Monday, December 21, 2009

Les Miettes de Noël

While most of the U.S. is groaning under a blanket of snow, we're getting some rain here for the first time in a long time, which is good, except that I know that there'll be a lot more in the next few months, so the mood will get a bit damp.

Christmas is coming, though, in just a few days, and I'm not looking forward to the holidays much this year because the 24th and the 31st both fall on Thursday, effectively making two four-day weekends in a row. This is not fun, especially when, as I do, you live day-to-day. I just know I'll run out of something over the weekend and, well, do without.

Other signs of Christmas are the Chinese guy, furtively looking from side to side as he illegally vends the stupidest product I've seen sold on the street. I haven't looked too closely since I don't want him to think I'm interested, but it's two chromed tubes, rounded at each end, stuck together. When you toss them in the air, they make a buzzing sound. A whopping €3 will get you one. The Eastern European guys demonstrating a top which has all kinds of LEDs in it probably get the same amount for their gizmo, but at least I can see a kid wanting to play with that. The other thing is so annoying, I can't imagine parents putting up with it for too long.

Down in the Christmas market stretching along the Comédie, canned Christmas music is playing. A lot of Frank Sinatra, and a very familiar melody with French words:

Vive le vent, vive le vent, vive le vent d'hiver/qui s'en va sifflant, soufflant dans les grands sapins verts.

I'm not even going to attempt a translation of that, except the first line salutes the winter wind, which I don't think many people are doing, especially with a warning at the moment that we may get winds of up to 12o kilometers per hour, which is almost 75 mph. In Berlin I'd have been much more depressed by this, though; I know that by March it'll be warming up nicely, and I'm looking forward to that.

* * *

Just because I haven't for a while, here's a picture of this Saturday's market haul:

Not, I'll grant you, as impressive as the summer ones, but for two days away from the Winter Solstice, not bad: some great broccoli, a saucisson sec covered with herbes de Provence (in the lower left corner; not my best photo, either), some chiles advertised as poivrons forts which didn't turn out to be too terribly fort, but made decent salsa, anyway, two kinds of pears, and some onions.

Fans of poivrons forts will be interested in how my jalapeño garden turned out, and here's the answer:

The euro-cent is added for scale, although you can also figure out how tiny they are by the grain on the cutting board. There were actually four, but two got eaten by a beast of some sort. Are they hot? I'm not sure: I was going to add them to the salsa, but figured I'd pop them in my mouth at some point just to see, so I saved them out. This, I submit, is pathetic, although I suspect that maybe one plant per pot instead of three might produce larger chiles. I'll try again next year, but I suspect the lack of direct sun for most of the day played a part here, too; these are the same size as my friends in Berlin got, with far less sun and far less heat.

* * *

I do think Les Lunkheads downstairs have just signed their eviction notice. The landlord can't evict anyone until March 15, by law, but this is clearly grounds. The other day, I was headed to the store when, on the stairs, I came upon two dogs tethered to the raililng. One of them fixed me with his eyes and started growling. Now, I speak fluent dog and I knew just what he was saying: no further. I knocked on the Lunkhead door and it opened a tiny crack. A Lunkheadette's head appeared and I asked whose dogs these were. "My friend," she said, and went to close the door. The friend, however appeared and said "Ils ne sont pas méchants." Then he closed the door. I took another step and the growling, which had subsided while he was there, rose again. I yelled and the guy came out again, saying again that the dogs weren't bad. But his presence got me out the door. When I came back, they were gone, except for the remnants of a turd which hadn't been as well picked up as it might have been.

Okay, I figured that was that. But Saturday night, it was getting along to my bedtime when I heard someone in the hall talking on a cell phone, quite loudly. "35o euros," he kept saying. Finally he hung up. I went back to my book, and after a while I heard snoring. Then the hall lights went on, and someone started up the stairs. A woman's voice said "M'sieu? M'sieu? M'sieu!" and eventually there was a stirring. Conversation ensued, and I caught the word "dogs" and the man saying something about hot chocolate. Eventually the woman went upstairs and I looked out while the hall light (which is burned out on my floor) was still on. It was the guy from the day before, stretched out on the stairs between my floor and the one above. This didn't make me particularly happy; I've seen this guy out on the Comédie drinking beer with his similarly bedogged friends. Now, it was cold outside, and no doubt it was warmer inside, but I still wasn't comfortable knowing this character and his crazy dogs were only a thin wooden door away from me.

I'm not sure of what happened next, because I didn't catch much of the conversation, but the downstairs door opened and up trooped a huge number of people, ready for a party upstairs at the flat of the French-American girl who lives there. It was 2am by now, and I sure wasn't happy about this. There was a lot of discussion with the bum, and he repeated his thing about hot chocolate, said "I want respect" a number of times, and said that his name was Joán. Apparently an accommodation was reached, because the last thing I saw before heading off to bed at 2:30 was one of the students coming down from the party and giving Joán just what he needed: a beer. After the students went to crank up their stereo, there was a lot of pounding on the downstairs door, which I suspect was Joán's friends trying to get in. The door has a huge panel in it, which, I just discovered, had fallen out. There are guys down there putting it back as I type.

I'm all for the Christmas spirit, but I also know that the likes of Joán are sneaky psychopaths, charming naive kids into thinking of them as victims of something other than their own desires and addictions. Not that I think the Lunkheadette was that naive. I suspect they were bonding over something else from their eagerness to get back to it. The landlord's been missing lately, and he's probably taking a Christmas vacation like everyone else around here. But if he hasn't heard about this incident, he will.

Ho ho ho. Wake me when it's January, okay?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Muslims and Me

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from an old friend in Switzerland in which he proudly informed me that, for the first time ever, he'd donated to a political cause. Yup, you got it: he sent money to the anti-minaret cause.

After the "why didn't you send me the money?" tape stopped playing in my head (after all, he reads and speaks French, and he could have figured out the PayPal page you get when you press that button over there; I can't figure out how to get it to display English, unfortunately), another tape started, of the Specials singing "If you have a racist friend/Now is the time for that friendship to end." I hate that song. Not only is it one of the band's least efforts, with a crappy tune, the lyrics shocked me when it came out and, after I started hearing it again, they still had that power. Here's the deal, guys: if the person's really your friend and you don't know he's a racist, how did that happen? Or if the person suddenly revealed this unfortunate tendency, isn't it maybe better to sit down and talk with them?

For those of you who may not have caught this piece of stupidity, Switzerland just had a referendum banning the construction of any further minarets on mosques in the country. Of which there are currently four (4). Minarets, that is, not mosques. Out of consideration for the neighbors, none (0) of them broadcast the call to prayer. I have no idea what Europe's Muslims think of this, but a number of human rights organizations signalled alarm, and there's talk that this may go to the European courts.

Not that this is any great surprise, either. Those of us who can remember back to 2007 will recall this charming election poster:

Sad to say, this party did very well in the elections, controls Parliament, and was behind this anti-minaret action, too.

Which is why I find myself in an odd position of defending Europe's Muslims. I'm not a Muslim, and I'm not particularly drawn to Muslim culture. Some Muslim extremists indirectly lost me €75,000 on September 11, 2001, and I'll never see that money again. I've discovered that I don't much like the food of at least the Arabic and Turkish Muslim peoples (I'm holding off on the North Africans until I have a better sampling), and the art and music does very little for me. I genuinely dislike the various costumes women in many Muslim cultures are obligated to wear, and the way the Koran is interpreted to assure extreme patriarchal domination by many Muslims is another reason I wouldn't want to live in a Muslim country.

But I could say the same about ultra-conservative Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are in the process of trying to destroy the United States and Israel, respectively. The so-called Hindu fundamentalists (a neat trick, because there's no central scripture to Hinduism) are India's biggest problem, and I don't like what I've heard about some of the Buddhist monks in Thailand, either. Fortunately, I'm at no risk whatever of joining up with any of these folks.

But when it comes to Muslims, well, where I live, they're everywhere you look. Montpellier has the largest population of Algerians in France. There are loads of Moroccans around here, as well as Tunisians. I'd guess that a healthy percentage of the black folks I see walking our streets are from former French colonies like Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, which are overwhelmingly Muslim. And yeah, some of them wear funny clothes. There are men who wear kaftans and odd hats, and many more women who wear headscarves, although anything more than that is rare. There's an "Arab quarter" here, Figuerolles, although you'll be hard-pressed to find a Saudi there; it's overwhelmingly Maghrebi, northern African.

My next door neighbor is a young student named Yazid. Except for his name and his skin-color, he's pretty much what you'd expect a French university student to be. Downstairs is Les Délices du Liban, whose owner has become a friend thanks to his knowledge of how things work and the fact that when the German moving men deserted my stuff in the street the day I moved here, his friend Ali showed up and moved me in. Oh, and his cooking is great, but I already knew I liked Lebanese food thanks to my friend Jim in Austin, whose ancestors were Christians and whose mother was a powerhouse in the kitchen.

Everywhere you go here (well, except for the bars) you'll see Muslims. They're not buttonholing you to convert or to give to their charities; they're not, as far as I can tell, fomenting jihad (although one of the 9/11 crew was recruited out of the Figuerolles district here); they're not spitting on women in miniskirts (although they do ogle them, and some of the young women also dress in ways which stretch the modesty rules nicely); they're holding hands with their boyfriends and girlfriends in public, running businesses, working in the bank and the post office and the police department. They riot just as predictably when Algeria wins a soccer game (they apparently have been having quite the year) as a more mixed crowd did earlier in the year when Montpellier's rugby team ascended to the first division. And, according to a survey the Open Society Institute published on Tuesday, they prefer to live with the rest of us instead of in ethnically-segregated neighborhoods.

And as far as minarets go, for eleven years I lived two doors away from a church in Berlin with huge bells in it that sounded like trash cans -- very loud trash cans -- being beaten when they rang. Now, this church had, I estimate, about 20 parishoners on any given Sunday, with an increase around Christmas and a mob scene on Children's Day in November. There was a point at which the bells tolled the hour from 7am until 7pm, but a petition from the neighbors finally shut that down. There was nothing to do about Sunday mornings, though. So begrudging a Swiss mosque a minaret that doesn't make a sound would be like my begrudging that church its steeple and belfry if they'd shut the bells up.

My correspondent's Swiss city can't say this, but the city I live in became prominent because a millenium ago it was a spice port (yes, the Mediterranean came up all this way), where Arabs brought spices in from the eastern Mediterranean, Jews financed the trade, and the Christian French did the distribution north to the rest of the country. Eventually the three realized that some of the stuff that was coming in from the exotic lands they traded with really did have the medicinal properties alleged for it, and that a systematic study (a specialty of the Arabs and the Jews) would be a good thing. Thus, Europe's first medical school was born, and the foundation for today's sprawling university was laid. Later, of course, the French invented antisemitism and the Muslims were kicked out of Spain and the Crusades started, but that's another story.

The bottom line is, I can live with Muslims if they can live with me. They're far less annoying than, say, Les Lunkheads downstairs, they run vegetable stands which are open on Sunday, which is a good thing, and all in all, they seem like normal people. My correspondent said that one of the things he liked most about Switzerland was that the people there had a sense of order. To that I would reply that except for some of the more macho teenage boys, that seems to be true of the folks here, and that one of the things that drove me out of Germany was the fact that orderliness was esteemed as the highest achievement of humankind, an idea which I firmly reject.

So the Specials be damned: I don't think I have a racist friend, just someone who should get out of the house a bit more and realize that he's in no danger from a minaret. Not that he's likely to see one any time soon.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Narbonne Footnote

It occurred to me a few days after posting that account of my day-trip to Narbonne that I'd mis-stated something. I said that Narbonne was all about its Roman history, but not so much about what came later. That was my personal disappointment at the lack of post-Roman stuff to see, but it's not quite true. On my way to the market, I saw several brown signs that said "1907 -- it's our history!" and, after reading a couple, which always had contemporary photos or drawings based on photos of the location of the sign in 1907, I realized that this was the city where the main wine riots happened; I'd just forgotten the dates.

What happened was fairly simple: growers who'd been ravaged by phylloxera, the tiny insect that wiped out most of European wine production at the end of the 19th century, were at last back on their feet, only to find that the market for wine had been undercut by crappy Algerian stuff and by absinthe, which was deemed to be addictive over and above its potential for causing alcoholism. This was bad news in the Languedoc-Roussillon area, because wine was, basically, all there was here. Huge quantities of wine were produced, because (pre-phylloxera) the railroads could get it to anywhere else in France. No great vintages, just honest red plonk.

But now that they were producing again, they had a major problem in cheap wine from other regions which had been treated with sugar, a substance which was getting cheaper as France's colonies produced more and more of it. The bottom fell out of the market, wine sat in warehouses unsold, and what did sell sold for so little that the farmers reasoned they were doomed.

On March 24, 1907, 300 people, mostly wine-producers, marched on Montpellier. On June 9, the crowd was so huge that it was estimated at between 600,000 and 800,000 people, or around ten times the population of Montpeller. The nominal head of the movement was a 56-year-old café proprietor and wine grower named Marcelin Albert, although it quickly outgrew him. 300 mayors and city councils in the area resigned, and to prevent anarchy, the central government in Paris dispatched the army to Languedoc. On June 19, the troops got to Narbonne, where the protestors had set the local government building on fire, and shot into a crowd, killing one person. The mayor was arrested and the next day, the policeman who'd arrested him was stripped naked and thrown into the canal. The mayor was then whisked away to an undisclosed location. The crowd was getting uglier, heading towards the town hall, and the soldiers, whose officers were eating lunch, panicked and shot into the crowd, killing five more people, most of whom weren't even demonstrating.

It got crazier: the town hall in Perpignan was burnt to the ground. An entire regiment in Agde mutinied, and 500 of them headed to Béziers to join the protesters. In the middle of all of this, Marcelin Albert, France's most wanted man, showed up in Paris demanding to talk to the prime minister, Georges Clémenceau. No verifiable record exists of their meeting, and Clémenceau, after loaning Albert 100 francs to take a train back home, announced that Albert had broken down in tears and begged for a solution. Albert denied this, but the 100 francs was harder to explain away.

Things more or less dissolved after this, but the good news was that the government became aware of the dimensions of the problem, raised the tax on sugar, and began a process which would end in the 1930s with the adoption of the AOC , appelation d'origine controllée, which applies strict standards to how you can label a wine. Too strict, some people think, but that's a different matter.

Today, there's a new radicalism in the winegrowing areas of France, particularly here in the Languedoc, as an organization calling itself CRAV has gone around bombing and terrorizing shops which sell non-French wines or which import foreign wines or, in one case, a vineyard which exported loads of decent wine to England, which makes no sense. They invoke the spirit of '07, but that's wishful thinking. Languedoc winemakers are, however, under orders from Brussels to pull up more vines, and that's contributing to the bad mood.

Anyway, there's a picture of one of the brown signs here (second article on the page), and I apologize to any Narbonnaises whom I may have angered by forgetting about their courageous stand against The Man (or L'Homme) in 1907.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Day-Trip To Narbonne

After last month's surprisingly affordable trip to Arles with Jack, I promised myself I'd impose a sort of tithe on any large checks that came in. In other words, I'd take care of the immediate emergencies like rent and so on, and then dedicate a bit to a trip. So when my check from Fresh Air came on Monday, I knew it was time. I researched the ticket online and discovered that for only €22 round trip I could go to Narbonne, whose indoor market had come highly recommended, and whose name I keep seeing in histories of Montpellier. It's down to the southwest, with the Canal du Midi bisecting it, and, most importantly, it's a place I'd never been.

My first surprise came at the train station: as I nervously watched it get later and later for my 10:08 departure, I managed to get to the window just at 10, and was sold a round-trip ticket for €14.20. My budget included a four-museum pass for €5, and some lunch, so I was already ahead. The trip down was fun: it follows near the shore, stopping in Frontignan, another place I've never been, Sète, Agde, Béziers, and finally Narbonne. Béziers has a huge church atop a hill, and several other attractions, but this was psychological: I'd stopped in Béziers a few years ago, and I wanted absolutely virgin turf.

The train station wasn't in the center of Narbonne (they generally aren't; Montpellier's is an exception), but right across the street was a sign for pedestrians, saying Les Halles, the market, was 20 minutes by foot. The signs were placed well whenever there was a question where to go, and, although it wasn't the route I'd mentally prepared after looking at maps, it got me there. Outside was a huge market with lots of cloth and cheap pots and pans, but inside was a typical grandiose French market hall, with loads of stands. It may have been the season -- a place which depends on fresh vegetables isn't going to be at its best in December -- but for the most part I wasn't tempted. If I were living in Narbonne, on the other hand, the fish on display was amazing, a far larger selection than I've seen here, including razor clams, and tiny crabs, about three inches across, all proving the cliché about crabs in a basket -- but what would one do with such tiny things, I wondered. The meat counters, too, were out of this world, several of them offering single-portion cassoulets ready to be popped into the oven.

But it was almost noon by the time I made the circuit, and I doubted that I could haul a cassoulet around all day without major damage, so I stepped outside and spied a huge pile of stone, the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lamourguier. I walked around it until I found a door, and entered into lively conversation with one of the two women behind the cashier's window. This church had been turned into the lapidary museum, she said, and I could buy the museum pass from her, good for this museum and three others. €5.20 got me in the door, and I was confronted with stones. Hundreds of stones: 1300, to be exact. From what I could make out, they were nearly all Roman, and that's when I started figuring out Narbonne, even though the other woman from the cashier came over to chase me out. All the museums in town, she told me, were closed from noon until 2, but if I came back, on the hour there would be a son et lumière presentation about the stones.

With two hours to kill, I made my way along the canal to a footbridge and crossed over into the main part of town. The tourist office was open until 12:30, and I went in and copped the map I recommend to anyone else going to Narbonne: the plan monumental, which accurately shows, in a sort of cartoonish form, the main layout of the city. Knowing I wouldn't be getting lost, I wandered to the largest church I could find.

And there I figured out the second thing about Narbonne: the reason it appears in the Montpellier history is that this structure is the Archbishop's Palace, and Montpellier only rated a bishop. The only way you could do this thing justice is to shoot it from the air: you've got the Cathedral of St Just and St Pasteur, the Archbishop's Palace, and all the attendant buildings, all jammed up into one huge complex. This photo is from the gardens, and only shows a little bit of it. But it's a very strange complex, too: they went broke in the middle of building it, so that it's huge and pompous, but also truncated. Big as it is, it feels like there should be more.

What happened, I found, was that the Aude River, which emptied into the Mediterranean and was a major route into the center of France, provided the Archbishops with their wealth from taxing the traffic. And there was a lot of traffic: Narbonne is surrounded by wine, with the Corbières appellation to the west, Fitou to the south, Minervois to the northwest, and La Clape along the shore. But in 1320, the dikes which made the river navigable broke, and the river silted up to the point where it was useless. The Archbishops went broke, and the cathedral was never finished. Right around this time, the city also made the stupid mistake of expelling its Jews, who had a large scholarly community. Then along came the Black Death, and that was about all she wrote.

But it was the end of a longer story than I'd suspected: although there were locals living near the current city, the Romans came and built Narbo Martius in the current location as the first colony outside Italy in 118 BC, the capital of Transalpine Rome. As such, it was wealthy and had many well-off inhabitants, as I figured after 2, when the Archeological Museum, located in the Archbishop's Palace, opened. There are some pre-Roman antiquities here, including some pieces of Greek pottery (it's commonly asserted that the Greeks were the first to systematize wine-growing in France along the Mediterranean coast), but the bulk of the collection tells the usual story: lovely mosaics on the floors and colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings of well-off Romans' houses (rediscovered many years later when buildings were renovated and new cellars dug), growing alienation from the Roman center and, in particular, the cult of the Emperor, new religions coming in from Mithraism and its bulls to the cult of the Sibyl to the new Christian religion. The quality of the art declines, in come the barbarians, and it's over.

My personal interest, though, lies in what happened after the Romans, which is what lays the foundation for what the region has become today, and in Narbonne, the only way to do that is to read the buildings, which is hard, because anything that's still standing has been modified and modified to where any remaining structure has to be looked at hard to determine its age.

On rare occasions, bits of an ancient building will survive intact: this bit of a Romanesque house is on the rue Droit, one of the main shopping/tourist streets in the old town, which used to be the Roman Via Domitia, which connected this part of the world to Rome. (There's a big hunk of it on display in front of the Archeological Museum, but at the moment it's covered by an artificial ice-rink, all part of the Christmas fair which sprawls along the side of the canal and various other parts of town). Or you'll see a hunk of something and wonder where it came from:

Or a strange detail would appear from a wall.

I have no idea what this guy is, and I can't read much of the inscription, but my guess is this is post-Roman.

Not that the tourist folks are going to give you a clue: Narbonne is all about its Roman heritage, not so much about the rest of it, except for the numbingly-dull architectural analyses of the historical buildings. Which is why, after getting my ticket punched at the Horreum, apparently a series of below-ground Roman warehouses which have only been partially excavated, and bumping my head repeatedly on the passages from one set to another while being assaulted aurally by odd music and disembodied voices (what *is* this supposed to be? No clue from the handout), I'd pretty much OD'd on Romans. I wandered back across the canal to the equally ancient but still somewhat slummy neighborhood where there was another old church with some early Christian stuff, supposedly, but didn't find much. I looked at my watch: I could get the 4 o'clock son et lumière at the Lapidary Museum...or I could wander very slowly towards the train station for my 5:08 train, snapping photos as I went. That's what I did, and I'm glad, because although it had been warm enough in the sun all day -- somewhere around 65° Fahrenheit -- when the sun started going down the chill hit.

I wish there had been a greater spectrum of history available in Narbonne, but it's really a lovely town in many ways and it felt good to wander around it. For my next cheap trip, I'm going to try Béziers and find the place where they roasted the Cathars, but my dream trip is one that'll cost quite a bit more -- more like €200 -- and will involve taking the train to the next major city down the coast after Narbonne, Perpignan, staying the night, and then renting a car for a couple of days to check out what's in the nearby hills. And I also propose to study the train timetables a little more closely: who knows where I could get to inland from here, and what's there? I aim to find out.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Annoying Christmas

It's too late to complain about how fast Christmas stuff started showing up in the stores, and with no Thanksgiving to serve as a demarcation line, no Black Sunday to think about, and no hideous weather to contemplate, it would seem that Christmas in Montpellier, or the preparations for it, is a relatively benign time.

It's not, of course. The mall where lurks the Inno supermarket I visit daily is in high gear already, as is the Inno itself, unpacking those €49 blocks of foie gras and the oyster openers. (I might splurge on one of those myself). Outside, since this is a city where it almost never snows, the little kiosks where the Festival of Vines lived last weekend are busily being stocked with tchotchkes in preparation for the weekend's opening of the festival called Les Hivernales. There will no doubt be bad music, enticing smells, and pickpockets. The line of kiosks extends all the way down the Esplanade to where the huge ice rink has been set up.

You can get a taste of this by checking out the city's huge Christmas-tree-shaped light-show, which is conveniently located right in front of the tourist office's fake webcam. (I say fake because it records a loop at given intervals, then plays them back. It's not live.) This is, of course, best viewed at night.

But I had business in the old town earlier this week, and discovered that to push the holiday cheer just a bit further, the city has taken thousands of long twigs, stuck them in cement, inside a large flower-pot, then spray-painted the whole thing white. They are, I suppose, intended to resemble bare trees covered with snow, but what they are are eye-level sticks jabbing at you as you try to negotiate streets that are already tight for a horse. Unsurprisingly, these impediments to pedestrians in the pedestrian zone are getting hammered, so that not only do you have to watch for twigs poking at you, but you have to be careful not to slip on shards of broken flower-pot.

The good news is that all of these impedimenta -- the little huts cluttering the Comédie, the flower-pots, the weird blue disco balls strung over the streets, the strange computerized lights which simulate dripping icicles -- will be gone four weeks from tomorrow. Meanwhile, watch your step.

* * *

Another holiday problem is vampires. Or, rather, that's how I've come to think of the relentlessly cheery young people who step in front of you and try to relieve you of money for the causes they support. No, they're not looking for a euro or two; they want to sign you up for regular drafts to come out of your bank account. It's hard to walk to the Polygone mall or up the rue de la Loge without running into these folks, and I sometimes challenge myself to get from A to B without being engaged by them. They represent a variety of causes, from the Red Cross to the World Wildlife Foundation to a charity I've never heard of called AIDeS.

I got attacked by these people in Berlin and figured, hey, 15 marks a month. That couldn't hurt. Except it did. I reached a point where every little bit counted, and I'd have enough to pay a bill or my rent or maybe buy food for the weekend when...I'd check my bank account and the Red Cross had sucked money out of my bank and now I didn't have what I needed. Yes, I was short by 15 marks, but that meant the difference between having the money and not having the money. Nor could I find anyone at all to tell them to stop: at least ten of my 15 marks must have gone to paying people at desks whose job it was to pass the buck. Finally, a friend had the brilliant idea of telling my bank not to let them do it any more, and was kind enough to accompany me to the bank to speak German to them and help me out. The lady at the bank was appalled that I was blocking the Red Cross, but she did it.

So no, happy young person with the red windbreaker, I'm not going to stop to discuss this with you. It just ain't happening. I don't have the money, and if I did, I'd find a more direct way to deal with your sponsor. Or maybe another charity doing the same thing: anyone who can afford to hire these folks probably has a huge overhead. Red windbreakers don't grow on trees.
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