Friday, August 6, 2010


It's really true what they say about August in France. On Saturday, July 31, in the middle of the afternoon, there was virtually nobody on the Comédie except waiters at the cafés waiting for business. There was almost nobody on the Esplanade, and, given that it was Saturday afternoon, almost nobody at the Polygone shopping mall. Everyone was in the process of Going Somewhere.

Of course, elsewhere, other French people were doing that, and for some of them, where they were Going was Montpellier, so over the past week, the town has filled up again, and nearly everyone in the streets has the Tourist Office's map of the Centre Ville in their hands. Given that there's not much specifically to see, that the pleasure of visiting Montpellier (and most of the other cities I've visited down here on my day-trips) is about strolling the streets and enjoying the atmosphere, the see-it-all-now desperation of the tourists is somewhat amusing, although possibly the most pressured of them will try to hit several destinations in a day, so doing Montpellier as efficiently as possible is probably high on the list of things to do.

The streets are filled with people speaking German, Dutch, and Spanish, with the occasional British accent or the extremely rare American one reminding me how one's ears are always attuned to one's native language, and even someone speaking it quietly can stand out in the sea of voices in the street.

For those of us who've stayed in town, it's a great time to be here. The oven-like heat of July has subsided a few degrees, and an agreeable breeze is present a lot of the time so that it doesn't even feel as warm as the thermometer says it is. Down at the market, the springtime stuff -- asparagus, cherries, strawberries -- has given way to the first mature summer produce. The Tomatologist -- or, so far, his son, I think -- is back at the Tuesday market, so I wound up making another batch of gazpacho, which got fairly seriously damaged at a dinner with Gerry, who's leaving for Nimes, where his wife's been accepted at the art college. It was recommended by Son of Tomatologist that I use all green tomatoes -- a ripe special type -- so it wouldn't be a red soup, which is eccentric and fun to consider, but I could only find one big ripe one in the selection. Next time. And anyway, there are eggplants, which have their uses, and zucchini, and peaches -- I still haven't had a perfect one yet, though -- and peppers in increasing quantities. My taste buds aren't cooperating very often, but they've been up just enough for me to taste the change in seasons.

One downside of summer in France I've been meaning to write about for some time is French beer. I don't know if it's the Franco-Prussian War or what, but the French taste in beer is awful. Even the ones I've had from Strasbourg, that most German of French cities, have been terrible. The French evidently detest bitterness, and I believe that a number of the more popular beers are made without hops. The other thing they like is a high alcohol content: 8% is not uncommon, whereas your average German beer comes in at 5% tops. Of course, a high alcohol content and no hops is going to render the final product incredibly sweet -- cloyingly so. The local winos sit around drinking "strong beer," beer which actually is named after its alcohol content: Bavaria 8.6, and Amsterdam 11%. I know wines that come in at 11%! I can't imagine what these brews taste like. Fortunately, one day little 33cl bottles of Pilsner Urquel showed up at the supermarket. They're incredibly expensive -- €1.25 each, whereas half-liters in Germany cost 86 cents -- but at least they taste like beer.

There's other local food news, too. I was walking down the rue St.-Guilhem and noticed that M. Puig's cheese shop was being torn apart. This was horrifying: I don't shop there, but that's largely because he and his staff intimidate me. I was told by an expert that this is one of the best cheese shops in France, and it would be a shame to lose it (even though I do my limited cheese-shopping in the Halles Castellannes, where they've come to recognize me). But a sign in the window indicated that M. Puig was on vacation for August, and would be back with a new thing. The new thing is a partnership with another guy, and a shop called La Cloche du Fromage, the cheese bell, that glass hemisphere you put over the cutting board.  They've added a selection of saussicon sec, and some pricey-looking pastas. Last time I was by it wasn't open yet, but I'll probably stop in to check it out and then run before one of the cheese ladies, who manage to combine a kind of motherliness with an eagerness to please and still manage to intimidate me, asks if she can help.

The other potentially good news is that something called The English Corner Shop is opening on the colorfully-named rue Four des Flammes (can anyone imagine an oven without flames?). They're looking for American, Australian, and British goods to stock, and I keep meaning to write them and beg for some corn tortillas -- real ones, not the wheat-and-corn-mixture that El Patio or whoever the food giant that puts overpriced fake Mexican food in the supermarkets here offers. (I even saw a boxed "fajita kit" one day. That's too weird for me to even begin to guess what, besides some flour tortillas, might be in that box). I know they can get them from Munich, and maybe there's even somewhere closer. I wish them luck; these things tend to have a very short life around here, but someone may hit on a winning formula, and maybe these folks'll be the ones.

* * *

One thing about August, though, is that work is in short supply, and I haven't done a whole lot of it recently, which is bad. Weirdly, instead of getting to write, I've been written about, which feels odd. Those of you in the United States who are of A Certain Age probably belong to the AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, and throw out their magazine when it arrives. This month's has an article on the best places to retire overseas, and one of the places the author (who's in New York) chose was the Languedoc. He found me, and as regular readers know, a photo crew came to document the area. Oddly, the best photos he took wound up online instead of in the paper magazine, and the relevant section is here. I wonder how he knew I was "laughingly" referring to myself as a starving writer, though; the whole interview was done by e-mail. And I was starving. And will again if the work doesn't pick up.

Much nicer, and far more fun to read, was this reminiscence by a guy I haven't seen in ages. However, he remembers the Eno story at the end incorrectly. What happened was that the two guys from the record label were schlepping Eno around to dozens of radio stations, and hadn't counted on both the fact that so many of the jocks who were there were fans, and that Eno likes to talk. By the time they got to my house, his voice was utterly gone -- and, as Robert points out, they were a couple of hours late. At stake was a big story in Creem, but it was out of the question. He was nibbling on a plant (not sniffing flowers), and the only thing he said during the short visit was "Nasturtium. Good in salads" in a horrible raspy voice. Anyway, nothing was going to happen, so I walked back down to their car with them, and Eno pointed out where he'd picked the nasturtiums. It was exactly where my dog marked his territory every single time we left the house. But I didn't tell him that.

One side-effect of that post, though, was that it got me to thinking of starting a music blog. I'm still thinking, and there's a good chance I won't do anything about it, but from time to time there's stuff coming into the house that I can't or wouldn't cover for Fresh Air, but still might like to write about. Like I said, I'm still thinking about it, and if anything happens, I'll make a noise about it here.


  1. The link to the AARP mag. article is dead.

  2. That was a lovely reminisce about you, Ed. Funny, too, that Roni Hoffman took that cool photo and I happened to have had lunch with R. Meltzer in Portland this afternoon. Smallish world.

  3. Link fixed. I think. If not, AARP's pulling something weird.

  4. Re-the "fajitas kit": funnily enough, I actually bought one today - though if that isn't enough to make you despise me, when I tell I bought the new "sans piment" version I guess that'll do the trick...
    Inside, there are 8 tortilla type things that you have to warm up in your oven (I'm no expert on Mexican cuisine, as you've probably guessed), one sachet of "sauce" that you pour over some just-about-cooked meat (they suggest chicken or beef) in a frying pan, and one sachet of "stuff" (that's a technical term, right there) you add to (sour) cream. After that, you have to provide your own lettuce and tomatoes (plus of course the meat you've been cooking). And then you put it on the table and everyone makes there own fajitas.
    I bought one out of curiosity a couple of weeks ago and, although the girls were very enthusiastic, even the "un piment - doux" version was too much for them. So that's why I bought the "sans piment" today.
    Voilà, today's cookery lesson draws to a close...

  5. I always figured the badness of French beer was intentional to point out the superiority of French wine, like some kind of inverse Reinheitsgebot. Speaking of high test beers, this weekend I sampled (in a shot glass) a ridiculously high alcohol content "quadruple IPA" (41%) at the Berlin Bierfestival. It was actually halfway enjoyable, but still a novelty. The brewery is competing with a German brewery to produce the world's strongest beer, hence the name "Sink the Bismarck"

    (Love that Eno story.)

  6. Have you been to The Egg?

    Enda has roughly 75 international beers there (at reasonable prices) so I'm pretty sure you'll find what you want.

  7. I can hardly afford to go out drinking these days, Bart, but thanks for the tip. I briefly scrutinized his list about a month ago and made a mental note to return if I ever have any money for that sort of thing.


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