Friday, November 18, 2005

Montpellier Aftermath

Wait, you were there for four days and you didn't take one photograph??

Well, not exactly. I took what I thought were two of a sunset, but it looks like only one of them registered with the camera, and I'm not sure it's all that good.

But I wasn't there to take photos; I was there to meet some people and look at some parts of town I'd missed before, try to figure out the public transportation, and, as I said, see where the fly might be in the ointment. That, I managed to find right where I expected: the bureaucracy. I was told that the French make it very hard for Americans to get a carte du séjour, a "green card," unless they're buying property. But I plan to play the same card I played here: native-language journalism. That's one that almost no natives can argue against. Anyway, immigration is, as you may have noticed, a bit of an issue in France at the moment.

In fact, I was shocked, getting to Paris, to start reading some of the commentary that the International Herald Tribune was publishing about the problems non-French people have getting jobs in France. Every time I've come to Paris, I've wound up in the Metro station at the Gare du Nord, and I've been virtually the only European face in the crowd. To think that there's no affirmative action program, that there's still such blatant discrimination...well, no wonder they're burning cars.

Except they weren't in Montpellier, at least not that I was aware of. Saturday night, when I got in, was as peaceful as could be, and I was so tired from the train trip that it was all I could do to grab a little dinner and stagger back to the hotel. Sunday was spent walking around a couple of quarters I'd missed before, most notably Beaux Arts, which is just north of the historic center and has a number of rather nicely funky old buildings in it. So does Arceaux, over by my hotel (incidentally, if you're a map freak like me and want to see where this stuff is, go to the Montpellier Tourist Office site and download the map they have there as a .pdf file). Arceaux might be more expensive, though. But I saw enough affordable-looking housing within the pedestrianized center that I'm still hoping to score something there.

Sunday night was cold and rainy and I spent far too much time walking around looking for a restaurant that was open. I not only wandered around on the hill for ages, but I came back to the hotel hoping the West Indian/African restaurant around the corner might be open, and it wasn't. The hotel clerk went through the guidebook he had and found a couple of places he thought would be open, but the first one wasn't and the other was clear over in Beaux Arts. It wasn't all that good, but it was okay, and it was, as I said, open.

Monday was meetings. I started off with lunch at an interesting chain restaurant which only has one thing on the menu, entrecote steak, with a mysterious "special sauce" they've made famous (I tasted sage, tarragon, anchovies and caper juice) with Peter, who runs The Languedoc Page, a wonderful resource for people in the area. The man's a born networker, and he's seemingly in touch with all the expat Brits and Americans around. After lunch, he conducted me on a whirlwind tour of the local seaside communities, which do look deserted at this time of year, and then we swung over to Aigues-Mortes, a walled city which had been a port when St. Louis launched the Seventh Crusade, and which still has a fortified church from the days of the religious wars. This was also close to the famous Camargue salt pans, which have been in use since Roman days, and which play host to flocks of pink flamingoes, the only ones in Europe, who get their color from eating tiny brine shrimp in the salt pans.

No sooner had he dropped me off at the end of the tram-line in Montpellier than I had to turn around and meet a couple of other people who are working on a project I can't reveal at the moment, but one with which I'm going to be involved. One of them, however, is in the real estate business and volunteered to help me with the apartment search when it becomes time for that, which is very good news indeed. Talk went late into the night, and I left with a feeling of optimism.

The next day I was going to have lunch with an Irish journalist who's lived in the area for decades, but she was still whacked from her last trip to London, so she didn't make it into town to meet me. Instead, I checked out the amazing market in front of the hotel again, which was a trifle less obscene in its offerings because it wasn't high summer (but it was still mightily inspiring) and then wandered around the city some more and looked at more odd corners, checked out the local mall, the Polygone, a bit more carefully for things that might come in handy, managed to stay out of the fantastic supermarket they have there and felt virtuous about not spending money there, and got back to the hotel for a really wide-ranging conversation with the Irish woman, who was the one who put me onto the possibility of immigration problems. But again, the conversation ended with her saying "I think you're really going to like it here," and the feeling that I could, despite everything, conquer the bureaucracy and the bullshit.

As I tend to do, I decided to try the Restaurant That's Never Open that night, and guess what? It wasn't open! That's three for three. Maybe when I move there... But then I'll be cooking for myself.

There was an odd symmetry the next morning. I set the alarm on my cell phone for 7:15, and it went off at 6:15 because it hadn't readjusted to standard time yet. Since I almost missed my train out on Friday because my alarm clock didn't go off and I slept for an extra hour, this was pretty ironic. And it was annoying having to wait four hours at the Gare du Nord, which was unheated despite its being cold as hell, and looking at the signs announcing wi-fi access, which neglected to mention that said access was only for people with certain cell-phone plans who could charge the access fees to their bills. I could have blogged from there instead of watching the clochard with the cat, a very deeply schizophrenic guy who kept packing and unpacking a bag and his pockets while his cat, on a leash, yowled at the other people in the waiting area. The guy took 90 minutes to get his act together, and it was painful to watch.

At any rate, it was great to get back to Amsterdam, discover a decent Indian restaurant there, and get back on the train to Berlin yesterday morning. Not that I was looking forward to coming back here, but I was very definitely looking forward to doing some more work to pay for all of this and turning around again this coming Wednesday to go back to Amsterdam to do a story on Patti Smith, my first rock-mag story in ages and ages.

It was a great trip, and I agree with everyone who said I'm going to like it there. Now to make sure I can afford it.

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