The Frogmarch

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


We filled two memory cards with digital pictures of our recent trip to Venice and Umbria. I'm not going to bore you with them; if you want to see pictures of Venice, a few seconds with Google will give you all you want. Still, consider this token post that acknowledges our trip: We went, we had a great time, hope to go back.

Venice's famous "Bridge of Sighs" connects the courts of the Doges' Palace with the prison just across a narrow canal. A Venetian prisoner being led to his sentence (and possible doom) in the prison would have had his last glimpse of the outside world and possibly his beloved here, hence the name.

Today crowds throng the opposite bridge to snap the requisite picture of the Bridge of Sighs, but if you take the "Secret Itineraries" tour of the palace and prison--which in our case was led by the most unpleasant tour guide I've ever met-- you can get a shot from the inside looking out.

I was worried about Venice: worried that it would be a mobbed tourist-trap hellhole, a Disneyland freakshow simulacrum. While it was certainly crowded and pretty expensive (but not terribly so; hell, I live in France--I know expensive), the city's considerable charms far outweigh the annoyances of the packs of tourists and the t-shirt vendors, especially once you get away from Piazza San Marco, and even more so at night once the day-trippers leave.

[This picture is of Boog in Carnival regalia at Tragicomica, by reputation the city's finest mask shop, purveyors of hand-made masks ranging from simple commedia dell'arte models to ornate, intricately-painted feathered get-ups (V bought one similar to the red-feathered number just above Boog's hat).]

Still, there is a pervading sense that Venice's days are numbered: not only is it dying as an honest-to-gosh city as fewer and fewer actual residents can afford to live there--as an indicator, the entire city has only two grocery stores, each smaller than your typical Food Lion--the infrastructure is crumbling as the sea levels rise. It's almost as if the weight of tourists is forcing the seawater to bubble up through the sewer grates...

Perhaps emblematic: the t-shirt vendor in Piazza San Marco hawking t-shirts that read "Venice: See It Before It Sinks" while standing on plywood duckboards.

It's good advice, though.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Contractual Obligation Post

There is a little-known stipulation in the French visa application that requires all successful applicants to take pictures of their local market (marché) and post them with appropriately fawning blog text. Herein I fulfil my obligation.

The marché is as much an essential part of French life as the boulangerie or the boucherie. Every town has one, and the larger cities have a bunch of them, sometimes selling different things on different days. We live close to Lyon's second-biggest marché [photo], on the quai St. Antoine along the Saone river, which takes place every day except Monday (Monday mornings there's a random-crap flea market there, selling knockoff leather goods, pots and pans, cheap underwear from China). For some people every day begins at the marché; for us, merely every weekend day--time constraints simply don't allow us to go very morning. This is an issue for a lot of people as the French family morphs toward the two-income model, and some marchés are experimenting with evening hours as well, to let busy people shop on their way home from work.

But on to the fawning: for people who like to eat (as opposed to those who prefer intravenous feeding or Willy Wonka meals in chewing-gum form), the Quai St. Antoine marché is a wonderland. It stretches for about 8 blocks, from Pont Tilsitt to Pont Marechal Juin, mostly in the shade of the plane trees along the Saone. A double line of every kind of truck or van--some remarkable fold out jobs that transform themselves into shop counters [photo] via Transformers jujitsu, some merely box trucks backed up to a folding table, or venerable Deux Cheveaux bearing equally venerable old farmers in flat caps--forms a single and very crowded aisle. Nearly every type of food is available here in pure form, generally of very high quality and very fresh--the hands that take your euro for a half-dozen eggs are the same ones that yanked them out from under a chicken this morning in Bourg-en-Bresse, and the cheese guy's checking his watch because he's got to get back to his cave and put another layer of ash on the Morbier.

A partial list of what you'll find at the marché:
  • Fresh local produce, in season, duh
  • Dairy stands with homemade yogurts and cheeses
  • Butcher stands with fresh-skinned rabbits, goats, cow parts, etc. [photo]
  • Honey, arranged by type of flower the bees frequent
  • Fish of all varieties
  • Fresh oysters, sold alongside wine so you can slurp down a quick marché lunch
  • Spice stalls with row upon row of baskets of spices to scoop out
  • Florists [photo]
  • Mushroom dealers
  • Boulangers
  • José the Empanada Guy
  • Olive dealers offering about 20 different mixes
  • Independent vintners offering degustation gratuit (important words to know if you're ever in France)
  • Saucisson stands (you name the animal, they've got it ground up into sausage)
  • Homeless people selling Sans-Arbri newspapers
  • Staffers for local politicians passing out flyers
  • Tourists snapping pictures of "local color" for their travel blogs.
Because of this last, I had to take the accompanying pictures rather furtively. You see, it takes time to develop relationships with the marché vendors; this time pays off in the form of better produce and quicker service on days when the sidewalks are jammed. I didn't want to mess this up by acting like a tourist, so many of these pictures were taken using the ol' hold-camera-at-waist-level-and-shoot-while-looking-away technique. Apologies.

A few things to know about the marché:
The marché is a cash economy--no checks, no credit cards--but don't go expecting to have the farmer selling onions break a fifty for you. Exact change is greatly appreciated, and the vendor doesn't mind waiting while you count out euronickels.

The marché gets really really crowded after about 10AM on weekends, and the best produce, fish, meat, etc. may get picked over. On the other hand, vendors selling perishable goods will often start selling them cheap as it gets toward lunchtime.

This runs counter to everything we Americans have learned, but: If you see a long line of people at a stand, get in it. This is a reliable sign that that particular vendor has the best whatever-it-is in town. Sixty million Frenchmen can be wrong (see Johnny Hallyday, Maginot Line, etc.) but when it comes to food they virtually never are.

Do NOT touch the produce without asking. You will get yelled at in French, then the vendor will find someone who speaks English and get them to yell at you as well. When it comes your turn, point out what you want (or say it, if you have the skillz) and the vendor will either choose them for you or, if you look trustworthy, hand you a shallow basin in which to pile your haricots verts. Hand the plateau back when you're done, and the vendor will weigh it and tell you the price, or, if your French has been shaky in the course of the transaction, hand you a printout from the scale with the price printed on it. Be sure to finish with a merci/bonne journée/au revior...remember, relationships.

Some produce stands offer their wares by the plateau (shallow metal or plastic basin mentioned above) at quite good prices. The quality of this produce is often less than that sold per-piece or that you pick out yourself, funny-looking peppers, smallish carrots, fruits with some bad spots, etc., so take note: great if you're making a stew, but less than ideal if presentation is an important aspect of your dish.

Some vendors, almost always older men, are real colorful characters. They'll be the ones barking out a running sales cant: Allez, allez! Des beaux avocats, deux euros le plateau! Profitez-en! They'll call you jeune homme (even if you're 36), give hard candies to your kid, and tell you jokes you won't really understand.

If you want a roast chicken--and you will, once you smell the chicken roasting, in fact your carnivorous lizard brain will remind you by kickstarting your saliva glands in an overzealous and sometimes embarrassing manner, and your stomach will crawl up your esophagus and put a hammerlock on your cerebrum until it agrees to let your stomach get its gastric cardia around that sweet sweet poulet rôti, and... where was I? Oh yes, roast chicken. Follow your nose to the trailers displaying row after row of free-range poultry roasting slowly on vertically arranged rotating spits that let the juices drip down and continuously baste the lower rows. Do not give into the admittedly strong temptation to actually lick the chickens as they roast. Instead, give your name and your money to the chicken boy, who will give you a receipt and let you know when your chicken will be ready (usually no more than 45 minutes or so). Then go do the rest of your shopping, trying not to think about what you're going to do to that chicken when you finally get it home. When the time comes, go collect your chicken; tell Chicken Boy that you would indeed like some potatoes, which have been cooking in the juice trench all morning, and yes, an extra scoop of juices in the waxed and mostly watertight bag would be most righteous.

And when you see me, you will not need to ask why my backpack smells like chicken juice.

Jules Verne Carousel

The tourism board of the Jura set up a sort of fair in the Place de la Croix-Rousse, with information booths, stands selling regional specialties, a petting zoo with typical farm animals, and the like. (The Jura is a mountainous, largely-undeveloped region north of here, wedged between Alsace and Switzerland.) And though I picked up some brochures about trout fishing in the Jura's mountain streams, the star of the show was this Jules Verne-themed carousel, complete with rockets, submarines, streetcars and motorcycles, plus a biplaned tip of the hat to local Lyon hero Saint-Exupery, done up in period style.