The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, January 26, 2007

Drunkblogging: Chartreuse

Once upon a time, in a small college town in north-central North Carolina, your correspondent was a Man-About-Town of sorts, the type who knew bartenders by name and who could walk into any music club on West Franklin Street and find familiar faces there to share a round and a few laughs with.

So long ago, now... [pauses, looks dramatically out window, sighs.]

"Da-da, you don't have any friends." Harsh words for anyone, no doubt, but more so coming from one's four-year-old son. But he's right, you know. Sure, I have my colleagues at work, and good people they are, but let's just say that geneticists, oncologists, and epidemiologists aren't really deserving of their outrageous party-animal reputation, and most of them are considerably older than me as well. So no, I don't really have anyone in France that I hang out with, per se, nobody who'd be interested in, for example, watching the AFC Championship game on Monday night at 11:30 on France4 (yeah, I already know who won) or going to see The Rapture at the Ninkasi concert hall (not that I'm a big Rapture fan, but few enough American bands make it to Lyon that you've got to take your opportunities, even if said bands' last two albums haven't lived up to the promise of their debut EP). In fact, the person in France with whom I spend the most time has to be in bed by 9PM, and I read him a bedtime story if he's eaten all his fish sticks, taken his Flintstone vitamins, and gone potty by himself.

So yes, a typical big weekend night for me consists of an old French-subtitled movie on TV, maybe an episode of Battlestar Galactica if the latest one is up on YouTube, and a few glasses of something-or-other.

And this, dear reader, is where you benefit from my tale of woe. Living in France has given me the opportunity to sample many many different and unusual glasses of something-or-other, some of them rare, prohibitively expensive, or just flat-out illegal in the USA. So in what I hope to offer as a recurring feature, Drunkblogging will present a specific potent potable as I try it for the first time, in real time (more or less...I'll probably just type as I go and post the thing the next day).

Without further ado, let's get to tonight's featured beverage:

Chartreuse Elixir.

What's so exotic about Chartreuse? Heck, you can pick it up in pretty much any liquor store in the States, right? Well, not exactly. What they sell in the States is Green Chartreuse, which is a watered-down, less-alcoholic, sweetened version of the original Chartreuse Elixir. The elixir has a backstory (nicely summarized here) involving an ancient manuscript, alchemy, secret societies, and a secret formula that is known by only two living men at any one time--and those two men are monks sworn to silence and living in a remote monastery between Lyon and Grenoble. What they produce according to this formula, using 130 different botanicals, is 142-proof brilliant-green alchemy in a six-ounce bottle.

The ancient manuscript presented to the monastery in 1605 promised an Elixir of Long Life. Wanna live forever? If you're daring enough to try it, you can buy the elixir right off the shelf at any well-provisioned wine-and-spirits dealer in Lyon. So I did. Let's go to the action now, with events transcribed as they happened Saturday night:

11:47: How do I open this thing? [see top pic.] What looks like a cap isn't. It's as if it were turned on a lathe from a single block of wood. After a moment when I consider drilling open the top, I find the seam cleverly hidden under the green tape.

11:49: I twist off the cap and take a whiff. It smells like... cough medicine. Robitussin DM, in fact. V takes a sniff and confirms--a little bit Robitussin, a little bit Vicks Vap-O-Rub, with a touch of tiger balm mixed in.

She also comments that the color looks like distilled spinach.

11:56: Here's the setup. I drop a sugar cube in the shot glass, then pour a reasonable-looking amount of the Elixir of Long Life over it. Do I wait for the sugar cube to melt or what? At midnight I'm drinking this sucker.

12:00: First glass. It tastes like I just drank an Alpine forest. It's so alcoholic--142 proof-- that it immediately dissipates into vapors as soon as it hits the soft tissues of the mouth. Not unpleasant but a little disconcerting at first; I don't remember if I actually swallowed or if I just absorbed it.

As for the taste, it is extraordinarily complex. Why, there probably are 130 different botanicals in there! It's just that it's hard for one's taste buds to sort them out. Menthol, anise, juniper definitely in the mix.

12:02: As an added bonus, my nasal passages seem to have miraculously cleared.

12:07: Do I feel more alive? Elixirated? I dunno. A little spacey, maybe, as if I had just slammed 2 shots of vodka in quick sucession (which I did, more or less).

12:12: V keeps looking into my eyes as if she expects them to turn green or have pinpoint pupils or something. "Anything?" she asks, "Anything? Maybe you'll have extra-wierd dreams tonight."

She gets bored of waiting for me to turn into Mr. Hyde and wanders off to download a movie to watch.

12:19: OK, I'm going to have another one. There's good pharmacological science for you...if therapeutic results not immediately obtained, double the dosage.

12:30: Second glass. Again, the flavors are intriguing but they rush past so quickly it's hard to get a handle on them. I can see why the monks made a mellower version that is more suited to contemplative drinking. You can't really hold this in your mouth and move it around like it was wine.

I do feel somewhat revitalized, awake. Placebo effect? I'm also very aware of my breathing, as if my lungs were extra-clear or my bronchial tubes extra-dilated. Kind of like when you take that weird trucker speed you buy at truck stops on I-85 to stay awake at night, not that I've ever done that.

12:38: You know, the high alcohol content seems to have made my throat a little dry. I sure would like a nice cold beer.

12:42: Speaking of ancient manuscripts, V has downloaded The DaVinci Code (in a completely legal and copyright-respecting manner, bien sur). Wanna watch? Er, I guess. Lemme grab a beer from the fridge first.

Postscript: So ended the experiment, as the test subject wandered off in search of a cold beer. No excessively unusual dreams to report, no hangover symptoms to speak of. All in all a success, though those of you hoping for some Hunter S. Thompson psychotropic mayhem will doubtless be disappointed that it ended in a crummy movie that I didn't bother watching all of. I'm holding out hope, though, for a bit more gonzo the next installment of Drunkblogging: Absinthe. Tune in next time...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How To Eat Bouillabaisse

The setting is important: You need a view of the sea at least, preferably a harbor, ideally one where you can see the very boats whereupon your meal was caught. The Vieux Port of Marseille will do nicely, as will the tiny harbor at Cassis, with its magnificent backdrop of Cap Canaille and the 1000-foot cliffs of the Bec de L'Aigle, the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

[pic: our hotel--Le Mahogany, Cassis]

You will arrange yourself at the table to provide the best view of the water [pic: Cassis harbor, chateau at center] as the waiter brings a bottle of Cassis: Domaine de Bagnol blanc; a vintage bottle is not required, as even a 2005 will do. After you nod your approval, the waiter will fill the glasses and nestle the bottle into a silver ice bucket on a tableside stand, with a white linen cloth turned once around the bottle neck.

At this point you will feel a little like James Bond, even if you are truthfully more like Joe Schmoe. Besides, the casino is on the other side of the harbor, and you're woefully fuzzy on the rules of baccarat, the quarter slots being more your speed.

The soup base comes first--it is golden brown with saffron and accompanied by toasted bread and small bowls of mustard and parmesan cheese. You spread mustard on the toast, then dunk it in the soup. As it gets soggy, you eat the bread and soup together with your spoon. One may also stir the mustard directly into the soup, like putting wasabi in soy sauce.

You watch furtively the couple at the next table eating oursins (sea urchins) at the next table, trying to get a hint how to do it. It turns out you simply squirt lemon on top, then sop out the urchin goo with a piece of bread.

[pic: fishermen cutting oursins for sale on the dockside, 7 euros a kilo. They cut them open with scissors, making a hideous schlurrrk sound. Dude was not happy with me taking his picture, even though I asked politely.]

The waiter returns with the fish that will make your bouillebaisse. They are ugly fish--angler fish, john dory, eel--for this dish is traditionally made for lunch by fishermen of their fish that do not sell at that morning's market [see furtive pic of menu]. You nod your approval again, and have another glass of the wine, which is remarkably crisp, and admire the play of the early-afternoon January light on the cliffs.

The fish arrive, cooked now, sitting in a shallow dish of broth atop sliced potatoes.

You eat your fill.

You polish off the wine.

You pay the bill without looking at it.

The waiter hangs your son's crayon drawing in the kitchen hallway, and tells him to return when he is grown, so that he can show his date his artwork.

Outside, you stroll slowly down the waterfront, having put a new shine on the day. Perhaps you will hike in the Calanques this afternoon. Perhaps you will sit on the rocky beach and watch hardier men than you swim in the clear, placid (but cold) water. Perhaps you will do nothing at all. Savor a few quiet moments with a book, or your pen and paper.

This is, after all, what you came to France for.


PS: Two days later and an hour and a half north by train, I'm watching it snow outside my office window. Sigh.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

V. Versus the Wheel

V., let us say with some degree of understatement, has no head for heights. She won't even step out onto our balcony by herself, and I haven't been able to coax her onto the Ferris Wheel at the North Carolina State Fair since about 1994. Come to think of it, I haven't been able to coax her back to the Fair since then...something about an irrational fear of carnies.

So I was pleased with myself for dragging her onto the Grand Roue ("the largest travelling wheel in Europe") set up in Place Bellecour, and I even got a few pictures. But she's forbidden me to share them--which is a shame, as they range amusingly from nervousness to naked terror. But here are some photos of the rest of the ride anyway:

The empty wheel at 8AM. It seems there was some sort of electrical glitch that led to a passenger being zapped with a huge jolt of accumulated static electricity the first day the wheel was open, leading to it being closed again for several days while they corrected the problem. Needless to say, I hid the newspaper from V. for a day or two.

Waiting for tickets.

To add to the ambiance, the wheel's operators imported the finest airbrush artists from the Myrtle Beach pavilion.

On the way up. Sure are a lot of people out on Place Bellecour tonight.

Hey, I can see our house from here!

(Well, the back side of our building, anyway.)

Place Carnot clock tower (far right), post office, and Pont de L'Universite over the Rhone.

About this time the baby started to fuss--it was pretty windy up there--so I had to put the camera away. Also V's fingernails were starting to penetrate my jacket sleeve.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Dead Mule Problem

There is, in a certain Faulkner-revering subset of Southern gothic literature, a recurring trope (or signifier, depending on how much Lit Crit you had in college), that of the dead mule. This has come to the attention of various Southern cultural-studies/literature/folklore types--I imagine them as bearded, with a substantial collection of bluegrass CDs and a woodburning stove, possibly in the vicinity of an amiable dog wearing a bandana--and has become something of a literary in-joke, passed around like a Chatham County Line bootleg CD, to the extent that Chapel Hill has a fine drinking establishment of the same name.

See, the problem of a dead mule (for those of you who have never pondered it) is not the problem that the mule is dead, although that certainly is a problem, especially for the mule concerned. The big problem is the problem of what to do with it. A dead mule is too heavy to drag away, too stinky to leave there, and too big to bury without a backhoe. There is really only one extraordinarily unpleasant option, which involves reducing the ex-mule to its component parts for easier disposal. In other words, a dead mule means things are going to get gory.

Which brings me to my Christmas tree.

Back in December, we bought a nice, full, six-foot Christmas tree, and I believe I mentioned in passing the adventure we had jamming the thing in the back of a rented Renault. But we got it home just fine, and when we got it out of its bag and set up, it looked great. But January is a cruel month for Christmas trees, and I began to wonder about what to do with the thing once the holidays were over. Back home, I could just chuck an expired tree out in the woods, or at my parents' place at the lake drop it under a pier to provide fish habitat. But here, I have no yard, no woods, no lake...and no car to drive a tree to the dump, as one is expected to do here.

Lyon has two dechetteries within city limits, one in the 7th and one in the 9th arrondisement, neither one within two miles of our apartment. That's a long walk carrying a Christmas tree, even if it is just one of the tabletop 3-footers that are preferred here. It's no wonder, then, that the city has passed laws imposing strict fines (up to 750 euros!) for leaving trees in alleyways or on sidewalks. So by Saturday I had begun to despair, with vague notions of either cutting the tree into small bits to throw in the garbage bins--hmmm, I guess I'll have to buy a saw--or dragging the thing onto the metro at a quiet hour of the morning for a one-way trip to the dechetterie.

As I was idly cleaning up my stack of mail on the hall table, an item in the 2nd Arrondisement newsletter caught my eye: The city of Lyon has made available several dumpsters for disposal your sapins de Noel. Corner of Rue Suchet and the quai de la Saone. Hey, that's not all that far, lemme check the map for Rue Suchet...OK, that's a long walk, down past Perrache station, but do-able. How late are they open? From 9AM until 4PM, Saturday 6 Janvier ONLY.

I check my watch. It's 3PM.

We frantically defrock the tree, and I grab my gloves and barn jacket. Obstacle one will be getting the thing down our phone-booth-sized elevator now that it's no longer tightly wrapped in burlap. I briefly consider hurling it down the open center of the I cram the tree in the elevator by itself, mash the button and race it to the bottom.

Dragging the tree onto the street, I cut a wide swath through the throngs of pedestrians, leaving a trail of needles until I manage to wrestle the tree onto one shoulder. Whew. It's 3:30 now, maybe if I could just get on the metro for two stops, I'd be pretty close and make it in time. I get to the entrance to Bellecour station and nearly clock an old lady with the trunk going down the steps. Oh crap, I forgot about the turnstiles. Maybe if I hold the tree over my head...

Except there's a Metro security guy standing right by the turnstile. He doesn't say a word but just shakes his head at me with a look that doesn't need translating: Gimme a break, dude. Defeated, I drag the tree back up the steps and out along the quai. There's not much hope of getting all the way down to rue Suchet now, but I keep walking in hopes that they won't drive the dumpsters off at 4 on the dot.

Below me, the Saone is running high, lapping over the edge of the low quai where the winos sit in the evenings. There's lots of flotsam and debris in the river. Maybe nobody'd notice if I just gave it the old heave-ho... except it's broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, and people are already starting to guess what the schmuck carrying a huge Christmas tree along the river is thinking. A car horn honks. Someone yells something at me from a passing Peugeot. I'm starting to sweat pretty hard now.

A van pulls up beside me. I turn to look, and it has Ville De Lyon stenciled on the side.

"Tiens, mec, where you goin' with that sapin de Noel?" Oh boy, here we go.
"Nowhere--I mean, I'm just taking it down to the dumpster on Rue Suchet, on down the quai."
"Oh, OK then. So long as you're not just gonna ditch it. We've been picking up trees off of sidewalks all damn day."
"Yeah, I heard about that. Big fine and all. That's why I'm taking mine to the dumpster."
"That's right." He pauses, looks at the other guy in the van. "Hey, you know what, we're headed that way right now. If you want, just toss your tree in the back and we'll take it for you. Save you a long walk, you know."

Thus did my dead mule miraculously disappear, as if a deus-ex-machina flatbed with a chain hoist had happened by on its way to the Purina plant.

[Pics: My roi des forets, in happier days.]

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Vezelay, Part Un

I hope I'm not offending anybody by observing that early Christianity was a deeply weird religion. Faced with the challenges of appealing to the pagan populaces of Europe, ducking the oppression of the fading Roman Empire, and facing up to Islam sweeping across the Mediterranean, the early church was cultish, warlike, and soaked in blood both literal and metaphorical--a long way from coffee and cookies in the Fellowship Hall at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC.

Which partially explains how I came to be in a candlelit underground cavern in a tiny town perched on a rock in middle-of-nowhere Burgundy, peering into a glass case at a reliquary shaped almost exactly like Indiana Jones' Ark of the Covenant, at a chunk of Mary Magdalene.

It looked for all the world as if the night janitor at the basilica had finished up his 3-piece KFC box, and, wiping biscuit crumbs from his moustache, slipped a chicken leg bone between the golden seraphim and into the reliquary.

Pilgrimage was big business in Western Europe in the Dark Ages, providing one of the very few motivations for interregional commerce and spurring a sort of tourism industry to places that overwhelmingly only had subsistence agriculture. There were even primitive guidebooks, forerunners to Lonely Planet or Frommer's, that told which auberges had mostly-clean straw to sleep on, which farms sold cheeses that might last until the Pyrennes, and so forth. Towns and churches on the pilgrimage routes prospered, while other towns looked on in envy.

This was the case for the shrine of St. Maximin in Provence. This place had benefited from an, ahem, fortunate chain of events when Mary Magdalene crossed the Mediterranean in an open boat without mast or rudder (uh-huh) to land in Southern France. After her death, her mortal remains were transported by the angels (uh-huh) to Aix-en-Provence, where after their discovery (uh-huh) a shrine was built, which made the town and not coincidentally the church quite prosperous.

Fast forward to the eighth century, when the Saracens were wreaking havoc across Southern Europe. The monks of Vezelay, fearing for the safety (uh-huh) of the relics of Mary Magdalene in Aix, sent envoys to relocate the bits and pieces northward. Arriving too late and finding the shrine sacked, they were guided by a divine vision (uh-huh) to an unmarked crypt, where they found the relics, which they reverently transported to their hilltop monastery in Burgundy.

For Vezelay, good times commenced to roll: The abbey church became the stop on the pilgrim trail, and the town swelled with thousands of penitents and the service industry that grew up around them. The abbey church grew in grandeur and importance: It was here, on a temporary grandstand built on the hillside, that St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade in 1146, and where Richard I of England and Philip II of France met up to launch the Third Crusade (since, you know, the second one went so well).

By 1279, however, back in Provence, the monks of St. Maximin announced--oh, snap!--Look, here's Mary Magdalene; she's been here the whole time! We were just hiding her because, you know, Saracens and whatnot. And the relics are performing miracles and healing people, so all y'all pilgrims should come check it out!

The crowds dwindled and things grew quiet in Vezelay as the centuries went on, except for the occasional sacking during the wars or religion and some halfhearted facade-defacing during the revolution. The population shriveled from about 50,000 (Incredible! Where did they all live?) at the height of the church's influence to about 500 farmers, woodcutters and winegrowers in stone houses clinging to a sharp-sided ridge.

Economic ruin is often the best possible thing for preservation, though. Good for us, anyway. You can stand on a crumbling rampart in Vezelay on a clear, cold November morning, having awoken in a 10th-century stone hostel and eaten toasted bread and cheese before an open fire in a vaulted cloister, and look out on a spectacular view of the valley that provides no evidence that you are in the 21st century and not the 13th.

This post turned out to be so long that I'm going to break it up into pieces. That's just good marketing, see--always leave 'em wanting more. More on our visit in Part Deux.

We Must Stop This Mad Course to the Future

News item (In English, from

NANTES, France, Jan 1, 2007 (AFP) - Taking the French love to say "non" to a new extreme, some 600 people gathered in the western city of Nantes not to ring in the New Year, but to protest its arrival on Monday.

Lashed by rain, the organisers joked even the weather was against 2007, as they milled about under banners reading "No to 2007!" and "Now is better!"

"The world will come to understand that it must stop this mad course towards the future and we demand the governments of the world and the United Nations declare a moratorium to stop this December 31 in the future," said one of the organisers.

The tension mounted as the minutes ticked away, but the arrival of midnight and 2007 did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm as they began to chant "No to 2008!".

Having passed my 35th birthday the day before, I can kinda see where they're going with this.

New Year's Eve in France generally doesn't involve fireworks or Dick Clark or countdown clocks or Auld Lang Syne. Instead, there's usually a substantial feast (how did you guess?) often involving foie gras or the biggest damn shrimp you've ever seen--seriously, about the size of a squirrel--and of course champagne. The young folks do get their drink on and head out to soirees at bars or clubs, so there is a bit of Gallic hollerin' around midnight.

We passed the twelfth stroke of midnight in a hotel in Nimes with my sister's family, accompanied by langouste (rock lobster) and bull sausage (you always wondered what happened to the losers after the bullfights, right?). In the building across the street from our balcony, an entertaining-looking party was in swing, featuring outlandish costumes.

V: Keep the kids away from the balcony.
Me: Huh? That railing's plenty high...
V: No, there's an S&M party going on over there. See the guy in the bondage mask?

Yet nakedness did not prevail (no matter how hard we wished or how often we checked) and the drag queens hollered incomprehensible husky-voiced greetings across the street to us as we raised our glasses in toast.

Happy New Year to all y'all. Sorry no pictures this time, but check back later, I've got a big ol' post coming up with lots of pics as soon as I get a minute to upload them.