Saturday, January 23, 2010


I really do feel bad when I can't post something here every couple of days, but the conundrum I've been facing for the past week is...what?

I doubt that any of the fine readers who come here want to read about the dull but paying work I've been doing every day. Or that those who don't live in Montpellier want to read about the library again, although we do have over 600 signatures as of this moment (and you can sign it here). Or that I went to the market this morning and, as usual for this time of year, didn't find much, although there was a very colorful display of all kinds of root vegetables at one of the organic stands that was tempting. Or that I'm in my 9th month of not being able to taste anything much after 6pm or so, although the drugs the doctor's given me seem to be working a bit, so it didn't make much sense to buy a bunch and roast them to see what they taste like. Or, even grimmer, that my washing machine's broken and the consensus seems to be that I should just buy a new one because getting the old one repaired would cost just as much. Or that I can't afford to do that because I just bought a year's health insurance (but at least I have it now!). Or about my bank card being downgraded and my not finding out about it until my direct-debit bills to the electric and phone companies started bouncing. Or the discovery, through that, that France Telecom Orange has been pulling twenty Euros out of my bank account every month for...what, exactly, when my service is with Free?

Or that the days are short and I tend to sleep too much. Or that the sun still does shine some days, but it gives no warmth to speak of. Or that, on my way to the market this morning, I looked over towards Pic St.-Loup and there was a wall of light grey, which I suspect may be heading over this way for the next couple of days.

Who would want to read that, and why would I want to write it? What would be the point? At least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it's the same story: it's winter, and it will pass. It did last year, when I was new here, and signs of it started appearing about 30 days from now. Assuming the dirty laundry doesn't drive me out, I'll be here for that. And as I remember, it was very much worth the wait.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Quick Library Update

Things seem to be going well. We had a meeting, two people from it met with the cultural adjutant of Montpellier, and today I wrote a petition, which you can sign here, politely ignoring the site's requests for donations (for itself) if you want to (although maintaining something like this isn't free), and with luck, we'll be back up and running again soon and I can start writing about something else. Like going to Béziers.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Les Miettes d'Hiver

Yes, in fact, it is cold out there. Two days in a row we've had snow, which is really unusual for this part of the world, but at least here in town, it's not sticking. Much worse was about three nights ago when a light, misty rain was falling and icing up the polished limestone of the Comédie, forcing me to sort of mince home with the groceries. I made it without managing to break my neck, though.

This is what's delayed my trip to Béziers, announced earlier. When the sun is out, as it is right now, it's because cold, dry air has blown in from the mountains, although Pic St. Loup was invisible yesterday as I went to the market. I'd like to see it (and I may go out later to do just that) because on that same trip yesterday I saw a hill -- one I must have seen a million times before, making that same trip -- which was covered with snow. It was off in the distance, but just sitting there, white, against a greyish sky, and I did several takes before I realized it wasn't a cloud or something. If the Pic is, indeed, capped with snow, I'll take a picture and post it here.

And, of course, when it's not bright and cold and incredibly windy, lowering the wind-chill factor, it's raining, since this is the season when the Languedoc gets its water, which will eventually be turned into fruits and vegetables and, oh, yes, wine. But walking around Béziers in the rain doesn't appeal, so I'm hoping to get there around the end of next week. It's only 42 minutes by train, so it's not a big deal.

* * *

The affair of the library has mushroomed since my last post. Right now, what looks like has happened is that the University, which owns the space the collection is in, took advantage of the dissolution of FOAL (Friends of the American Library, properly known as ABAM, Amis de Bibliothèque Anglophone Montpellier) gave the University an excuse to get rid of the whole thing, not considering that there would be a public outroar. Well, there was a public outroar, all right, and with it a bunch of comedy. For one thing, I got interviewed by the publisher of our local satirical weekly, l'AggloRieuse, whose name is so dense packed a pun that only a French-speaker could appreciate it. He'd read my blog post, translated it with Google Translator, and was deeply concerned about the baby horses, although he didn't know what they had to do with things. You know: foals. Then, of course, people were posting their concerns to the ABAM list-serv, and every single time that happened, a flood of "take my name off your mailing list" e-mails came in. I'm astonished at how few people know how e-mail works, even in this day and age.

Finally, I set up a Google Group for the issue, which now has 19 members, including one in Montpellier's twin city of Louisville, Kentucky, which had helped the library out in the past. The outraged citizenry will be meeting at 7:30 at Lawrence McGuire's homey used bookshop, the Globe, on Tuesday night. If anyone reading this has expertise in getting grants for library projects, or has any juice with people who do, or feel they have something to contribute to this, just send me your e-mail address as a comment, which I won't publish, and I'll send you an invitation to the group. And if you're in Montpellier or environs and want to come to the meeting, the store's at 2, rue de Carbonnerie (opposite l'Heure Bleu, up the hill from that insane toy store, corner of rue de Canneau).

Just what we'll be able to do is a good question. We've all paid dues to use the library, plus FOAL had a treasury. However much there is, it's not going to be enough if we have to rent another location and move the 30,000 books, DVDs, and so on. I foresee a lot of talking. A lot of talking. But it's just possible that something'll get done, too.

* * *

After the meeting, I may well head to the Vert Anglais for one of their Vert Anglais burgers. As I've mentioned, Nick and Sarah and Jody, who own the place, were extremely nice to me when I first moved here. A year ago today, I was still schlepping up the hill with my computer in my bag to use their wi-fi, because my phone still hadn't been turned on. The computer I'm using now, as a matter of fact, I bought on-line from the Vert Anglais. My total contribution to their coffers in the four months I sponged on their hospitality must have been, oh, a good €200. I rarely go there now, because I've got connectivity at home and I can't really afford to go out at all, but they've just been dealt a blow and I want to help out.

There was this guy who was pretty much always there, nursing a demi of awful French beer, from just after breakfast until about 6, when he went home. He was never particularly warm to me, but there's often a bit of tension between the British and the few Americans here. He also had a son and daughter, the latter with a kid, and they'd join him for lunch at least once a week, at which time he'd switch to wine, then go back on the beer when they left. Sunday mornings, he'd go to the market hall, which is open til 1 on Sudnays, and bring back a roasted chicken, some bread, some cheese, and the like for the staff and their friends.

Last week, the word went around: he'd left the country with his son, one step ahead of the law, and had decamped for Southeast Asia, where he's got a friend who's going to open a bar which he'll help run, with the kid as bouncer. He left a bar tab of €1000 at the Vert Anglais. Hell, I got nervous one morning when I woke up and realized I'd walked on a tab of €16 after a quiz night! At any rate, if you haven't tried the Vert Anglais for lunch yet, I hear wonderful things about the new menu in general, and it sure looks good. (I just don't eat that large a meal at noon, or I'd report on it). They also run the burger, which I raved about here, from 6 to 9pm. Nick, Sarah, and Jody took over the Vert Anglais on a shoestring, and they have ambitious plans to make it even better. They're good people, so drop by if you're in town. Tell 'em you read about it here!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

American Library R.I.P.

I was faced with a quandary yesterday: I was told to bring back my library books this week, but should I just give up on the book I'm reading? For a National Book Award winner, The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed, must be one of the worst-written, padded, PC-speak, stupidly focused books I've ever attempted. I'd already forced my way through a couple hundred pages, and was determined to jettison it and just get some new reading, when all of a sudden Jefferson moved to Paris with James Hemings, one of his slaves, and James was apprenticing to become a French chef. Okay, this was interesting, as I dodged around Gordon-Reed's klunky prose style to get at the story. Then one of Jefferson's daughters came to stay with her father, and was accompanied by another slave from the family, Sally Hemings. Finally, nearly 300 pages into this shipwreck, some stuff I wanted to read about.

Then came an e-mail: effective Jan. 1, 2010, the American Library of Montpellier, where I'd gotten this book and two others, was closed. Books should be returned as soon as possible, and no further loans would be made.

This wasn't a total surprise. Late last year, the Friends of the American Library sent out a notice that they'd dissolved. I didn't get a real feeling for why, but it appeared that the new librarian offended them somehow, and refused to let them function as they wanted. The FOAL people were angry that they'd bought computers and books for the library and now were being scorned. Because so many people who used the library apparently don't know how to use e-mail, my box filled up with a debate about the new librarian, who had just been hired, and then it filled up again with "Take me off this list!" e-mails. For my part, I found the new librarian very shy, although by about my third visit there, she opened up a bit more. I almost never saw another soul using the place.

I was concerned, however, about this development, because I am supposed to give a talk under the auspices of FOAL and the American Studies department of the University Paul Valérie, Montpellier III in the very near future. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with my contact at the University, and mentioned that FOAL had folded. He wasn't surprised: I learned that the American Library is maintained by the University's English Department, and, like educational institutions everywhere, they're pinched for funds. They can't really afford to pay the librarian's salary, there's already a collection of English-language books in the central University library, and so from their side, this is just paring some fat away.

The problem, of course, is that a number of us have paid dues to use this facility, and have come to look at it as a private lending library funded by our dues and moneys raised by FOAL. Although I've found the collection eccentric in the extreme, I've also found a lot of stuff there that I either wouldn't buy for myself (mysteries, science fiction), or can't afford to buy for myself (they have the entire Library of America series, and this batch of books I have here includes the first volume of the Philip Roth collections, which I was looking forward to continuing). I considered this library to be a wonderful service to a sizeable minority of residents here, and had no idea that it existed at the whim of the University.

I'll admit it: I'm addicted to reading. It's what I do most evenings. I don't own (and don't much want and definitely don't have any space for) a television. I'm not a movie guy, for the most part. I read omnivorously and quickly. In Berlin, I found out about the existence of the lending library at Amerika Haus about ten minutes before Jesse Helms and the other right-wingers decided that America had won the Cold War and shut it down and sold off the books. And being able to browse and find stuff by happenstance -- not to mention being able to borrow them for free -- was an unexpected pleasure once I moved here. I borrowed DVDs, too, although they cost extra (and the selection, again, was very odd), and I was planning to do some more of that.

The e-mail box is filling up again, with shock and anger about the unilateral decision to close the library, and there's a movement to petition Jacques Touchon, who's with the city in some sort of cultural administrative function (and who is apparently in charge of Montpellier's twin-city relationship with Louisville, Kentucky) to deal with this situation. While I've been writing this, my mailbox has been adding more and more e-mails on the closure. One asked if this was an anti-American gesture on the part of the University. Others want to set up a book-exchange program. Others just want the library to continue, and I count myself in that number and would be willing to spend some time seeing what can be done, although others who know the landscape better should set the mechanics of that up, not me.

The American Library was a luxury, sure. There are others, in Paris, Angers, and Nancy, but they're all a bit far away, to put it mildly. Given the bounty the earth provides here, the climate, and the scenery, one gets used to luxury as a way of life. This particular luxury was only useful to a small group of people, but if it goes, I'm really going to miss it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Whew, That's Over!

2000 began for me in Berlin with a bunch of hard decisions: I would walk away from a project which had consumed me for three years, leaving it in the hands of incompetent people who killed it swiftly and efficiently. I ended a two-year relationship that wasn't, in retrospect, really a relationship, with a severely damaged woman whose self-loathing was the worst I'd ever encountered, even in a country as filled with self-loathing women as Germany seemed to be. I would devote myself to a project I really wanted to do, and which I'd have time to do, since I was about to inherit a small, but handy, sum of money. Things were looking good.

Two years later, every cent was gone, the majority of it collateral damage from the 9/11 attacks: €75,000 I'd never see again. Nobody's fault but mine for risking a loan to a good friend. This demolished my book project, which depended on several visits to the U.S. In short order, other dominos fell: the two American publications I'd done the highest-profile work for suddenly wanted nothing more to do with me, this time not my doing, but the result of office politics in newsrooms thousands of miles away. Other office politics ended my radio shows, which I loved doing despite the fact they didn't pay very well; all the deejays on the station were fired.

Over the next two years, I learned how to live on nothing. Literally. There was a year in which I did no work at all of any consequence, falling seriously behind on my rent, living from the deposit on bottles I collected on the streets and more than once taking food from the dumpster in front of my apartment. I did the occasional proof-reading and editing job, and lived off occasional gifts from friends. A relationship which seemed to actually be turning into one turned weird when the woman in question disappeared -- for three months. Welcome to extreme binge alcoholism. I'd never met one of those before. I started a blog because some well-meaning folks convinced me it would help me get work. It didn't, but I met some interesting folks through it.

Through a chance encounter which dovetailed with a fantasy I'd had of moving to France (but not to Paris), I started to think about moving to Montpellier. Then I visited and started to think harder. But how to raise the money? I got to work on a book based on my blog, which, after a year's development, got the angriest, nastiest rejection letter I've ever gotten, from the head of non-fiction at a major publisher, someone I'd always considered a friend. Literary agents looked at it and scratched their heads. I gave up. At the start of 2008 I moved to a cheaper apartment, which enabled me to save a little.

Then, that summer, a friend contacted me: would I be willing to ghostwrite a memoir for someone? I would, indeed, I replied, and contacted the guy. We soon set a fee of $30,000, which seemed fair because his dyslexia showed up plenty in what he was writing, to the point where I often had to guess at what he was trying to say. He explained at the beginning that he'd have to pay me in six installments, and I agreed to it. With the first one I moved to Montpellier, and with the second I opened a bank account, got a telephone, and all the other crapola which attends to a move to a new place.

The third never came. Three months of work, including hurry-up editing of six chapters he wanted to show to publishers, wasn't paid for. He announced he was going to sue me. I'd predicated the whole move on the fee for this book, and now I was dealing with a crazy person. Would I never learn? But, while my lawyer was writing letters, I was learning about life in France, and discovered that I enjoyed it. Then, in the spring, I caught a cold, which cut off my sense of smell and taste. The cold left, but the sense never really returned, except during the hours between approximately 11am and 7pm. I was surrounded by glorious food and wine which I couldn't taste.

The end of 2009 found me looking over the carnage of my profession, dreaming up a new way to do the Berlin book thanks to a fan letter from an expert on the city which came out of the blue via Facebook, happy that the tyranny the United States had endured for eight years was at an end, writing the Berlin book a bit at a time almost every day, and, on the last day, reading a letter from a lawyer saying that my former benefactor was filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and if I had any claims, I had to file them. So there's a little justice there, anyway.

I started the 00s flush with funds, clearing away my old life. I end them broke (but not poor) and ready to continue with my new one, having no expectations, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just determined. There's a lot I need to get done, and not all of it is dependent on having the finances. I just take things a day at a time, which is, really, all any of us can do.

Thanks to one and all who've been reading. I hope this coming year will allow me to regain my faculties (the nose doctor has put me on a three-month drug regimen, the second month of which has just started, and yes, there's tiny improvement), and I intend to keep up those day-trips every time I get a check. Which, actually, I just have, from the Oxford American, so I'm headed off to Béziers sometime next week, weather permitting.

Will 2010 be better than 2009? Who can say? I hope not, but see above about expectations.
Site Meter