Sunday, July 27, 2008

Food Again (And Drink)

Before I utterly forget everything about last week, I should stick some of my food notes here.

One big difference between this trip and the previous ones was that after my first night, I moved into a thing called MySuiteInn, way out on a traffic circle about 30 minutes' walk or a 10 minute bus-ride (when the buses weren't on strike, and between 6:30 am and 8pm) from the center of town. Across the circle was a big Champion supermarket, hardly upscale, but nonetheless superior to anything in Berlin. As I said before, not paying ten or 12 euros for breakfast was a good deal (although I spent the same amount getting back there at night with a taxi). The French have little ready-made toasts called petits pains which can be spread with cream cheese or jam, and their yoghurt is immeasurably better than German yoghurt -- even the commercial stuff.

I had several lunches at the Vert Anglais in the Place Castellane, where Nick the owner is trying to punch up his lunch business. I ate there not just to support him, but because, as I said last time I was down, it's really good. Their salades composées are superb, although the Caesar needs work (and I've already e-mailed him my Caesar dressing recipe, so if he uses it, it'll be the first public place you can taste it, since the other place is on Bob Dylan's tours). There's also a Vert Anglais burger I'm anxious to try, and a cold pile of shrimp which looks like it'd hit the spot.

The best dinner was private, cooked by Miss Expatria one evening. Not only is she a good cook, but she's good company, as is Bart. She improvised a pasta sauce from some tiny tomatoes, a French concoction called farce which is a ready-made meat mixture you can use to stuff tomatoes or peppers, some fresh basil, and some red chiles.

My regular fave, Bistrot d'Alco, was closed for vacation, but I hit La Chêneraie (excellent, although I thought I'd taken notes as to what I had and didn't) and L'Escalier (my last meal in town, it was a perfectly-cooked onglet de boeuf with a stupendous wine-and-shallot reduction preceded by a soupe de poisson that wasn't anywhere near that at La Tomate from last visit). It's still astonishing to me that you can get out of one of these places for around €20 for two courses and wine and I found myself wondering what some of the slightly higher-priced places would be like. I'm sure I'll have a chance to find out some day.

There were also a couple of new places. At one point I developed a swelling of my gums on one side of my jaw which vanished as quickly as it came, but sure was a drag while it hung around, so I went looking for stuff that was soft. One idea someone floated past me was to get mussels, so I headed to the place he recommended, Chez Elia, which looks like a Brazilian restaurant and, in fact, is, since Elia herself is Brazilian and half the menu is things like feijoiada. I had moules Provençal, which was mussels cooked in Pernod with minced fennel strewn in it. Excellent, and only 11 euros. I'm told that Elia and her French husband are moving back to Brazil in December, so catch this place when you can.

The other sore-gums place was someplace nobody I'd talked to had ever been, La Ferme, which drew me in by offering tartiflette, a dish of baked sliced potatoes cooked in cream with bits of ham in it and hunks of cheese melted over it. Not hardly a summer dish, but I was hurting, and it was soft. It was served with a separate plate of ham and dry sausage and salad, and hit the spot, although before recommending this place to the less dentally-challenged, I'd want to try something else, too.

But the place I'm most anxious to try again was the one everyone referred to as the New Bar because it had just opened. If I've got my bearings on the map right, it's on the rue St-Côme, near another standby bar of the expat community, Mi Barrio. It's got a name -- something to do with Léon, probably Chez Léon -- but people are probably going to wind up calling it something else. It's run by an affable Spaniard, Manu, and his family, and is notable by its long awning with the words "Restaurant Agricole" on it, as well as the boxes of fresh produce -- potatoes, onions -- sitting right on the curb. Just about everything is organic, there are plants on the tables -- ours had fresh oregano and a chili plant -- and besides huge salads and cold soups, it has a prominent rotisserie which, on the night I was there, was turning out lamb, chicken, and rabbit. I started off with a salad that combined tiny strawberries, cubes of watermelon, and a slice of pineapple (probably not locally grown, ahem) with a dressing of crème fraiche and fresh spearmint. I don't even like watermelon and I ate it all. After that, on everyone's urging (we were a party of about nine), I got the lamb, mostly because I usually don't like it, and everyone was raving about it. It came accompanied by a bowl of roasted vegetables which had been strewn on the floor of the rotisserie, absorbing the fats from the roasting meats. There were also jars of mustards, including a grape mustard which married well with the meat and the superb house red, which was fruity and light, a perfect summer red. Once again, the price was amazingly low. I wish these folks luck, because I'm selfish: I want to revisit this place often.

I may never straighten out all the Languedoc wines in my head, although I'm going to make a concerted effort, since so many of them are phenomenal and way underpriced. My favorite for some years has been Mas de la Seranne, from the village of Aniane, not far away. There was a British importer, Pic Wines, which was bringing it to England, but they went out of business earlier this year, so the only way to get it now is to get it in France. They make several cuvées, from the cheapo €5.60 Ombre des Figuiers ("Shadow of the Fig-trees") to the mezzo €12.60 Clos des Immortelles to a few more above that. The idea that I could live in a place where I could just pick up a bottle of that stuff for less than six euros is almost enough to make the move worthwhile right there. Admittedly, my tastes are very New World, and this is a big, fruity, start with a dazzling number of complexities (the more you pay, the bigger the after-show on your tongue is) afterwards that I still haven't gotten a fix on.

On this trip, I also discovered an even more local wine, Terre Megere, but I've yet to find it in a shop, so I'm not at all sure what it costs or what varieties it comes in. This is an actual Montpellier wine from Cournonsec, less than ten miles to the southwest. Google gets me all kinds of people selling it in Britain and elsewhere, but the exact bottle I tried doesn't seem to be among the reds and whites they have listed. The distinguishing feature of the label was that it looked like it had had dirt splashed on it, carefully printed on.

But my best discovery came on not this trip, but the last one. I'm not the kind of hearty drinker many of my friends at the Vert Anglais are, especially before a meal, but I did want to be sociable. I was about to order a Campari and soda, but thought, wait a minute, I'm in France. Surely there's something local that's comprarable. Jody the barman brought out a couple of shot glasses of possibilities, a vermouth (too sweet) and a ghastly-looking substance which he said was called Suze. Nicely bitter, with a hint of sweetness, and a really complex taste (it's made from gentian root, of all things, and is a bizarre psychedelic yellow color) which unpacked after he'd poured some Perrier onto it and tossed in a couple of thin slices of lemon, it's low-alcohol enough that it doesn't destroy your head or your tongue before dinner. I also had the distinct advantage of the fact that nobody else at the bar liked it, but I wound up drinking enough of it over the space of these two visits that the bottle was drained. I assume it had been tapped before, but I'm not sure if Nick will order another (he really detests it) until I actually get an apartment down there. Still, sitting in the shade, coming off of a 90-degree day, hanging out with good folks and watching the street-life of Montpellier at the end of a workday, it's a good drink to sip.

Can't find it in Berlin. Time to move.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Yes, the obligatory Obama post.

Of course I went. I'd seen Clinton in...'94?...and couldn't remember a word he'd said and wanted to see if Obama could do better. Opting for comfort (a relative term in a situation like this) over being metal-detected and waiting in line to get into the main venue, we stopped at the first video screen we came to on 17 Juni, and that turned out to have been a great decision.

The trade-off, of course, was suffering through the pre-show "entertainment," a reggae-oid band and a standard-issue rock band which sounded like a fourth-generation xerox of U2. Although, I have to admit, finding rock bands in Europe with the credentials to get the kind of security clearance you'd have to have to play a gig like this couldn't have been easy. Asking them to be good would be too much, and not having them would have meant more of the DJ, who got extra points for tone-deafness for sticking on some remix of "Sympathy for the Devil" shortly before Obama hit the stage. (Actual last song before he spoke, though, was Bowie doing "Let's Dance," and I think I can now live without hearing that one ever again. Talk about dated...)

As for the speech itself, the New York Times summed it up nicely in their morning headline: Obama, Vague on Issues, Pleases Crowd in Europe. The thing I had to keep remembering as the blurry phrases piled up around the wall metaphor he'd set up at the start (the Wall and the Berlin Airlift were the two leitmotifs) was that this was a speech for Americans, not the Germans who'd taken off from work early on a nice Thursday afternoon to hear him.

It was good to hear him defend a military presence in Afghanistan, which is something a sizeable number of Germans, with their knee-jerk anti-war attitudes, don't want to hear, but he was right: this is a golden chance, already mostly-blown by the US, to restore a country devastated by war to a functioning, and peaceful, state. It was good to hear him denounce nuclear weapons, not just in Iran (where they don't have them) but around the world. And it was really good to hear him emphasize that the US and Europe have to listen to each other, and to reject unilateralism: that part of the speech was for the Europeans.

If the speech was, in the end, the proverbial Chinese food ("you're hungry an hour later"), it was still a good PR move by the man who will very likely take the reins of the US government next year. The weather was beautiful, and by delaying his speech til a little after 7, he was helped by a setting sun rich in red tones, which burnished his skin into a nicely metaphoric medley of colors.

I got what I needed -- a (bootleg, I think, since it was being sold by some people also selling t-shirts for a sauna company) button I can attach to myself discreetly in Ameriskeptic contexts (read: France) -- and we left right after the speech, while the video screen still showed him shaking hands with the crowd. As we headed up 17 Juni, the loneliest man in Berlin stood, a 60-something-year-old guy holding an umbrella, from which little McCain signs depended. Germans were mocking him loudly, and I almost felt sorry for him except for the fact that he was, in fact, advocating a continuation of the horror the US has lived through for the past eight years.

And yes, an hour later I was hungry.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Montpellier Thanks America

Down near the train station in Montpellier is a small park. In it is this monument.

The place is marked on the map as Square Planchon, and this inscription (sorry, it's only partial) is another clue about what it's for.

As it turns out, Jules Émile Planchon was a French botanist who was the head of the botany department at Montpellier University when the phylloxera plague started killing off all the French grapevines. In collaboration with Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet and the American Charles Valentine Riley, he discovered that importing American grape rootstock and grafting French vines onto it made the vines resistant to the organism that was spreading the plague.

So what we've got here is a thankful farmer offering thanks to Planchon and an inscription noting that it was the Americans who saved the French wine industry. See? The French don't hate us completely!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Art In The Afternoon

So what's a guy to do after a day's apartment hunting has come up dry, he's a 30-minute walk from his hotel (and in no hurry to return to its barren location on a traffic circle in the middle of nowhere) and he's in the middle of downtown Montpellier? Go see art, of course.

It's not like there's a lot to see. Montpellier is a fairly crappy town for art. Of course, there's the ultra-deluxe, newly-reopened Musée Fabre, which is currently playing host to the Courbet show that the Met had recently played host to (before that was in Paris). I'm no Courbet fan, really, but the place is air-conditioned, and the show's gotten some ecstatic reviews, so I walked down there and paid the reasonable admission price.

It's kind of too bad that this show's been promoted by the "crazy artist" self-portrait Courbet painted in his youth, since the whole story is a lot more complex than you'd gather from looking at it. Courbet, of course, was a great self-promoter, and this image plays right into his "tortured artist" schtick, even though for most of his life he was a great deal less tormented and more comfortable -- albeit fairly revolutionary -- and made a point of entering all the official competitions in Paris. Some of his subject matter was shocking for its realism, and a lot of his technique stretched the boundaries of what the Establishment of his day felt was acceptable, but my take on the body of work shown here is that he yo-yoed back and forth between shocking the old men and sucking up to them.

Of course, what was revolutionary in Courbet's day is hardly so today, but especially in his landscapes, I got the distinct feeling that he, like many other artists of his day, was groping towards Impressionism, which for obvious reasons -- the existence of an Academy, the fact that photography hadn't really been improved yet, the conservatism of collectors -- took a long time to happen. Stare at a seascape, something Courbet rendered masterfully, long enough and you're going to start going Impressionist, not to mention abstract, in your head. His paintings of woodlands, too, are just blurry enough around the edges to make you realize that he's playing with the textures color can make happen as much as he's "painting the woods."

But then there are things like his hunting paintings. It's not just revulsion at the subject matter that makes me dislike them -- hell, anyone who's seen as many German renderings of hunts as I have has gotten used to that by now -- but the fact that they must have been painted to appeal to the bourgeoisie. Who else would be interested? Who else would be so attracted to themes like The Nobility Of The Dying Stag or Nature Brought To Bay? Really, Gustave: nice technique, but the subject-matter is hardly as revolutionary as you make yourself out to be.

See, that's the maddening thing about Courbet: he was always proclaiming that he was totally overthrowing the world of art, but half the time he was backpedaling. Of course, the other half of the time he was, um, totally overthrowing the world of art. Painting nudes, for instance: not revolutionary. Painting two fat lesbians bathing in a river, on the other hand, would tend to bring the squares up short. Not to mention the famous Sleep, which is wonderfully composed, impeccably painted, and very, very explicit.

This is what made people crazy when it came to Courbet: he'd enter something like this in the Big Show in Paris and everyone would have to admit that boy, did he have technique and all, but eeek, the subject-matter! And we won't even discuss his famous Origin of the World, one of the most notorious paintings ever made, and also in this show.

(I note "also in this show" because two of his most important paintings, one of his studio, and another whose subject is a funeral, are not in the show, for some reason, having stayed home at the Louvre. It's a bit disconcerting to read and read about them in the captioning without at least being able to see a reproduction.)

Courbet's end is pretty sad, considering the flamboyant life he led for years. He got mixed up with the Paris Commune, and advocated the pulling-down of a military monument in Paris. It was probably just crazy-artist talk, but the Communards went and did it, and after their revolution was put down, the government went at Courbet to try to get him to pay close to a quarter-million francs for its restoration. He was imprisoned for a number of years, and completed one really great painting, The Trout in jail. His health never recovered, and he died broke.

I didn't anticipate seeing this show, so I didn't take notes. Please excuse the sketchy nature of the above (and below) as a result. In fact, I'd hoped to put it off until a friend who works at the Fabre came back from vacation and could sneak me in for free. But, as it turned out, the Courbet show, even for a Romantiphobe like myself, was worth paying for.

* * *

Thus, having seen it, and with more time on my hands, I decided to see the rest of the museum. Big mistake: who knew there could be that much bad art under one roof? Well, me for one: back in the days when I was roving cultural correspondent for this part of the world for the Wall Street Journal Europe, I'd make it a point to hit the art museum in any given city I was visiting after I'd done reporting what I'd gone to see -- which was often a show at said art museum. And folks, Europe is filled with culture and some of it is just plain awful. For every Gustave Courbet, there were 500 artists with skill and technique and absolutely no ideas at all. One of them was Fabre himself, who decided to remind Montpellier for all eternity that he'd lived there by erecting a museum to house his eye-glazingly dull paintings and those of his pals. This serves as the core, and the guide to acquiring new paintings, for the current museum. You have been warned.

Since the Festival du Radio France was (and still is) going on there, the Fabre has a short-time exhibition of Stradivarius instruments, violins, violas, and cellos only (no guitars -- and he made plenty). And although there were publicity materials for this at the Tourist Office, there wasn't a single sign anywhere in the museum indicating where these were on display. None. I finally asked a guard.

And while we're on the subject of stuff that doesn't work in the Fabre, two more things. Although the Courbet show had played the Met, the English captions are extremely truncated, and don't give nearly the amount of information the French ones do. It seems to me that there must've been ready-made captions available: why not use them? The other thing is ongoing: during the course of my visit, I used a men's room. When I entered, the light was on. As it should be, right? Well, it didn't stay on long, and the room, windowless, was utterly black. I finally managed to bang against the door-handle in my blindness, and the light went back on. That's the switch. You might like to remember that. Also, after I washed my hands, I realized there were no towels. Nor is this an anomaly: walking around with wet hands, I found another men's room. No towels in that, either. Nor are there any of those stupid air-blowers. Nothing. Weird.

* * *

On my first night in town, Miss Expatria reminded me that there was a show of 240 photographs by Weegee for free at the Pavillion Populaire, which is sort of across the street from the Fabre, and on another afternoon of frustration, I decided to see it. In fact, I realized as I walked in, I'd never really seen any of Weegee's work in bulk, just a few gallery shows at a Berlin gallery which represents his estate. Those shows tended to be thematic, and this was more general.

That said, it was thematically organized: the show opens, oddly enough, with images of sleep -- often drunken sleep, since Weegee loved the Bowery. I kept thinking there must be another way to organize this material that's not so damn linear, but haven't come up with one yet. Still, by the second or third room I'd surrendered to Usher H. Fellig's vision (no wonder he called himself Weegee). It's hard not to: just looking at one of his shots is a confrontation. What he's making you look at often isn't pretty, but it's Right! There! in your face. Looking away isn't an option: it'd be a violation of your contract with the photo. And, whether or not what you're seeing is "the truth," you're sure as hell looking at what he wants you to see. Some of it -- the shots of couples making out in movie theaters, done with infrared film -- verges on stalking. Verges, hell: it is stalking. And most of his subjects are stripped naked, even the nudes, who glare at you as if saying "This is me. So what?" There's an erotic frisson, but it dissipates pretty quickly.

Again, I didn't take notes, but one thing really struck me: the captions to each set were as dumb as could be. Only someone who had never set foot in the United States could have written them (they're all in French, if that helps). And in some cases, they're so ignorant that it hurts: there are numerous shots taken at Sammy's, a cabaret on the Bowery that was big with the upper crust who went slumming, with entertainers and characters galore. The caption notes that after Sammy's closed, it was a long time before entertainment returned to the Bowery with the opening of CBGBs, which, it says, featured Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Uh... And the simple captions on the pictures themselves are also suspect: in a series on strippers, there's one of a few girls with op-art designs painted on their bodies standing in front of a rock band with Fender guitars. This is labelled as being from the late 1940s. So late, I'd say, that it was at least 20 years into the late 1940s.

None of this, of course, distracts from the images themselves, and the show's up until September 14. If you're in town, go. It's one of the art bargains of the summer.

Still to come, notes on food.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 11: Next Steps

In the end, it came down to this: with a thousand euros snarled in PayPal, with another needed check not arriving, and with the conservatism of French landlords requiring that I not use an agency, it was up to the Landlord of Last Resort. This is a guy who moves around the expat bars of Montpellier offering places on a month-to-month basis. No lease, no protection from his whims, no security whatever, but...a place to live. I'd heard various unpleasant things about him, but I talked with several of the folks at the Vert Anglais and they convinced me it was worth a shot. The complex politics of a small town's expat community, though, made it impossible to get his number directly from the one person everyone knew would have it (the explanation is rather tedious, but essentially the guys who'd once worked for the guy with the number had had enough and had bought the VA, thereby angering him, and if it became known I was with them, he might make things difficult), but a few text messages and, on Saturday morning, I gave him a call.

Nervous as I was about talking French -- and understanding his locally-accented variety of it -- we did manage to communicate and it turned out that he didn't, in fact, have anything but a very small studio at the moment. Thus evaporated my last chance at getting something on this trip.

So where does this leave me now? I'm savvier about using online sources. For the most part, the e-mail alerts and web-pages I've looked at -- classifieds, et. al. -- are useless. Besides the bait-and-switch places, people who post apartments on them don't often understand what they're writing, so you have to plow through dozens of ads every day that aren't for what they say they are. Also, it's useless to book a hotel online, because, as my first night proved, they lie about how close to town they are. A little knowledge of the area helps filter that, but my second hotel wasn't much better than the first, in the end, and had an out-of-control air-conditioner blowing straight onto the bed, which made sleep difficult.

But there were other, intangible aspects to the trip which were very heartening. For one thing, the group which gathers for "l' heure apéro" at the Vert Anglais are fine, friendly folk. Just sitting talking with them made me happy I'd chosen Montpellier: sharing stories, opinions, and so on with them was enjoyable and reinforced the lazy rhythm at which things happen there. Several of them have now said -- and I believe them -- that they'll keep their ears open and let me know as soon as possible when something opens up. I've committed myself to being there 48 hours after getting at least one positive report. And, since this group of expats inhabits a different time-frame than the students, to whom I'd been hitching my own hopes, a vacancy might not come before the students get back in September.

Somewhere, I realized, there'd be someone who was growing unhappy with their place. Maybe a new child was on the way, a better job with a transfer to another city, a couple splitting apart, or just a chance to get a bigger or smaller place that was more suitable. I had dinner with friends in an apartment which, for square footage and price, would be ideal, and there are other apartments in their building -- all, at the moment, occupied, but they're there.

So I'm hoping I don't fade from memory and that these folks will remember to get in touch via the miracle of e-mail, but I have to get some stuff together on my end, too.

This latest fishing trip cost me more than I'd have liked and dipped into my war chest to an unacceptable degree. My first priority now is to raise some more money. Not a lot, but more. I have to have a minimum of €1800 ready to give a landlord. I also have to have enough to get back down there when the moment comes; Montpellier isn't exactly around the corner. At the moment, I don't have this (not that I'm ready for another 14-hour train-ride tomorrow morning, of course). So I have to get some work on this end to re-stock the war chest.

Sadly, the group I was supposed to see and write about were in Montpellier for three days, but, although I'd tried to set things up with their management a month in advance, there was no communication until the day I left and although I tried, I was unable to contact them. This is a drag, since the fee from that article was very much a part of my plans. In over 40 years of writing about musicians, I have to say, I've almost never had anything like this happen. I'm very disappointed.

So I'm back in Berlin for the forseeable future, looking hard for work, trying to think of what I can do to raise money. (If I could also simultaneously raise the dollar-to-euro rate, boy, I'd do that too: one night, one of the folks I was dining with told me that in fact there was no informal cap on that rate, as I reported here earlier. I'm not sure he's a reliable source, although he does seem to work in the financial arena in some way, but that was chilling to hear).

I now realize more strongly than ever that I'm not going to be in Berlin forever. I've bumped into a couple of stories down there I want to report, and I'm sure there are more: I was so focussed on finding a place that I wasn't looking too hard. And although I came up empty on this trip, I'm more convinced than ever that a change of scene is essential for my making a professional breakthrough, and that this is the place where it'll happen. The dying dollar and the implosion of the writing trade are working against me, but I'm more determined than ever to make this happen.

Next up, posts on art and food. And fussy types will note that I've gotten the chapter numbers changed so they actually make sense. Back soon with more.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 10: The Week of (Almost) Giving Up

I don't believe in omens, do you? Or, phrased differently, should I?

Sunday, everything was looking good for getting the move together. I printed out my latest U.S. bank statement, and had gathered together my German ones, all ready for my copy machine. These, along with some letters from people who use my work, would comprise the dossier that French landlords require. I had several leads saved in my accounts at various online apartment-search engines in France. I laid the first two sheets of the bank statements on the machine, pressed the button and...scan failure. It spat out an incomprehensible piece of paper with specks of grey on it. I rebooted the machine. It happened again. I took a deep breath, and told myself there'd be copy-shops in Montpellier.

Monday, as all days with 14-hour train rides tend to be, was uneventful. I called my friends from the Montpellier station and they were on their way to see the fireworks for Bastille Day. I told them I'd check in at my hotel and join them. I then went to the tram-stop and got on the tram.

Thirty minutes later, the tram stopped at its last stop. My hotel was further down the road. I grabbed my luggage and walked down a desolate highway. Finally the lights of the hotel heaved into view. There would, it developed, be no more trams back into town. I was Out There. So I called my friends, expressed regrets, and read til it was time for bed.

The next morning, I realized that this hotel was too far out of town to be practical. It wasn't just in a suburb (Castelnau-le-Lez, if you're keeping score) but in a suburb of a suburb. I booked a room at a suite hotel, cheap, that seemed to be in town, packed my bags, and checked out. The guy at the desk sighed as I told him I liked the place fine (sort of a lie) but I had business in the centre ville and couldn't conduct it from this far out.

Not knowing exactly where my new place was, I took the tram back to the train station and grabbed a taxi. Ten euros later, I was at my new place, which was also not exactly central. There was, however, a bus stop right in front of the place, and another across the street which would get me back into town. But the first thing to do would be to get my in-room internet going and cruise the classifieds. This didn't prove to be easy. There was no cable in the room, as there usually is. The front desk explained that they sold the cables -- the employees themselves -- to raise a little extra money. How French!

But once I'd bought one, it still didn't work. I jacked around with the computer for several hours, then took it down to the lounge where there was free wi-fi. Not exactly to my surprise, there were no new listings the day after a national holiday. It was getting on towards six, so I decided to chuck it all and head into town to meet the crew at the Vert Anglais. One of them, Andy, is an IT specialist, and might have a clue what was wrong with my hookup.

There was an additional complication. As usual, I wanted access to a large amount of cash in order to be able to just nail a place if I found one. I had around 1200 euros' worth of dollars in my bank account, and was expecting more. But since I couldn't be certain it'd get there on time, I asked a friend who'd offered financial assistance if I were in need to loan me another thousand euros' worth of dollars, less than I was expecting, but enough to cover any eventuality. He agreed, and then did something that turned out to be disastrous: he used PayPal.

One of the last e-mails I saw before heading into town was that my PayPal account had been suspended pending investigation of my circumstances to allay suspicions that I was money laundering. One of the pieces of evidence they needed was a faxed document showing my address -- a recent utility bill would do. Well, I have recent utility bills, although no fax machine, but they were all back in Berlin.

In town, the crew was gathered around the usual table at the Bar Vert Anglais. I went in to say hi to the bartender, and told him in passing that I'd discovered that the bus that served my hotel stopped running at 8. "Welcome to France," he said, "where nothing works." I took my drink (Suze and tonic -- I'll write about my discovery of this magic fluid later) and sat down at the table. I mentioned my computer troubles to Andy, who basically said "it could be anything," which turned out to be true, as we'll see. As for PayPal Bart told me he does all his billing through PayPal and that he's never had trouble with multiple thousands, so I should just call their number in the States and I'd be surprised how helpful they were.

This left the big problem: no apartments. Unlike a couple of weeks ago, nobody knew of anything. This was not heartening. Of course, the places people did know about last time didn't pan out at all, so it was about even. I decided to treat myself to a nice welcome-to-Montpellier dinner at one of the cheap restaurants I liked (the Bistrot d'Alco, to be exact), only to discover that it was closed for vacation. Oh, yeah. Welcome to France, where they take the summer off.

I rationalized the ten-euro taxi ride back to the hotel by reminding myself that I'd gone across the huge traffic-circle on which my hotel sits to an equally huge supermarket, Champion, and bought breakfast supplies for another ten euros. This would be enough to last me my entire stay, and since breakfast here is twelve euros, and had been ten at the last place, I was just spending the breakfast money on the taxi.

Yesterday, I woke up to the news that the dollar had crashed. Badly. It had exceeded the $1.60/euro cap the European Central Bank had agreed to maintain. I called PayPal to learn that it opened at 6am, Central time, 1pm my time. So I passed the time trying to get my computer to work. And, mirabilie dictu, I did! How, I don't know (Andy's comment, later: "Sometimes the guys who scream at you to get it back up don't realize that things just happen"). But now I have internet in my room.

I got through to PayPal, and as Bart had said, they were extremely helpful. Well, up to a point: I still had to fax that bill to them. And that bill was still on my desk in Berlin. There was more bad news, too: "If I could just push a button and clear this up," the guy said -- noting that he of course couldn't -- "that money won't clear until Friday, and then if you went to transfer it to your bank in the States, that wouldn't clear until Tuesday." And I leave here on Monday.

And there were still no leads to apartments.

(I should amend this by saying there were a few leads through agencies, but I'm trying to avoid them, not only because of their fees, but because they want extra assurance of financial stability which I can't give them, like a year's rent in escrow).

So, feeling discouraged, I took the bus into town, figuring I'd go have lunch at the Vert Anglais. I managed to get there ten minutes after the kitchen closed. I grabbed something around the corner and called Bart to see if he was able to go see the photography exhibit at the Pavillion Populaire, which is showing 240 Weegee photos -- right up his alley -- but a client was hanging him up. Oh, well, I'd go alone. (I've got a lot to say about this show, which is as revelatory about French attitudes to America as it is about Weegee, but I'll save that for later).

Finally, I showed up at the Vert Anglais again. Here it was, Wednesday, and I hadn't accompished a thing. Nor, unless something changed, would I. I'd already spent 400 euros on a train ticket and another 400 on the hotel (which made me pay in advance). Maybe I should give up and...wait another year? No. I can't do that.

But...what should I do? I've got four more days here, one of which, Sunday, is useless. The band I was going to write about hasn't been in touch, and I have no idea how to contact them. That'll cost me $500 for the article, which I was rather counting on. (So much for trying to arrange something a month in advance).

I also realized something else: I'm terrified of making phone calls in French. (I'm terrified of making them in German, for that matter). If I reveal myself as a stuttering, barely-intelligible foreigner, moreover one without the financial resources of a regular job, who'll rent to me? Maybe I should give up.

But I'm not going to. I have a very tenuous lead which I'm going to pursue today after writing out a script which I hope will make sense to the landlord I have to call about an unfinished apartment that is likely to become available soon. Bart and his girlfriend Chris and I have also floated the idea of a two-month apartment exchange, since I feel okay about them living in my place in Berlin, but that might not come off, either. And I haven't checked the listings today.

Probably I should give up, but I'm not going to. Yet.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 9: Once More Into The Breach

Monday is July 14, and, as you all no doubt know, is Bastille Day, the French version of the 4th of July. I once spent an extraordinary Bastille Day with an old friend from Alaska in Paris, where we sipped champagne on the balcony of my friend Gérard's top-floor flat on a high-rise on Télégraphe. There were fireworks, and the Alaskan, an elementary school teacher, learned the words for numerous colors from a 4-year-old girl as the bombs went off.

You couldn't see Montpellier from there, but nearly, and I expect to spend this Bastille Day watching fireworks in Montpellier along with some folks I know. I'm leaving Berlin in the morning and doing that long train-ride again, although whether I'll walk once again from the Gare d'Est to the Gare de Lyon with M. Patois, a friend from Oakland I hadn't seen in 30-some years is in question: apparently he has an invitation from some female soldiers to ride in a tank with them, an invitation he's extended to me, year.

This year I'm still on a mission. Short of winning the lottery, this is the last trip I can afford to make down there, and a solution must be found. This time, I'm going armed with bank statements and letters from important media outlets, my best clothing ironed sharply, and a very positive attitude.

I'll be there a week, although if it makes economic sense to abort the mission and buy another train ticket back earlier if I find something in time, I will. Money has gotten short, and although there's some coming in, I need to conserve as much as possible in the face of a rapidly declining dollar, which fell three cents against the Euro yesterday. That, and the rising price of gas, are going to have an impact on the last section of this drama, the transcontinental moving-van.

The last trip was, in the end, an expensive learning process. This one, I hope, will just be expensive. Oh, and productive.

Wish me luck. Play the lottery and send me a fraction of your winnings. Go to the Vatican website and find out who the patron saint of Montpellier landlords is and offer him or her a burnt offering. Hey, this time it's war. And I intend to win.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Night At The Elevator

Or, rather, half a night.

Readers who've been with me a couple of years know about Blaise Lawless, the painter with the best name in art, who lived here for a couple of years before giving up on Berlin and moving back to his home town, Boise, Idaho. While he was here his brother came to visit, and I gave him my Famous Walking Tour of the city. Earlier this year, that same brother contacted me about helping him out on a television series he was developing for cable, which is an ongoing project.

Anyway, earlier this week, he contacted me because an old friend from Boise was going to be performing here last night, and arranged for me to have a couple of tickets. I'd never heard of this guy, Curtis Stigers, which just shows how out of touch I've been. Turns out the guy's sold millions of records, and made the great Nick Lowe wealthy by the inclusion of his version of Nick's song "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding" on the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, which sold 17 million copies thanks to its star, Whitney Houston, butchering Dolly Parton.

Stigers was going to be a guest on a show which, I have to admit, didn't look like it was going to be much fun: an open-air "classics" show starring Till Brönner, Germany's latest gift to jazz lite. Also appearing would be a symphony orchestra from Rostock, Thomas Quasthoff and various others. On the one hand, I thought, it was dire. On the other, this Stigers guy sounded interesting -- the sound bites on his website weren't too bad -- and anyway, it was a free concert outdoors in the Gendarmenmarkt on what would likely be a nice Sunday evening. Now...who would be interested in going to such a thing?

Why, the Dancer, of course! I hadn't seen her in ages, and I knew she'd gone to a Quasthoff recital of Schubert lieder, so maybe this would be up her alley. And so it proved to be. We made plans to meet at the boxoffice where the freebies were, I exchanged a couple of e-mails with Stigers, and that was that.

Once we found the right line, getting in was a breeze, but the box office wasn't a model of German efficiency (or, rather, it was). Our seats were in the back, raised up on bleachers, with the steps of the Konzerthaus forming the stage on which the orchestra would sit. To the right, the Till Brönner Band, augmented by some studio musicians, were seated. Around the edges stood VIP pavillions for the guests of the sponsors: Opel, Radeberger Beer, the Berliner Morgenpost, Wall advertising.

Initially, it was as grim as I'd figured: after an introduction by an MC who appeared to have a piece of dead sheep on his head, the orchestra came on and played a medley of tunes -- elevator music. Then an obsequious young man came on and babbled about what a wonderful evening we were about to have, how happy he was that all these special guests were here -- wait a minute! Was this Till Brönner himself? Yup, it was. -- and then called up the first guests, the New York Voices, one of those vocal ensembles who allow people to think that what they perform is jazz because they hit weird chords from time to time -- with, it must be granted, extreme accuracy, and equally extreme irrelevance.

It got a little better, when, after an almost interminable introduction by Brönner, a little man named Paul Kuhn sat down at the piano and knocked out a good version of "Route 66" marred only by Brönner's trumpet-playing. Kuhn is 80, and a Berlin legend, although despite my five years at Jazz Radio, I'd never heard of him before. As for Brönner's soloing, it was a bunch of completely unoriginal ideas, performed virtuosically, as if the notes had been approved by some German Jazz Academy.

Then it was Stigers' turn. He came out wearing a tenor sax, which worried me, since singers and sax players tend not to inhabit he same body (well, except when it's Louis Jordan's), and, further worrying, was announced as performing a song by Tom Waits, not one of my favorite performers, to put it mildly. The song was slight, but Stigers has a superb voice, more suited to what I consider pop than what I consider jazz, perhaps, but capable of delivering this trifle with conviction and warmth. In the middle he took up the sax and blew a perfectly credible solo for a chorus, then sang the song out, ending with a short coda on the sax.

Next came a stubby little black guy who apparently lives here, whose name sounded like -- but couldn't have been -- Frank McCunt. He played a sentimental Donny Hathaway tune, "Ghetto Boy," accompanying himself on a Fender Rhodes, with lots of style but no particular content other than sugar. Then out came Quasthoff, who sat down (he's a thalidomide baby, which stunted his arms and legs, but oh boy not his voice) and first gave us "There's a Boat Leavin' Soon For New York" from Porgy and Bess, and then some piece of pop crap which showed off his instrument but made one question his taste. Brönner, introducing him, said he'd wanted to put him on the program, but it was a jazz program, and Quasthoff had assured him "I know jazz." Sadly, not.

Even more sadly, the New York Voices trotted out again to wreak violence on "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." Mr. Simon, your attorneys may contact me: this is defamation of character, and I was a witness. But it got worse: apparently the pianist was also an arranger who has worked with Herbert Grönemeyer, who, the Dancer informed me, is Germany's richest artist. I guess it makes sense if this was anything to go by: the song was pure treacle, the arrangement smothered any hint of melody, and the audience went nuts afterwards.

Stigers came back to close out the first half with a rather audacious move: a jazzy version of "That's All Right, Mama," which also included some scat singing, some more judicious tenor-playing, and, of course, some trumpet from Brönner.

The minute the musicians started leaving the stage, the audience spilled out to eat overpriced Bratwurst, drink overpriced Radeberger, and look at Opels. The Dancer and I sat there, looking at the people who'd scored vantage points on the French Cathedral and the luxury apartment house nearby (and the open windows at the Hilton), and we were both thinking the same thought: who pays €69 a ticket for stuff like this? Not jazz fans: this is hardly jazz. Not classical fans: a bad weekend in Berlin has more classical content than we'd seen so far. Who were these well-dressed people -- several thousand of them -- who were seated below and around us? Some were no doubt guests of Opel, Wall, Radeberger, and so on, but clearly the vast majority had paid to get in. And what does this say about culture in Berlin?

We were still musing on this when something whipped past my face -- a bat! Looking up to see if there were more (as a long-time Austin resident who knows that each bat eats twenty times its body weight in insects every day or it starves to death, I've long been a bat fan) I saw only swallows. She caught me looking. "Thunderstorm," she said. "When the swallows fly low, a thunderstorm happens in an hour." It was certainly humid enough...

So, I said, do you want to stay? "NO!" she thundered. "There is no groove happening here. Every time something gets going, Brönner comes on and yaps and yaps and breaks the flow. I really like Stigers -- I wish we could just see him, and I really wish we could go backstage -- but this program is annoying me." I was actually relieved. I, too, would like to see Stigers do what he does with his own band, so I can figure out what he's trying to do, what his approach to the odd but appealing repertoire he's working with is. But I could certainly do without the rest of it. I found most of the crowd stuffy and way too bourgeois for my taste, too. So we left. I gave my re-entry ticket and my main ticket to some guy who asked nicely (although he then said "But I need two!") and we walked up Charlottenstr. past the stage door, where the orchestra guys were out in force enjoying their cigarette break.

Then the Dancer did something I couldn't have predicted. She turned back and said to them, "Good music, but shitty concert." "Wait," one guy said, "it's only getting started." "I'm sorry," she said, "but there's no movement to this, no groove. It stops and starts."

I'll admit it: I was a little embarrassed. I know a lot of professional musicians, not famous people, but working stiffs of both genders, and I know that most of these guys -- from Rostock, no less, out in the sticks -- were probably enjoying a not-very-taxing gig playing pap, in exchange for getting to dress up, get paid well, and play in a pretty lovely setting. They weren't responsible for Brönner's blather, for the low quality of the charts they were reading, or for the headliners they were backing up. It was a gig!

Ah, well. It made her feel better, and I'll never see those guys again. I talked with Stigers later and thanked him, and yeah, I'll go see him if we're ever in the same town.

And fortunately, if all goes well, my next live music should be a couple of gigs by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That, I'm sure I'll enjoy.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Status Report

In a few hours, I'll head down to Kopfbahnhof, that remarkable rail-only travel agency in Schöneberg, and pick up another Berlin-Montpellier-Berlin train ticket. I'll spend Bastille Day going from here to there, arriving in time to join some friends atop a parking garage to watch the fireworks. The next day, I'll get back to the work of finding a place to live.

This time I'll be better prepared: I'll have copies of my bank statements from both the U.S. and Berlin. I'll have sheafs of letters from people who've employed me over the last year, although, given the vagaries of freelancing, they'll probably be a bit ambiguous as to precise income figures.

What I don't have just at the moment is an ironclad plan, and that worries me. Some of it is just plain due to lack of information. There's been some talk of a place going empty at an unspecified time which would be absolutely ideal in terms of space, location, and price. But it's just that at the moment: talk. There's been at least one offer from one of the e-mail robot lists that sounds good, but whether it'll still be open when I get there -- not to mention whether my attempt to contact the landlord about my interest landed safely -- is far from certain. There may well be more of these, although the same uncertainties apply.

Another worry is money. I'm still okay on that, but I owe another month's rent here, and there's the ticket and the hotel, which, this time, is out in the 'burbs, albeit not very far from the center of town, where I need to be. I've got more coming in, and a story to do down there once I get there. But still...

Should I concentrate my energies on finding a furnished place to move into, and have to turn around and go back once I return from this trip? That will involve paying two rents, which eats away at the nest-egg I'm going to have to have to secure a permanent place with enough to worry me. Should I instead concentrate on finding that permanent place? That's the most economical solution, but the riskiest: what if, again, I don't find one? What if the landlord rejects me because I'm self-employed? One thing I tapped into on that last trip was a deep instiutional French insecurity about independence, something I hadn't counted on. I guess my model for finding a place in this university town was Austin, another university town. And, weather notwithstanding, it's not Austin. Nor is it Berlin, with lots of cheap places standing vacant most of the time.

And the thing is, there don't seem to be any hard and fast answers to this. I'm going to have to wing it, absent a miraculous shower of income-producing work in the next couple of weeks to assuage my worries. I'm still utterly certain I'm going to succeed somehow, but if I seem a bit tense these days, it's because so much is unknown. It's the nature of the "somehow" that's got me biting my nails.

Suggestions welcome.