Friday, December 28, 2012

Last Miettes Of The Year

Generally, when people ask me why I chose Montpellier to live in, my answer is that I wanted to live in France, but not in Paris. They are then amazed: who wouldn't want to live in Paris, for heaven's sakes? And I have to remind them that living somewhere and visiting it are two totally different situations. If you live in Paris, you won't be visiting the Musée d'Orsay every day any more than you'll be eating at Chez Paul a couple of times a week. It's also unlikely your apartment will be in the nice neighborhood your hotel is in, either. No, I find Paris congested, not to mention horrendously expensive. Go ahead: next time you're there, window-shop for an apartment. You'll see what I mean.

The down side of Montpellier, as I was warned when I moved here, is that it's provincial. Just as Britain is London-centric, France is Paris-centric, and if you're not in the center, you're missing a lot. For my part, I don't mind: it's not like I'm keeping up on the latest rock tours, and, unlike London and Berlin, Paris doesn't have enough of an art scene to lose any sleep over, outside of shows in the museums. And anyway, Montpellier's provinciality can be amusing. Where else can a dreadlocked hippie draw a huge crowd to watch him honk away on a digideroo and fill his hat with silver? Where else can a guy who knows how to operate, but not exactly play in any meaningful sense of the word, a Chapman Stick, do the same thing (although this guy splits his take with the bongo player he travels with)? The latest miracle arriving on our streets is a pod of publicists handing out flyers while mounted on a Segway, that much-hyped yet sadly under-awesome device. I took a flyer from one the other day, since it had an ad for a new Moroccan restaurant on it and I'm still looking for a decent Moroccan place around here, but the flyer was an ad for the Segway squad, promising good rates to pass out my flyers. Incidentally, from it I learned that they're not called Segways at all. No doubt the Académie Francaise met long into the night to deal with this latest foreign threat (you can tell it's foreign because of the presence of the foreign letter "y" in the name, a letter I'd forgotten is called "i-grecque," or Greek i, in French) before blessing it with a properly French name. These folks are now driving gyropodes, and don't you forget it, bub.

Health update: I had a phenomenal response to my last post here, dealing with my pulmonary embolism and its aftermath, so I feel I should update my progress, although there's nothing much to progress. This condition, while it was definitely life-threatening, isn't like having a heart attack or stroke, where the affected body part (heart, brain) is definitely threatened and often weakened by what happened to it. In other words, the threat of a recurrence of a heart attack or stroke is very real, and the possibility that it might be worse next time is also very real. In my case, the main thing for me is to clear up a tiny thrombosis in my left leg by treating it with anti-coagulants, and to protect against such a thing happening next time I fly by taking some precautions. I'm not totally certain where I am in this treatment, but since leaving the hospital, I had to buy a bunch of new drugs to take morning, noon, and night. Among them was a box of hypodermics with which I had to inject myself twice a day, in the morning and night, which cost €108. Fortunately, this was done in my stomach: I've also had to give blood samples several times a week to see how the anti-coagulants are doing, and in doing so I'm reminded why being a junkie never appealed to me, because my veins are real hard to get to, and it's a painful process, unlike jabbing myself in the gut. But I seem to have reached a good number with the anticoagulants, and have a follow-up with the doctor next week. Probably the biggest shock of the whole treatment was the compression socks, the first pair of which cost me a whopping €40. (I later found a second pair for half that, but dang, those are expensive socks!) It would appear that my next flight (to New York and Austin in March) is on schedule, but there's more travel than that planned at the moment, and I'll report on that in a week and a half. Thanks to all who helped out in this weird crisis, most of whom I've thanked personally since it happened.

One unfortunate health problem, though, has returned: starting in the middle of the afternoon, my ability to smell, which of course affects my ability to taste, shuts down. I don't have a cold, and I'm hoping I don't have to go back to the nose doctor for even more drugs. This has kind of ruined my Christmas cooking, and I hope it passes soon.

One curious food obsession that I wish I could shake, though, is one I never had when I was growing up in New York: bagels. There are times when I just have to have them for breakfast, and this has followed me through some very un-bagel places: San Francisco, Austin, Berlin, and now here. In Austin, a family of Cuban Jews started making some very acceptable ones, and then a neighbor of mine started up an excellent bagel bakery. Berlin suddenly developed a fad for them, with articles in the local magazines saying that bagels (which, they announced, were pronounced "by-gulls") had been developed in New York, thereby avoiding having to think of the eastern Polish and Russian Jews who, in fact, originated them. (A bagel-like pastry is sold to this day on the streets of Krakow, albeit by Catholics). Eventually, some edible ones were made available by a chain that kept changing its name, and visitors to Lübeck and Leipzig could buy even better ones from a chain called Brothers. But in France...

There are a couple of places here that sell bagel-based sandwiches, and all of them get their bagels from the same company that sells them frozen. They're okay, but not worth paying the extraordinary fee for a single bagel, let alone one of the bizarre combinations that fill the sandwiches. Thus, I was surprised to find them in the kosher section of my supermarket, and, later, in the regular breads-and-rolls section. There, I discovered that Regent's Park was making them. This is a French company making fake British baked goods (the wacky website says more than it thinks it does in this regard), and their English muffins (sold as "Rolls," their "Muffins" being English muffins you have to split with a fork and not as good) are part of my regular breakfast rotation. Like the "Rolls," the bagels are sold with a weird image on the package:

I'm not sure it's all that visible, but there's a Marilyn Monroe-like woman with a punk haircut wearing a black leather jacket getting her dress blown up in front of a Union Jack and a picture of a bagel. This image seems to encompass more cultural confusion than anything I've seen in ages: certainly nothing says "Eastern European Jews" to me more than punk chicks and Union Jacks, right? And as you might guess, they're really not very good (nor are the more expensive ones in the kosher section). Ah, well, like I said above, I'm planning to be in New York in a couple of months, although my last visit proved conclusively that it's getting harder to find a decent bagel there these days, too.

Anyway, I'm not sure about you, but I'll be plenty happy to be shut of this year, and I expect the next one will see some largish changes around here. Here's wishing you a "good slide" into '13, as the Germans might say. See you then.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"Starting Now, You Have Lost The Right To Stand."

Sorry for those with delicate sensibilities, but this story starts on the toilet.

Two weeks ago this past Sunday, I was seated on mine, and ready to get up. I stood, hit the button in the center of the tank, bent down to get my pants, and...almost passed out from lack of breath. I was hyperventilating like I'd just run for my life and my heart was pounding. It had come out of nowhere, but there I was, huffing and puffing. It passed soon enough, but I'll admit it scared me a little.

But only a little: my family has zero history of heart disease, and every time I've had a checkup that particular area has passed the test: a little enlarged due to hypertension, but otherwise strong. The aged alcoholic doctor I went to when I first moved here always told me I could have "one, two, manny women" and offered to write me a prescription for little blue pills. (I told him to write the prescription for the women first and we'd see if I needed the pills. He didn't get it.)

Anyway, in the ensuing week, this came and went. It was always a bit of a chore climbing the stairs to this third-floor (second, as Europeans measure it) apartment, but there were times when I'd have to stop and catch my breath while walking to the store. Still, I made it to the market and back on Tuesday without incident, and I did it again on Saturday, adding on a short walking tour of the town for some friends from Texas who stopped in. Once, though, I had to stop and regroup during the tour. Mid-week, I'd gone to E and J's for a simple dinner of lentils and sausage so that E (who's Swiss-German) and I could complain that the French just Don't Get sausage (J's a vegetarian, and so had no opinion). Sunday, though, was really bad. Just sitting up in bed meant a pause for breath, and I took it real, real slow. Tomorrow, I told myself, I'll call the doctor and make an appointment. I was almost out of blood pressure pills anyway, so it made sense.

Monday was pretty bad, too, so when I called I asked for a same-day appointment and the doctor told me she could see me at 5:15. So in I went, via the cash machine so I could pay her. A ten-minute trip took a half-hour as I poked up the hill, pausing every now and again to catch my breath. I still got to the appointment on time, and she was only 15 minutes late seeing me. The blood pressure was okay, she listened to my heart, and then started asking questions. "You must go to La Peyronie to the Urgences," she said. I had no idea where this was, nor did she have a clue how to get there on the tram, but we finally figured out that it had its own tram stop on Line 1, the one that stops by my house (although it took a phone call: I'm amazed at how many people here drive places). "Do I have time to stop at my apartment and..." "NOW!" she said.

So I shuffled down the hill and discovered there wasn't a bill-changer on the ticket machine. I walked over to the bakery on my corner and asked the gal at the counter if she could change a five. "Into what?" she asked. I told her I'd settle for two twos and a one. Ticket bought, I got on the tram at full rush hour and headed off to La Peyronie.

Whose emergency entrance was not visible from the tram-stop, I discovered. I painfully crept towards the main entrance, stood in line with a bunch of other people, and was re-directed to the right place by a fast-speaking woman. Fortunately, an African aide outside repeated the directions more slowly, and I shuffled on. I talked to someone at admissions, and was whisked onto a gurney. Not long afterwards, I wsa wheeled into a room where I was checked with a stethoscope for any immediate danger and then left lying there. It was 6:30.

Soon, a couple of young guys appeared, their whites bearing a sewn-on badge that said "Étudiant." It was quickly determined that I spoke French if I were spoken to slowly enough for me to understand what was being said, and some questions ensued: I told them my symptoms, answered family questions  (no history of heart problems, no diabetes), and, mostly, waited. One of the students was an olive-skinned guy with tightly-curled hair who spoke excellent English. "Yeah, I'm getting good at it because when I graduate and get my MD, I'm gonna go to the States and get rich because there aren't any taxes." Lying there in the heart of socialized medicine, quite certain I'd be well taken care of, I bit my tongue. I wanted to tell him this was like moving to France because the women were prettier, a real "yeah, but.." moment, but said nothing. (My sister, who's a medical professional, laughed when I told her this: "He probably doesn't now that he's going to have to go through his residency all over again if he does this!" He also proudly told me he was a Libertarian and I told him that was okay; he'd grow out of it).  He produced a huge Samsung smart-phone from his pocket. "You want to contact anyone?" Ah! E and J could get the word out. I gave him their name -- couldn't remember the e-mails -- and he searched. "Not in the white pages," he said. Hmmm. "What about Facebook? You have an account?" Another excellent idea. But...couldn't remember my password. It began to dawn on me how dependent I was on my computer being able to remember all this stuff. "Okay, I gotta go." And he did, to be replaced by an actual doctor (they wear red plastic badges) who seemed angry.

Actually, he seemed German, with red-blonde hair and a flushed complexion and very brusque manners. He set up at a computer in the room and asked some more questions as a couple of other students appeared to observe. I believe some blood was taken. He jumped up and left the room. Eventually he came back. He asked some more questions, which I answered as well as I could. One was whether I'd taken a long airplane flight recently, and I remembered my trip to San Francisco at the end of October, and being wedged into a window seat, unable to escape due to a couple of immobilized gigantic Russians who blocked my way to the aisle for nine hours. Finally, he asked me my weight. I didn't know. Really, I didn't: I don't have a scale at home, and I've always figured that as long as I didn't resemble a zeppelin or my weight wasn't causing me health problems, and as long as I was eating moderate portions of good food, I was okay. I'd slimmed down a lot since I'd moved here, and I figured that was good. "You don't know your weight?" he asked, incredulous. Well, no, I... He jumped out of the chair and left the room, saying something on his way out.

One of the medical students knew I hadn't heard or understood it. "Starting now," he said, in English, "you have lost the right to stand." I started to scoot up on my elbows and he put his fingers on my chest, firmly pushing me down. "Non," he said.

*  *  *

The rest of the night was a blur of medical technology: a set of x-rays, a scan in a futuristic-looking machine with an attendant who was full of jokes and jovial about his horrible English, which he insisted on speaking, blood being drawn and whisked off to labs, and a glucose drip being attached to my left arm. Finally, I was wheeled onto an elevator and taken to a room. It was 3:15. "I bet you're happy to finally be able to get some sleep," the nurse said as I rolled from the gurney into the bed, my arm still attached to the drip. I was, but it eluded me for a while. Finally, it came. 

The next morning, I was raised slightly into a sitting position, and breakfast was served, along with a heapin' helpin' of pills. I was given a cup of coffee, a couple of biscottes (rusks), a pad of something that looked like butter but couldn't have been, and a little serving of a jam-like substance. Looking at the pills, I asked if there were some juice to help me wash them down. The servers were surprised, but went to check the cart. "We only have apple juice, is that okay?" Sure, I said, not really liking apple juice that much, but realizing that I hadn't actually had anything to eat in several days: I'd cooked dinner on Sunday, but it smelled and tasted awful (another reason I felt impelled to call the doctor), and, for the first time in a long time, I threw it all out, thinking of my diminishing cash reserve. There'd been a bowl of cereal on Monday morning, but that was it. I was ravenous, but would have to do with biscottes. And the apple juice was great. It was also the last I'd see. 

Not much happened. I was alone in the room, which was nice. Since I couldn't get up, I had to pee into a pistolet, which looked like a turtle with a trumpet for a head. I dozed. There was lunch: a boudin noir, which was something I'd never had before, and couldn't really figure out because it was, shall we say, not of the highest quality. Alongside was some cauliflower in bechamel sauce -- utterly tasteless -- and mashed potatoes. 

But I didn't get to finish it. At one point, a trio of women swept into the room with a computer station. One was wearing the red doctor's badge, tall, elegant, exuding a centeredness and a calm that was palpable. One of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, although way above my pay-grade. She was followed by two younger women, a round redhead and a thin, bird-like woman who'd examined me earlier, all business and just a bit tense. The tall doctor sat on a table bolted to the wall across from the foot of my bed, and, like in a Renaissance painting -- the lighting was right for this, too -- the redhead arranged herself facing the doctor on one side, the bird-woman on the other. "Aha," I said. "The Judgement." They laughed. "Right," said the doctor. "Tell me about the patient." Bird-woman rattled off the presenting symptoms, the treatment, and at one point said "The patient, Mr. Ward EDMUND," (that's how names are presented in France) "is an agreeable American writer and radio journalist" (I swear I'd never mentioned this to anyone, and wondered if she'd Googled me) "and speaks reasonably good French." The doctor thanked her and it was the redhead's turn. "The patient, according to his x-rays and scans, has a pulmonary embolism, which is being treated with medication." She then turned to me and asked me if I knew what this was. I told her I thought so, but she brought a piece of paper over to the bed and started drawing. 

(You'll have to click this, and even then it might not make sense). "You have your heart, the right side and the left side. Your embolisms are blood clots which are sitting in your lungs, making the transfer of blood and oxygen difficult. We are dissolving them with medications." 

I thanked her and she resumed her position next to the doctor, who was the next to speak. "In order to observe your progress, we're going to want to keep you here for about a week." "A week? But..." "I'm sorry, but it's necessary." Crap. And me without any way to contact anyone. "Is there someone here we can contact for you?" Again, I brought out E and J, and again, she searched the Internet for them and came up dry. This was bad. I had come directly from the doctor's office and now realized that not only had I not packed a little bag with necessaries in it, but my glasses were on my computer keyboard and even if I'd had something to read, I couldn't have done so. And a week like this? What was I going to do? "We'll be moving you this afternoon to another building," she went on. "I'm sorry we couldn't find your friends." And with that, she stood, and the three of them departed. 

Sure enough, later that day I got a visit from two guys who wheeled me into an elevator and outside into an ambulance, my first. "We're taking you to St. Eloi," they said, and right away I felt better. 

* * * 

I first encountered St. Eloi at the Petit Palais in Avignon, back when my friend Suzy was researching her book about girls and horses. Like all of her friends, I was constantly on the lookout for horse-related stuff to pass on to her, so as I wandered around this small museum attached to the much more famous World Heritage Site-cum-concert venue, I was arrested by a small painting of a guy holding a horse's leg in his hand, with the horse standing in the background stoically bleeding and waiting for it to be reattached. When I got back home, I searched for a copy of the painting to send her, but without luck. (You can at least read about this miracle on his Wikipedia page, but without the bleeding horse with its bland expression, you're missing a lot). So when we stopped at St. Eloi hospital, I figured a place named for a guy who could chop off a horse's leg and then reattach it probably knew a thing or two about fixing bodies. (I didn't, however, realize he was the patron saint of goldsmiths and metalworkers). 

Once again, I found myself alone in a double room. 


My glucose drip was replaced by a machine that held a huge hypodermic that was verrrrry slooooowly injecting me with anti-coagulant. It weighed a lot, given its size, and it had to go everywhere with me. It was a pain in the ass and a pain in the arm. Wednesday afternoon, I got a roommate, or "neighbor (voisin)," as the French put it, a big guy about my age with a salt-and-pepper moustache whose nocturnal noises reminded me that this was the pulmonary ward. The next day, they took him off for a while and he came back and started packing. "They took it all out of me. It was disgusting! Agggh! But it's good now," was what he had to say about it. 

I fell into bad sleep habits. With nothing whatever to do, I think I discovered the basic principles of meditation, a state that wasn't sleep but where I wasn't really "there," either. It had its points, I have to say. Awakened from one of these states by a nurse or somebody entering the room, I realized I'd formed a systematic plan for what to do in case anyone did contact me somehow. I grabbed the piece of paper on which the redhead had sketched my heart and lungs and began to write. Another time, I found myself having made some connections in a thing I'd started just before heading off to the doctor's office on Monday. And I rehearsed some of the stuff I'd write here. But mostly, it'd be dozing and staring at the wall. 

The patient is bored.

On Thursday, a social worker came to see if she could help, carrying a pile of papers which dramatically illustrated the word "caseload." I carefully wrote out a short message to be e-mailed to people -- a friend in Berlin, my agent, my producer at Fresh Air, a couple of people on the Well -- who could start spreading the message that I was alive and well. I drew her a map of where E and J live and she recognized it immediately -- "Oh, I live just around the corner!" -- and said if she had time she'd stop by there. Friday morning, the phone rang, which was weird since I hadn't subscribed to the phone service. It was a guy in Paris who was the friend of someone on the Well, calling to see what was up. I outlined the situation and he said he'd relay the info, and if I was still in the hospital on Tuesday, he'd hop a train down to see what was what. I thanked him and sat astounded at how information gets out these days. 

I was getting out, too. Seeing how bored I was, one of the porters, the guys who help clean the rooms and hump beds and so on, said "Why are you just sitting there? You should get up and walk around." "I'm allowed to do that?" I asked. "Sure! It's good for you!" Well, hell, let's go! I had to put on my shoes over my compression bandages, but I strode around in a circle, doing the circuit of the not-all-that-big ward a couple of dozen times. (I'd been disconnected from the slow-injector several days earlier, although the faucet-like thing it had been attached to was still with me). Most of the residents I saw were quite elderly, and one shocking thing I saw was an old woman sitting up in bed, a table in front of her on which rested a bottle of some kind of liquor and a bottle of mineral water and two glasses, from which she sipped alternately, her eyes fixed straight ahead, probably on the television. 

I probably shouldn't have been shocked. Shortly after the guy who'd had the disgusting stuff removed moved out, M. Lopez moved in. A short, balding guy in his early 50s with a doughy body, he was in for the second or third time. From what I heard of his intake interview, he'd had problems that had resulted in the loss of a significant amount of vision in one eye and was on all kinds of medication. He spoke a little English which he was happy to try out on me, and let me know that his sister was headed to Chicago, or Madison, because her son was graduating from high school there. He was bored, too, and really wound up. Every hour or so, he'd put on some clothing under and over his gown and slip out for a cigarette. His panic when he couldn't remember where he'd packed them was impressive. Now, if I'd had a blood-vessel go out of business, partially blinding me, I think the cigarettes would be the first thing to go. And if I'd just be re-hospitalized for phlebitis, that also would have been a signal. 

Lopez' nighttime noises made the other guy's fade into insignificance. On his first night, he let out a long, high note that made me wonder if we'd hear any more of the Haydn trumpet concerto, but the action moved to his nose and throat, which also made impressive noises. He also sometimes called out, and although it was hard to understand most of it, there were cries of "ne touche pas!" and "arrête!" ("Don't touch! Stop!") in there. When the nurses came in the morning to take temperatures, the first few days he'd wake up confused and frightened and it would take him a minute to figure out where he was. 

Things took a turn for the worse for me on Friday, when his sister showed up and paid for a television subscription for him. But not, I should add, headphones. Soon it would be the weekend, and football. 

But then, on the flip-side, at one point someone came in and told me that I'd be going home on Monday. Then someone else told me that I'd have tests on Monday and go home on Tuesday. Seeing as how there wasn't much stimulation, just going anywhere was fun, and one day I was taken to a dark corner of the ground floor (I was one up), where a skinny, harried young woman had a machine with a screen and a bunch of controls, and wielded what looked like a Lady Schick razor, on which she kept spreading goo. This was electrolytic jelly, and she prodded my legs up and down. The right one passed, but she found a small clot in the left one. "It's just a little one," she said. "Ah, so no big thing," I replied. "No, it's only the size of the one you just had in your lungs," she shot back. "We'll get it with the drugs, don't worry." 

On Saturday, a miracle occurred. There was a knock on the door in the early evening -- I'd just finished dinner -- and there stood J. They'd gotten worried, called the central hospital number, and I'd been found in seconds. E, however, had been willing to do the research, but was creeped out by hospitals, so he stayed at home. I dove for the list of stuff to do, and J took notes. At last, tomorrow I'd have glasses and my iPad, so I'd have reading material! And so it came to pass on Sunday morning. I was overjoyed, both by the human contact (E had come for the second visit and was surprised at how nice the place was) and by the fact that long after they left, I had the New Yorker, and Wired, and William Shirer's Berlin Diaries, which I'd been in the middle of, not to mention a few versions of Angry Birds and the never-ending cribbage game. And on Sunday, Marie de Montpellier paid a visit with her cell-phone, which has unlimited calling to anywhere, and we called a guy on the Well whose number she had and I gave him the news. 

The iPad and the word getting out helped a lot, because definitive word came down: I was being tested on Tuesday and, if everything was okay, released on Wednesday. My news was better than Lopez'; he was being transferred to a cardiac ward soon, which terrified him. He made some phone calls. He cried a little. He kept smoking. His sister returned, and saw a copy of the New York Review of Books on the table. "Ah," she said, "you read English!" Lopez gave her a wry look and said "He's American, you know." There was an awful lot of football on Sunday (seven hours non-stop), some on Monday, and more on Tuesday (two matches). When it was over, Lopez couldn't bear to turn off the television. I learned to roll over and try to sleep, but along the way, I got to admire the striking skills of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who plays for Paris St. Germain, and has some arcane ability to teleport into just the right location to receive the ball and kick it into the net. I'm no sports fan, but the cat's uncanny. 

* * * 

Which sort of leads to the last part of this long post. The teamwork displayed by everyone at St. Eloi was awesome. On one end of the scale was the elite doctors 'n' ducklings parade, a doctor followed by a string of medical students. All very polite, all very reserved. The trio I observed before I moved was exceptional by their camaraderie; for the most part, there's a strict hierarchy. But on the other end are the day-to-day folks. Medical students are one thing; nursing students quite another. We had some excellent ones, the best of whom was Super Marie, a skinny dyamo of about 30 who entered a room with the force of a controlled nuclear explosion. With Super Marie, stuff got done. Got a question? You'll get an answer. Need something? You'll get it or find out why you can't have it. Somebody forgot something? They'll be running into the room very shortly, embarrassed. I've been stuck with more needles in the past week than in the past 20 years combined, and anyone who was under Super Marie's supervision did it with the minimum pain and as quickly as possible. There were also the crews who served the food, changed the beds, cleaned the bathrooms, and so on. Here, the star was Island Girl, whom I'm pretty sure was North African, but with her brown skin, long black hair, and rounded figure, reminded me of one of Paul Gaugin's Polynesian maidens. She also spoke pretty good English, which sort of embarrassed her because none of her peers came close. (There was an African gal who I named Miss Miami because when she found out I'd lived in Texas, she said "Yeah! Texas! Dallas! Miami!") 

Oh, and the food. It ranged from wretched to edible, most often leaning toward the former. It didn't help that utensils seemed to be distributed sort of randomly, although only Lopez managed to be served a meal -- three times -- without any at all, which caused him to surge out into the hall yelling for the servers. Maybe I can save a thousand words with a picture of my last meal there: 

Not all visible, but the printed menu describes what's there. Most often, there was a vegetable soup made from unknown and unstated vegetables. Here there were cucumber slices in watery yogurt. The pork was gristly, the peas and carrots canned but not as bad as you'd think. There was a choucroute garni one day that was pretty good and one day Island Girl came in with dinner and announced "It's a fish with a West Indian sauce. You're going to like it!" and she was right. "Sauce Rougail," says the menu slip, and I'm going to look it up, because my guess is that a non-hospital version could well be worth the time, and I want to eat more fish these days, for some reason. Worst dish, besides steamed potatoes with no seasoning, which also came with that fish dinner, was a puree of some sort, made from unidentifiable vegetables with a decidedly nasty taste. And lots of it. Gack. 

* * * 

A last round ot tests halfway across the small city that is the University of Montpellier Medical School (the oldest in Europe, and a testament to the amity between the Jewish financiers, the North African Muslim sailors, and the French Christian merchants who ran the spice trade here and provided money, scientists, and property in which to build the institution over 1000 years ago) and I was good to go. I was provided with instructions for outpatient care (which includes shooting myself up in the belly twice a day with anticoagulants, which has proven to me that I'm braver than I thought, although Super Marie's example that it could be done fairly painlessly helped), the news that my next appointment at St. Eloi would be at the end of February to check that all was cool before I attempted to fly to Austin (although I'll probably do this in two phases as it is, because I'll probably need to stop in New York), and after that meal pictured above, I sat and waited three hours for my papers to be ready. Stepping out into the cold air in my thin jacket holding a bag with all my stuff in it, I couldn't wait to get back here to The Slum and see what I'd missed.  A lot, as it turned out. And not so much. 

* * * 

What Happened: Frequent International Fliers Please Read. On my way back from California, unlike when I flew Barcelona-Atlanta and waited a couple of hours before flying to San Francisco, I got a direct flight SFO to Paris, nine hours. At the ticket counter, I was told that as a gift from my frequent flyer program, I'd been "upgraded" to a window seat. I've avoided window seats practically forever, because the curvature of the aircraft means less headroom, and there are usually two people between you and the aisle. As I said above, this time, the two were an immense couple, Russians, flying SFO to St. Petersburg, and they necked a handful of pills before takeoff and passed out. I managed to get to the bathroom once, but that was it, and they spread out as they slept, cramping me into the wall. Somehow, I managed to get to sleep, but woke with a pain in my right leg. Sore muscle, I told myself, and although it took longer than usual for the pain to go away, it did go away. 

This was no twisted muscle. I'd developed phlebitis, deep vein thrombosis, a very common malady related to immobility and pressure. The above-mentioned Suzy e-mailed me this morning to say she knew of two other people, personally, to whom this has happened. I've flown internationally for years, not frequently, but pretty often, and never had anything like this happen before. It's not a factor of age, apparently, but of immobility. It's also not heart disease: the chances of this recurring are, well, the chances of it occurring in the first place. But it's nothing to play around with: that clot could have gone to my brain or my heart. It's just that, as I understand it, it usually goes to the lungs first. 

* * * 

Thanks to all, especially those who designed the French health care system. I haven't gotten my bill yet, but I'm thinking it'll be around €3000 or less. As my sister confirmed on the phone yesterday, I'd be into five figures by now if I were in the States. It's too bad my native land doesn't recognize health care as a basic human right. Here's hoping that changes sooner than later. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In Which We Stop a Leak and Roast A Turnip

Just to give you an idea how exciting things can get at The Slum, the highlights of the week have been a visit from a plumber and the event I'm going to document below.

The plumber thing was odd. One day, the African guy who lives downstairs knocked on my door. Between his accent, which was gently slurred, and the speed at which he talked (I'm convinced that French people speak French faster than English-speakers can speak English), I wasn't able to make out much, but I did get "water" and "coming from above" and "the floor of my apartment." I invited him to take a look here, but he declined; apparently I hadn't understood what he'd said.

I hadn't: the next morning I got an e-mail (rare event) from a guy at the property management firm to whom I pay my rent informing me that I was flooding the apartment downstairs, and that he and the plumber would arrive that afternoon. In quick succession, I then got a phone call from him saying the same thing, and my neighbor appeared at the door with a business card from the same guy saying he'd be by at...was it 14h or 16h? French handwriting is hard to decipher, even when it's fairly neat. No matter; I wasn't going anywhere.

Well, at exactly 2, I heard him buzz downstairs and get let in. Moments later, he and the plumber were at my door. They went into the bathroom and tut-tutted about the way the plumbing there was set up (and rightfully so: it's a horror) but there was nothing going on there, so they went into the kitchen and determined that the faucet on the kitchen sink was leaking like crazy at the wall and the entire line needed to be replaced. The plumber stayed to make measurements, and the guy from the property managers' went into the living room/office with me and gingerly approached a topic I was kind of hoping wasn't his department, ie, the back rent. I explained to him that I paid when I could, but before I could get into the I'm-hoping-to-sell-a-book tapdance, he said he was more curious about how I was paying it. I told him that it was in cash: I withdrew from the ATM and took the cash to their bank and paid. I didn't mention that four banks here had told me early on that French banks are for French people only, which they had. (I now know how to get around this, but I don't think I'll be here long enough to make it worth my while). He seemed satisfied with this, which is a huge relief, but after he left I reflected that I live in a place with 25% unemployment, so I might not be the biggest problem his firm has to deal with just at the moment.

The plumber left next, explaining that he had to go to the plumbing supply store to get some parts, and when he returned, he jiggled around for a while and soon I had my kitchen back. For the first time since I've lived here, the faucet doesn't flop around. It's now firmly anchored to the sink and the water pressure is better.

* * * 

So that was the first bit of big excitement. I've gotten to enjoy it when something actually happens around here, because I spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for one thing or another, and things have been moving very, very slowly. I did, however, manage to get a little depressed when Thanksgiving came along. I can't really cook in this place, and I definitely can't have people over. There simply isn't the room. And so I found myself at the market on Saturday, with a very little bit of cash on hand (I'm still paying for last month's adventure in San Francisco, and if I'm very, very careful, I can make it til my next check and get the phone bill paid, but it means no culinary extravagances and no wine at all). But I'm also quite bored with what I've been cooking recently, and it's like I've fallen into a rut. Now, the change of seasons means that some of that rut will be taken care of by new products appearing and old ones disappearing, but I have a winter rut, too, and I'm hoping to avoid that. The money problem, though, means I've had to fall back on the tried and true, and that's not fun.

But all of a sudden, there it was. A very small table with a guy with two cardboard boxes filled with turnips. I've had this challenge before, but I haven't done much with it. See, these aren't just turnips. They're (apparently) very famous turnips, turnips with their own website! Pardailhan turnips! Why, I've asked myself before, do people make such a big deal out of them? I bought a couple a year or two back, but they went soft before I could deal with them. But now, during the very small time during which they're available, I could try again. So I bought one.

Yes, one. At €3.98 a kilo, this cost me one euro, which means it's about a half pound. They're big. And they clean up nicely, although this one shed enough dirt to start a small potato farm.

Nice blue-black color with greenish stuff showing through. So I set the oven at 450º F, and cut the turnip into coins. These I threw into a bowl with some olive oil, salt, and pepper and tossed until they were coated.

Remarkable colors these things have. If the flavor is half as good... Anyway, I then slapped them into a roasting dish and stuck them into the oven, covered with aluminum foil.

Fifteen minutes later, I took the foil off. The odor was amazing: nutty and sweet.

They were beginning to get soft, too. I put them back in for another fifteen, at which point they were mostly done. A quick flip after this picture and back in for a few minutes while I cooked the steack haché and made a salad of bitter winter greens with my balsamic dressing (which is over here) and then it was dinnertime.

The only thing wrong was a tiny bit of undersalting and the fact that there wasn't enough. My nose didn't deceive me: they were nutty and just a little bit sweet. No bitterness, which is something I always associated with turnips, and a texture not unlike perfectly cooked zucchini. I'm definitely on the lookout for some more of these while they're in season, and someone suggested they might pair well with carrots, which, since dirty carrots are now showing up in the market, sounds like a fantastic idea.

As for those of you who don't live within 113 km of Pardailhan, as I do (I see it's just northwest of St. Chinian, which explains why I was wanting a bottle of something from there to go with this meal), I have no idea if anything local to you will fit this bill. But I do know that decades of considering turnips to be mushy, bitter roots got laid to rest last night, so it's worth looking into. Now bring on the dirty carrots!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Slum's Environs, A Context

My friend D is having a hard time of it over in Texas. She's been writing me from her new place, which she's just moved into, and, since I have no idea where it is, I've taken to calling it the Undisclosed Location, and signing off with "to the Undisclosed Location from The Slum," which, as readers of this blog know, is the code name I use for my apartment. I've never really been able to convey in photos how small this place is, and how inconvenient it is to reach some of the things I have here, many of which still reside in the boxes they were packed in almost exactly four years ago. (I think the fourth anniversary of my moving here will be this coming Friday).  Nonetheless, when she wrote me "Send anything you feel like photographing. Pieces of your life. They have to be better than the pieces of mine right now," I took a bunch of photos of the apartment and sent them to her. Then it occurred to me that they'd been no more successful than the others I'd taken over the years and she probably still had no idea why this place drives me nuts and why I resent paying €691 a month (about $880) for it.

The thing is, I told myself, she's probably romanticizing my life over here, when in fact it's pretty much the same as living in Austin, with some details changed. I'm sure others do, too, when they hear Terry Gross say "Ed Ward lives in the south of France" on Fresh Air, or they read some of the cooler posts I've put up here about my travels, or they see some of the nice photos of Montpellier I've put up here. The fact is, I go shopping for food (in a mall, no less), patronize a laundromat, and do all the things everyone does in a neighborhood that's just painfully ordinary, so to contextualize it, I went for a short walk today to deliberately shoot mundane photos of my daily surroundings. Since it's Sunday, few of the businesses were open, so the photos are relatively depopulated and some of the activity that spills out into the street is missing. I have also deliberately not given a hint to where I live exactly (except a shot of my front door, which I'm e-mailing to D and not posting here) because that's one of the things in my life that's nobody's business but mine. And the real-estate-management firm that dearly wishes I'd leave. So, without further ado, let's walk out the front door:

and down the stairs from the third floor, where I live:

and out into one of Montpellier's most dangerous streets. Not, I hasten to add, dangerous because of crime, but because during the day it serves not one, but two learn-to-drive schools despite being, like most of the streets you'll see here, pedestrianized.

I turn into one of the two commercial streets and walk away from the Place de la Comedie, the huge square at the foot of Montpellier's hill.

Not much to see. The left-hand side of the street is mostly failed businesses. La Civette is the neighborhood tabac, and sells magazines and lottery tickets and I don't know what all. I've never set foot in it, myself. Next door is one place I do wish had been open. Omija is our neighborhood Korean deli and grocery store, run by a pair of wonderful folks, and offering a rather pricey but delicious lunch. I've written about them here before, and since then they've become extremely successful. Couldn't happen to nicer folks. Past that is one of the driving schools, a bar I've never seen open (the guy is walking in front of it) and the laundromat that just opened. Exciting, huh? Further down the street is a kind of mini-Chinatown, although the restaurants pretend to be Vietnamese, and are really "Asia" restaurants.

On the left is a huge multiplex, and at the very end of the street you can see the railroad tracks. I'll turn right there by the Fleurs de Jade and walk down a narrow street with a North African bakery called, for some reason, Carthage Milk, a not-so-hot Moroccan restaurant, and a truly undistinguished Indian restaurant. Next to that is a tiny alleyway which I think gives a lot of the flavor of the neighborhood.

I think it has a certain charm, although you couldn't pay me to live there. I have, however, seen rental notices for apartments on this tiny stretch of road.

At the end of this short street, we hit a major commercial street. We can turn left and walk down to the tracks

or right, as I will, up to the Comedie.

There are a lot of things on this block. The Cuban bar on the right is very popular with black guys and serves, yes, real Cuban rum and beer, since France trades with Cuba, after all. There are Italian and Japanese (well, sushi) places on the left, as well as a huge pinball/video game arcade (betcha didn't know they still had those, eh?). There's a Subway, strategically located across from the entry to a French-immersion-course school, out of which tumble well-to-do-looking American kids. There are a bunch of these schools in the neighborhood; year-abroad programs are a big source of income here in Montpellier. On the right side of the street is Oasis, a better-than-average kebab shop, and, past that, one of the ubiquitous Internet and phone abroad for cheap stores. There must be a half-dozen of them within three blocks of tihs spot, always with Africans and Middle Easterners using the facilities. Finally, there's the Diagonal Cinéma, another multiplex noted for running foreign films with French subtitles, including Hollywood films. I've never been, but I'm not much of a cinephile.

Up at the Comédie, there's the merry-go-round

which stands in front of the Monoprix, a French chain which is about half groceries and half other stuff,  this branch of which is open for a few hours on Sunday. It usually has dozens of bums and street people hanging out, drinking, their dogs fighting or playing with each other, but today therre was almost nobody there, which meant taking a snap was easier.

They've recently facelifted this whole store, and now they have self-checkout machines which sometimes work, but I rarely go in, despite its being close to me, because the hyper-testosteroned Algerian boys they use for security guards have braced me more than once just for fun. Given the usual population of the immediate surroundings, they need guards, but they don't seem to have any filters. Anyway, the supermarket I do shop at, Inno, is just another Monoprix brand, has a better selection, and the extra two minutes' walk is good for me.

Just past the Monoprix are these two buildings, clearly remnants of another era.

The Grand Hotel du Midi is now the New Hotel du Midi, part of the New chain, with cheapo modern decoration inside, but decent rooms, I hear. The other building is a bank (two banks, from the banner for the bank that told me I couldn't open an account because "this bank is for French people only,") where I pay my rent and sometimes, before going to America, buy a few dollars because changing money in most of the U.S. is practically impossible.

That street, though, is the grand entrance from the train station to the Com, so they've lined one side with palms.

That's the train station at the very end, and tram tracks for lines 1 and 2. L'Assiette au Boeuf is a cheap restaurant that's just a bit less than mediocre, serving a house wine that will thin the enamel on your teeth. Needless to say it's jammed, especially on weekends. On the right side is an enormous pharmacy, a made-in-China hip-hop clothing store, some city center for youth, the ATM I use about half the time, and there are sandwich and kebab shops on both sides of the street.

Just past the white umbrella is another short street I turned into, because I wanted to shoot the Hotel Metropole, now a Holiday Inn, which was the home of Helene de Savoie, Queen of Italy and Montenegro (I know, it's complicated), and Resistance heroine, about whom I've written previously here.

You can also see the Habib barbershop, which I think is one of the social centers of Maghrebi Montpelier, and, on the other side of the street, past the Lebanese flag, is this

which is one of the best bakeries in town, but one where I rarely go because there's another good one just on my corner. They also manufacture their own chocolate in here, and I feel guilty every single time I go past because they are not only good, but totally old skool, and I should be supporting them with my patronage.

So there it is: we're back at the Oasis at the end of this street, the Proxi market, a sort of 7-11, where I'll go in a few minutes to buy some mineral water, and a short walk from my house.

It's mundane, but it's the way people live. The glitz, the glamor, the history and the occasional good view, all that's up the hill. Down here, we have hallal butcher shops, kebab stands, two-star hotels, and crappy little grocery stores that are open late and on Sundays. Some of the apartments are slums, some are quite nice. It's close to the tram, close to the train station, close to the post office, and it's where I live.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

October Tour 2012: The Food

And, as promised yesterday, a few words about food.

Because of the last-minute nature of booking this trip, it turned out that the cheapest round-trip to San Francisco was via Barcelona, whose train ticket cost about the same as the one to Paris, and, because I'd have to have a hotel overnight to catch the early-morning flight in either city, a decent hotel would be half the price or less.

Like I need an excuse to go to Barcelona right now.

At any rate, when I got there, one thing I definitely did need was lunch, and, it being after 2pm, that meant a bar. I wandered the streets of the Grácia district near my hotel, passing on the Mexican places (one of which seemed to be serving deep-fried insects; must check that out sometime when I'm not headed to a place with Mexican food), and eventually coming upon the Bar Canigó, which had outdoor tables (still useful at this time of year) and a long menu. Started out with a so-so chicken salad (or salad with chicken), and went on to patatas bravas (indifferent) and a "toast" that was just about perfect: grilled eggplant, grilled red peppers, and fat, mild anchovies. Take a look:

A bit too much, but I really liked this place, and I'll go back. It was founded in the 1920s and I think some of the regulars have been there ever since. It also advertises, as I discovered a lot of bars in Barcelona do, that it makes its own vermouth. That could be interesting.

Bar Canigó, c. Verdi 2, (Grácia), Metro Fontana, outdoor dining in the unremarkable Placa de la Revolució de Setembre de 1888.

Dinner crept up on me, and I whipped out the guide from the Guardian that Jeff had sent me for top-notch tapas bars. Its big defect is that it's lacking in transit info, so unless you know the city or have time to pore over maps, it's hard to tell if you're close to something that sounds good. What sounded good to me was Morrysom, where the article implied they did individual paellas. Well, if they did I never found out about it: I was handed a tapas menu in English. Not that I'm complaining at all. The spread was full of seafood this time, and extremely good.

Like clams marinero:

which were in a garlicky tomato sauce, and nutty and delicious, and mussels with aioli:

which were somewhat less garlicky, but that was fine. There was the obligatory pamb e tomat, which had no discernable flavor at all:

and padrón peppers, which I can't stop ordering...

and what was supposed to be spicy chorizo, but wasn't, really. I must learn the subtleties of this, since I've had some that was pleasingly fiery. Not this, but it was fine as part of this meal.

Price in all was around €25, I think (can't find the receipt), with two excellent Spanish beers.

Bar Morrysom, Carrer de Girona 162, Metro Diagonal or Verdaguer. Open til 1am.

San Francisco was another thing entirely. Being south of Market Street meant threading your way through lowlifes and crazy people to get anywhere, but they were mostly harmless during the day. My first morning I was jet-lagged so that I couldn't wait to go to a place called Show Dogs that had been recommended to me, so I set off in time to get there at 8, when its website said it opened. The sign on the door, however, said 9, and I couldn't wait that long. Just as I was wondering what to do next, I heard someone call my name: it was a person from the Well who knew I was headed out to the place and would find it closed. She lived nearby and hopped on her bike to rescue me. One thing and another and we wound up at Brenda's French Soul Food, where I had that iconic San Francisco breakfast dish, a hangtown fry. There's some dispute as to where, exactly, "Hangtown" was during the Gold Rush days, but it was near enough the ocean so that you could cut bacon into squares, fry it crisp, dredge oysters in cornmeal and fry them in the bacon fat until browned, and throw scrambled eggs into the mix and sell it for breakfast. Brenda's was nearly perfect, although I kind of like my biscuits better than hers on a good day. Her jambalaya, delivered to the next table from ours, seemed suspect, but I say that about all jambalaya not in Louisiana places. Anyway, thanks for the rescue, Lolly: Show Dogs the next morning was very disappointing, with tiny portions and hefty prices -- almost $20 for half the amount of food we got at Brenda's for less. The place I wished I'd known about was a block away from my hotel: Dottie's True Blue Café, a famous breakfast joint for over 20 years, apparently. My breakfast there was wonderful, and there was a line out the door when I left.

One evening, I found myself with no dining companion, and someone recommended Farmer Brown, a Southern-style restaurant I'd seen as I walked along Market Street. Their fried chicken, I was told, was magnificent. And so it proved to be. The rest of the meal, though, was mostly very weird. I started with a cup of gumbo, always up for testing others' takes on this. And here's what I got:

It's in Blur-O-Vision, but you can easily see that there's a huge glob of rice sitting there to disguise the fact that there isn't much soup. It was tasty, but the convention is to serve the rice separately so the diner can determine how much rice should be in the gumbo. The waitress was mildly offended when I told her this, and said next time I should indicate rice on the side. Hm. There were a couple of cornbread muffins served with butter that had a lot of honey in it, too. The chicken came with greens and macaroni and cheese, which I was really eager to try, since I can't seem to make it well at home.

The chicken was, as advertised, remarkable, and now that I hear Mozelle's Famous Fried Chicken is no more, it may be the best in San Francisco. The greens were deep: long-cooked, rich, flavorful, complex.  They have a winner there. But the mac'n'cheese, served in a tiny cast-iron skillet, was awful. It was bitter, not an adjective I'd ever considered using with this dish. The cheese was tasteless, or else it was drowned out by this other flavor, which the waitress said was from sour cream. Sour cream? Gack. I dunno; I'd go back to Farmer Brown for the chicken and greens, but I wonder what the rest of their take on Southern cuisine is. Given the other options in the Bay Area I may never find out.

Other Bay Area meals included two lunches at Viks Chaat in Berkeley, which is destination dining for me: scrupulously authentic Indian light snackish food. I had two keema samosas, filled with ground lamb spiced just right and served with a chutney that seemed to be spinach-based, and a dahi papdi chaat, a cold dish of spiced yogurt and chick peas and potatoes with wafers of lentil flour. Wow. The next day I had chicken with fenugreek leaves, another classic. I was tempted to buy groceries in the accompanying market, but restrained myself, as I had to do this entire trip, sad to say. Another highlight was a dim sum brunch at Saigon Seafood Harbor in Richmond. There were all manner of wonderful things here, including excellent fried calamari and more clams in a brownish sauce that were a highlight. One of my dining companions made sure we ordered from the carts that were headed out of the kitchen instead of their way back: good thinking! From what I saw on other tables, I'm ready to go back here and check out the regular menu. And for those of you in the Bay Area, it's right near the legendary 99 Ranch market, an Asian supermarket I carefully avoided going into. That old temptation again. And, finally, I was surprised to get a good Texas-style Mexican meal (as opposed to the California-style one I'd have gotten in the Mission District) at El Toreador, at 50 West Portal, which is a bit out of the way, but if you're in the 'hood, well worth checking out. I was unable, due to crushing jetlag, to avail myself of their impressive beer menu, but was, in fact, impressed by it. The chipotle salsa with the chips was a pleasant surprise, as was the chicken tamale, the first tamale I've had in a long time.

And finally, I headed back to Barcelona, to a different hotel in a neighborhood I didn't know at all. I was too whacked to do any research, so I asked the young woman at the hotel desk if she had a recommendation, and she handed me a card for a place down the street which she said was pretty good. She did not lie: I had one of the best meals I've had this year. Casa Martelo has a pretty impressively large menu, but there was also the menu of the week. The server, Sergio (who speaks very good English) informed me that there was something not on the menu: girgolas, which he said were "Catalonian mushrooms." Well, not exactly: they're oyster mushrooms, which I hate. Or, actually, hated until this past Wednesday night. They were cooked a la plancha, on a griddle, and then drenched in garlic-infused olive oil with parsley in it, and a dusting of fleur de sel. The real secret to this kind of cooking is to get just a tiny bit of char onto the food without burning it entirely, as well as not drowning it in the oil. Good padrón peppers are cooked this way, and this particular technique really brought out the intensity of the mushrooms' flavor, which I can only describe as intensely brown.

The main course, however, knocked me out solid. The English-language menu described it as Sebastian hake with clams and shrimp, while my tab says cogote de merluza. I have no idea what a Sebastian hake is, but I discovered the next day at lunch that the translator there is maybe not so reliable, since they offered clams marinero as "clams sailor's blouse." At any rate, the "with clams and shrimp" bit was misleading as there were exactly two of each at a diagonal to each other, separated on the plate by a huge hunk of fish. The fish was very bony, but also richly flavored, and it, too, was covered with the garlic oil, and then sprinkled with thick slices of garlic, fried until golden, and with a wonderful mild garlic flavor and the texture of fried potatoes. It was so good that I was very happy to flip the fish over and discover a bit more meat on the underside of the piece that I could liberate and swish around in the oil. I read later that Spain is one of the top markets for hake in the world, and if this is an example of what they do to it, I can't wait for my second helping. Wish I'd taken pix of both dishes, but I forgot my phone back in the room.

This was my first experience with an actual restaurant in Barcelona, as opposed to a tapas bar, and the next day, which was a holiday, I went back there for tapas, which were okay, but I probably didn't order as intelligently as I'd have liked to due to walking-around exhaustion and my impending train trip back here. But I'm going to hit this place next time I'm in town, because it rocks heavily. It's real easy to find, too: take the Metro to Barcelona Sants, the railroad station, and take the Numancia exit, the one nobody else it taking because they're headed to the trains. Then simply exit and you're at the end of Numancia. Walk up the right-hand side of the street and it's at number 12.

And the punch-line to all of this: I wasn't up for any complex cooking last night for my birthday, but figured I should celebrate anyway with a bottle of decent wine, so I treated myself to a €12.90 bottle of Mas de la Serranne's Clos d'Immortelles, a favorite.

The bottle, the first one I've gotten in almost four years of living here, was mildly corked, that rich and wonderful flavor mocking me from behind the musty overtaste. Dammit.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Other Cities, Other Hills

And so it came to pass that I woke up this morning on a birthday whose number is of no interest except to Beatles fans, and discovered my internal clock feeling very much re-set. Knowing that this can be an illusion and that I may yet wake up in the middle of the night rarin' to go, I'm not taking anything for granted.

The pain in my legs from two very long transatlantic flights is almost gone, though. And herewith, a short recap of where I've been and what I've done.

* * * 

The purpose of this trip was a job interview, a very tempting one. A woman in San Francisco has been sharing a house with its owner, a 95-year-old woman who is still bright and active, but getting frail. This woman spends alternate quarters of the year in America and India, and is planning to go to India in mid-December, and for the first time feels that her friend needs someone in the house Just In Case, until she returns. Having been a reader of my blog and knowing that I've been, shall we say, somewhat restless in my current place, she offered me close to three months in this house, on the proviso that I'd heat up the older woman's breakfast and dinner. The house itself, literally on top of Twin Peaks, had a commanding view of the entire Bay Area on a good day -- well, on most any day, being above the fog -- and would have been a fine place to regroup my psyche. At any rate, she offered to fly me in for the job interview and to meet her friend, on whose approval everything hinged, and, since this was at the last minute, I discovered that it was cheaper to buy a train ticket to Barcelona and fly from there. 

I arranged things so that I'd have an afternoon and evening there before heading out to the airport (flights to the West Coast leave much earlier than flights to the East Coast) the next morning, and found myself wandering the streets again. 

I enjoyed myself, and hope I didn't try the patience of the kind couple who run Hibernian, a fine, typical European English-language used book store in the Grácia district. The good news is that this is a fine time to find a good apartment there, and is likely to get better (since I'm in no position to just up and go at the moment), but the bad news is that I would absolutely have to learn not one, but two new languages (Castillian Spanish and Catalán) in order to do it. (Well, that and that pesky money detail). Still, good to know, and they gave me the website of a good real-estate search engine to play with. 

San Francisco started as a blur: I arrived at nearly midnight, my debit card was inexplicably turned down by Avis' computer, and the indifferent guy at the desk, eager to get rid of me, sent me to something called Fox, which provided me with a black Hyundai Sonata. (Black Sonata sounds like a very pretentious mid-'70s soul-jazz album to me). But finally I got to my hotel, the Best Western Plus Americania Hotel (what on earth is an "Americania?") at 7th and Mission, a, uh, neighborhood in transition, which translates into the fact that you can get an organic, locally-sourced breakfast at a nice café and then step outside and buy some crack, which has inexplicably not faded away in San Francisco like it has elsewhere in the U.S. The decor of the hotel, clearly intended to draw hipsters (and succeeding), is some godawful pastiche of Midcentury Modern and Motel Efficient. 

At least it didn't glow in the dark, so I managed to get some sleep. 

Sadly, the job negotiations didn't work out. I was offered the opportunity to spend nearly three months sleeping on the couch for $100 a week, later upgraded to agreeing to pay for a used futon and frame from Craigslist (but not the bedclothes) and $125 a week. Seeing as how I'd have to pack up and store all my worldly goods here in Montpellier and pay for storage and moving as well as feeding myself (auto rental and $100/month for gas was a separate budget item), this would be a net loss. I'd also have to promise to be at the house every night no matter what, which meant no travel at all (and a sad disappointment for the hordes of women who'd doubtless descend on me when they heard I was in town), and visitors were discouraged, although not totally forbidden. Friends warned me that the whole thing was of dubious legality, and, of course it's been a while since you could last a week in San Francisco for $125. Not to mention that I couldn't ever eat out on that, in a city with ethnic restaurants out the wazoo that'd be tempting me, nor could I go to a show for which I wasn't on the guest list, or, say, subscribe to one of those streaming movie services so I could catch up on my cultural literacy. There was a degree of asceticism being demanded of me here that seemed unfair and unwarranted, so I was forced to turn the job down. 

Once I had, though, I felt better. This is going to be a hard winter here, and I'm not looking forward to it, but at least I'll be able to get a head-start on this next book proposal -- and the book, if it sells, as I think it will. The trip, and some late-paying clients (one of whom hasn't paid up yet, come to think of it), cost me money I didn't really have and as much as it was good to see old friends and revisit old memories of the Bay Area, and as nice as it would have been to have access to all of them for an extended period, it was hardly a vacation. 

Which is not to say there weren't some wonderful moments. The food I'll get to tomorrow, but there were two musical events that are worth mentioning. 

First, there was Autosalvage. This was a band that put out one album in 1968, and then, split over the issue of whether or not to move to California at the behests of their pals and labelmates the Youngbloods and make a career playing the ballroom circuit, broke up. I did a piece on them for Fresh Air a couple of months ago, and, when the only member I knew how to reach, Rick Turner, got a call asking for a photo and permission to stream the musical excerpts, he got ahold of the other three guys and they decided on a tentative reunion. One thing led to another, and they applied to SXSW. I sneakily asked the director of the music festival, Brent Grulke, if he could fast-track the approval, and, although he didn't say yes, he said "This kind of thing is my cup of tea." A couple of days later, he was dead

Three of the four guys, however (the fourth is in poor health and won't be playing with them), decided to go ahead, and their very first reunion/rehearsal was on the Saturday I was in the Bay Area, so I fired up Google Maps and picked my way up a very steep hill in Inverness to Owl Mountain Studios, where Turner's son, Ethan (aka ET), is the engineer. They were playing as I drove up, but the sound of my car's engine caused them to stop (so I still can't say I've heard them live), and they welcomed me into the studio, where the next thing would be to prepare a "bootleg" of their album for a limited release. Rick had found a mono master mix on 1/4" tape in his parents' attic, in good enough condition to run through a tape recorder again, so ET cued it up on a wonderful old Nagra and dumped the entire thing into ProTools as the guys watched, hearing the album for the first time in years -- and never having heard it exactly this way, because this mix brought out stuff the stereo mix never did!

The old mono mix

Autosalvage & Son, Owl Mountain, Oct. 17, 2012
L-R, Tom Danaher, Rick Turner, Darius Davenport, Ethan "ET" Turner
After the transfer was complete and some technical discussions about the remastering were made, the three older guys and I went down the hill to the home of Banana, the former Youngblood and auxilliary Autosalvage who'll join them for the SXSW gig: they'd gotten the acceptance letter the day before! Banana turns out to be not only a fine fellow, but an excellent cook and very knowledgeable about the wines of Italy, where he's become something of a star, much to his delight, since the gigs give him the excuse to roam around the countryside learning the food and beverages. A memorable day, a fine evening, and, almost certainly, a new start for one of the great forgotten bands of all time. 

I was staying in Petaluma by the time this happened, and my next stop, the next day, was Berkeley, where I had been invited by the current residents to stay in the former home of Ralph J. Gleason, the famous jazz critic and Rolling Stone co-founder. I was to meet my hosts at the Freight and Salvage, a venerable Berkeley folk club, at a gig by Bill Kirchen, the great guitarist, and an old friend from Commander Cody days in the Bay Area lo those forty-some years ago. Kirchen used the event as a kind of reunion for some of his old friends, bringing on athletic fiddler Heidi Clare, his wife Louise (a fine singer), and, to my surprise, reclusive songwriter Kevin "Blackie" Farrell and former Cody bassist "Buffalo" Bruce Barlow, neither of whom I'd seen in decades. 

The highlight of the show, though, was appalling, and I mean that in a good way: Kirchen and his band roared through a vicious, angry version of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" which forced me to hear the lyrics again and get angry that, 50 years down the line, they needed to be sung again and were at least as relevant as they had been when they were written. It being a Sunday night and the last night (as it turned out) of a San Francisco-participating World Series, the sparse audience was mostly people my age (which, let's face it, is a large part of Bill's demographic), and, it being Berkeley, I wondered how many were thinking the same thing I was. 

Tuesday morning came, and I packed up, stopping for lunch at Vik's one more time and on to the San Francisco airport, where I flew non-stop to Paris (thank heavens: had I been routed through the East Coast it would have been disastrous) and onward to Barcelona, where I mostly crashed. However, yesterday's train to Montpellier left close to 5pm, and I'd planned a day of a little food shopping, not realizing that it was a national holiday, as it was in France (All Saints' Day, called Toussaint in French and I know not what in Spanish or Catalán), and absolutely nothing was open. A friend's early birthday greeting, though, reminded me that he'd been urging me to go to the Museum of the History of the City of Barcelona, and this was the perfect occasion to do that. Between the jet-lag and my own incompetence, it took me two hours of walking to find the damn thing, so the idea of burning off some time worked out fine. I can't say the Old Quarter of Barcelona exactly entices me, and I still find Las Ramblas below my acceptable sleaze quotient, but the religious nature of the holiday meant that there were services, with music, in the churches, and a folk orchestra out in front of the Cathedral, with bleating shawms, and folk-dancers in circles everywhere. I finally found the museum, most of which is underground, showing the old Roman city (the wine vats in the winery are still faintly stained red) as it was excavated, with a huge bunch more still being worked on. It was a fun, touristy way to spend the day, and exhausting enough that I boarded the train back here with some relief. 

Old Barcelona graveyard dudes

Food stuff tomorrow: both California and Catalunya. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Early Fall Miettes

Just a few items here, because I'm in sort of a time crunch.

First, I took a couple of American tourists on my famous Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour, the one that hits Sommières, goes between Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, up to St. Martin de Londres, the Pont du Diable, and St. Guilhem le Désert, and finished up, as I did a couple of months ago, in St. Saturnin so they could do some wine-tasting. We got there kind of late, were very happy to see that Mme Cabanes was still open at Domaine d'Archimbault, decided to skip Virgile Joly, and went over to the cave cooperative of the St. Saturnin wine collective, which was still open. The young woman in there was looking at the skies with some trepidation, but was happy to practice her English on the tourists. We obviously did things in the wrong order, because nothing she poured was anything near as good as Mme Cabanes has, but she did offer two interesting bits of lore. "It's difficult doing a tasting when the weather's like this," she said. "The air is thick, heavy, and it will probably rain. The wines never taste at their best when it's like this." In fact, I'd already noticed this over at Domaine D'Archimbault: there was a kind of mugginess that hadn't been there last time. "The other time you should never taste wine," she continued, "is during the harvest. That's even worse than now; some of the wines can actually taste bad. I have no idea why this is, but it's true." She assured us that the cave cooperative was finished with their harvest, though.

Incidentally, if you're visiting Montpellier and would like to take a day to do this tour, don't hesitate to ask. I love getting out of town, and the route of this tour is pretty flexible, which means there are lots of other possibilities of things to see.

* * * 

I got an e-mail the other day from a woman named Marielle Lopez, informing me that she had opened a shop selling Mexican handicrafts and art objects not far from my house, and that starting Friday, she'd have a Dia de los Muertos display there, and would I be kind enough to tell the other Americans in town about it? Sure, I said, be happy to put it on my blog. So yesterday, after I did some other stuff, I wandered over with my camera. The place was locked up tight and there was a sign in the window saying that it was closed for the day. Okay, I said, I'd go back tomorrow. And I did, about an hour ago, and the place was still locked up, although there was a woman in there looking at fabric samples. She was ignoring me, so I shrugged and walked away. As I made my way up the hill, though, I ran into a couple of people I knew, Claude and Florence. Florence, way back at the start of this blog, was featured for her unusual art which takes its inspiration from Mexican calaveras, where skeletons take the parts that people take, a big part of the Day of the Dead tradition. I mentioned that it was the second day in a row I'd found the place closed, and it turned out that they were on their way there to finish the window display, which was the Dia de los Muertos altar. Ms. Lopez, apparently, had just had a baby, which wasn't supposed to be due until November 10, but came last night instead. 

So I caught up with Claude and Florence, and took some pictures. Kind of hard to get the window, both because it wasn't finished and because there wasn't much room. 

There are other calaveras scattered around -- a nice display of Mexican folk art -- as well as some lucha libre guys. 

And, for that Franco-Mexican touch, some of Florence's pieces, although not as cool as the ones she had at her gallery show. 

All in all a nice little show, so if you're over on the other side of the hill from me, stop in and take a look: Modarte, 15 rue Pila St. Gely, 34000 Montpellier.

* * * 

Meanwhile, Monday morning I'm headed to Barcelona for the day, and Tuesday morning I'm flying off for a week in San Francisco for reasons I can't divulge at this time. I'll fly back into Barcelona on Halloween, and return here the next evening. An unexpected break, visits with friends in San Francisco, Petlauma, and Berkeley, some Chinese food I don't have to cook myself, and who knows what other adventures await. More, perhaps, from the road, or, for sure, when I return. 
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