Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Emigrant At Table

So before I forget utterly what I ate in Montpellier, and so that you can grab some good grub next time you're down there, the obligatory post on food.

I got in real late, which was a shame, because restaurants close at about 10 down there, but I was lucky because the hotel offers light meals (with a surcharge if they're ordered after 10, of course), and the desk-clerk whipped me up a sautée of calamari and slices of Spanish chorizo deglazed with red wine. Not bad for ten euros -- plus 1.50 lateness charge.

The next day was spent running hither and yon, and I grabbed a sandwich from a place on lower St. Guilhelm called, believe it or not, Oh La La!!! (the three exclamation points were part of the name). I'd had great luck with chicken sandwiches -- had a great one from Crobag, of all places, in the Frankfurt train station -- and there was one that looked real good here. But only one, which the guy ahead of me claimed. The only remaining sandwich was tuna, which didn't excite me. But I'd forgotten I was in France: it wasn't the dry canned tuna, lettuce, and cucumber you'd get in Germany, stuffed into a gummy baguette. This was enlivened by real (ie, non-sweetened) mayonnaise, ripe juicy tomatoes and crisp lettuce. And this from a seedy sandwich stand with a silly name.

Dinner that night was at La Tomate, which I'd wanted to try last time. Andy recommended the fish soup, and it was sublime. This dish pulverizes the fish so small you really don't know what's in it, but I could tell a darkly smoky roux from my years of making gumbo, and as for the rest of it...who knows? An amazing balance of flavors, crisp croutons, and a peppery rouille made this the best version of this dish I've ever had. Too bad the rest of the meal sucked; the place is certainly affordable enough. But the steak was tough, the fries were frozen, and the green beans were cooked in beef broth -- a good idea -- for too long -- not such a good idea.

Wednesday's lunch was a salad on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. One great thing about summertime dining in France is the concept of the salade composée, which is a salad with, um, a whole lot of stuff in it. Perfect hot-weather food -- and it was hot. But you know, it's about ingredients. The thing sounded good when I ordered it, but...who knew saucisse chaud meant, not "warm sausage," but "hot dog"? And who wants bits of cold hot dogs in their salad? Or tiny cubes of tasteless cheese? Or that bane of German salads, canned corn? There are several places with big outdoor eating areas on the Esplanade, but because I set about forgetting this one as soon as I paid my bill, I can't warn you away from it. Sorry.

Dinner that night was at my old favorite, Bistrot d'Alco, behind the Préfecture, which is usually my first dinner stop. You can get a starter, a main course, and a half-bottle of well-chosen local wine (just look for the day's special) for €20, and although the hulk of the backside of the Préfecture isn't the most scenic thing to look at during dinner, you won't notice. This time I had a half Camembert with slices of apple laid on it, warmed up, on a bed of salad as a starter, and their great seiches avec persillade as a main course, along with a spicy, crackling Languedoc rosé. I love seiches, little cuttlefish with nearly spherical bodies, and cannot wait to start cooking with them.

Thursday lunch was business, and the food was undistinguished. Forget the name of the place, too, although I could take you right there. That night's dinner was another Andy recommendation, Le Vieux Four, over on the funky side of the hill. On the plus side, it's great to find a place that grills over a wood fire, and the meat is top-notch. On the down side, there really is an "old oven" in there and when it's still close to 90 outdoors, you don't want to eat indoors. I had no choice and it was hot. Also the hearts-and-flowers decor (not to mention the relentless hyping of mojitos -- dudes, that's been over around here for years) is a little too much.

Friday I was determined to get nothing but good stuff for my last day. I definitely wanted a salad for lunch again, so I the Vert Anglais. Yup, the same bar where I hung out with the expats during the early evening. I remembered my trip a few summers ago, and getting a very good pasta salad there, and I figured that a) they could use the custom and b) it couldn't be any worse than on the Esplanade. Wrong on a) because of b): it was vastly superior to the other place. I got a good-sized glass of gazpacho set in the center of a gargantuan salad of mixed greens, dark, smoky strips of ham, and parmesan shavings -- all for a Euro less than the other place!

The roll continued at dinner. I'd heard about l'Escalier from Bart, Andy, and Bart's girlfriend Chris, who wasn't in town all week, and was determined to try it. Good call: a great salad to start, and a magnificent magret de canard with a sauce combining cassis and honey, accompanied by more green beans cooked in beef broth -- but done right -- and some undistinguished carrots, plus a real good red, all for €23. A great end to the trip.

La Tomate, 6, rue Four des Flammes, tel 04 67 60 49 38
Bistrot d'Alco, 4, rue Bonnier d'Alco, tel 04 67 63 12 89
Bar Vert Anglais, 3, place Castellane, tel 04 67 66 03 03
Restaurant L'Escalier 6, rue Jules Latreilhe, tel 04 67 60 51 86

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Reported Without Comment

E-mail from the U.S. Embassy:

On Wednesday evening, June 25, Germany and Turkey will meet in the semifinal round of the 2008 European Football Championship in Basel, Switzerland. Various cities in Germany have set up viewing areas for the public to watch the live broadcast of this game. The "Fan Mile" in front of the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin is expected to draw up to 500,000 German and Turkish fans, Frankfurt am Main will host a public viewing area at the Rossmarkt, and Munich is setting up a large public viewing area at the Olympic Stadium where 30,000 fans are anticipated. Similar events are planned in other cities and spontaneous celebrations or demonstrations related to the match may occur throughout Germany.

Because of the high fan interest in this prestigious semi-final elimination game between Germany and Turkey, there exists the possibility that disturbances, including violent disturbances may occur before, during or after the match, which begins at 20:45. At a minimum, post-game celebrations will likely result in traffic congestion in larger cities. Crowds celebrating previous German and/or Turkish victories have blocked streets and rocked vehicles attempting to pass through them.

We remind American citizens in Germany that even mass gatherings and demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. American citizens are therefore urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any demonstrations. American citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Emigrant At Rest

So on my last day in Montpellier, to quell the unpleasant feeling that I hadn't really accomplished anything when, in fact, I knew I'd accomplished a great deal even though I still didn't have an apartment in hand, I went for a walk over where I'd been the day before -- only this time I took my camera.

I am the world's worst photographer, not only in the quality of my output -- with the rise of ubiquitous digital photography, I'm even willing to cede the crown of worst creator of photographs to someone else -- but because I just never remember to pack a camera when I go to potentially picturesque places. Partially this is because I have a large, clunky, but superb Nikon which isn't as sleek and inconspicuous as one of those thin, silvery little things. But that's not really the excuse; I've done this for years, packed a camera and never, or almost never, used it.

But since Thursday I'd spent some time wandering around the hilly parts near the University and the Cathedral, I decided to go back and actually shoot something.

This shows the Cathedral (St. Pierre, for those of you keeping score) sort of framed by some other buildings, as seen from a small park where people were sitting in the very warm noonday sun.

This is one of those side-streets between the Cathedral, the law school, and the rue de l'Université, just naturally picturesque enough that it's a point-and-shoot situation.

Another one, or part of the same one, I can't remember.

One of the doors leading to one of the old houses in that neighborhood.

And the shutter-style air-conditioning they've used for centuries.

I should say, though, that romanticizing these pictures isn't wise. The neighborhood is mostly quite poor, and, I'm told, dangerous at night. It was hot enough that windows and doors were open as I passed, and I saw large families inhabiting very small spaces, heard kids being spanked, and lots of loud televisions going. I'm sure that a micro-knowledge of the area would show that there are, indeed, students and artists living in some blocks, but there is definitely a funk going on there that might not make it an ideal location.

But I'm doing no planning for a day or two anyway. I have a big deadline at the end of this week, and I've got to put the pedal to the metal for it. This learning experience was costly, and although I haven't touched my lease-getting-and-moving nut, the bank account did take a hit. Next time I have to be far more efficient, strike and score, then come back and gather whatever houeshold necessities I can fit into a couple of suitcases, come back to the efficiency I've rented, and make it happen.

And happen it will. I know that now. And that is such a good feeling.

My thanks, incidentally, to Bart, Andy, Sam, Nick, Claude (in absentia), Etienne, Lou, Hannah, Peter, Dom, and the fine folks at ther Hotel des Arceaux, who did so much to help out.

And yes, a food post is next.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Immigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 8: Peter Has An Idea

Today's only fixed plan was to be at the Comédie tram-stop at 12:30, to meet Peter and another guy for lunch. This was, as usual, something to look forward to. Peter is something of a phenomenon, having been semi-retired in a village about 40 minutes north of Montpellier as the Peugeot flies, and using the other half of the semi to set up The Languedoc Page some years back. As you can see, it's a huge compendium of facts and links, including a very useful forum, all in English, all dedicated to this part of France. He's constantly networking, constantly making it better, and that's why he was putting me together with a guy who's just started some magazines in English, each dedicated to a different department within this region. (Departments are sort of like counties).

We all agreed there was nothing for me to do until I moved down, but it was a pleasant enough lunch and discussion, and I led the two through the back streets of the historic center so that the Le Mag guy could see various businesses serving the expat community.

Naturally, because I still haven't so much as looked at a place, I brought up my problems here. Peter told me that, as a landlord who rents a few studios up around his place, he often sees agencies he deals with asking for a year's rent in escrow. There are, however, other ways to go about it. What you need is a dossier, which is French for "pile of papers." Documents showing how much you earn, who employs you, things like that. It also helps to have someone who has a French job which brings in three times your month's rent serve as a guarantor. I took this all in, and by the time Peter and Le Mag blasted off, there was only a little time before I was to meet Nick at the Vert Anglais to see if his cousin could help me.

But over lunch, Peter had had a very good idea. "Why don't you rent a furnished studio and move down here temporarily, so that you can network with a much easier deadline?" he said. "School's out, and a lot of people rent student flats to tourists for the summer. You might find a place and have to eat a month's rent, but that would be better than trying to rent a place from Berlin." As I wandered the back streets in the hilly region over by the cathedral, some of Montpellier's most picturesque streets (including several I don't believe I've ever seen before, and I've walked lots of this town), I turned this over in my head.

I was lucky when I got to the Vert Anglais. Lou, who's working there, was sitting outside with a post-work beer. We sat down and had a long and intense conversation. She agreed that renting a studio for a couple of months was a great idea and, as seems to be her wont, whipped out her cell phone and SMS-ed a friend who had one to rent. Eventually, Nick showed up and apologized for not having gotten back to me, but, having learned that his father's real ill, I wasn't about to be anything but sympathetic. He promised to get ahold of me in the morning if he can reach his realtor cousin.

So thanks, Peter, for Plan B. I'm already on the track of a couple of studios, and it'll be easier to compile my dossier back in Berlin. Meanwhile, a miracle could happen, and I'm open to it. But I think that my mistake, if I could be said to have made one, was in misjudging the very laid-back tempo that attracts me to this place and thinking that I could score an apartment as quickly as I could in Berlin.

The new plan makes sense, and gives me something to spend the money for the work I'm currently doing on. It'll involve a bit more travel, and it'll involve spending more time here. If I wind up finding a place, I might even not have to eat the extra rent: a friend of mine in Italy has expressed interest in coming here, and I could toss the place to him for the remaining time.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm headed back to the Vert Anglais. As previously mentioned, Andy's getting the charcuterie tonight.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 7: Day Of Zen

After I posted here yesterday, I headed down to the Bar Vert Anglais, a great bar where a bunch of expats hang out, which also has affordable drinks and nice staff. I'd agreed to meet Etienne, a guy from Montpellier I'd met in Berlin when he was an architectural student (he's now an architect: see, education works!), there, and I knew Bart would be there, as well as a few other people I'd met in March.

And sure enough, there they were, with a few other people. There was Lou, who appears on Bart's blog as Blonde Lesbian, and in mine as the woman who cooked the second decent hamburger I'd had in Europe (her restaurant, like the place, Banana Republic, in Copenhagen, where I'd had my first decent Euroburger, is long gone), Sam the carpenter (who's going to get some work from me, since me + tools = disaster), and a bunch more. A silent guy I'd met briefly appeared with what looked like a large, unstable pizza, plopped it down on the table, and disappeared for a moment, returning with more stuff. He'd just given us a huge stack of charcuterie (coldcuts to you Americans, Aufschnitte to you Germans), plus a brilliantly-ripe Époisses, another ripe cheese that wasn't quite as complex, and a blue that made me remember that that village of Roquefort is nearby. Plus some sliced baguette. He then disappeared into the bar to watch the game.

I told my tale of woe: no luck with the agency, the idiotic escrow demand, and everyone went off at once. "Don't use an agency! I know that one: they're the worst in town! It's word of mouth you want; it's the only way to get a place here." Well, I said, let the mouths form some words. I told them what I was after and cell phones came out, buttons were pressed, and messages left. A guy walked out of the bar and surveyed the scene outside. It was Nick, the owner. "Hey," said Bart, "Nick's cousin rents apartments." So I talked to Nick. "Well, I dunno..." he said. I told him luxury wasn't the aim, but a roof over my head was. Nothing fancy, just big enough for all my crap. "Hmmm. I'll see what I can do. Come back tomorrow at l'heure apéro, around 6, and I'll see what I can do. I bet I can come up with something."

So there I was: good company, good food, and an evening that was warming up nicely. Again, I realized why I wanted to be here.

I left after a couple of hours to dine (yes, there will be the customary after-journey wrapup of food, but not just now), and thought, hey, this might just work.

So this morning's Yahoo horoscope basically said that only a good attitude would get me what I wanted, but not if I had any doubts. I was stymied as to a way forward: the morning e-mail had a turn-down from the only private ad I'd been able to find ("Sorry, already rented. Good luck!") and I had all day til Nick showed up at the bar. I did a bit of work, then sauntered into town with no particular plan. One thing I knew was that I'd need a telephone when I moved, so I checked FNAC and priced some. FNAC has an interesting detail: all of their prices include an eco-tax for the packaging, so that the more packaging something has, the more tax you pay. Very nice. Then I went to the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, a big green space nearby, and had lunch. After that I figured I'd go back to the hotel and work some more.

I got to the Bar Vert Anglais at around 6 and found Bart there. Nick was nowhere in sight, but I'd learned last night that his dad is sick, and he might be preoccupied, but I left a message with one of the bartenders and he called to no avail. I sat down and ordered an apéro.

It occurred to me that this was the first nice day in a while, and that I should just surrender to the rhythm of the place. Let it happen. Eventually Andy, an Irish musician and IT specialist showed up, then Sam the carpenter. "Hey," said Sam, "remember that place I told you about? I should give you the guy's number." So I wrote it down. He called him. No answer. "He's a flight attendant, so his phone's probably turned off." Okay.

Nick didn't show up. I found myself not concerned. This was good.

Eventually, I was hungry, so I paid my bill and went off in search of dinner. I looked at the streets as I walked. I suddenly had a strange feeliing. It was optimism. This is going to work out.

I have an interesting business meeting tomorrow around lunch time. I'm told Nick will almnost certainly be in around 4. I'm going to try the flight attendant again tomorrow. And I'm sure I'll connect with Nick while I'm here. If I have to come back in a week, so be it, although the annual dance festival will be going, and there might not be hotel rooms.

I won't panic. I'll find an apartment. I didn't find it today, but there are two more days. The sun is shining, it's warm, and the smell of melons as I pass vegetable stands is intoxicating.

I've walked over a threshhold. And tomorrow is another day. And it's Andy's turn for charcuterie.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 6: Thud

That sound you just heard was my plans, hopes, and dreams all landing in an untidy heap, smashed and ruined. No biggie; I've been there before. But I'm a bit concerned.

For the past month, I've scoured websites at least once a day. seeing how much space goes for how much rent and learning the vocabulary of French real estate. I haven't wanted to, but I've had to learn which real estate agencies might be able to help me find an apartment of the size I want in the part of town I want. Rental-by-owner is a rare commodity in France. Before I left Berlin, I sent e-mails in rotten French to a couple of agencies which were representing properties I thought looked good. Funky, without a doubt, but good.

Then, when I got in last night and a fairly violent thunderstorm put paid to my plans to hit the legendary Bar Vert Anglais to meet some folks to see if they'd come up with anything, I checked again, just to make sure the properties were still listed. They were.

I got up this morning and headed out to look at some of them. The two I liked best I couldn't find. I mean, not even the street. Of course, I'd accidentally left my street map back at the hotel. But thanks to a remarkable web-site operated by the French Yellow Pages, I'd already "walked" some of these streets and knew what was there. (I eliminated one looks-good possibility when I found it was right over a business called Euro Kebab, for instance. Pfew!) What I did find was a lot of what seemed to be mom-and-pop agencies specializing in various neighborhoods. None of them had what seemed to be a lot of places, but I only need one, I told myself.

Finally, I went to a big agency that had a place listed that seemed quite nice. It was in an old building, near the place where I stayed when I first visited here, and it seemed perfect, at least as a place to start. I was sent to the second floor, where an offiious East Asian woman sat behind a computer. In halting French, I told her the address of the place I wanted. "Well, first," she said, "how long have you been employed by your current employer?" About 40 years, I told her; I'm self-employed. She was shocked. "You'll need to put down some money, you know." Yes, I was prepared for that. I knew I had to put down two months' rent, plus something close to it for the agency's fee. I had that. She asked me what I wanted and I told her. I also mentioned that I had a specific property in mind and gave her the address. She clicked some buttons and shook her head. "When did you see that on our website?" she asked. I looked at my watch. "About 45 minutes ago." Which was true: everything closes for lunch here and I'd gone back to the hotel to check once more.

It wasn't in her list. "Look," she said. "Do you realize that you have to have financial security before we'll rent to you? You need a guarantor who is French. You also need to put a year's rent in escrow." Whaaat? That's insane! Even the Germans aren't that crazy. I wondered: did this have anything to do with my being American? With being self-employed? Both? Or was it just the agency not wanting to deal with the small change of rental?

But it took a lot of wind out of my sails, I have to say. I've subsequently learned that the guarantor thing is real. The year's escrow, on the other hand...I wonder. I've lost a day's apartment hunting, and I've got another place I'd like to look at, but I'm going to talk to some folks tonight so I'll be a bit more confident when I start out in the morning.

There is one place whose landlord, a British guy, I've been corresponding with. The building seems filthy from the outside, and is on a main street that's choked with traffic. The company representing it wants way more than he quoted to me, too. It's right behind the Préfecture, the mayor's office, but when I went back there it looked like every cop in Montpellier was outside, and traffic was being diverted. Maybe Mme Sarkozy was paying a visit.

I've got tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday to find something. Tomorrow, Thursday, Friday and a miracle.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 5: Stepping Into Thin Air

Dang, I should have updated that last post way earlier. Here's how things stand now.

The money I was expecting came, of course, that Friday, so naturally I missed Morocco -- and also a couple of meals. But it did come, and that's good, because the one thing I can't change is my hotel reservation in Montpellier: I was lucky to be able to get it, this being the beginning of high season, and as it is, I have to change from one of the cheap rooms to one of the expensive ones half-way through.

Once the dough was in hand, I headed down to Kopfbahnhof, Berlin's only travel agency specializing in rail travel, and booked a Berlin-Montpellier ticket. I already had the Montpellier-Berlin ticket from my previous itinerary. They're such hotshots that they discovered it was cheaper to do the Paris-Montpellier link first class on the TGV, so that'll be nice.

I've spent the rest of the week dealing with a sudden influx of work (sure, it always happens when you just barely have time to do it, right?) and scanning dozens of real estate agency websites. I'm still hoping to get a place directly through a landlord, thereby cutting off a month's rent worth of agency fee, but with only four days, effectively -- Tuesday thru Friday -- to nail down a place, I'm taking any offers I get.

One interesting observation from the real-estate ads is the notation "cuisine équipée," which means "equipped kitchen." If this notation doesn't exist, you have to assume you'll be getting your own appliances. I already have a great refrigerator and an almost-new washing machine, but the most expensive part of this is the stove, and I may have to buy a stove and have it installed, an expense I hadn't reckoned with. On the other hand, there's this work that's suddenly appeared, so unless the moving van turns out to be vastly more expensive than I'd reckoned, I can likely handle it.

I did have one guy come through to give me a moving estimate. I'd been warned he was eccentric -- he's British, and specializes in hauling stuff back and forth from Berlin to the U.K. -- and he certainly delivered. He cast a casual eye over things, commented that books are heavy and a lot of my stuff was trash (that's right; butter up the customer!) and basically gave off a vibe of not wanting to do it. He told me he'd moved some people with less stuff than I have to Avignon recently, and said he'd come up with an estimate. A few days later, he did: €3800. Something tells me I could beat that; I know people who've moved everything they had back to the U.S. for less.

So Monday I'm off. I've got enough to score a place, pay for the hotel, and eat. I'm back very late Saturday night, with, I hope, a lease in my hands. If anyone in Montpellier is reading this, I hope to be at the Bar Vert Anglais Monday night about 10:30 to meet up with a couple of people, so drop by and say hi -- and tell me if you know of any places for rent! Here's what I'm looking for: Ecusson, T2 or T3, 50-60m2, €500-600. The students are clearing out, I can move in between the 1st and 15th of July (or later if need be), and I'm a wonderful tenant because I'm looking to rent 12 months at a time. All of that and two euros gets me a ride on the tram, I know, but it's now or never.

Oh, and let me know if you have a deal on a gas stove. I might need one fast.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 4: Best Laid Plans

So if I were doing a blog post today, it was supposed to have been out of Aix-en-Provence, a place I've wanted to visit for a while, and a stopover between Berlin and Fes, Morocco, where I was supposed to have been attending the Festival of World Sacred Music.


This weekend, a thought struck me: I'm owed €1200 by a magazine. I work for them regularly, they always pay quickly, and there was no reason to believe this money wouldn't be along shortly. It wasn't there Friday, it wasn't there Saturday. This raised the tension a bit, since I had to pay rent and bills before I left. There'd be a nice chunk of change left over, which would pay for hotels in France, daily expenses in Morocco, and whatnot, and there'd be plenty still in my pocket when the train from Marseille dropped me at Montpellier St. Roch station at noon on June 16.

The money wasn't there on Monday. It wasn't there on Tuesday.

Just because you know things have to get even more tense before they can deflate, Wednesday dawned with my waiting for a Federal Express guy to pick up the recordings I'd made for Fresh Air on Tuesday over at ARD. Since I wanted to get an early start on the day, when I'd filled out the pickup form on line, I'd put 10:30 as the earliest time for pickup and noon as the latest. After that I'd be free to hit the bank and, assuming the money was there, do my pre-trip shopping (surge protector, etc.), pack, and so on.

At noon the phone rang. It was FedEx. They were at my old house and couldn't find me. Well, of course not! I told the guy where I was and he told me that this wasn't his problem, that one of his colleagues would have to pick it up and I should go back to the website and fill out a whole other pickup form. So I did. And put a new permanent address for me there, as well. I specified that they should pick it up immediately, or as late as 3. Not a lot of time, and I couldn't leave the house to check the bank, but I'd survive.

At 3:45 the guy finally showed. I handed him the package and followed him out the door to head to the bank as fast as I could go.

The money wasn't there.

So I trudged back home, cancelled my plane ticket to Marseille (€250, no refund), both hotel reservations for before and after the Moroccan trip, and threw away my Marseille-Montpellier train ticket (€17). I also wrote the publicist who'd set things up, and to put it mildly, she was not pleased. I was informed, rather icily, that I would never be approved for this jaunt again, because of the last-minute cancellation. I tended to look at it as trying until the last minute to make it, but okay.

There's an up side to this, of course. Nobody has agreed to take this apartment after I leave, so I have more time to show it. I can concentrate on the still-unknown moving cost and maybe make a commitment to a mover. (I just got off the phone with a guy who'd given the place a cursory look the other day, clearly not interested, and who called me back with a quote of €3800. Somehow I think I can do better than that...) And my risk of gastrointestinal disaster has just dipped significantly.

Now, when the money comes, I'll just head to Kopfbahnhof, that nest of crazed rail-nerds, and buy a Berlin-Montpellier ticket.

And meanwhile, I scan the rental ads online and realize that there are quite a few places that look just right. Now to snag one.