Sunday, June 7, 2009

Miettes Again

What was surprising was not the signs which went up earlier in the week announcing "Lesbian and Gay Pride" and the 15th annual parade for same -- I've known for some time that Montpellier is to France what San Francisco is to America -- but that the phrase was in English. What makes this particularly odd is that the signs were made by the city, which is happy to attract a few thousand extra tourists for the few days leading up to the parade itself. So boldly venturing into yet another area I know nothing about, I asked a couple of people about it. The Unreliable Source told me that the "official" word for gay in French was pédé, fixed by the Academie Francaise in the 19th century, and that to use anything else would be wrong. Everyone else just shrugged it off.

As it turned out, the Unreliable Source was, as is often the case, wrong, at least according to my dictionary, which gives "homosexuel" and "gay" as the words, while a more reliable source informs me that "pédé" is incredibly offensive, not to mention the fact that it's slang. But this just makes me wonder more, since "homosexuel" is so clinical and "gay" is, well, English. Even the Germans have "Schwule," which means "moist" or "humid."

At any rate, that would definitely have been the right word yesterday. I went to the market in the morning, and in the Peyrou, the big park at one end of the Centre Ville, there were dozens of people working hard on floats, some of which looked quite elaborate. Bars and cafes seemed to be packed, and yet the sky didn't seem very promising. The parade started at the Peyrou, and worked its way down to the Comédie, by me, and was making a racket by about 4. Sometime after 5, I left my apartment to do my weekend shopping, and looked up at the Comédie, which was packed to capacity with revellers. The sun was shining, and I made a note not to try to fight my way back home through the crowd.

I'm not sure what happened next, but I was indoors in a shopping mall at the time. When I emerged from the supermarket, it was pounding down rain, and the Comédie appeared all but deserted. I returned home to windows which had blown open and water on the floor, so the onset of that storm must've been something. I wish I'd stayed home to watch it and gone out afterwards.

* * *

Another odd bit of slang: I once asked a very reliable source what the word for pot (as in the kind one smokes) was in French, and he said "hash." But, I said, what if one didn't want hashish, but, rather, marijuana, herb? "Oh, that word is 'shit.'" Remembering back to my teenage reading of Alexander Trocchi, I asked him if that weren't the same word as for heroin. I got a Gallic shrug. "I suppose so." So the moral here, I guess, is don't buy pot in France.

But that also put me in mind of the Lenny Bruce routine about four-letter words, in which he says that there's only one which is guaranteed to offend everyone: snot. Which has been a central part of my life for nearly two months now. Some time after returning from Texas at the start of April, I came down with a sinus infection. This mostly meant congestion, but after a while I lost my ability to smell or taste. This has happened plenty in the past, and I figured it would pass shortly. Except it didn't. What was odd was that the problem was only in my left nostril, although the smell/taste thing kept on.

After about four weeks, I began to worry. I had a great-aunt who had lost her sense of taste as a child due to rheumatic fever, so I knew such a thing was theoretically possible. I was advised to buy something called a neti pot, a ceramic thing which you'd add salt water to and stuck up your nose, but these don't seem to be available here. The next-best thing was a ripoff: an aerosol can of salt water for you to blast into your sinuses. Cost eight friggin' euros, but I got one. The gas wore out before the water did. I trudged to the Apotheque for another. This worked okay, although it didn't last very long. Still, I realized that this sort of auto-waterboarding was giving me temporary relief.

And maybe more than that: the snot seemed to be abating. A couple of times, I had momentary restoration of my taste and smell, but it didn't last.

Yesterday, after the huge rainstorm, I became aware of something: I was smelling things. I cooked dinner (leftover home-style tofu and newly-cooked fish-fragrant eggplant, both courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop) and realized I was smelling what I was cooking for the first time in ages. Seriously: I was almost crying as I ate this dinner.

I don't know if the storm washed away something I've been allergic to, or whether it just coincided with what was going to happen anyway, but breakfast tasted good this morning, and I bet dinner will, too. Smell and taste are too complex to lose -- and at one point I was imagining that there'd been a curse put on me: yes, you can move to France, but you'll lose your ability to taste -- and yet they're mysterious. I have a friend who lost his tongue to cancer a couple of decades ago, but who became a well-respected food writer, and wrote about this on his blog not long ago. Like him, I can't take having this sense for granted any more.

* * *

And, that said, here's the haul from the market yesterday. A head of lettuce that is truly head-sized, representatives of what I'm sure is almost the last asparagus of the year, more of those tiny green peas which just burst with flavor, some truly amazing garlic (bought from the woman who yells at you as you walk past, berating you if you don't buy from her: I didn't want to, but by the time I was finished looking at what was there and ready to start buying, she had the best garlic there, unfortunately), eggs, and yes, the first melon of the year, a tiny thing from the farmers whom I've been buying strawberries from and whom I mentioned in my last post. Now, the strawberries are gone, and there are tons of cherries, the beginning of some apricots (little things, but very brightly-colored), and melons which I smelled as I walked by. So, as I promised I would, I bought one. There are better to come, as there are tomatoes, locally grown ones which are just beginning to show up.

* * *

Finally, a food question: what's with butcher shops and cheese shops selling "artisanal" potato chips? The ones I had were good -- not greasy, not awfully salty. But what's with their presence at the butcher and cheesemonger?


  1. I so look forward to reading your posts, Ed. And happy that we are your neighbors now (a few hours north)!

  2. Tes légumes me donnent faim ! Je suis rentrée d'Uchaud, où mon fils aîné habite, avec de la salade du jardin, des courgettes, de la verveine, de la menthe, du persil et de la ciboule.....

  3. Actually, schwul (gay) and schwül (humid) aren't the same word. (Ha, and I'll bet you thought after leaving Germany you wouldn't have to hear besserwisser remarks like this one anymore.)

    Hey, I tried a neti pot once. I had an extremely bad experience. You can read about it here if you are interested:

  4. Gosh that looks wonderful! Enjoy the return of your senses. Food just isn't the same without a sense of smell.

  5. Sean, I didn't know that! I don't mind getting besserwissered on language issues.

  6. Let's keep our cool: pédé is not "incredibly" offensive: merely pejorative, like pédale. Somebody has a thin skin...


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