Tuesday, August 27, 2013


I actually wrote an article -- well, not a real article, but a short item on a performer who's playing a festival that a friend's paper is sponsoring -- yesterday, which makes perhaps the third one I've done this year. Quiet? Disturbingly so. So quiet that on Sunday I cleaned my toilet. Don't get squicked out: anything that has this city's mineral-rich water running through it is going to get colorful deposits on it. And as I squirted the greenish-black deposit in an out-of-the-way part with some noxious chemical or another (a product funnier in English than in French called Canard Power) I remembered that it was these same minerals that give us the distinctive wines around here. Too bad I haven't been able to afford any this summer! On the other hand, I haven't heard anyone extolling the current vintage, either.

At any rate, I'm trying to keep busy. So today, I attacked the layout of this blog. Nothing serious, just rearranging the blog list, for the most part. The first change was, sad to say, removing the link to my other blog at realeyz.tv. They've had to suspend their bloggers because, in the great tradition of small European startup companies, they got burned by a larger company. I worked for a radio station in Berlin for several years when I lived there and this was always happening. In fact, I don't think a single one of the sponsors we had for our first year of operation ever paid us a nickel. I liked doing that blog, and I liked getting paid for it, however modestly. I hope they get back on their feet soon and I can re-add the link.

Some of the others I eliminated were simply because of the short life-span many blogs have. I was very excited when Raymond Sokolov started a blog, but it lasted two whole posts. Love That Languedoc Wine I cut because Ryan's off doing many, many new things and hasn't kept it up. Ben Perry's blog hasn't had any action in ages. Could the daughter he and Yuhang welcomed into this world earlier this year have anything to do with this? Just possibly... I keep the link in my bookmarks, though, because of the webcam showing me Berlin, live, which is usually so dismal it cheers me up no matter where I am. They're having the end of a lovely summer right now, so no need to look at that. (As are we here: the sky has been an unbelievable shade of blue.) A blog called Tales From the Languedoc Wine Country seems to have died. I know I haven't looked at it in a long time.

The one that really hurt was eliminating Doc 40 from the roll. It was loads of fun, even when Mick Farren, its perpetrator, let it lapse for a while. One reason was that his band, the Deviants, had sort of reunited and were playing shows. Another, which he didn't talk about, was that his respiratory problems were getting worse. Charles Shaar Murray (who must be getting sick of writing obits, but is very good at it nonetheless) penned a wonderful tribute after Mick stumbled off stage at the end of a set, reached for his inhaler, and dropped dead after 69 tumultuous, rabble-rousing years. I never met the man, but blogging really brought out the best in him, with the Frozdick Family and Marilyn Sez features, not to mention all those Gratuitouses just the icing on a tasty cake.

You'll notice there are a lot of blogs that rarely get posted to still on the list, but they're still alive, and their infrequent posts are really worth your time. Merle Torpitude informs me she'll be back soon, and Terry over at The New Point has another school year to teach staring him in the face, not to mention a Montreal winter in the offing and that house he's renovating still undone, so his lapses are understandable. I should also mention my old pal Nikki Zeuner, who was one of my first friends in Berlin, and who moved to the US for nearly 20 years, winding up in Silver City, New Mexico. Now she and her family have moved back to Berlin (she has the distinction of being one of the few native-born Berliners I've ever known, born within sniffing distance of the Wedding Krematorium), and her On The Fence blog promises to have a culture-shock index similar to this one. Oh, and if you haven't dived into Sorrywatch, let's just say you should.

There are a few newbies I'm watching that I suspect I'll be adding soon: Joe Ehrlich was looking for a job forever, and once had a nice blog about his taxi-driving days in San Francisco. Now he's become a long-haul trucker, and his blog about that is very well-written. Blogging may have taken a hit from the Twit, but for those of us who like good writing, and don't have any place to read it (or write it), it can be a nice place to hide out.

Meanwhile, don't forget the other gizmos over there on the right: the Amazon gizmo for cookbooks needs a tiny bit of updating, but it's one-stop shopping for the books I use every day, and I get a percentage of what you spend on anything you buy there -- as well as the other things you get on that same shopping trip, so pick a cookbook on your way to buying the Wolf range to use it on. My two Kindle books are still worth buying -- or borrowing, if you're a Premium member, since I get paid for that, too -- and recently a number of people bought some and I got a nice $20 check out of the blue. Keep it up, and I may well add to that with another volume of stuff I've written that most people never got to see. And as always, that PayPal button is a good way to pay me for work I've done -- or for the insanely generous among you to just make a donation because you like this blog.

Right. Now, about the kitchen floor...

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Few Words About Observation, With A Miette

Funny, he doesn't look Montenegran

Yesterday, having been awakened by the adrenaline rush following the blast occasioned by someone playing a radio at top volume at 7am and then forced out of bed by the sheer awfulness of French pop music, against which I finally had to shut my living-room/office windows just so I could concentrate, I began to droop around noon. I was hungry and ready to indulge in one of my vices: a half-liter bottle of Coke (still made with cane sugar in these parts) along with the sandwich I was envisioning making.

I set off for the store. This involved turning left outside my front door, then turning left again and heading up to the Comédie, after which I turned right and bore right until I finally entered the Polygone, the mall in whose basement there's a very nice supermarket run by Monoprix. I usually do this at least once a day. Nothing odd about it.

The problem was at the store: there seems to be a law in France that says that everyone takes off 90 minutes for lunch at noon or shortly thereafter. Thus, the supermarket is jammed between noon and 1 with people buying lunch. Go there at 2:15 and it's empty. Of course, part of the jam is that all the cashiers are at lunch, too, so there are generally only two registers open.

But I have no office I have to be back to by a given time, so I just cruise around, look for ideas for dinner if I need them, and buy something for lunch. Yesterday it was a package of Spanish chorizo, a paprika-infused sausage that's nothing like the Mexican stuff of the same name. Grabbed a warm Coke (€1 cheaper than the chilled ones! And I have ice at home), and then stood in line. After paying, I walked over to the Paul bakery franchise (travellers' tip: if you need a sandwich or a croissant or similar while travelling in France and it's just a question of a quick transfer in a train station or something, Paul is everywhere, and a distinct step up from any other chain bakery) and got a ciabatta (which the French, disdaining the Italian language, call chapata).

I was now ready to go home and make my sandwich. Really, I do this often enough that my mind is frequently elsewhere during the entire process. So when I went into the street off the Comédie and saw all the cops, who seemed to be standing in line by the kebab shop, I thought huh, look at all the cops buying kebabs. They didn't move when I got to them, either, so I had to go around them, giving each of them the chance to look me over. This was sort of ominous, as was the pair of army guys walking up my street.

Now, both the army and the police have a pretty heavy presence in my neighborhood. For one thing, a favored gathering point of the junkie/alcoholic crew is in front of the other Monoprix, at the other end of my street by the carousel. The cops come and clear them out at regular intervals, and then the garbage collectors come with their wheeled cans and pick up the beer cans, food boxes, and so on. For another, there are regular army patrols of four soldiers, each with an automatic weapon, that roam the town. This is evidently an anti-terrorist crew, although I don't see how it prevents terrorism. Nor am I going to argue that it doesn't exist here: after all, one of the 9/11 hijackers, part of the crew that crashed in Pennsylvania, was from Montpellier's Figuerolles district, a neighborhood that's largely "Arab," which is to say Maghrebi and Middle Eastern. One day, I was headed to the store and one of these crews, augmented by some police, had two young guys standing with their legs well spread, hands behind their heads, automatic weapons trained on their hearts. It's worth noting that these guys were dressed like any other young machos around here, not in djellabas with knit caps, and were clean shaven.

But I was of no interest to them, so I went home and made my sandwich.

It wasn't until later that I found out what had happened. The BBC reported that a member of the notorious gang of international jewel thieves, the Pink Panthers, had been arrested in Montpellier.

How close to my house was this? Well, if I could walk out the open window in front of me and continue for about 20 feet, I'd be at the window of the apartment vacated yesterday by a young Argentinian couple in the building on the corner of my street and the one where our alleged Panther was living. (It wasn't them, despite the coincidence: they really are Argentinian, right down to drinking yerba maté with the traditional straw and blasting tango music.) Unfortunately, it wasn't M. Gnaaagh Gnaagh, either; he was raving and fighting with his girlfriend last night, as usual. (Of course, if I were trying to hide out, I doubt I'd annoy the neighbors by throwing plates of food and packages of ham out the window, having loud fights with my girlfriend, and threatening to jump, either. The trick is to remain inconspicuous.)

I was actually glad to see all of this, though. I like to think that, as a former newspaper reporter and someone who's spent his life practicing journalism I observe what's around me. The wealth of detail above is perhaps a defensive reaction to this. Because, you see, a couple of weeks ago something happened that I still don't believe I missed.

There are, at either end of my block two bars where students (and, I guess others) go to drink. They drink a lot: these places cater to binge-drinking (or, as the Académie Francaise has ordered in the past couple of weeks, buvand express). One is a rather overdecorated French-themed place, with antiques and a huge plastic cow in the street, the other pretends to be a Spanish place, with light eats and, when it opened, flamenco. The noise coming from these places, because they're right in the street and nobody goes inside except in the winter and when it's raining, is unbearable. Fortunately my apartment doesn't face the street, so I only get a bit of it.

But imagine my surprise one day when I left the house and saw people at the Spanish place piling charred stuff in the street, blackened and covered with that greyish mist that comes from being sprayed with hoses. The inside of the place was a mess. It had been a serious fire, although my guess was it happened late enough that the bar was closed. It hadn't quite gutted the place, but it did take them the better part of a week to get it open again.

And I'd slept through the whole thing.

* * *

Once again, it's time for Montpellier's guitar festival, Les Internationales, which seems to have dropped "de la Guitare" this year. With a tired lineup like this (go check it out), I seriously would not have chosen a promotional graphic like this. 

Although who knows? Maybe France has made the truth-in-packaging laws stronger this year. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

When An Anniversary Is A Milestone

I had a pretty great day yesterday. My old friend Judy (well, she's not that old) and her new husband Lou (again, not that new, nor are they that newly wed) came to town and I showed them around and then we had dinner. Judy and I hadn't seen each other in at least a decade, and in the intervening time not only had she remarried (her first husband was a guy I'd helped get started as a journalist and almost did a book with once, and he's now something of a superstar, not that he talks to me any more) but three years ago she and Lou had gotten parallel jobs in France, in Nantes, to be exact, way up north where the Loire flows into the Atlantic, a place I've been meaning to visit since they got there. Now they were in their car, exploring bits of France they hadn't seen yet, and Montpellier was on the list.

After we caught up with each other and with old friends, the talk turned to what they were going to do next. Probably, sometime in the next year, before their fourth anniversary in France was over, they'd go back to the States, because after five years, your legal status here changes and even if you're working for a French company, as Lou is (Judy's teaching marketing, in which she has a PhD), the taxes you pay increase significantly and various other things change, too, not necessarily to your benefit. So they were resigned to going back to Washington DC.

"The thing is, there are so many things we've gotten used to here," Lou said as we dawdled over dessert, "that it's going to be hard getting used to the U.S. again."

Tell me about it.

Today, August 12, is the day I almost invariably write a blog post about arriving at Berlin-Tegel Airport with all my stuff, ready to move into the grey building with the red awning

just off this corner

in Berlin. That was in 1993, and yes, it was twenty years ago.

Lou and Judy and I talked about the learning curve. They had the benefit of a professional relocation service, and I only had friends who had a limited time to help and only a dim idea of what I was finding so odd. Of course the stores are supposed to stay open untiil 7, but everyone knows they close at 6. No, they close at 2 on Saturdays, but that really means 1. And there's Long Saturday, when they stay open until 4, and some really do, but mostly they close at 3. That comes once a month and you're supposed to know when it is. What, you didn't know you can buy a half-loaf of bread at the bakery so it doesn't go bad? And that was just Germany; there were other things to learn about France, not least that a lot of restaurants are closed on Sunday, a lot of other places are closed on Monday, and a lot of places in general are closed for most of August.

But eventually they, and I, learned to get in the groove. Not all of it was comfortable, and it still isn't. But there are other areas of comfort that we never enjoy in the U.S., like the fact that we occupied a table for three hours sipping wine and slowly enjoying our meal without our waitress coming up to us and asking if everything was okay and if she could get us anything else. Hell, it was hard enough to get her attention when we wanted it. Not that we were complaining.

We had all, I believe, turned into beings that I call American-Europeans. The term is based on terms like Italian-Americans: if you are among them, as I was, growing up, you think of them as Italians, because they spoke Italian among themselves and ate Italian food, but if you go to Italy, you'll appreciate how much American is in them. Among other things, their cooking, adapted for a world where some things were, initially, just not available, is subtly different. We identify as Americans, and our hosts also identify us that way. But we've adapted to things that aren't like they were in our previous country. I mentioned that, on my trips to the States where I drive a car and fly there in a jet, I'm still maintaining a carbon footprint way smaller than most Americans because the rest of the year I take the train (for long distance travel), public transportation (to get to the more farflung parts of town), or walk (what's the damn hurry?). Most places in America -- Austin, Texas, for instance, where I go each year -- you can't do that.

The other day, poking around in my computer, I found a stash of photographs I'd thought long lost. I have no idea how they managed to survive the crash of my hard disc in 2007, and to be honest a whole bunch of pictures were, in fact, lost there. But these date from 2005, which may be when I got my first digital camera. There are a lot of photos of my old neighborhood, like the two above, and these:

There were four of these bears on this bridge over the Spree River near my first Berlin apartment.

The bridge over the Spree near my house that I'd cross several times a day to use the subway.

In the Tiergarten, Berlin's Central Park, one end of which was two blocks from my place, there was a sculpture group of WWI German generals, Roon, Moltke, and Hindenburg in the center. Roon here was rumored to wear women's panties into battle -- and that was the least of it.
There was more: there was a picture of a woman I dated on and off (mostly off) for seven years who was finally forced to retire from her job teaching art and English to first graders (and there's another thing they don't do in the US: teach foreign languages to young kids) after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, which, I realized after looking at the picture at the right size for the first time, clearly burns in her lovely blue eyes. My only question was what took them so long, since, unlike me, they were in daily contact with her. There were pictures of the parking lot behind my third apartment, covered with a sudden snow. There were pictures of my first trip to Languedoc, when we drove to Montpellier in her Smart and then drove out each day for the five days we were here, destination unknown. And there are just a few from the graffiti walks I'd take to check out the street art and hope to come upon a Nike, naive paintings of female nudes in oil on board posted by a very mysterious artist nobody seemed to know anything about.

Didn't have to go far for this one: it was across the street from me.
After I moved here, she was revealed to be a 70-something-year-old Danish woman who had switched to yarn-bombing. Recently, though, a friend found a new painting of hers in the subway. The legend continues.

Sorry for going all awash in nostalgia here, but I was as surprised as I could be to find these. There are  more, but I'll spare you. One shows me and Bob Marley, shot on the Wailers' first tour of America by a photographer friend who had been in the Peace Corps in Jamaica in the '60s and helped me discover reggae and write some of the first articles to appear in the US on the topic. And, of course, packed away where I actually know where they are, I have my pictures from here, many of which have appeared on this blog over the last 4 1/2 years, as well as others from my last blog in Berlin.

I've spent a third of my life in Europe now, and if there is such a thing as an American-European -- and I know there is -- I've become one. But change is coming: for a variety of reasons I don't want to stay in France any longer than I have to. Some of this is, of course, life in The Slum, where, I discovered last night, I pay almost as much as Lou and Judy do for nearly 2 1/2 times the space in Nantes. That's not cost-effective. Some if it is due to the reason why I talked their ears off, which had far more to do with the pervasive loneliness that's been gathering here in Montpellier -- to the point where I can't tolerate it much longer -- than it has to do with the amount of time Judy and I have known each other.

So even before this anniversary/milestone trundled into view, I'd started formulating a plan. Some of you -- the ones who actually know me personally -- have some idea what I'm talking about. For the rest of you, please hold on. There will be an announcement here sometime in the next three months, I estimate. Meanwhile, I have some short-term goals: to go to Paris to see the Roy Lichtenstein show, to go to Nantes to visit Lou and Judy before they split, to go to Marseillan to tour the Noilly Prat factory, and to go back to Barcelona at least once, and maybe twice, more. And, well, who knows what else?

There'll be no shortage of material here as long as I can do those things, believe me. I mean, after twenty years, there's still tons of stuff I haven't seen and done. Don't go away.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Vacation (Not Much Of A)

The day started, as they sometimes do, with a (strawberry-flavored) East German condom and a bottle of vinegar. They were waiting for me next to the bathroom sink as a reminder. I was up at 5am, so I kind of needed reminders. And, since I'd be gone for the better part of three days, it was a perfect opportunity. Ahead of me, I knew, was a glimpse of God, and, unknown to me, remaining eggs and a gigantic bikini.

But first things first. It's good to know engineers. Over the past few days, I'd cleared the spigots in my house -- the kitchen one and the shower-head -- of the lime that accumulates in our hard water. The one that had eluded me was the bathroom sink, whose spigot is raised just enough that getting a glass full of vinegar up to it was impossible. An engineer friend had suggested filling a condom with vinegar and slipping it on -- a perfect fit. The first time I'd done this I'd returned to find a white sediment in the bottom of the condom, the lime in the screen dissolved. But now, the water was going everywhere again (including onto my pants, which was embarrassing) and, since it takes a while and I use the bathroom sink a lot, this was the perfect time to do it.

Although, to be honest, 5:30am isn't otherwise perfect. Still, I had a 7:28 train to catch to Barcelona. To be honest, I didn't want to do this. A couple of friends from Texas had been going on a blitzkrieg European trip, and were going to Barcelona and then Avignon. Their travel agent had told them that a stop in Montpellier, located smack in the middle of the line between those two places, was impossible. So, although I really couldn't afford it, I booked a trip. Boy, is it hard to find a hotel room in Barcelona at the height of the tourist season! But I did.

Then they cancelled. Something had happened at home, tell you about it later, they said. So I was stuck with a non-refundable (first-class senior special) rail ticket and a non-refundable (expensive) hotel room. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. I withdrew all the money I had in the bank, €80, and hit the road.

Montpellier has totally revamped its railroad station in little over a month, since the last time I was there.  Not only was it 7 in the morning, but I had to find my way around anew. But I managed, found the train, found the seat, and I was off. I know exactly three people in Barcelona, and two of them hadn't replied to e-mails. The third was a woman who's just bought an apartment and is going to get rid of the huge one she's in right now. I've been fantasizing renting it when she leaves, although that's a ways off. That's okay: so is the money to arrange the move. She, at least, was around, albeit for only a short while. But she could see me on Tuesday.

And she did. I got to the hotel, and there she was. Her name is Rachel, and she does stand-up comedy and other theatrical work in Spanish. Also a blog that's very entertaining. She's been there a while, knows people, and is well-integrated into the place. I, not having had breakfast, was ravenous, and we repaired across the street to a place I'd heard about, Ciutat Comtal, a choice of which she approved. Their menu is weird: the English menu is, as she noted a lot now are, the product of Google Translate. How else was I to make sense of a place I passed the next morning which was offering "bacon, eggs, remaining eggs" as a single offering on its English menu in the street?

We didn't get anything spectacular. Padrone peppers, green asparagus (I'd OD'd on this during this past spring, so she got it all), anchovies (which came with one of those great green Spanish olives the size of my thumb knuckle), a steak sandwich thing that didn't really do much for me, in part due to the poor condition of my teeth.

Refreshed, we walked to her apartment so I could see it. It's over twice the size of this one, has a wonderful kitchen, a luxurious bathroom and a smaller, less luxurious one, a huge balcony, numerous rooms, and, being on the top floor, no Mme Merde upstairs. The building has only one flat per floor, which is somewhat typical of the neighborhood, the Eixample, that it's in. On the downside, being on the top floor makes it hot, and cross-ventilation by opening the windows in the front rooms isn't possible because it's on a huge main street with 24-hour traffic. But it's central. Boy, is it central. We took a walk after looking at the place and she pointed me to some wonderful places and generally oriented me to the surroundings before heading off for a doctor's appointment.

One thing Rachel hipped me to was the amazing amount of what she called "modernism" and I called Art Nouveau that just hangs around Barcelona. Her neighborhood is well off the beaten track for tourists, but there's a lot to see for architecture aficionados, including a "Modernism Museum" that's on my list for next time.

Not the entry to Rachel's building, but a random place on the walk back to the hotel.

Soon enough, it was dinner time and there was no question where I was going. Money was definitely an issue, but a place Rachel had pointed out had a €19 menu. She had also raved about it considerably. I found out why.

El Nou de Granados (because it's at Enric Granados 9) is one of those places that has grand ambitions. It also has Google Translate. To make up for that, it has a genius chef and wonderful service. And great food. Here's what I mean. Earlier, I had spotted a weird tapa at Ciutat Comtal that I'd never seen before, which seemed to be fried eggs on top of a mound of fries with something red. Suspecting that that's what was being offered here, I ordered it: ous estrellats. Here's what I got:

The finely-shredded potatoes were on top of the eggs, but the red stuff was missing. Instead, that brown thing hanging out there turned out to be an intensely-flavored mushroom, a number of which formed the bed for this dish. I wondered if they applied this sort of re-thinking to their tapas menu, which I'd forgotten to look at. No matter: there were two more courses.

Now, in Berlin, there's a thing called Eisbein: pig's trotter, usually boiled. It's about 90% fat, which is why it's weird to pay so little for such a huge hunk of pig, but once you cut into it, you find that there's only a little meat there. So what these folks have done is to take a pig's trotter and fashion it into what the menu calls a terrina, ie, they've pasted bits of it together and put it in a meat-loaf pan and baked it. Then they've reduced the hell out of the juices and added a pinch of this and that and put some over the meat. It was incredible.

Again, the base was mushrooms, this time the local delights called girgolas, which I noted last fall when returning from California. By this point I was kind of levitating.

Now, I generally don't eat dessert. I'm just not a big sugar fan, and too often desserts are sugar bombs -- which is what a lot of people want out of them. But this came with the menu, and I actually saw something that intrigued me: lemon sorbet with...gin-and-tonic jelly. Okay, bring it on.

The matchsticked lemon peel was the perfect foil to the not-quite-sweet sorbet and the absolutely perfect gin and tonic jelly. Although I later discovered that the g&t might have been courtesy of Nigella Lawson, I still think the combo was genius. And the bill for all of this, including two beers -- I was going for broke, literally, here -- was a whopping €24.00. (There's a 15% surcharge for outdoor dining). It was one of the best meals I've had all year, seriously, and there's no way I'll go back to Barcelona and not go to this place.

I got back to the hotel and discovered my Internet connection had run out. It was the "free" one offered by Swisscom, the Swiss national telecom, which I chose because I couldn't afford €20 for 24 hours of unlimited use and, when I had been able to afford it, it was no faster than dialup -- when it worked at all. This way, I had all the inconvenience with none of the charge, and a huge 100mb up, 100mb down allowance to play with. Which had lasted six hours.

Thus, I was happy that Rachel had pointed out a Starbucks a couple of blocks from my hotel, where, for the €6 a muffin and a huge cup of coffee cost me, I had 45 minutes of actual speedy use and was able to transact a bit of business. It was on this walk that I noted the "remaining eggs" as well as this, which may be of use to some of you:

How the word bikini got to mean grilled-cheese sandwich I cannot say. It became the name of a bathing suit because Bikini Atoll was a nuclear test site in the '50s, and a bathing suit like that was like seeing an atomic bomb at the beach. But there you are.

After breakfast I went onto the roof to scope out the pool. The hotel is really tall, and the roof is a great place to integrate your geographical knowledge of Barcelona. It was also, with this many tourists in town, as close as I wanted to get to the Sagrada Familia.

No idea what the building in the foreground is. From the roof you can also see the harbor, a place I have yet to look at (or, needless to say, eat at).

I totally did not see that cruise ship there when I took the picture! I was trying to get the container ship in there and was looking at that.
It's also a place to stare at some of the fantastic architecture in the neighborhood.

But it was getting warmer, and I had a plan for at least part of the day: to head to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and finish the look at their collection that I hadn't done on my previous visit. I also wanted to see the Miró Foundation, but finances were tight and I knew that I could get into MNAC as a senior citizen (which, I later discovered, I'm not, yet). I could try Miró later in the afternoon.

As if. MNAC is huge. Last time I'd had sensory overload in the middle of the Gothic/Renaissance galleries, which was actually okay, because I'd managed to see the stuff I'd been seeing reproductions of for my whole life -- and more. But I'd also photographed a lot of it and made a slideshow of that folder my computer wallpaper, so now I was familiar with a lot of it. Still, I shot a lot more for future reference.

Late Medieval/early Renaissance goat-crossing highway sign. 

As Robert Hughes had warned me, there's a distinct fall-off after the Baroque era, especially towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when it seemed like the purpose of a lot of the art was to get the artists' girlfriends to take off their clothes. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it doesn't necessarily make for great art. More amusing is the idiosyncratic painter who daubed a bunch of happy drunks in a local wine-cellar where artists and writers and such used to gather.

Leaving the MNAC is easier than getting there: there are escalators about 3/4 of the way up the mountain, but those last 200 or so steps have to be done by foot, which means that this is probably the least-accessible museum on earth. (There are, however, wheelchair lifts, so there must be another way in). As I left, I realized that the afternoon had progressed nicely, and found my way back to the hotel, where I took a siesta and turned my computer back on. There was an e-mail that a kind reader of this blog had spontaneously donated $50, so, if PayPal was quick enough, I might yet have a tiny bit left for shopping the next day; it was silly to come all this way and not have enough for chicken broth, that elixir and useful item that's not available here in France, but is, in a commendably well-made product, in Spain.

At the hotel, I napped and mooched around, waiting for dinner. I wasn't quite sure what I'd do, frankly. And what I wound up doing wasn't very smart. For years, I've noticed this; the blood sugar gets low and I do, well, just anything. And what I did was go back to another fine restaurant I'd discovered that, as my memory told me, was not that expensive: Matamala. I remembered, too, that they'd had tapas, which would be less expensive than the regular meals. Which, considering what happened next, was a dumb decision.

I ordered salt-cod croquettes,

which were delicious little bombs of fishy goodness, and anchovies,

which turned out to be two filets -- ie, one fish -- with a blob of balsamic, a halved cherry tomato and two of the smallest olives I've ever seen in Spain (tasty, though), all for €4.50, and something called torrada amb escalivada, three slices of bread with, from left to right, sliced cooked mild (too mild: I couldn't actually taste them) onions crossed with another anchovy fillet, superb tuna and roasted peppers, and tasty grilled, mashed eggplant crossed with another blob of balsamic.

Yum. I was ready for dinner. Except...that was dinner. "Don't you want to order more?" the waiter asked. Well, yeah, I did. But if I were going to have breakfast the next morning before heading to the train, and if the PayPal money didn't arrive in my bank account, I couldn't.

Although I maintain that they owe me at least one more anchovy, and that €24.30 was a bit rich (there was a beer: you can't have tapas without some kind of alcohol nearby), I still like Matamala. They seemed like a different restaurant in tourist season, though, with a guy out front urging you in like all the other restaurants in that area. Their no-nonsense organic, locally-sourced, Slow Food approach is great. I'll be back, but not in high season.

The next morning I woke up, quickly started the computer, went to the bank website and hooray! The money had arrived. I could withdraw €50 and have lunch and shop and have money when I got home, which was good because there was zero food in the house. Just as I logged off the bank website, the cheapo Swisscom connection was cut. Whew. Off to Starbucks, then back to check out of the hotel. The train wasn't until 4:30, so I had several hours to kill. First, I started checking out the neighborhood again. Rachel had pointed out a place that, she said, had the best ham in Spain. That's a mighty big statement; Spanish ham is like nothing else. If you've ever had really good Smithfield ham from an artisinal producer in the American South, you're getting close. I went in to see what the vacuum-packed slices were going for and the guy carved me a slice from one leg. "This is from the South, very intensely-flavored," he said. It was mind-blowing. "This one is from the North, and is quite a bit lighter." He was right, but it had other virtues, a nuttiness that was present, but more subdued, in the first sliver. He handed me a brochure, and I made a note to come back when I had some money. I also noted they have a Japanese website: the Japanese tourists who come to Barcelona may be annoying, but they're also fabulously wealthy. I can imagine that it costs a bit to ship a €514.50 ham to Japan.

I wandered and looked, and tried to stay away from the tourists, but dammit, the taste of that ham stayed with me and it was time to go back to Ciutat Comtal for a second breakfast. I'd order that eggs-and-fries mess. Which, there, turned out to be called huevos estrellados. The red stuff? Flakes of Iberian ham, fried until crisp and scattered over the dish. Only €5.95, too.

And, lingering at that table, watching the tourists go by, I realized it was time to end this non-vacation. My friends had told me that I needed to get away from The Slum, and they were right. I wanted air conditioning, silent nights, a dip in the pool, and there they were. I wanted good food, and I got that. But every single moment I was there I worried about money, wished I had my €420 back, wondered when a bill I'd submitted was going to get paid. Vacations should be longer and more stress-free. But there was nothing else to do, so I did it. I'm glad I did, although now it appears my phone's going to be turned off sometime soon. Maybe not. At the moment there's nothing I can do, so, as I'm fond of saying, I live like the alcoholics, a day at a time.

Oh, and the condom? Cleared that spray problem up just fine, although this time the residue was green and there was very little vinegar left. No idea what that's about. But it's nice to have a working sink again.

Site Meter