Saturday, November 30, 2013


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, 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., 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


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. 
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