Saturday, February 21, 2009

Getting To The City

For those of you moving in or out of Germany, let me recommend a site called MyHammer. You register (free), post your job, and sit back while the bids come in. (They also do this for craftsmen, if you're needing wiring or plumbing or stuff like this). I was astonished at how many bids I got, and one firm, in particular, was quite anxious to get my money. This was because it was a father-and-son team who specialize in sun protection and roll-up shades, who'd taken on a job in Ibiza and were about to drive down there empty to do it. Going down a couple of days early with my stuff, stopping in Montpellier to unload it, then heading to Spain meant extra profit. And so it was that much of my stuff got loaded into this unwieldy setup:

(That's the son standing in front of the rig for scale). 

In addition, I rented a small station wagon, which I intended to fill with the more fragile items, as well as the stuff I wasn't going to entrust to strangers. In the middle of the loading, I had to go to the Hertz office to pick this up, and when I returned, I found the movers ready to go. There was, as far as I could tell, room for more, but they were adamant that they were full. I looked upstairs and saw that a bunch of stuff still needed to be packed. They were gone, so it got wedged into the station wagon, or, in some cases, left behind. 

I'd planned things so that the trip would take three days, three easy drives, with opportunities for relaxation and sightseeing on my two stops. Ha. The first night's stop was to be in Schwäbisch Hall, reputed to be a delightful little medieval village with good food. Not only did I not get out of Berlin at 1pm, as I'd hoped, but I missed a turnoff to the road out and circled the city once before I found it. A sign with a very low mileage number to Munich alerted me around 9 that I'd missed an important turnoff, and the trip back to it took another hour. Schwäbisch Hall turned out not to be as close to the highway as I'd thought, and I arrived just as the bars were letting out. I couldn't see a sign for my hotel anywhere, and drove and drove around the narrow streets looking for it. 45 minutes later, by sheer chance, I discovered why I couldn't find it: it wasn't in town. It was somewhere on a ridge above the town. I straggled in at 2:30, bone-weary, but hoping I could at least get a beer to celebrate the escape from Berlin. "Sure," the desk-clerk said. "There's a mini-bar in the room." Well, that was good news. But the bad news was that there was a hole where the mini-bar had been, and a sign saying that they'd taken it away because it was so impersonal, and the personal touch of delivery to your room via room service was as close as your phone. Room service, of course, had stopped at midnight. It was time to hit the sack. 

There may well be good food in Schwäbisch Hall, but I never got any. Instead, I gobbled down a standard German breakfast and hit the road. Tonight's stop would be Mâcon, a wine-making center, and, no doubt, another place I could get a good meal. I regretted not having a valedictory good beer in Germany, though; the French are not exactly noted for good beer. 

Again, the confusing highway signs made me miss a turnoff, but this time I was close enough to an alternate route that I just crawled north on the German-French border and crossed somewhere near Saarbrücken. Contrary to all logic, once I was in France, I never had a moment's confusion as to which road I should take. 

Mâcon lies on the shores of a river, the Saône, and so it was easy enough to drive along there, find the hotel, and check in. But the place looked pretty deserted, and the woman at the desk confirmed that most of the restaurants in town were closed. A quick walk confirmed that she was right, but the operative word was "most." Still, I didn't want kebabs or (shudder) "Chinese" food; I wanted French. And, sure enough, here was a place open. I went in for the worst meal I have ever paid for in France. Memory has drawn a blessed curtain over the exact details, but I was almost alone in a grotesquely overdecorated dining room, with some tables so covered with horrible ceramic Pierrots and dogs that they couldn't be used for dining. The bill, which included half a bottle of the worst wine I've ever had in a French restaurant, was €41, which I think is the most I've ever paid for a meal in France -- at least recently. I crawled back to the hotel and crashed. 

My next day's goal was to get to Montpellier in time to have lunch at the Bar Vert Anglais, which I at least knew would be good. I started driving under grey skies, which occasionally let loose with a small shower. This slowed me down, but then came an omen: right at the sign welcoming me to Provence, there was a line in the sky. On one side was the cloudy mess I'd just spent a few hours driving through, and on the other side was clear blue sky. It was like Provence had some kind of contract with the weatherman or something. And that sky stayed with me straight through to Montpellier. And, although driving in the center city is difficult, I somehow managed to slide straight into the parking lot below the Ibis Hotel, where I had a reservation for three days, in case the Germans were late. 

I was here! And, right on schedule, so was my stuff. The Germans called, and they were lost. I'd managed to get a permit to get them into the pedestrianized zone (much of the centre ville is closed to cars and trucks), and we somehow managed to get in, although the guy's son and I had to push the loaded truck uphill on rue Voltaire at one point. Finally, they began to unload, grousing that they had a ferry to get to in Barcelona and they were going to leave when it was time to get there, no matter what. Eventually, they just started unloading into the street and leaving the stuff there. This was insane: I couldn't hump this stuff up the stairs by myself. I'd really started feeling my age when I was packing, and here I had one additional flight of stairs -- narrower than in Berlin -- to negotiate. I was despairing when the guy who runs the Lebanese snack bar in front of the building walked over and asked -- in English! -- if I needed help. Yes, I told him. And I could pay, although my cash supply was getting lower and lower. He flipped open his portable and called a number. "My friend Ali is coming," he said. 

Boy, was I disapointed: Ali was tiny! But he looked at the pile of boxes in the street and picked one up like it was nothing and headed up the stairs. In a couple of hours, everything that fit was inside the apartment. Sadly, the huge, comfortable, fake leather couch I'd had in Berlin, the best couch I've ever had, was a casualty of the narrowness of the hall and the tininess of the apartment. It was gone so quickly, though, that I'm sure there are students enjoying it at this very moment. I paid Ali every cent I had in my pockets, reserving €20 so I could get dinner, and closed the door. I was in. Of course, there were a couple of problems. For one thing, the living room was sort of crammed with boxes and nearly impossible to walk through:

Once I had found an apartment, I had to move into it, and this required me to get all my stuff out of my place in Berlin, arrange for movers, and then get myself to Montpellier before they arrived there.

And another thing was, the kitchen was something of a disappointment. I'd seen it before it was renovated, and was assured I'd have a full range and a new oven. The oven was there, and it looked good. The range, on the other hand, was not at all what I was expecting. 

Although you can't tell it from this picture, even with the piece of silverware there for scale, it's almost impossible to use both these burners at once unless one of your pots or pans is considerably smaller than the other. 

Still, I was here. I had to let the refrigerator sit for 48 hours before I could turn it on, so after a quick shower, I headed up the hill to the Bar Vert Anglais to see if any of the folks I knew there would be interested in a drink before dinner -- or even dinner itself, since the drink was pretty much a given. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Learning the City

The Professor, with whom I stayed on my first trip down here, lives in a mansion. Not, however, a mansion as you might imagine it -- not on his salary. It's called a hôtel particulier, and was once a single dwelling, but it has long since been broken up into apartments. It's got a huge door on the street, an impressive, if somewhat decayed, courtyard, and the very appropriate air of having once been grander than it is today. Like so many of the center city's buildings, it's made of limestone, and details of its past peek out of the renovations of centuries. 

Naturally, having been introduced to Montpellier in such surroundings, I determined that that's where I, too, would want to live once I had the money to move. And, naturally, that proved to be one of the greatest impediments to my finding a place. 

The centre ville, and most specifically the part known as the Écusson, or escutcheon (the field on which a coat-of-arms is displayed), for its shape, which had been determined by a series of city walls in the Middle Ages, is a jumble of narrow streets lined with old houses. Not as old as they might have been: the city was very badly damaged in the 16th Century, as the local Protestants fought off the Catholics sent from Paris with money from Rome. Very few buildings from before that time remain, and, I think, none remain intact, without later additions. 

The grand buildings tend to be on one side of the hill Montpellier is built on, and less impressive, but equally old, ones on the side that slopes down towards the University. Now, one peculiar thing about the French is that the idea of living in such historic surroundings doesn't seem to appeal to most of them. They love the surrounding areas, with their New Jersey suburb-like standalone or duplex houses, tiny yards, and backyards with swimming pools. So the only people who want to live in the Écusson are students, weirdos, and foreigners. By far the largest group among those are students, so apartments are subdivided and subdivided, and that's not good news. I need space. And space, in the Écusson, costs. Or, rather, it can be found, and relatively inexpensively -- if you can afford to buy. Which, of course, I can't. 

So I had to settle for a place outside the Écusson -- but just. I can be there in less than two minutes. I'm five minutes from the train station, and there's a shopping mall with an impressive supermarket in it just down the street. There's a carousel nearby, too, if I find myself in need of one. With all that, though, it's amazingly quiet, and, although the apartment is, I think, smaller than was advertised, I'm happy enough with it for the moment. 

* * * 

The University has a lot to do with why I chose this particular place. It informs the city's culture, draws events and ideas here, and lowers the average age of the population. In this, it's a lot like some of Berlin's more salutary features, without the incessant negativity and self-destruction. 

Nobody knows how old the University is, although 1000 AD is the date usually given for its founding. It came about in a strange way. Once, the Mediterranean came up to Montpellier, evidence of which remains in the names of various "ports" which are perfectly dry nowadays. The main settlement was on the hill, and the main business was spice trading. Morocco is just across the water, and both the Greeks and Romans have long histories of settlements in the nearby area. The Greeks, for instance, are thought to have introduced winemaking (although it may well have already been in existence and they only refined the process), and the Romans took over the plantations when they arrived. The spice markets here drew a population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews: a local museum displays some tombstones from a now-vanished local church, in whose graveyard each of those religions had a section. The Muslims were all over this part of the world, ruling Spain and regulating a lot of commerce on the Mediterranean, and had the first real educational system. The Jews dealt with money matters, currency exchange, loans, brokering shipments. And the Christians were merchants to the inland areas, getting the spices from the port's docks to the marketplaces of Burgundy and Paris. 

The way I've heard the story, when the ships docked to sell spices, that's not all they had with them. And, of course, spices weren't just recognized as flavoring ingredients; they were also reputed to have medicinal properties. Some of the spices had come from as far away as Asia, and in closing a deal, one merchant might have offered a bag of something interesting as an inducement to make the sale, some substance that was supposedly medicinal in nature. By the time it got here, nobody was sure what it was. At some point, the Arabs decided that an institution should be formed for a systematic study of these medicines, and, perhaps, new uses for familiar medicines could also be found. The Christians and Jews threw in money to build this school, and since all three groups had their own systems of medicine, professors and instructors were as close as your doctor's office. This focus on healing lasted for centuries: the Jardin des Plantes was Europe's first botanical garden, founded in 1593 to grow and study medicinal plants. Both Rabelais and Nostradamus studied, then taught, at the University. And, throughout the political and religious upheavals, the University stayed central to the life of the city. 

Today, the thing is spread all over the map of the city, and very little of it exists within the Écusson. Still, its presence there continues in the houses in which students and educators lived (the Professor lives on a street named for a city in Spain, which endowed the house next door to him as a residents for students from that city who went to Montpellier to study -- which, 600 years later, is still its function), the buildings in which they worked, and the tolerance for research and learning that's brought high-tech and bio-tech to town. 

That was one layer of the city that I knew before I moved. Oh, but there are more. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Finding The City

I knew I had to move. I just didn't know where. Berlin had become a sink of bad memories, a place I needed to leave behind. But where to go? 

I'd gone to France some years earlier with a friend, and at one point we had driven out of Dijon into the Burgundy wine country when, somewhere south of Beaune, I spotted a very old building by the side of the road. It turned out to be an old convent, closed for the day, but we needed a rest from driving, so we got out of the car and wandered around the town, which was clustered along the banks of a small river. My friend dipped into a bakery and got some kind of pastry which she declared fantastic. I was thinking about what it'd be like to live in a place like this, and she must have read my mind because after finishing the pastry she turned to me and said "This is where you should be living! You hate Berlin! You speak French and you're impossible with German!" 

She was right, and she was wrong. The next few years brought some adventures and experiences I wouldn't have missed for anything. But then things went sour, I ran out of money, and it was, after all, time to move. And yes, I thought, remembering this trip, France sounded like a good idea. I'd already spent some time in Paris, where I knew some folks, but it seemed expensive, congested, and too full of other Americans. Where else was there? I remembered the town in Burgundy and whipped out the map to find it, having forgotten its name. Ah, there: Tournus! Playing around with a search-engine, though, just reinforced one fear I had: I would be pretty lonely. The town is small, I would be a stranger just dropping in from nowhere, I knew no one there, and it was a ways from any decent-sized town. 

But the basic idea was good. 

That's when the Resentments showed up. 

It's rare enough for decently adult music to show up in Berlin, but these guys included a couple of old friends from Austin, and were only a half-hour's walk from my house, so suddenly, in the middle of a cold winter, I had something to look forward to. And sure enough, as I approached the club, there was their diminutive bassist, Bruce Hughes, out on the sidewalk. After trading the ritual insults (I once described one of Bruce's early bands as having produced "headache music," and he's never forgiven me), he started talking about the guy who was their opening act on this tour. "He's great, he's like Jimi Hendrix!" We continued to chat, and I mentioned that I was thinking of moving to France. "Hey, he's from France! He lives in Montpeeler!" Do you know where that is? I asked Bruce. "Sure, it's right near Paris!" 

"It's halfway between Marseille and Barcelona," the guy told me backstage when I finally met him. And yeah, I knew it was pronounced Monh-pull-YAY. 

So when I went home after that show, although I was tired, I was also buzzed enough to call up the Montpellier tourist website, and the official city website which, had some cool QuickTime visites virtuelles (and, as you can see, it still does). It looked interesting. I wrote a couple of friends: "Who do we know in Montpellier?" One of them wrote back with the name of a professor of American Studies at the university, and so in January, 2005, I raised some money towards an exploratory mission to see what the place looked like, and was impressed. I jotted down my first impressions on my blog under the title "A Goal." 

It was a goal that took me close to four years to achieve, one that cost me tons of money thrown down blind alleys and abortive missions to hunt for an apartment. There was a stiff learning curve, no doubt about that. 

And yet, with the industry which has supported me, magazine journalism, collapsing around my ears, with the dollar sinking to unbelievable lows against the euro, and despite the resistance of some of the French to admitting outsiders into their country, in mid-November, 2008, I put some of my stuff into a truck and some more of my stuff into a very full station wagon and used the keys I got the day after I arrived to open the door to a new apartment. 

* * * 

It's taken a while for me to start this blog. It took til February 18, 2009, for me to get Internet service at home, for instance. It took me forever to get a bank account, without which one can't get a phone. I'm still unpacking. But I'm ready to start talking about the things I like and the things I don't like -- oh, yes, fans of my previous blog, there will be dyspepsia here, too -- about this new place I've landed in. So welcome aboard, and check back often. 
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