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. 


  1. I doubt you'll have that last experience in Austin.

  2. Jesus christ. I know three French assholes doesn't make a culture (and I have French friends in New York who would be embarrassed at those three), but those three (well, two assholes and one arrogant unhelpfulnik -- the hotel proprietor) were so, well, what we sometimes think of as stereotypically French....

  3. Safe travels. Thanks for the last few restaurant reviews. I've made a list of all the restaurants you mentioned in your posts and will try to look them up when I move to Montpellier next year. Well, just the ones you spoke well of.

  4. "That's it for France for a while." Wow. That's quite a send-off. Clearly you were through with the place and primed to go.

  5. I am a bit surprised that you did not have a Carte Bleue during 5 years in Montpelier. Is it because it costs 7 euros per month, or because of the question of where your tax base is domiciled. I know if you get Social Security payments in France, this must accord with Tax Reconciliation Act, I suppose it might just be easier to forgo the tax benefits for U.S. citizens living abroad, and not get into a discussion with the Fisc.


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