Saturday, October 23, 2010

Confessions of a Turnip Virgin

It's been a while since I posted any market stuff, and there's really not much special about today's trip, except that I bought way too much broccoli, which really isn't a problem, since one of the many ways you can tell me aparat from George H.W. Bush is my love of broccoli. I'll just make up some snail butter (butter, minced shallot and garlic, parsley, black pepper) and steam one bunch, and the other will probably get cooked with olive oil, garlic, anchovies and dried red pepper to become spaghetti sauce. I got some celery, too, for an experiment making red beans and rice for tonight, since I may have found some sausage that'll work in that. 

In the picture, there are some late Roma tomatoes which'll become part of a pizza, a huge head of romaine lettuce for the caesar salad dressing I'll make tonight, some tiny pears from the guy with the best pears at the market, and two ugly black turnips. These are the famous navets du Pardailhan, evidently renowned all over France (I mean, a turnip with its own website? They take food seriously around here!). For what, I don't know; I don't even think I like turnips. But I sighted them briefly last year and someone started raving about them so I'm going to try roasting them. Anyone out there with ideas for them, please chime in; this guy's only at the market for a couple of weeks, then he vanishes until next year, but I bet these things will keep for a good while. I assume you peel them after washing them, but this is my first try with them, so any info is welcomed. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Walking To Jacou, Waiting For Dropping Shoes

Sorry I haven't been here in a while. Once again, I lost telephone/internet service, but at long last I know why this is: I have to pay two phone bills. Have to: no choice. Even though I've opted to have service from another phone company, Free, apparently the neighborhood where I live hasn't been set up for what the French call dégroupage total, so I have to provide France Telecom Orange with €9 and change each month. And although I've been diligent about paying Free each month I thought that the bill from Orange was a mistake. My mistake: they turned off the carrier to my house on Wednesday morning. Getting back on is always a problem, so now I'm waiting. 

* * *

This is why I woke up on Sunday in the knowledge that I had a pretty empty day ahead of me. Sitting around the house would just mean utterly wasting my time unless I wanted to take on some huge project, and since I'm going to have to move anyway (and I'll get to that in a minute), huge projects don't much appeal. 

It was time to revive the Epic Walk. 

It was the right day for it: the sun was shining, a few clouds hung in the sky, the weather was chilly but not cold, and I had an urge to get out of town for a while. I even had a goal: Castelneau-le-Lez, the suburb just northeast of town. Last time I'd gone, I'd gotten there by accident, just wandering. But this time I had a question I wanted answered: the town of Clapiers is northwest of there, and I'd gone to a tomato festival there last year which was a lot of fun. This year I missed it, because the friend who drove last year wasn't around and there didn't seem to be any public transportation to Clapiers on Sunday. There was also alleged to be a Roman house there, and there is a local form of candy the bakeries sell whose name translates as "rabbit shit." Rabbit shit and Romans: what better excuse? The map seemed to indicate that Clapiers was reachable from Castelneau, so off I went. 

I'd gotten to Castelneau last time in a sort of roundabout fashion, and I suspected that the big road that led away from the Corum here in town, which starts as the Avenue de Nimes and bcomes the Avenue François Delmas and parallels the railroad tracks most of the way might be a more direct route, and I was right. What I hadn't planned for was how hard it would be to walk the first five minutes: the Montpellier Marathon was happening, and it was all over the place. The Esplanade was a maze, and a couple of times I dodged people with strained faces propelling themselves along the track. When I finally got to the Avenue de Nimes, it, too, was being used for the Marathon, and a long line of very pissed-off drivers was backed up while the cops let the marathoners by. One car of young men had one of them hanging out the window with a rifle, which I hope was a fake. Other drivers were eying him warily. 

This stretch of the walk wasn't very interesting: there are a bunch of new design and furniture shops close in, a gym, and a high-end restaurant with a "Mediterranean" and an "Asian" menu that might be worth looking into some day, because the largely outdoor seating seems ideal for summer. But the sidewalk was littered with empty water bottles and packages of something labelled "X-Treme Energy Gel," the composition of which I shudder to contemplate, and I knew that at some point the Marathon had passed here, too. Eventually, I came to the walls of the cemetery and knew I was getting close to a snarl of roads, one of which would lead up the hill to Castelneau. This junction, with a traffic circle in the middle, is called Charles de Gaulle. 

Soon I was walking up the hill on the Avenue Anatole Briand, and sure enough, there was the 12th Century church I'd stumbled upon last time I was here. It was Sunday, but there was no sign of activity, although the interior's been modernized and last time it looked like it was still a working church. 

There was almost nobody on the streets of Castelneau, though, and as I passed through town, following the sign to Clapiers which indicated I had more climbing to do, I noted that Castelneau's major industry seemed to be real-estate, which to me indicates a town cannibalizing itself. No doubt, in the surrounding hills there are wonderful expensive houses, remade farmhouses, and other properties new and old. That so many of them are for sale at crazy prices makes me wonder what Castelneau will be like in ten years. 

As I left Castelneau on what was still the same street but now the Avenue Jean Jaurès, I had to stay alert. There wasn't any more sidewalk, no pedestrian path at all, in fact, and although traffic was light, it was still there. At one point, I had to stop, cross the road, and take a picture. There was an actual cliff there, and I wondered if there were any car corpses down below. But what I was looking at was Pic St. Loup in the distance, and, closer in, the Lez River, wider than it is in Montpellier, rushing along. 

I thought about real estate briefly myself. I had all of €17 with me, after all. But all those offices were closed. It was Sunday.

That wasn't the only vista I saw, but it was the only one I shot. I was nervous walking on the shoulder, and soon I was in an even more dangerous position, as the onramp to the D61 highway appeared. The shoulder vanished, but it was clear I had to walk under the highway to continue along to Clapiers. The road climbed some more, and there was a sign with Castelneau-le-Lez crossed off. I'd reached the peak of something, and the breeze was stiffer. As I trudged, a car came along and the guy honked and waved. If it was someone I knew, well, consider this a virtual honk-and-wave from me. 

Walking downhill, I saw a sign to Clapiers, or at least a park belonging to Clapiers, so I headed left thinking it might be the park where the tomato festival had been. It wasn't. There was a big water park, now closed for the season, a restaurant, and a sign noting the sister cities of Clapiers, one of which was in Burkina Fasso, one in Italy, and one in Serbia. How close was I, though, to anything I'd recognize, let alone a way back to Montpellier, which was a consideration at this point? As I'd turned off the main road, I saw an entrance to a hike-bike trail in the woods. Also, I knew Jacou was down the road, and that was the end-point for tramline number two, which could dump me off back at the Corum. I'd been considering a walk to Sommières and had mentioned it to Gerry, who said my best bet would be to start in Jacou, so maybe it'd be worth checking out. Plus, the tram would be empty and I could sit all the way back home, which, since I hadn't done one of these walks in a while, sounded wonderful. The rabbit shit and Romans will just have to wait for another day.

So I walked over to the trail and it was beautiful: the woods were deep and studded with impressive limestone rocks, huge pines, and patches of briar. I should have taken a picture, but instead, as I walked closer to town, I got this end-of-season vineyard instead. There are a few up there; no idea what the product is like, or even what label it bears. 

Finally, a McDonald's appeared, and I knew Jacou was near. I trudged through far more of Jacou than I wanted to see. The entire thing looks to have erupted since 1970, although I'm sure there's an old town somewhere in all of that mess, or the remainders of one. I followed signs (and the occasional bus) to Parking-Tramway, saw the ugly fountain built by Jacou's sister-town in Portugal (it had tiles on it, and horrid blocky modern-art statues of a man and woman), the International Ecumenical Campus, and what seemed like mile after mile of suburbia, French-style. Just when I was convinced I was lost, the sight of the yellow-and-red tram caught my eye. With five minutes til departure, I spent €1.50 of my fortune on a ticket, sat down (ahhhh), and about a half-hour later, I was at the Corum, where the only sign of the Marathon was a litter of plastic bottles and cups. They were deflating the bouncy castle for the runners' kids as I walked back to my apartment. 

* * *

Which apartment won't be mine much longer. The landlord was by the other day with the news that the building will be sold as of November 30. At that point, the new owner will probably evict all of the tenants so that the place can be renovated, although there has been a painting crew doing the hallways over the past week. We can't actually be chucked until March 15, but I want to find another place before then. 

This place has never been right, although I really can't fault the location, but the landlord lied when he told me it was fifty square meters. I have no way of estimating this -- it's not the meters, I can't do it with feet, either -- but a friend who is better figures I have between 35 and 40, which is why I've sitll got a bunch of boxes unpacked from my mid-November move from Berlin in 2008. My office has never been set up correctly, my books are in chaos, and so is my CD library, partially because the living room is partially blocked by a huge pillar. Plus, I hate the kitchen: although I really enjoy having a spacious pantry, which is great to store my miscellaneous dry ingredients, two electric units placed so close together that it's almost impossible to have two pots going simultaneously isn't a great stovetop, and I'm amazed I've done as well as I have with it. As for the rest of it, there's virtually no water pressure, the faucets are clogged with lime from the hard water, the drains are slow, and the toilet broke over a year ago, necessitating my reaching into the cold tank water to flush it. All of this could be yours for nearly $900 a month, plus, of course phone and electric. 

I know the town better than ever now, so I can read into the classifieds better than ever. The current fantasy is to start the new year in a new place. There are many obstacles to this, not the least of which is money, but I'm determined to do this right this time. It's going to require some luck, but that's already started: over the past week, Les Lunkheads, each and every one of them, has moved. The painting crew is in there now, and there are sounds of a drill, no doubt installing a new door. 

So now I'm ready for the 60m2 place in St. Anne with the gas stove and "pierres apparents," as the ads say, for €400 a month. Just let me know when I can come look at it; I can spend December moving in. 

Now if the phone would come back on so I could start in on those classifieds… 

UPDATE: I wrote this around noon. At 2:30 the phone still wasn't on, so I called Orange's wonderful English help line. A robot voice came on saying "Orange garble computer garble please call back within 48 hours." Great. 

UPDATE #2: Still not up. I'm so glad I paid the bill. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Days of Lard and Lenin

My local supermarket has tons of stuff, but it lacks one thing that I use, albeit in moderation: lard. I don't know how the locals make pie crusts for their tartes, but I know I have to have it to make biscuits and flour tortillas, two things which often wind up on my Sunday breakfast table. But there's a solution: way down at the end of Tramline Number One there is the Odysseum, a mammoth mall which includes a Decathlon sporting goods store and an Ikea, as well as the supermarket/department store which always lives up to its name, Le Géant. If anyplace in France is going to have something you can't find elsewhere (but which is made in France, natch), it's them. So with nothing else holding me at home, I decided to ride down to the Odysseum and visit the giant.

That wasn't my only motivation, though.

The President of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, in which I live, is a controversial fellow named George Frêche, who is such a nutbag that the Socialists actually threw him out of their party, so he formed a sort of I-Love-George party, a lefty Lieberman move, if you will, and still managed to get re-elected. His Wikipedia article isn't up to date, though, because it doesn't mention his latest folly. Oh, building the Odysseum, with its annoying faux-ancient-Greek theme loosely based around Odysseus' travels, is one thing. But at one end of it (the one the furthest from Ikea) there's a huge round concrete plaza, around which Frêche has decided to install, at great cost, statues of Great Men. The first five have just been erected. There's Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles deGaulle, of course:

And Winston Churchill, whom I couldn't get a good picture of, and Jean Jaurès, of course:

You can't do Great Frenchmen without including Jaurès, at least not down in this part of the country, and there's already one in the center of town that looks exactly like my brother-in-law Frank, in the Place Jean Jaurès, which is covered with tables where students drink and eat pretty much all the time. Jaurès was one of France's great socialists, and a pacifist who tried to head off World War I, but was assassinated first, and you can read all about him on Wikipedia, too.

But there's another statue there which has raised a lot of hackles since these first five were unveiled. It's of Vladimir Ul'ianov, called Lenin. Like each of the others, it cost €200,000 of French taxpayers' money, and, as someone who's slowly making his way through A People's Tragedy, by Orlando Figes, an 800+-page history of the Russian Revolutions and Civil War, I'm afraid I have to say M. Frêche has put his foot in it big-time. Figes paints a portrait of a nasty little asexual being, addicted to violence and adulation, who, like his successor Stalin (whom Frêche is, reportedly, not averse to adding in the future after the astoundingly mediocre sculptor delivers Gandhi, Golda Meir, Nasser, Nelson Mandela and -- another nice guy -- Mao Zedong), seems to have enjoyed killing people just for the hell of it.

I also love the way the statue is positioned:

After snapping this pic, I became curious about what this Altissimo place he's pointing at is, and it turned out to be (appropriately enough for France) one of those fake-rock places where you can practice climbing. There's plenty of fake French rock on the sound system at the Odysseum, too.

I have no idea what this plaza is supposed to be used for, and there's no clue there, either. That Frêche has already spent a million Euros on this embarrassingly bad municipal art and has another million's worth on order is bad enough. It's not that easy to find, and there was almost nobody there when I was except for a couple of French people who just had to see for themselves that there was actually a statue of Lenin at a shopping mall in Montpellier. How embarrassing.

Anyway, I got my lard, so breakfast tacos on Sunday, with home-made salsa picante.

A pound. A year's supply.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Food From Home, Crowd-Sourced

Coming soon? Nope: it's here. And, like many another business of this sort, it 's a bit controversial.

One side of the argument says, you moved here, now eat like they do here. The other says, I'm too set in my ways to change now. I'm on neither side, but I did decide I had to check the place out. After all, I like foreign food of all sorts.

Located in a former gay underwear shop on the edge of the Écusson here in Montpellier, the English Corner Shop is actually run by Judi and Chuck, two Silicon Valley refugees who wound up over in Provence at a high-tech incubator that flopped. They decided they liked France and about a year ago wound up in Montpellier, somewhere on the city's outskirts, and hatched the idea of an expat food shop.

They've been open about a week at this point, and in the couple of hours I spent there talking with them, a bunch of people, French, British, and American, came in and out, and left clutching one or another thing saying "I've been looking for this for ages." If so, they haven't been looking very hard: the Internet is filled with expat groceries of the virtual sort, all vending pretty much the same things. The difference here is you don't have to pay their exorbitant shipping fees: you just walk in and there it is. But it's much the same stuff as you find on the internet, as if there were a single wholesaler. In fact, it reminded me of a weird supermarket that existed briefly in Berlin called Expat Shopping, which also had outlets around Holland and a few other places. It folded because, I'm told, it was engaging in nefarious practices. But it was the same sort of thing, heavy on processed food, lots of candies and cookies and other such things. In fact, in Germany there was a single wholesaler, according to a journalist I knew who had done some research: it was a subsidiary of an American corn-processing business, which is why the goods on sale (many of which, I used to joke, were the foods we'd left home to get away from) were heavily tilted towards sweets, and all the Mexican groceries came from Old El Paso.

A glance around the Corner Shop's shelves will reveal some familiar faces: Oreos, PG Tips tea, Kettle Chips, and Doritos. They had, to my delight, Grape Nuts, albeit at €5 a box. Still, come berry season, I'll be there for some. There's also Shredded Wheat (both regular, at €6, and bite-sized at €6.20), Dorito's salsa (€3.50, extra hot only), Tabasco sauce at €2.60 (which may be more than it is at the supermarket; I'll have to check), and Old El Paso refried beans at €3 a can, which is a lot, but they're not bad. The "Mexican" selection is odd, albeit not as odd as at my local supermarket, where "taco" and "fajita" kits in boxes are available. There's powdered fajita mix, whatever that is, for instance, but no taco sauce or canned enchilada sauce, and, come to think of it, no corn or flour tortillas. The latter, of course, are easy to make; the former not so much.

Still, if you're criticizing the stock, you're criticizing the customers: the entire stock-list was created by Chuck and Judi leaving cards around town at places where expats gather asking for stocking suggestions, and the call also went out on The Languedoc Page, among other websites. The entire store was, as they say these days, crowd-sourced. All of which makes me wonder about the contributors. The vast majority of Anglophones here are British, and the British consume an awesome amount of sugar each year. This explains all the candy and cookies (but not the Duncan Hines cake mix), and it may explain the presence in the freezers of a lot of products made from something called Quorn, which I gather is an imitation meat. (I always say if you're going to be a vegetarian, be a vegetarian, and stop with the imitation meat, already, although that said, there was a brand of veggie-burgers I used to buy in Germany that were awesome). There's also frozen steak-and-mushroom pie, ground lamb, and back bacon. In the cooler, there's Doctor Pepper and Canada Dry ginger ale and lots of kinds of Lucozade. No beer yet, although there was a clamor for that by the Brits, you better believe, and it's coming.

The picture that emerges is of people who seem to like the sunshine here, but would rather eat like they were still home in Leeds, but this is probably unfair. I like to change what I eat on a day-to-day basis, cooking Indian, Chinese, American, French, and Italian most frequently. I've noticed in Germany and France, people of a certain age aren't nearly as adventurous, although younger people are. Much of the crowd-sourced goods speak of nostalgia (although for me, non-sugary cereal is always good news), and yes, they have lots of Heinz Baked Beans, that British breakfast standard. Unlike Italian or Chinese or Indian food, though, American-British-Australian food doesn't have the gourmet cachet among young Europeans. It would be nice to change that, but, I fear, futile.

I wish Judi and Chuck lots of luck. They're friendly, smart people, and I hope their place does better than some of the others which have started up in the area. One mistake others have made is opening in small towns. It could just be that Montpellier is cosmopolitan enough to support a venture like this, and, as the regional hub, expats having business at the Préfecture or elsewhere will stop by before heading back home. If you're in the area and have a stocking suggestion, let them know. I suggested cornmeal and corn tortillas, two things I smuggle back from Texas every time I go, but now that I think of it, I'd like to see Pickapeppa brown and red sauce there, too. ("Everything we got, we got the hot version of," Chuck confessed. "That's what people miss.") I'm sure I'll think of other things, too. And I'll be back.

English Corner Shop, 12 rue Four des Flammes, 34000 Montpellier. Open noon-7pm Tue.-Sat. Tel: 06 21 31 59 71. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hear Me, O Remover Of Obstacles

While casting about for a picture of Ganesha to put on that last post, my eye was caught by...well, I couldn't remember. So a little later in the day I went to the Wikipedia entry on him to see if I could find it again. I hadn't expected so much detail, but it's a great read. I put that picture there because it was a pop-cultural take on the god, because I like the idea of an elephant with a mouse sidekick (although that's not quite what it is, according to the article), and because a guy I used to know, your average Welsh-Methodist/Russian-Jewish atheist, was, unexpectedly, a devotee. And, just as one makes puja (approximately like praying) to Lakshmi for money, Ganesha is the remover of obstacles.

And boy, do I have obstacles these days! First, I'm behind in my rent and the landlord showed up and loudly informed me that I have until October 15 to pay it all or I had to move on October 30. He had some guy standing there with him as a witness. Unfortunately, that's not how it works, and I suspect he's banking on my being a stupid American. But I know that the deadline is there because it's absolutely illegal to evict anyone in France between November 1 and March 15. At any rate, I'm working hard to raise the rent, a friend has started a Facebook group to help out, and there are other avenues open to get this solved.

But even if he gets every last dime I owe him before the deadine, there are obstacles. He's put the building up for sale, and that means the new owners have the right to evict us all, no offense intended, just get out. It makes renovation easier, and charging more for the newly-renovated place easier. The big problem with this is that on the date when the eviction moratorium is up, I should be in Austin for the 25th anniversary of SXSW. But the magic of the internet got me this apartment, and I believe that it'll get me my next one -- that and word of mouth. And I know the town a lot better now, so I can look with more leisure.

Of course, there are obstacles there, too. Landlords get suspicious when they hear about me. My age (why aren't I retired on a nice fat pension?), my nationality (warmongering, French-hating assholes), and the fact that I work for myself (aiee! Who would ever want to do that?) are all against me. To make up for all of that, I may be asked to put up to a year's rent in escrow. Perfectly legal, and they do it all the time.

So: exciting times, as the old Chinese curse has it. But wait! There's more!

I got a notice from my old nemesis France Telecom Orange asking me to pay up on overdue bills or they're going to terminate my service. But, as I noted months ago, I don't have service with them; I have it with France's most incompetent but most economically alluring telecom, Free. And when I went through this way back in July, they were supposed to have notified Orange that their services were no longer needed. Sure, I had to pay Orange €78 to get turned back on; that's just standard extortion. But part of what I pay Free for is to take care of things like that. So after getting off the phone with the nice guy from Orange (their English-language help line is magnificent) I tried to find a way to tell Free they'd screwed up again. There is no way to contact them by e-mail. None. You have to call or engage in what the French call tchat (to distinguish it from the word for cat, which is fair). I'm hopeless on the telephone, and probably just as bad at tchat. But I have to act fast or get turned off again.

The bottom line, though, is that living here is worth it. If, that is, you can find time to do it while dealing with the obstacles.

I'll be back tomorrow with an actual food post, promise.
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