Saturday, December 21, 2013

Europe vs. America: The Food, Part 1

Okay, I understand. You're not interested in the fact that on Tuesday the rest of my stuff arrived here and the garage and the rest of the house got packed with even more stuff.

The white boxes and the boxes with the cats on them are new. 
You don't care that in some of these boxes there's stuff that will enable me to catch up with my work, that a bunch of bookshelves arrived that, with help from a neighbor, got put up in my office yesterday and are slowly being filled up so that at last I have access to important reference material.

No. You're wondering how I'm coping with the food in America.

Since some of what arrived from France is my better cooking equipment  -- my Allclad pots and pans, a nice Le Creuset Dutch oven I bought myself last Christmas, stuff like that -- as well as the cookbooks I've used over the past 20 years, it's only in the past few days that I've even been able to really start cooking again. Still, starting off with a few pots and pans I got at Target and the miraculous wok I found in storage and the two cast iron pans that revived just like that, I did start up again when I moved into this house, and I also started shopping for food again.

And yes, there have been some changes. There's a lot of stuff I can't comment on yet, but there's just enough that I can in a preliminary blog post.

Shopping: The first big change. I'm not particularly happy that I have to drive everywhere for everything. In fact, I felt particularly virtuous the other evening when I walked to have dinner in a particularly good and affordable Mexican restaurant nearby. If I can afford it, I may do this once a week, just for the exercise. I'm feeling bloated, and this isn't a particularly walk-friendly neighborhood (not that many in Austin are). Eventually, walkability will become moot: when it's 104º outside, walking to the end of the driveway is a drag. But for the moment, that restaurant will get my ambulatory business.

But I still have to go to the store. I managed to drive to one of the weekly farmer's markets when I first moved in here, and that was nice enough. I got the last of the season's tomatoes and a couple of butternut squashes (because i alway manage to buy a couple of butternut squashes, get them home, and realize I don't have a clue what to do with them), but most of the action was either prepared foods (salsas, organic spaghetti sauces, Texas French Bread) or hemp-based cosmetics, handcrafts, wind-chimes... I understand: the season hasn't started yet, or, rather, it was just ending when I got here. But there'll be no more twice a week walks to the market and back whether I need anything or not.

Thus, I rely on the supermarkets. Up on the opposite corner from the Mexican restaurant is an HEB. This is a garganutan Texan chain, and I hated it when I lived here before. Then I left, and they did something really smart: they opened Central Market. By positioning themselves as upmarket competition to Whole Foods, but also recognizing that part of the market they were after wasn't quite as concerned about whether stuff was organic, and also held some affection for some things like Kellogg's Corn Flakes that Whole Foods would never touch, they hit a sweet spot in Austin's food buying habits. (They also made some mistakes: I went to the first Central market not long after it opened, on what was probably my first trip back to Austin after moving to Berlin. In those days, you had to traverse the entire store once you'd entered in order to leave. I quickly became overcome by the sheer quantity of what was there, because the markets in my Berlin neighborhood were seriously understocked. I got dizzy and couldn't find my way out and began to have a panic attack. The friend who'd taken me there eventually found me outside on a bench trying to get my bearings).

The other thing that both Whole Foods and Central Market capitalize on is the fact that for all the fancy kitchens people put in their houses, nobody cooks any more. Thus, there's a huge emphasis on pre-made foods that I'm trying to do my best to ignore. So I do most of my shopping either at Central Market's south location or at a much bigger and better HEB a mile or so from my house. I almost never go to the south Whole Foods location (and never the downtown one: traffic is insane around there) because the clientele just radiates entitlement: I saw a young power couple buy $272 worth of baby food there a couple of days ago, all of it packed in what looked like plastic single-serving containers. Even the baby, strapped to its father's chest, looked smug). There's also an outpost of a chain called Sprouts, which I saw in Brooklyn in March, and looked like a tarted-up version of the old-school health food store, and whose location near me looked pretty awful on a once-through, and a new version of Wheatsville Co-op, a longtime Austin institution, that's opened in a once-dying mall, and to which I still haven't been. The enigmatic Trader Joe's, purveying prepared food to harried suburbanites with lots of money, has opened its first outlet here, too, off in West Austin where the McMansions live, another joint I'm not in too much of a hurry to check out.

So, with a couple of Mexican markets and an Indian market near me, and a huge Vietnamese/Chinese one way up north, I can pretty much shop the world. The big shock that still hasn't worn off is that I can hit Central Market or Whole foods til 11pm, the big HEB until 1am,  and I can shop at all of them on Sunday. That last still hasn't sunk in.

Okay, so what have I been getting? Herewith some preliminary comparisons.

* Yogurt: About every other day, I like to have toast and yogurt for breakfast. When I first got here, I went right for something I'd heard people raving about: Chobani Greek Yogurt. I tried it in various forms and configurations and decided I didn't like it. (Someone recently compared it to wallboard compound, which I figure is like a thick Elmer's Glue, and that'd be about right). It doesn't stir, it's gelatinous and chewy, and the flavors at the bottom don't want to mix, either. The New Yorker says it's an overnight sensation. I say feh. I finally found "Australian style" yogurt, by a company called Wallaby (U.S. based: my carbon footprint is bad enough after 20 years of walking and using electric-powered transportation) and it's got some good stuff. So the scoreboard: Germany 9, France 6, US 7. The Germans lead by having tons of flavors, including seasonal ones (the only instance of seasonality you'll find in a German supermarket), as part of their dairy-mania. The whole country seems to run on milk products. The French make very high-quality yogurt, but only in a couple of flavors, and you pretty much have to buy multiples of 8 or more, either yellow (pineapple, mango, lemon) or red (strawberry, cherry, raspberry), which gets boring. America has, as usual, a bewildering number of brands, some of which are very expensive, but not as many flavors as Germany.

* Fruit and Vegetables: Okay, you know that on some level, the Americans will take this one, particularly since where I am, we're close to Mexico, where everything grows all the time. But America also has something that neither of the other countries has: uniformity. The other night I went to buy onions and discovered they only come in one size: softball. That's more onion than I usually need for a recipe, though. I wound up throwing a bunch of the one I used away. It's eerie seeing hundreds of potatoes piled up, all the same size. Pretty much any vegetable I've gone looking for has been like this. At least I busted Central Market's sneaky trick of having you enter through the (expensive) organic section, with the same types of (non-organic) vegetables available further along. Which is another thing about France: a lot of the stuff at the outdoor market was organic, but nobody made any big deal about it. It was just that they didn't want to pay for EU certification, so they could keep their prices down and compete with the other vendors. As for fruit, my French-born appreciation of pears and melons and cherries and so on says this isn't the right time. I saw a basket of strawberries the other day, and although they were from Mexico, I just couldn't do it. Also: size. They'd go bad before I finished with them. The melons are the size of basketballs. The scoreboard: Germany 2, France 8, US 8*. Germany, of course, goes nuts once a year for asparagus and again for strawberries. The rest of the time, forget it. I bought so much plastic-enshrouded rotten produce there it was scandalous, but since the Germans don't know what vegetables other than cabbage are, what can you do? France keeps things in season (not that you can't buy baseball-hard Dutch tomatoes there right now), and allows a variety of sizes. America ties with qualifications, some noted above, but also because there's such a wide variety. I could get bok choy a few times a year in France. I can go get some right now.

* Bread: Another foregone conclusion, because you just know the US is going to lose this one. The Germans may make spongy, squishy baguettes without any flavor at all (and then try to sell you sandwiches in them), but those dense, heavy, dark, seed-and-grain-infused breads they do there rock. And you pretty much have to go there to taste them, because as far as I know nobody's doing them at all on this side of the Atlantic. Be happy to be proven wrong, though. And again, the French don't do that style, but beyond the baguette (which of course they frequently do very nicely) they have lots of wholegrain and other traditional breads, often cooked in wood ovens, available. (And this is without even getting into the "viennoiserie" stuff that the bakeries do, the croissants and pain au chocolates and so on). The one exception I've found in Austin (I'm still holding out the possibility there's a good bakery here) is bagels. Now, there was a bagel chain in Germany called Bagel Brothers that didn't have an outlet in Berlin that did perfect bagels, and a place that was called Bagel Station in Berlin that did pretty good ones. The bagels in France all came pre-frozen from a single source and were too bready, albeit not as bad as Einstein Brothers or Lender's. But Central Market, of all places, has very good bagels, and I'm digesting one as I type. So bread/bagel scores: Germany 9/7, France 9/4, US 6/8. Reserving a US point for if someone starts making bagels like I had in Brooklyn a couple of years ago.

* Wine: Okay, you probably see this one coming, too. Basically, so far it's the fault of the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission and marketing at places I shop. Germany wasn't a great place for wine, but there were shops that paid attention and had some decent things at decent prices. In France I was living in the middle of the EU "wine lake," so good wine at decent prices was no problem. In Texas, the Baptists don't want you to enjoy yourself (Biblical adjurations to drink wine notwithstanding) so they tax the hell out of it. The result, plus the snob appeal, means that at Central Market, which has a huge wine department, and at Whole Foods, which doesn't, I'm surrounded by $25 bottles about which I know very little. I was enjoying a nice mix from Lodi, CA (the Languedoc of California in that it once produced awful plonk and now has an infusion of young winemakers doing some good work) called Ravenous Red, which was nothing revolutionary, but a good everyday wine at $6.95 a bottle, but it's sporadic in its appearances there. No scorecard for this one; it's still early innings.

I'm still feeling my way around stuff here. Canned tomatoes, for instance, seem to be grossly inferior to what I was getting in Europe -- they seem to be picked way too green, while the general quality of meat seems much higher. I'm still wrestling with some dental problems that preclude a lot of exploration, and I'm also sure I'll make some nice discoveries in the days to come.

Now, about getting these books unpacked... Time for some more shelving.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Opening King Tut's Tomb

I've spent most of the past couple of weeks hauling a couple of boxes of books in from the garage each day, going through them, discarding the ones most eaten by rodents and insects (not nearly as many as you might think, but some), then going through the ones I clearly don't want but kept out of inertia, and looking up their ISBN numbers to see if they're special in any way. If so, they get listed on my Amazon store.  I'm selling about one book a day, and had to de-list some because of interest from a rare book dealer.

But oh, that gets tiresome. There are these other boxes, boxes with, well, stuff. I do accumulate stuff. Stuff tends to be the documentation of memories. Which is a good thing: I didn't remember getting a large poster for the Residents' album Third Reich and Roll with a letter from them on the back. I do remember going to a San Francisco art party with my pal Hudson in the mid-'70s and us wandering around looking for someone interesting, and Hudson spying four guys standing together and saying "Those guys are the Residents," only to have all four say in unison "No we're not!" So I've seen them without their eyeballs. I bet that poster would bring something on eBay. If I could only figure out how to use eBay, that is.

But like I said, this is documentation of memory. For instance, I think I was on assignment, probably for Creem, at Willie Nelson's horror-filled 4th of July extravaganza at College Station in 1974 when Charlyn Zlotnik caught me and some other low-lifes backstage.

L to R: Himself, Joe Nick Patoski, unknown, Patrick Carr


Now, I have some memories of this three-day error in judgement left. It was terribly hot, and Jim Franklin, the artist-in-residence at Armadillo World Headquarters, had distributed salt tablets to one and all, most likely keeping us from dying. If you could get into the Lone Star Beer bus, Jerry Retzloff would give you a beer. That was all the nutrition available until some brave students drove an old station wagon through the fence, opened its tailgate, and started selling barbeque brisket sandwiches for a buck apiece. Words cannot convey how good they were, and, their tuition for the next two years in hand, they zoomed off as quickly as they'd come. Just as the thing got started, a catalytic converter on a car set the field of grass in which it was parked on fire, and people watched helplessly as a dozen or two cars were turned into art. (One, I think, belonged to the poor bastard who was performing at the time). I have no idea where I slept, but on the last night it vanished (probably along with the record company person who was paying for it), and I wound up with the Mother Earth Band, most notably Toad Andrews and family, on the floor of a Holiday Inn. The record company person who'd driven me there having vanished, I was very, very grateful to hear a voice asking if anyone needed a ride back to Austin, and that's how I met the late, great Joe Gracey.

But wait, there are other pictures here. Dozens of me cooking gumbo, as if that were some kind of remarkable event. Hell, now that I'm back in Texas I'll probably do that again relatively soon: I'm out of the land of eight okra pods for €7.00 now. There are pictures of bands snapped during performance, but who are they? More than that, there are scads of posters, lots from a band I was going to produce called No Sisters, who really were four brothers (and one drummer), and who almost got signed to A&M right after I moved to Texas. (They went for D-Day instead, because their wealthy manager was absorbing the expenses). At some point I'm going to have to sort through these posters, because I'm certain some of them are worth money, and I have multiple copies of some of them, too. Ah, but here's another photo of me in my back yard in Sausalito taken by my long-vanished friend and colleague AJ Bernstein.

Gentleman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A year later I was in Texas. Probably saved my life. 
But there were other artifacts that were less disturbing.

Ashtray, candle
The way I used to cope with Texas summers when I worked at the newspaper was to save my money, and put in for my two weeks' vacation sometime in August, when I could be sure that I'd reached the limit of my endurance and very little would be happening to write about. I would fly to London and then make my way to Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where I would be retrieved by a gent named Pete Frame, who would then convey me to his thatched-roofed former pub in the tiny village of North Marston, which didn't have a post office, store, or much of anything except sheep and cows.

And a pub. The Bell, it was called (like about 60% of the pubs in England). Mel the Bell was the landlord, and I was a novelty: no American had actually stayed more than a day in North Marston, and since I had Pete's imprimatur, and bought my rounds as a decent pub-drinker should, I was accepted. What I was drinking, at any rate, was ABC Bitter, a lovely drink with lunch and after dinner, and just the thing to dissipate any lingering tension from working for The Man. I met a lot of fine folk there, including Rob Gurney, Pete's running buddy, and a budding mariner at the time. He's a full-fledged captain now, and has places in Aruba and Belgium, but has held on to the family farm. Pete lives in Dingwall, in remote Scotland, and pretends he loves it. He was down visiting the captain recently and tells me that ABC Bitter is no longer made, that in fact that whole brewery complex in Burton-on-Trent has been eaten alive by The Man and the Aylesbury Duckling is no longer seen on glasses or ashtrays. Which is a shame, because I have a pint glass and it's chipped. That, too, was in storage.

The candle is a very wry piece of post-modern commentary, although it just looks like a bust of Lenin made out of mud. Waxy mud. But I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments in 1990, when I drove from Berlin to Prague what seemed like moments after the Velvet Revolution. At the time, the word was that it had been a bloodless revolution except for one student who'd been shot dead. Immediately a wall with a huge John Lennon graffito on it became a place of pilgrimage and hundreds of candles burned there in his memory. Now, it appears that some people knew the truth, because if Wikipedia is to be believed, this guy, Martin Smid, was fictional. In the spirit of punk -- or something -- a bunch of entrepreneurial students cleaned away the candle wax, melted it down, and, with some molds they'd found, cast candles of Marx, Lenin, and so on, and then sold them on the sidewalk. I bought one because although I didn't know all the story, the involution of the idea of recycling memorial candles into an ironic icon of the now-defeated enemy sold for profit appealed to me. And yes, that was an amazing trip.

But before I get sucked into that, what about this (sorry about the framing)?

The real action's on the back.
This is a souvenir of a story that never happened. A friend of mine was on the comedy beat at the paper, and invited me to go see this new guy, Bill Hicks, at one of the local clubs. He wasn't local: he was from Houston, where, he insisted, a wild comedy scene was happening. Being unemployed and freelancing, I sold Mother Jones magazine on the story, and thus it was that I found myself in Houston doing a story on the Texas Outlaw Comics which would culminate in an appearance at Rockefeller's. A day or so into hanging out with these guys made me realize that there was no way a magazine as politcally uptight as Mother Jones would even go near this material, but I stuck with it until the show, which was magnificent -- I particularly remember Bill Hicks' piece on Jesus returning and walking into a church and seeing, first thing, a crucifix -- and at the end of my stay in Houston, I was presented with the above artwork, signed by all the Outlaw Comics including Bill. I wish I could tell whose signature was whose.

Then there are other souvenirs of I know not what: the odd duo of a wind-up sushi chef who chops at a fish (which wriggles its way out of range of his knife) while reading what is presumably a how-to-cut-sushi book and an enamel advertisement for Casanova Cigaretten, showing a scarf-wearing Boston terrier smoking a cigarette and blowing a smoke ring. I must've gotten the latter at a flea market before moving to Germany, but the other is anyone's guess.



And then there are memories that go back much, much further.


Tammany? Los Angeles 1911? I swear I wasn't there. 

When I was in college, my friend Terry, even then a great photographer, became obsessed with the dying city of Springfield, Ohio, near where we were going to school. One of the great things about the poor side of town, where he went photo-hunting, was the antique shops, which were loaded with the most miscellaneous things. I've always loved advertising ephemera, and there was tons around. Buttons, too, matched my fashion sense as a kind of East Coast hippie. ("NO SALOON!") People collected cigarette cards, which came with every package of some kinds of cigarettes, and then didn't know what to do with them. I also found a copy of what is probably the first country music record, but no other recorded treasures (turns out they were still for sale in a strange old record store I only went to once). Anyway, Terry got some great pictures over the years. I got some of the odder corners of my own personal King Tut's tomb. I just hope there isn't a curse on this one.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Migas

Well, why not? When I did my Berlin blog, I called it BerlinBites, and when I discovered I had a bunch of little things for the blog that didn't cohere into a single post, I called them "crumbs." I got to France, and by the same principle, I called them "miettes." So here in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Austin, "migas" seems appropriate. And yes, I realize it's an amazing egg dish that I'll probably never learn how to make properly: scrambled eggs with onions and salsa (or salsa ingredients) with bits of tortilla chips added at the very end. The secret is to present them at the table without sogging the chip migas at all. I do not know the secret, and, as long as Austin has dozens of places that know how to do this well, I may never.

* * *

Have I been here in this house a month already? Not quite; the rent due tomorrow is prorated for the difference. But I've done a lot of stuff in that time, most of it involving spending money. The last big outlay was this week, when I went to Alberto's Appliances, a place I just stumbled onto reading a Craigslist ad, and bought a washer and dryer: new, discontinued, pre-digital models. They were cheap enough, and Alberto's delivered and installed them. They also have an unbeatable guarantee and after-sale care program. Plus, they were local. Same with the stereo I got: it came from A&B TV on Anderson Lane, which has apparently been there forever. The salesman had been in a local band when I was at the newspaper and remembered me -- or said he did. 

These purchases, necessary outlays of money, made me feel good because I'm hemmed in by monstrous commercial spaces, the most hellish of which is South Park Meadows. Now, when I lived here last, South Park Meadows was a concert venue administered by a succession of local promoters, most famous for its profusion of insect and arachnid life. (Ticks are arachnids, right?) 

...six, seven, eight. Yup!
I attended one show there and never went back, because I hate anything that even smacks of a rock festival. I'm sure a number of colorful people made colorful real-estate deals, and in the end, South Park Meadows is the biggest shopping center I've ever seen, with all the big brands: a Walmart that people apparently take the bus up from Mexico to shop at, OfficeMax, Best Buy, Target...you get the picture. 

Now, South Park Meadows is just the worst example of this I've seen because it's big, so big that, on a trip to visit one of its stores, I roamed all over the place and still haven't seen all of it. Not that I need anything in any of the stores I haven't seen, but they're big enough stores that I wonder how much of the site I haven't located yet. And as I drive hither and yon, I see signs for stores that I suppose I'm supposed to be familiar with: Lowe's, Kohl. What do they sell? I really don't care: I have pretty much what I need at the moment, although I'm going to need to hit Ikea once more when the ship comes in (see below) for more shelving, although not before I check the Salvation Army again first. 

If I hadn't seen Austin as it was in November, 1973, I wouldn't know where it was underneath all of this generic commercialism. 

* * *

On the other hand, not far from me is a little strip mall that says all the right things about the new Austin. It's got a chain kolache shop (kolaches are Czech pastries that are big in Central Texas, although West, Texas, the town I most associate with them, blew up when its fertilizer factory went earlier this year), a taqueria, a place where I've gone with a friend for pho for many years, and, I discovered, on my way to get it there recently, a very well-stocked Indian grocery store. 

Kommercial Kolaches: You can do better than this. 
Nobody planned this, this isn't a theme park, and in fact there are other businesses there, including a large Goodyear tire shop, and a couple of empty storefronts (including a failed Indian restaurant). But it's also something you'd never find in Europe, where ethnic populations tend to huddle together in homogenous clusters: a place where you can have a couple of tacos for lunch while you're having your wheels balanced, then grab a kolache for dessert, after which you can pick up a bag of besan flour and some panch phoran seed mixture. 

There's also a gigantic supermarket across the street from it, posing no threat to the Indians, but selling sushi, fresh tortillas, and, to my surprise when I needed some the other night, diced pancetta, that bacon-like stuff Italians use. I haven't really dug into the neighborhood yet; lord only knows what other surprises await. 

* * *

I haven't really looked at that Indian place yet because my trip to the My Thanh Supermarket to restock my Chinese larder caused $75 damage to my pocket, although I'll admit some of that was due to my buying some dishes to help make Chinese food, but I'll also admit that I forgot some really basic stuff, for all I bought: I didn't get fermented black beans, ginger or rice. Really: imagine being in a gargantuan East Asian supermarket and forgetting to buy rice. I anticipate similar damage restocking the Indian end of things, but I'm trying to hold off. 

Which is not to say I haven't been cooking. Two weeks of going out to restaurants also put a dent into my finances, not to mention too much food into my belly, and it feels good to be able to cook again, albeit not with the equipment I'm used to, and control the portion size. Most of the equipment is on its way from France, and was supposed to arrive this coming Tuesday, but will now be a week later. 

Still, using what I have on hand (it was great to discover a perfectly-seasoned wok, two perfectly-seasoned cast iron frying pans, a top-notch pizza stone and a peel which I think I may have made in shop class in high school, given to my mother, and reclaimed when she admitted never using it) I managed to use the last tomatoes of the season from the local farmer's market to make a pizza that was one of the best ever (and would have been even better if I'd remembered to buy 00 flour, which you can actually get here), and I've twice made Chinese food in that wok. 

I'm quite surprised to discover that I am using the microwave that came with the place (perfect for heating up tamales, like the ones a little lady going house to house sold me the other morning) and the dishwasher, something I never thought I'd use. 

None of this will translate into anything more than bachelor cooking, though, until the ship comes in: another thing that's on it is a formidable antique German dining table with leaves, and that's much better than the rickety Ikea table I'm dining on right now. Then I can start inviting people over for dinner. Um, after I buy some more chairs.  

* * *

And that will mean that my social life may pick up. I've retreated pretty much into this house, getting it set up and livable for me, let alone making it a place others can visit. I've pretty much recovered from the revelation that I'd been romantically pursuing a were-Republican for 2 ½ years, but what with my avoiding live music, I don't really have many excuses to get out of the house. I'll have to remedy that. It's not like there's nothing happening in Austin, after all. 

At least Thanksgiving was a welcome chance to get out, visiting my friends down in Wimberley and seeing their invited guests, who were mostly people I've known forever. After dinner, some of us took a walk, and I managed to take one photo that was no good, and then accidentally triggered the video button on the phone's camera. 

Wimberley, late afternoon. There were better shots, but I missed 'em. 
There's no reason to be impatient, I keep reminding myself. I know why I feel that way, though: I've made a huge change and I want it to pay off right this minute! Ain't gonna happen. Shouldn't happen. And if I learned nothing else in the Sud de France, it was how to wait for things to take their natural course. 

* * *

And now for the commercial. Much of my time here has been spent going through the books that were in storage and carefully checking their condition, any reviewer's materials that may have been stored with them, and putting them up for sale on my Amazon store. There are a bunch of fairly scarce first-edition cookbooks, all gotten when I was a book reviewer, and some literary first-editions that are all souvenirs of my various stints as book-reviewer or books editor at publications like Oui (really) and of course the Austin Chronicle. There are too many books that have been dined on by silverfish in the inadequate storage they were put in (by someone else) years ago, but few of them are for sale, and the ones that are (like that extremely rare copy of Wolf Vostell's de/collage and happenings) are priced below market value. Surely you know a serious '60s art geek that needs that! And these make stupendous Christmas presents, too! 

Okay, better get back to cataloguing. Anyone know where I can get Chinese fermented black beans in South Austin?

The knee is not for sale. Um, on the other hand, make an offer.



Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Next Chapter

"You're like a ghost. You don't show up anywhere," said the real estate agent. He represented the landlord of a place I'd seen and really liked. There was a little stream in the back yard, named Turtle Creek, although I have no idea if there were really turtles in it.

What the agent was complaining about was that my credit report was coming up blank. That's hardly a surprise: for 20 years, I'd lived in a part of the world where there was, basically, no such thing as credit. Apparently one credit agency here in the U.S. had me down as owing Hertz $750 from 2010, but that's extremely unlikely, since I didn't rent a car from Hertz in that year. Couldn't have: I don't have a credit card. Other than that, though, nothing. Europeans generally don't have credit cards, because it's so easy to use a bank card tied to one or another of your bank accounts. I didn't have a bank account in France, so I used cash.

While the agent was trying to figure out if he needed an exorcist, it rained. I mean, it rained a lot. My cell phone, next to my head as I slept at my friends' house, screamed several times in the night with flash flood warnings. Apparently I now get emergency notifications. We were on a hill, so this was information I didn't need. But it was serious: my friend Lin, who'd been a reporter on the paper with me when I first arrived in Austin, now owns a horse ranch on Onion Creek in the southern reaches of Austin. Onion Creek flooded. Lin lost four mares, one of whom she'd had for 37 years. I had no idea horses lived that long. She was devastated, unsurprisingly.

I wondered if Turtle Creek had flooded, if the big living room at the place I'd like was now alive with turtles. I never found out. My own real-estate agent noted that a friend of her husband's, a guy I'd not only met but might have gone into business with if her husband had worked out a coherent business plan, had outgrown his house and was renting it out. I looked at it with her. It was even better than the Turtle Creek place. It had a nice kitchen. I mean, a nice one.

Oh, look! A gas stove!
There was a gigantic refrigerator whose freezer door gave forth ice cubes and filtered water (once it got going, at any rate) and a sink with a Disposall on an island. There was acres of prep space.

Still unpacking at this point. Painting by Dean Studeny. Coffee mug by Coffee of Doom

I needed a couch. I got on Craigslist. An hour later, a guy and his son were hauling the couch into the living room. I set up my old stereo speakers, attached to a new amplifier and found a box of CDs I didn't know I had in the boxes I'd (with help) unloaded from my storage area. There's $200 a month I no longer have to pay. There was a McCoy Tyner plays Ellington CD in there I don't remember ever having listened to. Although it was after 10 (neighbors call cops in Europe!) I put it on. It was enjoyable.

There was an office, wired to the teeth with outlets in case I ever need to set up a server farm. I spent a week putting together the desk in it and at one point crawled under an assembled one at my local OfficeMax to see how a couple of parts fit together. I still can't get the drawer in, but that's a detail. The guy from the cable company came and wired me up.

Note drawer to the right. Nice view of the back yard, too!
There's a whole room I call "the library" that, after I win the lottery, will be chockablock with CD shelves with alphabetized discs in them. Maybe a bed for visitors. It has a bathroom with a shower and everything next to it, too.

Room to think
There's a bedroom with a new futon waiting for its frame to arrive from France, a bathroom with a gigantic shower and two sinks just off of it.

No low-powered hose I have to hold myself!
And there's a two-car garage that, in the great American tradition, contains no car at all, but a buncha cardboard boxes. These are books from 20 years ago.

The ones out of boxes are, mostly, cookbooks, believe it or not. Book reviewing was a sweet gig. 


Over the next months, they'll be gone through meticulously and then start to show up on Amazon. Some are, apparently, worth a bit. But this is good: one of my goals is de-cluttering. The odds are against my making too much headway in this particular endeavor too quickly, because I've been told by the mover that the ship with my stuff will dock in Houston on Dec. 3, clear customs, and be here before long. There are books to get rid of in that shipment, too. And I'll be getting rid of them.

* * *

This has all been a radical change. I live in more than three times the area I was living in a month ago. I have a back yard with a redwood deck, bare but for a curious wood-burning stove and a plastic chair where, two days in a row, after I've finished work, I've gone out and sat, doing nothing, for close to an hour. I have access to a radically different spectrum of foods: a Chinese supermarket way uptown and an Indian market just down the street, a tortilleria a couple of blocks away, and some very impressive supermarkets -- not just Whole Foods and Central Market, which are also wonderful -- not far away. My cooking gear is on the boat, but I can't wait to get started. 

I have a car, which I kind of like. 

It's a Vibe, baby
I don't like having to drive everywhere, though, nor do I like Austin traffic. I try to stay home after 4 as much as possible to avoid dealing with it. I rarely succeed at this, but it's a resolve. 

For the past three days, since Sunday, I've had something of a routine, which I like. I've got some work, and I've been doing it, which I also like. Other work seems to be out there, too. I have time to read, I have time to write, and I have a bit of time to goof off. I've been out a couple of times, not always successfully (I misjudged traffic last night and got turned away at an event I wanted to see: who knew it would take two hours to get to the University?).

But the main improvement has been people. I know people here. Early on I went to an odd event at the Continental Club Gallery which combined art, music, and people reading from their work, and met a guy who was one of my many Facebook friends I don't actually know. He wound up helping me empty the storage areas, just out of the blue. There were other people I knew at that event, too, and at the gig I went to on Saturday night (I still have lots of trouble seeing live music, though, and I walked out before the headliner went on). Even this area, though, has had its other side. I began this year with what I can only characterize as a love letter from a woman with whom I'd been corresponding for a couple of years, and we'd gone out a lot in March when I was here for SXSW. I'd been looking forward to seeing more of her when I got here, but, well, no. Not going to work out, sorry. But...fish, sea. 

Don't try to do too much too fast. After all, I still need a washer and a dryer, an end table for that couch (maybe two, one for each end!), a doctor, a dentist, and maybe some day I'll hang a flat-screen from the rack that's currently supporting Dean's painting there in the living room and become an American. I haven't had anyone over for dinner yet, but then, I don't have my good cooking stuff, either. 

Live like the alcoholics, one day at a time. That goes for the good times as well as the bad times. Judging from the shadows in the back yard, it'll be dark soon enough and then there'll be another day tomorrow. We'll name it Wednesday. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

L'Envoi

One last observation about Montpellier, written from 7000 miles away in Texas.

There was a place to eat I always wanted to recommend, but never did for a very good reason: it was downstairs from my apartment, The Slum. When I was first offered this place, I looked it up on Google or something and saw there was something called Les Delices du Liban downstairs. Being exposed to the constant odor of a kebab shop was not my idea of a good time, given the way the ones in Berlin smelled. But I didn't have many choices, so I went to look at the apartment anyway. I took it -- now that I've got perspective I'll never understand why -- and figured I could find somewhere else if I had to.

As it turned out, Les Delices du Liban was a great place to have as a neighbor, largely because of this man.

Hani, looking just like himself, in Les Delices du Liban
As long-time readers will remember, the two lunkheaded Germans who moved me dumped my stuff in the street and buggered off to Barcelona, not helping to move me in, which is what I'd paid them for. Hani asked me, in English, if I needed help, and I said I did. He flipped open his phone and called his friend Ali, who humped heavy box after box into my apartment.

Hani speaks English, because he has two sisters in Canada. His place is very well located, both for the binge-drinking bars in the area (it is a truism among Europeans that eating a kebab after a night of heavy drinking will kill the hangover) and because when the Diagonal, the original-language movie house on rue Verdun lets out, the moviegoers get dumped right across the street. He also does a fine lunch trade. Lots of people from the community come to talk with him: he's kind of the unofficial mayor of rue Vanneau.


In the down time between lunch and dinner, various folks come to see him and they sit at one of the outdoor tables, talking, checking their e-mail on their phones (Hani has a plug they can use to recharge them if they ask nicely), and so on. Hani's wife is often there, with his adorable daughter, who was born about a year after I moved in. She has the full panoply of princess paraphernalia, and everyone who hangs out digs her. I tried to get a family portrait, but she was lying down on one of the freezers, sleeping.

Behind the green door lies The Slum

So, I hear you ask, what's the food like? Well, here's your choice:

Yes, I know the awning thingy is in front of the picture. The other menu is on a hanging piece of cloth that was, as Bob Dylan would say, blowin' in the wind.
On the one hand, you might say, a kebab's a kebab. But these are €4 well-spent. (For €7 you can get a platter which comes with hummus and fries and what passes for a salad). Of particular note are the two shawarmas, and, most especially, the taouk. In Austin, there's a place called the Phoenicia Deli, which makes an amazing chicken sandwich in pita bread with a pungent garlic sauce. I raved about it so much the Austin Chronicle has dubbed it the "Ed Ward Memorial Sandwich," and it is mentioned in my horrible Wikipedia entry. But the first time I had one of Hani's taouks, I knew what it was. (I should add his falafel is also great, particularly as part of his vegetarian plate). In a concession to a weird French preference, he'll wrap some fries inside your sandwich if you don't tell him not to. Tell him not to: you need to taste this.

Over the last couple of years, my teeth deteriorated to the point where I could no longer bite one of his sandwiches (or anything else, for that matter) so I had a taouk plate as one of my last meals, because I had to taste Hani's goods again. Over the years, we talked about this and that ("Are you afraid of me? Your President says you should be afraid of me because I am Muslim!"), and he would take packages for me when I wasn't there. He also loaned me his stepladder so I could change light-bulbs -- and taught me the word for "ladder" itself, which I had unaccountably forgotten to learn in high school. (It's escalette).

So I don't miss much about Montpellier these days, but one of the things I do miss is the odor of Hani's grill at lunchtime, which inevitably made me hungry. Also his good attitude, his friendly smile and wave, and his being a living reminder that Muslims and us infidels can get along just fine as long as we talk to each other.

Les Delices du Liban, 3, rue Vanneau, 34000 Montpellier. See pictures above for phone. Open from slightly before noon until late. Hani's not there all the time, but his food is.

* * *

This blog will go silent briefly as I move into my own house here in Austin. I'm going to redesign the banner as soon as I find a decent photo to do it with, and the focus will change to what happens when you've been away from your native country for 20 years. Those who want another perspective on that are directed to my friend Nikki's blog On The  Fence, wherein she returns from a similarly long residence in the U.S. to her native Germany. 

See you soon. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

France: The Last Days

The Slum cleared out, I moved to a hotel for two nights. I'd been curious about the Hotel d'Aragon, a nondescript-looking three-star around the corner that consistently got good ratings from the likes of Tripadvisor. Since it was the only affordable, semi-luxurious option (at around €100, lest you get the wrong idea of my concept of luxury) I grabbed Saturday and Sunday nights there.

It turned out to be (mostly) a good idea. For one thing, the shower had seven heads set in the wall and you could blast yourself, a great luxury after five years of the weak stream from the handheld hose in The Slum. I washed the last dust of the place off of me and met E and J for a glass of wine in the center of town.

As we walked afterwards, I passed a new place I'd looked at that had pig's foot and lentils as a daily special. I'd already decided on Le Chat Perché for my last meal on Sunday, so a couple of hours after I'd parted with E and J, I walked back up and got a table. Which, for Saturday night, was ominous: someone right off the street could get seated. Of course, there was only one of me, and sometimes that's a lot easier.

The meal was definitely okay: an odd "beef pâté" was followed by that pig's foot, which just hit the spot. The lentils were perfectly cooked with some carrots hiding in them, and I just wish I'd remembered about the tough layer of skin that always accompanies this cut, because I tried to eat it. It's not strictly the foot of the pig, but a nearby area, what Berliners call Eisbein. The one thing I didn't like at all about the restaurant was that instead of a wine card, they had a bunch of bottles you could choose from. I didn't know half of them, and the kind of wording one often finds on a card would have helped. As would not having to unwedge myself from my seat and wander out into the entryway. The place looks kind of understaffed (or maybe it was Sunday that did it), but despite their odd location on an almost-hidden street, I hope they have what it takes to make it. Nice folks

La Poule au Pot, 8 rue Collot, 34000 Montpellier, 04 67 86 96.

* * *

If I have a complaint about the hotel, it's that the proprietor is something of a fussbudget, and an opinionated one at that. The next day, when I asked him to get me a reservation at the Chat, he refused. "I don't like that place," he said. "Go to Le Grillardin. It's traditional. Or Bistrot Gourmand!" He could not fathom that I'd lived in Montpellier for five years and knew my way around, and had my own opinions, one of which is that Le Grillardin is overpriced and not very interesting. He pulled down a restaurant guide and began noting how few places were open on Sunday. I insisted that the Chat was open 7/7, so he called, got no answer after a few rings, and hung up. He then called Bistrot Gourmand, got their machine, and made a reservation for me. The punch line is that I wandered down there -- they're close neighbors -- and neither restaurant was open. I guess the Chat goes 6/7 in the winter, because I've certainly dined there on Sundays. I wound up at a hamburger/steak joint that was heaving despite it being 9:30. There are advantages to being the only game in town. And, to be honest, it wasn't bad: a plate of local charcuterie that was great followed by an odd disc of lamb, with a tender piece in the center, and a lot of seasoned ground lamb surrounding it, held in place (it had obviously been sliced off a larger sausage-shaped piece) with a ring of fat, which crusted up nicely during the roasting. A medley of winter vegetables -- carrots, turnips, pearl onions -- roasted in duck fat reminded me of the season. 

Chez Boris, 20 rue de l'Aiguillerie, 34000 Montpellier, 04 67 02 13 22

* * * 

The next morning at 9:24 I got on the TGV for Paris, scolded by the train guard for almost missing it. They're redoing the Montpellier station, and direct access to the trains is through one door, which sends you downstairs, then up to the right track. (No moving band for luggage, no escalator). The stairway to the track I needed was blocked at both ends, but the guy in front of me kicked it aside and hurdled the top barricade. I more modestly kicked it until I could squeeze myself and my luggage through. When I got there, I saw there was an open area leading directly from the street to that track. No signs, of course. 

My seat was backward-facing, which I don't much like, but it did give me the chance to see the town slide away one more time. I forgot to look for Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, but I'm sure they'll still be there when I return. 

* * *

Paris was about two things:  the Roy Lichstenstein show at the Pompidou and dinner at a Cameroonian joint that evening. I skipped lunch in my haste to get to the Pomp, although I did walk there from my hotel, which allowed me to see streets I hadn't seen in a long while. They were jammed with (mostly) women shopping, as always. The quest for luxury never ends in Paris, sweeping all ahead of it as it expands into formerly unfashionable districts. Not that the Marais has been unfashionable in my time of coming to Paris. 

It was good I got there when I did, though, because as I exited there was an announcement that the waiting time to get into the Lichstenstein show was 20 minutes. I just waltzed in, and was captivated. 

The thing about Roy Lichstenstein's art is that it is what it is and doesn't exactly invite long contemplation. It isn't until afterwards that the ideas hit you, but you've had everything you needed to start the process in the first minute of looking at the work. No less than any other painter since the late 19th century, Lichstenstein was fascinated with light, with color, and, to a certain extent, with abstraction. Initially, he was fascinated with decontextualizing things: the two-panel war-comic painting Whaam! plays with the foreshortened image of the fighter-jet while rendering the explosion it has caused as something abstract, with that giant word floating above it. 


The huge canvas brings this home: you have to be halfway across the room to "read" the painting as the  comic panel it was originally -- and we have no idea who the American plane is blowing up, even so, or if the pilot gets out of the air battle unscathed. Even trickier are the famous romance comic frames, since we know nothing of the relationships being dipped into or how they turn out. Oh, Jeff...I Love You, Too...But... is nothing but ambiguity: but what? But there's more to see in them, too, which the excellent captions at the show brought out. Take the iconic Drowning Girl


Not only do we know what's going on with Brad (who will undoubtedly save her), but the drama in the center of the painting can take away the droll hommage to Hokusai being played out by the water (not including the standard-issue water in her eyes). 

LIchstenstein seemed to be a restless type, though, and deeply concerned with his place among the masters, as he began first a series (continued for years) of representations of brushstrokes, but done in his meticulous style, as well as with his signature Ben-Day dots, and then he began to render these same images in 3-D as flat, freestanding sculptures. Where it really gets nuts is when he started painting mirrors, as depicted in comics, reflecting nothing, but needing to be identifiable as mirrors in the final comic panel, thus necessitating some abstract, but functional, lines to send the code to the reader. These he blew up as paintings, and then, thinking about them some more, as big round sculptures on pediments, the black lines holding the other colored areas in: hardly recognizable as mirrors (or are they?) and compelling as objects. My favorites are where he added another element: a painting of a lamp casting light, standing on a table, rendered as a 3-D sculpture of the painting, the light having physical form. 

I'm really happy to have caught this show, and it's instilled a new appreciation for Lichstenstein's work in me that will, inevitably, make me see other abstraction based on figurative work quite differently from now on. I hope you saw the show when it toured the US, and I'd say it's pretty damn imperative that, if you're in Paris between now and Nov. 4, when it closes, you hie yourself over to the Pompidou and check it out. You'll be glad you did. 

* * *

The evening was dedicated to not eating French food. The French prefer to ignore that they have large numbers of former colonials among them, and although some have developed a taste for Moroccan cuisine (which is every bit as subtle as French), it's hard to find a Vietnamese restaurant as we know it in the States, and as for the Africans, they might as well not exist. But exist they do, as M. Kouegang and his roommates below me in The Slum proved. My office/living room was just upstairs -- and upwind -- from their kitchen, and I began wondering what Cameroonian food was like. Left on their own, the guys mostly fried chicken livers, which was nice as far as it went. But when the girls came over, the music changed from aggressive American and French hip-hop to smooth grooves of the Congolese-based style internationale, with rhumba rhythms and interlacing guitars. And the girls cooked something else. 

So when a Paris-based American woman on The Well mentioned that a colleague had taken her and some of her other colleagues to a good Cameroonian restaurant, I was determined to find out. Thus, my last meal in Paris was up in the Barbès neighborhood in the north, where Africans of all persuasions mix and where the curbside vegetable stands must confuse the hell out of French people. 

But I gotta say, the ladies who ran this place sure were nice, and they sure can cook. Naomi had a whole tilapia smothered with onions, and I had a dish called folon, after the spinach-like leaves that make up a lot of it. There were also cubes of what I took to be beef, but I hope they were there for flavoring, because no known knife could have cut their tightly-packed fibers.

Whole tilapia, fried plantains

Folon: stewed vegetables with meat 

How to eat fried plantains: mix some nuclear hot sauce with mayonnaise (squeeze bottle to rear). No idea what the Maggi was for, but it was labelled in Polish, oddly enough. 

Shoot and run. No, no people appear in this picture. I quite ostentatiously avoided the crowd outside. 


Accompanied with a Cameroonian-brewed Guinness (at an astounding 7.5%, more than twice what it normally is), not to mention DVD-recorded Cameroonian pop videos whose production values were, um, not the highest, it was a great way to end my trip and sail to a new world. 

Restaurant "Le Chicago," Chez Odette, 54 rue Marcadet, 75018 Paris, 01 42 57 52 98

* * *

These two wonderful events were separated by an incident that put a fine point on why I am happy to be leaving France and why I hate Paris, though. It also made me late to dinner, but that was both because I made a mistake and I was so rattled. 

I was low on change, and went into the local Metro station, and discovered that there were two ticket machines. One took bills, one didn't. The one that did was broken. I couldn't use my debit card in the other one because, like all French machines, it requires a chip on the card, a technological advance Americans have yet to institute. So I walked over to the ticket window, where a very stoned African girl with a newborn baby was trying to negotiate something with the Indian-looking woman and the tall French man, but not understanding any of it. Eventually, she got what she wanted and drifted off, and they started trying to tell her to go through the gate where the window was. She was oblivious. 

Finally they noticed me standing there. "I'd like two tickets," I said, like an idiot. "Well, use the machine!" the Indian woman thundered. "I can't..." and the man cut me off. "Why can't you use the machine?" I told him I didn't have coins, just this €5 bill, and the machine that took bills was broken. "It takes Carte Bleu," he said. "I'm sorry, I don't have a Carte Bleu. I'm an American and..." "ÇA CHANGE QUOI?"  he thundered, getting red in the face. "ÇA CHANGE QUOI, M. L'AMERICAIN?" He said that last bit with a devastating sneer. I was dumbfounded. I was about to tell him my card didn't have a chip, but he started yelling "VA T'EN! VA T'EN!!" (Translation: "That changes what, M. American? Get out! Get out!"

It had been a long time since I'd encountered such hatred. It would have done no good to ask his name and file a complaint, of course, and my only recourse was to grab my fiver and head to the next station, in hopes that the machine there took my bill. It did. It wasn't anyone's fault but mine that I went to the wrong Poissonnier Metro stop, however. I had no idea there were two. Thank heavens for kindly cab drivers. 

That's it for France for a while. New city, new (metaphorical hill). To be continued. Stick around. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Goodbye To The Slum

It all happened so quickly after not happening so quickly.

For the past few days, I'd been wrestling with boxes that EP had brought over in small quantities (disassembled, they're unwieldy, and he has to take the tram). I'd put one together, wrestling with the tape, which, charged with static electricity, would sink back to the mother roll and form a bond that was impossible to break, then spend precious minutes looking for the start of the tape to make my next seal with. With the box half-made, I'd load it with the stuff the movers weren't going to deal with and go through the whole sealing process again. I'd then usually discover that the box was overloaded, and that it was too small to accommodate the load. Tearing and bulging would result. I'd vow to do better next time, but usually as I was getting into the swing of things, I'd run out of boxes. In the end, I made a discovery: only Castorama, of all the bricolage places around, makes boxes that are worth a damn. Remember that next time you're moving within or out of France.

J came over at one point to raid my supplies of exotic groceries: Chinese and Indian stuff, mostly. She also got my fantastically-seasoned wok. I'll need to start working on another one. The disassembled apartment made her whip out her camera.

I am not really that fat. J explained that "It's the angle," and it is. 
At the point she took this, I could barely keep my head up, I was so tired, but later that day I went out and got some dinner.

Yesterday I forced myself out of bed at 6:30. The movers would be here at 8, although EP warned me that they're always late. I did some last-minute stuff, but I was amazed at how ready I was for them to come. Which they did, only a half hour late, and that because of the difficulty of getting a permit to stick their truck in the pedestrianized zone.

The crew was made up of three people: the guy who'd visited to make the estimate, a tough-built middle aged blond French guy, and a tall African guy. The blond guy set to packing books right away, the African took full boxes down and, when necessary, brought disassembled ones up. The boss dispensed sticky labels, one per box, while registering the contents on a form. When it came time to disassemble the wire bookshelves, he helped, but otherwise was a supervisor. As were EP and I, with the advantage that EP translated from time to time.

Once the office/living room was stripped of what was going, which was the main effort, the CD shelves in the hall were hauled out one by one, coated with protective paper, and taken intact to the truck. The bookshelf with the cookbooks at the end of the hall had already been taken care of. The bedroom took no time at all. I had already disassembled the bed, so they just taped the pieces together and took them. The clothes I'd been told to keep on hangers, and a couple of those nifty boxes with rods in them appeared and within seconds the clothes were loaded. It took longer to tape them up than it did to fill them. The African guy took charge of the kitchen, although not much from there was going: just my precious Allclad pans, a nice Le Creuset Dutch oven I bought myself for Christmas one year, and a few glasses that were as much souvenirs of Germany as anything. My two best wine glasses and the blender attachment for the food processor were left, because of my clumsiness, but E and J will get the glasses in return for mailing me the blender. Finally the Adolf-Hitler Eßtisch, the massive wood leaved dining table, so named because somewhere on it is a label showing its place and date (1936) of manufacture, which I understand is worth some money, but mostly is a fine piece of workmanship, and the venue of some future meals with friends in Austin.

They were gone by 1, miraculously enough. It was jarring, almost. I went over the paperwork with the boss, signed a bunch of stuff ("You must sign this one because it is pink," he remarked at one point, as rational an explanation as you'll find in the world of French bureaucracy), shook hands with the crew, thanked EP for his help, and collapsed in the desk chair just in time for Gerry to show up from Nîmes to take me to lunch. I took a quick shower, put on some clean clothes, Gerry helped me move the futon onto the floor, where I'd spend the night, and we went off to the Beehive, the English pub near St. Roch, for burgers (Gerry's wife is a strict vegetarian) and beer for him, Coke for me. Even with the caffeine in me, I was groggy from lack of sleep and release of tension, and when, after we'd parted company, I went for a last haircut from the woman who's done such a good job over the past five years, I almost dozed off a couple of times.

Finally, I came back up here and marvelled at the emptiness.

Looking into the office/living room from the front door. 

The hall, walkable without tucking in my shoulder at last!

The bedroom, its tininess not indicated by anything in this picture, which was taken from the doorway.
With all my silverware and cookware gone, I couldn't eat here, but I was also way too far gone to go out: one glass of wine and they'd have to carry me back here. I mooched around for a while, and finally went to the Monoprix on the corner and got a couple of beers, stuck them in the fridge, and then went downstairs to Hani's place (which will feature in the next post) and got a taouk platter. I told him I'd return the plate today, because I knew that just going down and back up the stairs was going to be an effort. One by one I sipped the beers (after clearing off the couch) and read a little.

I actually made it to 11, and nature helped by providing a rainstorm that kept the binge-drinking, howling, hooting students indoors. It was hard lowering myself to the floor and harder getting up, but I managed 9 1/2 hours of sleep. In a few minutes, it'll be time to start loading up the suitcase, carryon, and computer bag, after mailing some stuff to myself in the States. At noon, various people come to claim various stuff (including the office chair I'm typing in), and later I'll check into a hotel around the corner. A little more giveaway tomorrow, and that's it. The adventure has begun.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

T Minus Three Days: This Will Happen

The Future Is...Now!
I've been a good boy today, and so it is without guilt that I sit down for a brief update of the move.

What I have done: given away a lot of things, including things that have yet to leave the apartment but, I am assured by their new owners, will be claimed. Packed  stuff in a lot of boxes. Taped most of them shut. Scrubbed grease off of kitchen utensils and vessels which will be packed by the movers. Gotten a portable hard drive and transferred most of the contents of my main backup to it, so that if the backup is lost or damaged, I can get another one and not lose anything.

What I have not done: Gone to the market today for one last visit. Weather was crappy, and I have firmly imposed on myself a do-not-buy regime. I need to be consuming (or giving away or discarding) food, not buying more. Although that pear I had for lunch sure was good. Got two more of 'em, though. Filled out the forms: there's a customs form and an insurance form, and I have to have copies both for the movers from Marseille and the home office in Californa, as well as copies of the main pages of my passport (the one with the picture and the passport number) for both of them, and I also have to fill out the insurance form for the stuff I want to insure. Which I'm putting off because who wants to deal with forms?

What I did yesterday: EP figured out a giant garden-and-housewares store that was near the tram, like most of them aren't, and I went there yesterday to buy bubble wrap and ecologically-sound plastic peanuts. Naturally, I got off the tram one stop early -- this on the line that only runs every 15 minutes or so -- and wandered around looking for this store. I'd seen it before: my first trip to the Paris Store, the gigantic Chinese supermarket here, I got off a stop early for that, and that was the stop for the place I was looking for. So I got back on the tram for one stop, then was given wrong instructions by the information desk, who didn't understand a word I said, went back to the information desk after looking around the store, and got a completely different set of instructions (from the same woman) and discovered what I was looking for. Two rolls of bubble wrap, two bags of peanuts, a roll of tape, and no, monsieur, there's no bag or other means to help you get this back to the tram stop comfortably, you'll just have to stumble along with a bulky, albeit light, load.

(Today I started building more boxes with the new tape. It seems to be allergic to cardboard. I'll tape up a box, turn my back to get stuff to put in it, fill it up, seal it and turn my back again and pop! The tape's come loose. Where is the reinforced tape you can buy in Germany and the U.S.? Dang!)

Got back here and was so enervated I did basically nothing all day after that. The sun had come out, it was unseasonably warm, I wasn't dressed for it, you get the picture. I did manage to connect with an Argentinian guy who wants some of my stuff that others don't want, and, in the spirit of the day, sent him my address -- but wrote the wrong street name! How do you do such a thing when you've lived in a place for five years? So he came, failed to find me, and went home. Today he's sick. But I suspect he'll get the things anyway. I'm just filled with optimism.

The unexpected highlight of the day was a moving 45-minute conversation with an old running-buddy in Berlin, an American who'd played a huge part in my life there, especially early on. He's facing the decision of whether to become a German citizen (his wife's German) or move back to the States. The kids are mostly out of the nest, and he hasn't been back to the States in years. It's a toughie, and it makes old single me realize that there are, in fact, some advantages I have in this situation. I told him he could crash on my couch any time. Wherever it'll be by the time he takes his reconnaissance tour.

At the start of the day, I'd taken a shower, and, for some reason, looked at the water (which takes forever to drain) and realized that it was the exact color of the dust I've been sweeping off of things here. Dust is a problem here in Montpellier, more than in a lot of places. Mostly, the dust in your house is human skin cells sloughed in the course of everyday living, but here they're joined by extremely fine sand. The weather patterns here are cold air comes off of the mountains, the Cévennes, and warm, moist air off the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean winds, though, carry this fine sand from the Sahara, the desert that comprises most of northern Africa. It's usually not detectable until you start to sweep your floor or try to get to places that are hard to reach. And that's what color the water was.

Every day I uncover more dust and wipe things as I put them in boxes. I'm almost through, though, so now it's about getting rid of more stuff (all these old clothes! You can't walk two blocks in Berlin without hitting a clothes collection bin! And I'm going to leave them out for the Romas? Incredible!), cleaning some stuff, doing a load of laundry, and packing one checked bag, one carryon, and the computer bag.

I look around, I see less stuff, and I feel better. One week from tonight, I'll be in Austin.

There'll be at least another blog post before I leave (and one on the Lichstenstein show in Paris, too).

Wish me luck.

Friday, October 11, 2013

T Minus One: Full-Bore Panic

Dang, where did all this crap come from? And why can't I find what I'm looking for?
In one week, early in the morning (well, they said 8am, which is plenty early for me) a truckload of movers from Marseille will descend on me and start packing everything I've asked them to pack. Then they'll leave, and before long the last twenty years of my life will be on a container ship bound to Houston, to arrive in a truck pulling up at an as-yet-unrented residence in Austin in six to eight weeks.

But, of course, it's not that simple. I have to fill out customs forms (fairly simple) and deal with insurance (not at all simple). I don''t know why I don't speak insurance. For a year once upon a time I paid a lot of money for some expat health insurance that I never again dealt with. I now realize I could have had my teeth looked at and had a general physical, all courtesy of the fine German health system (which isn't as good as the French one, but hey, I was in Germany). But no, I had a card in my wallet, and that was it. And I'm going to have to deal with it again once I get back to the States. But still, these forms sit and stare me in the face and will have to be dealt with. And will be.

A guy is coming over later this afternoon to take a bunch of books I've culled, as well as a lot of CDs I've burned (I have the original music on a hard drive, and now that La Poste can deliver again -- see below -- I'll have a clone of that drive with me so I can access all that music again). He told me yesterday as we were setting up the rendezvous that he's moved 30 times all over the world. I may well seek his sage advice. He kept repeating, "Just stay calm and don't panic." Which was good, since that's what I spent a lot of yesterday doing.

As I mentioned, EP brought over some moving boxes his mom had picked up at work. I filled one of them with CDs, lifted it onto a table, and one of the handles broke. This seemingly simple accident paralyzed me for several hours. There are some CDs I have to pack so that the movers can get to the rest of them. Seriously. And this was most of them. And now the box was foutou. But...it occurred to me later, as another friend was over looking over household stuff she might want, the movers aren't going to use those handles. They hump the boxes onto their shoulders and go. And maybe they won't pack the boxes so full and use peanuts or bubble wrap to fill out the rest of the volume.

Or so I tell myself.

I still have to arrange to have the electricity and phone cut off, do a load of laundry, and deal with a bunch of appointments. A young woman I know here who has a band was interested in a keyboard I bought in Germany and haven't unpacked since I've been here, so she came over with three of her friends, and it was like a load of beneficial locusts. I found one in my kitchen, entranced by my funky dining table. "Are you getting rid of...this?" she asked. Uh, yeah. "Oh! I want it!" And she shall have it. They all found stuff they wanted. They're making up a list of stuff they want and will give it to me on Monday. They'll be back on Sunday the 20th. It was going to be the 19th, but they're going skydiving that day. So actually, the ones who survive will be here on the 20th. I hope one of the survivors is the one who wanted the table.

Oh, and what I said about La Poste? For the past three weeks, the RF chip that opened the front door of The Slum hasn't worked. Mme. Merde's next-door neighbor (who professes not to hear her tirades and bellowing) knocked on all our doors and told us, and reported that she'd told the managment company. Three weeks ago. The only way out was to push the button, as usual, but unless the door was blocked by a piece of paper or other wedge (which, most of the time, it was, but not at night), you had to throw a body-block at it to get it to open. Which Mme. Merde's kids can't do. Doorbells would go off, meaning someone wanted in, and, since my phone/buzzer thingy hasn't worked in two years, I'd trudge downstairs to let them in. Two flights down, two flights back up. Good exercise. I got an e-mail yesterday that said it was being fixed today. Which I'll believe when I see it's happened. For this I pay almost a grand a month?

And there are other niggling details: just as I have to print out a bunch of documents -- and with only a week left to own this printer, which I hope someone wants to buy off of me, since I just discovered it cost €300 or so -- the black toner absolutely and definitively dropped dead. No problem: the FNAC multi-media store has tons of printer supplies. But...not for a Samsung.

Won't someone give me a good home? I'll have new toner!

EP, decoder of all things tech, tells me that short of getting into a car and going to Office Depot, I'm screwed, which means I can't have it today, but he's taking care of it. (Oh, and add this to the list of expenditures I'll have to make back in the US...)

Meanwhile, there are as-yet-unpacked boxes from the Berlin move whose contents must be unified today so I can clear some room for the movers (and psychological space for me), and the doctor to see one last time to get my prescriptions filled (but can't call her just yet because she's out to lunch) and the mailing address to change (and just how does one do that?) and I just discovered that that portable hard drive to clone my other one is supposed to be delivered on the last day I'm here, so I'm not quite sure what to do about that, and what'll I do with all this stuff I was going to give the charity if they don't want it and why did I find a bag with a Canadian $5 bill in it and a defunct watch and an Extra Point (from my old supermarket in Berlin, the means with which I bought many a fine piece of cookware and some very nice wine glasses -- but there's no Extra in France!) and what other goodies are lurking here from my past and which of them will I need but forget and

Wait. My doctor's having lunch? I'm going to get some, too. I'm going to live through this and I'm not going to panic and it's going to work out fine.

I just wish I could push the fast forward button on next week and wake up on the train to Paris.
 
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