine-growing area, and there's some real good stuff made there. Public transportation around here, though, is virtually nonexistent, so I'd have to get a car for the day. A quick glance at a couple of car rental sites says I could get a car for €70 a day.

Although, actually, it wouldn't have to be Pic St. Loup. I've got a bunch of other trips I'd like to make, and I've been accumulating them ever since I got here.

Not gonna happen, though, not for some time. There's a problem.

Just getting here was something of a miracle. I was approached by a music-biz guy who wanted his memoirs ghost-written. I quoted a price and he went for it, but instead of paying me half up front and half when we were through, he told me he'd have to pay me in six instalments. I figured that he was retired, probably on a fixed income from a trust, but he was good for the fee. So we got to work. I stopped looking for other writing jobs and concentrated on the bizarre clots of prose this guy would send, turning them back into English and keeping tabs on a lot of stuff he was leaving out or rushing past.

As I wrote at the beginning of this blog, it took me a long time to get set up. Part of it was the fact that I got here late in November and the holidays were coming on, but most of it, as you can read, was because it was France, where everything takes a long time and then doesn't work right at first. In mid-March, I was going to SXSW in Austin, and it was only a few days before my departure that I got my telephone situation straightened out. Then my desktop computer died. Fortunately, with my last payment from the ghostwriting client, I'd gotten a new laptop, since I was using one every day at the Bar Vert Anglais.

I stayed in Texas two weeks, and on my last day there, I wrote the ghostwriting client, because I'd been working heavily on his stuff before I'd left, and wanted to be sure I'd get paid my third instalment. He wrote me back, saying that his investors (who?) were out of money, and that he wasn't going to pay me for the work I'd done since January. Despite an offer of a compromise from me, he's been as good as his word on this (something I know people who've dealt with him in the past will be surprised by), and I've got a lawyer, working pro-bono, trying to help me sort this out in his spare time.

Meanwhile, all that work I didn't go looking for I'm not doing, and there's a $20,000 hole in the year's budget.

So I can't go to the mountain, and instead a mountain has come to me, and I have to climb it to survive. There's been work, and I thank those who've given it to me. There needs to be more, and I'm looking.

But it also means that everything is on hold. I have the name of a woman nearby who does French conversation. I desperately need to improve my French. This isn't going to happen. I want to travel throughout this region, learning more about it so I can pitch stories about this part of the world, but I can't even afford the tram to the Odysseum. There are a few people around town I'd like to have a meal or a drink with, but my last restaurant meal here that I paid for was the night before I flew to Texas in March. Hell, I want a straw hat for this hot weather, but that's not going to happen, either.

I'm lucky in a lot of ways: I don't have anyone depending on me for income. I seem to have an understanding landlord. I have a reputation for doing good work quickly. And I'm living in a place I genuinely enjoy. I'm a good cook, and I know how to make good food out of very little -- and I'm living somewhere where the quality of the food I buy is astounding.

None of which diminishes the mountain. When I take pictures at the market, I tell the stallholders that I'm trying to make my friends in the United States (and, although I don't say it, Berlin) jealous. Which is true. But if you find yourself jealous, do remember there's another side to the story at the moment. Not just the financial side: that would be true anywhere I was living at this point in human history, when the idea of paying for content is so very out of fashion. But I'm also struggling with a foreign language, don't have a whole lot of friends nearby, and spend a whole lot more time than I'd like to in this apartment, where I have lights I've bought that I can't afford to pay someone to mount, and stuff still in boxes that's supposed to go on bookshelves I can't afford to buy. Not to mention that I really need to see a doctor about this smell/taste thing, which comes and goes. Not tasting while living in France is sheer agony. For this I stopped smoking?

Time will take care of a lot of this, I think, but the delay is an immense frustration. When you get to my age, you want to use the time you've got. But I just tell myself, after long practice in Berlin, where a similar scenario played out in my early days, be patient, don't panic, do the work you have.

So that's my life at the moment.

Not this:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Quick Market Post

Tuesdays really are shaping up as the best times to check trends, and although I didn't really need much this time (and didn't buy much), the weather's so nice and the walk is so pleasant there and back, that it was a pleasure to head down there. I took more photos than I bought stuff.

The family that was selling the strawberries all those weeks ago and gradually moved into melons and apricots is going nuts with cherries. I couldn't believe how black these were.

There are all kinds of odd colors around. One stand was selling bunches of multi-colored radishes.

The colors don't really come through as vividly as they exist in real life here, though. Sorry.

Tomatoes are beginning to show up. One stand has huge ones -- bigger than I'd be able to use at the moment -- but still not as large as they're going to get. The tomates anciennes guy was back, and after snapping a picture of his wares, I bought two more San Marzanos and a couple of deformed-looking ones of the sort I had last time that turned out to be incredible (you can see them, on the stem, in the upper right-hand box).

The San Marzanos will be pizza-ized tonight, with a couple of salt-cured anchovies to bring up the saltiness (thanks, David) and the olive oil put on afterwards (thanks, Graham).

In addition, the tomatoes known as coeur de boeuf (beef-heart) are showing up. They look unripe, but according to Colman Andrews, this is the preferred degree of ripeness for Catalan salads. Who knows, maybe Languedocian ones, too. But the tomatoes are quite distinctive.

Some odd fruit is showing up. There were these little things that looked like figs, but were too hard, and were pointed at one end. The skin was yellow with a little red. I finally found the sign with the price and it said "poires." Really? Pears? Then there were these. There was a basket of psychedelic yellow ones nearby, but I couldn't get a shot with both. Some kind of plums?

There was one thing I was looking for that took a bit of time. Starting a couple of weeks ago, potted basil plants started showing up. There was the type I was used to, large green leaves, the same sort I'd planted outside. Then, there was another kind with tiny leaves. I remembered reading in some cookbook when I was just learning how to make pesto where the author was saying "Use the type of basil with the tiny leaves and ignore those lettuce-leaved varieties." I never had the opportunity, but I passed my hand over a couple of these leaves and the smell just jumped out at me. I really should have planted this instead of the other! But instead, I spent €1.50 on a huge bush and brought it home. This is a one-euro-cent coin, smaller than any American coin, for reference here. And yeah, it's going to be a pain to assemble enough leaves for pesto, but I suspect it'll be well worth it.


I haven't gotten around to making pesto from the mini-basil yet, but when I pulled my new, improved San Marzano tomato pizza out of the oven, I scattered a bunch of its leaves on the hot surface just before dousing it with olive oil. (You can't see the anchovies, but they were there and yes, they were the answer to the lack of salt).

I'll be doing that again!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pizza Experiment

The tomatoes I bought on Tuesday, the tubular ones which, I now find out, are the type grown in San Marzano, Italy, for the purpose of being turned into canned tomatoes and tomato paste, were begging me to slice them into coins and make a pizza with them. As a good New York-raised person, the idea of using anything but tomato sauce on a pizza is a hard one to give up, but I had an idea.

So first I sliced 'em up.

I also coarsely chopped some of this Provençal garlic I got at the market, and sliced some fresh mozzarella, which I put on towels for a half-hour to dry out. If you don't do this, it'll just ooze water in the oven and turn your pizza crust into goo.

The dough wasn't the best I've made, and tore when I was trying to stretch it out, but I finally wrestled it onto the peel and put the mozzarella and garlic down as the first layer.

Then I put down the tomatoes, tossed some dried basil and dried oregano over it all, and drizzled it real good with olive oil.

Twenty minutes, or maybe less, in the oven, and the kitchen sure smelled good. I took it out when the crust looked right and here it is, ready to toss some Parmesan on:

Notes: Crust was so-so, as usual (let's face it, a home oven doesn't get hot enough to do a real good job), but the one thing I forgot was salt. Man, did this need salt! Once some was ground over the top, though, the herbs and the tomatoes joined forces and it was good. The garlic, as I predicted, gave up most of its sharpness, although again, we needed salt there. I think next time I might put a little olive oil on the cheese/garlic layer and salt that, then do herbs/olive oil on top of the tomatoes and salt that, too.

One of the other tomatoes I got on Tuesday, the ridged one (which is not a coeur de boeuf, although it resembles one) wound up in the accompanying salad, and was incredibly juicy and flavorful, without a touch of acid.

This guy's "tomates anciennes" are going to see me again, no question. And I'm going to continue experimenting with pizzas.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Miettes, Mistakes, Markets

Thanks to all who, in comments on my last post, e-mails, and so on, corrected this and that about my virtuosic display of ignorance. I was trying to do too much -- report on the Festum (yes, with an m), figure out the language thing, and talk about the regionalism of France -- all at once. Not to mention all the oboe pix.

First off, here's Marie on exactly where we are:

Languedoc-Roussillon comprises Hérault, Gard, Lozère, Aude, Pyrénées-orientales (I think you wrote that Roussillon was a département). Languedoc-Roussillon is a region which has its own administration. Départements are part of the "national" administration. The préfet represents ''l'Etat" in the département. We have préfets de département and un préfet de région. It's complex and it's almost impossible to understand how all these levels of administration work.

That last sentence is right on the money, and if you contemplate the interlocking boxes, you begin to realize the possible size of the bureaucracy. Then, imagine that none of these bureaucracies particularly want to work with the others, and another part of the picture emerges. Remember when I reported on the student project on wine tourism and how nobody from any tourist bureau showed up at all? Part of the answer lies there.

And, of course, Richard corrected me about the "Catalan" signs in the streets here. Of course, they're Occitan. Catalan wouldn't be this far east, not to mention that this city's been the capital of Occitania forever. But, along with the booth at the Festum lobbying for the teaching of Occitan in the schools, I wonder just how much of a living language it still is. I know, I saw the books and all, but are they just a hobby, or is there a place out there where the people still speak this language, oppressed as it was by both the Church and the government in Paris for so long, among themselves?

I could defend myself by saying I've only been here a little more than six months, but really, I'm surrounded by books and have Internet access. But...I'm learning!

* * *

Another Very Montpellier Story: Part of the bureaucracy of governments noted above is that each one of these divisions -- city, region, etc. -- prints a magazine which gets dumped into your mailbox at least once a month. I've been trying to learn about where I am from them (and you can see what a good job I'm doing), so I dutifully read them when they appear. One I was reading recently reported that the first Apple Store in France had just opened -- not, as you might expect, in Paris, no! It was in Montpellier's very own Odysseum! What a coup! The Paris store won't be open until September!

Cool. I have a dead Mac Mini sitting here that might well benefit from the attentions of a Genius at an Apple store, plus it's just plain good to know it exists. But...I was at the Odysseum recently, hiking to Ikea, and...Apple Store? Where? I sure hadn't seen it, nor could I imagine where it would fit in the buildings there. I dialled up apple.fr, and went to the "where can I buy a Mac" link. There was a list of stores here and in Nîmes, pretty much what I already knew. Now, you'd think that if there was an Apple-owned store anywhere in France it'd be on the website, right?

Thus, I imagine some drone journalist with his civil-servant salary sitting in the office looking at the two-inch hole in one of the pages of the next issue, and vaguely remembering a press-release from Apple he'd read. Bingo: problem solved.

I know there's a huge hunk of the Odysseum still under construction, and it wouldn't surprise me if it opened before September and an Apple Store was in it. I have a feeling that before this summer's over I'm going to want to make a visit to the aquarium out there -- truly one of the coolest places I've ever seen -- for a little chilling. I'll look and I'll believe my own eyes.

* * *

Market day today, and it's obvious the seasons are changing. I scored some green peas, but they're kind of skanky (price was right), reminding me of the quality I used to get in Berlin. The peas themselves will be okay. Lots of lettuce, and cheap. Cherries, tiny peaches, what's clearly close to the last asparagus (scored myself a bunch), and more and more melons are showing up. The one I pictured here a couple of weeks ago was mealy and dry, not to mention the center was a huge cavity with seeds in it. I have higher hopes for this one here.

But check these tomatoes. They came from a guy who had a bunch of kinds mixed in bins labelled "tomates anciennes." The tubular ones fascinate me, and my thought is to cut them in coins and use them on a pizza, maybe with some black olives. The other two just look primordial. I wonder what they taste like..?

* * *

And speaking of food, I guess nobody knows about canned or boxed chicken broth, but I hope someone knows about chickens. When I see them at the butcher, they've got the head and feet on. Now, if I go to a butcher shop, as opposed to the ladies at the market, and buy one of these, will they cut off the heads and feet for me? Will they go the further mile and cut the chicken into serving pieces, ie, breast, legs, etc? I'm a ways from needing this question answered, given the price of chickens, but it'd be nice to know so I don't embarrass myself any further.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bring On The Oboes!

Ah, the Festun is over. It's quiet out there, and it'll probably stay that way all day. Now, I wonder what happened yesterday.

Not literally, really; I mean, if you read the comments on the last post, you'll see that late in the evening, Marie found a schedule. So at any given part of the day, I could figure out who was playing (if not where, since there were two stages in play). But that's just names. The real mystery is the meaning of this event.

A little background: I live in the region of France called Languedoc-Roussillon, which, as the hyphen indicates, is the fusion of the northerly and easterly Languedoc and the southerly and westerly Roussillon. This, in turn is subdivided into the departments of the Gard (up around Nîmes), the Hérault, which is where I am, the Roussillon, to the south, and the Pyrénées-Orientales, even further south, on the Spanish border. (I think I have this right, but I'm sure I'll find out soon enough). Now, these divisions aren't mere bureaucracy. "France" is very much an artificial construct, a country which came together over several centuries because its people realized that they had enough in common to override their many differences. Among the most obvious differences was language. According to Graham Robb's magnificent (and eye-opening) book The Discovery of France, "yes" was expressed, depending on where you were, by the words o, òc, sí, bai, ya, win, oui, oyi, awè, jo, ja or oua. You will note the second in that series: the region I live in was where the "language of òc" was spoken.

It's also where one of the biggest conflicts in the unification of this country took place. This was always a rich place, with its agriculture and wine and spice trade. It coexisted with the folks in Paris pretty warily, and then along came the Albigensian Heresy. This was a weird version of Catholicism whose followers were known as Cathars, and the religion spread like crazy down here. Much as I'd like to sympathize with medieval religious dissenters whose sect was finally ended after being roasted alive by the Inquisition inside one of their fortified churches, in Béziers, on July 22, 1209 (the leader of the campaign against them, Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Citaux, told a soldier who hesitated "Burn them all! God will know his own," which is where that lovely quote originated), the Cathars, from what I can tell, were pretty grim, combining extreme asceticism with a definite cult-like obedience to the local priest. After that, Paris -- and Rome -- made sure to keep a pretty high profile around here.

But the people continued to speak the langue d'oc, Occitan, until, in the name of national unity, they were forced to stop. Except they didn't: 150 years ago, regional languages still ruled the country. Mass media and education, I guess, finally brought in the Parisian French, but I've still heard some odd language in small villages, and it's not just the local accent.

There's another language around here, too: Catalan. A number of the streets and squares in Montpeller are signposted in French and Catalan, which is very close, sort of Spanish spoken with a French accent or something. This increases as you approach the Spanish border, of course, until you cross over into Catalonia itself and its ongoing language drama.

So what does this have to do with yesterday's Festun? Well, for starters, you won't find the word "festun" in your French dictionary, that's what.

There were groups of booths set up on the Comédie, each with its theme. Some I just didn't get. When I got down there, there was one where there were bags of flour, sugar and eggs and a bunch of women in black dresses and very weird old-lady masks, with a huge hank of white hair hanging down behind. Brandishing long skinny sticks, they lit out from the booth and disappeared. Later, they were back at the booth, surrounded by little kids delightedly learning how to make what looked like flour tortillas. There was a group of tables representing traditional sports, ranging from tambourín (which appeared to be frisbee, only with a large, jangle-less tambourine as tossed object), to human tower building (I arrived just as one of these, a good three stories high, was dismantling) to bullfighting (lots of that around here, actually; one thing that makes Montpellier unusual is that it doesn't have any tauromachy). Booksellers sold books in Occitan and Catalan, and a lobbying organization to have each taught in the schools shared space with private language institutes.

Local agriculture got surprisingly little space, although there was a lot of expensive olive oil for sale, a place where you could get local oysters (and a glass of Picpoul de Pinet, the perfect oyster wine), and a display of local potatoes. And there was a wine booth, where wine was being served, but none was on display, nor was there a price list. For ten euros, you could sign up for the evening's banquet, which would be large:

(This, incidentally, shows only one of the two rows of tables.) The menu was "salade catalane," some sort of stew, and a peach dessert. I never got to photograph the stew (and I passed on the meal after seeing 16kg of canned mushrooms being added to it), but here's the rig in which it was cooked:

The little brown things are one of my favorite local delicacies, tielles sètoises, pies filled with cuttlefish cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.

So what we had here was a cultural celebration of a culture I know little about, and I felt frustrated. Maybe, I thought, the music would be a way in. At the start of the afternoon, a band called les Diables de la Garrigue was playing in and around this hot-rod, with percussionists and oboists playing what might be traditional melodies over beats being created by a guy at a console that was literally in the belly of the beast.

At the other end of the square, a group of "tenores" held forth with lovely acappella stuff, mostly, from what I could tell, in Occitan, although there was one piece where they showed off (and who wouldn't, if you could actually execute it?) with a Corsican piece with its telltale microtonal ornaments.

All too many of the groups which followed them, however, stunk of subsidized folklore. One band was essentially a so-so jazz outfit which trotted out its bagpiper and/or oboist to interject some folklore before sinking back into le jazz tepid; another was a standard-issue rock band with an electric hurdy-gurdy player. Most followed the fast-is-more-exciting formula, and who's to day, given the venue, that they were wrong?

It was very hot -- around 90 F -- so I headed back to the apartment, aware that I could be at any action in seconds. Around 8, there was a very loud commotion in my street itself, and I emerged to find this bunch of guys (and one very intense gal) kicking out the jams in front of the bakery:

Oboes and drums. If you look closely at the oboes, you'll see they don't really resemble the orchestral ones at all, in configuration of the holes, the bore, or the reed, which is really wide. Having seen them in use before, I'm very curious about them, but a desultory web search brought up nothing except offers to teach me Languedocian folk-dancing, which I'm afraid is a very lost cause.

I'd like to learn more about this stuff, but I don't know where to start. Fortunately, there'll be more of it, and this will happen again next year. Maybe this broke-ness will lift and I'll be able to get out to the Spanish border for a couple of days. I have to keep reminding myself I've been here barely seven months, so it's just natural that I haven't met people who can explain this stuff and point me to more of it.

The music went on til just after 1am. Much of it sounded like the Pogues with oboes, except with the DJ took over and it sounded like house with oboes. There is a long-standing piece of folklore among orchestral musicians that double-reed players are crazy because the internal pressure in their heads, combined with the angle at which they're obliged to hold their instruments -- they literally blow their minds. Maybe I should keep this in mind while dealing with the locals, eh?

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Very Montpellier Story

Right now, I can hear music. They're sound-checking a huge rock-stage setup by the Three Graces fountain in the Comédie, a block from my house. Earlier, a smaller stage was sound-checking. There are tents and pavillions set up up and down the plaza. There are wooden tables set up the entire length of the center of the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. There are bleachers in front of the bandstand there. All along the Comédie, there are flags. Red ones for the Région Languedoc-Roussillon alternate with yellow ones for an event that will start tomorrow at 11am.

Total Festum, it's called. There's a shadow-picture of some people and lettering saying "With our region, proud of its culture." A parade is promised, a banquet, and a couple of other things I don't recognize because they seem to be in Castellan or Langue d'Oc.

So, who's playing? What's with the banquet? What are the traditional arts and crafts which'll be on display, according to the trilingual signs set up next to the little pavillions on the Comédie?

Who knows? This is a big event, no doubt about it. You can see the whole mess on the city's web-cam.

You cannot read about it on the city's website.

There's nothing on the Tourist Office website, either.

Wait! There's a picture of the poster on the region's website! And when you click it, it downloads the program. Except...it's not the program. It's just the cover of the program, labelled as the program.

It is now 4:35 on Friday afternoon. At 11 tomorrow morning something will happen. I have no idea what it is. Bands will play, but I have no idea who. Food will be served, but I have no idea what or how much it costs. There will be other cultural manifestations, but I have no idea what they are. They're still sound-checking what sounds like French soft rock.

People will show up just because it's happening. They won't make plans, just do it. Do what, I can't say. But hey, it's Saturday, and after I hit the market, I'll do it, too. Might as well. I just hope the bands don't play too late.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Midweek Market

The Tuesday market at the Arceaux is far less crowded than the Saturday one, and stuff doesn't sell out as quickly, so although I did make a pretty decent score on Saturday, I just figured that since it was a nice morning, cool, somewhat sunny and I didn't have anything better to do, I'd just head down there. I'm glad I did, since I managed to remember the camera this time.

First, the cherries are pouring in, both sweet and sour. These are sour; the sweet ones were bigger than I've ever seen, real giants. Dunno why I didn't buy some -- or shoot any.

There's also a flood of small "white" peaches, which I don't find as aromatic or tasty as regular peaches. Lots of apricots, too.

The organic guys are bringing in gigantic, foot-long zucchinis. I only photographed these because the yellow ones were really yellow, a fact that doesn't come through in the photo, unfortunately.

These Provençal guys had all manner of shallots, onions, and garlic -- but no green garlic, unfortunately. I think I may be a little late on wanting to get that. Still, it's nice to know I can get enough garlic. This is almost enough.

I was wrong about strawberries being finished. These "mirelles du bois" were two bucks for 250g, and they're tiny: that's a one-euro coin there for scale. A little bigger than a nickel, for the Americans among us. I can't wait to try these tomorrow.

I finally found some fava beans that looked good. I've never eaten these, so this is an experiment. They don't look terribly different from limas, and I actually like lima beans. I'll report back if I succeed in making them edible.

And finally, a warning from a local florist to pick your artichokes in time. There are artichokes of every imaginable size (and a couple of shapes) out there at the moment, and these remind me of my old next-door neighbor Frosty in California, who had a bunch of artichokes and often let them bloom. This also doesn't really get the color, but I'm not sure that's possible.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Miettes Again

What was surprising was not the signs which went up earlier in the week announcing "Lesbian and Gay Pride" and the 15th annual parade for same -- I've known for some time that Montpellier is to France what San Francisco is to America -- but that the phrase was in English. What makes this particularly odd is that the signs were made by the city, which is happy to attract a few thousand extra tourists for the few days leading up to the parade itself. So boldly venturing into yet another area I know nothing about, I asked a couple of people about it. The Unreliable Source told me that the "official" word for gay in French was pédé, fixed by the Academie Francaise in the 19th century, and that to use anything else would be wrong. Everyone else just shrugged it off.

As it turned out, the Unreliable Source was, as is often the case, wrong, at least according to my dictionary, which gives "homosexuel" and "gay" as the words, while a more reliable source informs me that "pédé" is incredibly offensive, not to mention the fact that it's slang. But this just makes me wonder more, since "homosexuel" is so clinical and "gay" is, well, English. Even the Germans have "Schwule," which means "moist" or "humid."

At any rate, that would definitely have been the right word yesterday. I went to the market in the morning, and in the Peyrou, the big park at one end of the Centre Ville, there were dozens of people working hard on floats, some of which looked quite elaborate. Bars and cafes seemed to be packed, and yet the sky didn't seem very promising. The parade started at the Peyrou, and worked its way down to the Comédie, by me, and was making a racket by about 4. Sometime after 5, I left my apartment to do my weekend shopping, and looked up at the Comédie, which was packed to capacity with revellers. The sun was shining, and I made a note not to try to fight my way back home through the crowd.

I'm not sure what happened next, but I was indoors in a shopping mall at the time. When I emerged from the supermarket, it was pounding down rain, and the Comédie appeared all but deserted. I returned home to windows which had blown open and water on the floor, so the onset of that storm must've been something. I wish I'd stayed home to watch it and gone out afterwards.

* * *

Another odd bit of slang: I once asked a very reliable source what the word for pot (as in the kind one smokes) was in French, and he said "hash." But, I said, what if one didn't want hashish, but, rather, marijuana, herb? "Oh, that word is 'shit.'" Remembering back to my teenage reading of Alexander Trocchi, I asked him if that weren't the same word as for heroin. I got a Gallic shrug. "I suppose so." So the moral here, I guess, is don't buy pot in France.

But that also put me in mind of the Lenny Bruce routine about four-letter words, in which he says that there's only one which is guaranteed to offend everyone: snot. Which has been a central part of my life for nearly two months now. Some time after returning from Texas at the start of April, I came down with a sinus infection. This mostly meant congestion, but after a while I lost my ability to smell or taste. This has happened plenty in the past, and I figured it would pass shortly. Except it didn't. What was odd was that the problem was only in my left nostril, although the smell/taste thing kept on.

After about four weeks, I began to worry. I had a great-aunt who had lost her sense of taste as a child due to rheumatic fever, so I knew such a thing was theoretically possible. I was advised to buy something called a neti pot, a ceramic thing which you'd add salt water to and stuck up your nose, but these don't seem to be available here. The next-best thing was a ripoff: an aerosol can of salt water for you to blast into your sinuses. Cost eight friggin' euros, but I got one. The gas wore out before the water did. I trudged to the Apotheque for another. This worked okay, although it didn't last very long. Still, I realized that this sort of auto-waterboarding was giving me temporary relief.

And maybe more than that: the snot seemed to be abating. A couple of times, I had momentary restoration of my taste and smell, but it didn't last.

Yesterday, after the huge rainstorm, I became aware of something: I was smelling things. I cooked dinner (leftover home-style tofu and newly-cooked fish-fragrant eggplant, both courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop) and realized I was smelling what I was cooking for the first time in ages. Seriously: I was almost crying as I ate this dinner.

I don't know if the storm washed away something I've been allergic to, or whether it just coincided with what was going to happen anyway, but breakfast tasted good this morning, and I bet dinner will, too. Smell and taste are too complex to lose -- and at one point I was imagining that there'd been a curse put on me: yes, you can move to France, but you'll lose your ability to taste -- and yet they're mysterious. I have a friend who lost his tongue to cancer a couple of decades ago, but who became a well-respected food writer, and wrote about this on his blog not long ago. Like him, I can't take having this sense for granted any more.

* * *

And, that said, here's the haul from the market yesterday. A head of lettuce that is truly head-sized, representatives of what I'm sure is almost the last asparagus of the year, more of those tiny green peas which just burst with flavor, some truly amazing garlic (bought from the woman who yells at you as you walk past, berating you if you don't buy from her: I didn't want to, but by the time I was finished looking at what was there and ready to start buying, she had the best garlic there, unfortunately), eggs, and yes, the first melon of the year, a tiny thing from the farmers whom I've been buying strawberries from and whom I mentioned in my last post. Now, the strawberries are gone, and there are tons of cherries, the beginning of some apricots (little things, but very brightly-colored), and melons which I smelled as I walked by. So, as I promised I would, I bought one. There are better to come, as there are tomatoes, locally grown ones which are just beginning to show up.

* * *

Finally, a food question: what's with butcher shops and cheese shops selling "artisanal" potato chips? The ones I had were good -- not greasy, not awfully salty. But what's with their presence at the butcher and cheesemonger?
Site Meter