Monday, December 21, 2009

Les Miettes de Noël

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Muslims and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Narbonne Footnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Day-Trip To Narbonne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or a strange detail would appear from a wall.

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Annoying Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Drunks, Slobs, Polluters

Yes, there are downsides to living here, and one of them is, without a doubt, the building I live in. The location's pretty good, most of the neighbors are fine, and being almost on one of the busiest plazas in town, it's remarkably quiet. But every day brings another frustration, it seems. There is, of course, the stove, with its two small, closely-packed electric elements, which only function when you turn on a timer. Making soup a week or two back, I had to keep jumping up and going and re-twisting the dial on the damn thing: it'll only run for an hour at a time. Then there's the plumbing. I insisted on a new toilet (what, didn't I want to sit on a cracked toilet seat?), and it came with one of those push-button tanks with a larger or smaller button depending on how much you wanted to flush. This broke almost immediately, and so for the past nine months I've had to pull a chain in the tank. It's fresh water, but I do think for what I'm paying I shouldn't have to do this. Oh, and once flushed, the toilet is the master. There's almost no water pressure, so until the tank refills, there's no running any other water in the apartment: great moaning and vibrating and cessation of function will follow. The two faucets, in the bathroom and the kitchen, are so silted up that water shoots all over the place when you turn them on (I know, I should just unscrew the cap that holds on the little screen and clean it,, and the one in the kitchen isn't attached to anything, so it keeps falling into the sink. But until I can afford and find another place, I'm okay with this (although I'd sure like another burner in the kitchen). What I'm not okay with is this:

Every week, dozens of advertising flyers get delivered to our mailboxes, along with various propaganda magazines from the region, the city, and so on. And every week, most of us take them out and put them on top of the mailboxes and fish out any mail we might have received. Some of the guys who deliver these things, though, just leave them on the stairs in a neat pile. Now, as I write, the scene in the hall looks much worse than this. I took this picture when Jack was here last week and he'd kicked the slick paper over to one side. The stuff's slippery and he didn't want someone slipping and falling. We do have a cleaning lady who comes sometimes, and at that point all the paper disappears. But the other day I came home and found the Turkish lady who lives upstairs with her two sons coming into the house the same time I was, her youngest with her. They headed up the stairs, which were clean except for a pile of flyers and ads someone had left. Without hesitating, the kid took a swipe at this, and dozens of slick pieces of paper went down the stairs in a torrent. I made a sound, but his mother was too busy investigating a banana -- a banana! -- which lay, half-eaten a few steps above. Ascertaining that it wasn't edible, she said something to the kid and he scrambled up the stairs. Lest you think I'm just blaming her, though, Les Lunkheads, the French idiots below me, do the same thing, and they're almost certainly the source of the banana, as they are of the half-eaten kebabs and odd croissants one finds at times.

What can I say? It's a slum.

* * *

Last year at this time, I made a horrible mistake. I thought I hadn't been paid for some work I'd done in Germany, a matter of over a thousand euros. After the client had traced the invoice, it turned out that I had, in fact, been paid. And spent it. That's what the confusion of moving will do to you. I had more coming in, though, but I had to be careful for a few days. How careful? When the city did its Festival of the Vines, in which all the wineries in the Montpellier Agglomeration set up booths for tasting, an invaluable one-stop education in the local wines, and offered a tasting glass and tickets for tastings at three wineries for €2, I couldn't afford it. I did, however, pick up flyers from as many of them as I could and studied them. I'd be ready when they did this again.

Well, this weekend they did it again. And I had €2. But this time there were two problems. First was that that flu I had a couple of weeks ago made some sort of short return, or maybe it was some other ailment. At any rate I'd been running a fever and felt whacked on Friday, and also noted that my nose -- all-important for wine tasting -- hadn't cleared up for the day like it usually does. By the evening, the very idea of drinking wine didn't appeal to me at all, so I passed. And on Saturday my nose was still dead. I'd hoped to have an appointment with the nose doctor before the thing happened, but the earliest he could do it was Monday.

The good news is, I know a lot more than I did last year. There is a cave cooperative for the very interesting St. Georges d'Orque area down in Celleneuve which I stumbled upon while looking for that old church last month, and I've been to the Château de Flaugergues for the student presentation. I also had a nice chat with Benoit Guizard of the Domaine Guizard, who make some really nice wines and whose place is easily reached on the bus, which I intend to do once the schnoz is back. But for one-stop shopping, I blew it again. Boy, do I want my sense of taste back!

* * *

There were rumors of a postal employees' strike coinciding with the wine fest on the Comédie yesterday, but I didn't see one. I did, however, note that there are dozens of little huts all the way down the Esplanade which will soon be filled with the kind of things you buy as gifts for pepole you don't really know all that well, which should be amusing. At the end of the huts, they were installing a huge artificial ice rink, and on the other side of the Esplanade there was the monthly antiquarian book flea market, at which I saw several books that were older than anything down at the Médiathèque's seminary exhibition, although to be fair a couple of them were at the table of a guy who seemed to have a fair repository of vintage erotica, which probably wouldn't have fit the bill. When I got back from that stroll, there was a demonstration, but I couldn't see postal workers dressing up as animals.

No, these were protestors showing how many tons of CO2 countries were pumping into the air, each holding a number of black balloons keyed to the output. Why the guy with the U.S. balloons is dressed like a polar bear I can't say, except maybe he's as confused about American geography as most Americans are about European geography.

At least this gal, at the other end of the Comédie where people were dressed as national stereotypes (a woman representing India had a green sari and a red dot on her forehead), attempted a cowboy hat.

And so, having been stereotyped and having not tasted a drop of wine, I slunk back to my slum, to feast on leftovers of one of the biggest culinary disasters of recent months, which occurred when I grabbed the wrong can at the store: folks, do not make pastafazool with chickpeas.

Okay, I'm going out for a minute. If the banana or the advertising flyers don't kill me, I'll be back with more soon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Holy Books

At the moment, there's a photo exhibition at the Pavillion Populaire by a photographer I've never heard of, but who is, apparently, a grand fromage in France. I went and discovered that there's one part that's not there, and will open at the former St. Ann's church next week, so in the interest of keeping you all informed about the other cultural amenities here I went to the other big-deal show today (there's also something at the Musée Fabre, but it's more French landscape painting from the 19th century, and no way I'm going to put down precious money for that).

And the moral of this one is, pay attention. To be fair, there was a lot of information missing that I only picked up there, but I did expect more out of a show called The Library of the Great Seminary of Montpellier. After all, this town's been a center of all manner of studies for over a thousand years, and I'm a huge fan of illuminated manuscripts and almost decided to make that my profession when I was in college. Might have, too, if anyone at the damn place had known what I was talking about.

But here's the deal: it wasn't until 1563 that the Council of Trent said that every diocese in France should have a seminary, and the local bishop didn't get around to asking that one be established here until 1659, and it wasn't until 1690 that the thing got set up and running. So, no illuminated manuscripts here. Then, in 1790, the Revolution seized the thing and began selling off the good stuff. Napoleon cooled things out in 1807, and in 1972, probably in response to fewer and fewer young men wanting to become priests, the seminaries were regrouped into inter-diocesial seminaries. In 1999, 20,000 books were donated to the Médiathèque Émile Zola, our big library, and now that they've got them sorted out, they decided to show the best stuff they have.

And their best stuff I didn't find all that interesting. While it's true that not much on view is as gaudy and vulgar as the image of Joan of Arc atop this post (yeah, that's her, with dark hair, which is probably how people down here saw her; not everyone thinks she looked like Milla Jovovitch, you know), not much of it is of interest to those not interested in ecclesiastical history or libraries. To me, the best stuff was the graphics: there's a huge family tree with Adam and Eve at the bottom (who knew: they had a third son, Seth) and branching upwards to the sky; a huge double-spread of two hearts so you can tell the difference between the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary (Jesus: wrapped in thorns, small lesion in lower left-hand side, big cross coming out of aorta. Mary: tiny sword stabbing her heart. Both hearts anatomically correct.); and a bunch of utterly bizarre engravings from a book called Via Vitae Æternae by one Boèce de Bolswert of Antwerp, small, cramped, and notable for the letters on just about every detail. In some, saints pray, and their prayers are shown as a big zap going into the clouds from their hands (not their hearts?), where the Holy Trinity awaits. In another, the zap goes the other way, with people milling around in a field dressed in robes getting zapped by heavenly beings. In another, two painters are painting a bunch of people, and one's being dragged away by a demon while the other isn't. A nice elderly man who obviously was part of curating the show came over when he saw me taking notes and offered to explain anything I needed, but de Bolswert, I figured, would not be explicable in any terms I knew in English or French.

There's a nice thick book of the exhibition on thick high-quality paper you can take with you, and a screen showing slides of numerous illustrated books (they seemed to be showing military architecture while I was standing in front of it), but all this show really taught me was that by the time the Montpellier Seminary started amassing a collection, Catholicism had reached a degree of complexity that the stuff I'd taught myself while trying to deal with those illuminated manuscripts was utterly useless. Still, if you find yourself in the 'hood on a rainy afternoon, it's a pleasant half-hour's diversion.

(La Bibliothèque du grand séminaire de Montpellier, open daily until December 30, entrance free, see website for times. Médiathèque centrale d'Agglomeration Émile Zola, Place de l'Europe, Antigone, 34000 Montpellier).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Miettes

You know, I thought that train ticket to Arles, even with the senior discount, was cheap. I'd priced some other trips over the last few months, and it seemed to me they cost more per mile than that. As it turns out, I was right: despite my saying, very clearly and several times, the word "retour" to the ticket agent, she sold us two one-way tickets.

But then again, it's not like anyone ever checked the tickets. You have to stick them in a little yellow machine that buzzes and then stamps the station and date and time on them, but that seems to be the extent of the security. If I hear that the French rail system's going broke, I guess I'll know why. Meanwhile, it's down to the station for the latest timetables for the regional system.

The reason for this is the eminently sensible suggestion by etnobofin on my last post that I might enjoy a trip to Narbonne. I researched that -- it being about the same distance in the other direction -- and that's where I realized we'd cheated on the tickets. But a round trip to Narbonne costs €22, and an additional €5 gets me into all the museums and so forth. So that's my celebration when the next paycheck arrives.

* * *

And, as if the cosmos was listening to me, Thursday through Saturday last week, the department of Pyrénées-Orientales set up a big tourism tent on the Comédie. They'd been here before, and I had a bunch of their brochures, as I realized walking through the tent. It was the usual clump of wineries, jam-makers, candy-makers and so on that all these tourist exhibitions have (there was a saffron farm, too, selling its wares at the highest prices I've ever seen for that already-pricey spice), but the tourist agency had a brochure I picked up that had a longstanding fantasy embedded in it.

For some time I've been wanting to take the train to Perpignan, get a room, rent a car, and go driving into the countryside. Well, this brochure is all about that. The prehistoric sites, the Romanesque churches, and all the rest. This fantasy will cost a bit more to realize, of course, but not hugely so, and my guess is there will be stories lurking around there. Then, of course, it's a question of finding someone to take them. But I've been spared a bunch of aimless wandering, at any rate. Still, Narbonne first. Stay tuned.

* * *

Finally, a decision to play with my computer has led to a really excellent look at the past year. Bored with the desktop pictures Apple had provided, I noticed there was a button in the desktop pictures function to include pictures from the iPhoto library, and checked "Past Year." Now I have a slideshow of every picture I've taken, many for this blog, and it's an amazing jog to the memory. (That's where I got the picture of the building with the Languedoc cross at the top of this post, for instance). The downside is all those pictures I took of the fruit and vegetables from the market: I'll see strawberries, peaches, tomatoes, and so on and want to rush out and get them. Of course, they're not there now, which is both frustrating and a welcome reminder that the seasons will cycle and they'll be back.

There's another frustration, too, which I noticed last night trying to boil pasta water, make a sauce, and cook some vegetables: I only have two burners on my stovetop. This, however, makes me realize that the oven, which I don't use all that much, may step up during the winter. I should learn these local root vegetables and roast them and see if I like them. (I don't have many good memories of turnips and rutabagas and such, but tastes change). Or learn to roast meat, although that's hard to do for just one person and leftover roasts don't make such good eating. (Also, the cuts tend to be more expensive).

Of course, here, too, there's a fantasy, which I believe is realizable: move into a place with a decent kitchen, enough room to unpack my library, and have people over for dinner. Like the trip to the Pyrenees, this isn't going to happen overnight. Apparently one of the lessons I'm learning here is patience.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travels With Jack

Almost exactly a year ago, Jack, an old friend from California and Texas, showed up in Berlin. It was days before I was going to leave, but he was a huge help, having owned a number of bookstores, when it came to packing up my books. The tricks he showed me I am certain made the movers bless him.

This year, he again vacationed in Europe, and so he came down here just a little later than a year to the day than he did in Berlin. He had two days, and wanted to spend one in Montpellier, but the next one in a place he was obsessed with: Arles. I had no idea he had a major thing for Vincent van Gogh, but I was about to find out.

The first day, he had a simple request -- or so I thought. He wanted to go to the Mediterranean. Since he's an ex-surfer, this made sense, and I'd asked Miss Expatria about this some time ago, and she told me that, although it wasn't much of a beach, you could take a bus -- number 28 -- to its end and walk to the beach.

She may be right, but we must've done everything wrong. There was an indication that it would be possible on the sketchy transit map, but we walked in what seemed to be the right direction, which took us along a highway where people honked at us (although we were behind the barrier on the shoulder), through some fairly desolate land:

Eventually, we saw some water appear, and walked towards it, but it appears to have been one of several étangs (which the dictionary says means "pond" or "pool," neither of which word gives any indication of the size of the thing) which exist, cut off from the sea itself. There was, however, oyster cultivation going on:

It was only when I saw a plane landing at Montpellier-Mediterranée Airport that I was sure we'd gotten turned around. Which is a shame, because we had to catch a bus back into town -- they only run twice an hour -- at this point. The beach remains something I want to do, and I'm dead certain one of the more knowledgeable locals will come along to tell me where I screwed this one up.

* * *

The next day, I got up way early. We had a 9:15 train to catch to Arles, and I didn't want to miss it. And it was at the train station that I made a very interesting discovery. I ordered the tickets and was astonished at the price. In a good way: round trip for me, with a senior discount, was €10.60. Jack only paid €14.10. This was far less than I assumed I'd pay for an hour-long trip, and bodes well if I ever can get my head above water for further investigations of the countryside around me.

Which, technically, Arles isn't. It's in Provence, a far more touristed, far better-known part of France as far as most people are concerned. I'd much, much rather explore Languedoc, but there was no turning Jack and his obsession around, and when you come right down to it, I was happy to go somewhere unfamiliar for a day.

Our first stop was the market, Wednesday being market day there. It went on forever, and, at least the part I saw, seemed to be mostly Turkish and Moroccan vendors. A guy handed me a hunk of a sort of red pesto made from sun-dried tomatoes and basil and olives on a cracker, and it was fantastic. The guy next to him handed me a piece of Parmesan. The people selling olives had amazing mixtures, far more diverse than I've seen here (although to be fair I haven't really surveyed the Arab groceries over in the Figuerolles district as much as I'd like to). But all in all, it was very much like some of the Turkish markets I'd been to in Berlin.

The market was spread along the old city wall, and once we passed through the gate, we were presented with this:

I have no idea what it is, but it made for a convenient landmark. It also led us up the hill to the big landmark, a Roman arena which makes the one in Nîmes look like a toy. It's also nearly impossible to photograph, situated on the hilltop like that, not to mention the fact that it's currently undergoing massive renovations/restorations which seem designed to turn it into some Disney-esque Romanland adventure park. They already have "bullgames" in there (the bulls are teased, but not killed), which is a tradition that no doubt dates back to the Romans, but they're going to be staging gladitorial contests and have a "Roman restaurant" which no doubt will serve honeyed pork and larks with garum.

(photo: Jmalik via Wikipedia, CC 3.0 license)

From there we wandered through the town looking for the tourist office, which had Jack's Holy Grail: a one-euro pamphlet with a walking tour of all of the Arles locations van Gogh used in his paintings. This led us to stumble upon the Place de la République, and me to stare at the tympanum of the church of St. Trophime:

But for Jack, the only thing in the square was...the Night Café! The van Gogh tour has copies of the paintings paired with quotations from his letters at approximately the place where van Gogh's eye rested, and Jack must have taken 20 photos of this place over the next few hours.

We found the tourist office, finally, and got the pamphlet, which also had related tours of Roman, Medieval, and Classic Arles in it. The van Gogh tour, however, had the fewest stops, and since they were widely spaced, we could see most of the other stuff in the interim, not that Jack was much interested. One thing I insisted on, though, was going to the huge museum of Antique Arles to see the Roman stuff. There's tons of it, including an almost complete ceramic jug used to transport wine on special ships that, considering the top is cracked off, was about five feet tall. I'm not really wild about Roman art and antiquities, but I am interested in how the Romans behaved in the boonies, ever since I saw the Greco-Roman museum in Cologne with its bewildering collection of religious stuff: once they were out of reach of the old home town, the Romans adopted tons of other religions, including Mithraism and a new one called Christianity. Although the majority of the artifacts in Arles date from 100-500 AD, when it was the capital of Gaul, there is an amazing amount of Christian stuff on view.

There's also, currently, an astonishing exhibition which'll add a whopping euro to your ticket, a display of stuff that's been brought up from the waters by the north bank of the Rhône in Arles since 1988, including a truly amazing, almost photographic, portrait head of Julius Caesar. This'll be up til September 19, 2010, so go see it if you're in the neighborhood.

It was a long walk out there, and I recommend using the free shuttle bus if you intend to go and aren't driving, so I readily assented when Jack insisted we ride back into town. We got in and the bus was filled with high-school girls (and one boy), one of whom had a kid in a stroller. They tried out their English on Jack, which was all he needed to start yakking with them. When a large older woman got on and sat between us, I snapped to the fact that they were gypsies, not Moroccans as I'd thought. She did some business of handing Jack a holy medal and trying to get him to give her money, then gave me a cowry shell and made a show of pretending to lick one, urging me to do it. I have no idea what that was about, but she didn't get any money out of us, and the inside of the little bus just got more and more riotous until we decamped.

We headed to the hospital where van Gogh had committed himself, and Jack took some more photos. Then we did some more wandering, and I shot this and that, but the idea was that he had to be back at the Night Cafe when it turned dark to take some photos.

I liked the shutters, apparently. But even though it bears the scars of tourism, Arles seemed like a nice enough town. I'd like to go back and get a card that gets me into some of the areas that charge admission, particularly some of the old cloisters. But it finally got dark, and Jack had me shoot a bunch of pictures of him at the Night Café. He pestered the manager until he came up with an old menu which had fallen apart with the painting on the cover, and I almost got van Gogh's composition right here. The light and the color not so much, but, as I kept trying to get Jack to understand, he was making a painting, not taking a photograph. Me, I was taking a photograph:

Anyway, now I'm broke again, but very happy for the day out of town. I really do need to research train fares, though, because if a day in a Languedoc town could only set me back ten bucks, plus lunch and maybe a museum fee, it behooves me to get out and run around a bit more. Of course, these past few days have put me enough behind that this won't be for a while, but the possibilities are intriguing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Miettes Porcines

Been laid out by the flu this past week, which may explain some of the gloom of the previous post, although there are also very good reasons to be gloomy, as this video shows. (Nobody who makes a living writing should fail to watch it). Dunno if it's The Pig or not, but mostly I sleep and stay indoors and feel like my brain's filled with cotton.

* * *

However, I do go out from time to time, and today was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I worked very hard to miss by 48 hours, having been in Berlin until the 7th. I had to content myself with our fair city's pathetic attempt at it, and so I wandered onto the Esplanade about 4 this afternoon. The crowd wasn't as big as the one in Berlin probably is, but then, this is France.

(I especially like the evil cop being menaced by the hammer-wielding guy with a West German flag on his shirt).

The event, and the Wall itself, was sponsored by the Maison du Heidelberg, a cultural organization from one of Montpellier's many twin cities, and one of the guys from there gave the first speech, in which he noted that Montpellier was the only city in France with a "hard rock" replica of the Wall. "Other cities have them made out of styrofoam and cardboard, but the one here is hard rock." Concrete, actually, but who's picking nits at a time like this? "There are many Germans in Montpellier," he said, "and there are a quarter-million French people in Berlin." This, although true, will probably come as a bit of a surprise to some Berliners, because they keep to themselves so thoroughly that nobody knows they're there. A friend of mine was out with one of her friends, a French woman who suggested they go to the bar where she used to work. There was a guy at the door who said the French woman could go in, but the American couldn't. They also have their own free newspaper, which, as someone who tried for three years to start a free English-language newspaper, I have to admit chagrins me somewhat. (Okay, a lot).

Anyway, my notes after the Heidelberg guy stepped down read "speeches speeches speeches." There were also a lot of people protesting the wall in Palestine, which is both just and annoying, since after 15 years in Berlin, I feel a little bit of pride in the Germans (true, not Berliners, but largely Leipzigers) who brought about the change in East Germany, and I didn't like their unsung achievements being overshadowed, especially because the Palestine folks are out on the Comédie at least once a month.

One of the speeches was by Montpellier's mayor, Hélène Mandroux, who is tiny. During her speech, the wireless mike began to go out, and the Palestine people were pressing closer and closer. It was also getting too dark to photograph, but just as I walked away, they started playing Beethoven's setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," the last movement of the 9th Symphony, and handing out sparklers. I tried and failed to get a shot of that, and walked behind the wall in time to hear some very pathetic hammering going on over on the other side. One thing became clear: the Montpellier wall was not only too small, it was also hollow. But something must have happened, because when I passed by the Esplanade a couple of hours later, it was clearly not there.

Instead, I tried to photograph the sunset on the Comédie, because I'm trying to do a banner for this blog. This won't be it, but it's what it looked like about an hour before I typed these words:

* * *

I got it into my head on Saturday that I could chase this flu with soup. In the distant past, I'd always bought Progresso Minestrone, but I know from experience that I can cook a better minestrone than that, and so I did. I made about four gargantuan portions in the process, but I used up a lot of the market vegetables I had lying around, so I hope I'm in some kind of shape to get down there tomorrow. (Although if not, I'll live).

One vegetable that went into it was those spherical carrots I wrote about a while back, and for those who disbelieve, here they are after I got them back from the market:

The sink looked like I could plant some more carrots in it when I got through scrubbing them, and they still had to be peeled, but they were really good. I'm going to get some of the other odd carrots they have down there when I see them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Highway: 61

There's no getting around it: I got a year older yesterday. And, as always seems to happen, I found myself ruthlessly looking into the metaphoric mirror, trying to figure out what the past year had meant, and what I'd accomplished.

Fortunately, there was a palpable answer to that: a little over two weeks after my last birthday, I said good-bye to Berlin after 15 years of living there, five of which were miserable, for the most part. I realized my dream of moving to Montpellier, and I've been there ever since.

Of course, that's not a totally positive situation: I have been here ever since, only getting out to explore the surrounding countryside once. And the reason for that is that at the beginning of this year, a major part of the grand plan fell apart: the move here was made possible by a project of ghost-writing the autobiography of a minor music business figure of low reputation, who convinced me that his miraculous and medically baffling remission from leukemia had totally changed him. This, in part, was why he wanted to write the book.

Unfortunately, it wasn't true: he announced in late March that he wasn't going to continue, leaving me to realize that $15,000 of the budget I was working on wasn't going to materialize. Worse, a further $5000 which he owed me for work I'd already done, as it developed, he had no intention of paying me. Unfortunately, I have very little recourse. A lawyer has been writing letters to him on my behalf as a favor, but I haven't heard anything since August, so maybe he's stopped. And, since I hadn't been looking for work in the six months I'd been working on this guy's book, I was caught with no income.

Thus, a lot of plans had to be pulled back. A lot of them. Like buying health insurance. Like getting this flat in order by buying bookcases and getting help installing some lights (I still have unpacked boxes from the move, and haven't a clue about the contents of at least one of them). Like travelling around. This apartment costs over double what my last apartment in Berlin cost, and is only about half as large. It's kind of a slum, but so was that Berlin place, which not only had more room, but a better kitchen. Plus, of course, the dollar has continued to slide since I got here, which, with the higher expenses, has also hurt.

So I haven't been out much, haven't made many friends, and haven't integrated much into the community. I know these things take time, as they did in Berlin, where at least I knew a dozen or so people by the time I wound up living there. Going out for a drink is ridiculous: a beer here costs twice what it did in Berlin -- and it tastes nasty. A glass of wine tastes better, but is the same price.

But there's my other problem, the one I couldn't have anticipated, but which weighs down on me as badly as sitting among the dusty, unpacked cardboard boxes: in April, shortly after my ghostwriting client retreated, saying "sue me," I got a cold. Big deal; it happens. Somehow, the cold caused a polyp to grow in my left sinus, and this, in turn, squeezed the nerve taking taste to my brain. I lost my sense of taste. Weirdly, the squeeze mostly happens at night: I can smell and taste during the day, and then, perceptibly, between 6 and 8pm, it fades. I've gone to a doctor, and he's been treating me, and I've recovered a very small amount of my taste at night, but not enough. At the beginning of the treatment, what must have been some radical drugs fixed me right up, as I mentioned here. But as I went off that regime, things got worse.

I figure I'm lucky: I can't afford expensive wines, or to go to a restaurant unless someone else pays, so being broke during this situation isn't too bad. But the part of being broke that means I can't travel, or that I feel incredible guilt when, as happened this weekend, I had to buy a new CD player for €67 because my old one died, or that I have to seriously consider each time I want to do anything whether I can afford it is oppressive.

I'm also lucky in that I have an ongoing gig with Fresh Air, although it is sporadic and pays public-radio wages, so I'm not getting rich. Unlike a lot of the 14,000 professional journalists who lost their jobs in the past twelve months, I do work some. In fact, that was what I did for my birthday: I wrote a story for the Oxford American, for which I'll get paid in a couple of months. That kind of thing doesn't happen enough, but I'm grateful that it happens at all.

It's really not a good idea to try to plan a year in advance, but I do have some goals. First, of course, is to regain my sense of smell and taste as quickly as possible. I should be seeing the doctor later this month, so I'll know how likely that is. Second, try to get more work. I woke up a couple of weeks ago with an idea for re-casting the Berlin book I had so much trouble with a couple of years ago, the one nobody seemed to understand. I think I've got it now, and I've been working on it every day. The agent I've been talking to is sceptical, but I hope to change his mind -- or find another agent who does believe in the project. There are a couple of ghost-writing gigs also in the air, although they're a long way from coming to fruition, and I'm very open to hearing about others.

Long-range, I hope I can get financially comfortable enough to get out more next year, and, in the very long run, I'd like to get a bigger apartment, although in a country that's even more suspicious of self-employed people (and anyone over 60 who's still working and not living on a pension) than Germany was, that's going to be next to impossible without a huge stroke of luck. But at least, as the Willem de Kooning quote by the PayPal button says, at least I'm not poor; I'm just broke. One's a state of mind, the other's a state of bank account.

So I set foot on the highway numbered 61. For those of you who aren't familiar with American folk culture, US Highway 61 was and is the road that ran north from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, the road that meant freedom and a perilous new life for those brave enough to get on it. A lot of them couldn't handle the big city, but those who could frequently found the power to change not only their lives, but American history. I guess the fact that I'm still working on it is good news. We'll see what's up when I get to 62. Not that I'm in a hurry.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Time for another market post before I head into shopping hell to buy myself an early birthday present with money I don't really have: my CD player has blown up and I'm in the middle of writing an article for the Oxford American and have a new batch of Fresh Air pieces due soon, so I can't allow that to happen.

The markets are now filling up with root vegetables that I can't identify. One guy even had a single-purpose stand of black turnips, complete with brochures. They're apparently famous -- or he wants them to be. But there were other turnips, some things that looked like carrots only were a pale yellow color, spheres with purple on the top, and carrots that looked like mutants, although I'm holding out for the carottes parisiens I've seen on occasion, which are spherical. Why? Because they look cool. And before long it'll be time for me to make my beef-and-carrot stew using a cut of beef called plat de côte, which GBD up in Paris hipped me to, and which I saw today: super cheap, but super good.

But that's all for the future. Right now, what I've got here is this:

Starting in the upper left-hand corner, a couple of apples called reinette de something, a heritage variety. I bought two kinds on Tuesday, one small and red, and one large and green, and the red ones almost destroyed my plastic lower teeth. I may get some more to make pork chops and apples with, but they also didn't see terribly blessed with flavor. The green ones were juicy and more easily bitten into. Below them, two kinds of pears, one with a red blush which are for eating out of hand (and one of which will be history by the time most of you read this), and the elongated ones, which I suspect will contribute to a salad with pear, walnuts, and the last of my Roqeufort sometime soon. For that, I've got two kinds of salad mixture, which has just started showing up. The one on the left was labelled "Japanese," while the other was just regular old mesclun. And, in front of the parsley, there's a butternut squash left over from Tuesday's market. I'm not at all sure what to do with this, but after the fiasco of the last orange squash I bought, I'm going to research this one thoroughly. (And yes, I know it makes great stuffing for ravioli, but that's a two-person job, and I'm missing the other person).

It's going to be harvest time soon on the balcony, I think. The jalapenos have come in in number, but they're really small:

I guess there'll be enough for one salsa, though, but I'm waiting for some of the smaller ones, like that guy on the right, to catch up. The serranos are, belatedly, starting to bloom, which is nice because they won't cross-fertilize with the jalapenos, but not so good because we're almost certain to get chile-killing weather before they're anything close to ready.

I'm thinking that there's simply not enough sun at my place for successful agriculture, although the summer heat is nice. Or maybe I have to have fewer than three plants per pot. I'm also going to try to start the seeds earlier next year, probably indoors, which should be fun, since I have no idea where I'll put them. Or maybe I just have a black thumb: the basil came up, produced two aromatic leaves, and turned brown. That was depressing.

Okay, time to gird the old loins and head out to the Odysseum with the other 50,000 people who'll be out shopping there. This will not be fun but it has to be done. Unlike last time, though, I'm taking the tram both ways this time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Languedoc Video

I've never posted a video before, but if this works, you'll get to see the region's new tourist video. No voice-over, no annoying music (well, almost no annoying music), and some durn good photography. There's very little Montpellier here, and nothing showing the old part, but when you see the blue tram, you'll be around the corner from my house.

Well, there ya go. Be sure and let me know before you come down so I can help you find a decent hotel!

Oh, and thanks to Peter.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Our Lady Of The Boiling Oil

As I said, yesterday I went for a long walk to Celleneuve, and what had occasioned this was that the day before I'd gone on a much shorter walk to find out where this stream that is channelled through a part of town goes. Marie told me about a historical site on the river which I'm not sure I saw, and sent me to this site to read about it.

Well, I wasn't going to stop there. I started reading the Old Montpellier part of it alphabetically, and got down to the e's, e being for église, or church. As I'd thought, most of the churches here are 19th Century, even the Cathedral, which only has bits of the old building (most notably its towers), with the rest dating from the 1860s. They really didn't like Catholics here!

But one picture caught my eye, since the church in it was obviously very old. Aha! I said, I had to go seet this. And it was in Celleneuve. I'd been to Celleneuve before and it seemed like it took a very long time on the bus, but looking at the map, it didn't seem too much further than Castelneau, so off I went.

The church, for all that it's of imposing height, taller than anything around it, is still amazingly invisible. There's a parking garage named for it, so I knew to turn off the main road I'd come along at the right time, and I'd even seen a bit of it rising above the other buildings, but it took me a while to find it anyway, since the maze of ancient village streets surrounding it was so complicated. In the end, I turned a corner and there it was.

That's the tower jutting out into one street. The street to the left in the picture is narrow:

The fact that this makes it dark doesn't matter. The church has virtually no windows. I didn't get inside -- it's only open for three hours on the first Sunday of the month and this was the last Sunday of the month -- but I'd bet it's pretty gloomy in there. I tried a few more pictures, but there was no way to get the whole thing:

Just to get this much, I had to back up against a wall and hunker way down. That narrow window is some ways off the ground.

Walking back home, I reasoned that any church that well fortified had to have something to do with the Cathars, but I was wrong. Apparently the defense was there for when the Routiers hit town. These were bands of mercenaries in the employ of Henry II of England, who roved around the French countryside causing mayhem during the Hundred Years War. (For more on them, there's a Wikipedia article, of course). This fits: according to the entry on it on the historical website, the church was built in the 12th century as the Abbot of Aniane extended his influence into the area, but it was severely modified in the 14th century to defend the citizens, who could gather there when the Routiers were heading to town. According to the article, among the weapons used were large rocks and boiling oil.

At any rate, you should look at the historical website's page for a picture of the whole church, which must've been gotten from the telephone tower or maybe a balloon. I certainly couldn't have taken it from anywhere I was. The entire little neighborhood around it, though, seemed much more ancient than most of even the center of Montpellier, and I wondered what the housing in some of those ancient buildings was like. Probably awful, since the French mostly don't want to live in these old buildings.

They might, just barely, want to live in one of the old "folies," built in the 18th century by nobility eager to show off, however: I passed one, which seemed deserted, except for a bunch of construction equipment, which, according to the notice posted on the gate, had something to do with the new tramway, which is headed out that way. It's called Domaine de la Piscine, and given that a lot of wines have named beginning with "domaine" I'm glad they don't make it there because "piscine" means swimming pool.

On the way, back, I discovered a hiking trail which follows an 18th century aqueduct. Hmmm, might be time to see what that's about...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Things I Like

Ow. I took an 8-kilometer hike today (that's about five miles) to Celleneuve, an ancient village that's been engulfed by Montpellier, and I'll have some on that tomorrow, but along the way I snapped some photos of stuff I like.

Like street art (so much more fun than the Berlin variety, for the most part):

and lizards:

(Thanks for standing still, dude. Have a nice winter!)

And gigantic pine trees, even though their falling pine cones can dent your cranium real good:

It was a great day for a walk, and I know there aren't many more left this year.

Tomorrow, my somewhat anticlimactic goal.
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