Wednesday, January 26, 2011


It's awful. I've got time these days to post on this blog, but...nothing to post. I was beginning to think I'd either gone nuts or become far more boring, when Gerry asked if he could link to something I'd written and asked where it was. I combed the archives here and must have found every one that even came close. Except the one he was looking for, which he found before I did.

But in the process, I noticed that so far, January's been a terrible month for blog-posts here. Montpellier's not exactly humming with excitement at the moment, and about the most exciting thing going on is the soldes, the annual January/February sales.  It seems to be that way all over France. Across the big river, Sara in le petit village was complaining about it.

And I began to think that most of what I've been doing has been pretty boring. For instance, last week at this time, I drew a two-hour shift minding the tiny Friends of the Anglophone Library collection, assessing dues from people just joining up, checking out books and taking them in. As yet, there aren't many people signed up, so just after the 2 o'clock opening, it went dead. Just as the last of the "rush hour" customers was leaving, a woman I recognized from the early save-the-library meetings walked in and was greeted by the woman leaving, and out of their conversation the phrase "split bones" leapt into my ear.

The woman who was leaving left, and the woman who was arriving came in, and it was just the two of us, so I asked her what that stuff about "split bones" was about. "Oh, I was run over by a car a few months ago. He stopped long enough to make sure I was still alive and then just drove off," she said, a bit more perkily than you might imagine. "Probably didn't have insurance; a lot of them here don't, you know." But she was out of the hospital, convalesced, and ravenous for new reading material. She candidly confessed her addiction to reading, which she's suffered from for the entire 20 years she's been living here. We talked on and on, and the outlines of her life here emerged. Most of it was medical: she'd come down with her 20-year-old daughter, they'd gone horse-riding in the Cévennes Mountains, the daughter had come down ill, and, after a harrowing journey through the French medical bureaucracy, she was diagnosed as the ninth identified case of Lyme Disease in France. As for the mother, the woman I was talking to, she'd been living for years with cancer, and talked about it like an old friend. She also mentioned a long-ago passion for riding a Triumph 250 motorcycle, a hobby she'd picked up from one of her older brothers. By the time someone came to relieve me, I was in awe of the strength this woman had had to summon for her entire life down here. Living in France is hard enough, what with one thing or another, even when you're in perfect health. And she was just as casual and upbeat about it all as you can be.

The kind of meta-moral of this is, I realized later that day, that "boring" is as much a product of laziness as anything else. I'm still finding my way into this place, which everyone says takes a long time indeed, and, as is my wont, I forget that people are a part of it. It's clear that I need to meet more people, and to do this, I have to improve my French. And, somehow, I have to make a living at the same time in a business that's, if not dying, gravely ill. Cancer isn't quite a fitting metaphor for what's happened to publishing (maybe starvation is), but if there are people who can be as forthright and optimistic talking about it as this woman is, then it behooves me to be just as optimistic. Do I have a choice?

And although I suspect February will be just as dull, there are things happening that will contribute to the blog here. There's a development on the bagel front, for instance, and I'm headed out to what I'm told is the best-stocked Chinese market in town on Thursday. These will show up as miettes before very long.

Friday, though, I'm off for a festival in at this theater in Castellón, a city half-way down the coast between Barcelona and Valencia, and will have a report soon, which, yes, will include a trip to the market,  and, I hope, many nice photographs.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Miettes '11, Round One

Spotted today during a ramble around, proof that Christmas is over. This has got to be the worst part of the year to be here -- frequently cloudy, rainy, foggy, then wind comes in from the mountains and it's clear but really cold. The first time I visited Montpellier, it was so cold that I was actually yearning for Berlin! Well, in that it was far warmer there. But here we are, ready to start those alleged 300 days of sun, ready for the markets to have something in them besides root vegetables and the odd greenhouse tomato. I come back from the market and think I should take one of those photos I've been posting of what I snagged, but then I think of the colors: mostly brown. Good spinach, though; that's a reliable winter staple, and it's a lovely deep green, and when I can afford them, huge Comice pears, juicy and, if I let them ripen just so, quite tasty, although not as good as the smaller green ones with the red blush. Dunno what they're called, but they're over, too. And the apples of this region...I'm not impressed.

* * *

So I've been buying lunch instead of making it, and, walking towards Gourmet Gulch the other day, I came upon this and muttered beneath my breath "Oh, no. Here we go again."

Crap. I already went through this in Berlin. Out of nowhere, a fad for bagels. And the "bagels" start appearing in the stores and I just shake my head and mutter that all that is torioidal is not bagel. This place, on the rue d'Aiguillerie, specializes in bagel sandwiches, expensive (€5.50-€5.80) concoctions with New Yorkish names like Rockefeller, Coney Island, Broadway and Staten Island (Staten Island?). The combinations of ingredients look random, and a plain old smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese isn't one of them. This, of course, is because there's no such thing as cream cheese in France.

Still, in the baskets there on the right-hand side of the big window, there's "bagels natures," at €1.50 apiece, to take home. So I did, foolishly. Folks, for it to be a bagel, it not only has to be toroid, it not only can have an egg-wash glaze, but you have to boil them! Yup, sorry; that's where the texture comes from. The dense chewiness, the thing that makes a bagel a bagel, it comes from a quick bath in boiling water. Trust me on this: I've made them at home. Now, I know there's a huge debate about what else in the water makes the great taste, and that the comparitive purity of New York water supposedly makes its bagels unparallelled in the world, but the bottom line is, you do have to boil them. And this joint doesn't.

So far, the only slightly acceptable bagels I've found around here are in the surprisingly large kosher section of my local supermarket, where you can get four bagels (sesame or poppy-seed) for €3, sealed in pairs in some sort of protective pack. They're not all that good, but they're better than these.

And I do wish Bagel & U success, because the crappy Berlin bagels were eventually followed by some not-bad bagels, and they, in turn attracted very good bagels indeed, supplied by a chain called Bagel Station. Elsewhere in Germany, an even better chain, Bagel Brothers, appeared in Leipzig, Lübeck, and other cities.

Of course, it's not like France doesn't already have a maddening profusion of bread. The bagel's texture puts it in a separate category, but I've sometimes been taking my noontime meal at this place (picture was shot today, Sunday, so it's not open), despite a couple of good bakeries practically in my back yard.

Even when it's open there's not all that much to see, but it has a large selection of different breads, unbeatable sandwiches (may I suggest the chorizo-and-cheese panini), excellent savory pastries, including mini-tarts with a variety of fillings, and, if you're very lucky, a Roquefort-and-walnut fougasse (a local flat pastry, either made flaky or dense and chewy, with stuff, often duck cracklings, mixed into it) that is just superb. My guess is their breads are just as good.

(Bagel & U seems to have a Facebook page, but I couldn't find an address. Easy enough to find in real life, though, if you want to. La Boulangerie de l'Aiguillerie, 36 rue de l'Aiguillerie, no phone I can find).

* * *

I had business at Ikea the other day, a new reading lamp so I could put the not-very-good one back in the bedroom where it was intended to live, so I headed down to the Odysseum on the tram. It's the end of the line, so as I waited to head back I saw a bunch of guys in black hanging out at the building where the drivers go for coffee after a run. They all got on our tram, and I was surprised to see that after we were on our way, they fanned out throughout the car, checking tickets, running them through little hand-held electronic devices. They came to me, and, of course, mine didn't work, no matter how many times the guy ran it through. Visibly chagrinned, he had to resort to the analog method: turning the card over and seeing the date and time clearly stamped on the ticket. Duh.

But it was interesting: I don't ride the tram much, preferring to walk to what I need to do, most of which is pretty local. I've never seen this done before, and I'd wondered if our old Berlin tradition of Schwarzfahren, riding without a ticket (yes, I know the word also means hitchhiking, for some reason), could exist here. Apparently it does; a few stops down the line, they grabbed some hapless youth and escorted him off the tram.

The trip also took me past a construction site where the Tram 3 line, which will open next year, veers off down towards the beach. We're about 15km from the Mediterranean, and this new line will deliver it to us for the price of a tram ticket. I actually have never been to the beach here, but now that it's winter, it might be the right time to figure out how to get there.

For the moment, though, I'm staying pretty much right here in The Slum, doing this and that. More news as it happens. Don't hold your breath.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010: The Pictures

Because the pictures are the good stuff, and there wasn't all that much good stuff in 2010. If I have come out of this year with a single insight, it is that two of the most important elements in my life at the moment are love and beauty, and, while we can't command the former to appear, we can at least seek out the latter. I managed to do a fair share of that last year, mostly through the lens of my camera. I'm the first to say that I'm not a very good photographer, but I'll also admit that I've put myself into places this year where all I really had to do was push the button.

The following images are subject to my rassling with software. The photos from the first half of the year are entombed in iPhoto, and I can't figure out how to get them out. Around May, I finally figured out that this was impractical for the sake of the blog, which is the only thing I take pictures for at the moment, so I invented another filing system. The other software is Photoshop Elements, which I'm gingerly feeling my way into. I have a need to watch over the shoulder of someone who knows what they're doing with this thing, which is how I learned computers in the first place. But I've known some of the basics for a while, so I managed to adjust the color and sharpen this and that on copies of some of the pictures I've taken and even crop a couple of them.

This selection was easy to make, though: I've got my desktop picture on the computer set to cycle the photos I've taken this year, and so I've been looking at them (and, from time to time, deleting them) over and over. These are the ones I've liked the best, and it was surprising how many of them I haven't   posted before.

I'm really hoping to get out into the Languedoc's widely varied terrains more in the coming year, so next year's selection should be even harder to make. Meanwhile, here are these.

* * *

In Mid-May, I became very restless and got on the train and headed to Béziers. I've since met someone who lives there, and she claims it's astonishingly dull. That's believable, but somehow, my shutter finger went wild in its streets. I've still got to look more closely at some of the shots I took. For instance, I have no idea why this picture fascinates me so: I took it from three angles, and this one's the keeper.

I also managed to see a bunch of circles there:

A former wine shop, and...

cheese ads.

In early June, a photographer arrived to take my picture for the AARP magazine. It astonished me how much money magazines are willing to waste. This guy is really good, and he spent a few weeks touring Europe for a story they were putting together on the best places to retire. I contributed some words to the story (the writer never left New York), and showed the photographer around Montpellier and, on one memorable day, we took a drive, where, in Sommières, we wound up at a neighborhood feast. But we also hit Pic St. Loup, the nearest mountain visible from Montpellier,

drove through a village that had just finished running the bulls (this guy was too young and had to stay home),

and wound up in St.-Martin-de-Londres, a sleepy, ancient village.

In the end, AARP barely used any of his photos, including, fortunately for the magazine's readers, the several hundred of the ones he shot of me at the Saturday market.

July brought a bunch of visitors. First came the invasion of the gorgeous folksingers.

Although, to be frank, only two of the folksingers were gorgeous, the third isn't in this picture (he was arranging a trip to the countryside), and the guy in the middle sells cheese for a living when he's not giving it away to folksingers busking at the Saturday market.

A couple of weeks later, two friends from Berlin showed up, and we wound up in a 14-year-old Volkswagen driving one of the most insane roads I've ever encountered, to and from the Cirque de Navacelles. It's a tribute to how nice Andi (who drove) is that he's still speaking to me. But even beyond how remote Navacelles itself is, it showed me that there are small villages just everywhere around here. This one is near Navacelles, but I'm not sure exactly where or what it is.

My guess is that wine or fruit trees are involved.

August means St. Roch gets his trip around his old 'hood, but it's about time someone fixed up the oratory dedicated to him across town: he's missing a hand and his poor dog's missing his head. But this is the corner, allegedly, where he was arrested while sitting on a bench resting (see the link for details).

In October, I went on my only Epic Walk of the year, from my front door to the nasty little village of Jacou, where Tram #2 ends. I'm actually fairly sure that there's a nice center to Jacou, but by the time I got there I was exhausted and unwilling to find it. But before that, I walked a hazardous, traffic-filled road above Castelneau-le-Lez and shot the Lez River rolling along, some farm buildings, and, off in the distance, old Pic St. Loup.

So now it's a new year, and I'm hoping that for all of us it'll be a less trying, more enriching one. I'm still out there looking for love and beauty, and if you are, too, I wish you success.

Now to get to work on that.
Site Meter