Sunday, July 31, 2005

Food P.S.

I just realized last night that I failed to post much about the food we ate, and just concentrated on the wines, with the exception of one not-so-good meal in Montpellier, and, of course, the mouthful of rocks in Béziers. Thus, a couple of recommendations to those headed down that way:

Le Bistro d'Alco, 4, rue Bonnier-d'Alco (phone: 04 67 63 12 89). First visited this place on the January trip, and found it welcoming and solid, with, as usual, a fine affordable wine-list. There's a €13 menu for dinner, and the house charcuterie is excellent. Otherwise, standard fare -- beef, fish -- in season. Nice staff, big upstairs for parties.

Restaurant la Coquille, 1 Plan du Palais (phone: 04 67 60 47 97). There's a Provençal restaurant in Montpellier I've been to four times, only to find the owner giving one excuse or another for not cooking on the day I showed up. He's got superb taste in the town's other restaurants though, and he steered us to this one. Not a seafood restaurant per se -- it's named after a weird architectural feature of the house next door, which you can look at while you dine outdoors -- it has a couscous royale I've got to try some day, a rare and wonderful wine, Marcousse Vitorez, on the list, and an excellent lamb confit made with olive oil.

Chez Doume, 5, rue Teissiers (phone 04 67 60 48 76). Been here twice, once in January (recommendation of the guy at the Provençal place) and once after a concerted effort to find it for our last dinner in town. Another €13 menu, and I seem to remember remarking the first time that there seemed to be a bit of a Spanish influence to the cooking, which wasn't evident this time around. Unlike many (even fancy) places, they use real potatoes in their pommes frites, everything is fresh, the wine list is superb, and despite the fact that this whole block is a sort of tourist scene in the summer, lots and lots of locals eat here.

La Calanque, 17, quai Général Durand, Quai de la Marine, Sète (phone: 04 67 74 28 37). Getcher boatload o' seafood here! And, from the looks of what the folks at the next table were devouring, lots of other excellent choices. Definitely one of the better places on the main drag in Sète.

Fink' Stuebel, 26, rue Finkwiller, Strasbourg (phone: 03 88 25 07 57). This place isn't exactly a secret, but it has the distinct advantage of being outside the tourist ambit (although all you have to do is cross the street and you're back in it). It serves a foie gras so legendary that Carl Stone named a composition after the restaurant after eating there, and I had an "onion tart," which was like a quiche and a brioche stuffed with pork and foie gras that was heavenly, and K had the famous choucroute, all as noted in the post two days ago. More expensive than the others listed here, but well worth it.

One last food anecdote. On the way down, we stopped at an Autobahn rest stop to fuel up and have lunch. The restaurant was called Bambusgarten, which I knew portended an "Asia" place (which I'll have more to say about soon), serving some sort of fake sorta-Chinese-sorta-Thai stuff. But they also, it turned out, had a regular old German menu. We had to sit outside, because apparently on Sundays it's a magnet for the local old ladies: there were tables full of them inside. It was hot, and I ordered a Coke so that the caffeine would take effect by the time it was time to drive. I also ordered a salad with "ham rolls" while K had a bowl of "Asia" soup. (Soup when it's 90 degrees outside? Germans are weird.) Anyway, a basket of what Germans call baguette appeared, and then along came our lunch. The salad had three really thick pieces of boiled ham rolled up lying on a bed of lettuce covered with a white dressing. I took a bite of baguette to get the Coke taste out of my mouth and then took a forkful of lettuce. The dressing was exactly as sweet as the Coke was. Later, in Montpellier, I had a pasta salad for lunch, farfalle with sun dried tomatoes and other stuff, which also had a mayonnaise dressing. It was unctuous, with a mustardy snap to it. Somebody tell the Germans: considering how much "mayonnaise" is consumed here, they really ought to try it some day.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

France, Part Four (And Final): Montpellier Itself

The real purpose of this trip, wandering the romantic hills notwithstanding, was to see Montpellier again and see if I could get a more realistic impression of what it'd be like to live there. I'm not quite sure how I expected to do this, but certainly seeing other neighborhoods than the historic center (where I admit I still would prefer to live), checking out rental prices and coordinating them against the neighborhoods they are in, and looking for goods and services was a part of it.

The first thing we did was hit the new tourist information center at one edge of the Comédie square and pick up the tourist map (which is downloadable as a PDF file here (get the "Grand Plan Touristique"). That gave me some inspiration for wandering, but I must admit I was seduced first by the amazing Biennale of Contemporary Chinese Art, which is spread across a number of venues in the city. I really wish I'd taken notes, but since this was a spur-of-the-moment decision, I didn't bring along anything to write with, and I'm afraid the names of the individual artists blurred together in my head. (I blame, among other things, the heat.) I firmly agreed, though, with the jury's choice for first place, an astonishing installation telling a complex story in impressionistic form through dozens of video screens and thousands of photographs pasted on every surface of the room. We stayed there looking at it for at least 20 minutes. The sheer breadth of approaches was breathtaking, and it was extremely gratifying to find such a world-class show in what I'd been told over and over was a provincial city. If you're anywhere in the neighborhood before this closes on October 2, it's worth the afternoon.

I also poked into some neighborhoods in the center I hadn't seen before, and got a better idea of where the tram-line they're putting in runs, got a sense of what happens at night, and generally stuck my nose here and there. No great revelations, but a growing sense that yes, there are limits to what's there, and no, I'm not overly bothered by that at the moment. At least there seem to be resources there, and the overwhelming feeling of poverty that hangs over Berlin is missing. I also ran into the possibility of a project I could get involved with immediately, but I share the actor's superstition (telling your friends you auditioned for Hamlet and think you got the part is the surest way for the director to lose your phone number) about talking too soon, and so all I can say is, watch this spot.

But between the markets, the easy-going atmosphere, the incessant sunshine (300 days a year, says the propaganda), and watching the body language of the people around me -- so much more at home in their bodies, it seems to me, than Berliners are -- I became even more convinced that this is a change I need to make.

Many, many problems lie ahead to be solved. One thing the drive convinced me of was that renting a truck and doing it myself (with help from friends, of course) wasn't going to happen. I was just too fried at the end of a day's drive to want to do it in a large, heavy truck with all I own in it. I have no idea how much movers cost here, but I need to find out. I'm going to have to make at least a couple more visits before the move happens, to find an apartment and partially furnish it, to open a bank account and get telephone and electrical service and all.

And this is going to take money. I don't, currently, have that money, although work seems to be picking up, and rumors of work are in the air, even though it's August, but I'm reluctant to sit down and try to add all of this up, because I'm afraid the end figure will scare me. There have been setbacks, too: the proposed sale of my San Francisco poster collection started with a couple of prime ones up on eBay which attracted not a single bid. (Nor did any of the other desirable posters the woman who's handling my stuff put up at the same time get any; she figures it's just a bad time of year). I was hoping to have them sold by now, unfortunately. And I still have to pay for living here, paying my back rent, keeping my bills paid, and putting food on the table. It's not going to be easy, and yet the challenge, and the goal in front of me, is what's keeping me going. I'm going to do this. I have no idea how I'm going to do it, but I am, dammit!

Okay, I'm packing the travel slides now, so you can stop yawning. Next time I post, I'll be back to talking about Berlin. Gotta be here now, like the man said.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

France, Part Three: Surf 'n' Turf

I still had to see Béziers, and I still wanted to buy wine. K wanted to relive her youth on the beach somewhere. The map said it was all possible, so the next morning we headed off to Sète, the harbor that had taken over from Montpellier after Montpellier's had silted up.

It's not a long drive at all, and before long we were parked and wandering around the streets of what was obviously a very popular vacation destination. It was weird to feel all the memories of family vacations on the Jersey shore and Cape Cod arising again, but dang if the souvenirs they sell in Sète aren't pretty much exactly the same as the ones they sold there back then. As we made our way from the actual working port area where we'd parked to the harborside strip of restaurants, a couple of huge fishing boats came in. If the signs on a port-side restaurant were to be believed ("Fresh tuna, 11am on"), they were tuna boats. That would be some fresh fish, but 11 was a ways off.

We made it to the rock wall at one end of town, where tiny scraps of beach have taken hold, and K scrambled down the rocks to dip her feet in the Mediterranean. "Okay," she announced, "that's good enough for now. But we're coming back." I agreed: from what I'd seen on the restaurant strip, I was going to have to eat dinner here. After all, fish and shellfish just don't exist in Berlin.

Back in the car, we headed down the long strip of sand between Sète and Agde -- 20km or so of practically deserted sand, although it was a nice hot day and perfect beach weather, or so I'd have thought. But as we got closer to Agde, I saw how it worked. There, the strip widens some, and there are commercial campgrounds, with cabins. And there were all the people, on the beach. A five-minute walk could have bought them some privacy, but I guess that's not how it works for them.

From Agde, it was another short drive to Béziers, and as we came into town, I noted a large, rounded, red-brick building that looked familiar, not that I'd ever seen it before. But I had seen pictures of bullfight arenas before, and that's what it was: this is an area of France where bullfighting happens, and Nimes is another center of the sport. Maybe this was the source of yesterday's lunch.

We passed a large shady park with lots of cafes on it and decided to eat lunch there. I followed signs to parking by the city's market hall and promptly got lost, since a lot of them had evidently been pulled out for the road construction, which was everywhere. Miraculously, I found the parking lot, which was underground, and parked. We emerged in a cathedral square I hadn't seen on the way in, set off walking, and promptly got lost. The thing is, Béziers isn't really big enough to get terribly lost in, although the heat didn't help much, and sooner or later, we found the square, sat down in a cafe, and ordered lunch. I got what they called a foccacia, which was more like a flour tortilla strewn with salad. It was good -- at least for a while. But something hard hit one of my teeth, and then more and more. I wound up spitting out a mouthful of dirt and rocks, the largest of which rolled off the table onto the ground. K insisted they'd heard us speaking English and assumed we were American and had done it on purpose, but given that I have yet to find a German who can tell a British accent from an American one, I really doubted it. The waiter came over and asked if things were okay, and I said "You really should wash the lettuce before you serve it." He went white and disappeared, then came back offering drinks on the house and, of course, no payment for the so-called foccacia. I declined the drinks and we paid and left. That's just too much terroir for me.

It was only about 1:30, so I checked the map and saw a noted wine town not far away: St. Chinian. Okay, that was the next destination; I was determined to get a tasting. And sure enough, along the road were big signs announcing a tasting room with "produits du terroir" for sale as well. The car wound up and up, into the hills, and both sides of the road had vineyards with signs depicting the labels of the wines the grapes would wind up in. Before long, the views were astonishing: lush valleys below, craggy mountains above. And just before the mountains started, here came St. Chinian.

As we entered the town, one of the first buildings we saw announced that it was a cave cooperative, a place where several winemakers sold their wares. The yellow type on brown background was just the same as the signs we'd been seeing, so I pulled the car up in front of it, only to find it closed. But a sign pointed to the left and said that the operation had moved. The new building looked like a school, hardly a touristy place, and there were only a few cars there, which likely belonged to people working within. I had my doubts, but we parked by the bottling plant (silent today, but then, it wasn't harvest time) and walked in. Well, there were bottles, there were huge stainless-steel tanks offering lesser wines (bring your own container), and there was a chirpy young woman who asked if I wanted a dégustation. "Red, white, or rosé?" she asked, and of course I chose red.

I say "of course," but this is also a part of the world which makes really creditable rosés. For summertime drinking, they have the authority of the reds, but the quaffability of the whites, and I'm quite interested in furthering my knowledge of them. However, my aim was to find some stuff to bring home, so red it was. She laid out six different bottles, and I tasted. One was too perfume-y for my taste, one was just flat, but the other four proved to be excellent to great: Chateau Villepassans, which is oaked (not usual for the area); Fleuron de France, a "cuvée de prestige," whatever that means; Chateau Belleville-Gabelas; and Domaine de Sante-Foi, which I remember as the best. So I got two of each, at a damage of between 3 and 6.70 Euros per bottle. I was astonished at how cheap it was.

I was also astonished once we reached the other endof St. Chinian: the place that had advertised on the road turned out to be over there! So we parked and went in, and it was a total tourist trap: half the number of wines as we'd just seen, at twice the price, and plenty of tourist bric-a-brac to jack up the take per visitor. We didn't even stay for a tasting.

Instead, we started really climbing, through something I see on the map as the Défile de l'Ilouvre, a snaky mountain pass, to the town of St. Pons de Thomières. There, after a slight wrong turn, we headed towards the town of Olargues. Although there are vineyards all through this area, it's all included in the Regional Natural Park of Upper Languedoc, which explains, perhaps, why so much natural beauty continues to exist. The local river, the Orb, is a canoeists' mecca, which means you occasionally have to contend with small trucks loaded with a dozen canoes on a trailer lurching around a mountain curve (a Smart is no competition for one of these, I tell you), but there really didn't seem to be many tourists around.

I actually hadn't intended to stop in Olargues, but the sight of the 13th century bridge connecting the main road with the town was enough for me to want to make the small detour. It really does look like it's from another world:

We parked pretty much where I took this picture, and walked up into the outskirts of the village. There was a little grocery store there, bulging with regional produce, and K bought a bunch of peaches and a small wedge of Cantal cheese. I was hot to go up into the village, but she said she'd just sit in the shade and eat peaches til I got back. So I scrambled up the staircase into the main part of the village and was greeted by an almost untouched medieval village, far more charming -- and far more deserted -- than St. G had been.

It was, however, getting late, and K still had to get her swim in. A few miles past Olargues, a D-road (as in most European countries, the roads are classifed A, B, C, D in order of hwo suited they are for traffic) looked like it would shoot us down to Béziers, after which it would be a short shot over to that beach, which, since it was getting on to 6, would almost certainly be deserted. So we rocketed past more vineyards and farms and pretty soon rolled past Béziers, Agde, and onto the beach.

Now, I hadn't brought a bathing suit, and there's a reason for that: I'm not much on swimming. K thought I was certifiable, but I just sat on a towel and read an International Herald Tribune I'd bought earlier in Sète while she frolicked in the waves and then wandered down the beach picking up shells, after which she lay down and caught some of the vanishing rays, and pronounced herself happy. Which was the point, no?

Then we shook the sand out of everything -- or almost everything -- and drove on to dinner, which was at one of those harbor-side restaurants, and consisted of their dégustation des coquillages, or mixed shellfish raw platter, although the crab and the lobsters were cooked. K, like most Berliners, had never tasted lobster, and pronounced it most edible. I, on the other hand, yearned for the big Maine ones my eccentric aunt used to catch after she and her husband retired up there. But it was good to have oysters, remind myself that cockles have a wonderful nutty taste, and slurp down a couple of clams, dozens of mussels, and a small shoal of shrimp. The whole thing was served on the most ridiculous toy fishing boat imaginable: yes, we were in a tourist town, and no, they weren't going to let us forget it. That's okay: it was so good I could forgive them.

Next: Montpellier itself.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

France, Part Two: Wining Roads

This trip had several purposes to it. The first was to reacquaint myself with Montpellier, but equally important was to check out the countryside around it, since I had a car and the weather was good.

Why do that? Because Montpellier is a small enough city that it can't divorce itself from its surroundings. Thus, the agricultural regions and the smaller cities -- Béziers, Sète, Agde, and so on -- influence the atmosphere there. (For instance, it's beginning to appear that I'll have to go to Béziers to record my Fresh Air pieces, because there doesn't seem to be a satellite-uplinked radio studio in Montpellier).

On another level, too, the way the countryside looks has something to do with the way the city looks, and the history of the region isn't restricted to the big cities, since such small places as Agde (the central administration point in the Greek era) and Aigues-Mortes (from which a Crusade was launched before the harbor silted up and left the city miles from the Mediterranean) played a part.

And also because I didn't want to spend the whole time sniffing around the city. Anyway, I was terrified I'd find a dream apartment, and at the moment I'm months away from being able to even consider the move.

At any rate, on Wednesday, having been informed that Béziers was where I'd likely have to record, I figured a roundabout trip there would be fun, and, having read in one of my guidebooks that St.-Guilhem-le-Désert was a cool little Medieval village, I pointed the Smart up there, figuring to descend into Béziers via Clermont-le-Hérault and St-Saturnin, names I knew from the wine labels I'd scoped out.

Nice plan. Getting there was no problem at all: it's extremely well signposted because every imaginable kind of tour bus and package tour heads there. And it's a nice enough place as long as you keep looking up. Because on the mountain overlooking the village, there's the ruins of a castle -- lord knows how they got up there to build it, let alone hauled the tons of stone up there -- and some further outbuildings. Very impressive:

But if you look in the lower half of that photo, you see why I didn't want to spend too much time in St-Guilhem: cutsey honky-tonk. Nearly every building in the village is selling something, and it's not all local handcrafts and food items, either. Something tells me that if you'd informed the Abbott at the 11th century abbey there a hundred years ago that you'd be able to buy a digideroo in his town, he'd have gone and had you exorcised. (You may well have seen part of this abbey, incidentally, since its cloister forms part of the Cloisters, a division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.)

Anyway, after squeezing out a couple of photos, we ran back to the car and got the hell out of Dodge. The wrong way. And when you leave a town in the mountains the wrong way, you kind of have to stay on the road, because there isn't any place to turn around. Thus it was that we drove alongside the gorges of the Hérault through hillsides occasionally planted with vines, and finally reached a scenic viewpoint, where we dutifully stopped to shoot the Hérault and the astonishing rock formations which barely show up in this photo.

Fortunately, not long after that, we hit a main road and were able to drive to St.-Martin-de-Londres (which has nothing to do with London, but, rather, is derived from an Occitan word for otters, I believe) and, whew, lunch. Which was "steack taurine et frites," the important word of which is "taurine," or bull. It was, actually, more like beef-flavored chewing gum than steak. Fortunately, along this road, there was something I really wanted to see (I'd given up on Béziers, because I had to be back in Montpellier at 6 to wave to everyone on the city's webcam).

Cambous is a tiny village, at one end of which was discovered an extensive prehistoric settlement, which has been partially excavated. This discovery was only made in 1967, which seems odd until you try to visit it and take a really severe hike through the woods over a road of very rough pebbles. In fact, the surrounding countryside is filled with rock, which makes you wonder how much it must have changed since these early Languedocians lived there. It didn't help that it was really hot, either, but the kindly British archaeologist manning the ticket booth had bottles of mineral water for sale, and we took full advantage of that, as well as the English translation of the explanatory materials. Pretty primitive stuff all around, but fascinating.

After that, I had two goals in mind: one, to get back to Montpellier in time to wave to everyone and two, to get some wine. It's maddening being surrounded by vines all day and not knowing what the end-product tastes like. After all, the French have that thing about terroir, the taste of the land, and we'd been in the land for six or seven hours. Finally, just outside of Aniane, I saw a name I recognized, offering tastings and sales. I sent the Smart up a really rough road as K loudly voiced doubts as to whether it'd make it, and finally we pulled up outside a modern-looking building which had a sign saying that this was the place. Then there was the other sign: "We're out in the fields, but can be back within two minutes. Just call this number: " Of course neither of us had our cell phones. Hell, I never took mine out of the hotel room.

Now I was obsessed, and a few minutes later, in Aniane proper, I saw a place offering tastings. It was, I now realize, pretty much of a tourist trap, since all of the wines had the names of tourist attractions: St.-Guilhem-le-Désert, Pont du Diable, and others. But hey, there were vines around all these places, and who could blame the farmers for marketing their product? And the St-G wasn't bad, so I bought a couple of bottles. Still, I resolved not to make this mistake again. Surely there were more serious places to do this, but my unfamiliarity with the countryside and the etiquette involved made it a hit-and-miss procedure.

Anyway, I had my wine, I'd had a great drive, and we had to be back to wave to all the folks. We parked the car, dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and climbed the hill into town, and realized we were early, so we wasted some time and then, precisely at 6, stationed ourselves in full view of the webcam and waved like crazy. This was made much more difficult by the fact that a ballet dancer and her boyfriend had set up just to our right and she was doing what looked to me like warmup exercises while boyfriend's boombox blared Cabaret at distortion levels. I've always hated musicals, but this was even worse because of the volume. We waved for five minutes, and then, hot and exhausted, headed back down the hill for some peace and quiet before dinner. (Turns out the webcam is something of a fake. Nobody I know saw us, although several tuned in at the right time. Apparently, what it does is just play a loop of some sort. We may have shown up, but not at 6pm, as advertised. Apologies to all who wasted bandwidth.)

It was at dinner that I made an important discovery about Languedoc's wine. We decided (pretty much without discussing it) that we did not want to climb that hill again, modest as it was, just to hit a good restaurant. Anyway, there was one just across the Boulevard des Arceaux which said it had local food, so we went there. I have no idea if it isn't good, or whether K's request not to have pommes lyonnaise with her beef, but, rather, pommes frites ticked the owner off (or whether the presence of tourists did, for that matter), but the meal was pretty damn undistinguished. The wine, though, was another matter. He had a huge wine-list, scrupulously annotated, so I spent a good deal of time reading it, because it was pretty educational. Not that it gave me a clue what to order, but it divided the Languedoc up nicely and gave me some ideas where to go on my next expedition tomorrow. I asked the owner to recommend something, he curled his lip, and came back with a bottle from the Abbaye de Valmagne, which turns out to be not too far outside of Montpellier. It's one of the oldest continually-producing wineries in the area, and the wine was a masterpiece of balance: Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache (50/40/10%), spicy, dark, fruity, and six Euros a bottle at the wine store up the hill.

The discovery, which I've been amplifying by reading Patrick Moon's Virgile's Vineyard, an entertaining and almost certainly largely fictitious tale of a year in the Languedoc learning about the growing, tasting, and history of the wines there (if you hate Peter Mayle as much as I do, folks, you'll like this book), is that as long as you pay attention to the label, as long as you deal with the AOC (appelation d'origine controllée) varieties, it's hard to go wrong. The Languedoc produces lots and lots of wine, and much of it is sent off to processors for bleinding into cheap crap, since that's all it's good for. But there's an increasing number of serious young (and old) winemakers there who are going for lower yields and better quality, and achieving great results. Distinguishing among the many sub-areas, telling, say, a St. Chinian from a St. Saturnin, is still beyond me, but there are few unaffordable wines in this huge area, and the quality is remarkably high.

I still hadn't seen the shore, as K kept reminding me (she'd made trips to the beach at Sète as a college student), and I still hadn't gotten to Béziers. But there was still time.

Next: Eating rocks in Béziers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

France, Part One

Besançon isn't France, it's Switzerland. Up until electronics took the fun out of watch-making, it was where France made its watches, and now it's apparently going high-tech. But it's not Germany, either, which was why I drove like a maniac -- to the extent that one can drive a Smart like a maniac -- for eleven hours until we got there.

It being Sunday night, nearly every restaurant in town was closed, but we wandered around for a while and settled on one called Rive Gauche, where the evening's special was some kind of tiny fish, gutted, rolled in flour, and deep-fried whole. K settled for a salad with foie gras and goose confit, not wanting to crunch tiny fish with their eyeballs still in, and who can blame her? They were tasty, though, and went down fine with the Brug white beer they were serving.

The city is basically a knob which is surrounded by the Doubs river, protected by fortifications along the river and a citadel on the hill overlooking the place, and it's made pretty by the native stone, blue and pink limestone, blocks of which alternate in many of the old buildings in the center like the city hall.

Walking around, though, wasn't an option that first night. The hotel had a little sign in the room requesting that you not open the window because of "the environment," which meant the Doubs, and the mosquitoes and gnats that dwell thereon, and they had a point. Also, as we dawdled over a couple of postprandial beers, the heat-lightning stopped being heat-lightning, the wind picked up, we paid the bill, and got treated to a nice light-show on the way back to the hotel. Too bad the storm hit when we were still two blocks away.

I'd been reading that much of western Europe was dry, that French farmers were being asked not to irrigate their crops (but were doing so anyway), and that a crisis loomed (and hit: Spain caught on fire that night), so I figured the storm was a good thing. Maybe so, but it made the next day's drive (after a morning walk through Besançon, photographing and checking it out) a bit perilous, especially as we wound around the grimmer outskirts of Lyon just as the storm hit there and got really hard for about an hour as we continued on. As we turned south, however, the storm stayed behind us, and before long it was hot and dry. Not even climbing into the limestone badlands studded with scrub above Nimes abated the temperature, and naturally we hit Montpellier during Monday's rush hour, with no real idea where we were going. Mappy had served us well so far, but of course it couldn't have anticipated the fact that several streets were blocked off due to construction, and so we threaded our way through a bunch of narrow streets hoping to get to our hotel, which we suddenly found.

Given that the purpose of the trip was as much to explore the surrounding countryside as it was to deal with Montpellier itself, I couldn't have found a better place. The Hotel des Arceaux stands on the Boulevard des Arceaux, the street which runs on both sides of the imitation Roman aqueduct which was built in the 19th century to bring water to Montpellier's many fountains. It's two old houses joined into one, and given the fact that it only cost €57 a night, it was a joy. No air conditioning except downstairs, true, but it was equipped with the traditional heavy wooden shutters without louvers which mark the city's architecture, surprisingly efffective against the daytime heat, and wonderful at night, the occasional mosquito notwithstanding. The back yard has been turned into a near-tropical garden with tables where guests can eat breakfast or get light meals from the kitchen among banana trees and various colorful flowers. (I have to say, too, that the baguette the hotel puts in its breakfast bread-basket was the best one we found in France. That said, we didn't buy one at the place I'd been to in January, nor from a place I hadn't seen before on the rue des Balances which proudly announced that it had won second place in the French competition this year.) There was a municipal parking lot a couple of blocks away, which was inexpensive and often pretty empty, and it was easy to get up the hill to the historic center on foot, while the roads out of town were well-marked and just a block or two away.

But the real gem was the fact that under the arches, on Tuesday and Saturday (and, to a much lesser degree, during the rest of the week) a killer market sets up. This being early summer, it was loaded with amazing things: tomatoes that literally took two hands to lift, strawberries the size of marbles, peaches of every sort, melons from Provence, a guy selling several kinds of Spanish hams, a cheesemonger's trailer which I immediately dubbed the Cheese Museum because of its amazing variety and array of neat plaques giving information on each cheese, bakers with giant loaves of country bread, people selling olives and olive oil, and an almost infinite number of vegetables. Just eyeing this bounty, I imagined living in a place where people cared so much for what they ate, and cared so much about both quality and variety.

Of course, I was going to be living there for most of the week. Trouble was, I didn't have a kitchen. Someone else would have to do the cooking. Not that I had a problem with that.

Next: into the hills in search of wine.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


Want some free pot? Some free hash? How about some free cheese? I think that if you go to Holland right now, you'll be able to just walk into any home or shop and take what you want; the entire population seems to be on the roads of France and Germany, pulling incredibly slow camping trailers behind them.

Yes, I'm back, after driving the Smart from here to Montpellier and back, and, while there, doing more than a little roaming around the mountains and hills and seashore in the neighborhood. I got back about an hour ago, so I'm totally crispy from driving seven to ten hours a day, but I'll have much more detailed observations over the course of the next week. Photos, too, although I'm thinking I might need to get an account with one of those online photo-sharing sites like Flickr.

Driving there and back, I think I saw license plates from every single country in Western Europe except Ireland (doubt Irish vacationers would drive, after all), Portugal (probably too busy managing the mass of tourists headed there) and Liechstenstein (they probably don't take vacations). All of Scandinavia and Finland were represented, but only Lithuania among the Baltics. No Slovaks or Bosnians (but I see their plates in Berlin), and the biggest surprises were Bulgaria (on a truck) and Monaco (several verrrrry expensive cars).

And, sadly, I can no longer say Germans are Europe's worst drivers, bad as they are. The French have them completely beat. Of course, I was a target: on the Autobahn, every jerk with a testosterone problem felt he had to drive the Smart off the road or not let it pass, but on the French highways I was not only a tiny car, but a German. One guy actually attacked me, trying to push me off the road, get me to rear-end him, and several other things, all the while gesticulating and making weird hand signals. It was like he was in a psychotic fury. When he finally got past me and tried the rear-ending trick, I got a good look at his license plate, and was mystifed. In the place where most people have the blue field with the circle of stars for Europe and the letter F for France, he had something that looked like a stylized flaming sword -- and the letter F. Some days later, I saw this device again: it's the logo of the National Front, the fascist party that does so well in parts of France.

Anyway, I've only been back about an hour, and I'm toast. Time to drink a beer -- although I sure brought back enough great wine -- and relax.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Post-departure Post

Just a few notes here before early Sunday morning arrives and I'm off to Montpellier -- or, rather Besançon, first, and then, the next day, Montpellier.

First, I'm happy to announce that thanks to a ten-Euro card-reader I just bought, I can now get pictures out of my camera again. No directly connecting the camera to the computer, but the card comes out and the little blue box takes what's on it and sticks it here.

So, with that in mind, those of you who were waiting for pictures of my tour with Carl Stone and friends from June will be happy to see this picture of the rehearsal in Strasbourg. That's Min Xiao-Fen on the left, Carl Stone in the center, and Yumiko Tanaka on the right:

And, just to put you in that Fronch frame of mind, a picture I grabbed in Bourges just down the hill from the cathedral:

Needless to say, there'll be pictures from this trip, since I have an invitation to visit an acquaintence in a tiny village, and plans to investigate Toulouse, some of the wine country to the west, and the beaches near Sete. But I'll also be in Montpellier, and so as a special offer to readers of this blog, I'll walk into the place de la Comédie at 6pm Wednesday afternoon, which is 9am West Coast Time, noon East Coast time, and you can probably figure it out from there, and I'm going to stand in a place where the Montpellier webcam can see me, and wave.

So tune in and watch. With any luck, I'll find someplace I can log in and post some of the news while it's happening. Not to mention the pictures.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 1

Oh, no, can't be Sommerloch already! The "summer hole" where nothing happens, or which people use as an excuse for not doing anything, which, this being Germany, is more likely. My excuse is quite the opposite: I've had so much work recently that I'm too pooped to post. In fact, I wrote a rather difficult piece today -- the last in the next series of Fresh Air broadcasts -- and edited the four in this batch with my producer, but I realized as I was walking to the store that if I don't catch up on some of this stuff, I'm going to forget it and then kick myself later.


A couple of weeks ago, my old haircutter Texas Terri was in town, between legs of a seemingly never-ending tour of punk clubs and festivals. She's thinking of moving to Berlin, and, in fact, she's one of the few people I'd actually urge to move here, since her, shall we say, esthetic is more in tune with Berlin's than most people I know, including myself.

Anyway, she surprised me by insisting I take her on my famous walking tour, which was really nice of her because I was just sitting around the house, and getting out and walking for a number of hours (the tour can take up to four or five hours, depending on how the other person(s) react, how many pictures they take, and so on) seemed like a great idea. Thing is, she was exhausted from the tour and the incessant hospitality her friends here had shown her, and when we got to Friedrichstr. and Unter den Linden, she announced we had to come back here so she could sit down. So we walked up Friedrichstr. and then up Linienstr. and to my surprise, someone had moved out of an apartment, and, as they do here, left a bunch of stuff on the sidewalk with a sign saying "Take it away." And one of the things, there to be taken, was a huge Ikea CD shelf. So I hoisted it onto my shoulder and we walked back to my place.

The main body of the thing was in one piece, but the individual shelves had been tightly wrapped with packing tape, and not just any packing tape. For some reason, this packing tape was printed with the words "LIEBE WILL RISKIERT WERDEN" over and over: "Love wants to be risked." There was also a URL, so I punched it in, and came up with this extremely weird and Flash-heavy site, which is very entertaining if you speak German. If you keep clicking, you'll eventually get to the page where you can buy a roll of this tape. Which, since the shop itself isn't far from the house, I may. After all, I'm going to be moving soon.


Not, alas, before the election in September. I'll admit it: since I can't read German newspapers, I haven't kept up with the politics here in a mighty long time. (And yes, I know, I could always read Spiegel Online, especially because friends of mine work there, but I hate reading newspapers and magazines online). The dancer seems to feel that Schröder losing isn't a foregone conclusion, although there's no doubt the makeup of the next Parliament is going to be way different, no matter who is Chancellor.

So it was with great relief that I read this article in Slate, which, although far to the right of my own political leanings, is at least capable of explaining how things stand to someone who hasn't been following it.

At any rate I hope I don't have to stay very much longer if the country's going to be dominated by the CDU/CSU, a party that would, although it dare not come out and say it outright, rather that we nasty foreigners would just pack our bags and leave. When I moved here, the CDU's "youth wing," allowed to be more radical than the older folks so that it'd attract its younger constituency, had an explicit anti-foreigner statement in its platform, which I read. It may still be there: basically, unless you become German in all ways, they want you out.

Anyway, I think much of the so-called "support" for Angela Merkel, the presumed candidate, is reaction against Schröder and his failure to turn the economy, which had already been wrecked by Kohl's idiotic post-unification economic policies, around. A lot of the reactionary politics in the East masquerades as left while spouting anti-Brussels, anti-government rhetoric that, except for the decoration, is identical to what the far right says. I'm hoping the average German voter has some serious doubts about Merkel by the time the voting-booths open.

Nothing I can do about it, anyway: since I don't have German blood, I'm not allowed to vote. It's weird: even if I lived here for decades, married a German and had children with her, she could vote, the kids could vote, but I never, ever could. So in a way, I know how it feels to be a Turk here.


On a more positive note, last Thursday I went to the Neue Nationalgalerie for their spectacular Brücke exhibition, memorializing the birth of expressionism a hundred years ago in Germany, arguably the country's top contribution to the visual arts. As far as I could tell, they emptied out the Brücke Museum down in Dahlem and all the Brücke prints in the print museum and jammed it all in the big museum; I don't think I saw a single piece that wasn't from a Berlin collection.

The thing about this group was color. It's like they discovered it. Big bold slaps of bright colors on a canvas, still representational, but with an intensity that's German because it's intense, but otherworldly because of the colors themselves, which aren't ones I associate with Berlin, at least, nor, really with the surrounding countryside. But they also worked in woodcut a lot, so there's a whole lot of those, too. In fact, there's a whole lot of stuff, period, and if anything, that's what's wrong with the show: by the time I reached the end, I wanted to leave, not to run back to the front and sample a few of my favorites again. My eyeballs were overloaded.

According to my painter friend Blaise, who was along, going to the Brücke Museum is far less exhausting, because the venue is a lot more intimate. Too much of a good thing, but a very necessary ploy for the Berlin museums, hobbled by lack of funds and (this particular one, especially) in need of a public-grabbing Big Show after the triumph of the MOMA show.

It was a great way to spend a rainy Thursday afternoon, though, and I just hope Blaise hasn't cut off his hands or burned all his paintings, because he gets real doubtful about his own work after he sees what these guys did. He's got nothing to worry about, though: they're all dead!

Anyway, the show's up until August 28, major signage is in English if you need it, and it's worth coming from out of town to see.


I'll try to get back here before Sunday, when it's blast-off time for a week in France. And, as I've said, I'll try to post from there if I can find a decent connection.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Coupla Updates

This morning's Yahoo News had a weird headline in it: Memorial to East German Victims Torn Down. Figured I had to go take a look at that, and what it turned out to be was a very poorly-reported story about those crosses at Checkpoint Charlie being removed yesterday.

Now, I had written about this back in April, and expressed my doubts about the organization behind the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie, and if you read this update, you'll notice, buried way down there, that the Widow Hildebrandt refused to leave the patch of property and the bank which owns it wants it back, since the lease expired, she hasn't come up with the dough to buy it, and, well, it's their land.

As I keep saying, this ham-fisted bit of propaganda is an eyesore (although far from the only one in the immediate vicinity, contemporary German architecture being what it is), and the hectoring tone of it is disturbing. It's anti-communist, sure, but has anyone seen a communist recently, at least around here? And, Yahoo's clumsy headline notwithstanding, it's not quite a memorial to "East German victims," but, rather, to people who died trying to get out of the country in one form or another. If we're going to talk about "East German victims," we'd better include people who were used in medical experiments, those who wasted their potential at jobs that were beneath their abilities because those were the jobs they were assigned, intellectuals who were forced to teach things they didn't believe in to youngsters who wound up believing them, people who were jailed for years for minor infractions (like the guy I knew who was in for two years for calling Khruschchev a fool, being drunk and 18 at the time), and those who died outside of major showcase urban centers like East Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden because the government couldn't be bothered to improve the standard of living except where big-shots and foreigners were likely to see it.

But I also want to go on record as not wanting to talk about victims at all, because it's far too popular a subject of conversation around here. I'd like to remind Widow Hildebrandt and the clueless morons who talked to the reporter that there are many, many people who have a balanced view of life in the former East Germany, who aren't blind to its faults, and who have a certain affection for a significant chunk of its culture. Let's not forget that East Germany legalized homosexuality in, I think, 1952; that it gave women three years' maternity leave, and, although this was hardly the aim of the government, it also fostered a deeper sense of community though its clumsy spying and intrusion into people's lives, a sense of community which a lot of people could stand to add to their lives today. And yes, I'm talking to you, you West Germans. Among others.

Anyway, hooray for the big bad bank, boo hoo for Widow Hildebrandt, who'll doubtless show up in some other capacity if the Germans vote the horrid CDU/CSU in, because she's just the kind of vampiric, one-note ideologue they love. Hmmm, wonder what she thinks about the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe?


And, on a lighter note, albeit one which will depend on your having a little German for full appreciation, the other morning I woke up and there was a truck unloading in the courtyard. It was red, had Stuttgart plates, and said, in huge letters, SCHLECHT ELEKTROINSTALLATION. Lot of that going around, I thought to myself, and as I went out, the man who'd driven it here said "Grüss Gott," which isn't how they talk in Stuttgart. Anyway, there was a younger man with him, and one of my neighbors, so I figured there was an apartment changing hands. Sure enough, the next day, the name on the doorbell had changed, so now Schlecht is just above Böse.

So, from the House of Bad and Evil, I salute you, my readers, on this cold, grey, rainy summer's day!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Bites Of Early July

Hey, you know what? There's a big concert in town. Called Live 8! And you know what else? I haven't seen a peep about it on the streets. Nor were the crowds noticeably bigger when I went to the bank about an hour ago and walked down Friedrichstr. and then, out of curiosity (and to finish the pretzel I'd bought before I went to a bookstore) Unter den Linden.

Could it be that the hassles the local organizers faced (thanks, Herr Pope) made it impossible to advertise? Or are they maybe doing this via flash mob? I don't know, but it was only the belated discovery of the fact that Roxy Music was on our city's bill that even awoke a scintilla of interest. I mean, I'd like to see Brian Wilson some day, but a rock festival isn't where I want to do it, and the biggest name announced the last time I looked was the are-they-still-around a-ha (and, of course, the won't-they-please-go-away Crosby, Stills and Nash). Ah, well, I hate huge outdoor concerts, and have since Willie Nelson's first 4th of July parties, so I'm quite content to sit home and read.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in reading a live blog by a real pro blogcasting from what's undoubtedly a lavishly-appointed press suite in Philadelphia, at the U.S. Live 8, may I recommend my old pal Dan Rubin and his ground-breaking, newspaper-sponsored blog Blinq.


Debt relief for the Third World is very definitely a pressing problem. But it's not like the First World doesn't have problems, too. And I'm glad to see someone's doing something about one very serious deficit right here in Berlin: the humor deficit. I've gotten so many blank stares, so many incomprehending looks when trying to make a joke -- and it's not like I've got a particularly abstruse sense of humor or anything. It's just that Germans Don't Get It. So now, I see thanks to a link passed on by Frisco Mike, someone is opening a laughter school in Berlin.

Actually, whether this is a hoax or not, there's a point here. A few weeks ago, returning from the French tour, I knew exactly when the first Germans got on the train because one of them was laughing and it sounded like someone strangling a barking dog. There was a tension, a repressed sound in the laughter. And the only way to reach Germans, as everyone knows, is to teach a course. They're already used to great long theory classes before getting a licence to row a boat, fish, or drive a car, so I hope there's enough Theoretik attached to this school.

It's a great idea, though. I've always wanted to have a piece of boilerplate available, perhaps printed on cards, so that when I make a joke, I can explain what humor is. Or put an * after a joke, with a text at the bottom of the page: "* This statement was intended to be a joke, and is meant humorously. Humor can arise from odd juxtapositions, word-play, or intentional exaggeration, and not just the traditional German modes of slapstick, destruction of property, and infliction of pain. If you have any doubt whether or not a statement was made with humorous intent, it is always appropriate to ask the person making the statement if it was intended that way. If you seek further clarification, please ask."

Anyway, I think this thing will fly, and if anyone wants to help endow a chair there, ummm, just press that PayPal button on the side of the page there, and I'll make sure the money gets to, uh, the right place, okay?


Hansa & Co.

It was a nice, sunny day Friday, so I decided to do something I've wanted to do for a long time. Actually, I knew I was going to do something before I decided what it was: my friend K has offered to drive to Montpellier with me in two weeks' time, and I wanted to see if we could stand being with each other cooped up in the very tiny confines of a Smart. A two-door Smart.

I also wanted to see how the thing would perform on a highway, specifically the German Autobahn we're going to have to use for nearly all of the first day's travel. So I hauled down the map and looked at it. Funny thing: I know more about the geography of other European countries than I do about Germany. Since I almost never drive here, I have only the vaguest notion of where any but the largest cities are. As for the concept of "four hours from Berlin," I had no idea. South seemed to be a nice direction to go, but I noticed that this would get us to either Dresden or Leipzig, and, much as I like Leipzig, I've been there a lot. Then I looked at Hamburg. Don't much like Hamburg, but that sort of northwesterly direction was less known. And then I saw Lübeck sitting there.

About the only thing I knew about Lübeck is that it looked neat when the train stopped there on my trips to Denmark back when I was working for the Wall St. Journal Europe, and that the downtown was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That's right, the whole downtown, because it served as the center of the Hanseatic League. I actually knew nothing about the Hanseatic League except that it was a powerful force in German history until the Journal sent me to Bergen, Norway one year, and, during the course of studying the city, I took a tour of the Bryggen complex, the Hanseatic settlement there, which was established so that the League could control the trade in salt cod. This may seem like a trivial commodity, but in the Middle Ages, reliable sources of protein in the wintertime were eagerly sought after, and salt cod keeps seemingly forever. Thanks to the wide-ranging Hansa trade, it's found its way into the national cooking of innumerable European countries where cod isn't found, and is a tasty addition to the cuisines of places as far away from Norway as Italy. Thanks to the extremely informative guided tour that's available in Bryggen, I learned plenty about the culture of the Hanseatic League, its training of young men to go into business and acquire personal wealth while advancing the general wealth of the League, and, in Bryggen, the absolute separation of the Hansa settlement from the Norwegian one, thanks to the U-shaped harbor there: one side was totally forbidden from mixing with the other, and those poor German guys had to go home and marry German women, because they had to be unmarried while they were training, after which they were sent home. (You'd understand why I call them "poor" if you got to see enough Norwegian women, believe me). I also realized that, over the years of their operation, the Hansas basically invented modern-day capitalism.

Thus, Lübeck was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and this naturally manifested itself in its architecture. So, with the curiosity to see more, I did some quick math and decided that's where we'd go. We set off around 12:30, which gave me some pause; if the car was slow -- it has a maximum cruising speed of about 120 km/h (74.5 mph), and I wasn't sure it'd actually do that for any long period of time -- we'd make it too late to actually see anything.

As it turned out, the car boogied right along on the highway, and although there were the usual BMWs and Mercedes and one particularly obnoxious Porsche Carrera who loved to ride up on the Smart's tail while I was passing trucks, it kept at that 120 very nicely and it also proved to be comfortable to sit in, which was a huge relief. Not as comfortable as it might have been, because the interior space is very, very limited, but comfortable enough. And when we pulled into Lübeck at about 4, there was plenty of time to see things. One space in particular, the square outside the Rathaus, was gorgeous, and was filled with a market at which I noticed plenty of good-looking vegetables you can't find in Berlin for sale. (Don't get me started about Berliners and fresh peas, which I have yet to see for sale here this year). There were hordes of tourists, but a quick check of the map in the Rough Guide showed that by walking down Breite Str., which ran along the top of the Rathaus square, we'd work our way to one end of the inner city and see plenty of old stuff along the way.

K was immediately talking about moving there, and this reminded me of yet another thing about Berlin that I've had to accept, albeit with great reluctance: the plain fact is, this city was mostly built in the 1870s and 1880s in response to the Industrial Revolution and the great manufacturing dynasties -- Borsig, AEG, Siemens -- which grew up here. In fact, the city was a tiny town until the mid-1700s, and even then, building was restricted to a very small part of town. It's not because the city was so badly bombed during the Second World War that it looks the way it does, it's because there never were any old buildings in the greater part of the city. Even living as close to the historic center as I do, I don't get to see anything particularly old, and that was always one thing I was hoping to get out of moving to Europe. And, as I noted to K in Lübeck, if you lived there, you might well not live in one of these 15th Century merchant's houses, but you'd damn well see them on your way to the bank or to your friends' houses or if you went to the market at the Rathaus. You might easily find yourself eating at the Schiffergesellschaft restaurant, in the old sailors' union house. And, as I realized as we walked back to where we started along the road by the harbor, the views up the side-streets leading into town were amazing: some of the alleyways had houses with flowers planted all around them, other streets were more commercial ones, with old merchants' houses, some dating to the 13th Century.

I think it's the esthetic thing which has been one of my biggest disappointments here, and which is making me long for change. I can live anywhere, as long as I've got plenty of interesting paying work, but with too much time on my hands and the need to wander around, I find my eyes are getting too poorly nourished. And, again, there's the question of the resonance of the past, and the past here, at least that which is most visible and celebrated, isn't a pleasant one. So when I see someplace like Montpellier, with a whole hill covered with ancient buildings in which people live in perfectly contemporary comfort, I'm ready to jump on it. I can't imagine there'd be anything much to do in Lübeck other than trying to come to terms with Plattdeutsch, the local dialect, and eating more fish than I currently do, but it sure made for a great road trip, and I even wound up with a bag full of good bagels, courtesy of Bagel Brothers, a German chain which isn't to be found in Berlin. Should have picked up some of those peas, too, come to think of it.

Anyway, the dress rehearsal is over, we made it back here in decent time and didn't kill each other, I wasn't too stiff to move after eight-plus hours in the Smart, and on July 17, it's off to Montpellier for the better part of a week to research the move.