My French Supermarket

Photo on 2013-07-05 at 06.59

Here is a map I drew of my Carrefour supermarket. The one that has random American products and where the stunning checkout girl came out to me. Because our apartment has only a dorm-sized fridge with no shelves inside, I am forced to go here at least every other day.

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Cal Had Fun In Toulouse!

Cal is a huge Watchmen fan – from way back. So, you can see how the last month of my life has been nothing but all Watchmen, all the time: Trailers, sneak peeks and, being the awesome girlfriend I am, a full reading of a scanned copy of all 12 issues.

So, when it came time for the opening of the movie, he was very excited to see it. But, it was not playing at the “VOST” (Version original, sub-titled) theater here in Montpellier. Thus, the Great Movie Search 2009 began.
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Montpellier’s Renegade, AWOL Mardi Gras

Dateline, Montpellier, France: Le sigh.

So, Montpel had their annual Mardi Gras celebrations last night. Kind of. Sort of. Well, in a way. Actually, unsurprisingly, in the only way that seems fitting for this town. Read the story after the jump.

Montpellier

The foundation of caca-pipi-talism: Two bikes and an IKEA shopping cart, just like the pundits say.

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A Trip to the Doctor’s in the South of France

Cal and I got up super early last week and went to Dr. Navarro to see what was up with this dry, hacking cough I’ve had since Paris. I don’t usually need someone to accompany me, but my knowledge of French doesn’t extend to medical terms. It turns out to be bronchitis; but, in the surreal world that is Montpellier, there is more to the story than that.

Dr. Navarro's Office
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Père Lachaise Cemetery

When we first headed to Père Lachaise Cemetery on New Year’s Eve day, it was closed for reasons of security. There was no mention of this on the website, naturally. And, naturally, the site that has the most logical name has no actual affiliation with the cemetery, so you have to hunt around and find it within the Jardins de Paris uber-site. Because, naturally, you’d look for information about a cemetery on a garden website.

Sigh.

We got our hotel guy to find phone numbers for us, and I called many times but no one answered, so we headed blind back out to the cemetery on January 3. It was open, and we swooned at the decaying beauty that enveloped us.

Père Lachaise Cemetery
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Bastille Day 2008: This Is How We Do It

The Internets are abuzz with news, links and historical background for Bastille Day, the Frenchiest of all French holidays. It’s a celebration of the origins of the French tendency to want exactly the opposite of whatever their leaders want for them. Sometimes, they’re right. Other times, they’re just being contrary and should shut up.

It’s a beautiful day, so the French will head out to the beaches or to the mountains to frolic and picnic. Tonight, at least here in the south, an enormous amount of seafood will be grilled and eaten.

But for us expats, it’s just another day in paradise. Continue reading

Wine: It’s a Riot

OK.

I know rioting isn’t fun or funny. People are injured, businesses are ruined, and tensions run high long after the last of the tear gas has dissipated. It’s no laughing matter – especially when it happens where you live.

I also know that the wine culture – from those who grow the grapes on verdant hills to those who sip and sup throughout the world – is a civilized one. A healthy respect for centuries-old traditions combined with a true love of living makes for generally peaceful people.

But, these are not peaceful times. Continue reading

Summer in the City: Montpellier, Languedoc, Provence

Last night we went to see George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (in English) at the Diagonal. I had to close my eyes several times – not because it was scary, but because it was shot with a handheld camera. It was a highly entertaining, socially heavy-handed zombie flick that delivered.

While we were waiting for the salle to open – there were 12 of us milling around, waiting to sit in air conditioning for a while – Cal perused the racks of publicity materials and brought over to me quite a gem: For the first time in Europe, Weegee‘s photographs are being exhibited – for free! – at Le Pavillon Populaire on the esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle.

It starts today and goes through September, so anyone who is going to be here – STACY, I’m looking at you! – should definitely head over to see the New York photographer’s work.

Cal’s parents are in town for a few days next week, so we’ll start off the summer right with some touristy things. They’ve rented a barge and have been drifting down the Canal du Midi, gliding through the various locks and will arrive here on Monday afternoon.

We’ve compiled a “to-do” list for them, which includes:

  • The Camargues National Park, to see the white horses (and pink flamingoes!) of the Camargues. It’s haunting and rugged and utterly beautiful. And, there’s a vineyard in the middle of it!
  • Aigues Mortes. A walled town on the Mediterranean, it’s a great place to stroll around and have a lunch outside in one of its many squares.
  • Arles. I didn’t love Arles, because I’d already been to about 778 other towns that look just like it down here; but, it certainly does put van Gogh’s work into perspective.
  • Avignon. We have to be careful that the fete isn’t still on, as a million drunk Frenchmen really isn’t fun for the whole family.
  • Lavender. Fields of it. This is the one thing I have always wanted to see in France, so I’m excited to grab my camera and head out to see these famous crops.
  • Beaches. We’ll probably take them to Carnon or Palavas-les-Flots – family places with enough moules-frites on hand to sink a ship. We’ll avoid Cap D’Agde, which is so incredibly nudist, people wear their birthday suits to go to the bank!

That should be a busy couple of days. I also would like to see the water-jousting competitions in nearby Sète.

And lastly, I think I am ready for a bullfight, a popular event down here in the South (and so close to Spain). The closest I have come to it was when we took Sheila’s kids ice skating this winter in the arena outside town. If anything, I’d like to at least be in a town that is hosting one – probably Nimes, I’d think.

Wherever you live, make sure to get out and about this summer. Too many people wake up one day and it’s September, and they kick themselves for not having enjoyed the season.

Finalmente: Free Wifi in Rome!

It’s true! It’s just in Trastevere for now – a lovely area, to be sure, but nowhere near where I ever am when I am in Rome.

FON has decided to make the entire neighborhood a wifi hot spot, which is great news for Rome. The Internet obviously has caught on in Italy – which might seem like a strange thing to say – but the majority of Romans still have a kind of aversion to becoming completely connected. They tend to shy away from the notion that it’s a given to have a computer in one’s home, let alone one with an Internet connection.

It’s perfectly normal to see well-to-do, middle-aged Romans in sketchy fruit-stand-and-Internet-point storefronts, checking their email or reading an article on ANSA’s home page. When I worked out of an Internet point off via Cavour, kids came in with pocket change to research something online for school, but they didn’t seem to have any further interest in what those big boxes could do. This way of thinking is reflected in Internet packages from service providers – expensive connection fees and long waits for the initial set up. The demand is just there as much as it is in other world capitals.

I’ve also seen examples in many websites of Italy being behind the Internet curve. Recently I was doing research for a client who wanted extensive articles about Italian infrastructure, and this required me to visit big, official websites. They look like they were made by Star Trek fans – in 1998.

Another thing that’s interesting about FON’s “Internet neighborhood” is the cafe culture – or rather, the lack thereof. Even though the tiny streets and stunning piazzas make you want to linger, you don’t see people lounging at tables in bars and cafes like you do in France. People tend either to come in alone, slam down an espresso at the bar and leave; have a glass of wine and talk to the owner, whom they know; or come in with a friend, have a drink, and chat. But no matter what their poison, they’re pretty much in and out much more quickly than what I see over here in Frenchieland, where three students will split a Coke for two hours.

Oh, you know I’d wind up talking smack about the French at some point, didn’t you?

Anyway. I’m heading off to Rome in just under two weeks, and I’m excited to pack up my laptop for an afternoon in Trastevere. It’ll take me an hour to get there from the gay mafia headquarters in the Casilina neighborhood, but I think I’ll treat myself to a crisp Prosecco, boot up the Mac and see what FON is doing for the Romans!

Cheap flights, car rental, hotels – and now finding a place to log onto the Internet. Isn’t travel just a pain sometimes?

My Friend Sheila’s House

I’ve been cheating with photo posts recently, but it’s been a hell of a time here in Montpel and I just can’t seem to block off the time I need to do my proper posts. But I have an ever-growing list of fun things, so I’ll be back next week with even more fabulous solid advice and juicy travel tidbits for all my readers!

One of my tasks during the day and sometimes at night is to walk Merlin, a lovable dog who is awaiting all his vaccinations before he can join his mom Louise in England. He’s staying at Sheila’s house, as I’ve described earlier:

Sheila lives in an enormous converted garage with up to five of her children from three relationships (one of which ended last year) at any given time, along with cats, rabbits, relatives from Glasgow, maybe an exchange student or two, and her massage therapist tantric boyfriend who recently took her on a bizarre and trying pilgrimage to Mexico. Anytime you go to her house there are meals being prepared or eaten, games being played, fights being settled, someone is searching for a barrette or a sandal or a beloved crayon, someone else is painting the bathroom, and there is Sheila in the middle of it all, asking you if you’re sure you don’t want a glass of wine, oh and please smoke yer fags out on the terrace. Her insanely difficult life would bring any one of us to our knees, but she shows up – always late – and just laughs about it all.

Sheila’s house has been empty these last few days – although there might be a house guest sleeping somewhere inside, Sheila wasn’t sure when I spoke with her – so I’m sneaking you in the door and letting you take a look around the world’s coolest house.

Next Stop, FUN: The French Summer Party Train!

As Miss Expatria’s gentle readers well know, I don’t love France. But just when I start to think there’s nothing fun about this existentially-shrugging, chain-smoking, c’est-pas-possible country, they turn around and surprise me!

My discovery of Beaujolais Day was one of those times. Held on the third Thursday in November – making it a delicious alternative to Thanksgiving Day for American expats – everyone in France who’s healthy enough to raise a glass heads to their local bar and samples the year’s new wine, which is arguably best when drunk as soon as possible after it’s been bottled. (Many oenophiles insist on waiting a month to get the true flavor, but that simply means more room at the bar for the rest of us.)

Another fun thing is Fete de la Musique, on the summer solstice. Once again, all of France shuts down and takes to the streets – not to strike, surprisingly, but to walk around town listening to live bands, DJs, string quartets, and anyone else who wants to make some noise on this day. Unfortunately for music fans, there’s been an alarming trend toward almost exclusively reggae and reggaeton, and much of the Fete’s international or even traditional French fare has fallen victim to booming Honda-sized speakers growling about Jamaica. Although, last year I heard a live reggae band segue from Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” into “So Lonely” by the Police, and was blinded by the brilliance.

And now I hear of France’s newest scheme to get people riding the rails.

GENTLEMEN, BEHOLD!

iDNIGHT – THE PARTY TRAIN!

That’s right. Starting this summer, SNCF is booking overnight trains from Paris to Biarritz, Montpellier and Nice – three towns very familiar with partying, even without the government’s blessing – complete with bar cars, DJs, dance floors, video game and talent competitions, and low-lighting cars for chatting up fellow passengers.

What the articles I’ve read don’t cover is what any of these three towns plan to do with a trainload of drunk 18-30 year-olds spilling en masse into the town center between 4 and 5 AM. If it were America – well first of all, it would never happen, but if it did – there would be some enterprising young group who’d be set up at the end of the platform with greasy breakfast sandwiches and strong coffee. At the very least, companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks would be in on the fun, and would probably tie in with return ticket promotions so everyone gets back home in one piece.

As a resident of one of these destination towns, I seriously hope that SNCF has come up with some sort of plan, and that they’re not depending on the foresight of the type of kids that would say, OMG PARTY TRAIN ALLONS-Y to realize ahead of time that they’ll be arriving in another city, hundreds of miles from home, in the bright summer morning sun without an exit strategy.

I have half a mind to rent a hotel room overlooking the station entrance for the inaugural trip. It should be, well… FUN!

January Sales in France: Shopping Til You Drop

If you’re a shopping addict and your dream is to visit a city where every single thing you see is on sale, I’ve got the destination for you:

France. But only in January or July. When the entire country MUST GO!

In France, it is illegal for shopkeepers to just decide one day to have a sale. There is paperwork to be filled out, and stamps to be stamped, and approvals to be given, and then, just for fun, more paperwork. The only time when this is not really an issue is during state-approved times of year – about six weeks starting in early January, and again for six weeks starting in early July.

This is also when French shopkeepers decide to use some of their six allocated Sundays to stay open – usually twice in January, twice in July, and another two in December, depending on what day of the month Christmas falls.

In the week or so leading up to the sales, everyone goes to the stores and peruses. They make lists of the things they want. They hide pieces of clothing or a sets of knives or their favorite books in hard-to-find places in the stores for later retrieval. Every conversation you hear is about people’s grand plans of their wildest shopping dreams coming true. Will their item be included in the sale? How much will it be reduced? Will it be there by the time I make it to the store?

It’s a six-week-long Barney’s Warehouse hell, and every afternoon brings the battle-hardened victors into the cafes around town for a demi or fortifying espresso. It’s truly a time of national unity, and a normal conversation starter is, did you get anything good at the sales?

I must admit, I fell victim to the sales this year. I bought some L’Occitane lotion, a wall hanging for above the bed, some incense, a tealeaf filter thing, and new bedroom slippers. But I also took the time to clear out two trash bags of crap from the house, so I’d call it more than even.

Craving Bagels: A Love Story

Bleeding Espresso is a blog I have come across, and I love love love reading it. Sognatrice is her name, Italy is her game, and she writes with a passion for that country that gives me goosebumps – like this recent one about Calabrianfolk music.

It was this post that took my breath away, as it reminded me so much of my own post on the same subject. And here I am, thinking I’m all by myself in this life!

However, it was her bagel recipe that ensured her a spot in my heart. You see, bagels are pretty much non-existent here, and when you do find them, they tend to be very expensive and not really like you want them to be. But, as she says, sometimes you really crave something to smear cream cheese on – especially in Italy, where one can find the worlds only real cream cheese.

Visiting friends from New York have known to not cross my threshold unless bearing at least six Ess-a-Bagels. I have taught my gay mafia about the joys of these plump little balls of doughy love, and they now crave them too. I am the devil.

My first experience with bagels on this side of the pond was in a coffee shop in London whose name I forget. I grabbed one before flying home to Montpel. It cost me more in sterling than my phone bill that month, but it was worth every chewy, doughy bite.

Next was The Bagel Shop in Barcelona. These are heavenly, and come with a variety of toppings. I eat a bagel every single morning I am in Barcelona, without fail. YUM.

Viola, the only girl I know in Italy and my former roommate, has a carrot cake obsession that has taken her to New York twice, and keeps her ever vigilant for this tasty treat. She breathlessly called me one day to report that not only had she found carrot cake – she had found bagels. In Rome. At the cleverly named Jospehine’s Bakery, in the fittingly named Piazza del Paradiso. Their bagels are teensy tinsy, hellatiously expensive, and absolutely perfect.

Then – like manna from heaven – came the news that our very own chichi patisserie here in Montpel – Louis, it’s called – was carrying bagels. I immediately ran over, and sure enough – there they were, a gleaming fresh stack of bagel sandwiches. I breathlessly asked if I could buy a half dozen of the bagels plain, not in sandwich form.

The girl looked at me like I had half a dozen heads. Then came the answer I have come to hear all too often in this ridiculous country: “C’est pas possible.” This is not possible.

I said I could come back in the morning, before they made them into sandwiches. “C’est pas possible.”

I suppose I could buy a sandwich, scrape the shit off it and rebuild it with my own treats. But it’s just not the same.

Sunday In The Garden With Expats

**This is an entry from way back, summer of 2006, I believe. I’m on a deadline with a client, so you’re getting archive treats!

Brunch at Auntie Lu’s English Restaurant – most of their tables were outside, accommodating a group of 12 women celebrating their friend’s impending trip around the world by taking her out to a different ethnic cuisine every day/night. Lu gave them an English Culture Quiz and the winner got a bottle of wine!

So there was a lot of room inside the restaurant, and I looked up from the Times Culture section to see Cal, Gwennie, and Lu dancing. I think Lu might have had a spatula in her hand. Merlin the dog was also frolicking around. Anna, Louis and Natalia came in to pick up the pub’s lunches for takeaway. Shelton ate a hangover brunch outside, then moved over to the outside lounge area so that Jeremy and Paulette could have their hangover brunch. It felt like the first scene in a play, set in the place where everyone comes in and you get a bit of each character’s persona by hearing what they did the night before., and seeing them interact. I was a blissful, quiet observer and I left fully satisfied.

Later that day we went to Fiona’s for a huge pork feast. Her youngest, Flo, chose to pick this day to feel unloved and so she was dramatically flung onto the couch wrapped in blankets and weeping amongst the kittens and cats. Rose and various other teenage girls were slinking around, looking conspiratorial. Fiona’s two-room cook’s kitchen was a mine field of mess and splatters and bowls and pots piled high in Dr. Seuss-like fashion. It is obvious she loves to cook. The younger kids jumped with abandon into the pool or crawled up into the cherry tree to feast. Margot was on a platform built into another tree, cooing at a kitten she had brought up there for company.

The terrace was taken over by the grown-ups. Two enormous wooden tables and a motley assortment of benches, wicker sofas, and Adirondack chairs were dragged from every corner of the property to accommodate the stream of people coming in all bearing wine and beer. Mismatched, beautiful plates were brought out in huge heavy stacks and 25 of us feasted on roasted pork, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, and an assortment of salads.

Dessert was an ENORMOUS Pavlova, and huge piles of mismatched and elegant bowls were brought out, and everyone had at least seconds if not thirds.

Various unnamed people hijacked the kids’ stereo and we sang cheesy ’80s pop songs at the top of our lungs and corrected each other’s misheard lyrics and screamed laughing. One of the kiddies brought back fresh eggs from the chicken coop and we marveled at their warmth and there was an egg toss that ended badly for Cal and Jeremy.

Wine and stories were traded back and forth. Eva sang and played guitar, and I sang, and Dave played some great oldies on the guitar for us to scream to, and then we settled back into laughter and more stories.

Cal left early with Andy, and I shared a taxi back around midnight with Lu, Mu, Sam and Janet. It was raucous and when we got out, Sunday night in Montpel welcomed us back to its silent streets, little bits of songs and lost logic and we bade goodbye in the street and we all made it upstairs and into the correct apartments.

I think that rereading my journal from Rome has taught me that it’s up to me to seek and capture a magical life, which this weekend was the determined and successful start of. If New York is my first great love, and Rome is my one true love, Montpel is the one who you accept a date with on a whim, and you can’t get a taxi to the restaurant, then it’s closed and you go to another place and wind up getting some kind of food poisoning, and you lose your cell phone, and the kiss goodnight is clumsy, and you wrote his number down wrong, but you wake up the next morning and realize you had a really great time and he’s a really good guy.

The Bureaucracy of Baby Names

Every Wednesday, several of us get together for what I call “Girls and Gays Night,” and what Fiona calls “Tapas Anonymous Meetings.” Whatever they are, no heterosexual men are allowed. We meet at our favorite wine bar, order plates of tapas and drink Tempranillo wine.

One of the weekly participants is Vik – she is a Liverpool scouser who has lived and worked all over the world – from a madame at a brothel in Australia to a waitress at a Tokyo hostess bar to the manager of a five-star ski resort in Switzerland. She is a living legend, and at the moment she is very, very pregnant. She goes out exactly once a week – to see us – and she has exactly one glass of wine. She treasures this one glass of wine like one would a diamond tiara, or a fleeting glimpse of a unicorn.

Inevitably, the subject arises of the fact that she and her husband have not yet chosen a name for son number two. And inevitably, among each week’s newest choices, up crop our favorites. Fiona has decided no matter what the baby is named, she will christen him Otto. I joke that with the first son being named Hugo, they sound like a German vaudeville act.

My suggestions are all jokes on her married surname – Capon. I’ve suggested Pan Fried, Honey Glazed, and Boneless. She laments that her husband’s surname is a delicious food, and insists she would have kept her maiden name if she had known beforehand. But, she says, she couldn’t name him a joke name even if she wanted – French law prohibits it. Her husband must go to city hall and ask for approval of their son’s name – and until 15 years ago, could be turned down if the name wasn’t French, let alone a cooking technique.

At this point our discussion dissolves into rants about the French, although it’s well-known that the law has benefited many children whose fathers, after several rounds of congratulatory pastis from their friends while on their way to City Hall, would have named them after famous footballers regardless of the sex of said child.

This morning, I saw this article about Italian authorities refusing to allow a baby christened Venerdi – Friday – to keep the name. Apparently, these bureaucrats are worried that the boy will have a life of misery because he’ll be unfavorably compared to a character by the same name in Robinson Crusoe.

I forwarded the article to Vik. She replied, “Well, at least they’re well read over there.”

Coming to a Parisian Bistro Nowhere Near You

MK has booked her flight! She’s coming over for a weekend. Arriving Friday, leaving Monday. MK is a dedicated friend and most honored travel addict. Either that, or she just really likes red wine and baguettes.

I simply got a forwarded email of her flight details, but a screen shot speaks a thousand words. I often receive these kinds of emails from friends that have booked their flights. There’s something so, “HEY MA LOOK NO HANDS” about booking an international flight, isn’t there? It’s not just information. It’s airports and new smells and different languages and disrupted routines in the name of adventure.

Also coming over for the weekend is Heather, who is finally all settled in New England after spending a long time hauling her life back and forth between London and the States. Heather is the only person I know who has used the word “plinth” in conversation. She is elegant and much too lovely for words.

The girls might have forgotten, but this will not be the first time we’ve caused a ruckus in France. I distinctly remember hopping across the Spanish border for a bitchy, jet-setting lunch in Biarritz a few years ago. We’ve caused a ruckus in five countries, at last count.

Paris will never be the same.

French Bakeries: A Love Story

I don’t love France. It’s perfectly fine. There are as many breathtakingly amazing things and dark depressing things as any other country. But, Italy has stolen my heart, and isn’t giving it back.

That being said, if I were to choose one thing from France to bring back with me to Italy,it would be:

One’s local boulangerie.

That’s bakery to you. It’s different than a patisserie, which is exclusively for sweets. Boulangeries can have sweets, too, but patisseries are in a class all their own.

In this country of impossibly thin people, the female half of which seem to have perfected adult bodies that mimic a 12-year-old’s, it is perfectly normal to see people with a baguette under one arm and picking pieces of some scrumptious delight out of a tiny paper bag while walking down the street.

I’m not sure how other, busier cities like Paris do it, but here in Montpel, you can get oven-fresh bread three times a day – 6AM, 12PM, and 5-6ish PM. There are lines out the door at the town’s boulangeries during these times. And the routine is always the same:

1. The person waiting on you always, always says, “bonjour” or “bonsoir.” You always, always must say it back.

2. They might ask you how they can help you, or just look at you expectantly, and you launch into your order, one piece at a time. Depending on your knowledge of French and your relationship with the boulangerie, you can ask for advice on bread choices.

3. As they’re wrapping up whatever you’ve just ordered, they will keep asking you for your next order until you tell them you’re done.

4. Then they give you all your purchases – in separate tinsy bags or, in the case of the baguette, with a piece of paper wrapped around the middle quarter of it for holding – and ring up your total. (Sometimes they’ll ask you if you want them to rip the baguette in half for easier transport, and many will take them up on it, but there’s something so romantic about a full baguette under the arm that I abstain fmor this service.)

5. You pay them – preferably in coins, or else you’ll be asked for exact change and they look at you all disappointed if you don’t have it – and before you can leave, you must always, always, always exchange goodbyes.

I love leaving with my yummy bread and hearing the next person in line go through the exact same routine with the counter person. It’s reassuring. It’s been happening like that since the beginning of time, and no matter what advancements are made in our modern world, that’s the way it will always happen.

My favorite things to buy at the boulangerie are tiny one-person quiches with mushrooms, small French-style pizzas, and of course the ever-present fresh baguette. Other popular choices are flaky croissants made with what seems to be one stick of butter per croissant; gourmet, food-based versions of Hot Pockets filled with veggies, or saucisson, or chicken and peppers, or beef; twisted cheese sticks; and other specialties of each individual boulangerie.

But, there really is nothing better in the whole world than a fresh baguette with butter. It’s, in the religious sense of the word, divine.

I hope they never go on strike.