The Frogmarch

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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Let's Welcome the Circus People

Yesterday was an uncommonly nice day for February, and taking advantage of the suddenly not-unbearable weather, I was biking back from a previously unexplored park on the eastern edge of town when the breeze brought to my unsuspecting nostrils the odor of barnyard--most unexpected in the no-man's land between the Part-Dieu railyards and the former prison. Looking around, I quickly spotted the source, a traveling circus big top thrown up on a patch of waste ground between the SNCF rail lines and the tramway/bike path. More intriguingly, the big top was surrounded by circus trucks full of tigers [2nd photo, click to enlarge so you can see them], and random camels stood around in the vacant lot [hard to see, in center of the 3rd photo].

Besides the circus folk, this stretch of ground is also occupied by a sizable gypsy camp [far right in the last 2 photos] of scavenged wood and corrugated metal. The gypsies (or Rom, as they are more politely known) are probably worthy of an entirely separate blog post by dint of their unique position in the French social strata-- below dogs and other domesticated animals but slightly above rats-- but it's tempting to imagine the dirty-faced children, weary after a long day of begging and pickpocketry at the train station, stealing away from the campfire to stare in wonder at the tigers in their cages, eyes glinting in the darkness, as laughter and accordion music carry from the tumbledown shanties across the vacant lot.

Me 'n' Thomas Jefferson

Dear T.J.--

I can call you TJ, right? 'Cause it seems like I know you. I mean, this is gonna sound weird, but I've been in your house what you did with the place, Monticello. And your library, too, come to think of it. But I'm not some sort of stalker or fanboy or anything. Don't get me wrong--I mean, remember when you established the philosophical foundations for modern representative democracy? Yeah, that was awesome. Declaration of Independence, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? Rad. The Louisiana Purchase? Man, you took Napoleon to school. Owning a bunch of fellow human beings as slaves and fathering children by them? Er.... well, those were different times, right? I ain't judging nobody.

But I'm not trying to harsh your mellow, Teej. I just thought you'd like to know about this. Remember when you were Minister to France from 1785 to 1789? And when you weren't doing business or amassing a kickass wine cellar, you used to travel around the country? And that one time you spent, like, four days in Lyon? Well, the folks here sure remember. In fact, they're putting up a commemorative plaque. Check it out [photo].

They made a big deal out of it, TJ; they even sent the US Ambassador for the unveiling--that's right, the guy with your old job. He's a good egg, you'd like him (unlike the last guy, who couldn't even speak French and just got the job because of who his cousin was. That's just how we do things now, TJ). I got wind of the event and showed up because I thought there might be free know the French, amiright, Teej? Well, there was, and those little cake things to boot.

Anywho, they're going to put up the plaque along the Saone river near the house where you stayed. The house hasn't changed much [photo], but remember the Pont d'Ainay, the bridge there that you mentioned in your journals? Well, it got washed out by a flood, and some time after it was rebuilt the Germans blew it up in the war. There's nothing left but the abutments on either side of the river [photos]. So they'll probably put your plaque somewhere around there. I just hope they put it high enough so that everybody who comes by doesn't feel compelled to rub your nose.

Take 'em easy, Big Red, and holler back when you get a minute.

Your Homey,
Sarsippius J. Frogmarch III

Sunday, February 21, 2010

An Object Lesson On Effective Branding

The evidence of the power, organization and extent of the Roman Empire is everywhere in Europe, from Italy up through France--such as here in the Gaulish capital then known as Lugdunum--and Germany as far as England.

("All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?")

But it struck me, as I was wandering around the ruins of part of the Gier aqueduct out in the woods, that the Romans were far ahead of their time in organizational branding.

You can go anywhere in the former Roman Empire, visit the local Roman ruins or museum, and find that, across the breadth of the continent-spanning empire, before the advent of mass communication or mechanized printing-- they always used the exact same font.

Twenty centuries later, I can't even get my colleagues to use the same damned PowerPoint slide template for their presentations.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Things They Carried (Or Checked As Baggage)

I've been doing a lot of back-and-forth across the ocean lately [photo, I need one of those buttons], and before taking a flight in either direction I do some stocking-up with things to cram in my suitcase, either because the items in question aren't available on the opposite continent, or are merely very expensive. A quick list of some things that I've shlepped at one time or another:

West to East, US to France:
  • Crisco - not sold in France but necessary for some of V's recipes
  • Bourbon - available but very expensive, and limited variety.
  • Zatarain's mixes - remarkably good with saucisses de Montbeliard.
  • Callard & Bowser's Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Altoids, Cinnamon flavor - not sold in France; the tins are extremely useful as well.
  • Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup - ancient healing secret of the Caucasian peoples.
  • Clothes, especially jeans - Levi's cost the equivalent of $90 here.
  • Food Coloring - for V's baking. I've since found a local source for this (Bahadourian) if we're in a pinch.
  • Birthday candles - You know the ones shaped like numbers? Terribly important for small children.
  • Girl Scout cookies - There are Girl Scouts in France (with very chic uniforms) but they sell boring calendars and stuff.
  • Baseball gloves - I saw an American football at a sporting goods store once. Once.
  • Maraschino cherries - for making Manhattans, obviously.
  • Chex Mix - There's no Chex cereal, either, so I can't even make my own.
  • Non-metric measuring spoons - French recipes are often remarkably vague, as if they expect you to already know how to do everything. "Add some olive oil and herbs. Stir to the proper consistency. Bake until ready."
  • Q-tips - I really have no idea what they use instead of these.
  • Hall's Mentho-lyptus - You actually can buy these in France, but I had already brought over plenty before realizing it. That's because, get this, they're sold here as breath mints. I believe this is because if they classified them as medicine, they could only be sold in pharmacies. So Hall's are in the breath mint section, right next to Fisherman's Friend (every salty-dog fisherman I've ever known has prided himself on his fresh minty breath)
  • Hidden Valley Ranch mix - Putting creamy goo on one's salad is regarded as barbaric. I'm fairly sure what we call "French dressing" has never existed in France.* So if you want some ranch to go with your buffalo wings--you'll have to fake the wing sauce, too--mixing these little packets with good French mayonnaise is the only way to go.

East to West:
  • Chocolate - If I don't get off the plane with at least a half-kilo of Bernachon's, V will leave me in the baggage claim and let me walk home
  • Scarves - always a good gift
  • French handicrafts (pocketknives, pottery, fabric, etc.) - ditto
  • Saucisson - when I can get it past customs
  • Books in French - for my bookshelf at home, to read later
  • Wine - Usually 3 or 4 bottles per trip
  • Monster Munch potato chips - they're shaped like little ghosts, the boys love 'em
  • Felafel mix - the real-deal Arab stuff. Once I bought 3 boxes and got a free felafel-baller, one of my prize possessions

*Much in the same vein, many French sandwich shops offer something called a "sandwich Américain", which is hamburger and emmenthal cheese slices served on a baguette, and is utterly unlike anything actually eaten in the US. Also, what we call a French press is known in France as a cafétiére brasilien. Go figure.