Friday, July 27, 2012

End O' Month Miettes

Ah, summer in Montpellier! The intense blue sky, the mild breeze wafting by, the confused tourists looking at the maps they picked up in the tourist information center, the sound of cicadas.... Oh, wait, those aren't cicadas. They're jackhammers. The demolition of the old hotel continues apace, and this has had some rather unfortunate side-effects. First, of course, there's the noise. There are also jackhammers in a roped-off area on the Comédie, but I have no idea what's going on there, and they're not going all day. The hotel hammers are. They seem to be taking it down from the top story, logically enough, and as of yesterday the roof was gone. Another problem is the dust. There's just tons of fine dust in the air all day long and with the windows open, a necessity when the temperature hovers around 85ºF (29ºC), the whole house is getting covered with a fine layer of grit. The third problem is that the Hotel de la Comédie, the amazingly inexpensive hotel where I generally stash my guests, is right across the street from the dying building and thus even noisier and dustier than my place a block and a half away. That's okay: there haven't been any visitors yet this year, for some reason, except for a couple who came, stayed a day, and pushed on, eventually aborting their entire trip because they hated France so much. No fair, you guys: you don't even live here!

Meanwhile, the resettlement of the building across the courtyard continues. On the ground floor, the guy's moved in a whole bunch of plants, and all the ceramics littering the courtyard means he's not even close to finished. He spends most of the day, often with a woman, doing this and that to the inside of the house and yesterday he had a long thing that looked like a hose, into which he was threading wires from here and there. No idea what that's all about, but at least nothing crashed: he's blown the electricity in the next-door violin shop a few times. Upstairs from him, the tween girl or girls (I'm not sure who lives there and who doesn't) have acquired a piano. This is not 100% good news, as it means we get to hear "Für Elise" butchered from time to time, as well as flowing arpeggios that owe more to New Age music as anything. Fortunately for the neighbors, she likes to practice as much as most kids taking piano lessons do, so it's not that big a problem.

One nice thing about summer is that starting in early July, the city puts on the Estivales, the huge wine-and-food festival that takes over the Esplanade every Friday evening. I've only been once so far, but I've already made two discoveries. Or, rather, rediscoveries. As usual, I prefer to try rosés, since red wine always tastes "hot" in the summertime (and yes, I know some barbarians chill it), and I had the opportunity to try two I remembered from years past.

On the left is Domaine d'Archimbaud's oddly-titled Les IV Pierre. This turns out to be a fairly notorious wine because of its utter individuality. Usually when you taste a rosé the first flavors you get are of fruit or maybe flowers, but this is like you've just licked a piece of limestone someone's smashed a peach on. The mineral tastes are right up in front, which is highly unusual, although the fruit is right there, too and comes marching in just a bit later. Although the bottle says St. Saturnin, and, indeed, Domaine d'Archimbaud is located in that town, a lot of its wines are actually grown in the Terrasses de Larzac area, as I believe this one is. At any rate, it's a bargain at €5.60 a bottle -- if you can find it. I have yet to find a place in Montpellier that sells it or their equally-impressive reds. On the one hand, I know where St. Saturnin is and maybe next time I'm with someone driving near there we can stop off and score some of this. On the other hand, I'd rather walk to somewhere nearby.

On the right is Domaine de Poujol's rosé, a four-grape (Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre) mix with a really distinctive no-nonsense full-bodied flavor. The wine is produced by Robert and Kim Cripps, Brits who've spent a lot of time in the Napa Valley in the U.S., which explains, perhaps, the assertiveness mixed with subtlety the wine displays. Kim recommended this with spicy foods and it stood up real well next to a garlicky pasta puttanesca I made the other night. It's €7 at the winery, which, from the list of dealers on their website, is about the closest place for me. Others may be luckier: you Americans will note that it's distributed by Kermit Lynch. It's in the Grès de Montpellier area, and near a lot of more famous places, but I know from past experience some great things come from here. I've made a note to buy a couple of their reds when it cools off, too.

There is, however, one place I'm scared of buying a drink around here:

Every time I walk past this place it just creeps me out. But no, it's supposed to be "Feel Juice," not "Feet Juice."

Finally, a warning for visitors. I really hate to come off as a xenophobe, since I get enough of it aimed at me on a daily basis here, but do beware of the Romas if you're in Montpellier, the people you might call gypsies. Every Tuesday and Saturday, as I head off for the market at the Arceaux, I get assaulted in the Peyroux park by guys holding petitions they want me to sign. I've never so much as looked at one, although, because they pretend to be deaf-mutes and, of course, they're not. Sometimes they're very, very aggressive. This past Saturday a guy came running up to me and, playing along that he couldn't hear me, I waved him away. He fell back and started walking closely behind me making growling noises, and then he started barking. I was a little worried: there are those who'll tell you that the Romas and the police here have an arrangement, so if you get attacked, you're out of luck. Nothing happened, though. The only time I ever saw someone sign this "petition," it was a young American hippie guy, travelling with a friend. He'd been approached by two girls, signed their petition, and then been ordered to give them five euros. He told them he only had three and they had him and his friend backed up against a fence. I never did find out what happened, although I saw him later. The thing is, one of those girls also offered to "help" me buy a tram ticket the other day (try never to use the ticket machines at the Comédie stop or you'll be surrounded by Roma kids offering "help") and a few days later, I saw her squatting with a cardboard sign announcing that she was hungry and in need of money for food. Usually, there are several waves during the summer, with the current one replaced by another after a few weeks and moving to another territory. You can see the encampments from the highway as you come into town.

The thing is, the Roma have been here forever, and in Spain, the government has gone to great lengths to integrate them into Spanish society. The xenophobia of the French doesn't allow this, however, so they remain a marginalized, hostile, crime-oriented group of people. Would they integrate if they were allowed? Probably not all of them, just as in Spain. But it might be worth trying. Meanwhile, don't think your lack of French will be any protection: a couple of weeks ago, a guy chased me through the Peyroux, waving his "petition" and yelling "Eeeengleesh! Eeeengleesh!"

Monday, July 16, 2012

On Crafting A Surprise

Advance warning for those of you who are only in this for the pretty pictures: I didn't see any reason to take my camera or my phone along on this. Sorry. It's read-only today.

Hannah, winning
Long-time readers of this blog may remember that when I first moved here I participated in Quiz Night at the Vert Anglais. The team I was on was Hannah's Bitches, and our team leader, Hannah, was an English woman who'd grown up down in these parts and spoke impeccable French. Somewhere in the talk around the table, I mentioned to her that I knew a couple of the guys who play with Bob Dylan, and she told me that I had to meet her father, who was a big Bob Dylan fan. I told her I'd love to, and that I'd let her know if Dylan was coming to town, which he had in the past. (Tony, the bassist, remembered Montpellier for one thing: great couscous. Not where he'd gotten it, unfortunately).

So now it's three years and some later, I stopped going to the Vert Anglais long ago, bad stuff started happening there, the owners vanished, Hannah got married and had a kid, and life went on. Of course, we friended each other on Facebook. And, earlier this year, in an idle moment, I noticed that this year's Dylan tour of Europe was stopping by in Nîmes, and not only that, was playing the Arènes, the Roman bullring built in 25BC. Hannah immediately got in touch. Her plan: her parents would be visiting, and we'd go to Nîmes "just to have a look around," at which point we'd spring the surprise that not only was Dylan playing, but I'd hooked up some really fine tickets.

And that's pretty much what happened -- pretty much. I got hold of Tony, we talked some, he said tickets were no problem, and we'd talk again when the band got in. Yesterday, I went down to Hannah's tram-stop and in short order a car pulled up, her husband Arnaud at the wheel, and Hannah and her parents in the back seat. It was on the way down that I realized I hadn't been out of town -- at all -- since April. I [heart] Montpellier, but damn, it's nice to leave once in a while. It turned out that Hannah's father, Graham, is such an obsessive that he already knew about the gig, so he'd figured that part out. Hannah told him I was coming along because I needed a trip out of town, which was true.

Obligatory Maison Carré photo, 2011
It was at this point that Arnaud, who'd lived in (and played football for) Nîmes some years back, came into his own. Not only did he find us a legal free parking space about two blocks from the Arènes, giving himself incredible local cred, but we went on a walking tour of the city, saw the Maison Carré, the big Augustinian temple in the center of town, the mysterious Roman ruin near the cathedral (there is no sign or anything on this building, but it obviously is what it is), and, then, we walked to something I didn't even know existed, although I've spent time in Nîmes, le jardin de la Fontaine.

This is a huge park which appears after a walk along a small stream which runs down a paved canal. The walk ends at a large multi-spigoted fountain which is spraying water into the air through some very utilitarian brass outlets: it's not, except for the water itself, an ornamental fountain. Then you turn right and you're in a huge park which ends in a hill, with stairs going up it. These eventually lead to the Tour Magne, a watchtower built on Celtic ruins which is itself a ruin, but we declined the journey. Instead, we just walked around the park, which is filled with basins of water. There is also the "Temple of Diana," which is, like the Maison Carré, all part of the cult of Caesar Antoninius, whose mother was from somewhere near Nîmes. People have been carving graffiti into it forever -- or at least since 1844, which was the oldest date a cursory examination turned up. It turns out that all this water comes from a nearby river, which has been diverted to the city for the textile trade by which Nîmes made its fortunes for centuries. Its signature produce was an indigo-dyed light cotton canvas called tissue de Nîmes, and became known to English speakers as denim. The dyers needed pure water to maintain quality, and that's the reason for all these basins in the park. From what I saw, though, they'd need to clean it up some if they were going to be dying cloth today.

The whole park is very grandiose and French, and was made far more formal in the half-century before the Revolution. Next time, I will walk up the hill, but we had to go get my tickets, so we took another route back and next thing we knew, the Arènes hove into view. I called Tony and he said he was about to do soundcheck, but would be over around 6:30, so I said I'd call again when we got inside. We walked over to the ticket office and right on time two women appeared and, exactly at 7, the windows opened. In a move that was widely approved by the various fanatics gathered around, Hannah was first at the window, yelled at me to come over and hand the lady some ID (a Texas drivers licence was good enough) and next thing I knew I had three tickets and three backstage passes. Sixth row center, on the floor. Man alive.

Once we were at our seats, I called Tony again, and in due time he appeared at one side of the stage, so we walked up and talked to him. He'd gotten an iPod Touch, and was showing off a photo he'd taken in Mexico City recently of "me and another bass player," one Paul McCartney. He even got some playing tips from him! (And this, no doubt, was responsible for the appearance of a Rickenbacker bass late in the Dylan set). Eventually, we went backstage and found Charlie Sexton, whom I'd first seen as a 13-year-old playing with the Eager Beaver Boys, a rockabilly band in Austin in the '80s, and whom I'd seen with Tony the first time I saw Dylan in Berlin. It was great catching up with these guys, and I have to say that Graham and his wife behaved themselves, although Graham, at least, was in fan heaven.

Back outside, we sat through an opening set by Adam "Son of Leonard" Cohen, who is a nice enough guy, I guess, but not ready for prime time. He joked that he had a famous parent -- Céline Dion -- and closed with one of his father's songs, which was a major oops. He was accompanied by a guy who played guitar and keyboards and bass drum, sometimes simulteaneously, and a cellist who was very attractive, but then, I have a decades-long problem with falling for female string players, which is why I've never mocked women who tell me they only go for guitar players.

The Dylan set -- well, I'm sure you can read about it elsewhere, especially since Graham is about to upload a piece to either Expecting Rain or Isis -- was the best I've seen since going to shows thanks to Tony. The band burned, and worked together superbly, and Bob was clearly having fun, spending most of the show at a grand piano on which stood his Oscar for "Things Have Changed," draped with three strands of Mardi Gras beads -- let the interpretation begin! -- and singing in great voice. I was quite impressed with his stage togs, too: white pants, a big round Spanish-style had, and an amazing black jacket with no collar, a V-neck, five silver buttons and three more at each cuff. Bob Dylan, fashionista! I just wasted a bunch of time looking for a picture of him with this gear on, but he and the band had just come from Spain, so maybe he got it there.

I don't go to gigs much any more, but this was a great deal of fun. Graham said this was the best Dylan show he'd ever seen, but he was high on having gotten half the band to autograph his ticket. Still, it was pretty wonderful, and I'm happy to have been able to pull off this nice deception with Hannah.

And, of course, to have gotten out of town for a night!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

In Which Not A Whole Lot Happens

As many of you can tell from the quick grab by my phone-camera here, it's summer. I went to the market today, picked up some stuff, and added it to the stuff that's already here: the red torpedo onion is from making God'spacho earlier in the week. There are yellow and white peaches both, and the first of what promises to be countless melons for breakfast eating. Some parsley, and there you are.

The truth is, I've been absent from this blog for a while, except for the odd recipe, because I seem to have roped a wild bull. I came up with what seemed to be a decent idea for a book, my agent was enthusiastic, I started writing the outline and now the outline is almost as long as a book itself, which means the book itself will be very long. This proposal requires getting up and writing between 1000 and 3000 words every day, staring at huge columns of data and synthesizing it all into a narrative. I told my agent the other day that it'll be finished about the time the last editor in New York goes on vacation. That way it can't sell too quickly and, you know, give me enough money to pay the back rent and maybe move.

Yes, move. One thing this project has driven home to me is that I have to get out of this tiny apartment. There are still boxes unpacked from when I moved in because there's nowhere to unpack them to: a bunch of bookshelves stand, unassembled, gathering dust, in the narrow hallway, on one side of which are my CD shelves, out of order (and maybe with one missing, I've never been sure) and in the dark because I never could figure out how to install the light there. Fortunately, the price of LED flashlights went down enough that I bought one from the bargain housewares display at the supermarket one day, and now when I need a CD from the hall -- or the other batch in the corner behind the stupid pillar that makes a quarter of the office/living room inaccessible -- I can take a light. This is becoming rapidly untenable, and if this book project comes to fruition and I have to import some of my books from storage in Texas, I'm not going to have room to breathe.

I have no quarrel with the neighborhood, really, nor, at last, with my neighbors, of whom I've acquired a few new ones recently. The building across the courtyard is a fairly hideous 19th century pile, which, for some reason, is listed (the plaque calls attention to the beautiful staircase, but you have to take their word for it because you can't just walk in), and in the past week there's been some real action there. Upstairs, the apartment directly across from me seems to be a vacation-rental, since the tenants seem to change by the week. Next door and still upstairs used to be the staid, matronly Alliance Francaise, an organization partly funded by the government to teach French language and culture to foreigners that used to fill up with chubby American kids a couple of times a year, and, in good weather, I'd hear them chanting their lessons. This now appears to belong to a couple with two tween daughters who like to sing, more enthusiastically than accurately, but understandably because the big, empty rooms are great echo chambers. Where the AF has gone I can't tell you, although their plaque is still out front. And downstairs, they've been gutting the apartment next to the violin-makers, and decorating the patio. I snuck a shot yesterday:

These decorative ceramics may or may not adorn the outdoors. There are also numerous plants in pots, which were all added in one day. I can attest that the fertilizer used is from cattle. It was a lovely smell to have in one's house for a day, particularly at dinner. The guy also went and put up a screen over one of the windows in our stairwell, no doubt to keep us from squeezing through the bars and rampaging over his new patio.

But that whole project pales next to the one down the street. As long as I've been here, there's been a huge building, one side of which advertises Citroen cars...

...and around the corner, a hotel once had its entrance.

In recent weeks, a fence has blocked this off, further disrupting what traffic there was on this tiny one-way street, and a demolition crew has gone in. Whether their plan is to demolish the building entirely or gut and renovate it, I can't say, but this all happened fairly quickly. Thing is, you can't tell from these shots, but this is a gigantic building. Back when all its windows were bricked up with cement blocks, you'd be on a neighboring street and see the windows and make the connection. I guess I should check the Google Maps aerial view and see how far it extends. If they take it down, a major part of the block will disappear.

At any rate, the work on the book proposal has eaten up most of my time, leaving me drained and not feeling too bright at the end of it, capable only of cruising the web and reading the newspaper on my iPad. I've walked right past people I know in town without seeng them, forgotten to do things on my to do list, and skipped the last show at the PavPop, of emerging photographic talent, because I forgot it was there. And it's right down the damn street! Oh, but that's not the worst bit. For some reason I was walking down a street just around the corner from my house that doesn't have anything on it I really want to see or shop at except for the Korean place on the corner, and bingo: there was a new laundromat there! No more hauling my clothes long blocks down the rue de Verdun to the skanky laundromat the street bums use! This one's still sort of clean. And it costs just the same. My first thought, of course, was "how long has this been here without my noticing?" I pride myself on being able to note small changes in my immediate environment, so I felt like an idiot.

One brightish bit of news is that someone talked me into applying for Social Security, which I wasn't aware I was old enough for or could get living overseas, but, of course, I am and I can. I applied online and next thing I knew, they sent a letter saying the first payment would kick in sometime next week. This will take some of the economic pressure off, although unfortuntely the payment's not enough to pay the exorbitant rent on the slum here. People who know the rents around here act physically shocked when they learn how much this place costs: it's way above market value, which may explain why the other apartment on my floor, much smaller and less desirable because it fronts on the street, where there's now a very noisy bar, hasn't rented for nearly a year. Who would want to live here?

I've also continued to wonder if I want to stay in France, which is very interesting. Apparently studies of British people who move down here see a decided exodus after the fourth year: a huge number of them move back to England. I can't say I didn't have any expectations, but after 15 years in Germany I wasn't expecting much. But after nearly four years, I have no French friends, no connection to the community, and nothing really making me want to stay. I also have no particular place I want to go, so if nothing else inertia will keep me here, at least a while longer, although the four years will be up in November. We'll see what it's like when the penny-counting phase finally ends with the government checks rolling in every month, when I may again be able to afford a little travel and the occasional bottle of wine and/or restaurant meal.

Meanwhile, I'm doing like the alcoholics do, taking it a day at a time. Wake up, make breakfast, read the news, check the e-mail, and get to work. I do like having daily work to do, even if it takes away from doing this free blog. (The other blog, which actually pays me, has a post up this week about another thing that's been taking up my time, the sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the Well, the online community I've participated in for the past 11 years). This is my daily monastic routine, which I'll miss when this behemoth proposal is out the door and all I have to do is wait and worry until I hear its fate. With luck, it'll sell, and I'll have work laid out for me, and, perhaps, enough dough to make a decision about the future: move elsewhere in Montpellier? In France? Back to the States? At the very least, I hope someone will buy the guitar I have for sale at South Austin Music in Texas soon so I can pay some of this back rent and not get a visit from the police next month. That would be no fun at all.

See? Life in the south of France: it's exactly like life everywhere else, but with better food. And a downside, too, just like everywhere else.
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