Sunday, August 29, 2010

Miettes For The End Of Summer

Over the past couple of days, we've had some strong winds blow out of the mountains, sending the mercury down and making my eyes note the calendar hanging on the wall next to the desk here: it's almost September. Not that that means the end of warm weather, nor does it mean the end of the market's now seemingly endless bounty. But, if we're lucky, it will mean the end of one of the least attractive aspects of summer in France.

Until I moved here, I thought the world capital of bad tattoos was Berlin, but no longer. In Berlin, there were a lot of "army tattoos," which are similar to jailhouse tattoos in America: done by amateurs with amateur equipment, and usually depicting something simple, like a coat of arms or political badge -- or a very crudely-rendered naked lady. But in France, it seems that nobody gets amateur tats: it's all about professionals being asked to render bad ideas. Or maybe that's what they offer when you go in their studios. At any rate, the heat comes on, the clothes come off, and Montpellier becomes a walking gallery of shame.

The most inexplicable one I've seen was a woman I walked behind on some construction-mandated sidewalk some weeks ago. She had two hearts tattooed in the weirdest place I've seen, aligned and matching on whatever you call the part of the back of your leg just above the hinge where your knee is. There were other bad tats snaking out of her top, I noticed as I finally passed her and her kids, but the placement of those hearts really puzzled me.

A lot of locals go for The Blotch, as I've always called it, the faux Polynesian huge black swirls that were so popular a while ago, but are still being offered locally, I see. And then there are the Chinese characters, never a good idea. A friend who reads Chinese loves these, because if there's just one character, the wearer has been told it means "peace" or "love" or something, when it usually means "cabbage" or "unusual" or some other random word. But yeah, it's pretty, right? Reminds me of a guy I knew in Berlin who came back from Tokyo with a t-shirt with a big banner across the front which said "I am a stupid American." Very well-designed shirt, perfect for selling to clueless Americans.

Anyway, it'll be good to see these go. It'll still be impossible to do anything about the t-shirts, whose slogans have gotten stupider and stupider this year, to the point where I'm forever spotting one and thinking "I have to put that on the blog," yet forgetting it because I encounter a couple even stupider ones later. The only one that comes to mind just now is one I saw several days ago, which was on a 12-year-old girl. On a pale blue background, gold letters spelled out THIS IS PUNK and the rest of the surface of the shirt was taken up by a picture of Tweety, of Tweety and Sylvester, from the cartoons. Bugs Bunny, maybe, but Tweety?

* * *

When I first moved here, I was told that, far from it being Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the real motto of France was Pas Possible: impossible. I discovered that this week, when I finally got paid for some work and rushed off with a pocketful of cash to pay my bills to the electric company and Orange, who turned on my phone so that Free could make it work. My bank account here is currently fried, and I still have to deal with that, but in the meanwhile, I do intend to pay my bills. Anyway, I got to the post office, where I'd paid my last electric bill, put my bill down in front of the guy at the booth, and said I wanted to pay it. "Pas possible," was his response. Which was interesting, since this was the same guy who'd taken my payment before. "Where is your customer number?" he asked, and I told him I assumed it was on the bill somewhere. "No, it's not," he said, having not really glimpsed at the thing. Then, out of the blue, he said "You have to pay a service charge." Well, I knew that, and told him so. It's a whopping €3, after all. So I had to put my Orange bill down while I counted out the bills for him, and he carefully cut off the receipt he needed and attached my payment to it, took out a stamp and stamped the thing, and handed it and my change back to me. I picked up my Orange bill, thanked him, and left.

Next stop was the Orange boutique in the big mall nearby, the Polygone. I walked in and eventually someone registered that I was there and asked if they could help. "I'd like to pay my bill in cash," I ventured. And guess what they said? "Pas possible, m'sieu." It was possible, if I liked, to pay with a debit card -- even, it was determined after much discussion involving several employees, an American one. One of them grabbed a cell phone and told me to give the number to the person who answered. Um, no thanks. So I came back home to see if I could do it online, or if there were a specific place that would take cash. I couldn't get to my account online -- it kept telling me my ID or password was no good, and come to think of it, I remembered that from long ago -- so I looked at the bill, and on the back were instructions for paying. And there, in tiny grey type, the words "En espece," in cash. Where?

La Poste. Would that guy have asked me if I also wanted to pay my Orange bill there? If you even for a moment entertained the idea that he would, all I can say is, you've never lived in France.

* * *

The Cloche de Fromage store finally opened where M. Puig's shop on the rue St. Guilhelm had been, and I stopped in for a look. The bad news is that M. Puig seems to have retired, but the good news is that the young guy who's followed in his footsteps seems to be just as competent and, best of all, has retained the fearsome old ladies who were behind the counters most of the time. They really know a lot and can be really helpful, as they were being when I was in there, speaking German to a couple of young women, tourists or students, who were looking for some French cheese. They kept saying "Sehr mild, bitte," which makes sense, since German cheeses have almost no flavor. The place has been completely redesigned, except for the cheese counter at the back, and now boasts a bunch of very expensive food items, including some pasta which is going for €4.95 for 500g, about two and a half times what the best pasta I've ever used costs. There is the usual range of honeys, some expensive canned fish, some sausages, some crates of wine (on the floor, so I didn't squat down to inspect) and so on. It's also the first and only place I've found pimentón d'espalette, a fiery Spanish chile, in pureed form, so I'll probably be back, although I continue to patronize M. Bou's place in the Halles Castellannes up the hill for my day-to-day cheese needs, because the women behind the counter have never intimidated me -- and by now they know me by sight.

Word on the English Corner Shop when it opens -- which doesn't look far away.

* * *

A procedural note to finish. People trying to reach me can post a comment with any information they'd care to leave: phone number, e-mail address, whatever. So when you leave a comment, I get an e-mail with the content and it doesn't get published until I push the "publish" button. Nobody will ever see it unless I allow it. A particularly security-conscious old friend contacted me this way earlier this year, and no matter how scrupulously you read this blog, you never even had a hint of it. So: work offers, proposals of marriage, any of that: bring it on. And now, if you excuse me, I'm off to deal with some of these nice peaches I bought yesterday. And pears are yet to come!


  1. Hi Ed!
    Hope all's well and that you're managing to get your bills paid (I always find it unbelievable that it can be so difficult to PAY for things - you'd think they wouldn't care how you pay as long as you do. But no. This isn't just France, it's "Sud de France" (sic) and well, it's a law unto itself).
    I found some luscious raspberries at the market on Saturday - one of the first stalls on the right as you walk away from the Peyrou. Truly magnificent! The guy's "Belgian strawberries" were a little tasteless (but edible, so I bought them as that's one of the only fruit my younger daughter will eat voluntarily), but he's friendly and well, I'd do just about anything for raspberries, especially fat, juicy, luscious ones, sooooo...
    Life chugs along here - school starts again on Thursday which will be a BLESSING for all, plus my dad's been here and leaves on Tuesday.
    A busy month!

  2. Hi Ed!

    This is not a proposal of marriage, but an information on an event that is going to take place in Montpellier and in which you might be interested...

    I've been reading your blog since I saw your conference at the University Paul Valéry last year, and I enjoy it.

    I'm in a medieval association, and we organize a big medieval festival on October 10, in Grammont. You can check our website to get more info:
    I thought you might enjoy it, as well as the fantastic chestnut-ginger beer we'll have in the taverns (!), and you might also want to try hypocras, red wine improved with spices! Besides, there will be a lot of animations, shows, etc.

    Don't hesitate to pass on the information, and to come accompanied!

    Solveig de Montpellier.


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