Sunday, April 20, 2008

Treehugging And Its Discontents

There is a tiresome meme, particularly in America, that goes "scratch a German and you'll find a nazi." Get one of these people worked up enough, the thought seems to be, and the inner authoritarian antisemite with delusions of world conquest comes out. Nobody who's lived here for more than ten minutes, let alone anyone who's ever actually met a real live German believes this, of course, but it persists.

No, the real meme is "scratch a German and you'll find an animistic pagan."

The early Christian missionaries must have really had a hard job in these lands, because they never really succeeded, in my opinion. Could the ancient Germanic nature-religion really have been wiped out when 2008 years after the birth of Christ nobody thinks twice about naming a child "wolf-path?" (Well, what did you think Wolfgang means?)

This is why, when German cinema first started making Westerns, it went straight to Karl May, the German writer who never left Europe and ground out pulp novels about the Old West which centered on the Indians. German Westerns weren't ahistorical: the Indians always lost, but they were also clearly the tragic heroes. They lived in close harmony with nature, and revered it. Why, they were almost Germans!

It's why Germans have those little settlements of garden houses everywhere there's enough space to wedge them in, and it's why they go mushroom hunting at the crack of dawn on weekends in the fall. It's why, when they go to America, they head to the National Parks, drive down Route 66, or groove on the Arizona desert. It's why they number the trees in their parks and forests (and really, if you don't believe me, go look: there'll be a little tag there somewhere, placed in the name of Ordnung).

And it's why my street is about to erupt into a seething cauldron of civil disobedience. Or not.

Early last week, some official-looking papers were taped to the doors of our buildings informing us that tomorrow, Monday April 21, city workers would fell most of the trees on our street and some adjoining ones. The trees in question were black cherry trees, and had, according to a Herr Doktor at the Berlin Environment Office, developed a root syndrome which might result in their falling over and hurting cars parked beneath them. The reaction was swift: more signs appeared, taped to the trees in question. One of them had word from yet another Herr Doktor questioning the accuracy of the first Herr Doktor's report. All of them noted one truly unfortunate detail: the city didn't have funds to replace the trees being felled.

In a repeat of something I've seen a lot before, signs resembling funeral notices appeared on the condemned trees, with a big black cross. "CONDEMNED TO DEATH" read a huge headline. A more reasonable sign in green then went up, calling for a mass demonstration. "The report of the root damage to the black cherry trees is doubtful," it says. "Not all the marked trees must be taken down. There is no money to replace them."

Then some red and white striped tape was stretched between the trees to be felled, along with no-parking signs effective at 7am on Monday. Sometime last night it vanished.

Today at 2pm, a demonstration was scheduled. About 30 minutes into it, I went to check it out. A merry old chap with a beard was pounding black wooden crosses into the patches of ground where the condemned trees were standing, as a television crew documented it. A pair of grim young men unfurled a huge sign that said "FIRST THE TREES...THEN THE PEOPLE!!" and just as quickly unfurled it after they'd gotten some attention. There was a table set up, at which signatures were being collected, and some guy walked down the street sticking copies of the mock-obit flyers under people's windshield wipers. The center of attention seemed to be another old guy with one of those contraptions of stick and string which make gigantic soap bubbles, and clusters of young parents stood around with their kids and chatted. A couple of bored cops checked every car coming into the street and otherwise stood around.

Will any of this cause the city to reconsider or put off the date of the trees' doom? Can demonstrating on a Sunday, when you'd better believe any relevant office is closed, do any good? Will this end up like every other instance like it I've ever seen in Berlin, with officials nodding their heads in sympathy and going ahead and doing what they'd intended to do anyway? And...are these trees really such a menace to automobiles and real estate? I don't know.

One thing I do know: it's not smart to mess with trees in Germany. It really does seem to call forth an atavistic response from people, as if the tree spirits had spoken to them and reminded them of the symbiosis that binds the Volk to the Bäume.

Another thing I know is that I've never yet seen the city of Berlin dissuaded from doing anything, no matter how stupid, once it had made up its mind to do it.

My heart's with the trees, but my money's with the chainsaws.

(The doomed eight, above, in green).

UPDATE: Went out at 1pm on Monday, all trees gone. A new, badly-painted sign declated it a SAW-MASSACRE!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Berlin Biennial Bombs Bigtime

A word to the city of Berlin, and in particular the Kultursenat: if you want the world to keep thinking of Berlin as a hip! edgy! place, do yourself a favor and the next time the idiots who keep besmirching the city's name in the guise of the Berlin Biennial come begging, just remember Nancy Reagan and Just Say No.

I missed the last one on early word that it was toxic, but last Sunday, Bowleserised, BiB, Karl-Marx-Strasse and I met at the Kunst Werke on Auguststr. to see as much as we could. I finished the process today with a visit to the one venue we'd missed, the Neuenationalgalerie.

The short verdict: worse than ever. A somewhat lengthier appraisal follows.

KW is the center of this event, although whether it's still partnered with PS 1 in New York I don't know. For PS 1's sake, I hope not. It's not a real good venue for anything, with its steep stairways and small exhibition spaces, getting smaller the higher you ascend. Four floors are open for this show, and yet you can do the whole thing in about 20 minutes, so empty is it of any content or thought-provoking work. For instance, there's the lowest floor, the former cellar. Most of this has been given to Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt, who has installed a work he calls "Ground Control." In other words, he spent part of last year and part of this year paving it with tar. It's one of those rare artworks which engages the sense of smell, since the tar's still cooling, but it's still tar. On the same floor is a HD-video installation by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys called "The Frigate," twenty minutes of a bunch of unattractive people staring at each other. I guess you could invoke Bill Viola's name here, but it would be in vain. There's the exciting part: sort of random organ music suddenly swells up, there are a few shots of some industrial product close-up, and then the woman in the group is seen staring at a ship-model which has been painted black.

Apparently one of the stars of this mess is someone called Pushwagner, who has spread out a "graphic novel" called Soft City in vitrines along a serpentine passageway. The subject of this daring work is conformity and capitalism. as it follows a family whose father wakes up and goes to work in a huge corporation just like every other man in the city while the woman takes the baby and goes shopping in a huge store. Like I said, real cutting-edge. Some notes I picked up later at the Schinkel Pavillion (about which more in a minute) says that "it is with a crude attitude and from a dropout perspective that Pushwagner observes the world and its mechanisms." This is art-speak for "not very well drawn."

Looking over the list of other works at the KW, I found I couldn't really remember many of them. There's Patricia Esquivas' two "Folklore" films, where she explains contemporary Spanish art from a chart in hesitant English. There's Michel Auder's four-minute film "My Last Bag of Heroin (For Real)," in which the artist chases the dragon on a piece of foil, reloads, and does it again, and then mumbles about checking himself into a hospital the next day. Fascinating. It was followed by a later work called "Polaroid Cocaine," showing that he'd definitely made progress, if only from one drug to another, but the music involved was so grating I had to leave the little cubicle where it was showing.

On the third floor is the only work worth looking at, although it's hard to do: Kohei Yoshiyuki spent eight years photographing people having sex in a park in Japan, using infrared film, apparently. The series, entitled "Park," has been much shown and much commented upon, as well it should be, since it brings up all kinds of questions about the role of the artist's license to document, invasion of privacy, responsibility in the case of possible criminal behavior (some of these photos seem to document rape -- although perhaps that's just an illusion) and, of course, the morality of exhibiting all of this publicly.

The rest is so forgettable that, well, I've pretty much forgotten it although it's only been a couple of days. But there are four venues in this year's Biennial, so we found ourselves willing to look at more. We headed toward the Skulpturenpark, located on a swath of former Wall no-man's-land on the border of Mitte and Kreuzberg, but realized on the way over that there was something called the Schinkel Pavilion at Oberwallstr. 1. Just try finding it! It turned out to be on the short bit of the street that comes off of Unter den Linden, through a door and up some stairs. What it has to do with Schinkel I can't tell you, but I can tell you that after all that effort we were greeted with a room filled with a few huge canvases by our old pal Pushwagner. We lasted a minute or two and left.

The Skulpturenpark is almost impossible to find with the aid of the map they hand you. (So, for that matter, is the Schinkel Pavilion). Once you get there, you may wish you hadn't. I'm not convinced we saw all of it -- it's very badly laid out -- but what there was was pretty dull. First, we stopped in a little shelter to see Lars Lauman's 27-minute film about the woman who's convinced she's married to the Berlin Wall. This woman is either a sad, mentally unbalanced person (not impossible) or a performance artist of little talent (less likely). If it's the former, as I suspect it is, Lauman's film is a work of mean-spirited exploitation of the mentally ill. If it's the latter, he's as untalented as she is. Anyway, this isn't an installation, it's an actual documentary film, so what's it doing in this show of alleged art?

Elsewhere, Killian Rüthemann has dug some holes, a piece he calls "Stripping," and Katerina Seda has erected an enclosure which can only be entered via a few stepladders or by climbing up its sides. Don't fall: the interior has huge pieces of broken plate-glass. There's a message here, and I think it's "stay away from Czech artists." From a heap of rubble in the center of the largest part of the "park," a sound installation by Susan Hiller erupts every now and again. Must be fun for the folks in the pricey apartments nearby, although it's just simple tones and overtones.

At this point we were seriously the worse for wear, so while 3/4 of our company headed over to the Nikolaiviertel in search of nourishment I jumped into a U-Bahn station and went home.

But I'd paid €12 for my ticket, and the Neuenationalgalerie portion remained unpunched. I wasn't going to condemn the entire Biennial without seeing the whole thing. After all, one really brilliant piece (by Joao Penalva) had rescued the first one for me, and it's not impossible that it would happen with another artist this time.

But no. The entire ground floor of the museum is littered with mediocrity. There's something called "Pygmalion Workshop" by Nashashabi/Skaer, which would have been brilliant if it had stopped with the reconstruction of a partially-ruined Greek sculpture in shiny Plexiglass on the floor, but blew it with a bunch of side-show exhibitions including painted cloth, reproductions from books, and a very stupid film. Goshka Macuga's "Deutsches Volk -- Deutsches Arbeit" is a glass-and-steel sculpture that at least is well-made, giving an illusion of solidity from dozens of thin sheets of glass. But one piece stood out: Gabriel Kuri has erected four yellow shapes of no particular distinction, and on them he's put coat-check numbers. Patrons checking into the museum may hit one of the lucky numbers, in which case their coats are draped by the appropriate number under the watchful eye of guards. I'm not sure why this appealed to me so much, but it did, maybe because, unlike the rest of the solipsistic, content-free work on display here, it admitted that there was an audience and sought to involve them personally. (This more than the curators deigned to do at the Neue Nationalgalerie, incidentally: there are no signs with titles or artists on or near the works, which I found incredibly arrogant and confusing.)

That's the big problem with the 5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art: it was curated by a bunch of theory-addled insiders whose only interest, it would seem, is in padding their CVs. That there is nothing of interest of relevance to the outside world doesn't matter to them. The public be damned, although we're spending some of their money, throwing it at our friends. And then, as a final cynical middle-finger, the event is subtitled "when things cast no shadow," which only thrusts the emperor's-new-clothes aspect into the open. Almost none of this art will be remembered, let alone cast a shadow on contemporary practice. Visitors to Berlin while it's open would be much better advised to crawl the gallery districts of Auguststr., Mauerstr., Brunnenstr. and elsewhere, where galleries, knowing they've got the upper hand with artists who care about what they're doing, have put up some of the best stuff they can get their hands on.

Stop funding this joke. Maybe it will go away.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Techno-Mandarin Blind Spot

Not all the magazine news at SXSW was bad. Besides the idiotic travel magazine I commented on earlier, another magazine fell out of my goodie bags (twice). It was an old favorite, Wired, which I've usually enjoyed engaging with, which is not to say I've always enjoyed reading it. But its goofy utopianism (I've still got their December, 1999 issue around here somewhere, with its truly over-the-top predictions for the next few years of the coming millenium, and I really should dig it out for a giggle sometime) combined with hard science and information has almost always made it worth looking at. My last copy was a couple of years ago, and I found it utterly changed and virtually impossible to read; I abandoned it on the plane on the way back here, unable to get through a single article.

But this one was different. Not only had there been another design change, always a challenge to the eyeballs (and, I have to admit, the eyeballs won this round for reasons I wasn't able to analyze: just imagine, glitz and readability), but this issue also managed to shore up my belief in paper being the best medium for long-form pieces. I read everything in the issue.

Including the cover story, natch. It was by the editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, who had impressed me years back with his "long tail" article, derided by many, but nonetheless filled with truth for those of us who create stuff, be it music or writing, which is treated as inutterably ephemeral by the mainstream culture. And, as it happened, time began to prove that this whole concept he'd articulated was, for the most part, solid. Which was good.

This time the article is called "Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business", so I had a feeling this would be utopianism with more than its fair share of goofiness and wide-eyed neophilia.

As it turned out, there were some great facts in there, as well as some questionable statements, but overall (and I'm not an economist, so I can't poke holes in it from that vantage-point) I felt like it was a worthy intellectual exercise, definitely worth the investment of my time.

Or I did until I came to this paragraph in the section outlining some of the key concepts (which no doubt Anderson will expand on when this article comes out in full book-length next year):

· Zero marginal cost
What's free: things that can be distributed without an appreciable cost to anyone. Free to whom: everyone.
This describes nothing so well as online music. Between digital reproduction and peer-to-peer distribution, the real cost of distributing music has truly hit bottom. This is a case where the product has become free because of sheer economic gravity, with or without a business model. That force is so powerful that laws, guilt trips, DRM, and every other barrier to piracy the labels can think of have failed. Some artists give away their music online as a way of marketing concerts, merchandise, licensing, and other paid fare. But others have simply accepted that, for them, music is not a moneymaking business. It's something they do for other reasons, from fun to creative expression. Which, of course, has always been true for most musicians anyway.


Especially in the wake of SXSW, this hurt. Let's look at these sentences again: "But others have simply accepted that, for them, music is not a moneymaking business. It's something they do for other reasons, from fun to creative expression. Which, of course, has always been true for most musicians anyway."

It has? A musician goes to all that trouble, training to be able to play his or her instrument as well as possible, practicing endlessly to maintain the level he or she's already attained and, possibly, to get better, just for the joy of it? What are you supposed to live on while doing this? How do you pay your rent? What kind of self-expression do you get when you're living under a bridge? What percentage of, let's say, the New York Philharmonic is doing its job only for "fun" or "creative expression"? Which is not to say that those elements don't come into it.

Musicians now give their stuff away because there's very little alternative, because there's a huge bloc of consumers which feels entitled to the products of someone's hard work without in any way helping to support the person who made it. Fortunately, there are those who are working to change this, to find a way that mediates between the indentured servitude of an old-school major record deal and flat-out piracy.

Perhaps in Chris Anderson's world, artists live on nectar distilled from the dew and clothe their children in raiment spun from sunlight. Perhaps Chris Anderson himself lives this way.

But I doubt it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

France/Austin/France, The Finale

I hate to say it, but Deutsche Bahn has just made getting to Paris even quicker, with a train that goes Berlin-Frankfurt, from which you transfer to a Frankfurt-Paris (Gare de l'Est) train on DB that gets you there 15 minutes or so quicker, not to mention that you don't have to ride the Thalys, the Belgian/French/Dutch high-speed train which I've always found dark and cramped. Plus, there's apparently some deal going with DB that gets you first class for something like €20 more round-trip, which I sure took advantage of. They even serve you a free meal which wouldn't be out of place on an airplane, but hey, it's free.

* * *

As always, there was more to do in Austin than listen to music and eat. The Harry Ransom Center on the UT campus was hosting an exhibition called On The Road With the Beats, which I couldn't wait to see. The center of the thing (although it's displayed right as you walk in) is 48 feet of the original, unparagraphed, manuscript of On the Road, which Jack Kerouac famously wrote on a roll of teletype paper. Even though I get more ambiguous in my feelings about this book as I get older, it's still a part of every American counter-culturist's heritage, and it's an incredible thing to actually see it stretched out like that. The exhibition is text-heavy, and you're going to have to do a lot of reading if you're really going to get into it. It's also very fair, including the Los Angeles scene, and such supposedly minor figures as Ted Joans. There's posters for Beatsploitation films, photos (although not enough) by Allen Ginsberg, and much, much more. I kind of raced through it because I didn't have much time, but it's worth devoting an afternoon to if you have any feeling at all for this period of history.

Even better, next door to it is a show devoted to the undeservedly obscure artist Jess, who was a modern master of collage inspired originally by Max Ernst. You may know him from his Tricky Cad cutups of Dick Tracy comics, which got him sued, but which are often cited as important precursors of Pop Art, or, if you're into poetry, you may know him as Robert Duncan's partner (they had a wedding ceremony in 1951, which sure was ahead of the curve), who provided art for many of his books. I'd never seen much of his stuff, and was very impressed by the show.

I just noticed that the Beats show is up through the beginning of August but the Jess show closes soon, so if you're in Austin, get down there! I'm glad I did.

* * *

There was all the music at SXSW, and then there was the best music I heard in Austin. That was on a pirate radio station I found somewhere in the middle of the FM dial (hmmm, it seemed like a familiar frequency, somehow), which brought back all the joys of free-form radio I used to listen to -- and use to discover new stuff -- back in the early '70s before consultants brought their heavy boots down on the radio industry and utterly ruined it. Oh, sure, there was stuff I didn't much like -- '50s pop a la Rosemary Clooney, one evening that seemed heavy on handbag house, some heavy-handed comedy -- but that's the way free-form radio works. At one point, a guy's voice came on and said something like "You are listening to an illegal radio station. See that cop over there? He's part of the control for this sector. Immediately change your dial to a commercial radio station. Listen carefully to the ads, and then buy everything you hear advertised. You'll feel a lot better." The signal doesn't always come in clearly -- in fact, sometimes the station's off the air for a few hours -- but in central and south Austin it usually sounds pretty good. The big problem is not knowing what you're hearing. I heard a couple of tunes by artists I'd like to investigate further, but with no DJ to announce them, I can't tell you who they were. But I sure like that rebels out there are defying overdetermined radio, and risking their necks to do so. Whoever's behind this has good taste in music and one hell of a record collection. Long may it wave!

* * *

From Austin, I flew to Newark, changed planes, flew to Paris, and then went to the TGV train station inside the airport, waited two hours, and got on a direct train to Montpellier. I was one cripsy critter when I got there, in part because Continental Airlines now offers some 350 movies on demand and I watched a couple of them instead of sleeping, which would have been a far better idea. But the hotel I stayed at has great beds, and I was able to nap and begin conquering my jet-lag immediately.

The idea of going to Montpellier directly after Austin was to find students who'd be leaving their large, cheap places this summer, talk to their landlords, and get a reservation to move into one if I found one I liked.

Unfortunately, I looked at exactly zero apartments. Apparently, there was a student strike last year, which means that many students won't be vacating until mid-June instead of May, like usual. This means that I'm going to have to go down there again, and that timing will be crucial, since school will undoubtedly start up again in August. Fortunately, though, I seem to be developing a great network of folks down there who'll help me look. Some of them, like Marie the translator and of course Bart (go ahead, click the link; he only gets 6000 hits a day, as opposed to my maybe 100 on a good day, not that I'm jealous or anything), I know from blogs. Others I met through Bart's friends at the Bar Vert Anglais, which is a friendly spot. Others I met randomly through friends. I'm a great believer in networks, so I really hope I get results with this one.

Of course, moving means raising around €3000 between now and the first of June. I'm not at all sure how I'm going to do this. I was hoping to sell my old guitar in Austin, but it proved to need too much renovation to make this practicable at the moment. Now I'm just praying that some work will come over the transom, and that, at long last, I can say good-bye to Berlin.

* * *

Of course, I'm back now, and it doesn't look so bad now that spring is beginning. But I got a potent reminder of where I am the very night I returned. Walking back to my building after going out for dinner, I passed a ground-floor apartment. On the wall was a huge poster edged in black, with the scowling face of Kurt Cobain on it. Beneath the photo were the words, written in huge capital letters "I HATE MYSELF AND I WANT TO DIE." Just what I'd want in my living room, I'm sure.

Yup, I'm back in Fun City, all right.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Eating In Texas and France

Gastronomically speaking, this was one of the best trips I've taken lately. Partially, that was due to the presence of Carl Stone, composer and insatiable gourmet, who is always ready to blast off to uncharted new dimensions, in Austin at the beginning of the trip. With the cry of "Let's have another" ringing in your ears, it's hard to resist.

Thus, my first day in Austin ended with dinner at Madras Pavillion, the South Indian vegetarian restaurant I discovered a few years ago, but this time, we avoided the combo plates and ordered this and that from the a la carte meu -- a great idea, as it turned out. Among the great things we got were "Chinese" iddlis (the menu there realizes that a lot of the Indians who eat at the place come with their kids, and those kids are bored with Indian food, so it has several odd fusion dishes, including an Italian dosa I'm scared of), which were nice and fiery, a semolina-based dish tempered with roasted dal and spices, and a number of other things I"ve forgotten. There was a pink dipping sauce I've got to see if I can find in my books, too, along with the usual rasam. If you live in Austin and haven't been to this place, you're missing one of its great treasures.

In fact, India seems to be making a strong showing in Austin -- thanks, high-tech folks! -- and another worthy place is the funky Shalimar far up on N. Lamar. There was a Pakistani wedding going on in their back room the night I visited, which I took for a good sign, and the place is properly Pakistani rather than Indian, not that there's that much difference between Pakistani and Northern Indian, thanks to the Mughal influence. I had a beef dish that was cooked almost to the point where the meat dissolved in the unctuous green sauce, and, since it was on the menu, mattar panir, which I love. This was the best I've ever had in a restaurant (I've made slightly better at home). Creamy, with nicely made fresh panir, and -- the big difference -- cashew nuts which brought out not only the nuttiness of the sauce, but also the panir flavor. And made with frozen peas, not canned. I'm sure restaurants are finally catching on to this trick, but dang, it took them a long time. Zero atmosphere, television tuned to a sports channel, and super-low prices.

Mexico, however, is not to be slighted, at least not while I'm in town. The find this time was La Michoacana Meat Market on East 7th St., thanks to a tip from my old pal George Leake, who resurfaced via e-mail just before I left Berlin and mentioned this place as being a place where his co-workers at the restaurant he cooks at recommended as somewhere you could get stuff as good as their grandmothers and mothers make. In the center of the store there's a counter with a steam-table and a big flat space on which to toast tortillas, as well as a fryolater for the gorditas and huaraches they also sell there (both bases for the toppings from the steam-table). You go in, decide what you want, then go stand in line at one of the cash registers and tell them what type of thing you're going to order ("three corn tacos," for instance). Then you go back to the counter, hand over the receipt the cashier's given you, and order. The lady will have your tacos ready in seconds: big, fat, two-tortilla ones. She'll then ask you if you want onions and cilantro with them (correct answer: yes), and hand them over. There's an amazing red picante sauce in squeeze bottles on the tables surrounding the counter, or they'll put some in little containers for a to-go order. Oh, and did I mention that each of these beauties costs $1.49? That's less than a Euro! Over several days, I managed to sample chile verde, picadillo, al pastor, barbacoa, rajitas con queso, and, one morning for breakfast, egg and potato, ham and egg, and chorizo and egg tacos. Every single one of them was stunning. Carl got a plato, with rice and beans, on our visit, with the chile verde, for, I think, less than four bucks. Asking around various long-time Austinites, I got an almost unanimous "I've driven past that place" reaction, but, besides George, I didn't meet anyone who'd been there. Big mistake, folks. Plus, the grocery section is a trip: everything you need to set yourself up to cook Mexican, including, duh, meat cut for fajitas and so on.

Seven years ago, on a cold day, I found an odd Mexican restaurant on S. 1st that specialized in lamb, only to have it vanish without trace. Recently, I discovered that it had re-appeared on S. Congress just north of Ben White. El Borrego de Oro is at 3900 S. Congress, and well worth the visit. I had the birria plate ($9.50), which was a stupefying quantity of lamb stewed with tomato and onion, with which you get handmade tortillas and pico de gallo. They also have a lamb soup with hunks of corncob floating in it, but it wasn't that cold this time. They also do seafood, including cocktels, which are good. I also note on the menu I took away that there's a cabrito soup and various other unusual dishes, including a chicken breast stuffed with chorizo, mushroom, and cheese that sounds pretty good.

Carl and I also found a place on Cesar Chavez that advertised itself as "el catedral de mariscos," and, while it was more of a parish church than a cathedral, it partially satisfied my jones for Mexican seafood. Someday I'll find a place that does calamares rellenos, small squid with the bodies stuffed with rice and peas and then covered with ranchero sauce, like a joint called Lucy's Mariscos in Santa Monica did in the '70s. Hell, maybe it exists in Austin: far north Lamar seems to be the new ethnic gourmet gulch, and if I'd had more time, I'd have explored the Chinese seafood place I saw, not to mention a few of the Mexican places, and I'd also have rampaged through the Chinatown center, the new Vietnamese shopping mall at 10900 N. Lamar (a number that surely didn't exist when I first came to Austin), although I noticed that a banh mi place was going in there, so that'll be waiting for me next year.

About midway into the Austin segment of the trip, I got a cold which shut down my taste-buds, but fortunately they revived in time for me to have two great meals at Madam Mam's, which still makes the best Thai food I've ever had. The major discovery this time was a so-called appetizer of beautifully grilled marinated pork served with various vegetables and an insanely delicious sauce. You wrap the pork in the romaine lettuce leaves that come with it, dip it in the sauce, and experience bliss. But you'd better have at least one other person at the table if you want to order a main course; this is a serious quantity of food!

And no trip to Austin would be complete without a visit to Gene's for an oyster po-boy (Carl was so in need of one he got to Austin, picked up his rent car, and drove to Gene's for one before he checked into his hotel, so you can see he has his priorities straight!). The only thing wrong with Gene's is that it closes at 8pm, and I don't like heavy lunches, so I've never tried his jambalaya or fried chicken because I rarely eat dinner too early. Gene promised me he's working on later opening hours, so I hope he has that worked out before next year. Or I'll comprimise my principles. It's worth it, I bet.

In other news, Hoover's is now open for breakfast daily, which is very good news indeed, since you can get garlic cheese grits for breakfast and dinner now. A bunch of us No Depression writers got together to buy Peter and Grant breakfast in thanks for the ones they'd bought us over the years, and although the occasion was sad, the food made up for it as much as it could.

Wait! What about barbeque? Well, with Carl in town, you can bet at least one trip was made, and we headed to Lockhart for a Smitty's versus Kreuz showdown. Comparison of the brisket and pork chop at both places proved Kreuz the winner this time out, and their cheese-jalapeno sausage was a surprise new hit, too. I was stuffed, though, to an almost unpleasant degree, so it was a good thing I was driving, because when Carl said "But what about Black's?" I could just ignore him and drive out of town.

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My trip ended with a marathon journey that went Austin to Newark, Newark to Paris, and then Paris to Montpellier on the TGV train. It was a complete change of scene, but a great one; I can't wait to start cooking down there. Meanwhile I had to make do with eating at restaurants, and can report that you can get a superb slice of terrine and a great steak with a Roquefort sauce and a half-liter of wine at the Bistrot d'Alco for twenty Euros (the place is an old favorite of mine there), which is what I did as soon as I'd taken a nap to burn off some of the jet-lag. The new discovery came courtesy of Bart Calendar, an American blogger/writer who's been in Montpellier for a number of years, after we started talking about cassoulet (not really native to the immediate area, but, seeing as how it was cold, something that sounded damn good) in the Bar Vert Anglais. Several names were proposed, and I intend to research them some day, but La Chêneraie won the toss. The place isn't without problems -- the bread was very substandard for a town with superb bakeries, and the cheese course was meager and way too cold -- but the cassoulet was excellent and only €17.90 on the menu, and the half-bottle of Chateau de Fourques from St. Georges d'Orques, a little-known Languedoc appellation, was a revelation: spicy and fruity, revealing new mixtures of the two with each sip.

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Tomorrow, various notes and miscellenea from Austin and Montpellier, including further news on the move.