The Frogmarch

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

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sketches of Spain

On the Paris-Lyon TGV
January 1, 2008

No one speaks English, and everything’s broken…

The horrific sprawl of Madrid gives way to the dry plains of La Mancha, covered in dust and scrub and not much else, save the occasional roadside restaurant or cervezeria with a cipher of old leathery guys out front, or a converted windmill advertising queso. The kilometers peel off at about 160 each hour, and the Beemer runs effortlessly toward Granada as Tater and V nap while Boog watches his Cars DVD. It’s a peaceful moment, and one of the few times in our entire two-week trip to Spain in which everything goes right.

The beach at Puerto Cabopino, blissfully sandy rather than rocky, unusual for the Med—

The Alhambra, as advertised, even in cold rain—

The forest of columns in the Mezquita of Cordoba, like a scene from Lord of the Rings—

The remarkable setting of Ronda, itself like a Rivendell astride a deep and narrow gorge—

An unexpectedly good meal on the overnight train from Madrid to Paris

And, finally, the warm pains au chocolat handed to us on a silver tray by the SNCF staff as we staggered, shellshocked and hungry, off that same train--which pulled into Gare d’Austerlitz nine hours late, after an all-night-and-all-the-next-day ordeal involving a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. It was a Small Good Thing, and V said something I never thought I’d hear her say:

"I’m so glad to be back in France."

I won't go into the problems and hassles, because I don't believe in dwelling on such things after the fact, but suffice it to say that we won't be renting from Hertz again, and despite SNCF offering us a free round-trip ticket from Paris to Madrid in compensation, we may decline to take it.

But here are some nice pictures from our trip--these are all of the Alhambra in Granada. I have a bunch of others from the rest of Spain but will probably just include some of those in a giant photo-dump post.

Be sure to click on these to see them full-size... the detail is pretty spectacular.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thus Ended My NBA Dreams

On Sunday afternoons in Lyon, everything is closed. Almost everything: there’s the Botanic garden & pet-supply store, the Picard frozen-foods place (mornings only) and for some reason, almost all the Asian grocery stores in Chinatown. This past Sunday we didn’t need any cat food from Botanic, so we crossed Pont Wilson over the Rhone to the 3rd arrondissement to stock up on udon, fresh cilantro, tofu, and the like. Boog was a bit restless with an excess of energy, so I took him to the nearby playground at Place Raspail while V. finished up the shopping with Tater.

[All photos from the Fete des Lumieres back in December. Not timely but too good not to use.]

When we got to the playground, it was gone. Well, the playground wasn’t gone, just the playground equipment had completely disappeared, Alderaan-style [my spell-checker does not flag “Alderaan” as an error, which makes me smile], as if a million bouncy-horses had cried out as one and were suddenly silenced. “Well, Boog, let’s run around anyway,” sez I, and we set to playing Chasse-Loup, ("Hunt the Wolf", more succinctly known in English as “Tag”).

In the process, with Boog hot on my heels, I head-faked going right around a park bench, then cut right—and my pivot foot, which I had managed to plant on a wet tree root, slid right out from under me. I fell over backwards, but with my catlike grace and ninja reflexes (heh) managed to get my hands behind me and break my fall, then rolled up to one side like an extra from Beat Street.

Having been tagged by Boog in the process, I got up and started to lumber after him, but… failed. My lower back had gone on strike: Any attempt to take a step larger than six inches, or bend over, or straighten up, left me gasping with pain.

No biggee. I’ll just walk it off. It’ll loosen back up in a bit. But it didn’t, neither that night or the next day at work, when I got up from my office chair only when absolutely necessary, and limped to the Metro like an 80-year-old. So I set up a same-day appointment with our doctor, who took one look before whipping out his prescription pad and writing scripts for enough pills to supply a party at Studio 54. "There's a pharmacy about two blocks from here," he said, "but it closes at 7:30. If you hurry you might make it."

You know how in the movies, a guy gets shot or stabbed, and staggers out of a bar/warehouse/garage/bank/whatever, lurching down the sidewalk grimacing and gasping, gibbering incoherently while passersby scoot their children out of the way? Yeah... been there.

So now it's the next day and I’m sitting in a waiting room at Clinique Jeanne d’Arc, just a couple of metro stops from the office. I anticipated the long wait and brought my laptop, because I knew that the waiting-room magazine selection would be terrible—mostly old copies of Paris-Match and Madame, with the odd golf magazine some physician no longer wanted.

It’s really no different from any waiting room back home: a row of hard chairs, a Monet poster print on the wall (interestingly, from an exhibition at the Met in NYC), and some flyers from various public-health organizations lying ignored on a corner table.

My stomach hurts. Unclear whether this is a side effect from the massive doses of medication I’ve been taking to control the pain and allow me to walk, or because I’m nervous about the radiography finding something really awful.

They call my name after only about enough time to write the 3 preceding paragraphs, and I’m shown to a small dressing room with a door at the opposite end, and told to get my clothes off. I do. Then I wait. Now what? Do I walk through the other door? What if it’s not an examination room on the other side? What if it’s another waiting room full of (clothed) people? What if I misunderstood what the nurse said—say, if it was “please take off your shoes”—and she comes back to find me standing there buck nekkid like a low-grade trenchcoat perv?

She does come back, and thankfully does not seem to be surprised by my buck-nekkidness, and thankfully refrains from any comment. Rather, she leads me to the scanner, where I stand in an awkward position pressed against a flat screen while the apparatus whirs. After the whirring stops, I shuffle back to the cabine and get dressed again.

The diagnosis: globally squashed disc between lumbar 5 and sacral 1, with accompanying spinal immobility; thankfully no rupture or nerve involvement. The first thing my doctor said on looking at the x-rays was "Did you play basketball when you were younger?" Um, yeah, I'm from North Carolina... and still entertain ridiculous daydreams about Roy Williams spotting me playing pickup ball at the Y ("Ty Lawson's got an ankle sprain, and we really need a slow-footed 5'11" 36-year-old white point guard with a questionable jumper who can't go to his left...whaddya say?"). Anyway, apparently this is a common injury among former basketball players; I don't know if that's true in my case, but "old basketball injury" sounds a lot more heroic than "blew out my back while playing tag with my 5-year-old".

Anyway, that explains why no posts this week...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

10:22 PM: Restate My Assumptions

Upon the realisation that this blog lacks a proper "About This Blog" page, here it is:

About The Frogmarch

In the summer of 2005, after a particularly soul-crushing meeting at work, I returned to my office and scanned through a few online job-listing pages I had bookmarked. I encountered a listing for a job that I was qualified for, that sounded interesting, and--here's the kicker--was in Lyon, France. I fired off my resume with a tension-relieving mouseclick, and went back to work. A couple of months passed, during which I had mostly forgotten about even applying, and one day I got an e-mail requesting an interview in Lyon.

I bought an expensive suit.
I scurried to refresh my high school French.
I watched a Godard film or two.
And over Thanksgiving I went for the interview and got the job.

[photo: self-portrait, tiny elevator, rainy day]

Thus began an adventure unlike any I'd experienced--over the next few months I sold most of my stuff, concluded my business in the US as best I could, and packed up my family (my wife V., then 7 months pregnant; my son Boog, then 3; and our cat Bowie, ageless and noble with iffy kidneys) to go live in a foreign country overseas where we knew nobody. We left behind a lot of friends and family and a very comfortable life in Chapel Hill, NC, and the night we arrived in Lyon, in March 2006, I sat alone with head in hands at a vacant bus stop in Villeurbanne, wearing the same clothes I'd had on for 3 days, having failed to acquire any dinner for us other than 3 bags of potato chips and some Orangina from a gas station, wondering how I'd made such a spectacular blunder by dragging my family along on such a rash undertaking.

This continuing adventure, now nearly two years long and including the birth of our second son, Tater, is chronicled in The Frogmarch.

There are almost as many American-In-France blogs as there are Americans in France. I have tried to make this one a little different by focusing on small things, day-to-day struggles, and minor cultural differences rather than just some pretty pictures of the Eiffel Tower (though, um, I've got those too if you're interested). Riots and strikes and creepy basements and interesting booze and confusing gas fixtures and ancient hookers are the types of topics you'll find here.

[photo: self-portrait with cheese and white flag]

I do not discuss my job, other than in the most general terms, I do not post identifiable pictures of my family, and I try to remain sorta-kinda anonymous--though if you're reading this you probably already know who I am (heck, if you're reading this we're probably related).

I do not accept advertising because ads suck, and it's not as if I'd make any money from them anyway. Any products mentioned are solely because I find them interesting, whether good or bad: I do not accept money or products in exchange for placement, because all I really need is this delicious, handcrafted Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon... mmmm, that's smooth.

You can check the archives arranged by month there on the right of the page if you want to do some catching-up or rereading--there's some pretty good stuff in there, I promise--and of course I welcome your comments (click on the Comments link at the bottom of each post). If you want to send me an e-mail, send it to, only use our real names in the appropriate places. If you don't know our real names, leave a comment with your e-mail address and I'll get back to you.

Enjoy, have fun, and if you read something you like, pass it along to a friend... that address again is (there's no "WWW").

Johnny D. Frogmarch, Esq.

[this post will be permalinked at the right of the page once I work out the HTML]

Friday, January 04, 2008

When There Is Nothing Left To Burn, You Must Set Yourself On Fire

How To Really Mess Up Your New Year's Party:

During a family New Year's get-together (the French New Year is a much more low-key celebration, more about eating than intoxication) you go to the kitchen to make some sort of flaming whiskey drink.

You botch the process so badly that you set the kitchen on fire.

You flail about so ineffectually trying to extinguish the fire that you suffer burns over one hundred percent of your body (!) and your wife is badly burned as well trying to extinguish you.

When the pompiers arrive to take you to the hospital, they are so concerned with getting you stabilised (you will be pronounced DOA anyway) that they fail to notice that the fire is still smouldering inside the wall.

Where it will reignite to torch the three apartments above yours.

Causing the evacuation, and possible destruction from structural and water damage, of your entire historic Haussman-era building.

Which will still be being gutted of burned and waterlogged debris three days later.

Causing your correspondent a moment of panic as he emerges from the Metro from his two-week vacation in Spain to see his block full of caustic smoke, fire trucks and rescue personnel.

EDIT: Fire investigators have ruled out the flaming-whiskey-drink explanation for the fire's origin, making it much less of a Darwin-Awards-nominee story and more merely sad. As of this morning, a week after the fire, there was still a perimeter around the building blocking half of the street, and some half-burned debris, including an area rug and a mattress with fuzzy blue blanket, sitting forlorn and rain-sodden in the street as passersby squinted up at the vacant smokestained windows.

EDIT again: I'll be posting photos again soon--likely from the Spain trip--so have no fear that this blog has gone black & white.

Postcard From The Road: Cabopino

There is, at the absolute bottom of Spain, just across the water from Africa, a place that is proudly English, a colony where English is spoken, pubs show the Tottenham-Fulham match, and a plate of bangers & mash or chip-shop curry fries are always just around the corner.

There is also Gibraltar, but we didn't make it there on this trip.

The southern coast of Spain, especially the area around Malaga, is the site of massive beachfront development by UK developers and the industries and services that have grown up to support them. And spurred by cheap airfares from the UK, Brits have mobbed the place--most signs are in English, there are several local English newspapers, and grocery stores stock large sections with HP sauce and Heinz Baked Beanz.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: In a way, it creates a part of England that is (1) affordable and (2) has nice weather, solving two of the drawbacks we found in England when we visited in October.

On the other hand, where is Spain? There must be a part of Spain that is cheap, has good weather, and is not covered with grotesque condos, golf courses and chain retailers like a European Myrtle Beach... we just haven't found it yet.

It's hard to complain, though, when you're spending Boxing Day lying on the (sandy!) beach at Puerto Cabopino watching the sunlight play on the gentle waves while Boog digs a sandcastle and Tater shrieks in delight at the surf washing over his toes. Maybe after a while you'll go down the pub for a pint of the brown stuff and see how City are getting on against Liverpool. Or maybe just a nap.