Friday, September 28, 2012

We meet the French Mr. Drysdale

            One of the first things we’d planned to do once we landed was to open a bank account, which turned out to have been a good idea since you can’t get much done around here without one. To buy a cell phone, rent an apartment, in fact, most major transactions require you to produce your relevé d’identité bancaire, or R.I.B. – a little slip of paper that proves you have a bank account. As near as I’ve been able to figure, the laws of France tend to favor consumers, and not just a little, so this handy little document gives creditors a leg up on where to start recouping their losses from mauvais payeurs. (As far as I know, this means deadbeat, but it might not. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been really irritated by writers that throw foreign words and phrases around without any translations. Fortunately, my pathetic French will keep this to a minimum.)
            The Tuesday after we arrived in Bordeaux, we appeared at the local branch of Barclay’s to arrange for our accounts. We'd chosen Barclay's for it's international character (the one that doesn't lose billions of pounds) and because our friends know one of it's regional kahunas.  We were met by a very nice bank official who ushered us into his office where he began to explain the various account options available. Maybe any Americans he'd dealt with were well heeled or possibly he knew our friend was the president of the local Aston-Martin club, but it was obvious from what he was showing us that he figured we had a shitload of money. This impression didn’t last long.
            The number of documents required to open this account approached what I needed to get into the FBI. In fact Barclays might now know more about me financially than the Bureau ever did, but at that initial meeting we came up short. We had to have some proof that we had actually lived at our U.S. address. Why, I don’t know.  My bet is that France, like the U.S., probably came up with a bunch of ideas to keep criminals from easily laundering money but end up only make it more difficult for everybody else.  Fortunately for us, French customs officials wanted the same thing so we happened to have a copy of our latest St.Pete water bill, conveniently sitting inside another folder of documents back at the apartment.
            So it took two meetings to get our bank account and by the time we’d finished the only thing I hadn’t done was turn my head and cough. We still had to wait a week before we were notified that Barclay’s was now ready to accept our euros, which brings up another point. All of our income has to be converted to euros. Not surprisingly, having our account set up to let Barclay’s convert our dollars (which, after gaining or holding against the euro all year, began to sink almost as soon as we got here) royally screws us. Well, maybe not royally but going through a currency broker gives us a better exchange rate. Now we’ll see if all the figuring Cynthia did before we decided this little adventure can keep us from ending up in the streets, which brings me to the subject of dogs.
             Last time I mentioned I was going to go off about dog shit, however, I’ve decided maybe I should do a whole post on the subject of dogs in France, or at least my observations, anyway. Sorry if you were really looking forward to hearing about it. In fact, if that’s the case, I recommend counseling. À bientot, TTFN.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In Transit

         I started this while we were just killing time at the airport and wanted to do a last stateside post. I don’t remember why I didn’t finish it but it could have been some dispute over hogging the laptop. So this is my first post from France and it should probably be something profound or sentimental and if you're looking for that you might be disappointed.
         We spent the last two nights in Florida at a hotel but right up until the last minute were fixing things around our house. When you marry someone with a master’s in Historic Preservation, it's accepted that you'll live in a house with some years on it and constant maintenance is part of the equation. If, like me, you lack competence in the use of tools and/or have no patience, it's going to cost you.
                    But that's not what I'm going to talk about today. Instead, I've been thinking, among other things, about one of our last meals in Florida, possibly due to the contrast with our new home. The day before we left, we had breakfast at a Cracker Barrel, mainly because it was right across the street from the hotel (a Hilton) and would be a whole lot cheaper. Cynthia and I use to eat at these places a lot as we were travelling from our home in New Jersey to visit her folks in Louisiana. It’s always struck me that these “Country Cookin’” pushers are a pretty good example of what America is all about, at least for some people– the food is cheap and plentiful and a gauntlet of down home Made in China crap is arrayed so that it is impossible to walk straight to either the hostess station or the restroom. And as an aid to digestion, country music is piped throughout.
            Cracker Barrels also seem to serve as a place where the morbidly obese can freely mingle with their own. Whoever made the remark about feeling thin by hanging around larger folks must have been here. I’m no lightweight myself but I’ve never left a CB feeling anything less than anorexic.
            And there always seems to be a big family containing at least one member who is so severely mentally handicapped or old and senile as to have no idea which end is up. You never see these people come in and never see them leave - they are simply there.  I’ve often wondered if this is where country folk come to abandon family members they can no longer care for. “I mean everyone seemed so nice and all I just know they’ll find a good home for Mamaw.”
            Along these same lines, during our 8-hour layover at Gatwick Airport, a fate that should at all costs be avoided, I couldn’t help noticing that a substantial number of our fellow loiterers bore a striking resemblance to Marty Feldman, the late English comedian. One can, however, avoid having to spend too much time with the unwashed by paying a substantial fee to instead lay about one of a couple of very nice lounges. While there, we were reminded that, because of PBS and things like Masterpiece Theatre, Americans have this idea that TV in the UK is vastly superior to our own. One of the lounges large screens was tuned to a channel that covered what appeared to be a half marathon from beginning to end, including the packs of colorful stragglers. It was on for at least two and a half hours that I noticed and reinforced the idea that anyone who could sit and watch about a dozen guys running along a road, who looked like they’d just survived an African famine, would have no trouble watching any of the crap on American TV or a show about drying paint.
            By the time we finally got to Bordeaux and checked in to where we’ll be staying for at least a month, it was getting to be late Sunday. In the USA, we are used to things being open at all hours and so it is never any trouble to find food, even if you’re reduced to eating at McDonald’s. Here things are a little different and we were worried about being able to find something open. But when you are in the company of a discriminating palate, a restaurant can’t merely still be open on a Sunday night, it must be open and be acceptable. After passing Moroccan, Japanese, Indian and Chinese places, we finally came upon a great pizza place we had tried on our last visit and Cynthia’s life was spared.
            It was nearly 10 by the time we sat down and one of the first things I noticed was, unlike Florida, we were not one of the youngest couples at a table. We might have, in fact, been the oldest.  Peppone’s serves real Italian pizza pies that, unlike their American cousins, are sized for one person. And in contrast to Cracker Barrel, the average customer was sized smaller as well.

             I’m not sure what the ideal length for a blog post should be but this is probably enough anyway. Next time, I’ll let you know how it went opening a bank account and expound upon the danger of France sinking under the weight of dog shit.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

So long St. Pete

     It's getting down to crunch and time and we're starting to get a little nervous. Actually a lot nervous and to say we've got mixed emotions is putting it mildly. For me, while there's no doubt we're doing the right thing, still, the United States is where we were born and raised, well, I was anyway. But beyond that, everything I have I owe to Uncle Sam. I paid my way through college as an FBI clerk and have been a public servant ever since. When I discovered police work wasn't for me, the Bureau took me back and gave me the career that is now allowing me the freedom to do whatever I like. I'm as American as you can get and I don't want to hear any of that anti-government shit.

     But we're also wondering if we're not a little spoiled. After all, we've got a pretty good life here in St. Pete and for me I've been able to pursue another dream. When I retired from the FBI in 2004, I hadn't intended to stop working but before I looked for another job I wanted to deal with a regret I'd had since leaving high school. I wanted a degree in music.

     I grew up in Springdale, Pa., a factory town about 16 miles up the Allegheny river from The Point in Pittsburgh. Playing the trombone was the only thing that got me through high school. Like most people who play it, I didn't really pick the trombone, it picked me. Somewhere around 90% of the kids who show up for elementary school band without an ax are handed a trombone and I was one of those. As it turns out, however, this instrument suits my personality probably better that any other. Trombone players as a group tend not to take themselves too seriously, possibly because nobody else does either. But when it came time to leave high school and find a career I gave the horn up, believing myself not good enough to pursue it farther.

    Occasionally though, usually around Memorial Day and 4th of July, I'd get the horn out and march with the local fireman's band but that was it. After 1979, when I left the 'burgh for good, even this outlet dried so for about 25 years I hardly touched the thing. Then about midway through the '90's, it became imperative that I have something to distract me from my job so I retrieved my old 2B from my mother's house and joined a community band. After a couple of years I decided to start taking he whole thing more seriously since I was no longer satisfied with being slightly less than mediocre. I found a good teacher, Jay Shanman, and as I got better began to wonder if it was too late for me to ever be any good.

    Because law enforcement (I've never really been comfortable with that term) is perceived as a young man's job, most agencies allow for retirement after 20 years of service and the FBI added the requirement of also  being 50 years old. I had 20 years at the age of 51 and did not let the door hit me on the ass on the way out.  The spring semester of 2006, I started classes at the University of South Florida.

   When I decided to do this, my relationship with most teenagers had been mutual distrust and, at best, barely tolerant. But from the first day at USF, it became apparent that I was at last among my people. For over 30 years, I was forced into daily association with people who not only regarded jazz with contempt and ridicule, but if they listened to music at all it almost always prominently featured pedal steel guitars and alcohol related themes. To be every day with people 1/3 my age who not only knew and dug J.J. and Urbie Green and held conversations about Miles' modal period was, well, (cue Handel).
     So I graduated in 2008 and for the last 4 years I've bounced around, picking up gigs where I can but, like a lot of people, but especially trombone players, not as much as I would have liked. On balance, however, I've had more ups than downs, really, although if you've been the one who's had to listen to me bitch it hasn't always seemed that way. I'm writing this after having just finished my last gig here. I've been lucky enough to get to sub regularly with the TomKats, a St. Pete big band that plays every Monday night at the Blue Parrot in St. Pete Beach and features some of the best jazz players in town. In fact. I don't really belong on the same stage with some of these guys but I've generally not embarrassed myself and held my own on the occasional solo.

       I'll probably write more about this later but I want to get something posted before I leave town, But while I've lived here, I gotten to know a lot of some of the best musicians in the Tampa Bay area and, to me, that's infinitely cooler than following guys of Mediterranean ethnicity around Brooklyn all day. And I'll just say here that I consider myself lucky to have spent time with the great Buster Cooper, who most times remembers who I am after I tell him. One of the first things I ever had published was an article about Buster that appeared in the Journal of the International Trombone Association and if I ever figure out how to do it, I'll post a link here. If you don't know Buster, check out the Duke Ellington Orchestra after around 1963 through 1972. Once I got to play hockey with Gordie Howe and this is the musical equivalent as far as I'm concerned.

    At USF I got to take lessons once a week from Tom Brantley and if I could play like anyone, it might be him. Apart from being a great human being, he's a amazing musician - one of those people that when you see and hear him play, you know you're getting all he's got. And as if that weren't  enough for me, my last semester Tom went on sabbatical so I got to study with Keith Oshiro, an alum of both the Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman bands. Being among these three world class trombonists was the high point of my life in Florida. And thanks to Tom's wife Claire, who was the managing editor of the ITA Journal, I now have a steady writing gig, even if it doesn't pay a dime.

   The first musical experience I had after moving to Florida was to play in the summer jazz band at St. Petersburg college. This is run by Dave Pate, a saxophonist and St.Pete native and it was, without doubt, some of the most fun I've ever had and Pate was a big part of the reason for this. He's played with and for some of the world's best musicians but never, ever exhibited the ego he actually would be entitled to have. These summer bands band were always a mixture of old goats like me and kids from grade school to early college. Pate treated everyone the same, made sure everyone soloed and not once did I hear anything but encouragement, even after listening to someone like me hack their way through even the simplest tunes.

   Another thing that's given me a lot of pleasure here is seeing some of my USF classmates doing well and making their way as teachers and musicians. Mark Feinman, a great drummer, and Jon O'Leary, a really sensitive piano player,  helped me get through my junior recital and now, along with Alejandro Arenas (another USF classmate) make up La Lucha, a group here in St. Pete that is really making a name for themselves. But beyond their own group, they're some of the most sought after sidemen in town and so I get to show up at their gigs and act all cool and hip 'cause I can tell people I've played with these guys.  I'm hoping to see them at Marciac some time.

   I'm going to miss all this but I'm hoping to have some of the same experiences now in a different language. If you're reading this and I've played with you somewhere along the line, thanks. Thanks more than you know. For all their foibles, I've found musicians, by and large, to be the real deal and I'd rather hang with them than anyone.

  After we find a place to live, I'm not going to have a lot to do for awhile so I'm planning on, not only total immersion language training but immersing myself in my horn again. Since this seems like a pretty good way of making the transition into a new culture, it will be a good time to work on some things I've been needing for a long time. For one thing, all the French sax players I've heard appear to prefer the same tempos as their American brethren so it might be a good time to learn to keep up.

   So long St. Pete, I'm gonna miss you. You were just starting to feel like home. Who knows, I might be back some day but if not, look me up. If you're in Bordeaux just listen for the out of tune trombone player trying to make the changes to some Django tune.