Sunday, November 29, 2009

Drunks, Slobs, Polluters

Yes, there are downsides to living here, and one of them is, without a doubt, the building I live in. The location's pretty good, most of the neighbors are fine, and being almost on one of the busiest plazas in town, it's remarkably quiet. But every day brings another frustration, it seems. There is, of course, the stove, with its two small, closely-packed electric elements, which only function when you turn on a timer. Making soup a week or two back, I had to keep jumping up and going and re-twisting the dial on the damn thing: it'll only run for an hour at a time. Then there's the plumbing. I insisted on a new toilet (what, didn't I want to sit on a cracked toilet seat?), and it came with one of those push-button tanks with a larger or smaller button depending on how much you wanted to flush. This broke almost immediately, and so for the past nine months I've had to pull a chain in the tank. It's fresh water, but I do think for what I'm paying I shouldn't have to do this. Oh, and once flushed, the toilet is the master. There's almost no water pressure, so until the tank refills, there's no running any other water in the apartment: great moaning and vibrating and cessation of function will follow. The two faucets, in the bathroom and the kitchen, are so silted up that water shoots all over the place when you turn them on (I know, I should just unscrew the cap that holds on the little screen and clean it,, and the one in the kitchen isn't attached to anything, so it keeps falling into the sink. But until I can afford and find another place, I'm okay with this (although I'd sure like another burner in the kitchen). What I'm not okay with is this:

Every week, dozens of advertising flyers get delivered to our mailboxes, along with various propaganda magazines from the region, the city, and so on. And every week, most of us take them out and put them on top of the mailboxes and fish out any mail we might have received. Some of the guys who deliver these things, though, just leave them on the stairs in a neat pile. Now, as I write, the scene in the hall looks much worse than this. I took this picture when Jack was here last week and he'd kicked the slick paper over to one side. The stuff's slippery and he didn't want someone slipping and falling. We do have a cleaning lady who comes sometimes, and at that point all the paper disappears. But the other day I came home and found the Turkish lady who lives upstairs with her two sons coming into the house the same time I was, her youngest with her. They headed up the stairs, which were clean except for a pile of flyers and ads someone had left. Without hesitating, the kid took a swipe at this, and dozens of slick pieces of paper went down the stairs in a torrent. I made a sound, but his mother was too busy investigating a banana -- a banana! -- which lay, half-eaten a few steps above. Ascertaining that it wasn't edible, she said something to the kid and he scrambled up the stairs. Lest you think I'm just blaming her, though, Les Lunkheads, the French idiots below me, do the same thing, and they're almost certainly the source of the banana, as they are of the half-eaten kebabs and odd croissants one finds at times.

What can I say? It's a slum.

* * *

Last year at this time, I made a horrible mistake. I thought I hadn't been paid for some work I'd done in Germany, a matter of over a thousand euros. After the client had traced the invoice, it turned out that I had, in fact, been paid. And spent it. That's what the confusion of moving will do to you. I had more coming in, though, but I had to be careful for a few days. How careful? When the city did its Festival of the Vines, in which all the wineries in the Montpellier Agglomeration set up booths for tasting, an invaluable one-stop education in the local wines, and offered a tasting glass and tickets for tastings at three wineries for €2, I couldn't afford it. I did, however, pick up flyers from as many of them as I could and studied them. I'd be ready when they did this again.

Well, this weekend they did it again. And I had €2. But this time there were two problems. First was that that flu I had a couple of weeks ago made some sort of short return, or maybe it was some other ailment. At any rate I'd been running a fever and felt whacked on Friday, and also noted that my nose -- all-important for wine tasting -- hadn't cleared up for the day like it usually does. By the evening, the very idea of drinking wine didn't appeal to me at all, so I passed. And on Saturday my nose was still dead. I'd hoped to have an appointment with the nose doctor before the thing happened, but the earliest he could do it was Monday.

The good news is, I know a lot more than I did last year. There is a cave cooperative for the very interesting St. Georges d'Orque area down in Celleneuve which I stumbled upon while looking for that old church last month, and I've been to the Château de Flaugergues for the student presentation. I also had a nice chat with Benoit Guizard of the Domaine Guizard, who make some really nice wines and whose place is easily reached on the bus, which I intend to do once the schnoz is back. But for one-stop shopping, I blew it again. Boy, do I want my sense of taste back!

* * *

There were rumors of a postal employees' strike coinciding with the wine fest on the Comédie yesterday, but I didn't see one. I did, however, note that there are dozens of little huts all the way down the Esplanade which will soon be filled with the kind of things you buy as gifts for pepole you don't really know all that well, which should be amusing. At the end of the huts, they were installing a huge artificial ice rink, and on the other side of the Esplanade there was the monthly antiquarian book flea market, at which I saw several books that were older than anything down at the Médiathèque's seminary exhibition, although to be fair a couple of them were at the table of a guy who seemed to have a fair repository of vintage erotica, which probably wouldn't have fit the bill. When I got back from that stroll, there was a demonstration, but I couldn't see postal workers dressing up as animals.

No, these were protestors showing how many tons of CO2 countries were pumping into the air, each holding a number of black balloons keyed to the output. Why the guy with the U.S. balloons is dressed like a polar bear I can't say, except maybe he's as confused about American geography as most Americans are about European geography.

At least this gal, at the other end of the Comédie where people were dressed as national stereotypes (a woman representing India had a green sari and a red dot on her forehead), attempted a cowboy hat.

And so, having been stereotyped and having not tasted a drop of wine, I slunk back to my slum, to feast on leftovers of one of the biggest culinary disasters of recent months, which occurred when I grabbed the wrong can at the store: folks, do not make pastafazool with chickpeas.

Okay, I'm going out for a minute. If the banana or the advertising flyers don't kill me, I'll be back with more soon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Holy Books

At the moment, there's a photo exhibition at the Pavillion Populaire by a photographer I've never heard of, but who is, apparently, a grand fromage in France. I went and discovered that there's one part that's not there, and will open at the former St. Ann's church next week, so in the interest of keeping you all informed about the other cultural amenities here I went to the other big-deal show today (there's also something at the Musée Fabre, but it's more French landscape painting from the 19th century, and no way I'm going to put down precious money for that).

And the moral of this one is, pay attention. To be fair, there was a lot of information missing that I only picked up there, but I did expect more out of a show called The Library of the Great Seminary of Montpellier. After all, this town's been a center of all manner of studies for over a thousand years, and I'm a huge fan of illuminated manuscripts and almost decided to make that my profession when I was in college. Might have, too, if anyone at the damn place had known what I was talking about.

But here's the deal: it wasn't until 1563 that the Council of Trent said that every diocese in France should have a seminary, and the local bishop didn't get around to asking that one be established here until 1659, and it wasn't until 1690 that the thing got set up and running. So, no illuminated manuscripts here. Then, in 1790, the Revolution seized the thing and began selling off the good stuff. Napoleon cooled things out in 1807, and in 1972, probably in response to fewer and fewer young men wanting to become priests, the seminaries were regrouped into inter-diocesial seminaries. In 1999, 20,000 books were donated to the Médiathèque Émile Zola, our big library, and now that they've got them sorted out, they decided to show the best stuff they have.

And their best stuff I didn't find all that interesting. While it's true that not much on view is as gaudy and vulgar as the image of Joan of Arc atop this post (yeah, that's her, with dark hair, which is probably how people down here saw her; not everyone thinks she looked like Milla Jovovitch, you know), not much of it is of interest to those not interested in ecclesiastical history or libraries. To me, the best stuff was the graphics: there's a huge family tree with Adam and Eve at the bottom (who knew: they had a third son, Seth) and branching upwards to the sky; a huge double-spread of two hearts so you can tell the difference between the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary (Jesus: wrapped in thorns, small lesion in lower left-hand side, big cross coming out of aorta. Mary: tiny sword stabbing her heart. Both hearts anatomically correct.); and a bunch of utterly bizarre engravings from a book called Via Vitae Æternae by one Boèce de Bolswert of Antwerp, small, cramped, and notable for the letters on just about every detail. In some, saints pray, and their prayers are shown as a big zap going into the clouds from their hands (not their hearts?), where the Holy Trinity awaits. In another, the zap goes the other way, with people milling around in a field dressed in robes getting zapped by heavenly beings. In another, two painters are painting a bunch of people, and one's being dragged away by a demon while the other isn't. A nice elderly man who obviously was part of curating the show came over when he saw me taking notes and offered to explain anything I needed, but de Bolswert, I figured, would not be explicable in any terms I knew in English or French.

There's a nice thick book of the exhibition on thick high-quality paper you can take with you, and a screen showing slides of numerous illustrated books (they seemed to be showing military architecture while I was standing in front of it), but all this show really taught me was that by the time the Montpellier Seminary started amassing a collection, Catholicism had reached a degree of complexity that the stuff I'd taught myself while trying to deal with those illuminated manuscripts was utterly useless. Still, if you find yourself in the 'hood on a rainy afternoon, it's a pleasant half-hour's diversion.

(La Bibliothèque du grand séminaire de Montpellier, open daily until December 30, entrance free, see website for times. Médiathèque centrale d'Agglomeration Émile Zola, Place de l'Europe, Antigone, 34000 Montpellier).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Miettes

You know, I thought that train ticket to Arles, even with the senior discount, was cheap. I'd priced some other trips over the last few months, and it seemed to me they cost more per mile than that. As it turns out, I was right: despite my saying, very clearly and several times, the word "retour" to the ticket agent, she sold us two one-way tickets.

But then again, it's not like anyone ever checked the tickets. You have to stick them in a little yellow machine that buzzes and then stamps the station and date and time on them, but that seems to be the extent of the security. If I hear that the French rail system's going broke, I guess I'll know why. Meanwhile, it's down to the station for the latest timetables for the regional system.

The reason for this is the eminently sensible suggestion by etnobofin on my last post that I might enjoy a trip to Narbonne. I researched that -- it being about the same distance in the other direction -- and that's where I realized we'd cheated on the tickets. But a round trip to Narbonne costs €22, and an additional €5 gets me into all the museums and so forth. So that's my celebration when the next paycheck arrives.

* * *

And, as if the cosmos was listening to me, Thursday through Saturday last week, the department of Pyrénées-Orientales set up a big tourism tent on the Comédie. They'd been here before, and I had a bunch of their brochures, as I realized walking through the tent. It was the usual clump of wineries, jam-makers, candy-makers and so on that all these tourist exhibitions have (there was a saffron farm, too, selling its wares at the highest prices I've ever seen for that already-pricey spice), but the tourist agency had a brochure I picked up that had a longstanding fantasy embedded in it.

For some time I've been wanting to take the train to Perpignan, get a room, rent a car, and go driving into the countryside. Well, this brochure is all about that. The prehistoric sites, the Romanesque churches, and all the rest. This fantasy will cost a bit more to realize, of course, but not hugely so, and my guess is there will be stories lurking around there. Then, of course, it's a question of finding someone to take them. But I've been spared a bunch of aimless wandering, at any rate. Still, Narbonne first. Stay tuned.

* * *

Finally, a decision to play with my computer has led to a really excellent look at the past year. Bored with the desktop pictures Apple had provided, I noticed there was a button in the desktop pictures function to include pictures from the iPhoto library, and checked "Past Year." Now I have a slideshow of every picture I've taken, many for this blog, and it's an amazing jog to the memory. (That's where I got the picture of the building with the Languedoc cross at the top of this post, for instance). The downside is all those pictures I took of the fruit and vegetables from the market: I'll see strawberries, peaches, tomatoes, and so on and want to rush out and get them. Of course, they're not there now, which is both frustrating and a welcome reminder that the seasons will cycle and they'll be back.

There's another frustration, too, which I noticed last night trying to boil pasta water, make a sauce, and cook some vegetables: I only have two burners on my stovetop. This, however, makes me realize that the oven, which I don't use all that much, may step up during the winter. I should learn these local root vegetables and roast them and see if I like them. (I don't have many good memories of turnips and rutabagas and such, but tastes change). Or learn to roast meat, although that's hard to do for just one person and leftover roasts don't make such good eating. (Also, the cuts tend to be more expensive).

Of course, here, too, there's a fantasy, which I believe is realizable: move into a place with a decent kitchen, enough room to unpack my library, and have people over for dinner. Like the trip to the Pyrenees, this isn't going to happen overnight. Apparently one of the lessons I'm learning here is patience.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travels With Jack

Almost exactly a year ago, Jack, an old friend from California and Texas, showed up in Berlin. It was days before I was going to leave, but he was a huge help, having owned a number of bookstores, when it came to packing up my books. The tricks he showed me I am certain made the movers bless him.

This year, he again vacationed in Europe, and so he came down here just a little later than a year to the day than he did in Berlin. He had two days, and wanted to spend one in Montpellier, but the next one in a place he was obsessed with: Arles. I had no idea he had a major thing for Vincent van Gogh, but I was about to find out.

The first day, he had a simple request -- or so I thought. He wanted to go to the Mediterranean. Since he's an ex-surfer, this made sense, and I'd asked Miss Expatria about this some time ago, and she told me that, although it wasn't much of a beach, you could take a bus -- number 28 -- to its end and walk to the beach.

She may be right, but we must've done everything wrong. There was an indication that it would be possible on the sketchy transit map, but we walked in what seemed to be the right direction, which took us along a highway where people honked at us (although we were behind the barrier on the shoulder), through some fairly desolate land:

Eventually, we saw some water appear, and walked towards it, but it appears to have been one of several étangs (which the dictionary says means "pond" or "pool," neither of which word gives any indication of the size of the thing) which exist, cut off from the sea itself. There was, however, oyster cultivation going on:

It was only when I saw a plane landing at Montpellier-Mediterranée Airport that I was sure we'd gotten turned around. Which is a shame, because we had to catch a bus back into town -- they only run twice an hour -- at this point. The beach remains something I want to do, and I'm dead certain one of the more knowledgeable locals will come along to tell me where I screwed this one up.

* * *

The next day, I got up way early. We had a 9:15 train to catch to Arles, and I didn't want to miss it. And it was at the train station that I made a very interesting discovery. I ordered the tickets and was astonished at the price. In a good way: round trip for me, with a senior discount, was €10.60. Jack only paid €14.10. This was far less than I assumed I'd pay for an hour-long trip, and bodes well if I ever can get my head above water for further investigations of the countryside around me.

Which, technically, Arles isn't. It's in Provence, a far more touristed, far better-known part of France as far as most people are concerned. I'd much, much rather explore Languedoc, but there was no turning Jack and his obsession around, and when you come right down to it, I was happy to go somewhere unfamiliar for a day.

Our first stop was the market, Wednesday being market day there. It went on forever, and, at least the part I saw, seemed to be mostly Turkish and Moroccan vendors. A guy handed me a hunk of a sort of red pesto made from sun-dried tomatoes and basil and olives on a cracker, and it was fantastic. The guy next to him handed me a piece of Parmesan. The people selling olives had amazing mixtures, far more diverse than I've seen here (although to be fair I haven't really surveyed the Arab groceries over in the Figuerolles district as much as I'd like to). But all in all, it was very much like some of the Turkish markets I'd been to in Berlin.

The market was spread along the old city wall, and once we passed through the gate, we were presented with this:

I have no idea what it is, but it made for a convenient landmark. It also led us up the hill to the big landmark, a Roman arena which makes the one in Nîmes look like a toy. It's also nearly impossible to photograph, situated on the hilltop like that, not to mention the fact that it's currently undergoing massive renovations/restorations which seem designed to turn it into some Disney-esque Romanland adventure park. They already have "bullgames" in there (the bulls are teased, but not killed), which is a tradition that no doubt dates back to the Romans, but they're going to be staging gladitorial contests and have a "Roman restaurant" which no doubt will serve honeyed pork and larks with garum.

(photo: Jmalik via Wikipedia, CC 3.0 license)

From there we wandered through the town looking for the tourist office, which had Jack's Holy Grail: a one-euro pamphlet with a walking tour of all of the Arles locations van Gogh used in his paintings. This led us to stumble upon the Place de la République, and me to stare at the tympanum of the church of St. Trophime:

But for Jack, the only thing in the square was...the Night Café! The van Gogh tour has copies of the paintings paired with quotations from his letters at approximately the place where van Gogh's eye rested, and Jack must have taken 20 photos of this place over the next few hours.

We found the tourist office, finally, and got the pamphlet, which also had related tours of Roman, Medieval, and Classic Arles in it. The van Gogh tour, however, had the fewest stops, and since they were widely spaced, we could see most of the other stuff in the interim, not that Jack was much interested. One thing I insisted on, though, was going to the huge museum of Antique Arles to see the Roman stuff. There's tons of it, including an almost complete ceramic jug used to transport wine on special ships that, considering the top is cracked off, was about five feet tall. I'm not really wild about Roman art and antiquities, but I am interested in how the Romans behaved in the boonies, ever since I saw the Greco-Roman museum in Cologne with its bewildering collection of religious stuff: once they were out of reach of the old home town, the Romans adopted tons of other religions, including Mithraism and a new one called Christianity. Although the majority of the artifacts in Arles date from 100-500 AD, when it was the capital of Gaul, there is an amazing amount of Christian stuff on view.

There's also, currently, an astonishing exhibition which'll add a whopping euro to your ticket, a display of stuff that's been brought up from the waters by the north bank of the Rhône in Arles since 1988, including a truly amazing, almost photographic, portrait head of Julius Caesar. This'll be up til September 19, 2010, so go see it if you're in the neighborhood.

It was a long walk out there, and I recommend using the free shuttle bus if you intend to go and aren't driving, so I readily assented when Jack insisted we ride back into town. We got in and the bus was filled with high-school girls (and one boy), one of whom had a kid in a stroller. They tried out their English on Jack, which was all he needed to start yakking with them. When a large older woman got on and sat between us, I snapped to the fact that they were gypsies, not Moroccans as I'd thought. She did some business of handing Jack a holy medal and trying to get him to give her money, then gave me a cowry shell and made a show of pretending to lick one, urging me to do it. I have no idea what that was about, but she didn't get any money out of us, and the inside of the little bus just got more and more riotous until we decamped.

We headed to the hospital where van Gogh had committed himself, and Jack took some more photos. Then we did some more wandering, and I shot this and that, but the idea was that he had to be back at the Night Cafe when it turned dark to take some photos.

I liked the shutters, apparently. But even though it bears the scars of tourism, Arles seemed like a nice enough town. I'd like to go back and get a card that gets me into some of the areas that charge admission, particularly some of the old cloisters. But it finally got dark, and Jack had me shoot a bunch of pictures of him at the Night Café. He pestered the manager until he came up with an old menu which had fallen apart with the painting on the cover, and I almost got van Gogh's composition right here. The light and the color not so much, but, as I kept trying to get Jack to understand, he was making a painting, not taking a photograph. Me, I was taking a photograph:

Anyway, now I'm broke again, but very happy for the day out of town. I really do need to research train fares, though, because if a day in a Languedoc town could only set me back ten bucks, plus lunch and maybe a museum fee, it behooves me to get out and run around a bit more. Of course, these past few days have put me enough behind that this won't be for a while, but the possibilities are intriguing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Miettes Porcines

Been laid out by the flu this past week, which may explain some of the gloom of the previous post, although there are also very good reasons to be gloomy, as this video shows. (Nobody who makes a living writing should fail to watch it). Dunno if it's The Pig or not, but mostly I sleep and stay indoors and feel like my brain's filled with cotton.

* * *

However, I do go out from time to time, and today was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I worked very hard to miss by 48 hours, having been in Berlin until the 7th. I had to content myself with our fair city's pathetic attempt at it, and so I wandered onto the Esplanade about 4 this afternoon. The crowd wasn't as big as the one in Berlin probably is, but then, this is France.

(I especially like the evil cop being menaced by the hammer-wielding guy with a West German flag on his shirt).

The event, and the Wall itself, was sponsored by the Maison du Heidelberg, a cultural organization from one of Montpellier's many twin cities, and one of the guys from there gave the first speech, in which he noted that Montpellier was the only city in France with a "hard rock" replica of the Wall. "Other cities have them made out of styrofoam and cardboard, but the one here is hard rock." Concrete, actually, but who's picking nits at a time like this? "There are many Germans in Montpellier," he said, "and there are a quarter-million French people in Berlin." This, although true, will probably come as a bit of a surprise to some Berliners, because they keep to themselves so thoroughly that nobody knows they're there. A friend of mine was out with one of her friends, a French woman who suggested they go to the bar where she used to work. There was a guy at the door who said the French woman could go in, but the American couldn't. They also have their own free newspaper, which, as someone who tried for three years to start a free English-language newspaper, I have to admit chagrins me somewhat. (Okay, a lot).

Anyway, my notes after the Heidelberg guy stepped down read "speeches speeches speeches." There were also a lot of people protesting the wall in Palestine, which is both just and annoying, since after 15 years in Berlin, I feel a little bit of pride in the Germans (true, not Berliners, but largely Leipzigers) who brought about the change in East Germany, and I didn't like their unsung achievements being overshadowed, especially because the Palestine folks are out on the Comédie at least once a month.

One of the speeches was by Montpellier's mayor, Hélène Mandroux, who is tiny. During her speech, the wireless mike began to go out, and the Palestine people were pressing closer and closer. It was also getting too dark to photograph, but just as I walked away, they started playing Beethoven's setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," the last movement of the 9th Symphony, and handing out sparklers. I tried and failed to get a shot of that, and walked behind the wall in time to hear some very pathetic hammering going on over on the other side. One thing became clear: the Montpellier wall was not only too small, it was also hollow. But something must have happened, because when I passed by the Esplanade a couple of hours later, it was clearly not there.

Instead, I tried to photograph the sunset on the Comédie, because I'm trying to do a banner for this blog. This won't be it, but it's what it looked like about an hour before I typed these words:

* * *

I got it into my head on Saturday that I could chase this flu with soup. In the distant past, I'd always bought Progresso Minestrone, but I know from experience that I can cook a better minestrone than that, and so I did. I made about four gargantuan portions in the process, but I used up a lot of the market vegetables I had lying around, so I hope I'm in some kind of shape to get down there tomorrow. (Although if not, I'll live).

One vegetable that went into it was those spherical carrots I wrote about a while back, and for those who disbelieve, here they are after I got them back from the market:

The sink looked like I could plant some more carrots in it when I got through scrubbing them, and they still had to be peeled, but they were really good. I'm going to get some of the other odd carrots they have down there when I see them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Highway: 61

There's no getting around it: I got a year older yesterday. And, as always seems to happen, I found myself ruthlessly looking into the metaphoric mirror, trying to figure out what the past year had meant, and what I'd accomplished.

Fortunately, there was a palpable answer to that: a little over two weeks after my last birthday, I said good-bye to Berlin after 15 years of living there, five of which were miserable, for the most part. I realized my dream of moving to Montpellier, and I've been there ever since.

Of course, that's not a totally positive situation: I have been here ever since, only getting out to explore the surrounding countryside once. And the reason for that is that at the beginning of this year, a major part of the grand plan fell apart: the move here was made possible by a project of ghost-writing the autobiography of a minor music business figure of low reputation, who convinced me that his miraculous and medically baffling remission from leukemia had totally changed him. This, in part, was why he wanted to write the book.

Unfortunately, it wasn't true: he announced in late March that he wasn't going to continue, leaving me to realize that $15,000 of the budget I was working on wasn't going to materialize. Worse, a further $5000 which he owed me for work I'd already done, as it developed, he had no intention of paying me. Unfortunately, I have very little recourse. A lawyer has been writing letters to him on my behalf as a favor, but I haven't heard anything since August, so maybe he's stopped. And, since I hadn't been looking for work in the six months I'd been working on this guy's book, I was caught with no income.

Thus, a lot of plans had to be pulled back. A lot of them. Like buying health insurance. Like getting this flat in order by buying bookcases and getting help installing some lights (I still have unpacked boxes from the move, and haven't a clue about the contents of at least one of them). Like travelling around. This apartment costs over double what my last apartment in Berlin cost, and is only about half as large. It's kind of a slum, but so was that Berlin place, which not only had more room, but a better kitchen. Plus, of course, the dollar has continued to slide since I got here, which, with the higher expenses, has also hurt.

So I haven't been out much, haven't made many friends, and haven't integrated much into the community. I know these things take time, as they did in Berlin, where at least I knew a dozen or so people by the time I wound up living there. Going out for a drink is ridiculous: a beer here costs twice what it did in Berlin -- and it tastes nasty. A glass of wine tastes better, but is the same price.

But there's my other problem, the one I couldn't have anticipated, but which weighs down on me as badly as sitting among the dusty, unpacked cardboard boxes: in April, shortly after my ghostwriting client retreated, saying "sue me," I got a cold. Big deal; it happens. Somehow, the cold caused a polyp to grow in my left sinus, and this, in turn, squeezed the nerve taking taste to my brain. I lost my sense of taste. Weirdly, the squeeze mostly happens at night: I can smell and taste during the day, and then, perceptibly, between 6 and 8pm, it fades. I've gone to a doctor, and he's been treating me, and I've recovered a very small amount of my taste at night, but not enough. At the beginning of the treatment, what must have been some radical drugs fixed me right up, as I mentioned here. But as I went off that regime, things got worse.

I figure I'm lucky: I can't afford expensive wines, or to go to a restaurant unless someone else pays, so being broke during this situation isn't too bad. But the part of being broke that means I can't travel, or that I feel incredible guilt when, as happened this weekend, I had to buy a new CD player for €67 because my old one died, or that I have to seriously consider each time I want to do anything whether I can afford it is oppressive.

I'm also lucky in that I have an ongoing gig with Fresh Air, although it is sporadic and pays public-radio wages, so I'm not getting rich. Unlike a lot of the 14,000 professional journalists who lost their jobs in the past twelve months, I do work some. In fact, that was what I did for my birthday: I wrote a story for the Oxford American, for which I'll get paid in a couple of months. That kind of thing doesn't happen enough, but I'm grateful that it happens at all.

It's really not a good idea to try to plan a year in advance, but I do have some goals. First, of course, is to regain my sense of smell and taste as quickly as possible. I should be seeing the doctor later this month, so I'll know how likely that is. Second, try to get more work. I woke up a couple of weeks ago with an idea for re-casting the Berlin book I had so much trouble with a couple of years ago, the one nobody seemed to understand. I think I've got it now, and I've been working on it every day. The agent I've been talking to is sceptical, but I hope to change his mind -- or find another agent who does believe in the project. There are a couple of ghost-writing gigs also in the air, although they're a long way from coming to fruition, and I'm very open to hearing about others.

Long-range, I hope I can get financially comfortable enough to get out more next year, and, in the very long run, I'd like to get a bigger apartment, although in a country that's even more suspicious of self-employed people (and anyone over 60 who's still working and not living on a pension) than Germany was, that's going to be next to impossible without a huge stroke of luck. But at least, as the Willem de Kooning quote by the PayPal button says, at least I'm not poor; I'm just broke. One's a state of mind, the other's a state of bank account.

So I set foot on the highway numbered 61. For those of you who aren't familiar with American folk culture, US Highway 61 was and is the road that ran north from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, the road that meant freedom and a perilous new life for those brave enough to get on it. A lot of them couldn't handle the big city, but those who could frequently found the power to change not only their lives, but American history. I guess the fact that I'm still working on it is good news. We'll see what's up when I get to 62. Not that I'm in a hurry.
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