Sunday, November 25, 2012

In Which We Stop a Leak and Roast A Turnip

Just to give you an idea how exciting things can get at The Slum, the highlights of the week have been a visit from a plumber and the event I'm going to document below.

The plumber thing was odd. One day, the African guy who lives downstairs knocked on my door. Between his accent, which was gently slurred, and the speed at which he talked (I'm convinced that French people speak French faster than English-speakers can speak English), I wasn't able to make out much, but I did get "water" and "coming from above" and "the floor of my apartment." I invited him to take a look here, but he declined; apparently I hadn't understood what he'd said.

I hadn't: the next morning I got an e-mail (rare event) from a guy at the property management firm to whom I pay my rent informing me that I was flooding the apartment downstairs, and that he and the plumber would arrive that afternoon. In quick succession, I then got a phone call from him saying the same thing, and my neighbor appeared at the door with a business card from the same guy saying he'd be by at...was it 14h or 16h? French handwriting is hard to decipher, even when it's fairly neat. No matter; I wasn't going anywhere.

Well, at exactly 2, I heard him buzz downstairs and get let in. Moments later, he and the plumber were at my door. They went into the bathroom and tut-tutted about the way the plumbing there was set up (and rightfully so: it's a horror) but there was nothing going on there, so they went into the kitchen and determined that the faucet on the kitchen sink was leaking like crazy at the wall and the entire line needed to be replaced. The plumber stayed to make measurements, and the guy from the property managers' went into the living room/office with me and gingerly approached a topic I was kind of hoping wasn't his department, ie, the back rent. I explained to him that I paid when I could, but before I could get into the I'm-hoping-to-sell-a-book tapdance, he said he was more curious about how I was paying it. I told him that it was in cash: I withdrew from the ATM and took the cash to their bank and paid. I didn't mention that four banks here had told me early on that French banks are for French people only, which they had. (I now know how to get around this, but I don't think I'll be here long enough to make it worth my while). He seemed satisfied with this, which is a huge relief, but after he left I reflected that I live in a place with 25% unemployment, so I might not be the biggest problem his firm has to deal with just at the moment.

The plumber left next, explaining that he had to go to the plumbing supply store to get some parts, and when he returned, he jiggled around for a while and soon I had my kitchen back. For the first time since I've lived here, the faucet doesn't flop around. It's now firmly anchored to the sink and the water pressure is better.

* * * 

So that was the first bit of big excitement. I've gotten to enjoy it when something actually happens around here, because I spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for one thing or another, and things have been moving very, very slowly. I did, however, manage to get a little depressed when Thanksgiving came along. I can't really cook in this place, and I definitely can't have people over. There simply isn't the room. And so I found myself at the market on Saturday, with a very little bit of cash on hand (I'm still paying for last month's adventure in San Francisco, and if I'm very, very careful, I can make it til my next check and get the phone bill paid, but it means no culinary extravagances and no wine at all). But I'm also quite bored with what I've been cooking recently, and it's like I've fallen into a rut. Now, the change of seasons means that some of that rut will be taken care of by new products appearing and old ones disappearing, but I have a winter rut, too, and I'm hoping to avoid that. The money problem, though, means I've had to fall back on the tried and true, and that's not fun.

But all of a sudden, there it was. A very small table with a guy with two cardboard boxes filled with turnips. I've had this challenge before, but I haven't done much with it. See, these aren't just turnips. They're (apparently) very famous turnips, turnips with their own website! Pardailhan turnips! Why, I've asked myself before, do people make such a big deal out of them? I bought a couple a year or two back, but they went soft before I could deal with them. But now, during the very small time during which they're available, I could try again. So I bought one.

Yes, one. At €3.98 a kilo, this cost me one euro, which means it's about a half pound. They're big. And they clean up nicely, although this one shed enough dirt to start a small potato farm.

Nice blue-black color with greenish stuff showing through. So I set the oven at 450º F, and cut the turnip into coins. These I threw into a bowl with some olive oil, salt, and pepper and tossed until they were coated.

Remarkable colors these things have. If the flavor is half as good... Anyway, I then slapped them into a roasting dish and stuck them into the oven, covered with aluminum foil.

Fifteen minutes later, I took the foil off. The odor was amazing: nutty and sweet.

They were beginning to get soft, too. I put them back in for another fifteen, at which point they were mostly done. A quick flip after this picture and back in for a few minutes while I cooked the steack haché and made a salad of bitter winter greens with my balsamic dressing (which is over here) and then it was dinnertime.

The only thing wrong was a tiny bit of undersalting and the fact that there wasn't enough. My nose didn't deceive me: they were nutty and just a little bit sweet. No bitterness, which is something I always associated with turnips, and a texture not unlike perfectly cooked zucchini. I'm definitely on the lookout for some more of these while they're in season, and someone suggested they might pair well with carrots, which, since dirty carrots are now showing up in the market, sounds like a fantastic idea.

As for those of you who don't live within 113 km of Pardailhan, as I do (I see it's just northwest of St. Chinian, which explains why I was wanting a bottle of something from there to go with this meal), I have no idea if anything local to you will fit this bill. But I do know that decades of considering turnips to be mushy, bitter roots got laid to rest last night, so it's worth looking into. Now bring on the dirty carrots!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Slum's Environs, A Context

My friend D is having a hard time of it over in Texas. She's been writing me from her new place, which she's just moved into, and, since I have no idea where it is, I've taken to calling it the Undisclosed Location, and signing off with "to the Undisclosed Location from The Slum," which, as readers of this blog know, is the code name I use for my apartment. I've never really been able to convey in photos how small this place is, and how inconvenient it is to reach some of the things I have here, many of which still reside in the boxes they were packed in almost exactly four years ago. (I think the fourth anniversary of my moving here will be this coming Friday).  Nonetheless, when she wrote me "Send anything you feel like photographing. Pieces of your life. They have to be better than the pieces of mine right now," I took a bunch of photos of the apartment and sent them to her. Then it occurred to me that they'd been no more successful than the others I'd taken over the years and she probably still had no idea why this place drives me nuts and why I resent paying €691 a month (about $880) for it.

The thing is, I told myself, she's probably romanticizing my life over here, when in fact it's pretty much the same as living in Austin, with some details changed. I'm sure others do, too, when they hear Terry Gross say "Ed Ward lives in the south of France" on Fresh Air, or they read some of the cooler posts I've put up here about my travels, or they see some of the nice photos of Montpellier I've put up here. The fact is, I go shopping for food (in a mall, no less), patronize a laundromat, and do all the things everyone does in a neighborhood that's just painfully ordinary, so to contextualize it, I went for a short walk today to deliberately shoot mundane photos of my daily surroundings. Since it's Sunday, few of the businesses were open, so the photos are relatively depopulated and some of the activity that spills out into the street is missing. I have also deliberately not given a hint to where I live exactly (except a shot of my front door, which I'm e-mailing to D and not posting here) because that's one of the things in my life that's nobody's business but mine. And the real-estate-management firm that dearly wishes I'd leave. So, without further ado, let's walk out the front door:

and down the stairs from the third floor, where I live:

and out into one of Montpellier's most dangerous streets. Not, I hasten to add, dangerous because of crime, but because during the day it serves not one, but two learn-to-drive schools despite being, like most of the streets you'll see here, pedestrianized.

I turn into one of the two commercial streets and walk away from the Place de la Comedie, the huge square at the foot of Montpellier's hill.

Not much to see. The left-hand side of the street is mostly failed businesses. La Civette is the neighborhood tabac, and sells magazines and lottery tickets and I don't know what all. I've never set foot in it, myself. Next door is one place I do wish had been open. Omija is our neighborhood Korean deli and grocery store, run by a pair of wonderful folks, and offering a rather pricey but delicious lunch. I've written about them here before, and since then they've become extremely successful. Couldn't happen to nicer folks. Past that is one of the driving schools, a bar I've never seen open (the guy is walking in front of it) and the laundromat that just opened. Exciting, huh? Further down the street is a kind of mini-Chinatown, although the restaurants pretend to be Vietnamese, and are really "Asia" restaurants.

On the left is a huge multiplex, and at the very end of the street you can see the railroad tracks. I'll turn right there by the Fleurs de Jade and walk down a narrow street with a North African bakery called, for some reason, Carthage Milk, a not-so-hot Moroccan restaurant, and a truly undistinguished Indian restaurant. Next to that is a tiny alleyway which I think gives a lot of the flavor of the neighborhood.

I think it has a certain charm, although you couldn't pay me to live there. I have, however, seen rental notices for apartments on this tiny stretch of road.

At the end of this short street, we hit a major commercial street. We can turn left and walk down to the tracks

or right, as I will, up to the Comedie.

There are a lot of things on this block. The Cuban bar on the right is very popular with black guys and serves, yes, real Cuban rum and beer, since France trades with Cuba, after all. There are Italian and Japanese (well, sushi) places on the left, as well as a huge pinball/video game arcade (betcha didn't know they still had those, eh?). There's a Subway, strategically located across from the entry to a French-immersion-course school, out of which tumble well-to-do-looking American kids. There are a bunch of these schools in the neighborhood; year-abroad programs are a big source of income here in Montpellier. On the right side of the street is Oasis, a better-than-average kebab shop, and, past that, one of the ubiquitous Internet and phone abroad for cheap stores. There must be a half-dozen of them within three blocks of tihs spot, always with Africans and Middle Easterners using the facilities. Finally, there's the Diagonal Cinéma, another multiplex noted for running foreign films with French subtitles, including Hollywood films. I've never been, but I'm not much of a cinephile.

Up at the Comédie, there's the merry-go-round

which stands in front of the Monoprix, a French chain which is about half groceries and half other stuff,  this branch of which is open for a few hours on Sunday. It usually has dozens of bums and street people hanging out, drinking, their dogs fighting or playing with each other, but today therre was almost nobody there, which meant taking a snap was easier.

They've recently facelifted this whole store, and now they have self-checkout machines which sometimes work, but I rarely go in, despite its being close to me, because the hyper-testosteroned Algerian boys they use for security guards have braced me more than once just for fun. Given the usual population of the immediate surroundings, they need guards, but they don't seem to have any filters. Anyway, the supermarket I do shop at, Inno, is just another Monoprix brand, has a better selection, and the extra two minutes' walk is good for me.

Just past the Monoprix are these two buildings, clearly remnants of another era.

The Grand Hotel du Midi is now the New Hotel du Midi, part of the New chain, with cheapo modern decoration inside, but decent rooms, I hear. The other building is a bank (two banks, from the banner for the bank that told me I couldn't open an account because "this bank is for French people only,") where I pay my rent and sometimes, before going to America, buy a few dollars because changing money in most of the U.S. is practically impossible.

That street, though, is the grand entrance from the train station to the Com, so they've lined one side with palms.

That's the train station at the very end, and tram tracks for lines 1 and 2. L'Assiette au Boeuf is a cheap restaurant that's just a bit less than mediocre, serving a house wine that will thin the enamel on your teeth. Needless to say it's jammed, especially on weekends. On the right side is an enormous pharmacy, a made-in-China hip-hop clothing store, some city center for youth, the ATM I use about half the time, and there are sandwich and kebab shops on both sides of the street.

Just past the white umbrella is another short street I turned into, because I wanted to shoot the Hotel Metropole, now a Holiday Inn, which was the home of Helene de Savoie, Queen of Italy and Montenegro (I know, it's complicated), and Resistance heroine, about whom I've written previously here.

You can also see the Habib barbershop, which I think is one of the social centers of Maghrebi Montpelier, and, on the other side of the street, past the Lebanese flag, is this

which is one of the best bakeries in town, but one where I rarely go because there's another good one just on my corner. They also manufacture their own chocolate in here, and I feel guilty every single time I go past because they are not only good, but totally old skool, and I should be supporting them with my patronage.

So there it is: we're back at the Oasis at the end of this street, the Proxi market, a sort of 7-11, where I'll go in a few minutes to buy some mineral water, and a short walk from my house.

It's mundane, but it's the way people live. The glitz, the glamor, the history and the occasional good view, all that's up the hill. Down here, we have hallal butcher shops, kebab stands, two-star hotels, and crappy little grocery stores that are open late and on Sundays. Some of the apartments are slums, some are quite nice. It's close to the tram, close to the train station, close to the post office, and it's where I live.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

October Tour 2012: The Food

And, as promised yesterday, a few words about food.

Because of the last-minute nature of booking this trip, it turned out that the cheapest round-trip to San Francisco was via Barcelona, whose train ticket cost about the same as the one to Paris, and, because I'd have to have a hotel overnight to catch the early-morning flight in either city, a decent hotel would be half the price or less.

Like I need an excuse to go to Barcelona right now.

At any rate, when I got there, one thing I definitely did need was lunch, and, it being after 2pm, that meant a bar. I wandered the streets of the Grácia district near my hotel, passing on the Mexican places (one of which seemed to be serving deep-fried insects; must check that out sometime when I'm not headed to a place with Mexican food), and eventually coming upon the Bar Canigó, which had outdoor tables (still useful at this time of year) and a long menu. Started out with a so-so chicken salad (or salad with chicken), and went on to patatas bravas (indifferent) and a "toast" that was just about perfect: grilled eggplant, grilled red peppers, and fat, mild anchovies. Take a look:

A bit too much, but I really liked this place, and I'll go back. It was founded in the 1920s and I think some of the regulars have been there ever since. It also advertises, as I discovered a lot of bars in Barcelona do, that it makes its own vermouth. That could be interesting.

Bar Canigó, c. Verdi 2, (Grácia), Metro Fontana, outdoor dining in the unremarkable Placa de la Revolució de Setembre de 1888.

Dinner crept up on me, and I whipped out the guide from the Guardian that Jeff had sent me for top-notch tapas bars. Its big defect is that it's lacking in transit info, so unless you know the city or have time to pore over maps, it's hard to tell if you're close to something that sounds good. What sounded good to me was Morrysom, where the article implied they did individual paellas. Well, if they did I never found out about it: I was handed a tapas menu in English. Not that I'm complaining at all. The spread was full of seafood this time, and extremely good.

Like clams marinero:

which were in a garlicky tomato sauce, and nutty and delicious, and mussels with aioli:

which were somewhat less garlicky, but that was fine. There was the obligatory pamb e tomat, which had no discernable flavor at all:

and padrón peppers, which I can't stop ordering...

and what was supposed to be spicy chorizo, but wasn't, really. I must learn the subtleties of this, since I've had some that was pleasingly fiery. Not this, but it was fine as part of this meal.

Price in all was around €25, I think (can't find the receipt), with two excellent Spanish beers.

Bar Morrysom, Carrer de Girona 162, Metro Diagonal or Verdaguer. Open til 1am.

San Francisco was another thing entirely. Being south of Market Street meant threading your way through lowlifes and crazy people to get anywhere, but they were mostly harmless during the day. My first morning I was jet-lagged so that I couldn't wait to go to a place called Show Dogs that had been recommended to me, so I set off in time to get there at 8, when its website said it opened. The sign on the door, however, said 9, and I couldn't wait that long. Just as I was wondering what to do next, I heard someone call my name: it was a person from the Well who knew I was headed out to the place and would find it closed. She lived nearby and hopped on her bike to rescue me. One thing and another and we wound up at Brenda's French Soul Food, where I had that iconic San Francisco breakfast dish, a hangtown fry. There's some dispute as to where, exactly, "Hangtown" was during the Gold Rush days, but it was near enough the ocean so that you could cut bacon into squares, fry it crisp, dredge oysters in cornmeal and fry them in the bacon fat until browned, and throw scrambled eggs into the mix and sell it for breakfast. Brenda's was nearly perfect, although I kind of like my biscuits better than hers on a good day. Her jambalaya, delivered to the next table from ours, seemed suspect, but I say that about all jambalaya not in Louisiana places. Anyway, thanks for the rescue, Lolly: Show Dogs the next morning was very disappointing, with tiny portions and hefty prices -- almost $20 for half the amount of food we got at Brenda's for less. The place I wished I'd known about was a block away from my hotel: Dottie's True Blue Café, a famous breakfast joint for over 20 years, apparently. My breakfast there was wonderful, and there was a line out the door when I left.

One evening, I found myself with no dining companion, and someone recommended Farmer Brown, a Southern-style restaurant I'd seen as I walked along Market Street. Their fried chicken, I was told, was magnificent. And so it proved to be. The rest of the meal, though, was mostly very weird. I started with a cup of gumbo, always up for testing others' takes on this. And here's what I got:

It's in Blur-O-Vision, but you can easily see that there's a huge glob of rice sitting there to disguise the fact that there isn't much soup. It was tasty, but the convention is to serve the rice separately so the diner can determine how much rice should be in the gumbo. The waitress was mildly offended when I told her this, and said next time I should indicate rice on the side. Hm. There were a couple of cornbread muffins served with butter that had a lot of honey in it, too. The chicken came with greens and macaroni and cheese, which I was really eager to try, since I can't seem to make it well at home.

The chicken was, as advertised, remarkable, and now that I hear Mozelle's Famous Fried Chicken is no more, it may be the best in San Francisco. The greens were deep: long-cooked, rich, flavorful, complex.  They have a winner there. But the mac'n'cheese, served in a tiny cast-iron skillet, was awful. It was bitter, not an adjective I'd ever considered using with this dish. The cheese was tasteless, or else it was drowned out by this other flavor, which the waitress said was from sour cream. Sour cream? Gack. I dunno; I'd go back to Farmer Brown for the chicken and greens, but I wonder what the rest of their take on Southern cuisine is. Given the other options in the Bay Area I may never find out.

Other Bay Area meals included two lunches at Viks Chaat in Berkeley, which is destination dining for me: scrupulously authentic Indian light snackish food. I had two keema samosas, filled with ground lamb spiced just right and served with a chutney that seemed to be spinach-based, and a dahi papdi chaat, a cold dish of spiced yogurt and chick peas and potatoes with wafers of lentil flour. Wow. The next day I had chicken with fenugreek leaves, another classic. I was tempted to buy groceries in the accompanying market, but restrained myself, as I had to do this entire trip, sad to say. Another highlight was a dim sum brunch at Saigon Seafood Harbor in Richmond. There were all manner of wonderful things here, including excellent fried calamari and more clams in a brownish sauce that were a highlight. One of my dining companions made sure we ordered from the carts that were headed out of the kitchen instead of their way back: good thinking! From what I saw on other tables, I'm ready to go back here and check out the regular menu. And for those of you in the Bay Area, it's right near the legendary 99 Ranch market, an Asian supermarket I carefully avoided going into. That old temptation again. And, finally, I was surprised to get a good Texas-style Mexican meal (as opposed to the California-style one I'd have gotten in the Mission District) at El Toreador, at 50 West Portal, which is a bit out of the way, but if you're in the 'hood, well worth checking out. I was unable, due to crushing jetlag, to avail myself of their impressive beer menu, but was, in fact, impressed by it. The chipotle salsa with the chips was a pleasant surprise, as was the chicken tamale, the first tamale I've had in a long time.

And finally, I headed back to Barcelona, to a different hotel in a neighborhood I didn't know at all. I was too whacked to do any research, so I asked the young woman at the hotel desk if she had a recommendation, and she handed me a card for a place down the street which she said was pretty good. She did not lie: I had one of the best meals I've had this year. Casa Martelo has a pretty impressively large menu, but there was also the menu of the week. The server, Sergio (who speaks very good English) informed me that there was something not on the menu: girgolas, which he said were "Catalonian mushrooms." Well, not exactly: they're oyster mushrooms, which I hate. Or, actually, hated until this past Wednesday night. They were cooked a la plancha, on a griddle, and then drenched in garlic-infused olive oil with parsley in it, and a dusting of fleur de sel. The real secret to this kind of cooking is to get just a tiny bit of char onto the food without burning it entirely, as well as not drowning it in the oil. Good padrón peppers are cooked this way, and this particular technique really brought out the intensity of the mushrooms' flavor, which I can only describe as intensely brown.

The main course, however, knocked me out solid. The English-language menu described it as Sebastian hake with clams and shrimp, while my tab says cogote de merluza. I have no idea what a Sebastian hake is, but I discovered the next day at lunch that the translator there is maybe not so reliable, since they offered clams marinero as "clams sailor's blouse." At any rate, the "with clams and shrimp" bit was misleading as there were exactly two of each at a diagonal to each other, separated on the plate by a huge hunk of fish. The fish was very bony, but also richly flavored, and it, too, was covered with the garlic oil, and then sprinkled with thick slices of garlic, fried until golden, and with a wonderful mild garlic flavor and the texture of fried potatoes. It was so good that I was very happy to flip the fish over and discover a bit more meat on the underside of the piece that I could liberate and swish around in the oil. I read later that Spain is one of the top markets for hake in the world, and if this is an example of what they do to it, I can't wait for my second helping. Wish I'd taken pix of both dishes, but I forgot my phone back in the room.

This was my first experience with an actual restaurant in Barcelona, as opposed to a tapas bar, and the next day, which was a holiday, I went back there for tapas, which were okay, but I probably didn't order as intelligently as I'd have liked to due to walking-around exhaustion and my impending train trip back here. But I'm going to hit this place next time I'm in town, because it rocks heavily. It's real easy to find, too: take the Metro to Barcelona Sants, the railroad station, and take the Numancia exit, the one nobody else it taking because they're headed to the trains. Then simply exit and you're at the end of Numancia. Walk up the right-hand side of the street and it's at number 12.

And the punch-line to all of this: I wasn't up for any complex cooking last night for my birthday, but figured I should celebrate anyway with a bottle of decent wine, so I treated myself to a €12.90 bottle of Mas de la Serranne's Clos d'Immortelles, a favorite.

The bottle, the first one I've gotten in almost four years of living here, was mildly corked, that rich and wonderful flavor mocking me from behind the musty overtaste. Dammit.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Other Cities, Other Hills

And so it came to pass that I woke up this morning on a birthday whose number is of no interest except to Beatles fans, and discovered my internal clock feeling very much re-set. Knowing that this can be an illusion and that I may yet wake up in the middle of the night rarin' to go, I'm not taking anything for granted.

The pain in my legs from two very long transatlantic flights is almost gone, though. And herewith, a short recap of where I've been and what I've done.

* * * 

The purpose of this trip was a job interview, a very tempting one. A woman in San Francisco has been sharing a house with its owner, a 95-year-old woman who is still bright and active, but getting frail. This woman spends alternate quarters of the year in America and India, and is planning to go to India in mid-December, and for the first time feels that her friend needs someone in the house Just In Case, until she returns. Having been a reader of my blog and knowing that I've been, shall we say, somewhat restless in my current place, she offered me close to three months in this house, on the proviso that I'd heat up the older woman's breakfast and dinner. The house itself, literally on top of Twin Peaks, had a commanding view of the entire Bay Area on a good day -- well, on most any day, being above the fog -- and would have been a fine place to regroup my psyche. At any rate, she offered to fly me in for the job interview and to meet her friend, on whose approval everything hinged, and, since this was at the last minute, I discovered that it was cheaper to buy a train ticket to Barcelona and fly from there. 

I arranged things so that I'd have an afternoon and evening there before heading out to the airport (flights to the West Coast leave much earlier than flights to the East Coast) the next morning, and found myself wandering the streets again. 

I enjoyed myself, and hope I didn't try the patience of the kind couple who run Hibernian, a fine, typical European English-language used book store in the Grácia district. The good news is that this is a fine time to find a good apartment there, and is likely to get better (since I'm in no position to just up and go at the moment), but the bad news is that I would absolutely have to learn not one, but two new languages (Castillian Spanish and Catalán) in order to do it. (Well, that and that pesky money detail). Still, good to know, and they gave me the website of a good real-estate search engine to play with. 

San Francisco started as a blur: I arrived at nearly midnight, my debit card was inexplicably turned down by Avis' computer, and the indifferent guy at the desk, eager to get rid of me, sent me to something called Fox, which provided me with a black Hyundai Sonata. (Black Sonata sounds like a very pretentious mid-'70s soul-jazz album to me). But finally I got to my hotel, the Best Western Plus Americania Hotel (what on earth is an "Americania?") at 7th and Mission, a, uh, neighborhood in transition, which translates into the fact that you can get an organic, locally-sourced breakfast at a nice café and then step outside and buy some crack, which has inexplicably not faded away in San Francisco like it has elsewhere in the U.S. The decor of the hotel, clearly intended to draw hipsters (and succeeding), is some godawful pastiche of Midcentury Modern and Motel Efficient. 

At least it didn't glow in the dark, so I managed to get some sleep. 

Sadly, the job negotiations didn't work out. I was offered the opportunity to spend nearly three months sleeping on the couch for $100 a week, later upgraded to agreeing to pay for a used futon and frame from Craigslist (but not the bedclothes) and $125 a week. Seeing as how I'd have to pack up and store all my worldly goods here in Montpellier and pay for storage and moving as well as feeding myself (auto rental and $100/month for gas was a separate budget item), this would be a net loss. I'd also have to promise to be at the house every night no matter what, which meant no travel at all (and a sad disappointment for the hordes of women who'd doubtless descend on me when they heard I was in town), and visitors were discouraged, although not totally forbidden. Friends warned me that the whole thing was of dubious legality, and, of course it's been a while since you could last a week in San Francisco for $125. Not to mention that I couldn't ever eat out on that, in a city with ethnic restaurants out the wazoo that'd be tempting me, nor could I go to a show for which I wasn't on the guest list, or, say, subscribe to one of those streaming movie services so I could catch up on my cultural literacy. There was a degree of asceticism being demanded of me here that seemed unfair and unwarranted, so I was forced to turn the job down. 

Once I had, though, I felt better. This is going to be a hard winter here, and I'm not looking forward to it, but at least I'll be able to get a head-start on this next book proposal -- and the book, if it sells, as I think it will. The trip, and some late-paying clients (one of whom hasn't paid up yet, come to think of it), cost me money I didn't really have and as much as it was good to see old friends and revisit old memories of the Bay Area, and as nice as it would have been to have access to all of them for an extended period, it was hardly a vacation. 

Which is not to say there weren't some wonderful moments. The food I'll get to tomorrow, but there were two musical events that are worth mentioning. 

First, there was Autosalvage. This was a band that put out one album in 1968, and then, split over the issue of whether or not to move to California at the behests of their pals and labelmates the Youngbloods and make a career playing the ballroom circuit, broke up. I did a piece on them for Fresh Air a couple of months ago, and, when the only member I knew how to reach, Rick Turner, got a call asking for a photo and permission to stream the musical excerpts, he got ahold of the other three guys and they decided on a tentative reunion. One thing led to another, and they applied to SXSW. I sneakily asked the director of the music festival, Brent Grulke, if he could fast-track the approval, and, although he didn't say yes, he said "This kind of thing is my cup of tea." A couple of days later, he was dead

Three of the four guys, however (the fourth is in poor health and won't be playing with them), decided to go ahead, and their very first reunion/rehearsal was on the Saturday I was in the Bay Area, so I fired up Google Maps and picked my way up a very steep hill in Inverness to Owl Mountain Studios, where Turner's son, Ethan (aka ET), is the engineer. They were playing as I drove up, but the sound of my car's engine caused them to stop (so I still can't say I've heard them live), and they welcomed me into the studio, where the next thing would be to prepare a "bootleg" of their album for a limited release. Rick had found a mono master mix on 1/4" tape in his parents' attic, in good enough condition to run through a tape recorder again, so ET cued it up on a wonderful old Nagra and dumped the entire thing into ProTools as the guys watched, hearing the album for the first time in years -- and never having heard it exactly this way, because this mix brought out stuff the stereo mix never did!

The old mono mix

Autosalvage & Son, Owl Mountain, Oct. 17, 2012
L-R, Tom Danaher, Rick Turner, Darius Davenport, Ethan "ET" Turner
After the transfer was complete and some technical discussions about the remastering were made, the three older guys and I went down the hill to the home of Banana, the former Youngblood and auxilliary Autosalvage who'll join them for the SXSW gig: they'd gotten the acceptance letter the day before! Banana turns out to be not only a fine fellow, but an excellent cook and very knowledgeable about the wines of Italy, where he's become something of a star, much to his delight, since the gigs give him the excuse to roam around the countryside learning the food and beverages. A memorable day, a fine evening, and, almost certainly, a new start for one of the great forgotten bands of all time. 

I was staying in Petaluma by the time this happened, and my next stop, the next day, was Berkeley, where I had been invited by the current residents to stay in the former home of Ralph J. Gleason, the famous jazz critic and Rolling Stone co-founder. I was to meet my hosts at the Freight and Salvage, a venerable Berkeley folk club, at a gig by Bill Kirchen, the great guitarist, and an old friend from Commander Cody days in the Bay Area lo those forty-some years ago. Kirchen used the event as a kind of reunion for some of his old friends, bringing on athletic fiddler Heidi Clare, his wife Louise (a fine singer), and, to my surprise, reclusive songwriter Kevin "Blackie" Farrell and former Cody bassist "Buffalo" Bruce Barlow, neither of whom I'd seen in decades. 

The highlight of the show, though, was appalling, and I mean that in a good way: Kirchen and his band roared through a vicious, angry version of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" which forced me to hear the lyrics again and get angry that, 50 years down the line, they needed to be sung again and were at least as relevant as they had been when they were written. It being a Sunday night and the last night (as it turned out) of a San Francisco-participating World Series, the sparse audience was mostly people my age (which, let's face it, is a large part of Bill's demographic), and, it being Berkeley, I wondered how many were thinking the same thing I was. 

Tuesday morning came, and I packed up, stopping for lunch at Vik's one more time and on to the San Francisco airport, where I flew non-stop to Paris (thank heavens: had I been routed through the East Coast it would have been disastrous) and onward to Barcelona, where I mostly crashed. However, yesterday's train to Montpellier left close to 5pm, and I'd planned a day of a little food shopping, not realizing that it was a national holiday, as it was in France (All Saints' Day, called Toussaint in French and I know not what in Spanish or Catalán), and absolutely nothing was open. A friend's early birthday greeting, though, reminded me that he'd been urging me to go to the Museum of the History of the City of Barcelona, and this was the perfect occasion to do that. Between the jet-lag and my own incompetence, it took me two hours of walking to find the damn thing, so the idea of burning off some time worked out fine. I can't say the Old Quarter of Barcelona exactly entices me, and I still find Las Ramblas below my acceptable sleaze quotient, but the religious nature of the holiday meant that there were services, with music, in the churches, and a folk orchestra out in front of the Cathedral, with bleating shawms, and folk-dancers in circles everywhere. I finally found the museum, most of which is underground, showing the old Roman city (the wine vats in the winery are still faintly stained red) as it was excavated, with a huge bunch more still being worked on. It was a fun, touristy way to spend the day, and exhausting enough that I boarded the train back here with some relief. 

Old Barcelona graveyard dudes

Food stuff tomorrow: both California and Catalunya. 
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