More for my own closure than for any sense that inquiring minds want
We're back, safe and somewhat sound, from our 5-week odyssey in southern
France and Barcelona. I got a miserable cold/flu for the last Barcelona
episode, and so our agenda got foreshortened in several ways. Now
we are both deep into jet-lag brain-dead territory, but we are making
substantial progress in the catch-up-one's-life department. And we
are trying to adjust to having dinner "after midnight" (according
to the circadian clocks of our sluggish brains). One medical finding
of possible interest: while alcohol has a short-term beneficial effect
for jet-lag (by convincing the brain that the disorientation and stupidity
are just a normal part of the drinking experience), it is not recommended
in cases when bedtime is still hours away. Trust me on this.
We are not sure that we like the normalization procedures, since the
vacation turned out to be, perhaps, our favorite of all we've taken
together over the past twenty-some years. We both really miss the
pace and style of our time in Marseillan--and we especially miss the
quality (and price) of the food. We almost always had lunch out, and
Fran usually cooked evenings. If really hungry and really wanting
the experience, we'd head to any of hundreds of restaurants in the
area offering "menus", usually at three different levels
of price and quality. The lowest was normally from 11 euros to 14
euros ($14 to $18), and included three courses. Each course usually
included 4 - 6 offerings. The first course was normally fish soup
or shellfish salad or oysters and such. The main course could be a
whole fish, steak with green pepper wine sauce, lamb chops with assorted
vegetables, pork, chicken or duck. There were usually a number of
great desserts: typically (for the lower priced menu) creme brulee,
ice creams, "floating island", mousse chocolate with whipped
cream, or tarts of some sort. Or a selection of cheeses. Then coffee.
This inevitably kept us occupied from noon to 2:00 pm. Too many such
lunches in a week, however, made us too lazy for much exploring, hiking,
etc., so our favorite thing to do for lunch was to go to "Le
Bar Relax"--a VERY local workingman's bar with 5 tables out on
the sidewalk, a long bar just inside, and then tablecloth tables set
in the rear half. This bar is where the real bargains were to be found:
the "plat du jour" each day was a single dish (pork, lamb,
paella, fish, chicken, or whatever) garnished with cooked vegetables,
a good wine-based sauce, french fries, etc., and the 8 euro price
included a full bottle of good wine, tax and tip. So for $20 Fran
and I could have a wonderfully cooked hot lunch with wine, just as
the construction workers and fishermen were having at all the other
tables. And, yes, there were few women in these places--usually a
couple at the bar for a quick snack and a beer. 80% of the tables
were filled with men talking sports, politics, job problems, and such.
They also took their allotted two hours. We missed that sort of thing
today, when we paid over $40 for our lunch: a hamburger with fries,
a chicken wrap sandwich, and 2 glasses of wine. Needless to say, our
evening meals were wonderful, since Fran loves the whole process of
finding recipes for local produce, shopping locally for what's fresh,
and cooking up a storm. All complemented by the incredibly cheap price
of good wine ($2-$4. a bottle), good cheeses, and so on.
Our house turned out to be beautifully kept and appointed and very
comfortable, with 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a garage, and an almost fully
equipped kitchen (along with full laundry, heat, patio, BBQ, woodstove,
and so on). We do not expect to get the bargain price again---the
owners had expected to be doing some masonry work in the garage during
our stay, but did not.
Our hotel in
Barcelona cost over $600 for 4 nights in a single small room with
bath--that is, three-quarters of the cost of our entire month
in Marseillan. Guess which lodging we preferred. (Of course Barcelona
is like NY, while Marseillan is like a small beach town in North Carolina,
so the comparison is silly).
For the rest of this, I propose to tell a couple stories, and then
offer some summing up perceptions about travel, preferences and such.
Keep in mind the source of these perceptions: a 73-year-old man who
has no interest in the fast-lane of any venue....
The lunch story. On the day that I got my flu, the day that we moved
out of our house in Marseillan, and then drove straight through to
the Barcelona airport to turn in our "Leon" car and get
a taxi to the middle-of-town hotel--on that day we were humming along
listening to the instructions of "Halle," our trusty GPS
(Incidentally, one nearly identical to it is in the mail to us as
I type, and I will be very happy to have it for all future travel),
when I saw a traffic advisory that mentioned a major "Bouchon"
on our expressway just past Sigean. Happily, we hit the totally stopped
traffic just a few hundred yards before the only exit that could save
us hours of sitting and bumper-to-bumper driving, and a couple helpful
drivers allowed us to veer across all the lanes and make the exit.
We got on the parallel national highway (no tolls), and drove to the
first town of any size to find lunch--Fitou. Let me tell you: we found
LUNCH! After rejecting a couple places that seems deserted or expensive,
we parked and walked up a major hill to a place called Lou Courtal
des Vidals. We were asked whether we had a reservation, and I smiled
to myself at their presumption, since the place was nearly empty,
and it was Saturday lunch. They offered a table for two anyway, and
then we watched in amazement as the entire room filled up with well-dressed
groups of friends and families. Fran was already excited about the
buffet spread, which took up a living-room sized area at the front
of the restaurant, and which was priced at 19 euros. I immediately
confess that I HATE buffets of any sort, considering them a forced
occasion of overeating and remorse for dishes not tried. So I ordered
the rabbit with garniture en direct, and Fran braved the
buffet tables. Indeed, all the other tables full of people joined
her in the parade to the groaning tables, and she found what must
be one of the great food presentations in all of France: every conceivable
food and delicacy presented in perfection: a huge salmon sliced for
servings, crabs, shrimp, bulots, oysters, soups, salads, ham, lamb,
with tables divided among first course, plats, and scores
of desserts. Fran promptly pronounced it one of the better meals she's
had, while I sat hacking away at my grilled rabbit and cooked veggies.
Uh, she chose well.
Then the fun began: the owner, who has an auberge, a vineyard, this
restaurant, and who knows what else, came to our table and asked concerning
our home country. (How did he ever know we were not local???!)
He then announced to all and sundry that the Americans had arrived.
There ensued a five minute conversation (as I struggled with his strongly
inflected Catalan accent) about his theories concerning the tragedy
of the complete "loss of identity" in all those who left
the villages for the cities, and worse for those who lived in America
and other countries where capitalism had made money the only object
of life. He described the generations of his family in the local cemetery,
and the faithful few who had remained in Fitou to embody the identity
that was given to the village in the food, the wines, the holidays,
the family traditions, and so on. I mumbled something about the possibility
that such lack of identity WAS the American identity, and that that
had a value in some issues of life, and so on, but he'd hear nothing
of it, and went on with his lecture before making the circuit of the
other tables to speak with friends for decades one presumes, then
retired to the patio where some of his cooks were working the grills.
Fran looked out and said: "He has a saxaphone." She wanted
to go out and take a picture of him with it, but (never fear), he
had already made his entrance in his big plaid flannel shirt, alto
sax in hand, and proceeded to play a fifteen minute concert to the
assembled, who beamed, giggled, clapped, and enjoyed. He was actually
a pretty good player, taking requests, and making few mistakes. He
then got a sly look and came over to Fran to lean forward and play,
in turn, "Strangers In the Night" and "Hello, Dolly!"
at full volume--his salute to America--and to Fran. We got our money's
An encounter of a different sort should be mentioned for you to note
if you ever want to go to Southern France for a trip, but speak little
French and would like to have an expert guide concerning the food,
wineries, recipes, restaurants, and historical towns. Fran had written
a note to Anne de Ravel (who has been a New York Times food writer,
a producer on the Food Channel, etc.) concerning a recipe for "daube"
that we'd had before our trip, and that we both loved. We were surprised
that she wrote back and asked Fran to be in touch when we got to Marseillan,
which is only a half-hour drive from her generational family home
outside Béziers. Fran called her, and they met for drinks at
our local "Marine Bar", and then she invited us to come
to the ancestral house for drinks and hors d'oeuvres before we left.
I avoid all such events when I travel (I should confess that I avoid
much while traveling, including shopping, tourist sites, anything
that charges admission, and so on. I know this is a failing, but there
it is.) I do not like stress, so do not like to meet new people, but
Fran was very sweet in her request that I go with her, and we arrived
at this massive villa in the country that has been home to her family
for hundreds of years. It looked very much like those country homes
in the French movies (by Louis Malle, Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and others)
where families go for holiday to live out their erotic and power-struggle
adventures. Half the house dated from the 13th century (!); the other
half from the 18th century. All had been refurbished only 6 years
ago. Anne had left NYC after 30 years in America to go back to help
her brother with the rehab of the house, and now lives there with
her father while offering classes, tours in French cuisine and wines,
and so on. Her father speaks only French, so it was my job to include
him in our evening there (linguistically), and it worked sort of OK,
though I felt very tense about trying to carry on longer conversations
in French. My French is traveler's French or philosopher's French,
but my vocabulary is sadly weak in events of standard socializing,
I fear. Anyway, the point of all of this is that (a) they offered
us excellent wines and aperitifs, and Anne cooked us wonderful fresh
anchovies and made Fran tielle, a variety of octopus pie!
Both delicious! And (b): If you are interested in any future possibility
of visiting that part of France, and you'd be willing to pay for guided
culinary tours, then see www.saveurlanguedoc.com
for details of her tours, and her blog. She's a very charming woman
and has an immense knowledge of French cooking and culture.
Our last few days were spent, as I said, in Barcelona--my first time
in Spain, actually. Since I was ill throughout, I have no confidence
in most of my perceptions about the city, but will presume to mention
a few things: it is a beautiful city. Not as beautiful as Paris, I
think, but in that league. It is a very fashion-conscious and young
city (maybe part of my problem with it). The architecture is as impressive
as advertised: Gaudi was clearly a genius and madman explorer: we
loved the Casa Mila (La Pedrera) and Casa Battlo. We did not get to
see the Park or Palau Guell. We spent a couple hours at the grand
work-in-progress cathedral, La Sagrada Familia: I found it amazing
in scale and ambition, and, frankly, a failure in aesthetics and effect.
It seems to me to have no "soul", no sense of the mystery
of the religious sensibility (that is, Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris,
etc.) Of course the scaffolding and jackhammers and cement dust do
not help in the latter regard. But my main problem was that to me
it looked sort of like a slowly melting sand/mud castle, dripping
weighty blobs towards the earth, rather than reaching to the heavens.
This is a very minority opinion. The engineering success of it is
a marvel, and the elements are beautiful. I just could not relate
to the project as a whole. Go see it in 80 years, and....who knows???
Barcelona is NOT in the same league as France when it comes to food.
We had some really terrible meals---worse than anything in our travels
or at home. We also had some wonderful dinners, but there is no consistency
in quality and care, and extra expense does not seem to guarantee
extra quality. The beach is wonderful---so strange to find a full-scale
beach right in a major cityscape--as if Manhattan's east side was
Jones Beach, or as if Paris had the Cannes beach extending the Left
Bank, instead of the silly Seine-side "beach" they propose
each summer these days. The metro is wonderful, if a bit confusing.
There is no city I know that has so many women over six feet tall.
As in Rome, motorscooters and motorcycles are the prevailing sound
of any walk.
Tapas are overrated! End of prejudicial reportage.
What it comes down to is that I was ill. I was tired. Impatient. So
I came away just wishing we could have stayed in our little Marseillan
village for the entire vacation. I have discovered, to my chagrin,
that I no longer like CITIES. At all. Maybe it is an age thing, but
the chaos and noise and crowding and speed and bad air just put me
in a bad mood. Especially if I have the flu. And I do not like the
eternal vigilance required against pickpockets and con artists and
sales pitches and overcharges, and fake restaurant descriptions, and
In short, I end up sort of agreeing with Mr. Vidal--or whoever he
was--in Fitou: "loss of identity" is a serious matter. It
seems to take generations to make good wine, good food, good landscapes,
good people. I do not, myself, qualify, but it turns out that I like
to travel where the locals do qualify.
Please excuse my rambling. But several (masochistic?) people have
requested that I write about our trip, so here you are. You know who
you are. For the rest, happy weekend, happy summer, and please take
any chance you have to spend weeks or months in la France profonde
in a lazy, quiet way. If you share any of my sensibility, you will
not be disappointed.