Saturday, July 24, 2010

God's Pacho

So there I was, calmy chatting with the Yemeni Embassy in Bonn... well, a resident of the former Yemeni Embassy, since the Yemenis in Germany have moved their diplomats to Berlin just like everyone else and when my friend Josh's wife got a job in Bonn, they wound up living in this building where the Yemenis used to be. At any rate, Josh is a food fanatic, and said he'd just made something extraordinary, the best recipe for gazpacho he'd ever had. Next thing I knew, my e-mail went ding, and I had it. Josh was seriously nuts about this; he said it was just unlike anything he'd ever had.

After we parted cyber-ways I looked at it. It was from Cook's Illustrated, a magazine I have had my problems with for its finicky ways and arch approach. Still, they published The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition, which I use a lot and which lives up to its name often enough, and, most importantly, every single element of this recipe (which I apologize in advance for not printing, because it's in the magazine's current edition, and I do respect copyright, geezer that I am), right down to the salt, could be locally sourced: tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, salt, olive oil, vinegar, bread. About the furthest-away element was either the salt (from the Camargue) or the olive oil (from Aniane, a good 30-minute drive from here). I hit the market.

After that, I washed and chopped. And then had this:

On the right are tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, red onion, and garlic, chopped roughly. On the left, in the sieve, are all of those things minus the garlic, chopped fine. Both are salted, and the small pieces are draining a colorless liquid into a bowl on which the sieve has been set. There were no red onions, as I know them, at the market, but there were these odd-looking critters marked "sweet onions" (among other  names, I realized at the market today, another being "chicken leg"), so I bought a bundle of three. Excellent decision, as it turned out: 1 1/2 of them was just the right amount.

At any rate, that stuff all sat there for an hour. Then I dumped the coarsely-chopped vegetables into the food processor along with a couple of slices of bread, which I'd removed the crusts from, and used to soak up the liquid from the finely-chopped vegetables.

For this I chose a pavé du chef from the bakery on the corner, Ortholan, a squarish hunk with a firm crust and delicious insides, which they sliced for me. Most of the rest of it disappeared into sandwiches, of course.

Ready to go:

I blended the hell out of it, drizzling in a half-cup of olive oil. Dang if it didn't sort of emulsify, getting very smooth.

But there were still coarser bits of stuff in this mixture, so it had to be sieved to remove them.

This stuff smelled so good that I seriously considered saving it and using it as a spread for bread. But then, the whole kitchen smelled fantastic, even though no heat at all had been applied to anything.

Next, I stirred in some wine vinegar from a local winery, some parsley, and half the fine-chopped vegetables, covered it up, and put it in the fridge for 24 hours. The rest of the fine-chopped vegetables went into a plastic container and also went into the fridge.

The next day, at dinner-time:

Not only had the volume reduced some (and why is that?), but the color darkened, possibly due to the vinegar, of which there's just two tablespoons in all of that liquid. I was ready to eat, although, sad to report, my taste buds had closed down considerably around 5 pm, and hadn't recovered much in the subsequent five hours. Enough sensation was present for me to know I was eating something extraordinary, though.

(Mitropa only dreamed of serving anything that tasted this good!) I stirred some finely-chopped vegetables into it and realized I didn't need any additional vinegar or olive oil, and managed to destroy two bowls of this, plus over half that baguette, for dinner last night. I was hoping I could taste the wine I chose for it, a 2009 Domaine de la Prose rosé, which, sad to say, was only barely present.

But after I got back from the market at noon today, I grabbed the leftover soup and had a couple of spoonsful to confirm my suspicion that this was, indeed, something special. It is: incredibly complex, with the onion and garlic flavors forming a baseline for the tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers to play around with on top. It was all I could do to keep from finishing it right there and then, but it's got to serve as another dinner in a couple of days.

And although summer weather has been with us for a while, it occurred to me that most of summer's goodies are still ripening on the vines. The best is yet to come, and given how cheap it was to make this, I'm going to keep experimenting with this recipe (what would it be like with a very low-acid tomato, for instance: this was just a mess of various types of heirlooms from the surly Bioland guy's selection) as summer progresses.

Thanks, Josh!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Circus Circus

I'm beginning to like this summer. Well, except for how hot it is. But then I remind myself I could be in Austin or even Berlin, which has had scorching heat -- often hotter than here -- all summer.

But it's the visitors kind of randomly dropping in that I've enjoyed, especially since they've tended to land on a Friday, which means wine-tasting and food-eating at the Estivales. This week, it was Ed and Andi from Berlin, on their way to an improvised vacation somewhere near Narbonne and, well, other places to be announced. But they came here for Friday and Saturday last week, and we decided that after the market on Saturday, we'd jump into Andi's 14-year-old VW and go...somewhere.

But where, exactly? Somewhere I hadn't been, but which wasn't far away, since we'd only have the afternoon. And somewhere we could reach from Pic St. Loup because I knew that valley between the Pic and the Hortus was a guaranteed show-stopper, and at least we'd see that. Checking the map as I drank my morning coffee, I saw that Michelin had decided that something called Cirque de Navacelles was worth three stars. I checked it against a guidebook (no Internet yet), and the description didn't make sense to me, although it, too, raved.

And thus it was we set off, German-speaking GPS machine doing okay with the French words (albeit with a German accent), and there we were, in the valley between the two great mountains. We continued along to St. Martin de Londres, where we stopped for lunch at a restaurant under gigantic trees, where there was very tolerable pizza and slabs of bark falling off the trees onto the canopies above the table. After that we headed north along the same route we'd gone the weekend before, but passed the turnoff to the swimming hole and past a mountain called Grand Arc, climbing into the hills as I took a couple of fairly lame photos out the car window.

The Hérault River just goes on and on, and there is more spectacular geology than I've seen in a while. Childhood memories of Wyoming and New Mexico come to mind, although that's entirely different, albeit on a similar scale of grandeur. There are apparently some fairly cool caves up this way, the Grotte des Demoiselles, which might be worth looking at after tourist season's over.

Laroque was having a Medieval Festival, and a bunch of townsfolk were wandering around in capes and such. The town looks interesting, and probably just as medieval without the dress-up. It's on my list of places to return to. After that came Ganges, where we bought gas and turned down a small road which, I see from the map,  parallels the back (north face) of the huge long mountain called La Séranne. This, too has a river, the Vis, which is kind of hard to find on a map because it keeps heading underground.

Finally, we found ourselves at a T-intersection, both of which directions would take us to the Cirque de Navacelles. One promised to take us to a town called Montardier, which had an 11th century castle, so we chose that one. Never saw it, though: both the signs and the GPS had us turn off on an even tinier road, with even worse switchbacks (Andi took the turns with elan, and I hereby nominate this entire region for some of the scariest driving in the world), and eventually took us down a straightaway at which there was...a little cafe, with postcards for sale. And across the street from that, a viewing area. And waaaaaaay down there below us, the Cirque de Navacelles. Which, now that I was looking at it and reading the sign posted where we were standing, made perfect sense.

It seems the Vis described an omega here (Ω) for many millennia. Then, about 4000 BC, it suddenly cut through whatever obstruction was causing it to meander like that and went in a straight line. The former river bed was nicely fertile, and the ecology of the near-island quite different from the surrounding mountainsides.

Yup, we were high, all right. And, it seemed, far from civilization. Then the GPS played us a neat trick: instead of getting us out of there, it took us all the way down the hill, through more terrifying switchbacks, right onto the island. Parking was mandatory (the GPS said there was a road through town, but where it would have gone if it existed is a good question), and I managed one more photo before my battery died.

Yes, people live there. There are also lots of picturesque little shoppes selling touristy stuff, and, to the right of this photo, a tiny church. But Wikipedia says there are 247 people here, and how they get their groceries and what happens to them if they have heart attacks I cannot imagine. There's a beautiful waterfall, and lots of people were swimming in the Vis, whose waters were so clear you could have read the date on a dime dropped into them. Fig trees shaded the swimming hole, and the whole thing would have been idyllic if we hadn't spent the last 20 minutes going this way and that and hoping some SUV wasn't around the next switchback.

There were more switchbacks, too, as we headed south to St. Maurice Navacelles, and the odd dolmen (prehistoric standing stones are all over around here, as are a couple of menhirs) and finally we found ourselves in La Vaquerie et St. Martin, an oddly-named hamlet with, unsurprisingly, a couple of dairy farms, where I'd been during last summer's trip to Lodève. After that, it was just downhill, through St. Saturnin and the Terasses du Larzac wine-growing areas, and, finally, the freeway back to Montpellier.

My apologies to Andi, who drove the whole way, but he seemed to enjoy it as much as both of us Eds did (we used to work at the same publications in Berlin, which was lots of fun -- "Has anyone seen Ed? No, not you"), and now that I've seen it I'll never ask anyone to go see it again.

Next up, I want to stay closer to the sea and head into the Aude and maybe the Pyrenées-Orientales. Anyone coming to town this weekend?

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I may be able to engage these ladies in conversation soon. Or, given my luck, maybe not. Over the past week, I've finally hacked through the underbrush of the entire French telecommunications industry and, if all goes well, in a couple of weeks I should have my telephone and internet service back.

The whole thing has revolved around a number of misunderstandings on my part, based on the fact that in France, nobody is obligated to inform consumers of anything whatsoever. You don't get a clear idea of what you're signing up for, and you don't get to see your options.

In mid-April, my telephone land-line stopped working. This was odd: I'd paid my bill. But it turns out that I'd only paid one of my bills, and the mysterious hole in my bank account (which is now closed because of this affair) was due to the fact that I didn't know that I was obligated to pay France Telecom Orange, despite the fact that my telephone service provider was an outfit called Free.

It didn't matter that I'd paid Free; I was three or four months behind with Orange, and so, without a warning note (obligatory in the U.S., Britain, and Germany, at least) they terminated my service.

But why did I have this service in the first place? Because Free didn't tell me about my options when I signed with them. And since they won't do it, I'll do it for you, as a service to anyone thinking of getting telephone and internet (and cable television, which I have no interest in, but comes in the package) service in France.

Once, France Telecom was a monopoly, just like all of Europe's other national telephone companies. Then, like all the others, they were obligated to allow competition, and, like many of the others, they changed their name so that the many, many customers who hated them might be tricked into continuing to use them. In Italy, the national firm became Alice, in Britain BT, and in France Orange. (The rumor that Deutsche Telekom was toying with calling itself Satan proved false, and it remains Satan...err, I mean, Deutsche Telekom).

Now, because these monopolies had laid the telephone lines in their respective countries, they were allowed to control the lines from the street to your house, and they were also allowed to keep the right to provide certain services. In France, these were the grandfathered services: analog telephone lines, or low-frequency lines. If you have an old dial phone, an old fax machine, you'll want to make sure you keep these lines available to you, and you'll have to pay Orange. If you're signing on with the competition for most of your telephone usage, you'll have an agreement that's called dégroupage partiel. If you're using all-digital equipment, like 99% of the people in France, you sign up for dégroupage total and owe Orange nothing.

Did Free tell me this when I signed up? No. Did they tell me this three months later when they came to my house because my equipment was acting weird and they discovered that Orange had never given up my phone line's upper frequencies? No. In fact, I found this out from a mole within Orange, the son of a Facebook friend of mine, a guy I actually don't know from Adam, but friended because he lives in France and is a Holy Modal Rounders fan. My guess is we Rounders fans number into the high single figures in this country, and we should stick together.

Plowing through the pile of papers relating to my problem, I discovered that the Free tech had left me with a dégroupage partiel in March, 2009, and I'd had €19 a month sucked out of my bank account every month since then. And that explained the almost daily cell-phone spam I was getting from Orange in my e-mail box: they do a brutal sales campaign for those things.

Tuesday, I called Orange's English-language help line. For your reference, this is 09 69 363 900; many English-language help guides in France have it wrong. I was astonished that a young woman picked up after only five minutes on hold (Orange's eight-bar hold music is stupefying, incidentally) and confirmed that I'd been disconnected without notice for nonpayment. Unfortunately, I'd reached the wrong department -- hers was billing problems, and I'd resolved them -- and I had to talk to the technical department.

And they were currently eating lunch.

So, marshalling the cultural sensitivity necessary to reach my goal, I called back at 2:15 and was almost immediately on the line with a young man, who took my info and said the line was now on. Now? Yes, now. I should plug my phone in and call Free and tell them to turn me on.

This, however, was a problem. I can't do phone calls in languages other than English. Not even French. I freeze up, the right words won't come, and I don't understand the person I'm talking to. Not to mention that I wasn't sure how to plug the phone in with the tangle of cables around my "freebox." But a friend had offered to help, and, missing Wednesday, which was Bastille Day, we called them today. (Free has no English-language help of any kind, live on the phone or via Internet; although they do pretend they have the latter, the link hasn't worked in the 18 months I've had service with them and they once chastized me for writing to them in English).

It was an interesting experience. The first guy put her on hold and, we eventually decided, had actually hung up. The second guy wanted to know if I'd gotten a letter or a document from Orange stating that the service outage had been their fault. Of course, I hadn't known I'd needed such a document because, as usual, nobody had told me. I had a choice: either obtain this document -- and no, he didn't know how to do that -- or pay them €50 and in two weeks they'd turn me back on. What about the four months I'd paid for and received no service? He couldn't care less.

At this point, I was ready to switch to another provider, but my friend told me it'd take just as long for them to turn me on, so it was easier to stick with what I had in motion. We pleaded with the guy, and he disappeared for a while (but left some lousy French dub on the line so we knew we hadn't been disconnected) and finally he came back and told me that they'd waive the €50 start-up fee, but it'd still be 15 days...or maybe less.

The cost of this lesson, not counting a nice bottle of wine for my helper when she returns from vacation, has been 18 months at €19.95 plus the four months of no service at €36.95 (Free only costs €29.95 per month, but charges a €7 fine for paying via the internet), a whopping €506.90 that I could sure use right now. I figure the €359.10 that went to Orange is a greenhorn stupidity tax, and now that I think of it, I don't know if we arranged for dégroupage total this afternoon or not. Ah, well, one fun at a time. But Free never once addressed the issue of what I'd paid for in April, May, June, and July.

The real bad news is, though, that the wi-fi I've been using I've borrowed from my upstairs neighbor, and she's moving on Monday. Given the record my landlord has, I have The Fear about who might replace her, but the more pressing concern is how I'm going to conduct business -- now that I have a little bit coming in -- without internet access. Especially considering that I've paid for it and have all the equipment on hand. I also need to talk to my agent in New York, which won't be possible til the land-line goes back on.

It's only a couple of weeks, and after that things should smooth out. But I'm not at all happy about how this has panned out. Orange has behaved like a former national monopoly, to no one's surprise. But Free has acted the same. So if you're getting phone service in your new place in France, be informed and be careful. Mistakes, as I've discovered, are expensive in terms of your pocket and your time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Night On The Town, A Day On The River

Much of this week has been spent with the arrival of a number of people, all of whom know each other, none of whom I knew before they started descending on me here. The original deal was that the duo known as the Just Desserts were coming here to busk. But Michael Shay, the cellist, was in Denmark at a studio in a barn somwhere outside Aarhus producing an album by a songwriter named Lillis Urban. So first Lisa, the accordion-playing half of the duo, showed up and busked the markets and squares of Montpellier, and then Michael and Lillis showed up, and the three of them busked around town, with a show at the Globe, an English-language used bookstore, on Saturday night, being the focal part of the stay here, after when they'd work their way to Italy. Somewhere in there, a friend of Michael's named Melissa showed up with her 8-year-old son Orion, and they all wound up in a house rented to them by the mother of some hippie girl Lisa found while busking.

There won't be a test on this later, so don't worry.

At any rate, Thursday and Friday, Lisa managed to get an all-instrumental gig for her and Michael at La Coquille, a beautiful and excellent restaurant which stands at one end of a long green plaza with a statue of a unicorn at one end, lined by a number of lovely houses, one of which was Marshall Foch's headquarters before the First World War. This left Lillis with nothing to do, so we went out to Le Chat Perché Thursday, and then on Friday we decided to hit the Estivales. This is a summer-long evening deal in which little booths sell handcrafts, but on Friday night, three tents hold wine-tastings and all manner of foods are sold, tables are set up, and tons of people come out to enjoy the night air. I went last year and was crippled by no money and no taste buds. This year, not only did I have a little dough in my pockets, but my taste has returned for most of the day -- including the evening.

Thus, around 8 on Friday night Lillis and I stood on line, paid our €4, got our tasting glasses and three tickets for free samples, and plunged into the mob. There was tons of food on offer: raw seafood...

...local sausage, Lebanese food, Japanese food, something the vendor insists are bagels (I reserve judgement), open-face sandwiches with things like brandade de morue on them,  these mysterious green burger-like things called farçou made from swiss chard, ham, eggs, and various other things, sort of like a French take on falafel and amazingly delicious, little salads in plastic glasses to whet your appetite...

...and of course moules-frites, mussels and french fries.

At the tasting tents we decided to get different wines each time, and to stick to rosés because that's what was right for the season. The night was muggy (it even rained for a minute or two), so the wine's crispness was welcome. We managed to hit a bunch of different ones, mostly Pic St. Loup and Terrasses de Larzac, and although I wasn't taking notes, I think I at least remember what the good wines' labels looked like. In two cases I got printed material, and can report that Domaine Aubrespy, in the hills overlooking the Étang du Thau near Sète makes a dark rosé called Cuvée Flavie, with a deep fruity nose and a wonderfully complex finish for the whopping price of five euros a bottle, and that the good folks over at La Gravette de Corconne own a Pic St. Loup territory whose rosé is a bit lighter, but no less complicated. We chose this for the meal, and then stood in line to watch a huge rectangular pan of mussels over a wood fire being splashed with white wine and loads of garlic, and, when we finally got our order (they were having trouble with the fryolater for the fries), we walked over to a table and sat down with the rest of Montpellier. Unlike my visit to this event last year, our neighbors weren't at all chatty, and ignored us, but we'd already had so much fun that it didn't matter, and watching someone who'd never even heard of this part of the world a week ago experience all of this bounty and, um, joie de vivre made up for it. Plus, the smoky garlicky mussels were out of this world to my newly-revived taste buds.

Meanwhile, Lisa and Michael, who have spent considerable time in Ecuador chasing folk music there, discovered that the best friend of one of their best Ecuadorian friends lives in Montpellier, and when they contacted them, the Ecuadorians, Sergio and Anna, invited us out to a picnic in the countryside on Saturday. The deal was for us to meet at the market at 12:30. By this time Melissa and Orion had showed, and they had a car. Sergio and Anna, had their own car -- and a two-year-old son, Simón. So there was lots of room for me to tag along if I wanted, and I wanted.

But first I had to fill up on some stuff at the market, haul it home, and then return. I got there early, just in time to see the musicians arrive. Michael was going to do other stuff, so Lisa and Lillis set up, and in no time had attracted groupies:

This guy is a cheese merchant who was set up across from them, and who had the habit of walking over to them just as they were about to sing and sticking big pieces of his merchandise in their mouths. He also did some impromptu solos on a duck call.

Anyway, I got my shopping done, and we all convened back at the market just after 12:30. I got in the car with Melissa driving and Michael and Orion in the back seat, and we took off, following Sergio and Anna. I had never heard of the place they said we were going, so I just lay back and took mental notes. We wound around Pic St. Loup and the Hortus, avoiding them completely, and went past signs pointing us to St. Martin de Londres, and soon we were in unknown territory for me -- just what I wanted.

We passed over a small stream called Lamalou, and left the main road, headed towards a tiny village on the Hérault River called St.-Étienne d'Issensac. We crossed the river on a one-lane bridge with triangular cutouts so that pedestrians could stand away from vehicular traffic, a bridge dating back to the early Middle Ages, built because the road was on the route for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Parking under some trees, we hacked our way through a bit of garrigue to the water's edge and set up shop. I had no idea that water would be involved, but it didn't really matter; I don't enjoy swimming at all, and don't even own a bathing suit. So for the next four hours, the rest of the folks swam in the Hérault and set up a fire with twigs from nearby trees and charcoal, and we enjoyed grilled sausages (saucisse de Lyon and merguez, the spicy lamb sausage) and bread and cheese under the sun. I managed a couple of pictures looking up one way along the river...

...and down the other.

Because the Just Desserts and Lillis had a gig that evening (Lisa and Lillis had stayed behind to accept a lunch invitation from an eccentric old painter they'd met at the market), we got ready to leave around 5, and in deference to the non-swimming history freak, we made a brief stop at the 12th Century church, once part of a religious community which had numbered 68 people. Sergio and Anna were astonished to find its door was open, because some artist from Nimes had made an installation out of white sugar, salt, sand and, er, rubber gloves inside the mostly barren structure.

The outbuildings where the religious folks had lived are still sort of standing, too.

And the old graveyard, whose stones are too worn to decipher, but whose lettering shows that this place was operating until at least 200 years ago (and some of the graves are still getting flowers laid on them, so probably longer, although one site says that the place was burned in the 18th Century, so who knows) has a gorgeous view of some of the nearby mountains through its trees.

Because they live closer to me than the house the Desserts et. al. were in, I rode from here back into Montpellier with Sergio and Anna and got an earful of ideas for places to visit nearby where I could sate my serious history jones, with Mauguelone, with a cathedral and almost nothing else in town (it was burned to the ground during the Wars of Religion) being near enough that it may well be my next day-trip. As an added bonus, it turns out they'd had the same problems with their telephone that I'd had, and now I know exactly what I have to do next. What an amazing day!

I'm determined to do more of this kind of thing this summer, and in September when the temperatures start to sink a bit there are long-distance walking trails which also sound appealing. Sergio was talking about how the Cevennes mountains north of here were hotbeds of Protestantism and the architecture in the villages reflects this. Another thing to investigate.

And as for the Estivales on Friday, as luck would have it, two friends from Berlin are pulling into town this Friday afternoon. Right: who wants to be next? You have until the end of August!

(Town pix by Lillis Urban, country pix by Yrs Trly)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Stoned. Plastered. Terracotta'd, Too

How do you celebrate the 4th of July in a French city with next to no Americans? I didn't even realize I'd done so until I returned from the show of sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon at the Musée Fabre.

It's not a large show, as the wall-note at the entrance to the three rooms in which it's mounted notes. Instead of trying to gather up a definitive collection of the prolific sculptor's work, the curators have concentrated on two themes: two statues, Summer and Winter (also known as La Frileuse, which can't be directly translated, although my dictionary says the adjective means "sensitive to cold") which are allegories, and the portrait busts for which he's best known. This one, for instance, isn't in the show:

You have to do what Houdon did -- go to Mount Vernon, Washington's estate -- to see that one, although there's also a full statue of Washington by Houdon in Richmond, Virginia, and for both we have Thomas Jefferson, noted Francophile (and conoisseur of Languedoc wines) to thank, since he's the one that got the money raised.

As for what's here, the first thing one sees is the two allegories. If I read the wall notes right, it was Winter that got Houdon into trouble with the judges of the Salon when he showed it in 1783, with the academics noting that a nude allegory of winter was ridiculous. Given that you have to pass through a half-dozen rooms strewn with gigantic paintings of writhing flesh (mostly male) in ridiculous postures to get to the three galleries in which this show stands, and that these acres of mediocrity are what the judges liked back then, a point is nicely, if inadvertently, made.

The absolute purity of this form reminds me that one thing Houdon was part of was the movement away from the fussiness of the Baroque into the simplicity of neo-Classicism. Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum in New York may also recognize this statue, without the cracked urn, from the bronze version on display there, which is also part of this show. In contrast, I'd guess that Summer made the academics happy. It's almost noisy next to La Frileuse: she's got a bunch of wheat tucked under one arm, flowers in her hair, a mess of fruit spilled all over the ground, and she's looking right at you and smiling. And unless she was conceived as a big, fat "fuck you" to the censors who'd banned her sister, I'd say she's not one of Houdon's major works.

The next room has an analysis of the sources and interpretations of the statue, along with the bronze version from New York and a tiny Diana the huntress by Houdon standing next to her. Several Baroque series of engravings portraying the four seasons and how they were interpreted are on the walls, a Houdon head of a Vestal, and another female portrait draw attention to the drapery, a gorgeous 15th Century carved wood Rhenish Pietà emphasizes the mourning aspect, and two paintings symbolizing the loss of innocence (ie, loss of virginity, which is pretty explicit in one of them) point at another, possibly complementary, reading of the piece. There are also two models of funerary sculptures, one of which is a direct, if better-clothed, rip.

The really famous stuff lines up in the next room, which is loaded with portrait busts, not all of which are by Houdon -- in fact the majority aren't. There's plaster, terracotta, marble, and bronze, and among other things, this room gives you a strong sense of the business of sculpted portraiture in the 18th Century. Six months before he died, Voltaire sat for Houdon at his house, and Houdon sketched and measured like crazy. This was an honor of the highest sort -- Voltaire was a rock-star of the times, and he strictly controlled access to himself. Houdon got a couple of "shots" of his head, wigless and otherwise unadorned, which are here, one in terracotta, another in bronze, but both with the sort of deeply human expression Houdon was famous for. He also got enough data to do a seated figure of a robed Voltaire, gazing off to the side with an amused expression that probably portends a searingly witty remark, and there's a tiny copy in one of the showcases here, but a much bigger one that lives at the Fabre in the adjacent room.

This is the big deal: if you got something like that, you could sell as many copies as you could get commissions for. The Fabre's seated Voltaire isn't really unique: there was a mould, and Houdon squeezed 'em out on demand -- and with Voltaire's death and the fact that Houdon had really "gotten" him, he probably made a good deal of dough on the results of this particular sitting.

And let's not forget that he was good. Oh, so were the best of his competitors, but you don't have to be an expert to look around this room and pick out the Houdons (and heaven knows 18th Century art isn't my thing at all, but I could do it). There's just something extra in his work, as the side-by-side comparison of a pair of portraits of Marie-Adelaïde de France, a princess, shows. There's one by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne from 1768, and one by Houdon from 1777. Lemoyne's is nice. It's probably accurate. It's dull. Houdon's shows an older woman, one who's retained some of her beauty. But there's something shocking about her face: she's just beginning to smile and you can see some of her teeth. This is Not Done. It also made me look a little longer at this piece: the piled-up hair, the delicacy of the lace on the top of her dress, and the complexity of her expression. Lemoyne's Marie-Adelaïde is a cute chick. Houdon's is an interesting woman. This made me check out his bust of Napoleon again. And that made me leave the room.

Actually, I did that because, as I mentioned, next door is the seated Voltaire, which is one of the very best pieces in the Fabre's collection (not that, coming from me, that's saying a lot). There are a number of other portrait busts by him in this room, too, including one I'd forgotten.

The Fabre's Franklin's only a terra-cotta, but that means somewhat sharper detail than you'd get from marble. The complexity of expression that was so obvious with Voltaire and Marie-Adelaïde is, as you can see, right there with Ben. We stared at each other a while, I wished him a happy Fourth, and then I went back through the endless galleries of fleshapoids and out the front door.

Well, not directly. I had to stop and see if something I remembered was true. It was: for six euros, you can buy a copy of La Frileuse in rubber. It's an eraser. Which led me back to the ideas of mourning and loss of virginity. And erasure.

And then I went home.

* * *

Jean-Antoine Houdon, la sculpture sensible will run through Sept. 12 at the Musée Fabre, 37 boulevard Sarrail, Montpellier. The museum is free the first Sunday of each month. For further information see the museum's website.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July's First Market

For buying food, I generally prefer Tuesday's markets to Saturday's, and I also prefer the crowds on Tuesday, which are smaller and less likely to have tourists. Today, for instance, I heard three German women talking about how much they'd just paid for some tomatoes, and a female voice braying, in an American accent, "Do you speak English?" (The market lady, to her credit, brayed back a lusty "Yaaaass!")

Still, I was out of a bunch of stuff, and anyway, I always need the exercise, so I hoofed on down, despite the blaring sun, which was daunting. The most important item was the vinegar. M. Mazet's wines are just okay, but they've still got that good old Languedoc terroir, as does his vinegar, which has been featuring in the vinaigrette that goes on my dinner salades composées of late, along with inexpensive olive oil from Aniane and, um, supermarket Dijon mustard. Anyway, he's only there on Saturdays, so I had to score.

Elsewhere, a woman had apricots, yellow peaches, white peaches, and melons. The peaches seemed ready, and I don't remember from last year whether it was the yellow or white that I preferred, so I got two of each. One yellow one was badly dinged by the trip back home, so I ate it and found it fantastically juicy and just as sour as could be. Not ready yet, I guess, but I'll try another soon.

The three "black tomatoes" are, I think, probably commercial, but they have a nice balance of sweet and acid, and while I wait for the Tomatologue (whose tomato festival I see I'm missing today, dammit!) to start setting up again on Tuesdays, I'm feeling like eating some tomatoes. Got those and the potatoes from a reputable family-run stall, although I don't think they actually raise any of what they sell. A saucisson sec with herbes de Provence will co-star with the potatoes in tomorrow's breakfast, and you'll also see some green beans and some mesclun in the picture, as well as a bunch of (incredibly rare: I guess they don't eat them much around here) green onions that are brighter and whiter than the picture shows. Might cut one or two of those into the morning meal, too.

I felt a certain impatience as I strolled through the market today, though, and I realized it's related to why I didn't see any lizards on Thursday. All of this stuff comes in its own season, and just because it's hot and sunny outside doesn't mean any of it is ready. I was seeing tiny turtles because they'd just been born recently. Ditto that small frog. The frogs I heard in April were making noise because they were mating, and the results aren't there to see yet. Same with the lizards. You can't rush this stuff, so enjoy it when it comes along. The asparagus is gone, the strawberries are in retreat, but there's more ahead. Patience.

Patience and maybe a visit to an air-conditioned space. That's tomorrow's plan.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

In The Garden

Since it appears I won't have phone service for the remainder of my life in France, because each telecom swears it's the other's fault and I'm running out of money to pay bills to both of them for service I don't get from either, and since I'm tired of sitting around the apartment day after day, I decided to take a bit of a walk today. Now, it's hot out there at the moment. I mean hot. So I wasn't up for any epic walks to the zoo (there are new giraffes, I hear) or in search of medieval churches. No, I decided to turn the heat into a benefit.

When it's this hot out, I reasoned, the lizards must be out. And boy, did I ever know a place with lizards. Maybe I could get photos of several different kinds, come back and identify them, and educate my readers about reptiles in the Languedoc.

And where was this place? The Jardin des Plantes, just on the other side of the hill. It's a historic place, founded in 1593 by order of King Henri IV (a Protestant...clearly I have more history to read here...), and Europe's first botanical garden. The whole rationale of Montpellier University was to support Europe's first medical school, and the dons finally figured out that in order to study how plants worked, the best thing to do was to have some working plants. So in went the herbs, and as the science of botany grew, so did the Jardin des Plantes. I don't go there much, but every time I do I see critters I want to photograph.

I took my time, choosing the shadiest streets I could find, and discovered to my pleasure that I now know the twisty streets of the old city well enough to dump me out with precision at just where I wanted to go, via rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, which has a nice hotel, and several restaurants I'd like to try when the magic combo of money and ability to taste coincide. I then ambled down the Boulevard Henri IV, and into the Jardin.

It was still hot. The presence of all that green did not one thing to abate the heat. There were people in the shady bits, sprawled out on the granite benches or eating their lunches. There was nobody in the sunny parts, though. Not even lizards. I walked some. Lizards like walls, where they can squeeze between stones. Sun was hitting some old stone walls with a solid blast. There were no lizards.

Okay, I said, and headed to the lily pond, where the water lilies and lotus plants had run riot since I was last there in April, unsurprisingly enough. This is a fairly big water feature, so I was certain something was living there. Dragonflies that looked like they'd been manufactured by Sikorski hovered, but that was it. I walked around the pond, camera at ready. Finally, I stopped and waited. Something was messing around the stalks of the water lillies. It might appear.

But it didn't need to: it was already there. I'd forgotten an important rule of observation. Just stand there and the picture will come to you. And there, on a large leaf, was a really, really small turtle:

This guy was about the size they used to sell for a quarter in the pet stores, and in fact has that s ame red stripe on each side of his throat. I looked around and there were more. Bigger, but not much.

Then, the catch of the day. He wasn't all that big, but he was pretty -- and fast. I clicked twice, but only one photo has him:

Okay, I told myself, I remember from the last time I was here where there are lots of frogs. We heard them barking and saw them hanging out. The best view of their pond was from the cactus garden, too, a natural hangout for lizards. So I walked to the cactus garden. I stared at the pool. It was covered with algae. Nothing moved. I looked over at the cactus. Nothing moved over there, either. I kept looking. Nothing was moving anywhere.

This was frustrating, but I felt like I was learning some kind of lesson. No frogs, no lizards. Some turtles, not one of which was the size of a silver dollar. I'm really not much on flowers, but there were no flowers, either, to speak of. Oh, there were some spectacular artichokes...

...although you don't see the intense purple because the lighting is wrong and I was shooting through a fence (about half the Jardin is closed to the public while being renovated, including the famous desert building, which looks like they're going to rebuild it from the ground up, and which probably won't have any lizards either).

I lucked out, though; as I made my way to the exit, two busloads of what appeared to be college students were getting a lecture, preparatory to a guided tour. They were all gathered around their guide, who I guess was explaining that all the lizards in the Jardin either had Thursdays off or were on strike. They'd be French lizards, so that wouldn't surprise me at all.

And when I got back home, unsurprisingly, nothing had changed, either.
Site Meter