Saturday, February 25, 2006

New Hope For Berlin

For a long time, I've said that if a use could be found for this city's most abundant organic product, the economy here could turn around. Well, according to this article, San Francisco is hoping to turn its dog poop into energy.

Actually, it's not all that surprising. I just did an article for the forthcoming issue of Invest In Germany magazine (stop giggling: I have to feed myself and pay the rent) about this company, which is doing a similar thing with the byproducts of sewage treatment plants in a pilot project in Germany.

Unfortunately, as you can read, the San Francisco project is dependent upon pet owners cleaning up after their dogs. This little bit of civility has yet to occur here, although dispensers of little plastic bags can be found in some parks. They don't last long, though; they're routinely vandalized and the baggies strewn around the park.

Still, Paris and some other places have those motorcycle-like vaccum cleaner machines, and if the city can scrape together enough credit for a small fleet of those (unlikely, I admit, in the present fiscal crisis), maybe Berlin can attack its energy crisis and its unemployment crisis at the very same time.

Naaah. Never happen.

Term Limit

All things end, and this blog is no exception. It's not going to happen overnight, and it's not even going to happen anytime soon, but this week I finally got to see the next few months fall into place, so this has been on my mind.

I'll be off to Texas for SXSW on the 8th or 9th of March, stopping in Paris to see a performance by Carl Stone, and then heading off to Austin via Dallas the next morning. The reason for leaving from Paris (besides going to see Carl) was that on my return, I was going to rest up for a day, then take the train down to Montpellier to start apartment-hunting.

Thing is, I'd somehow gotten in my mind that late March is the right time to do this. I have no idea where this chimera came from, but there you go. Two of my contacts down there told me this week that this would be way too early, and that I should think about late May instead. So...that's now my deadline.

This is actually a Good Thing, in that it gives me more time to raise money. Getting paid, in my business, takes a lot of time. I'm still waiting to get paid for work I did in October and November, which is pretty much par for the course. And it's not just about renting the apartment; I'm going to need a new washing machine, a new couch, more shelving, and who knows what else.

Fortunately, there's also another plan in the works. This blog is going to serve as the basis for a book, a sort of memoir of my semi-voluntary expatriation, a guide to how not to expatriate, in a way, as well as a narrative of the things I've seen and done here. After all, when I arrived, it was only five years after Germany had reunited, and the divisions were still very much in evidence. Other former East-bloc countries were even more tentative. At any rate, over the past few weeks I've been putting together a book proposal and this week I had a very encouraging talk with my agent, a former colleague from the daily newspaper I worked at in the '80s. Don't worry: nobody's comments will be quoted, I don't think, and if I do want to quote you, by chance, you'll be contacted.

But moving to Montpellier, which will almost certainly happen now in the next three months, is going to render maintaining a blog called BerlinBites absurd. This blog will have to be shut down.

On the other hand, I've become very fond of this kind of forum, and I'm certain I'll want to keep it up. I've been wracking my brains for a name for the new one, but it's really too early. Unfortunately, this name doesn't lend itself to the kind of morphing that Marie's blog can do: it's gone from No Hurry in Africa to (I swear) No Hurry in Jersey City, and now she's in Kuwait. (Well, actually, today she's in Bahrain, but that's Marie for you). Somehow, MontpellierBites doesn't sound right. Not to mention that most Americans can't pronounce it (or Languedoc, either, for that matter).

Still, I'm sure the next three months will provide me with plenty to write about here. For one thing, America is about as foreign a country as Italy for me after all these years, so I'm sure there'll be some culture-shocked posts from my stay in the States, especially if my nebulous plans to go to California pan out. And then there'll be the joy of packing up and moving. Sauerkraut will ensue, you may be assured.

Anyway, the big news this week is I have a deadline. I'm a writer. Writers like deadlines. And now I have one.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Missing Stink

I realized yesterday what's been missing from this winter: the smell of coal.

It looks like finally, after all these years, coal oven heating is disappearing from Berlin. I noticed it briefly when the winter was just getting underway and thought I'd comment here, but then I thought, no, today's just a fluke. It'll be back. And it was, very lightly, very subtly, on some cold days. But the days when the entire city stunk like some sort of burned coffee horror are, I guess, over.

Having had the privilege of living in an apartment that had not one, but two, kinds of coal ovens as the only source of heat, during a winter (1995) that was colder, they said, than any but the one that coincided with the siege of Stalingrad, I have some experience with this medieval form of alleged warmth. By far the most common kind is Braunkohle, soft, brownish coal that comes in bricks the size of, well, bricks. These get burned in a standing oven of greater or lesser exterior fanciness, with half-glazed ceramic tiles with special backs that are supposed to maximize the radiant heat. At about chest height, there was a door, which led to the oven. You'd put in newspaper, then some kindling wood (people scavenged fruit crates all year long for this purpose, and it's not uncommon to see a pile of them out on the street even now, offered to people who need them), and, when this was going, a few bricks of coal. You would then close the door and freeze, because it would take a minimum of an hour for the heat inside -- which was quite intense -- to start radiating out of the tiles.

The one I had was in my bedroom, and this was one reason I hated it so much. I like to sleep cold -- well, not freezing, but cool -- and the oven made it impossible. If you fed it at about 8 pm, it'd be doing its best around midnight, when I wanted to go to bed. I'd have a hard time going to sleep, but about 4am, I'd be awake because it was too cold. I'd have some sweatshirts near the bed to put on, and then go back to sleep. And when I woke up, it would be so cold I wouldn't want to get out of bed.

One night, I actually started developing a fantasy. Because I had a cab-driver friend, I knew a little about the prostitution trade in Berlin, because she often got passengers who wanted to pick up a whore. I knew that most of the unlicensed prostitutes here were basically slaves, from various Eastern European places, working for the Russian mob. When their usefulness was deemed over, they were abandoned, even though by then they were ususally addicted to heroin or HIV-positive. You could, I was told to my horror, buy one for around $50. So I thought, wow, if anyone knows how these damned ovens work, it'd be a woman from the East. I could buy her, treat her humanely, get her in a HIV-treatment program, and all she'd have to do would be to make sure the heat in the two ovens worked all the time.

Mind you, in the cold light of day, I was horrified that I'd even had this thought, but like I said, this was the coldest winter in sixty years. Like, breaking the ice on the dishes if you'd left them there overnight in the sink kind of cold. And no, I didn't even take this weird fantasy any further than conceiving of it.

Oh, yes, I said "ovens." The other oven I had was a metal thing, in the living room. It burned black coal, which has another name I've forgotten. It burns hotter, and ignites quicker, than the brown coal, but it burns out faster and is more expensive. I was forever dumping another scuttle of coal pebbles into this machine, and yet it was never really warm. I used to sit on the couch at night, reading in a jacket with two sweaters, a shirt, and a t-shirt.

The other horrible thing about coal heat is that you've got to have so much coal on hand, and it's heavy and dirty. Houses with coal heat provide a little lockable coal cellar in the basement where you can store coal, a ton at a time. Unfortunately, in this particular slum, the neighbors had wrecked the cellar assigned to my apartment, apparently in an attempt to steal coal. A successful one. (Given all that transpired with the neighbors in this place, this is hardly surprising, but you'll have to wait for the book for that).

Anyway, this meant that I had to go to the coal-selling lady, who had a dim, barely lit, dungeon a few blocks away, with my little handcart and buy 35 kilos of coal a day. Actually, the consumption wasn't quite 35 kilos a day, but nearly every day I had to buy around that much. It wasn't terribly expensive, thank heavens -- although it would have been significantly cheaper by the ton -- but it was a drag pulling that cart back to the house, then firing up both ovens, and praying for a little warmth.

Of course, burning the coal was only half of it. Getting rid of the ashes was the other half. The people I was subletting from had given me zero instruction on how to use these infernal ovens, nor had they left any equipment around. The first time I scooped out the incredibly fine yellow ash from the brown-coal oven, it went everywhere. Electrostatically charged in the cold, dry air, it mostly poured into the plastic bucket I'd found somewhere around the house, but clouds of it also went up, into my hair, up my nose, onto the bookshelves, onto the bed, and everywhere else. I still raise a cloud of it every time I turn my futon over, and it's been nearly ten years since I've moved. But there was another problem, of course: if there was any coal still burning, it was dangerous. And I noticed that the very first time I cleaned that damned oven out: on the side of the plastic bucket, a tiny black mark appeared, and suddenly a hole started widening. I dashed outside with it, praying the clinker would burn itself out before I dumped the ash. And then, of course, I was left with the fact of a pile of ash on the rug, no bucket, and an oven that had to be fed.

These clinkers were a constant hazard, especially as the city garbage company replaced the old metal garbage bins with plastic ones. Every now and again, you'd come across a twisted piece of plastic art, with singed stuff in it, icicles hanging from it, where the fire department had had to put out a garbage fire caused by live clinkers.

Now, right about this point, you may be asking yourself how, in a country as environmentally aware as Germany (second-greenest country in Europe after Holland!), this barbaric means of heating, pouring tons of CO2 and sulfur into the air each day, was allowed to exist. Part of the reason, I'm fairly sure, was reunification. Lots of buildings in the East were coal-heated, since it was cheap because the majority of the brown coal came from the friendly neighboring socialist country of Poland (where it was a major hard-currency trade item thanks to West Germans needing it, too), and you couldn't very well expect all those buildings to conform to the new code overnight. However, I have to mention that the apartment where I had coal heat was very much in old West Berlin, and I had plenty of friends in the West who had coal oven heating. There was suppsed to be an EU-dictated deadline for getting rid of it, but nobody seemed to know when it was.

And, I should mention right about here, even with my two ovens, it could have been worse: a neighbor of mine at that time, also in the West, had all of his water heated by coal. This, of course, meant that, unlike me, he had to buy it year-round.

Yes, folks, this was the 20th Century. Really, it was.

But like I said, for the first time since I've lived here, the smell was absent as fall started to cool off. It hasn't been entirely missing. One day I clearly smelled wood-smoke, but it's not impossible that one of my neighbors in one of the fancier buildings has a fireplace as part of the living-room. And I have, in fact, smelled coal from time to time, but never as strongly as before, even as much as last year. They're renovating one of the last buildings on my block to need it at the moment, and I've been watching the dumpster outside waiting for the inevitable load of tiles. It's probably the last one for several blocks around, and I won't be sorry to see evidence that less coal's being burned.

The weird thing is, lots of Germans will argue that coal heat is actually good for you, and offer all kinds of rationales about dry versus wet heat and other imponderables that any sane doctor would arch an eyebrow at. The only thing I'll say is that some of the old ovens, many of which can be seen in the museum in Velten, just north of Berlin, a town which still makes tons of ceramic tiles due to the clay deposits in the area, were strikingly beautiful. Until you had to clean them.

Which brings me to another end-of-an-era subject related to all of this. As the weather begins to warm up in the spring, people look for signs of good luck, and none is so potent as the Schornsteinfeger, or chimney-sweep. These guys, mostly young, swarm the city when it's chimney-cleaning time, clad in their traditional outfits of frock coat and top-hat, holding swabs and buckets. They're young because they don't live too long, I suspect: chimney-sweeps historically have had abnormal instances of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. But to see a chimney-sweep in this amazingly superstitious country is fantastic luck: people often give chimney-sweep dolls to each other on important occasions as a way of wishing good luck.

The chimney-sweeps, too, are disappearing.

Which is hardly surprising. So is Berlin's luck.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mad Cow

The past few days, I've really been craving Chinese food, and, this being Berlin, if you want Chinese food, you'd better learn how to make it yourself, because the so-called Chinese restaurants here all suck. So last night I went to the store and bought some flank steak, properly battered into thinness and rolled up for the German delicacy Rinderrouladen, as I have many times
before. This is good stuff for turning into Chinese beef dishes because it shreds into nice little matchsticks which are thin enough to stir-fry quickly. Plus, I was in luck: this was the use-by date for this package, so it was half price!

So around dinner-time, I pulled it out of the fridge to start preparing it and when I opened the plastic box they entomb their meat in at this supermarket, an odd, but not unpleasant, odor reached my nose. I checked the package: "Prepared ready to cook," it said. "Ingredients: 95% beef, marinade (water, iodized salt, glucose syrup), stabilizer: trisodium nitrate, flavor
enhancer: E 621 [aka MSG], antioxidant E 3013."

What on earth?

I couldn't use this for Chinese cooking. In fact, I can't use it for anything: I'm sensitive to MSG, and I certainly don't cook with it. Plus, what's with the glucose syrup and all? If I'd wanted Sauerbraten I'd have bought it, although my guess is that the pre-prepared Sauerbraten there also has MSG.

Okay, maybe this preparation makes it easier to make Rinderrouladen, which I've never made, but even if that were what I was trying to make I'd be angry. I'd want to season and treat it my own way.

So tonight I thought, well, I've got all the other stuff I bought -- I've had to pitch a full pound of beef, which really, really hurts, considering all the nights I've had little or nothing to eat around here -- so maybe I just made a mistake and I'll go back and buy untreated flank steak.

No way: every piece of beef in the supermarket is now treated with this crap, except for the hamburger.

What are these people thinking? Or is this just because Germans tend to regard beef with deep suspicion? But stewing beef, steaks (to the extent they actually have steaks: something called Rumpsteak which looks tough as leather and contains no fat whatever), soup bones...all treated with this mass of chemicals!

So beef's off my diet now until I can either find another source (unlikely) or until I move.

German food retailing: you'll take what we give you and like it. The customer is always wrong. We reserve the right to poison you without warning you first. There is only one way to prepare any given foodstuff. And who cares what it tastes like: pass the salt.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More Ranting and Raving

It's right about now that people start to lose it in Berlin. Between the long nights, the cold, and the utter shabbiness of this place, it gets to you. I've always had a safety-valve: I go to SXSW in Austin each year, and get out of a couple of weeks of cold, rain, and depression.

I was just thinking about this as I took a walk to see if I could find a book to read at Dussmann, which has the largest selection of English-language books in town (which isn't saying much), and the tabloids were screaming about a guy who apparently went nuts with a knife on the subway last night. The extreme rarity of such a situation both makes it headline fodder and points out how extremely safe this city is, by and large. There are some places further east where I wouldn't like to be a Vietnamese at 3 am, but in terms of street crime or things like this, it's easy.

One of the tabs had a line across the top saying "How many crazy people do we have in Berlin?" I'd say take the latest population figures, subtract maybe 10-20%, and you've got your number. Although instead of "crazy" I'd say "mentally ill."


Thanks to Karen for pointing me towards a rich vein of sauerkraut, one which is even intellectually and socially redeeming. These guys are critiquing the German media, and doing it well. It's a shame that their politics are so gung-ho American and, thus, right-wing, but if you can read around that, you'll get a good picture of what the German media's saying and how it's saying it. Especially good are the magazine covers, in case you're wondering how America's currently perceived by Germany's media elite, which is not to say the average person in the street, I don't think. Written German is quite different from spoken German, so I don't read the local newspapers or watch TV (well, my TV blew up a couple of years ago anyway) where the news is read in the same indecipherable formal language. This site is a good place to stop each day if you want to widen your perspective.


Yes, it's Berlinale time, which means that the Potsdamer Platz subway stations are either closed or undergoing repair. The festival, of course is held in Potz Platz, so this annual ritual is just another part of Berlin's anti-tourist offensive, along with not signposting anything in any language other than German and, of course, the ritual hostility from service personnel.

I've never figured out, either, why Berlin stages a film festival in February. Faced with the choice of opening your film to the European markets in Berlin in Feburary or the French Riviera in May, honestly, which would you choose to do? I rarely go to Berlinale events (in fact, I've only been to two, and one was for a film I'd helped work on, although my name was left off the credits), but I remember standing in line for one screening back before everything got consolidated in one place and having a huge roof full of slush rain down on the whole lot of us. I got a bunch down my back, thanks to lucky clothing placement.

But I do have to admit, I'm simply not that interested in films. I think the last one I saw in a theater was Ray, and that's got to be over a year ago. Part of my indifference is due to having been exposed to far too many amateur cinéastes over the years. grad students in film and the like, who just can't understand that all I really want from a film is a good story accompanied by good visuals. The icy condescension I've been subjected to when stating frankly that I didn't particularly like a film (for instance McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a film which kept me out of theaters for five years), the assumption that one has to be able to know the technical vocabulary, the camera tricks, the mise-en-scène-whatever-the-hell-that-is, or one isn't able to have the full experience, just annoys me. And since film festivals are largely people making films for other filmmakers as far as I can tell (and, in Berlin, Hollywood premiering the Big Films they're going to impose on us in a few weeks), I'm just not interested.

Still, it does bring an awful lot of Americans here. One is a woman with a film called Pine Flats, posters for which were put up on every flat surface in my neighborhood (including a couple of Nike paintings, dammit), mostly illegally, so I hope the damn thing falls flat. Others were like the ladies I saw on Friedrichstr. today, clearly American because they were clutching bottled water like their lives depended on it. Forty degrees Fahrenheit out there and you gotta have your bottled water. Either American mothers aren't doing such a good job of weaning kids, or the dangers of dehydration are far worse than I've been told.


There goes the neighborhood: someone has opened a gallery on my street. For photography and contemporary art, it says. It's never open, and what's up now -- dull photos -- sure isn't going to change the world. But there's a subsidy a landlord can collect for a while by renting out an empty space to would-be gallerists in this part of town, which is what was responsible for the rise of Auguststr. some years back. Nowadays, though, the cheap rents have disappeared, so the bulk of the interesting galleries there have, too, replaced by blatantly commercial hangers of crap. I was going to give you an example from a gallery I pass frequently, Röhr + Ripken, but the website they ostentatiously display in their window doesn't seem to exist. Too bad: you're missing some really depressingly ugly stuff.

But then, that's what you're missing in general by not being in Berlin in February!


(Added a few hours later)

Almost forgot: although the money hasn't come together yet, although the apartment has yet to be found, I received proof positive yesterday that I will, in fact, be moving from Berlin shortly. It was this article in the New York Times. I've been contributing to Fresh Air for almost 20 years, yet I've never lived anywhere I could hear it. Even though I spent several years using KUT Austin's studios, the station refused to add the program to its lineup -- even as it gained status as one of NPR's most popular -- until about six months after I moved.

Now that it'll be available in Berlin, though, that just means I'll be gone.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Addenda And Corrigenda

Three things from this month that I forgot to post.


Inexplicably missing from my top non-reissue records was the record I played second-most after Jon Hardy's, Transglobal Underground's Impossible Broadcasting. Most of these world-music-goes-dance things are indigestible stews of samples, or new agey tranceodelic crap, or condescending primitivist assemblages that are embarrassing to listen to. I have no idea who these people are, but as soon as they swing into "The Khaleega Stomp," with its infectious "WOO-hah!" chant, you know they're putting the dancefloor, instead of their own cleverness, first. Add to that Sheema Mukherjee, one of the baddest sitarists around, with a technique half Earl Scruggs and half Vilyat Khan, stir with a genuine sense of humor, and you've got yourself a great album. Check it out.


Sort of a followup to my "Listening to Trains" post from November: The cheap way to get to Paris from Berlin is often through Amsterdam, which means taking the Thalys, the French/Belgian/Dutch/German-owned fast train. Not as nice as either France's TGV or Germany's ICE, it still gets you there, albeit in cramped seats in a depressing red-brown interior. The announcements are in four languages, Dutch, French, German, and English, and up until this afternoon I thought I'd caught them in a weird German grammatical error, but checking in with a translator friend, it turned out to be yet another weird bit of German grammar I'd never encountered before. What's indisputably odd, however, is the English announcements, all of which start with an oddly-inflected "Ladies...and gentlemen," which sounds distinctly like the speaker is implying that you're in a car filled with drag queens and men. Still, it must be said that it's a nice service for monolingual English speakers. One way you know you've changed to Deutsche Bahn is that all the announcements are in German.


Finally, a wine bargain discovered at last Saturday's launch party for the magazine. That whole part of the country is known for its reds and, by some, for its rosés (Languedoc's big secret: great rosés), but I was offered a small glass of a white called Picpul de Pinet, which Robin had picked up at Monoprix, the low-end supermarket, for €2. "It's remarkably good," he said, and as I tasted it, his next-door neighbor, Paolo, said "Imagine drinking this with oysters." He's right, though: the wine's from down around Sète, and it's obviously perfect for that. People say that nobody respects Languedoc wines because they're so cheap, but I say if you can make a two-buck wine this good, that just leaves me more to spend on oysters!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Notes From The Trip

The Cold From Hell is still with me, but I'm enough recovered to know that a straight narrative of the trip would be boring to just about every one of you, so I'm going to hit some highlights, and think about putting some energy into getting pix onto Flickr.


I pulled into Nimes station at 2:24 pm, right on time, and almost immediately, a young woman walked up to me and asked if I were me. I'd just met Jacqui, the third member of the Languedoc Sun team. Laurence was also somewhere on the platform looking for me. It was, apparently, a matter of some urgency: a story about the launch of the magazine was going to appear in the local paper, Midi Libre, and the photographer didn't have much time to snap a shot of the three of us. Snap, however, he did, and a picture of us admiring the new arrival appeared on p. 3 of the Nimes edition the next day.

This led me to think nice thoughts about the French press, thoughts which evaporated the next day when Laurence told me that the regional news box that appeared in all the other editions had run a story about the magazine's launch, with her name, a couple of sentences of quotes from her, but not the name of the magazine. Presumably Midi Libre has editors, but one has to wonder what they do.


My first assignment, after checking into the hotel, was to head to the Nimes Tourist Office to determine when they opened the next morning, and when the one in Alès did. Laurence wanted to get the earliest possible start in the morning to distribute the magazines, since we were going to have to hit as many towns as we could. This was limited only by the fact that my hotel didn't serve breakfast until 7:30, and I can't work until I've had coffee.

After talking to the tourist lady, I was free to wander until I got picked up for dinner at Jacqui's later, so, the weather being nice considering it was the end of January, I went for a walk. Actually, I just walked down the street and up the stairs of the Maison Carrée, the Greek temple. It's free to get in, although it doesn't have much in the way of displays, just some random Roman sculpture from other sites in Nimes, usually uncovered when someone was starting a building project. Still, the fact that it's survived all it has is amazing. I'm still wondering about deep scars close to the bottom of the columns, which look like they may have been inflicted by a chain. Not that there was any information about this inside: from inspecting the map I got in the tourist office later, I realized that Nimes doesn't have a clue how to sell itself. Nothing whatever is marked, with even the simplest sign. Here's the cathedral. How old is it? No idea. Old. ("Medieval," says the Rough Guide, while the Hachette -- out of print for decades and still the best -- says 11th Century facade on a 19th Century rebulding). A pile of stones near my hotel is definitely Roman -- why else would they have put that silly reproduction of the statue of Julius Caesar there? -- but I have no idea what it is, although all my references dutifully note the Protestant temple next to it, which is apparently filled with lots of Roman findings. Anyone?

The real big deal of the Roman past, though, is the Arènes, the arena, which holds 6-7000 people for the ferias, the twice-yearly bullfights which attract people from all over. They even run the bulls like they do in Pamplona, and a
German photographer apparently met her death trying to photograph them a couple of years back. But a big old Roman arena is quite the thing to have sitting a couple of blocks from the train station.


The first stop the next day was going to be Alès, which is Laurence's home town, but we stopped 11 km outside of town to deliver some magazines to the tourist office in Vézénobres, a Romanesque village clinging to a hillside which apparently has a number of British residents. Coulda fooled me: the only humans we saw the whole time were in the tourist office. One thing, though: they're in shape. The way into town from the parking lot was pretty much straight up and down.

Alès, when we got there, looked like a Frenchified New Jersey, which figures because it was a clothmaking city which turned into a coal-mining one. I didn't see a whole lot of history, since most of the old buildings were burned down long ago (this whole area has always been Protestant, which has pissed off the Church for centuries), but it's the place to base yourself for sorties into the Cévennes Nature Park, and anyway, they bought our back page. We might have spent too much time there, but I can't begrudge Laurence her local-girl-makes-good moment. We also hit the School of Mines, where Jacqui's companion Nicolas went to school -- it's apparently France's top engineering college. (He, incidentally, started a company that inspects buildings for safety, and it's flourishing. Since he's not much over 30, if that, I had positive proof that I wasn't in Germany any more: an actual entrepreneur who took his education and put it to use and is now making money with it! He'd be 40 in Germany before he'd even dare to think of such a thing, and then he'd blow it off because, well, it's so much easier to just sign on with an existing company).

Next stop was Uzès, childhood home of Racine and André Gide, center of gastronomy (especially during truffle season), and magnet for British people wanting to buy houses. There, we got interviewed yet again, for the Alès Républicain, although the reporter's note taking seemed to be more concerned with good penmanship than anything else. The guy who ran the cafe where the interview took place, called Terroir, turned out to be Swedish, just the kind of English-speaking expat I love to find, because he's not British or American, yet told us that he considers English pretty much his first language. If only I could have convinced the Berlin folks that such critters existed when I was trying to raise money for my magazine...

The idea was to hit the Pont du Gard on the way home, but it didn't happen because time was tight. Too bad: I love crossing off UNESCO World Heritage sites from the list.


The next day was largely spent in Montpeller distributing magazines, both in the city and in a language school based in what appeared to be a fortified farmhouse out by the airport (fortifications from another era, of course) and at the airport itself. I picked up a timetable and was happy to discover that not only can I fly pretty much straight to New York from there, but also to Copenhagen, Prague, and Fez. Never been to Fez, but I have friends in the other two. I also stopped by my favorite wine shop, La Maison des Vins et Produits du Terroir, for some research materials. The place is astonishing, a virtual museum of what's made in the region. The guys there know their stuff, too.


Saturday was launch-party day at Laurence and Robin's place -- Robin is her British husband -- with most of the writers and other folks in attendance, although at least one person was unable to attend because the previous evening, an almost unprecedented thing had happened: in the higher regions, around Alès, it had snowed. Just like in Texas -- which this whole part of the world definitely feels and looks like -- people became utterly unhinged.

And, as I mentioned, the next day we drove down to Pézenas, where Molière apparently liked to hang out. The rain was brutal, and so were the winds, and I've vowed to come back and look at this place again. One thing I noticed right off: small free-standing enamel shields with the landmarks described on them. Seems to me Nimes could do with a couple of those. After that, a small village, Gabian, where local expats have a book sale on the last Sunday of each month, and then back to Nimes.


My explorations into the local cuisine yielded some interesting results. One night I went to a restaurant Jacqui had recommended, Nicolas, right by my hotel. I was the only customer, but Mama came over and took my order and eventually another couple walked in and ordered. It was an odd meal: it started out with mussels with a strange white sauce on them, very subtle, so much so that I couldn't even begin to tell you what it was. After that was an aïoli, fish and steamed vegetables and a pot of the famous garlic mayonnaise. The portion was rather scant, but it was okay. I don't eat dessert, so I got some cheese, which was the beginning of my discovery that not all Roqueforts are created equal -- or, I should say, alike. This one had a real citrusy tang to it -- odd, but not offputting. The wine was a local red, Costières de Nimes, rough but okay.

Saturday I walked around in the rain some until I found what appeared to be an okay place run by a youngish pair. He was quite amusing, especially after he got a call that a party of nine was coming and he tried to figure out how to rearrange the tables to seat nine. I could have told him, but it was more fun watching him try and fail. I started with what was supposed to be a crayfish terrine, but sure didn't seem like one. It was surrounded by a sauce that was mostly ketchup. After that came a slice of beef -- or taurine -- that was amazingly thin and small, with a little pot of nondescript marchand du vin sauce and frozen french fries. Sigh. (I think taurine, or bull, is actually a French code-word for "tough.") The wine, another Costières de Gard, was fine, though.

Sunday, I went and found the most overdecorated restaurant in France, and I'm thinking next time I'll hit the place across the street, which wasn't doing a fraction of the business, although who knows, they might have had a kitchen like the place I'd eaten the night before. At any rate, unlike Montpellier, Nimes has no shortage of places to dine on a Sunday night, which is encouraging, and this place served me an anchoiade, which was a plate of raw vegetables with a pot of some kind of anchovy-and-olive-oil concoction, a great appetizer, followed by the best thing I had the whole trip: seiches, which are little cuttlefish that are mostly body with very little tentacles, in a rouille. Now, if you've had bouillabaisse or the kind of fish soup they do in Sète, you're familiar with one kind of rouille, a mayonnaise with lots of garlic and red pepper in it. This one was different: it was bright yellow, and redolent of saffron. If your French is good enough, you might look at this recipe, making sure to click the link for rouille for more details, and you might also want to look at this one for some useful tips. The dish was served in a casserole dish with a layer of steamed potatoes under the seiches, the whole thing covered with the yellow sauce. It was magnificent.

One reason I ordered seiches instead of the other temptation, the dried-codfish-and-potato morue, was that I'd been at the market that morning. I really shouldn't do this to myself, but I can't resist. I was very careful to notice that the prices were often astronomical -- I saw one cut of beef that was going for €36 a kilo, or close to twenty bucks a pound. But it was still a great demonstration of the variety of local produce, even in the middle of the winter, and one thing that was going strong was the category the French call coquillages, which basically covers shellfish. Seiches were on display, and looking good. I also stopped by a baked-goods counter and bought a fougasse, a pate pastry, and another pastry. Fougasse is a local thing, flaky pastry with tiny bits of (very peppery, in this case) bacon cooked into it ("and the rest is secret," says Laurence). My only other one had been in Montpellier last January, at 4pm, which explained the odd look I got from the lady selling it and the intense resistance it put up to my attempts to eat it. Fougasse is for breakfast. Not sure about the little pate pastry, but it was great, and the other one, same basic shape and size, was so soaked in eau-de-vie that I was a little disoriented after I ate it. There was more fougasse, though, so I downed it. Next thing is to figure out why so many fougasses are in the shape of the letter A.

Not at all French, but a great discovery, was the bacon cheeseburger at Auntie Lou's British restaurant in Montpellier, down a side-street I'd never seen before. Lou herself is a panic, and the cheeseburger would be perfect if she could just find buns which didn't dissolve into mush less than half-way through eating the burger -- just like they do here in Berlin. I don't get it: the French and the Germans, two great bread-baking cultures, and they can't make hamburger buns! How hard can it be?

Oh, and one more meal: in Uzès, we stopped in a little cafe for lunch, and I ordered a fine cold-weather dish, a tartiflette. If you can get the cheese, I recommend it highly. I doubt I left a molecule on the plate.


That's it for this trip. I'm going to plunge head-first into work until mid-week, because this is the spurt of activity which, I hope, will provide the initial funds for my return to Montpellier in late March and early April, at which point, if the money is there, I'll be looking for apartments.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Rock Star!

Clannnnggg! Man, you can just about hear the power chord this grrrl's just hit! Actually, it's Erato, the muse of Music from the front of the Jules Scalles Gallery, the municipal art museum in Nimes, where I spent the better part of last week. This building was right across from my deeply funky hotel, but wouldn't you know? I never had time to walk in the front door.

Starting a magazine is every bit as time-consuming and nerve-shredding as giving birth (although, to be honest, I've never given birth), and Thursday through Sunday, Laurence, Jackie, and I zig-zagged around the Languedoc delivering the newly-printed copies of the Languedoc Sun to the places that agreed to distribute them, most of which were very excited to see the magazine. In the process, I got to see a lot of the countryside in the northeastern part of the area, known, after the river that flows through it, as the Gard, as well as return to Montpellier, mooch around Avignon, and see a number of small villages.

The bad news, though, was that it rained nearly the whole time, and even snowed in Alès and Uzès, which is a rare event. On Sunday, as we headed down to Pézenas to drop some copies off at the tourist bureau there, the rain was particularly severe, with police trying to persuade truckers not to hit the motorway as we left Nimes. Actually, it wasn't too bad, although there were strong winds and there were vineyards completely under water past Montpellier, and rivers overflowing their banks all along the way. Some villages were cut off from the main road by the flooding, and all of the water was weirdly tinted with pink mud. And, in a final irony, I wound up with publisher Laurence Boxall's cold, which has had me down ever since Monday. Lots of fun doing those 12-hour train rides with your head feeling like it's going to explode.

I'm going to attempt a more thorough post about this trip -- although it might not happen, depending on how the work schedule lines up in the next couple of days -- and I'll definitely post some of the 66 pictures I took on Flickr and provide a link.

Meanwhile, ever unable to resist cliches, here's another photo from Nimes, of the Maison Carrée, the remarkably well-preserved temple from 5 AD that was built so people could worship Julias Caesar's kids. It's quite amazing to see it looming up just down the street like this, but it's gorgeous lit up at night, which was mostly when I was able to walk around Nimes, usually in search of food. Which I found.

Anyway, maybe tomorrow; the residual blah feeling from the cold has me still, and I want to do this justice.