Saturday, May 30, 2009

Market Report, End of May

I know I promised to post weekly market reports here, but there are a few reasons I haven't, and probably won't. The first is that I've discovered that I don't go every Tuesday or Saturday. This is either due to laziness, work that has to be done, or, increasingly, the realization that I have enough. Thus, although I missed Tuesday this week, I still have two heads of lettuce and a pound of green peas left over from last Saturday -- not that that kept me from going today.

Nice weather has something to do with this: if you really don't have anything urgent pressing on you, a stroll through the historic center of Montpellier follwed by a ramble down the row of market stalls on a nice warm day is a fine idea.

So here's what I got today.

First, the eggs. Lots of the merchants sell eggs as a sideline. Some, like the ones who also sell chickens, make perfect sense. But there are others selling cheese or vegetables, who also sell them. I guess everyone has chickens, and so putting the morning's surplus on the truck with the rest of the stuff just makes sense. At any rate, the eggs are fresher and larger than what I've gotten at the supermarket, and only ten cents or so more expensive. And when I scramble them, they turn a blinding yellow. They also, no matter what I do with them, have an incredibly rich flavor. They're just a bit eggier than any eggs I've had in the past, like someone turned the volume up a notch or two.

Just below them is a pannier of strawberries. I naively said, the first time I did one of these posts, that I liked the stalls where there was only one thing available because that meant the people knew what they were doing. Someone upbraided me, though, saying that a farm doing monoculture wasn't going to produce very good stuff because it'd be depleting its soil. These strawberries come from the folks I've been buying them from all along, and they're small, intense, and pretty ugly. Given that these people have good prices and are friendly -- and they're located a whopping 12km from the center of town -- I'm happy to see that now they have tons of cherries at the stand and the melons are starting to show up. Now, I'm not going to buy a melon until I can smell one from walking by, so that may be a week or two off, and it may not be from these people, but I'm glad to see that they're growing a number of crops, and I'm beginning to suspect that they may be adding tomatoes soon. Oh, just wait for the tomato pictures! But...not yet.

Then, there's a bunch of skinny asparagus. I bought this from an old guy who just had a lot of bunches like this one in a bag. He was crouching next to a cheese stand, and I suspect he hitched a ride with them or maybe even took the bus in. He took my two-euro coin and tossed it into a pile of them. His was the very best asparagus I saw today, but I suspect it's among the last I'll be seeing. In fact, the asparagus and the strawberries will, I bet, be going away in the next week or two. I'll do what I can to help.

Finally, components of tomorrow morning's breakfast. There's a hunk of cheese that is supposedly cantal, although it wasn't labelled as such and didn't taste exactly like it. It did, however, taste good, although the woman sawed off far more than I wanted. (What you see is half of what I was offered first). And, next to that, not very well photographed, is a hunk of saucisson sec which I thought was covered with herbes de Provence but is, instead, covered with coarsely-ground black pepper. No matter: it gets cubed (well, some of it does) and tossed in with some browned cubes of potato tomorrow, then scrambled eggs go in and a few seconds later some of that cantal or whatever it is.

Last Saturday I picked up, from another farmer whose stuff I really like, a nice bag of green beans, which he was happily talking to an old lady about. "First green beans of the season! More to come." I can wait; they were fibrous even after vigorous steaming. I know we're about to see a lot more of them, but there weren't many today, and I'm thinking this guy's early variety is just plain tough. And finally, there were more fava beans than I've ever seen. What on earth does one do with them, I wonder? Because they're cheap enough, and they look pretty good.

Off to do more research and figure out how to use up those green peas from last week...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Save the Rosés and Spare the Clowns

I scored today.

Some weeks back, I was bumming around the Wine Museum, my personal name for La Maison Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir, which is kind of clunky, the huge pretty much Languedoc-only wine shop on rue St. Guilhem here, when I saw that one of my favorite wineries in the region, Mas de la Seranne, had produced a rosé. Cool, I said to myself; I'll have to come back and get it next time. I was pretty broke the day I saw it, plus it was stll pretty cold outside, not really weather for drinking a chilled wine.

Of course, next time I was there, the wine wasn't. But recently, I've noticed that the 2008 rosés are hitting the stores, so today when I was just wandering around, I stopped in, and sure enough, there were a few bottles. I grabbed one before they evaporated. At €5.90, I figure it's gotta be a steal.

And, although I probably was doing no such thing, I felt like I was supporting a cause. The EU, those noted gastronomes who have reduced the sizes of onions avaliable in supermarkets to exactly two (softball and billiard ball) and have imposed a rating system on produce that has done more to drive people to farmer's markets (where produce is largely unrated) than any amount of gourmet propaganda could have done, are in the process of deciding whether or not it'd be okay for winemakers to mix red and white wines together and sell them as rosé.

Now, ignorant fool that I am, I had long assumed that's just how they were made (just as I assumed that green grapes made white wine and purple grapes red wine), but of course it's not: it's about how long the juice is allowed to hang out with the skins after crushing. As you might expect, this also affects the taste. A rosé is definitely ballsier than a white, but not as heavy as a red. White wine is a piano sonata, red wine is a symphony, and rosés are chamber music. I haven't tried it, but my suspicion is that mixing a white and a red doesn't give you a rosé any more than playing a piano sonata on top of an orchestra gives you a piano concerto.

But rosés have been discovered. Part of this, I think, is due to Peter Mayle's unrelenting promotion of Provence, which has produced lousy red wines for decades. Just as it has in the Languedoc, that's changed, but in both regions, back in the days when bad wine was the rule rather than the exception, the word among connoisseurs was that the rosés were where the action was, and it was. Whatever the reason, people are buying more of them, and demand outstrips supply. Nor are rosés for serious cellaring: they're very much of the moment, and that, too, I suspect is part of their appeal: they're serious, but not that serious. Or not serious in That Way, if you get my meaning.

Anyway, the wine-growers, already under mandate to uproot significant parts of their vines to reduce the EU "wine lake," now have another thing to worry about. Thus, a website called Couper n'est pas Rosé (blending isn't rosé) complete with a petition to the EU in French, German, Dutch, Italian, and English (what, no Spanish?) to stop this nonsense. It looks like it's only open to European residents, but I urge a signature if you qualify.

And as for the bottle in the picture, I'm waiting until I'm absolutely sure this bout of sinusitis I've had for the past six weeks has passed: I've had my ability to taste severely curtailed, and it's been driving me wild. But today I tasted something fully for the first time in a long time (one of the Lebanese grilled snacks from the guy in front of my building), and I almost cried in gratitude. Imagine: living in France and not being able to taste anything! I'll probably write about it at some point; one of my goals is to rent a car and drive to Aniane and visit the winery at some point, as well as find the olive press that makes the great cheap olive oil I've been buying. Stay tuned.

* * *

When I wrote about streets here some time back, one thing I didn't mention was that there is some serious street theater which appears from time to time. Around Christmas, there was a spate of it. Some of it was musical: mixed-gender brass bands comprised of people in silly costumes, with dancers in front of them. But some of it was satire; I saw a troupe who brought their own "stage set" -- a number of boxes of varying size -- and put on some kind of revue dressed as policemen and soldiers. That one seemed very language-dependent, although I stopped and watched it for a few mintues.

Today, I was walking home from the Wine Museum when I saw a crowd by the McDonald's. My first thought, given the kind of folks who hang out there, was that someone had been killed, but the reality was both better and worse than that: clowns!

A troupe of young folks, mostly women, in classic white-face with red ball noses, were performing mostly silently, and I stifled my clownophobia for a moment to see what was up. When I happened upon them, they seemed to be miming a rock band, occasionally making sounds, especially the "lead vocalist," who eventually came to the front and started blaring "Waaaaah waaaaah!" At one point, one of the clowns watched as her cell-phone flipped out of her costume. A woman, slightly older than the people in the troupe, stepped foward and pocketed it. She turned out to be...I don't know...the director? She seemed to be conducting them, definitely feeding cues to fade out with the "rock band," at which point she appeared in the group, talking to a couple of the clowns, who, as she slipped back into the crowd, started singing "When the Saints Go Marching In." It started off well, and got worse and worse and worse as the clowns got more and more excited. Again the director brought it down and out, and, having had enough (although I was kicking myself for leaving the house without a camera -- in my defense, I had originally intended to go to an art show which seems to have closed, and who takes a camera to a gallery?), I came back to my apartment.

This sort of thing seems to happen in waves, and then disappear. I really do need to find someone who knows more about life here to ask about these odd happenings. And I really need to start carrying my camera more often.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Books In The 'Hood

Last week was, I'm told, one of the big events of the year in Montpellier, the Comédie du Livre. The odd name only means that the square known as the Comédie because of the opera house that anchors one end of it was filled from one end to the other with a huge fair celebrating publishing.

Taking it from the opera house, there was a large tent in which publishers of magazines and newspapers set up, then a very long tent featuring publishers of BDs, bandes dessinées, which term could loosely and not quite accurately be translated as comic books or graphic novels. BDs are a big thing in France, and most assuredly not only read by kids and the emotionally stunted. I have yet to make much inroad into this scene, but I do have a favorite artist, whose work I'm mesmerized by and who, predictably, is almost totally unknown to BD fans here. I didn't see anything new by him, which was good because I'm beyond broke at the moment. I figure there have to be two or three others similarly good, but I've got to hook up with someone who knows their way around before I go much further.

Down towards the Esplanade were many, many tents. First, a big one over to the side where the star authors sat and autographed copies of their books. The big bookstores sponsor these and sell the books. Further down, in the shade of the huge trees, were stands with local publishers, local specialty bookstores (English-language, travel, music), used bookstores, academic publishers, and places where readings take place.

The thing was jammed the first two days. Long lines snaked in front of particularly popular writers' stands, no doubt provoking in the authors sitting on either side of them more than a little jealousy. Kids were romping around the childrens' book section, and, from the number of them carrying bags, buying. It's really true: the French seem to treat their intellectuals, if not as rock stars, as something close. Some of this has to do with the fact that they appear on television shows, although it doesn't explain why the television shows are themselves so popular. (For a hint of this, etnobofin has a good post on talk shows here) All I knew was, this wouldn't happen in the States, and who knows, if I ever manage to get a book deal past unscrupulous agents and boneheaded publishers, I might be forced to sit out in the sunshine for three afternoons in May myself some day.

Sunday, Marie said she was heading in to see things, and I agreed to meet her so I could maybe get a little more insight into what was happening. She bopped around the various stands, and clearly knew a bunch of the writers. Mind you, I'd never heard of a single one of them, which, I think, shows the degree to which European literature is ignored in the United States. Of course, the French are as publication-happy as the Japanese, so I suspect a lot of this stuff probably wouldn't get translated anyway. But still, it's a bit intimidating seeing all these authors (and walking down the Esplanade with Marie, who occasionally said things like "See that man with the red shirt? He's an author!") and being so utterly ignorant of who they were.

Saturday, I stood in line for a long time to get into a talk on "Histories and stories of the Languedoc" at the Corum, a huge convention-center/concert hall at the end of the Esplanade, only to get shut out at the last minute, and I saw by the program book that I'd missed a Catalonian meal (a "literary and gastronomic voyage to Barcelona") at the House of International Relations on Saturday, but there would be a closing concert of medieval music by the CRDP, whoever they were, on Sunday at 5:15 in the auditorium of the Musée Fabre, so I made very sure I would make that one. Marie and I wound up at the museum early: she had a friend there talking on anarchism, and wanted to catch some of that. Again, though, it was stuffed. "People go even if they don't like it, because it's free," she said.

She went off to talk to more authors, and I sat on the patio in front of the museum sipping a Coke Zero (I have to find this statistic verified, but I read somewhere that it is the most popular beverage in France right now, outselling red or white wine) and waiting out the anarchists. Eventually, I went in, and found a small crowd gathered outside the hall. The anarchists were still talking. Eventually, a woman from the CRDP showed up and asked who among us had filled out questionnaires. Several people raised their hands and she went around to them, finding fault with every one of them. The people got to work correcting them, and she asked a second time who had questionnaires. The same people raised their hands. She collected the now-satisfactory forms. Then she asked for quiet and announced there would be no concert of medieval music.

And that was that. No explanation.

So I walked slowly back to the apartment, enjoying the warm afternoon and the mild breeze cooling things slightly, reflecting that it was nice to live in a place where people got excited by authors.

Each year the Comédie du Livre invites a partner to participate. This year was Spain. Next year, I hear, it will be "North America." Okay, that should be fun.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Today's Tension-Filled Adventure

Yesterday, I went to a friend's house and picked up some pots so I can start the chiles and tomatillos and basil I want to grow on my small balcony. With any luck, I'll be able to harvest a good number of chiles; I've never grown tomatillos, but I like them and there's no way I'll find any here, even canned. The basil, of course, goes without saying, and they don't sell the plants in the quantity they do in German supermarkets.

Thing is, you need soil for this endeavor, and that I did not pick up yesterday.

So I went out onto the Comédie, where they were scooping up the beach-volleyball sand and erecting pavillions for the Comédie du Livre, the big book fair that happens every year, which will start on Friday. I was headed to the line of florists' kiosks at the start of the Esplanade, where I hoped to score some potting soil.

There wasn't any, and I turned almost instinctively to go to Inno, where I'd seen bags for sale, but then I remembered that there's a shop specialzing in pots and seeds on the rue St. Guilhem, a more mom-and-pop place. I'm (as usual) desperately broke, but somehow the idea of not giving the Monoprix empire all my money was appealing. So I turned on my heel and headed back across the Comédie, past McDonald's, and into the rue de la Loge.

Everyone was standing still. I saw a bunch of policemen, just standing around in a sort of circle, and in the middle, a fire truck, out in the middle of the street. It took a minute for me to figure out what was going on.

To celebrate spring, the city has hung planters with colorful flowering plants on the wires connecting one side of the street to the other, the same wires which hold the Christmas decorations in season. And, on the bottom of one of these planters was a very large swarm of bees. I say large. I mean, bigger than your head. There were two guys in the fire-truck's cherry-picker, both with beekeepers' helmets on, one with a fire department shirt, the other with a sort of farmer's clothing.

I walked around to the other side of the action, uphill, to get a better view. The cherry-picker rose, slowly, slowly, and a box with a number on the side was produced. But...they were too far away from the swarm. The cherry-picker had to be drawn in, the braces on the side of the truck withdrawn, and the truck very slightly repositioned. Then it was time to try again.

This time they managed to get right under the bottom of the planter, where the swarm was. The beekeeper (wearing gloves, I hasten to add) swept the bees into the box with a brush. Other bees swarmed around, but the beekeeper kept looking at the planter, to make sure he hadn't missed the queen. No, she was in the box, apparently, so he put the lid on and the fireman twiddled some controls and the cherry-picker retreated until the two men could climb down the ladder and into the street. There, the beekeeper fastened a belt around the box of bees, and put them in the back of a very funky truck I hadn't seen until then, parked just behind the fire truck.

I went up the rest of the hill, bought my potting soil, and when I came back down, there were still bees zipping around the planter.

Such excitement, and it's only Monday!

Sunday, May 17, 2009


On my Berlin blog, I used to have posts I called "crumbs," which were short, mostly unrelated thises and thats. The word for crumb in French is miette, I see, so that's what this is about. There may well be a better word, and if/when I find it, I'll use it. Meanwhile, onward.

The skies over Montpellier (see above) have been very odd this spring, with, as I understand it, lots more rain than usual, some of it pretty violent. Given the area's reliance on agriculture, particularly wine-grapes, I'm wondering how this, and the forecasted hotter-than-usual next couple of months, will affect the wine being produced this year. My guess, which is totally uninformed, is not so well. Informed speculation, however, welcome.

* * *

It would appear that Americans aren't the only people who don't know a thing about this part of France, if this story from the London Times, which nobly attempts to bring Brits up to speed, is anything to go by. But still, I could improve on it without moving from my palatial apartment, let alone what I could do with a few hundred euros' expense money. It's a place to start, though, for those of you who wonder why anyone would want to live here. But just a start.

* * *

One great mystery I've found while adjusting to cooking here -- as best as I can cook on this teensy-weensy stovetop -- is that there doesn't seem to be any chicken broth for sale in the store. None. In the U.S., you can now buy chicken broth without MSG just about everywhere, and given that a lot of professional chefs use it as an all-purpose band-aid for culinary goofs, not to mention as a base for some sauces, it's hard for me to believe that French home cooks routinely buy and boil chickens just to get this stuff. Especially since, at around €7.50 a kilo, chicken's almost as expensie as cocaine in this country. (Do I need poulet de fermier jaune to make kungpao chicken? No. Does it taste better made with it? Yes. Do I make it as often as I used to? At those prices? Are you nuts?)

I hope someone tells me I've just been looking in the wrong place for this stuff. Boiling half a bio bouillon cube whenever I need some broth is a pain and dirties up one more pan. It doesn't have to be AOC poulet de Bresse broth. Just water with chicken in it.

* * *

One thing we do have here is street art, and I'll be documenting some more of it soon. Meanwhile, this gal, impressively sized, showed up one day and I realized I should shoot her before she peels off. This artist has a number of larger and smaller pieces around, including ones of people playing games, and other portraits. Montpellier's most famous street artist is the guy who took Space Invaders figures and rendered them in mosaic. What I didn't know until Miss Expatria provided a link (which I now can't find), was that he arranged these mosaic tags in such a way that the placement described a huge Space Invader over the map of the area where he laid them. He subsequently went on to do this in numerous other cities (I've seen them in Paris and Berlin, for instance). No doubt by now he's a professor of graffiti at some small French university, oppressing the students.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Market Report

Just to infuriate my American readers -- and the ones in Berlin, too -- I decided to lug my camera to the market at the Arceaux today. The Tuesday market isn't as crowded as the Saturday one, and it's a little friendlier-feeling, because there aren't so many of the city's entitled yuppies pushing their way around. More old ladies, joshing with the vendors, more ordinary people. And me.

I went back to see if I could find some of those gariguette strawberries I'd been seeing, especially after I'd bought a pannier of them in the Inno supermarket and been disappointed, but apparently their time is over. Instead, I got, um, another kind. There now seem to be four or five kinds on the market, some more spherical, some pointier, others between the two.

One thing I tend to do is to find a specialist farmer, someone who has nothing but one or two kinds of fruit or vegetables for sale, figuring they've been paying closer attention. (This could be superstition, for all I know). Anyway, a small pannier of strawberries from these folks will provide the topping to tomorrow's breakfast cereal:

Cherries, something I don't eat much, also seem to be coming in, and asparagus is getting cheaper. I didn't buy from these people this time, but I have in the past. Instead, I found a couple of farmers selling mostly asparagus who were almost wiped out, so I thought I'd make their packing easier. But this specialty farm here is 12 whole kilometers out of town, and I'm thinking I could take the tram out there:

The guys I bought the asparagus from also had a bunch of peas, another newcomer in the market this week, and they were priced to sell at €4/kilo, so tonight's dinner will be pasta with a cream sauce of peas and ham. The French make about a zillion kinds of ham, so it may take me a while to figure out which to use. As a big fan of peas, who used to lament not finding them in Berlin's markets except maybe once every couple of years, these guys here look great:

And finally, these odd things. They're zucchini, and no, I didn't buy any, but I keep wondering why someone would pay a slight premium for spherical zucchini. Do they taste different? Or are they easier to stuff? French butchers sell a minced-meat product called farce, often several different types of it, ready-made to stuff vegetables like peppers and zucchini. Anyone have any experience with these things?

I'll likely go back to the market on Saturday, but without the camera. That'll give me an idea what, if anything, to shoot next Tuesday. Anybody know when the asperges sauvages come in?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Vive La France, First in a Series

Today was a holdiay. It was VE Day, the day the Germans surrendered.

We never celebrated this holiday in Berlin.

At around 10, I heard solemn military band music coming from around the corner on the Comédie. There were speeches. I wanted to go out and see what it looked like, but I was busy working, so I couldn't. There were more speeches and more band music.

Montpellier, after all, was a hotbed of the Resistance, or so they say, although I do understand it's always been a rather left-leaning city. We even have a famous hero of the Resistance, Jean Moulin, whose presence is noted by several memorials around town. No doubt his name was evoked. It was lost in echoes. Amplification's like that. Finally, the band music and the speeches stopped. When I went out after I finished working, around 1, the square looked like it always does.

At 2pm, the large sandpit that's been sitting there for a week finally opened. The Beach Masters were underway. When I came back from the store around 6:30, there were women in bikinis bashing balls around. This will continue for a week, as France and Brazil battle it out. Solemn rites and beach volleyball, all in a single day. I must be in France.

(photo by Marie)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fear And Strawberries

I'm afraid I made a mistake last night. I don't think it's going to be permanent, and I don't think it's even going to have any lasting effects, but I'm still not real happy about it.

I've been wanting to get out, meet new people, make some new contacts, so when my pal Marie said there was going to be a get-together followed by some food at the Maison des Relations Internationales, a lovely old house on the edge of the town center hill, last night, I agreed to join her.

What I should have done, I now realize, is to have paid closer attention to what was going to happen.

We got there a bit early, and hung around the grounds, which are planted with various exotic and not-so-exotic trees, and Marie pointed out various landmarks which could be seen. She insisted on speaking French, which is good, and we agreed that we should set up weekly 90-minute meetups at which French and English would be spoken in two 45-minute halves, thus helping each other out. So among other things, I learned the word for "water tower," which is chateau d'eau.

Inside the Maison, a meeting of the organization which was presenting the program we'd come to see was going on. Marie mentioned that "there are a lot of...I don't want to say 'important' people, but...people who count in the city" in this organization, which, I see from a piece of paper I brought back, is called ICEO, which, if I'm not mistaken, has something to do with eastern Europe.

When the meeting broke up, we went in and circulated. Apparently the fact that I'm American had caused some interest, because we're in very short supply here. I still wasn't sure what was going to happen, but I chatted amiably, in bad French, with a couple of the people Marie knew. I think the minute when it all started to go downhill was when she mentioned to one of these guys that I'd lived in Berlin, and he asked me how long I'd been there. Stupidly mixing words up, I replied "Sixty years." (Well, it seemed like it). I got a rather odd look. No, no, no. Sixteen.

But at about that point, the meeting was called to order and I realized, by reading the piece of paper in my hand, that the guy at the table in the front of the room was François Lerin, Scientific Administrator of something called IAMM, and was going to give an introduction leading to a debate on the topic "Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and twenty years of transition to a market economy, what future do the Balkans have in Europe?"

A topic on which I have no opinion, and, more importantly, in which I have no interest at present. And which I was now pretty much obligated to have to deal with.

M. Lerin, let it be said, isn't a very dynamic speaker. Sitting closer to the microphone would have made it easier for me to decode the rapid stream which came out of his mouth, but I only heard intermittent words, and understood very few of them. The word "modality" came up frequently, which caused me to reflect that there was a very, very good chance that I wouldn't have understood this if it were in English.

And as the clank of the caterers setting up in the next room got louder, I realized something: I should not be here. I came because I had only €50 between me and destitution, and because there was a free meal, and that was wrong. I could offer nothing to these people in return for the meal, because I had no idea what was being talked about. I was trying not to panic, but my palms were getting sweaty. I really had to make my excuses and leave. But Marie was up taking pictures, so I couldn't leave yet. It was coming on to nine. There was one store open for another 45 minutes. I should grab something and eat at home.

As the debate wound down, Marie returned to her seat and I told her in no uncertain terms that I absolutely had to leave. She didn't seem to understand why, but I asked her to apologize on my behalf. By the time I was back in my apartment, my heart was thudding. I sat down and centered myself and relaxed as best I could, then got up and went to the store.

I wrote Marie last night explaining myself as best I could, but I haven't heard back from her. I suspect things will be okay. But I'm not very pleased with myself for any of this.

* * *

It's unfortunate that the day ended so badly, because it had begun so well. I've been making sure to go to the market that's held twice weekly at the Arceaux district here, easily the best of the city's markets, and Saturday I was pleasantly surprised to notice that my sense of smell, which disappeared shortly after I returned from Texas in early April and has been pretty much AWOL since, had returned. Cheese stalls smelled cheesy, the guys cooking stuffed squid and paella were perfuming the air, and the strawberries were out in force. I found one family selling nothing but, and they were the local kind known as garriguettes. These are less spherical than they are shaped like a V. Very narrow, and not very big. I smelled some, and yup, they were ready. So I bought a 250g basket for two bucks and took it home. In Texas, I'd bought a box of Grape Nuts, which seem to me to be the ideal medium for berries, so yesterday morning, I washed and topped half of the garriguettes and stuck 'em on top of some Grape Nuts and had a fantastic breakfast.

Garriguettes don't taste like the strawberries we got in Berlin, exactly. I mean, they're clearly strawberries; nothing that tastes like that could be anything else. And yet...they're different. I spent some time tossing this around, trying to explain it, and the answer was so blindingly, stupidly obvious that I'm almost embarrassed: as any French person could tell me, it's about terroir, that indefinable something which not only makes the wine grown in one patch of ground vastly different from another, but affects all of the food around us that's not industrially grown. It's an important part of French life, and yet it's still surprising to me when it gets up in my face like that.

I didn't go back to the market this morning, though. Partially out of fear of spending too much (although I needn't really worry, I now realize: all I bought on Saturday was the strawberries and a bottle of olive oil, which I needed: when I'm in crisis mode I get very conservative), partially out of the fact that it was 11:30 before I could have left and with it taking a half hour to get to the market and it closing at 1:00, it didn't seem worthwhile. Plus, there's nothing I really need (crisis mode again), so best not to be tempted.

The crisis will abate some in June. It's about staying alive until then.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Bye-Bye, Bitches

What you see above is a common sight late on a Thursday evening at the Bar Vert Anglais. The woman in the center of the adoring throng is Hannah, and the adorers are all members of Hannah's Bitches, the winningest team in the weekly Vert Anglais pub quiz. Needless to say, I'm on the team.

For those of you (predominantly in the States) who don't know about these things, the pub quiz is an institution imported from Great Britain in which various bits of trivia are asked, teams decide on an answer, and the scores are graded at the end, with a prize given to the winning team. The Vert Angalis was the first bar in town to institute one, and within a couple of weeks, the other Irish (and English) pubs followed suit. Pub quizzes, you see, particularly bilingual ones in a town with a lot of students, bring in an awful lot of drinkers.

The way George, the barman who runs the quiz, does it is there are three rounds. The first is music. Now, you'd think that this is where the Bitches would rule, because not only am I on the team, but so is Bart, who covered music when he was a reporter on a New Jersey newspaper, and there are usually a couple of young women -- by which I mean 19-25 -- on the team. But George's taste in music is very odd. I've never heard of about 1/3 of the groups he plays, and neither has anyone else on our team, although other teams seem to do very well with them. George's idea of an old record is one from, oh, 2007. He's got a penchant for lazily strummed acoustic guitars and boys and girls with wispy voices singing about not much. Also, to be fair to the French players, he usually sticks in one French artist (or an artist like Supertramp, who were apparently huge here). Rarely will anything from the '60s, '70s, '80s, or '90s get included. And if those younger women don't show, our score's even worse.

The second round is "general knowledge," ie, trivia. This is where we shine. What nation exports the most wool? You're drinking a Red Stripe Beer in the country where it's made: where are you? How many plays did Shakespeare write? What year did the Berlin Wall go up? Where was the first World Cup played? (That's weird enough that I even remember it now: Uruguay.) What country has the longest life-expectancy? If you're spending dongs, what country are you in? (Come on, I'm not going to give you all the answers).

Given the miscellaneous backgrounds of the various Bitches, we usually do very, very well on this one.

The final round is a sheet of paper with pictures on it. There are flags, there are cars, there are guitars sometimes, but usually there are lots and lots of celebrities or movie stills. We've got one flag expert, I can sometimes do cars or guitars, but the young women do the best with the celebrities, and yet they'd be the first to admit that they don't do very well.

The answers are collected, George withdraws behind the bar, and then he reads out the top four teams. Then, someone from Hannah's Bitches goes and picks up the bottle of Wyborovka vodka we've won, as well as some crappy orange juice to mix it with, which is a sin, in my estimation.

Well, not all the time. Our 19-year-old, who usually brings one of her friends, hasn't been around for ages, and neither has her father, Hannah's boss. This former means less-than-optimal music results, the latter the extra point that puts us over in general knowledge. Sometimes there are trick questions. And sometimes, as George has noted, the large size of our team causes us to over-think things. Some of the questions aren't as tricky as we decide they are. Sometimes, the other teams just get lucky.

The rules say you can't use cell phones or mobile browsers to answer questions. Having someone at home with Google fired up is not an option. Which is not to say that creative solutions don't present themselves. One week George asked for the name of the church (whose crypt is part of the city museum) which had stood in the Place Jean Jaurès, and Bart suddenly realized that he needed a cigarette badly. So as not to disturb any of the drinkers outside the Vert Anglais, he decided to enjoy it in the Place Jean Jaurès. Unfortunately, he only half-read the sign, so that subterfuge fizzled.

Anyway, it's fun for me to get out of the house, and although a lot of the other teams are made up of American students, who seem to be very young and very wealthy, and drink very much and get very loud (and sometimes aren't very bright: a young woman overheard me talking at the bar and asked if I were American, and when I said yes, asked me where I was from, so I said Texas to save time, and her reply was "Well, I guess you're upset about the election, then, aren't you?"), and they make it hard to hear the music (impossible, in fact, at times) and to hear George's questions, it doesn't matter because we win.

But the next couple of weeks will see the end of the University of Montpellier's year, and the students have to knuckle down to take their finals, so last Thursday's pub quiz, which Hannah, who's just moved into a new apartment, missed (causing Bart to re-name the team Where's Hannah?) was the last one until October. This is too bad, too, or maybe not. My social life since I arrived here has pretty much revolved around the Vert Anglais, and while I like the place and really like the folks who run it, since they've gone out of their way to be good to me, I really need to start broadening my circles here and making new networks. Of course, once the students leave, the Vert Anglais will become a much nicer bar for us older (read: over 30) types, and their salads and their hamburger at lunchtime can't be beat, so I'll be there for that. (The question of how a bar owned by British people, from a country which makes wretched hamburgers, in the south of France, the country that gave us Quick burgers, with a French chef, turns out such a fantastic burger will, I hope, be addressed in a later post, but first I have to figure it out myself).

So goodbye to the Bitches -- at least the ones who'll be leaving for the summer -- and goodbye to the quiz probably means hello to an opportunity to meet some new people and learn more about Montpellier. First, though, I have to live through the next month, which, because of a lawsuit I can't talk about which stems from income I thought I'd have by now and don't, and no money coming in until June, is going to be just horrible, at least from how it looks now. My big hope was to spend this weekend getting the jalapeño, serrano, and tomatillo seeds planted, along with some basil out on the balcony, but I've only got €70 left, so that's out of the question. I won't be going out, although I've been forcing myself to leave the house at least once a day for an hour, and I can't dally over a drink at the Vert Anglais or any other bar, let alone a coffee or a lemonade. I hope this passes (and that I don't), because the weather's gotten nice and this is what I moved here for. Stay tuned.
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