The Frogmarch

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

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dog Days, and Some Pictures of Doors

[Pic: Street artist on Rue de la Republique. Working on big sheets of paper, not directly on the sidewalk, by the way]

Around the end of July, you can be forgiven for thinking that all Lyon residents have slipped out of town one by one (taking French leave, as it were), leaving the Presqu'ile to the tourists. Folks with money head to their summer homes in the mountains, the middle class packs onto the Riviera beaches. And everything closes. "Fermeture annuelle", it's called, and a great many businesses and restaurants close for the entire month of August. It's particularly noticable on Sundays--when a whole lot of businesses are closed anyway--as groups of Asian tourists wander bewildered up La Republique, taking photos of shuttered boutiques.

[pic: The Berges du Rhone, where the splash pools make a poor man's plage for those stuck in town in August]

Having already taken my vacances, I'm stuck in town so my department will have somebody around to answer the phone, and I'm doing my best to carry on as usual despite living in what feels like a ghost town.

Sunday morning I had the fairly random idea to take some pictures of doors as I went about my daily business. Ever seen those posters entitled "Doors of Dublin"? I had occasionally marveled at the impressive, ornate portals on otherwise unremarkable buildings here in the neighborhood, so Sunday I stuck my camera in my pocket and made a mental note to snap photos of interesting doors while on my way to the marche, taking Tater out for a stroll, and so on. Be sure to click on the photos to better see details.

[pic: These guys keep an eye on anyone entering Bernard Dufoux's chocolaterie. Death to those who swear allegiance to the House of Hershey]

In the 1840s a flooding Rhone river badly damaged most of the buildings in what is now our neighborhood. Most of those Renaissance-era buildings were pulled down and all replaced about the same period, 1850-1870 or so. As a result, this neighborhood provides a fairly cohesive architectural snapshot of that time, a big reason for its UNESCO-listed status.

One of the features of typical urban dwellings was a tall entranceway [pic]-- large enough and tall enough to admit horses and carriages-- leading into a central courtyard of the building, where the residents would hand over the reins to the footmen (19th-century valet parking). The ground floor of French buildings is still called the rez de chaussee (roughly, "where the footman lives"), and in many buildings remaining for this area the courtyard is still used for off-street parking.

This one [pic] is pretty typical, if a little prettier than most. Note the circular window over the double door to let some light in to the entryway while still keeping out the riffraff. Note also the hideous overexposure caused by standing in deep shadow into bright afternoon sunlight. Duh. The entranceway here is two storeys high.

This one's right around the corner from us. I dig the carved lion, and marvel that it hasn't been defaced, worn away, or graffitied.

The inscription over the door here implies that this might have been one of the older buildings that survived the flood and was merely renovated at the time. This is actually the building where our regie (real estate leasing office). Is that supposed to be the script letters "L D" in the scrollwork around the ace of clubs? Interestingly, the interior of the building is renovated in a tasteful-but-bland modern style that wouldn't be out of place in a modern American office building such as a bank office.

On this one, at 4 Place Celestines, each little nubbin is is painstakingly hand-carved. I wonder if there still exist people who do this sort of thing for a living.

Not a door (though it does have four of them): I happened across this totally cherry Austin FX-4 Fairway--better known as a London Black Cab-- parked on the street. I'm not sure what it was doing here in Lyon, probably something related to promotion for the 2012 London Olympics, but pretty cool regardless.

This isn't an interesting door, either, just a butcher's shop in the Ainay, just south of Bellecour. But check out the ironwork over the door and window! Like everybody else, they're closed for their fermeture annuelle.

And finally...[pic: fire hydrant, Place Celestines] Translation: "Can you imagine a world without him?" Let me tell you, dear reader, a world without a Stephen Seagal would truly be a world in which I would not want to live.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Drunkblogging: V's New Faves Edition

V is not much of a drinker. She's something of a lightweight, and doesn't much care for being drunk (I'm not sure how I ended being up married to this woman). So while I have enthusiastically dived into the rich and varied new alcoholic opportunities offered my by my new European residence, her exploration, apart from a good glass of red wine, has generally been limited to "I'll just try some of yours." But here are two cocktails discovered in France that she enthusiastically recommends.

[unrelated photo: Saucissons at the marche: Bull, duck, wild boar (yummy!) and donkey]

To understand the Communard, you must understand the apero. Taken after work and before dinner, the apero is a drink not alcoholic or filling enough to blunt the appetite; it merely sets the stage, creating a transition between the day's efforts and the enjoyment of the evening. An apero can be a pastis, a martini (note that in France, a "martini" is a glass of Martini brand vermouth; the familiar gin + vermouth cocktail is a "martini Americain"), or sometimes a small glass of beer.

Ideally, the apero is taken at a sidewalk table at one's local cafe. I highly recommend one of the floating riverside cafes on the Berges du Rhone, such as La Passagere (watch your step on the gangplank on your way to the bar, especially if your hands are full of drinks).

[unrelated photo: Passarelle du College over the Rhone, late afternoon]

V discovered the Communard on the apero menu at Brasserie Nord, chose it at random because its description sounded interesting, and took to it immediately. The recipe is simplicity:

1 part creme de cassis
4 parts light-bodied red wine (typically a beaujolais in these parts)
Pour cassis into wine glass. Fill with wine. Do not stir or garnish. Serve.

The name Communard comes from-- not the late-80's dancepop outfit best known for its cover of Don't Leave Me This Way-- the red color of the drink and its association with the red flag of the 1871 Paris Commune. (In certain conservative circles the same drink is called a Cardinal, to avoid evoking those damned filthy utopian socialists). I personally can't imagine that drinking one would make you want to man the barricades, but given enough of them you might consider adopting the decimal Republican Calendar or allowing women the right to vote.

This isn't a French drink at all--in fact it is the official national drink of Brazil. And in fact I first had one in the US: I was once a drummer in a samba group (long story), and at practice one day our Brazilian singer brought along a bottle of cachaca she'd brought back from a recent trip home. She mixed up a batch of caipirinhas, and I had a few, but as that day went on to become particularly hazy, the memory of how to make them, and what they tasted like, didn't really stick.

Anyway, one of the perks of my job is that I get to order myself duty-free booze a few times a year. I usually take the opportunity to restock with liquor that is expensive or hard to find here. Thumbing through the order catalog I noticed a couple of brands of cachaca, so I ordered one on a whim. The types of cachaca generally available outside Brazil are not well-suited to drinking straight, so I looked up a caipirinha recipe and tried it. V did her usual "I'll just have a sip of yours" bit, but this time the glass came back to me empty, and she asked for another as well. It's since become her preferred summer hot-afternoon drink, something like a margarita and akin to a mojito, but easier-drinking and with that easygoing carioca vibe. So go track down a bottle of cachaca (available but not exactly common in the US), dust off your Jobim records, and get muddling.

Here's how you make a caipirinha:
You'll need a lime, caster sugar, crushed ice, and white cachaca. You can use gold cachaca but that's something of a waste since you won't be able to taste its greater complexity.
Halve a lime vertically and cut out the (bitter) central axis. Cut the lime half into 4 or so chunks. Place into flat-bottomed old-fashioned glass.
Pour 1-2 tsp of caster sugar (aka superfine sugar; you can substitute powdered sugar if you must) over the lime bits.
Now muddle! Muddle like the wind! If you don't have a purpose-made muddler, anything wooden and blunt will do in a pinch. Use a hammer handle or broomstick only if you wash it well first.
With lime & sugar thoroughly muddled, add crushed ice to fill the glass.
Fill with cachaca--should be about 2 to 3 ounces.
Stir well. Garnish with slice from the other half of the lime. Serve.
(Here's an instructive YouTube video if you're not good with book-learnin')

[unrelated photo: old gas pump, Eygaliers, Provence]


I've had a couple of people ask me whether Grey Goose vodka, which is made in France and proudly bears the bleu-blanc-et-rouge tricolour on the label, is cheaper (i.e., reasonably priced) in France. Guess what? They don't actually sell it here. Grey Goose was invented from whole cloth for the American market. Interesting story about it from New York magazine here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tour de France

On the face of it, going to see the Tour de France seems like the worst possible way to experience a sporting event: You wait, outside in the elements, for several hours, at which point the action comes rushing by you and is over in a matter of a minute or two. On that level, it's the equivalent of going to the Super Bowl and only seeing one play (which may be a run up the middle for no gain).
But that's not really the point of watching the Tour in person. The arrival of the peloton is merely the climax after a great deal of foreplay (just a metaphor, kids; I did not just claim that watching the Tour is better than sex).

Since the Tour is bypassing Lyon again this year--it hasn't passed through here since 2002, as the city feels it doesn't need the tourism boost and doesn't try very hard to lobby for a stage--we picked the stage passing closest to us, which coincidentally fell on a Saturday, and Bastille Day, no less. I was pretty concerned about finding a good spot; everything I read stressed the importance of scouting out a spot ahead of time, and I just wasn't going to be able to do that. I was also concerned about huge Bastille Day crowds.

Ideally, one watches at the very end of a stage that finishes in the mountains: the riders are more spread out and are moving much slower as they climb, and the most action happens there. Knowing that the finish of this stage was going to be impossibly crowded, I aimed for an earlier climb, one I hoped would be enough to give us something to watch but still easy to get to and ideally situated in the middle of nowhere. The Cote de Corlier climb seemed to fit the bill [see map; it's the red number 3. That means a category-3 climb, i.e. not too bad].

We got up ridiculously early and hit the road--I knew the course would be closed to traffic several hours before the scheduled passage of the riders, and I didn't want to get shut out. As it happened, things worked perfectly: we found a shaded pull-off just above La Courbattiere, right on the side of the road. Looking around, it was a very pleasant spot, with a mountain stream cascading through the trees [pic] and several hiking trails leading off into the woods (hence the pull-off parking spot on a road mostly lined with guardrails).

After setting up our chairs and unpacking the grill, we still had time to kill before things started happening, so Boog and I explored the hiking trails while V and Tater dozed in the car. There were a number of Alpine (well, sub-Alpine) meadows filled with wildflowers [pic], though one was also filled with briars that slashed my calves to hamburger as I carried Boog across.

Back down at the car, I busied myself with prepping the grill--we had scored some actual Johnsonville bratwursts at Auchan the night before--and chatting with our neighbors. They were local folks, not huge cycling or even sports fans necessarily, but just enjoying a good day out [pic: waiting for the caravan].

Eventually the traffic on the road stopped, except for official vehicles zooming ahead of the race: race officials checking the course, press cars rushing toward the summit, official sponsor cars doing whatever official sponsors do. With no traffic, these cars were absolutely roaring up the road, and the slipstream was playing havoc with my attempts to get the grill going. (In my early-morning fog I had neglected to bring my trusty BBQ chimney, so I was sacrificing page after page of a souvenir edition of Le Progres.) The cars were interspersed with bike riders following the course of the day's stage, some in small groups, some solo, some obviously touring with full paniers and rain gear. A cycling team from the local high school rolled by en train, making good time up the hill and drawing cheers from the spectators.

One of the more singular aspects of the Tour experience is the sponsor caravan. The Tour's sponsors take advantage of a captive audience to parade a bewildering array of motorized advertising, ranging from simple (an array of loudly be-logoed cars) to elaborate (flatbeds mounted with fiberglas structures accompanied by booth babes tossing giveaways and pumping Eurotechno) to just plain bizarre (giant rolling coffee pots! autonomous saucissons! Wienermobile beware!). [pic: sponsor vehicle from PMU, the off-track betting people; note horses and riders in truck bed] The common thread is that all of these sponsors are throwing out free schwag to the spectators. Multiply the mass of a piece of airborne schwag--say, a promo deck of cards--by a forward velocity of about 40mph and it's a wonder more people aren't injured. I suppose the caravan slows down where the crowds are more dense. Anyway, I was tending my grill as the caravan roared past, pelting me with promotional giveaways; some sort of neck lanyard thunked directly into the grill and started melting, and a folding fan whacked into the rear glass of our rented Peugeot with enough velocity for me to fear a very difficult explanation to the rental agency. Boog, meanwhile, ran down every promo piece launched his way, plucking cardboard Homer Simpson masks from the roadside weeds and shrugging off a direct hit from a miniature Kronenbourg-bottle keychain [pic: Boog's schwag haul for the day].

The goofy energy of the sponsor caravan having set the proper tone for the arrival of the race itself, we settled in with our bratwursts and cold beer. The sound of the TV helicopters grew louder, and motorcyle cops cruised by, eyeing the crowd for any signs of trouble. A press photographer on a motorcycle rode by, then parked and walked back to us, having found Boog irresistably photogenic with his bratwurst and Harris Teeter sun umbrella [pic].

A sunburned old weirdbeard, who I would have mistaken for a homeless guy had he not been riding about 1500 euros worth of bike, eased up the road. "Alvarez is off the front!" he shouted, relaying the news coming through his radio earpiece. A ragged cheer went up. Then everyone looked at each other and asked Who the heck is Alvarez? Tour programs were quickly consulted. Did he mean Martinez? Maybe Gutierrez?

Cops and camera cars were coming fast and furious now. I settled into my chair with Boog on my lap and the camcorder in one hand. You have to decide beforehand if you're going to try to document the event or if you're going to let yourself get swept up in it, to hoot and holler and run along beside your favorite rider like a nut. I opted for the first, figuring my adopted favorite rider (Big George Hincapie, 'cause he's from South Carolina) would do just fine without me. V would take pictures with the still camera.

"Ils viennent!" and suddenly there they are, no breakaway, just the peloton all together, and man are they absolutely flying up the hill [pic]. The peloton sweeps past in an absolute blur of color and motion, very difficult to pick out faces, some open-mouthed with effort, jerseys undone. I think I pick out Discovery's colors, and shout Allez, allez, allez! like an idiot. And as soon as that, the peloton is gone.

Everything passed by so fast that I had to go back and look at the tape and the pictures to clearly see what was happening.

I believe that's Gerdemann, who would go on to win the day's stage, in the pink T-Mobile jersey leading the peloton. Also Boog and myself, plus our aforementioned Harris Teeter umbrella, poking into the frame.

That's Cancellara in the yellow jersey of the current leader [pic]; on the last climb of the day he would get dropped like a bad habit and finish 22 minutes down.

[Third pic of racers] The partially-obscured dude in the light blue jersey 3rd from right is Vinokourov, the pre-race favorite who... uh-oh.

And then there are the team cars, each carrying spare bikes for their riders as well as the team's technical directors (coaches), water bottles, tons of communications gear [pic] ...

And then there is the sweeper car marking the end of the racers; no one has been dropped at this early stage in the race. And that's it.

We gradually pack up our gear into the car and join the single lane of traffic snaking back down the hill. It's about 1:30PM, and we've spent half a day to see maybe a minute of racing action. I don't feel shortchanged at all.

Giant Anthropomorphic Rodent Terrorizes Children

It was the longest, most expensive vacation I've ever taken, even more so than our honeymoon in Tahiti. Three weeks, thousands of miles, thousands of dollars--just to spend time in my own home town, doing things that would have seemed very ordinary just a year and a half ago. And I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of it hanging around the mall.

See, this was as much a resupply mission as anything else, and we arrived in NC bearing empty suitcases so we'd have enough room to haul our purchases back (and we ended up buying an extra suitcase on top of that). With a pair of Levi's costing upward of $100 in Lyon and only $21.99 in Durham, you can see the logic.

But I ended up spending less time than I had hoped seeing friends and family, which was disappointing for me. If I missed you on this trip, please know that I'm sorry and I'll catch you next time.

It happened that both of the boys' birthdays fell during our stay in the States, which made a lot of things much easier. A party for Boog was arranged at Chuck E. Cheese with just a phone call [pic]; the staff looked pretty confused when we sang Joyeux Anniversaire instead of Happy Birthday To You, Boog enjoyed running around screaming, and I turned out to still be pretty decent at Pop-A-Shot. V baked a cake for Tater's first birthday [pic] and that was pretty much that.

As it turned out, this vacation that didn't feel much like a vacation meant that I didn't take too many pictures (apart from the birthday pictures of the kids). A few snaps at a Durham Bulls game [pics; note famous Bull ("Hit Bull Win Steak/Hit Grass Win Salad")] are enclosed for your perusal.

I could conclude with some sort of sweeping statement about American culture and What I've Learned and whatnot, but frankly I'm a little tired of thinking about it. Besides, you don't come here to read about what America is like, you come here to read about France, right?

So more of that coming up, starting with the next post.

Friday, July 20, 2007

It's Good To Be The King

That's solo round-the-world sailor Maud Fontenoy receiving the Order of Merit...and Sarko enthusiastically taking hold of his new duties as president.

[More real posts coming soon enough...been busy settling in and catching up with work post-vacation. I've also been playing with adding some video clips to the site if I can; stay tuned but don't hold your breath.]

Friday, July 13, 2007

Drunkblogging: Absinthe

[Note: the events herein actually took place several weeks ago, before our trip to the US. I just hadn't got around to unloading the photos from my camera before we left. Sorry if this disorients you by throwing a kink in your narrative.]

La Fee Verte
, the Green Fairy. Mysterious, enticing muse to Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and pretty much every avant-gardist of the late 19th century, absinthe was perhaps the cultural equivalent to heroin in that period, associated with both artistic creativity and ultimate ruin. (You can read much more here and here.) A sensational murder trial in Switzerland in 1906 of a man who murdered his family while hepped up on absinthe (also wine, cognac, brandy and creme de menthe, but never mind those) led eventually to its banning in Europe and the US. Interestingly, the absinthe ban in France led to the emergence of the similarly-flavored pastis as a popular drink.

Many of those prohibition laws are still on the books, but loopholes here and there now allow for the sale of absinthe in most European countries. Not so the US, where it is forbidden even to import absinthe bought legally overseas. In France, the sale of liquor labeled as "absinthe" is still illegal; to get around this, it is sold as "spirits based on absinthe plants". I would not say that absinthe is exactly popular here, certainly nowhere near as much as pastis. The liquor aisle at Carrefour has perhaps 20% of its total area given to various brands and flavors of pastis, while a single row of one type of absinthe gathers dust on a bottom shelf. My local wine/liquor specialty shop (the superb but expensive Maison Malleval, est. 1869) has several brands, as well as a selection of the tools required to partake in the absinthe ritual.

Some explanation of that ritual: One begins by pouring about an ounce and a half of absinthe into a glass. There are any number of specialized absinthe glasses, some with a rounded bubble or marked line to indicate the preferred level of absinthe. My glass, bought in a shop in Avignon, has no such demarcation, so I arbitrarily chose the level of the bottom of the etching on the glass as the appropriate height.

One then places the all-important absinthe spoon across the top of the glass. The spoon handle typically has a notch to hold it in place. The spoon itself is typically highly decorative; mine is fairly simple and inexpensive, made of stamped steel and bought with the glass. I later learned that often when you by a bottle of absinthe, a spoon comes with it in the package.

A sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Next, ice-cold water is slowly dripped over the sugar cube, dissolving the sugar and adding cold, sweet water to dilute the bitter drink and bring out the flavor. This process is called "louching", from the French for "shade"; see, at room temperature absinthe is clear, pale green, but when cold water is added it turns cloudy white. Gee, Mr. Wizard! There are ornate glass absinthe fountains that allow one to louche up to four glasses at once from a central reservoir filled with ice, but I don't have one of those, relying instead on the Brita water purifier from my fridge. Once the sugar is dissolved and water is added to about a 4:1 ratio, you're ready to drink.

So come along with me as I drink absinthe for the first time and record my unedited thoughts and observations. See you on the Other Side.

[Begin "live" drunkblogging]

9:25 I prepare the works: Glass, spoon, sugar cubes, bottle. V is concerned about this endeavor, mostly that I'll do something bizarre while under the influence, like take a dump in a laundry hamper or wander the streets buck-nekkid and ranting incoherently. I try to reassure her. But I keep in mind that the absinthe could be a convenient excuse.

9:30 Start louching. It goes rather quicker than I had expected, as I had feared that the sugar cube would take too long to melt under the cold water. But it comes apart most pleasingly, and in fact the cube dissolves before I’m half finished adding water. I add more water until the proportion looks about 3:1…maybe 4:1 since the glass widens at the top.

9:35 Louching done, I take a sniff. It smells like pastis. Almost exactly like pastis, in fact. Anise/licorice predominates. The color is cloudy white (not artificially colored green as some absinthes are) with a hint of yellow.

I’m about ready. Oh wait…need some music. Miles Davis’ Ascenseur Pour L’Eschafaud should do for starters.

9:45 Let’s do this. If tonight I lose my sanity for good… well, it’s been fun.
I raise the glass and take a drink.

9:46 FIRST GLASS. Yep, it tastes much like pastis. Maybe more complex, with less punchy anise flavor. Not bad, exactly. Just not really something I’d drink just for the taste of it.

9:47 Now to wait for the effects to kick in.

9:48 I AM THE LIZARD KING!!!!!!1!!!1!

9:49 Just kidding.

9:50 Man, this Miles Davis cat is pretty good, huh?

The absinthe does go down smoother than pastis. It has a more rounded mouthfeel (I believe that is the first time I’ve ever used that word). I may have mixed it a little watery; still, everything I've read said the proportion should be 3:1 to 5:1.

9:53 One of the Wyrd Sisters --our neighbors across the narrow side street, elderly women who have the disturbing habit of parading around naked-- has just come to her window (about 30 feet directly in front of where I’m sitting) wearing only a bra and panties. She is, I’m guessing, in her late 60’s.

Some things you can’t un-see.

I take my glasses off to prevent further psychic scarring.

[later edit: That's them in the first photo in this post.]

9:57 Finished the first glass. Taking stock, I feel, well, like I just finished a glass of 90-proof liquor. Which in fact I did. One of the remarkable attributes of abinthe is that it reputedly allows the drinker to maintain some sense of clarity through the alcohol haze. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s true.

10:02 Is it too soon to have another? I need to pace myself a little, so I’ll wait until 10:15, which will be 30 minutes after the first. That’s not too bad—a loading dose, if you will, or a double-bolus (cardiology joke for my peeps at Duke).

10:05 OK, I’m gonna go louche another glass. Back in a few.

10:12 As I’m louching, V reminds me “You’d better not pee in the closet.” I laugh.

“No, I’m serious,” she says. You’d better not pee in the closet.”

10:14 I have my laptop out for this, set up on the coffee table. Having the laptop out means I’ll probably be more verbose than if I were scrawling on a notepad, as I did for the Chartreuse Elixir drunkblog.

10:15 SECOND GLASS. Much like the first. Feeling a slight urge to eat something, which is odd since I just had dinner a little before 9PM.

10:20 Now what? I’m just sort of sitting around waiting for something to happen, getting a little restless. I’ve got a short stack of books here in front of me, chosen beforehand in case I got the urge to read something—Aldous Huxley, Sartre, Beaudrillard—it occurs to me that I should try reading Beaudrillard in French. The way he and his ilk loved to toy around with language, I’m probably missing a level of meaning by reading it in translation.

10:28 One of the loops of scrolled ironwork on the balcony is asymetrical, missing part of a scroll on one side. I had never noticed that before. Altered perception, or merely the first time I’d sat in this spot on the couch doing nothing for this length of time?

10:32 A bachelorette party passes by on the street below. I see this pretty much every weekend, though more commonly on Saturday afternoon: A group of young people surrounding one poor schlub (male or female) dressed in a ridiculous outfit—clown wig, swim fins, Groucho glasses, etc.—as the schlub asks…something…of passersby. Not kisses or other sexy/titillating things as one would see in the US, but it appears as if they ask them questions; I’ve never been able to work out exactly what is going on.

10:37 V comes in. “Seen anything yet?”

10:40 Still nothing noteworthy. I’ll go louche up another one, which in theory should get me up to cruising altitude, if only from the alcohol.

10:45 Made this one with limonade rather than H2O. There was already plenty of undissolved sugar in the bottom of the glass so I didn’t add another cube.

10:46 THIRD GLASS. Hmmm. Funny aftertaste; I don’t think I’ll bother with the limonade again.

10:54 I keep checking to see if my watch has stopped. Time seems to be passing slowly. You may be feeling the same sensation, dear reader.

11:04 CD change—Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate. Finished the 3rd glass and I’m definitely hungry now. Mild degree of intoxication (more noticeable when I stand up) but not too bad. Fingers are clumsier on the keyboard now but I’m still together enough to correct my errors as I go.

11:16 I go snack-hunting in the kitchen, come up with some BBQ Pringle’s. Drink a glass of water to stay hydrated. Step out onto the balcony to see how cold it is; a little chilly to be really comfortable but I might go out there for a while. Maybe I’ll take a walk down the street just to see what’s what.

12:08 Just back from a walk: Place Bellecour has knots of people hanging around under the statue of Louis XIV. People are finishing their dinners (still!) in the brasseries that line Place Poncet. The Rhone flows high and fast, almost alarmingly so in the darkness. The riverbanks still are full of people hanging out at this hour; a roulotte sells kebabs and frites on the corner. In a truly random occurrence, I bump into a co-worker riding her bike along the quai at midnight. A guy, glassy-eyed drunk, staring, sits on the sidewalk leaning against a planter in front of a now-closed café. My ears are cold from the wind off the river and I slip back inside, quiet so as not to wake the baby, and return to my spot on the couch.

“Nothing?” V asks.

Nothing. I’m beginning to believe that absinthe is pretty much just booze. A little disappointing, actually.

[End of live drunkblog. Last two photos were taken on that walk; blurriness should be ascribed to low light levels and shutter speeds rather than operator's vision.]

Postscript: Well, that was pretty much that. After I stopped blogging I drank a beer, watched some of The Wild Bunch on French TV, read a little, went to bed. I didn't have any strange dreams or anything, and (most surprisingly) felt fine in the morning when I woke up.

In the final analysis, we can conclude that despite its fearsome reputation, absinthe as it is sold today appears to have no psychoactive properties other than those that can be ascribed to its alcoholic content. It remains unclear whether absinthe as it was made back in the day (with allegedly higher thujone levels, etc.) had any such effect; it is also possible that much greater doses-- at Hunter S. Thompson ether-binge levels-- might have some of the desired (or undesired) effects, but I will leave that research to others who do not have small children to wake them at 6:30AM on Saturday morning.

Raymond Carver, Watch Your Back

Some good news today: One of my short stories, "Johnny Cash Beset By Darkness", has been accepted for publication in the summer issue of StorySouth. I wrote this for a fiction workshop at the Carrboro ArtsCenter a couple of years back, but was never really 100% happy with the opening or the central metaphor. I had been submitting it to literary journals, along with a couple of other stories, in a rather half-assed manner--having had other priorities and very limited free time--and had only collected a short stack of rejection notices (eight, which isn't actually all that bad). So yeah, I was pretty pleased to get the news. Bite me, Ploughshares.

Anyway, it's my first fiction publication since some embarrassing efforts in the campus litmag back in college. I'll give y'all a heads-up when it's published so you can check it out.

No, it doesn't have anything to do with France.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

From A Mazda 6

Sunday morning, I-40. I've left the family sleeping and slipped out to the rental car, a Mazda with automatic transmission (I keep phantom-clutching with my left foot). The sun is just up and it is not yet hot but threatening.

I scroll through the radio stations looking to catch the right mood, finally lighting on a gospel program, some Sunday-morning soul, on the Shaw University station WSHA. Is that Mahalia? I dunno, doesn't really matter. Sincerity, certainty, belief rather than my usual preferred modes of sarcasm and cynicism.

Windows down, almost-empty highway. Driving in America seems almost a collective, consensual act rather than the individual, every-man-for-himself combat-alert twitchiness of European driving. It would be downright leisurely, with its wide traffic lanes and smooth streets, if not for the cops absolutely everywhere. Have there always been this many, or am I just noticing it more now?

The woman in the drive-through window at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen calls me "honey". My change contains state quarters I haven't seen yet, and I squint at them. Left turn onto East Franklin, then a right on red past the U-mall and onto Fordham Boulevard. I eat hash browns with one hand on the wheel, cruise control on, a stack of napkins for greasy fingers on the console. "I Got Jesus (And That's All I Need)." That and some biscuits.

It's good to be home.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

So there I was in Dulles airport, at the back of this huge line waiting to go through passport control and then US customs, dog-tired, bleary, and leading a half-naked kid by the hand.

See, things had gotten a little bumpy on final approach, and just before the wheels hit the tarmac Boog leaned over and yackbacked muesli (we were on Lufthansa) and orange juice all over the aisle, his seat, and his clothes. Although we carried enough supplies in our carryon baggage for almost any eventuality, those eventualities did not include the necessity of a complete change of clothing. So we had little choice but to peel off Boog's yack-sodden clothes, stuff them into a plastic bag that came from an airline blanket, and parade him through the terminal like a little Mowgli in Spiderman sandals, yanked from the Indian jungle and plopped into the more-forbidding, more-treacherous jungle of Dulles Customs.

And everybody was so nice.

The TSA guy keeping the lines in order took time out from his spiel to joke with Boog and kootchie-koo with Tater. The customs guy stamping passports gave us a ribbing for bringing in olive oil from France ("France? You got to go to Italy. Buy it from an old person, an old Italian grandma. The young folks'll rip you off.") and his partner hurried us on through so we could get our bags and get some clothes for Boog. ("And welcome home.") Everyone was so friendly that it appeared as if an internal memo had gone around mandating that all employees laugh and joke with travellers to put them at ease and keep them from grumbling in the long lines.

It wasn't until later, until after we'd landed in Charlotte, found a missing suitcase, picked up our rental car, and gotten on our way, that we realized that everyone was friendly here. I suppose I had forgotten that, or had never had the contrast with France revealed to me as plainly. In France, people will be polite and formal, and may even be helpful if you speak French, but will rarely deviate from the script that delineates how certain interactions will take place.

I'm often asked how the French differ from Americans, and there it is: The French would rather be percieved as cool, intelligent and sophisticated, while Americans--and I'm making very broad generalizations here in both cases--would prefer to be seen as good people (in the Southern sense: "She's good people."). To go from one culture rapidly to the other can be disorienting, but for us it was a pleasant surprise, and it seemed to bode well for our vacation at home.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

America I've Given You My All and Now I'm Nothing

America I'm telling you this because I care:

As much as I can relate to things green and amphibious--you might want to rethink the Crocs sandals.

Your pal,
The Frogmarch

Much more later.