Monday, June 13, 2005

Tour Notes #4: Bourges And Beyond

June 1-4

From Strasbourg, we had a challenging drive to get to Bourges. One of the big problems with France is that it's so damn Paris-centric. Paris, for instance, is the center of the whole rail system, unlike in Germany, where there are regional hubs like Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne, and Hannover. In France, to get from A to B, no matter where A and B are, you go through Paris if you're using the fast trains. This is particularly annoying to Strasbourgians, who manufacture the TGV trains just outside of town, but won't get a TGV line until 2007, making it hard to get anywhere from Strasbourg.

We got to see the factory early the next morning, in fact, because we were using Mappy, which seems at first glance, to be an extraordinary service: door-to-door driving (or walking!) directions throughout Europe. Most of the time, it functions well, but you'd be strongly advised to check anything it tells you to do against a map, as Carl found out in Montreuil, when, walking around where we were, he noticed that Mappy was sending us down one-way streets the wrong way. On the whole, it works well, but there are bugs, as we discovered.

Once we got turned around, we had a really uneventful time for several hours. I was exhausted: the tension from losing my passport and driving around Strasbourg, which is not made for driving in (not that that stops anyone), had wrecked me, and I let Carl take the first shift. Gradually, we grew closer to the Cote d'Or, where the road signs read like a trip through the higher-priced section of an upscale wine store: Nuits-St.-Georges, Chablis, Chateauneuf (although not de Pape, which is elsewhere). All the great names of red and white Burgundy. Past Beaune, we climbed into the hills, and castles and monasteries began to appear on the hilltops. This part was all done at freeway speed, and lunch at a freeway stop was memorably bad.

After lunch, though, Mappy had us get off the freeway, and at that point, things got really interesting as we threaded our way through mind-blowingly picturesque French countryside, the Mourvan, a district of Burgundy which informed the cooking at my favorite restaurant in Dijon, Coum' Chez Eux, which I see is now gone, dammit. Anyway, we turned off the freeway at Avallon, and quickly hit Vézelay, which might have been created by the French Tourist Board, having been a fairly important settlement back in the 1100s and seemingly untouched since then, except for the cars. Mappy insisted -- and I saw no alternative -- that we follow the Tonne River to Clamecy, and then get on a two-lane road all the way to Charité-sur-Loire and thence straight into Bourges.

Bourges itself is pretty colorful, dominated by a gigantic cathedral and with plenty of buildings from every epoch of its history. We were originally going to stay in a hotel by the railroad station with the appealing name Arcane Hotel, but our hosts looked at the advanced sales and put us in a very strange apartment which looked like a combination of a dormitory and a jail (albeit one with lace curtains depicting clowns), with metal bunk beds in all the rooms and huge locks on their doors. But it was better located than the Arcane, a five-minute walk from the gig at the School of Fine and Applied Art, which itself is a former convent. The promoters were nice folks, who had a sort of collective endeavor in a former factory on the outskirts of town which included an exhibition space, currently hosting a Michael Snow piece, a circus school, a print works, and who nows what else. Clearly idealists, they had forgotten to note that the date they'd booked Carl and the ladies for was right in the middle of exam week, thereby guaranteeing that despite free admission for the art students, nobody would come. (They also listed Min Xiao-Fen as being from Japan, which didn't please her much, needless to say). In fact, most of the audience seemed to be members of the collective, although they mostly enjoyed the show.

Still, there were two sets, with a solo from each person, followed by a performance of Lauburu, which I thought went very well. Afterwards we trooped out to the factory for dinner. I'd joked with Carl that there were two possibilities here: either there were a couple of gay boys out there sorry to miss the show but working their tails off on some fantastic local cuisine, or we were going to enjoy that old standby of jokes on the Well, Hearty Lesbian Sludge. I asked him if he'd ever seen The Young Ones, the legendary BBC comedy show, with Neil The Hippie constantly cooking lentils, but he'd never heard of it. I still managed to give him a good enough idea that the expression on his face when he walked into the communal dining room and saw a huge bowl of lentils there was worth photographing. Not that I did. The sincerity went into the cooking, which was nearly tasteless, but plentiful. I socked back some wine, and we all went to see the Michael Snow installation, which was fun, but we all pled exhaustion (not that it was too hard) and went back to the clown jail and crashed.

The next day, we split up. We had a day off, and the idea was to go back to Paris, but we'd been warned that there would probably be a 24-hour warning strike by the rail workers, so we decided to stay in cheap, pretty Bourges if we could score another day at the apartment and just hang out. Carl, though, had to drive to Aix-en-Provence, where there was sure to be good food (there was), and a conference of some sort where he was appearing on a panel. Thus, I had to show the ladies Bourges, see if we could score tickets for the next day, and chill some. We got to stay at the apartment, which was good, and after breakfast, I set out to orient the ladies, who mostly wanted to shop. Since the Cathedral was the obvious way to orient yourself, being on a hilltop with two main roads running from it, I took them there to demonstrate that, and we lucked out by hitting it at noon, when the justifiably-famous stained glass windows from the 12th Century were all algow in the brilliant summer sunshine. (It was also cool in there: Bourges was in the middle of a heat wave, which wasn't entirely a bad thing).

Once I had them sorted out, I wandered around the streets of the tourist district, and found the covered market, which wasn't open. We'd agreed to meet back at the apartment in mid-afternoon, but I got back early, having done some shopping of my own, which included an industrial-strength French dictionary, something I'd been looking for for years, and a wireless mouse to use with my laptop, because I just can't get the hang of the trackpad.

That evening, we dined outdoors, which was nice, at a restaurant where the waiter was absolutely intolerant of two Oriental females wanting soup (in the summer? I tried to explain, but...) and not being familiar with French cuisine. I'd have disliked him more if the food hadn't been good, but it was, and if he hadn't forgotten to charge me for the bottle of Sancerre I drank (except for the bit Yumiko drizzled on the black cherry sorbet I'd ordered for dessert: gal's a born improvisor, I tell ya). In fact, I think he pushed a bunch of wrong buttons on the computer, he was so eager to get rid of us. And this also reminded me that the memory of the food one eats can be altered by the circumstances: I think of this as a bad meal, because of all the tension this guy generated at our table, but if I remember just the amazing foie gras paté and rabbit dish I had, it's another matter entirely.

The next day we caught a train to Paris, where we hogged most of a compartment with our instruments and luggage, although a lanky Malian guy and a chubby Malian woman (who didn't know each other until sitting down) squeezed in. The guy was really friendly, wondering what we were all doing, and very happy to hear that he was among musicians. Outside the window, the heat wave dissipated into drizzle, though, and I have to say the countryside we passed through didn't look so hot, either. We reached the Gare d'Austerlitz after what had obviously been a hard shower, and waited 30 minutes for a cab to show up, weirdly enough. I'd have thought there'd be a huge line of them.

Back in Montreuil, back at the Instances Chavirés, it felt like old home week. The ladies were going to do solos and improvised duets, and there was also the duo of a French guy playing hurdy-gurdy and a Japanese guitarist. Fortunately, the ladies opted to open the show. I say fortuntely because the hurdy-gurdy guy was awful, and the Japanese guy wound up doing a solo set after their duet and played ear-searingly loud guitar. We finally got out of there at about midnight, and headed back to say our good-byes. Yumiko was off to the airport at 7am, I was off to the Gare du Nord at 9:30, and Xiao-Fen had a day off, which didn't please her much. I hope she found something to do.

Riding back to Berlin on the train, I realized that, with all the madness and frustration and boredom and heat and wet, it had been a fantastic week, and that I enjoyed being in France a lot more than I did Germany. People's body language is just different somehow, and as Germans began to get on the train, they were obvious from the second I saw them. There was a stiffness, and an air of tentativeness to their demeanor, although there was aggression there, too. I don't have any illusions about not cursing out the French after a few days' living there, but I think their faults may well be more in line with mine. At any rate, I'm trying like hell to get some work going now. I want to go back and stay.

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