Saturday, December 22, 2012


            One of the things I'd planned to do here was get back into my horn since I wasn't going to have a whole lot to do anyway. And I'm finding out pretty quickly that, especially for a trombone player, you have to find your own way. So I was excited one Thursday when I passed a little place near our apartment where a hand lettered sign read "Open Swing Acoustique, Jazz Manouche, Jazz Boeuf, 19h30". Jazz Manouche is the French term for what Americans call "Gypsy Jazz" (music made famous during the swing era by Django Reinhardt) and "Jazz Boeuf" is the local term for a jam session.

            Chez le Pépère, like a lot of places here, would have to double in size to be "intimate". A small bar, a few high tables, a wall of wine bottles and the flags of a bunch of rugby teams decorate the room, and the night I walked in the sound of a piano came up from the basement, or cave as it's more appropriately called. Descending a tight spiral staircase, I recognized the tune as "Sunny Side of the Street" and took it as a good sign - a tune I can play when I work up the nerve to bring my horn. Like jazz clubs everywhere, the musicians were packed onto a tiny little stage but the instrumentation was not what I was used to at home. A little console piano, bass, two acoustic guitars and a violin. No drums, no amps, nobody who looked over 30 and everybody could swing. I'm not sure I'll fit in with these guys.

            Tuesday nights there's a straight ahead session that I have hopes for since it seems to be also young guys but they're still trying to find their improvisational voices.  This was one of the aspects of going back to school in my 50's that gave me the most pleasure. For years I had been surrounded by people who didn't really share my musical tastes. Then again, anyone into jazz can probably make the same statement. So it was a good thing to have others in the same musical boat, wanting to make an improvisational statement but not yet having the tools. I've always said that my life has been a series of events leading to the next humbling experience. So in relating the following story, I freely admit that I have no room to talk.

            I spent most of the last year or so in St. Pete trying to work up the nerve to play at one of the local jam sessions. I was fortunate enough to know a lot of the best musicians in the Tampa Bay area and when it comes to people on my level, they are gracious, tolerant and encouraging. They are also light years beyond me musically and too intimidating, so I usually went to listen. Ironically, the best way to build confidence is by allowing yourself to screw up. There are those who don't seem to be burdened by any of these issues, no matter how badly they solo and I wish some of that was contagious. It is not, however, always a good thing.

            Every form of human endeavor has its Inspector Clouseaus.  People who, despite all evidence, are completely convinced of their talent and oblivious to anything that might indicate otherwise. Most of the musical Clouseaus I've noticed fall into three basic categories, not necessarily in this order - singers with no sense of pitch, guitar players trying to play far beyond their capability and drummers with no sense of time. In fact, in almost every amateur group I've ever been involved with, there was always at least one guy with a set of drumsticks whose sense of rhythm was most charitably described as idiosyncratic.  Jazz jam sessions are usually spared these folks probably for the same reason there's no "Trombone Hero" for your Xbox.

            One night I got to Chez Pépère about the time I always get to a live music venue - right after the band went on break, which seems to last about an hour here. And when you know you'll have to nurse the only beer you can afford for awhile, it's not necessarily a bad thing if you can't speak the same language as the guy beside you, especially if he seems to be scatting to music only he can hear. (Remember when someone loudly singing or talking to himself was a indication he had a bolt loose? At another time in France, I might have suspected this guy had once been standing in a trench when an artillery shell went off right over his head.) I noticed the wire hanging from his ear but still thought I'd go downstairs and wait for the band to come back. A couple of minutes later, the scatter, who looked to be about fifty, came downstairs, wandered over to the drum kit, sat down and started tapping around with his hands. He kept up the same monotonous rhythm for about fifteen minutes until the real drummer came back and Scatman took his seat in the audience.

            The set started with a blues and the solos worked around until Scatman took one and I realized that the thing I'd noticed in his ear was his own personal wireless mike.  Any idea this guy might have been a real singer disappeared after about 4 bars and midway through the first chorus I found myself involuntarily thinking, "It's a simple blues, man" but this guy's wailing (I mean in the banshee sense) continued obliviously along. After his fourth chorus I thought maybe he was somebody's father and a few choruses later found myself thinking for the first time since I left the states that I was sorry to be in a country with no ready access to baseball bats. The band, however, politely did their best to follow.

            For the next tune Scatman Clouseau pulled out the only set of bongos I've ever seen at a jam session and the tune after that he took his turn at the drums. I don't know if the band knew this guy, if they were humoring him or being polite or what but if there was ever a time to call "Cherokee" this was it. He wasn't any better at this than scatting and I didn't wait around to see if he went for the hat trick on guitar.

            I'm not sure what to make of all that but in one way the effect on me has been almost as bad as everybody being way better.  I haven't been back to this session for a couple of weeks now because I'm afraid the same guy will be there. The good thing is now I'm practicing with a little bit more diligence just to make sure that, when I finally do work up the nerve to take my horn, I'm not the next Clouseau. I might even ask Cynthia to help as soon as I figure out what a musical Cato does.
             Videos are from the Jazz Manouche session. Bill Cosby needs no explanation.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

For Mum

           My mother was really something. Everybody said so. She knew how to fix everything and there was nothing on wheels she couldn’t drive. And I was her favorite.           
My sisters gave me this last bit of information long after I could have exploited it.  To me, she treated us all the same and, like most good mothers, always put herself last. Then again, she did that with everyone, especially my father.  We got to keep her for over 93 years so I should probably consider myself lucky, but for the nearly 2 years that she’s been gone it’s felt like I’m being cheated. Today I would have called her to wish her a happy 95th birthday.

            As she neared the end of her life, Mum told us her life wouldn’t have been worth anything if it hadn’t been for my sisters and I but we know that’s nonsense. She had worked for 5 or 6 years at Gimbel’s department store in downtown Pittsburgh then, during WW II, got a job at Gulf Oil’s Research and Development Center in Harmarville, a few miles from where we grew up. Mum’s job at “The Lab” was to keep bench mounted automobile and truck engines used in fuel testing tuned up and running right so she knew more about cars than my father, but he'd never have admitted that. She was still working there when she married him and that was the end of that, just like most women her age.

            Six months after my father died in 1998, my mother had a stroke and 6 months after that she went to assisted living for good. While cleaning out her house in preparation for selling it, we found all of her and my grandmother's old photos, including some that I had never seen before. It sounds stupid to say this but that's when I realized she had a life before us. The person in these pictures, while definitely Mum, is a person I never knew although we got glimpses of her from time to time. This was Martha Kapteina and she was young, single and having good time. She just has a look about her that doesn't exactly mean she was a party girl but that she and her friends enjoyed each other.  A lot of this got packed away, I think, when she became Martha Gunia and took a back seat to all of us.

Mum on right.
Mum,right. Aunt Jane with sign. Grandma between them.

           This was the role Mum had taken on for herself and it came naturally. Her mother, the only grandparent that lived long enough for us to know, lived with us and while we loved her and she us, there's no denying that she was pretty self-centered. My grandfather had died when the shotgun he was cleaning went off and killed him, or at least that's what we were always told. Mum was 7 and she and Grandma were the only ones home when it happened. Even at the age of 90 she could describe pretty clearly what she had seen. This was in 1925 and she, Aunt Jane, Uncle Jim and my grandmother had to move into a small apartment where she was still living in 1950 when she married my father. Grandma came with her.

            My father was a frustrated actor who'd become a civil servant. He craved and sought being the center of attention so when he and Grandma ended up under the same roof, well, it probably doesn't need much explaining.

            Mum loved me like she did because of what I was like as a little boy. I'm not sure exactly how that was but I can tell you that at the age of 4 or 5, I worried an awful lot about 2 old ladies on our street who lived by themselves. Whatever he'd been, that little boy gradually disappeared, helped along the way by his father, schoolyard bullies and a career for which he was completely unsuited - but he was always there to Mum. On one of the last trips to see me that she made before her stroke, after witnessing yet another tirade brought on by some forgotten but doubtless trivial outrage, she looked at me and said, "What happened to you? You were such a gentle soul." 
            I don't know, Mum, but he turns up from time to time. Anyway, Happy Birthday. I miss you.
At "The Lab"


Monday, December 3, 2012

Le Serrurier, Part deux

     I’ve been trying to do a music related post for a while now but events seem to be dictating otherwise. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about getting locked out of our apartment and calling a locksmith. The guy that showed up from Artisans Girondins not only wrecked our old lock and door latch but charged us €1,403 for the privilege. His explanation was that our insurance would cover the whole thing and, just to show his good intentions, he’d hang onto our check until we got paid. At the time, this all sounded fishy but we didn’t have a lot of choice so we wrote the check and hoped for the best. After all, this is France, not Italy where I would have known better.

     As soon as we started checking the price of locks, we knew, I mean we confirmed, we’d been taken to the cleaners. And telling this story produced gasps, wide eyes and oh-la-la-la-la’s in absolutely everyone, so we were beginning to think that we’d been pretty stupid, at least I was anyway. (By the way, oh-la-la [not oo-la-la] is an all purpose conversational intensifier and the number of la’s is in direct proportion to its intensity).

     So first we went to the bank to try stopping payment on our check. In France, this is called an opposition and obviously doesn’t happen much because, after they finished gasping and oh-la-la-ing,  it took a couple of in-house phone calls to produce someone who actually knew the procedure. But almost as soon as we got home from the bank, Cynthia checked our account and discovered that about the time we were trying to stop payment, the money was coming out of our account. We’d been had. So we gathered up our evidence, consisting of the shrapnel that used to be our door lock plus the bill, and headed down to see the gendarmes.

     At the police station there was more eye-popping oh-la-la-ing and the explanation that, as in the U.S., this is a civil matter and we were going to have to take our troubles to the Tribunal d’instance, more or less small claims court, conveniently nearby. Here we got no reaction (used to it, I guess) – just the forms and instructions on filing a complaint, plus the name and address of the city’s mediation service, which it was suggested we should try first since the civil procedure could take months.

     A few days later, one of our friends emailed us a copy of a magazine article about fraud and consumer protection in France that lead off with examples of how serruriers routinely screw people all over the country with pretty much a carbon copy of what had happened to us. The article also provided a rundown of the many regulations and laws our locksmith had violated, plus the phone number for the Direction Départmentale de la Protection des Populationes, the consumer protection agency,which Cynthia called. Then, with the help of our friend Joëlle, she wrote out a couple of letters to the mediator and the consumer people, then wondered if we’d ever see any of our money again.

     About the time Cynthia was finishing the accounts of our tale of woe, the bank called to tell us our check had been presented for payment, did we still want to oppose it? I don’t think there is any way to translate into French, “You’re fuckin’ A right we do” but Cynthia got as close as she could. This time somebody had to call all the way to Paris to find out what to do. I have yet to figure this out but as near as I can guess, funds are deducted from your account before actually going into the payee’s, so money we thought was gone was simply in transit.

     Next day, a Thursday (and, coincidentally, Thanksgiving),  €1,403 magically returned to our account and the day after that, Cynthia answered her cell phone to find an irate French locksmith on the other end. She faked not really being able to speak or understand French very well while managing to get the point across that we were being cheated. Clement (this time we got a name) threatened us with a variety of annoyances including the aforementioned Tribunal and standing at our door until he got every last sou. To all of which Cynthia responded with some French equivalent of, “Bring it on, mo-fo”.

      Then the guy relented somewhat and decided to drop the price a bit, opening the door to negotiations. We went back and forth through several phone calls, culminating at about 9 that night in our final offer of €500, which we made clear was still too high. Telling us it was impossible but he’d ask his boss and call us on Monday, this was the last we heard from anyone and it’s now been over a week. 

      Cynthia and Joëlle polished up our letters and mailed them out last week, so now we wait. I wonder how this is going to turn out? I’ll let you know but I think it’ll be a while.

"Is this the date?" "No, it's the price...including tax!"

"And the duplicate new key, its a gift."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Yankee Doodle Dinde

     Two months into a new country and two weeks into a new apartment didn't seem to me the best time to plan a complicated dinner for friends unfamiliar with the American tradition of Thanksgiving. For one thing, finding a turkey, dinde in French, isn't just a simple matter of dropping by the nearest Carrefour and picking out a nice Butterball, or Boule de Beurre here, I guess. In fact, except for the potatoes, regular and sweet, all the ingredients were a challenge for Cynthia. But she was determined, obsessed might be more like it, to pull this off and took it as a challenge, a scavenger hunt. My attitude was a bit more laissez faire, so together we made one normal person.

     The internet is loaded with stories by expat Americans on their experiences and suggestions for doing Thanksgiving here - where to find this, what to substitute for that and if you positively have to have Karo syrup it's going to cost you. In fact it's all going to cost you. When you come right down to it, for all the average Frenchman knows, we could have told them the Pilgrims whipped up something remarkably like coq au vin to thank the Wampanoags for showing them how to grow lentille verte de Puy (I don't know what it is, either - just that it's something French people eat). But Joëlle and Alain, our friends here in Bordeaux, had been to our place in St. Pete last year and experienced the gorging first hand so, no, there had to be turkey and cranberries.

     Since Cynthia doesn't care for it, making the pumpkin pie had always been my job. However, here there is no pre-mixed canned pumpkin pie filling and about 6 different ready-made pie crusts so, after researching how to make it from scratch, I decided I could do without pumpkin pie this year.

     Discussions, or rather monologues since I didn't have much to contribute, on doing Thanksgiving started right after we hit town and about 2 weeks before the holiday, we started the food quest at the Marché des Capucins, a covered market in the heart of Bordeaux.  It sits on a one square block plaza and inside are butchers, bakers, fishmongers, vegetable and fruit vendors and a couple of little cafés, all run by entrepreneurs. The building is surrounded on the outside mainly by cheap clothing and household good vendors and a marché has existed on this spot, in one form or other, continuously since 1797. Places like this used to be common in the U.S but the last one I remember was the old North Side Market in Pittsburgh and it's been gone since 1965.
     Nobody eats turkey here except at Christmas but Cynthia had no problem finding a guy she liked who'd be happy to one sell us. one Buying anything here by weight always sounds you're making a drug deal so when Richard the turkey guy (I'm getting tired of having to look up what everything's called in French) suggested 5 kilos would be about right, it sounded like something we were going to have to pick up from a locker at the bus station.  This package, however, could be retrieved right here in broad daylight the day before Thanksgiving.

     There's an Ocean Spray commercial on TV here featuring a couple of Quebecois knee-deep in a cranberry bog so you'd think somebody wanting to order the real thing wouldn't raise any eyebrows. But nobody at Capucins had them and weren't sure they could get any. Cynthia finally ran down a guy who runs the neatest, cleanest produce store I've ever seen right down the street from us and was happy to get them but did ask, "What do you use these for?"

     Our guests for Thanksgiving were going to be Joëlle and Alain plus their friend Dominique and his wife Fabienne.  Dominique runs the local Aston Martin dealership so we were a little nervous, despite Joëlle's assurances that they were just regular people. At least I didn't have to worry about him trying to sell me a car. And the final menu ended up being turkey and stuffing, brussel sprouts and bacon, sweet potatoes, cranberries, a nice pear and raspberry salad, rice (mashed potatoes complicated things) and for desert, what Cynthia described as some apple-pecan-pie-muffin things. Oh, and we asked Alain to bring wine since I was afraid of picking and knew he wouldn't bring the French equivalent of MD 20/20.

     The evening turned out to be what we'd hoped for - everyone seemed to have a good time and none of our guests gagged or puked. And despite being the only non-French speaker in the room, I was occasionally able to drop in a well-placed bon mot when I actually had some vague idea of what was being said. In keeping with tradition we cooked enough to feed half of Bordeaux, however nobody accepted having leftovers foisted on them so Cynthia and I will have the chance to relive this feast for a while.  If you're in the neighborhood, stop by for dinde avec cranberry - there's plenty.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Armistice Day

My uncle Edward Kapteina, left  c. 1917 - we called him "Uncle Doc". Right, another Springdale doughboy whose name escapes me.

            Most Americans probably couldn't tell you why Veteran's Day is celebrated on November 11. Here in France it's Armistice Day and that's what we called it at home when I was a kid. At 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the shooting of the Great War stopped. In my hometown of Springdale, Pennsylvania, there was a small war memorial on Pittsburgh Street where the Post Office now is. I can remember going there with my mother and seeing old men who had been "doughboys" in World War I parading to the memorial along with our fathers, the GI's of WWII. The fireman's band always played "My Buddy" and somebody always read "In Flanders Field."

            As these old doughboys died off, Armistice Day began to lose its significance to Americans so now we call it Veteran's Day to honor everyone who's served their country. In France, they honor all their veterans, too, but the day hasn't lost it's significance and probably never will. I thought about those Springdale commemorations as I wandered down to the local memorial at about 10:30 this morning.              

           The monument "Aux Morts de la Guerre La Ville de Bordeaux 1914-1918"
stands, appropriately, across the street from the biggest cemetery in town. Carved into a huge stone wall are the names of every Bordelais killed in WWI and there must be over 1,000 entries. Beneath these have been added the dead from WWII, no small number itself. Almost every town and village in France has a monument like this and, no matter how small the place, the numbers are astonishing.  Every American who buys into the "cheese eating surrender monkey" bullshit would do well to consider that France lost 1.4 million men between 1914-1918, nearly 5 % of it's population. By the time the war was only a few weeks old 100,000 French soldiers had already been killed.

            Several of my great uncles, Gunia and Kapteina, fought in WW I and the name Durand, my grandmothers' name (and one of the most common in France) is etched 13 times into the Bordeaux monument so I felt I had at least a small stake in the local ceremony. Things got underway promptly at 11 and even though the uniforms look pretty much the same as ours, I felt a little out of place. We've only been here for about 2 months now, but the first few minutes of this ceremony made me realize that no matter how long we stay, I'm always going to be an outsider. It isn't the language barrier as I'd have felt the same standing in Trafalgar Square. The history, traditions, the protocols and even the music are all different and I'll never fully appreciate the significance of these things since I wasn't brought up here.            

            Something else occurred to me as I watched about a dozen local military and police officers have medals pinned to their chests. What passes for patriotism in America has become cheap and easy because it isn't backed up by anything meaningful. All you have to do is put a dollar store "Support our Troops" magnet on your car, wrap yourself in the flag (both of which were probably made in China), thank everybody for their service, chant "USA" at the Olympics and roundly denounce everyone who doesn't do the same. Then for good measure you can refuse to sacrifice one dime in taxes to help pay for 10 years of sending the same weary troops off again and again to some Middle East shithole. Enough preaching.

            Today for the first time, I got a little homesick. La Marseillaise could be the world's most stirring anthem but it's not The Star Spangled Banner. And the band played marches that were appropriately martial but nothing I recognized. So I went home, stuck my iPod in the Bose player and played  The Stars and Stripes Forever. 

Le Serrurier

            I was planning this post to be about a local jam session but that's going to have to wait. Last night I locked us out of our apartment and I've got to tell you this while it's still fresh in my mind.

            Before I get into the particulars, there are a couple of observations I want to pass on. Although we've been here less than two months, some things I now know for certain. First of all, that you're at a disadvantage in a country where you don't speak the language is self-evident, but it can't be over-stressed. I'm telling you right now that if your life-long dream is to retire to Dubrovnik, if you know what's good for you you'll start looking for a Serbo-Croatian Meetup group tomorrow. And secondly, no matter how much homework you do, no matter how many websites you consult and expat forums you join, some small detail that never even occurred to you could somehow bite you on the ass.

            The past few days Cynthia has been having sinus trouble and yesterday it got bad enough to see a doctor. She was able to wrangle an appointment with our friend's physician, amazingly at 6:30 in the evening. When we left I tried to lock the door behind us only to discover my key wouldn't turn and we were locked out. It's kind of complicated to explain how but part of the reason why crime here is so low could be that the entry door on an average French apartment is built for Fort Knox.  The locks are so elaborate even Houdini would have hard time trying to crack one and the mechanisms work inside and out with keys. I've tried a dozen times to describe how this lock works but every one is more confusing than the last. You'll have to take my word that European door locks have a quirk no American could ever know about and if you're ever over here, never leave your keys in the door.

            So while Cynthia saw the doctor, I surfed the web on my iphone trying to find a way to get back into our apartment that didn't involve calling a locksmith, which, by the way, here is a serrurier. Almost all the information on the web about Europe in English either comes from or refers to the UK and so is useless in France. The only thing I could find that was even remotely close came from a woman in Tunbridge Wells whose mother has Alzheimer's and is forever locking her out in much the same way as we were. And as with most online forums, the suggestions offered were from the usual people - eager to help but with no idea at all how to actually solve anything.

            Back at the apartment, anything I knew to do was futile so we broke down and called a serrurier we found in the Pages Jaunes, the Yellow Pages. It wasn't long before a twenty-something guy showed up and after he unloaded a pretty impressive looking bag of tools from the back of his van, I figured we'd be back inside in no time.  But we took it as a bad sign when the first thing this guy did was shake the door a bit then take out a huge set of channel locks and break the handle off the door. I didn't know what to make of this and remembered as kid watching the local volunteer firemen show up at a house that was supposed to be on fire and, before doing anything else, they started breaking out the windows.  It didn't really serve any purpose but at least they were doing something. Then he took out a big chisel and small sledge and started wailing away on the lock. This is where the language barrier really came into play, my "What the fuck is this?" provoking no response at all. Cynthia at least got out of him that this was a really secure lock but for the next hour or so, all I could do was mutter "Jesus Christ" as this guy flailed away at our door.

            At my request, Cynthia tried to ask Henri (I think) why someone would design a lock that required it's complete destruction as a consequence of absent mindedness (after all there must be plenty of native scatterbrains that do this all the time) but again, as well as Cynthia speaks French even she couldn't really understand much more than that this was a really good lock.

            Finally Henri, sliding what looked like a really stiff sheet of paper between the door and frame was able to trip the latch enough to open the door. Why he hadn't tried this in the first place was something we couldn't get out of him but at least we were in. Five minutes later we had a bill for over  €1,400 the majority of which was for the lock Henri had just wrecked but assured us our insurance would cover. He gathered up the pile of shrapnel that was our lock and told us to show it to the insurance company. I can hardly wait to hear what they say.

              On the bright side, Cynthia's doctor visit cost only 23 euros . That's right, you heard right, only  23 euros for a complete, all expenses included, visit to a physician. Try finding that deal anywhere in the good old U. S. of A.           

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Moving On Up

               Well, after nearly 2 months of depending on the kindness of others and living out of suitcases, Cynthia and I finally get to sleep in our own bed. We moved into our new home two days ago and at breakfast this morning I noticed among some other things, our 3/4 empty French phrase-a-day calendar. Leafing through some of the useful phrases, like "Pourriez-vous entrouvrir une fenêtre?" (Could you crack open a window?) and "Elle a installé la télévision à écran plat elle-même."(She installed the flat screen television herself) I realized that what would have been more helpful was something that included French holidays, especially those that fell on a Thursday. That way you can avoid scheduling your furniture delivery for a Friday when the average French worker is likely to be pissed off about having to work.
               In case you'd forgotten (I know I had), November 1st is All-Saints Day. In a country where you can't swing a cat without hitting a cathedral, you could have figured a day or two important only to Catholics might be national holidays. Toussaint is one of those and this year it fell on a Thursday so the whole country was looking forward to Friday as le pont, the bridge, and a four-day weekend. So anyone having to work that day here is about as happy as someone in the States who couldn't call in sick the day after Thanksgiving. But everything seemed okay when the van showed up as promised at 9 a.m. on November 2nd.
               Our contract provided for the people at both ends to pretty much do it all. The movers here were obligated to unpack and put everything together that needed it, then cart off all the empty boxes and paper. So we took it as a bad sign when there were only two people and when Cynthia asked to borrow a knife, neither had one. Then, when everything had come off the truck (with my help since a couple of the pieces were way too heavy for two) our guys waved goodbye and told us to have a nice life. Neither one spoke a word of English so I was useless as Cynthia did her best to tell them what our contract called for, which was news to them. I was at least able to call our agent in Marseilles, fortunately an expat American. She apparently read our guys' boss the French Riot Act and they were not happy but at least I understood when one said, "Le chef est nul" (which in this case could be translated as "Our boss sucks.") they weren't going to hold us responsible.

            From this point on there was a mad dash to get our shit out of the boxes and set up so they could salvage a piece of le pont. And since it was explained to us they would not be unpacking any clothes or books, Cynthia and I began frantically ripping through those boxes so we wouldn't have to figure out how to get rid of all the empty cartons and paper.

            No matter how congenial they might finally seem, guys in a hurry are not the ones you want putting your bed together. Today, Sunday, I finally finished reassembling everything Pepe and Doudou (I didn't catch their actual names) had borrowed my tools to set up. And we still have a lot of empty boxes and paper that, while it has to be recycled, nobody will come to get so we have to figure our how to take it to the recycling center. I've looking around the neighborhood for a construction site with a half-empty dumpster but so far no luck.

            In spite of everything, at least we're now settling in to our new place in France. For anybody whose stuck with us this far, I'll probably be able to quit bitching and start telling you about the city we still find it hard to believe is our home. And I'm also hoping that it won't be too long before I can tell you about my first gig.

Chez Nous

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Election

            Okay, I've got to get this off my chest and out of the way so bear with me. If  you're one of the foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing shitheads I'm going to be on about, my advice is to stop right here because I'm only going to piss you off.

            There's been a video clip from a TV show called "The Newsroom" going around on Facebook (and probably emails if you're still living in the stone age). I've never seen this show but have seen the clip so I'm guessing the episodes have something to with a TV news program. Anyway, if you haven't seen it, the character played by Jeff Daniel's is a Republican newscaster who, on the air, rips the GOP to shreds . For the last 5 years I've been giving this same speech almost word for word until my family and almost everyone I know is sick of it. As this election mercifully nears, it's frightening to me that the outcome is still in doubt.

            The first campaign button I ever wore was for Barry Goldwater when I was 12 years old and my family was the Ivory-billed woodpecker of politics - Republicans in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Our roots in the party go all the way back to the 1880’s when it really was the party of Lincoln and my German great-grandfather joined the GOP as soon as he became a citizen.

            So I became a Republican in 1972 and voted for Nixon. Truthfully, if that same election were held tomorrow I'd do the same simply because McGovern was too far left for me. (I did not, however, think he was evil or the tool of Satan.) Then the party had moderates, conservatives and even liberals. There were gays and straights, pro and anti-war and pro and anti-death penalty. It was a big tent, full of ideas and people who knew how to get things done. That’s what made them attractive to me. They weren't rigid ideologues and the racist right wing nut cases were almost all Democrats. I was what used to be called a Rockefeller Republican but the only place you'll find one now is in a history book, again like the Ivory billed woodpecker.

            My apostasy started during the Reagan administration when the Conservative movement took permanent root. I've always thought of myself as essentially conservative with a small c but after Bill Clinton's election (thanks to that jug-eared fool Ross Perot), when New Gingrich and his ilk came along, the GOP message became increasingly shrill until it was clear that these people called themselves Conservatives because it sounded better than Bigot.  In 2004 I voted for a Democrat for the first time in my life and now cannot, in good conscience, consider voting for any Republican ever again.

             If I had ever harbored doubts about the wisdom of my choice, this past Republican primary season would have taken care of it. If anyone who was around when Gerry Ford was in the White House (and haven't forgotten that, at least in part, it was Ronald Reagan's challenging of a sitting President that led to Jimmy Carter) can tell me with a straight face that that crop of fundamental Christians, mental mediocrities, charlatans and out and out crackpots was the best the GOP could offer, well, I'd hate to see what the alternatives would have been. And for good measure, Sarah Palin is the first person ever to run for national office that I have no doubt I'm smarter than.

             More than anything else, what upsets me is the Christian Fundamentalism that is at the heart of every current Republican policy. I keep reading about the waning Tea Party and I'll believe it when I see it. But every week brings some new outrage brought on by some obscure, almost always Southern, Republican's opinion as to what constitutes God's will and how his thinking lines up with it. That doesn't seem to show any sign of waning. The worst thing Ronald Reagan ever did was to bring God into politics. And because of the GOP's attachment to the Bible, you don't have to look any farther than what's being taught in Texas schools to figure the United States is on its way to being the world's richest and most ignorant third world country.

              Which leads us to November 6. Make no mistake, if the last 4 years have shown me anything, it's that Democrats are just as easily cowed and incompetent as I've always thought they were. But I'm also sure that no President since Abraham Lincoln has seen such complete and total opposition. The debt crisis should have proven, once and for all to anyone that was paying attention, that Republicans were willing to drive the country off a cliff before co-operating in any way with Obama. This is patriotism and American Exceptionalism?

                That Mitt Romney, a person who has demonstrated beyond doubt that he will say anything he thinks will get him elected, represents the cream of the GOP crop is a good indication of the party's complete intellectual bankruptcy. There is some evidence that he might not make a bad President but you won't get just him, you'll get his whole party so the question is,  "Does the United States really want a de facto theocracy?" I hope not but it looks like at least half the country thinks otherwise. If Romney wins, all I can say is, "You're on your own".

                 Frankly, I'm not sure why I'm bothering with all this. Most people made up their minds a long time ago and if you haven't there's a good chance you're dumber than a bag of hammers. Anyway this has just made my stomach hurt so maybe I should  have just let this guy do the talking in the first place:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cherchez La Ferme, Part 2

     As you might recall, Part 1 ended with our house hunting efforts going south and Cynthia marshalling forces against financial ruin. However, to understand her approach to money matters, a little background is in order. 

      Cynthia has been looking after our accounts, such as they are, for most of the time we've been together. When I met her, we were both working in New York City and barely scraping by. So I was amazed and impressed to find out that her savings account contained 5 times what mine did and on half the salary. Her father was the only person I know of that a stockbroker actually fired as a client. The need to control his finances was so intense that he ended up having to drive 120 miles from Lafayette, Louisiana, to New Orleans and the only guy in southern Louisiana with the patience to deal with him.  So it's in her blood and she's good at it.

      You might also recall that we had been having trouble finding a place in Bordeaux because of an unusually low rental supply and our lack of in-country credit history. Most of the houses we were shown had some potential but for one reason or another we just couldn't see ourselves living in them. My wife's an old house person and old houses in the States have limitations of their own but, once again, it's different here. For one thing, judging from the size of most of the bedrooms, during the Belle Epoque everyone in France was the size of Toulouse Lautrec. And in a country that's very name is synonymous with sex, the most popular position must have been standing up.

       Many rentals here don't come with appliances - no refrigerator, washer, dryer and, in some cases, no stoves. We were anticipating having to spend a small fortune so when we finally found a fully equipped apartment we liked, it looked like we were home free. The owner spoke perfect English, was very accommodating and had actually gone to college in Lafayette and once lived in New Orleans. Plus Alexandrine, our relocation agent, thought that because she knew the rental agent, we would probably be spared a "caution", as the escrowed rent account is called. But when our copy of the proposed lease came, it contained stipulations that we pay all rental fees, 6 months rent in advance plus escrow a year of rent for three years. Not only did this come as a complete shock, it meant that our bank account would be drained and then some. I have to admit that my attitude was that there wasn't much we could do about it. If we wanted to stay in this country we might as well admit defeat and see about taking the money from my 401(k).

      This was too much for my wife and she called up her inner Blutarsky. "Over? Did you say over? Nothin's over until we decide it is." And no way was she letting anyone tie up as much as a dime (7 centimes) for three years.  I'd like to say that she charged into the rental office and forced them into a deal completely on our terms. But Cynthia absolutely refused to accept that theirs was the only solution and dug in her heels. In the end we still got screwed but not as much and at least had a few euros and our dignity left over.  A car, however, is going to have to wait but since our new place is right smack in the heart of Bordeaux, we're pretty sure we can do without one for a while.

      Before moving to France we heard horror stories about the bureaucracy and its fonctionnaires so had concentrated most of our efforts at trying to anticipate what we'd need for visas and permits. Our difficulty finding a home was completely unexpected since nothing we had read or heard gave us any reason to worry. In contrast, we virtually breezed through the immigration process and are now the proud holders of a carte de sejour, a residency permit.  So big government was no trouble and free enterprise nearly ruined us. There could be a moral here.
       This is how our experience sometimes felt.

       And in case you didn't get the Blutarsky reference:



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cynthia's Turn

Mon Vieux: n. m. (familiar) my old man, my old friend.

I met Bruce in New York in the late 80s when the city was literally crawling with homeless people. Every street corner, subway car and park bench was home to some pitiful soul begging for money. And Bruce, having “herded drunks” for five years as a Phoenix cop, had an attitude of zero tolerance for these folks. On more than one occasion I could be seen cowering behind him, while he berated some fool who had the temerity to ask for change or a spare cigarette. One altercation in the Times Square area ended with the words “You ol’ nasty stinkin’ white man!” hurled at Bruce (which I have to admit I’ve done myself on more than one occasion in the intervening years).

So you can imagine my reaction yesterday when we encountered a young, burly, barefooted drunk, intent on blocking our path in the beautiful Public Garden. As the man spoke his first words, I turned around, flung out a quick “Je ne parle pas francais” and hightailed it out of there, fully expecting Bruce to follow.

But no. France has worked some sort of magic on my often impatient husband, and for the next few minutes I watched from a safe distance while these two strangers struggled to converse, as each in his own way was having trouble with words. Bruce first explained that he didn’t speak very good French, and I was alarmed to hear the other loudly insist that “This is France. One MUST speak French!“ But it was quickly apparent that the situation was safe and when I got close I could hear that they were discussing politics! Now anyone who knows Bruce will not find this surprising, but I think it was the drunk who had introduced the subject.  About the time I caught up with them the guy was asking my husband what he thought of the situation in Europe. But to top it off, he kept referring to Bruce as “mon vieux” or my old friend. To my mind this is a vast improvement over “you ol’ nasty stinkin’ white man” and I think it bodes well for our future here.

Editors Note: I don't know what it says about me, but this is the first French speaking guy I've  understood.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cherchez La Ferme, Part 1.

Warning and Disclaimer: The first few paragraphs are really tedious.

     We’ve been here nearly a month and it looks like we finally found a place to live. It hasn’t been easy. As it turns out we perfectly timed our move to coincide with an unusual shortage of available rentals. Further complicating this is that we have no credit or taxpaying history here so our options were really limited.

     As it’s been explained to us, the French take a dim view of putting someone into the street, especially in winter or a bad economy, so they’ve have made it nigh on impossible to get rid of deadbeat renters. Preventive measures include insurance policies that guarantee rent payments, but you can only get this if you have a tax history in France. This stymies even some of the French since young people just starting out can’t qualify either.

     The term of the typical lease here is three years, so another solution requires the renter to deposit 36 months of rent into an escrow account. You can’t just pay rent in advance because leases can be legally broken with sufficient notice so both sides are saved the hassle of recovering unpaid funds.
So the places we can rent are limited to those being let by the owners themselves or by smaller rental agencies that presumably need the business and so are a bit more lax. The U.S. economy was ruined because the only question asked of people buying million-dollar houses was, “You got the money, right?” That we might have a problem renting a place to live just never occurred to us.  Plus things in the States are more landlord friendly and in fact a lot of Americans have taken the attitude that if you’ve lost your job and can’t pay the rent it’s your own damned fault anyway for not being rich in the first place. Not only that, but if you’ve been really successful at chucking people into the street, we think you’d make a damn good President. I digress.

     For at least a year, Cynthia has been scanning rental ads from Bordeaux. There is no such thing as a multiple listing, so each property is advertised by the owner or a specific agency with no sharing of information. The closest you get to a multi-list are websites like and, the latter being a sort of French craigslist. It’s apparent that the philosophy here, as far as what makes an ad effective, is, well, the standards are a bit less stringent than in the US. Before we rented our house in St. Petersburg, the rental agent explained how we were going “stage” the place. First of all, there should be no empty rooms, so we had to shift a bunch of stuff around to give every room some purpose. Also, flowers are good, so we bought a couple of bouquets that were strategically moved around during the photo shoot. I think we even bought new towels so the bathroom would look like the perfect place to linger over the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle.
The best you can say for most French ads is they at least create a more realistic picture of what life could be like in your new home. Trying to find a good illustration, I checked exactly three ads before finding this.

And Cynthia also noted that, time after time, ads would have just one picture that didn’t seem to have any relationship to the apartment listed, like these two:
Still others left you wondering whether it showed some feature only the French understood or the camera had gone off by accident.
 You can check this yourself by logging on to any of the sites like, or

     While I was writing this, we entered into what can charitably be called negotiations for what turned out to be the best place we saw. When we were presented with a contract, including fees and deposits, that would have left about 8 Euros in our bank account, my wife showed what she’s made of by guarding what’s left of our money like a lioness does her cubs.