Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dick Nash


            Not long ago, the Facebook group "Jazz Trombonists" had a thread going about early influences. I hesitate to get involved in these things mainly because most of these players are way beyond me in abilities and knowledge. But it made me think about the trombonists who had an impact on me when I was young - one whose name I didn't even know.
            Like most kids who take up the trombone and show any ability, the hardest thing I had to do was reach 6th position, near the bottom of the slide. Grade school band music is, by necessity, not particularly difficult - everyone is a beginner. At this stage, your main goal is just trying to make the thing sound halfway decent. But trombone players find out pretty quickly that they never, and I mean never, play the melody let alone solos. Your role is always in support of someone else. The trombone parts from grade school on were generally boring,  rarely a challenge and I became indifferent to practicing. The parts were just too easy.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Phantom of the Apero - Pastis

          My last post dealt with the results of drunkenness, so it seemed appropriate to segue into a good way to get blotto in France. I probably should have done this one a couple of months ago since it's about pastis, a drink traditionally served cold and popular in summer. Come to think of it, though, the first time I ever saw anyone drinking it was in the fall ten years ago when Cynthia and I spent a week near St. Tropez. She had a subscription to a magazine called "Fluent French" and every couple of months she got a CD of conversations with native French speakers along with a booklet with the  translation. Coincidentally, the one she got right before our trip had conversations with some kahuna from Ricard, one of the most well known brands, along with some pastis enthusiasts who provided ringing endorsements. So the whole time she bugged me to try this stuff, which I resisted because I knew there was some kind of process involved and didn't want to look any more like a foreign rube than I already did.  

Friday, November 8, 2013

O Llama, Where Art Thou.

            Well, things are finally getting back to normal here in Bordeaux.  You might be aware that last week 5 fêtards ivre (drunk party animals), as Le Parisien called them, made off with a llama from a travelling circus and took it for a ride on the tram. English language accounts passed on just the basic story, plus a few of the photos and videos. They generally maintained the French media's lighthearted attitude with only the CBC using the word "hooligans" and mentioning calls for punishment. So Canadians have little tolerance for drunken debauchery and boorish behavior, unless, of course, you're the mayor of Toronto. The past week here it's been all Serge, all the time and yesterday was the first day he was missing from the local newspaper, Sud-Ouest, website. He will, however, be making a personal appearance at Le Girondins soccer match on Sunday so Sergermania might not have abated.

Monday, November 4, 2013


            While writing the post about "Tricky Sam" a few weeks ago, I was looking something up in "Duke's Bones", Kurt Dietrich's book about Ellington's trombonists, and got sidetracked rereading the section on Lawrence Brown. That made for a further sidetrack to listen to some recordings that reminded me of what an amazing player Lawrence Brown was.  
            One of the first CD's I remember buying was a trombone compilation that I'm too lazy to go and find the title of right now. Anyway, one of my favorite cuts was Lawrence Brown's "Blues for Duke" from his album, "Slide Trombone", which was out of print at the time. I played whatever it is you can play instead of grooves off that CD. Sometime later, I read an article about Steve Turré in which he talked about the importance of some of the swing era masters like Lawrence Brown and Vic Dickenson. When I discovered the album "Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges" had the entire contents of "Inspired Abandon", Lawrence Brown's only other album as a leader, I picked up a copy and played the shit out of that one, too.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Collateral Damage

            On the way home from Îl de Ré we spent a couple of days in Bergerac. Our b&b was close to the tiny village of Monbazillac and we spent some time exploring the area. After a visit to a chateau and some wine tasting, we continued on Cynthia's mission to locate and photograph every interesting building, object, scene and vista in France. As we drove west from Monbazillac, along the D14E, which isn't much wider than a 2CV, I noticed what looked like a small grave maker just off the pavement. We stopped and Cynthia got a quick picture of what was indeed a stone marker that read, "Roger HURMIC 1908-1944 TUÉ le 5.3.1944 LORS DU BOMBARDEMENT de ROUMANIERE P.P.L". ("Roger Hurmic 1908-1944 killed March 5, 1944 during the bombardement of Roumaniere P.P.L." Roumanière is the airport at Bergerac I have no idea what the initials P.P.L stand for and if anyone reading this knows, I'd appreciate you leaving me a comment.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

So, as the sun sinks slowly in the West...


   We just got back from a couple of weeks on the road, which, in addition to inherent sloth, is why I haven't posted for a while. After spending a week on Îl de Réenroute getting my first speeding ticket, we came home long enough to entertain a friend from the States then spent a week in Alsace. The speed cameras are one of the most frustrating aspects of life here and something I'll take up in the future but, for now, let's just say I'm ready to help man the barricades.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tricky Sam

              Well, summer is over here and the local bands are starting to rehearse again. A new friend hooked me up with another big band, so now I'll have two groups to play in. What I like about the new band is the challenge of some of the charts (Mingus and Frank Zappa for a start) and some classic Ellington, Ko-Ko and Oclupaca.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

We're Number Somewhere Between 0 and 51

            When I started this blog, telling our family and friends about our move to France was mainly an excuse to get me into the habit of writing on a regular basis. I never really had a plan or goal and figured, like the rest of my life I'd just make it up as I went along.  After all, who was going to read it anyway? Most of the world is too busy reading and promoting their own blogs. But if you're one of the hundreds worldwide who haven't started blogging, Google's Blogger comes with a handy "stats" function that shows you how many "page views" you've had and can suck you into believing you could be the next (If I knew of anyone, here's where I would insert the name of a somebody who found wealth and fame by airing grievances on the internet).      

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Curtis Fuller

            Even at a jazz Mecca like Marciac, trombone players are seriously under represented at the CD tables. Even so, I found a Curtis Fuller album that wasn't in my collection (Blues-ette) and as I listened to it thought, "Damn, I've got to put Curtis on more often." I probably have more of his recordings than anyone except J.J., even Urbie Green, but I hadn't had them out in a while.
            Curtis Fuller is another one of the people I've been trying to hear in person for years. He must have played in New York during the time I worked there but I can't remember ever seeing an ad for him. Back then, Steve Turré was about the only guy you could hear with any degree of regularity, at least as far as I knew. If you wanted to hear trombones, you had to catch them playing with somebody else, as usual.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Phantom of the Apero

            A couple of days after posting about beer, we made a trip to one of our favorite supermarchés and I found myself standing in the spirits aisles contemplating the many hip and sophisticated ways a guy in France could get plastered, or buerré. I suppose most of this stuff is available in the States but an early brush with Southern Comfort coupled with a 21st birthday celebration gone awry made me steer clear of anything stronger than wine ever since. While living in San Diego I discovered my inner Casanova through tequila but my skills went mostly unappreciated so I sacrificed margaritas for the economy of beer.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

C'est Fischer Time!

            Some weeks ago I decided to spruce up this blog with a gadget highlighting subjects mentioned in old posts. Soon after, one of the 2 or 3 people who actually reads these screeds (and, big surprise, a trombone player) pointed out that posts including dog shit outnumbered those of beer by margin of 6 to 1. So, in addition to disabling the subject counter, I've decided to address that disparity with this post.  I should point out that, while enjoying a good lager, I am not one of these people who can tell you all about top and bottom fermentation (as opposed to all the way through, I guess), where the best hops come from or, in fact, discuss the subject from any perspective other than that of an enthusiastic, if limited, consumer. I'm aware of the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 only because it was printed on the labels of the Bitburger I used to buy and I wouldn't be caught dead drinking Budweiser. That fact alone qualifies me as more discriminating than most American hops heads.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fred Wesley

Photo by Ray Ellis

            Having missed him, not only at Marciac but also during his recent European tour, it might be appropriate to do a Trombone Hero post on Fred Wesley whose autobiography, "Hit Me, Fred!", I just finished. This could be the best, most honest book about a musician's life that I ever read.  Anyone who wants to know what that life is like and every musician who's ever supported a "star" at any level (and that's most of us) ought to read this book. Fred, who made his name and reputation by working for James Brown, then George Clinton and Bootsie Collins, tells his story with humor and candor.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Our 1st Annual Marciac Festival

                  If a person played the trombone, wrote about the trombone and had trombone in the title of his blog, that person would reasonably be expected, as part of his first trip to the jazz festival in Marciac, France, to attend a concert that featured trombonist Fred Wesley and the New JB Horns. So when this person reported that his attendance at said festival did not, in fact, include Fred and the JBs but instead aging rock star Joe Cocker, one could reasonably respond, "WTF?"

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Festival Swing*


              One of the best things about France is the huge number of jazz festivals. Although most of the biggest happen in summer, there's something going on here all year long. provides links to festivals in Europe and in France alone, I counted 183. By contrast, the most extensive list I was able to find for the U. S. counts 57.  And what's cool is that a lot of them are free and provide a showcase for local musicians, something else that's hard to find in the States. So if you're one of those people who spent years struggling to learn their scales and modes, listening to the masters, transcribing solos and can play through "rhythm changes" in all 12 keys only to live with the knowledge that some douchebag with a Stratocaster he bought at a pawn shop, who can't read music, knows 4 chords, maybe a couple of pentatonic scales and hacks his way through some blues and the Lynyrd Skynyrd liturgy yet scores more gigs and chicks - you should have been born over here. So far this summer we've been to two concerts of the Bordeaux area Jazz and Wine organization and heard American jazz royalty against the backdrop of a vineyard and free wine. Unfortunately you have to drive to these places, putting something of a damper on the bottomless wine glass idea.
             *hip reference to obscure Django Reinhardt tune

Friday, July 19, 2013

Jimmy Knepper

Cover photo of Cunningbird
While practicing the other day I got a look at myself in the mirror and thought, "Jesus, I'm starting to look like Jimmy Knepper."  The cover photo of Cunningbird, the only CD of his I have, could easily be me, if the hair was grayer. And he's dressed as I would if left to my own devices. Now, if I could just play like him.           
            Jimmy Knepper is another trombone player who ought to be a household name. I learned about him only after moving to New York and, sometime in 1989, playing hooky from work by going to a concert at nearby Pace University. The performance, dedicated to the great Ellington trombones, was led by Art Baron and included people like Craig Harris and Doug Purviance. As I remember it, a guy named Jimmy Knepper was supposed to have played as well but some sort of health problem prevented it. So when I ran across Cunningbird (an import from Denmark), probably in J&R Music or Tower Records on Broadway (where I spent a considerable amount of time and money) I remembered the name and bought it.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Beyond Le Mer

The 4th of July at Chez Hinson/Gunia
For the past week or so, the temperatures here have been in the high 80's and low 90's (high 20's, low 30's if you're reading in Celsius) and the last thing I've felt like doing is putting an old MacBook on my lap. But we've been here 10 months so now might be a good time for a summary and progress report.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Confessions Of A Jerry Lewis Fan

            The Cannes film festival was a couple of weeks ago and I was not invited for the 6oth consecutive year. They did, however, give Jerry Lewis some kind of award and an article in the New York Times had the obligatory quote from a French critic, miffed at America's failure to recognize his genius. France's love for Jerry Lewis is another stereotype for which I've yet to see much evidence. Months ago I saw a poster for Docteur Jerry et Mister Love ("The Nutty Professor") but this was in a movie memorabilia shop in Bordeaux so I'm not sure that counts. I've asked a couple of people here but their answers always fall a bit short of unbridled enthusiasm.  In fact, they usually give you a look that says, "Why would you ask me this?"

Monday, June 24, 2013

Fête de la Musique

            Every June 21st the Fête de la Musique, the Music Festival, goes on all over France. It's an anything goes, amateur/professional celebration of music where anyone who can play an instrument is encouraged to play in the streets and everyone else is invited to the party.  This all got started in 1982 after one of François Mitterrand's Ministers (the political not the religious kind) came up with the idea. Maurice Fleuret was a composer, music critic and in 1981 Director of Music and Dance in the Ministry of Culture (Do we have anything like that?). He read in a government report that around 5 million people in France had been taught to play a musical instrument and, being also a music festival organizer, thought a day of free music would be cool.  It's now one of the biggest events of the French summer and you can read all about it here in clumsy but at least not Google Translate English.

Friday, June 14, 2013

How I Got Jack Teagarden's Autograph

My father, George Gunia, is on the left. Damned if I know the others.
       My father's 96th birthday was the other day so I guess it's fitting to post this today. He died in 1998 and about a year later my mother moved permanently into assisted living. After my sisters and I realized Mum was never going to be able to live in the house again, we made plans to sell and it fell to me to start cleaning it out. One of the many benefits of working for Uncle Sam is the Employee Assistance Program and through this, I was temporarily reassigned from New York to Pittsburgh, near my hometown.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

But I Did Not Shot No Deputies

             Doing a blog, I'm discovering, might be a bigger project than I originally considered and, lately, motivation's been a problem. It's not that it's particularly difficult and time consuming or that I have to knock myself out to post anything. But considering I've kept this up for nearly a year it's, become a habit that's extended far beyond my usual span of attention. Still, I haven't felt much like writing because I didn't think I had much of anything worthwhile to say and the number of blogs about ex-pats in France must number in the thousands. But this was, after all, only supposed to tell family and friends about our experiences across the ocean, maybe it's time to remember its not literature. So with that in mind, here's a couple of things that happened recently.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Phil Wilson

            In the category of Famous Trombone Players I've Had On Speed Dial, there's only one member. My gig with the ITA, writing about the folks to whom they've given awards, sometimes means that I get to spend time talking to some of the world's best musicians. This can be a bit intimidating for me, especially in the case of someone like Phil Wilson.
            When I write these Journal pieces, I usually start by sending emails and sometimes the subjects will send me their numbers and suggest a phone call. On the day I called Phil, for some reason he asked to call back and when he did, my phone captured the caller ID. We talked for over an our and he turned out to be such a nice guy that what I had planned as kind of interview ended up being a really loose bull session.  Most trombone players, even great ones are really just regular, unpretentious kinds of people.  Fortunately, I had a recorder going so got all I needed for the article and after it was all over, I saved Phil's number to my phone. Anytime another musician came to the house I'd casually say something like, "Hey, know anyone with Phil Wilson on speed dial?" Unfortunately, that phone didn't make the trip over here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I ♣ Guignol

           We just finished two weeks of home exchanges in Dijon and Nîmes. Both places were interesting and fun but we were eager to get back "home" so I think Bordeaux's beginning to get comfortable.
            Having never been to Dijon, all I knew was it's in Burgundy and back in the States its name is on mustard. As it turns out, there really was a guy named Poupon and Dijon really is known for mustard. In fact there's a store there, Maille, that's has it on tap and you can take your own container to be filled with one of three different moutardes du jour. We felt right at home, though, since one of the wettest, coldest and longest winters in Bordeaux history followed us right up north.    

Sunday, April 21, 2013

J.J. Johnson

            No less an authority than Robin Eubanks thinks modern trombonists owe J.J. Johnson a share of every dollar they've ever made.  J.J. was the guy who proved that the trombone's inherent limitations could be overcome and adapted to the language and tempos of post-swing era jazz.  He made it possible for everyone after him to actually earn a living with this thing.
            J.J. didn't just play fast. For me, he's always been an unreachable goal of apparent effortlessness and perfect intonation at any speed. From a just playing the trombone standpoint, the thing about J.J. is that it all sounds so deceptively easy. In a nutshell, he's had a bigger influence on the way his instrument is played than any other musician on any other instrument.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Quoi de neuf, docteur?

           For the last couple of months I've been spending Monday and Wednesday evenings at the Département d'Etudes de Français Langue Etrangère, (French for Foreigners) at the University of Bordeaux 3 in Pessac.  This past Wednesday was the final exam and the instructors hosted an after-final picque-nîcque (actual spelling) for everyone who made it to the end. So there I was, sharing wine with young (hell they were all young) Lan, a Vietnamese woman, Nigerian Efe, Brazilian Manuela, Turkish Melis, Sudanese Walid and Tibetan Karman - four women and two men, all around a third of my age, from all parts of the globe. The implications of this unlikely scene were not lost on me. I'm not sure how to explain how it felt, maybe it was the wine, but if you are trying to stop getting old, I can recommend studying music in your mid-50's then, at around 60, moving to a country where you have to learn the language.  You'll still get old but at least you're not giving up without a struggle.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Urbie Green

 Sometime during high school I picked up a copy of 21 Trombones, 2 LP's of Urbie Green and 20 "of the world's greatest trombone players."  I played it when I needed inspiration to practice, which was almost always, and wore the grooves out of it. When cassette players came along, I got a new copy and played it once to put it on tape and then again a couple of years ago to digitize it. As far as I know, only half of this album has ever been released on CD and that's a crime. This album, more than any other, showed me what the trombone was capable of and to this day, Urbie Green's is what I think a trombone is supposed to sound like. And some lucky descendant is going to inherit 21 Trombones.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Shot Putter

Typical Nile Cruise Boat

            While trying to decide the subject for a post, I happened to look through some things I had written eight years ago, after a long trip to Italy and Egypt. At the time I'm sure I had some specific goal in mind but eventually decided the market for caustic travel writing was probably somewhat limited. This stuff has been gathering cyber-dust ever since and rather than just delete it, I've decided to periodically inflict some of it on you.            
             I considered the monumental changes in Egypt since 2005 and wondered if I couldn't draw on some of our experiences to pose some thoughtful, timely questions about what life might now be like for some of the Egyptians we met. But nothing I wrote at the time really lends itself to that so instead, I'm going to go off on a few of the bizarre tourists we ran into.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


            They called Al Grey Fab because that's what he was, fabulous. One of my prize possessions is a vinyl copy of an album he recorded with J.J. Johnson, Thing Are Getting Better All The Time.  I've had it since the mid-1980's and it was an introduction to one of the all time greats.  At the time, my horn had been gathering dust since high school and my knowledge of trombonists was limited. When CD's came out, a couple of the first I got were Count Basie's with Al Grey solos. From then on, if I were granted the wish of being able to play like just one guy, it might be him.
            The first time I ever heard Al live was at the old One Step Down, in Washington, D.C.  Sometime in the '90's, I was visiting a friend in Alexandria and, by chance, saw an ad in the Washington Post for Al's performance that night. I told Cindy (that's our friend Cindy, not my wife Cynthia) that this was one of my musical heroes and we absolutely had to go hear him. Off we went to Foggy Bottom and when we got to the club, the only seats left were at the small bar. As we sat down and ordered drinks, I glanced at the smallish guy to my right and realized this was the man himself. All of a sudden I was like a giddy little kid and nudged Cindy, "That's him, that's Al Grey."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

We built them good in Bordeaux, eh Heinie

     This week I decided it was about time to get back to Bordeaux. After all, I started writing this blog as an account of our move to France for family and friends. If anyone else tripped over it, fine, but from the beginning I've known that blogs about expats living here are approximately equal to the number of  annual worldwide airplays of "Hotel California." Hence the name of this thing and the departures into music and bitching. Still, we are in France.
     A few weeks ago, in one of her opening posts, Cynthia gave you the story and all the architectural details of what's known here as the base sous-marine - the U-boat garage the Germans built during World War II. They left a lot of this kind of shit laying around France after they bugged out in 1944. In fact, there's four more leftover U-boat bunkers up the coast in La Rochelle, St. Nazaire, Lorient and Brest. Das Boot was based in La Rochelle.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Buster Cooper

            There's one man who falls under a heading of famous trombone players who know me if I remind them how.  One of the first pieces I had published was an article in the April 2008 ITA Journal.  Some day everyone at the home will be hearing about the day I spent talking to Buster Cooper about Duke Ellington.
            Buster Cooper spent ten years with Duke Ellington and for that reason alone qualifies as American musical royalty. The first time we met was during a Florida vacation. Cyn and I went to hear him at the Garden (downtown St. Pete where he still plays every Friday night) after reading an article about him in the St. Petersburg Times. I had known about Buster from reading Kurt Dietrich's Duke's Bones, about the great Ellington trombone sections, and had his only album but didn't know he lived in St. Pete. When we got the chance to say hello, it was like he'd known us all his life.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How To Get Rid Of Your Butler, Really

      One of my posts on Barcelona described an encounter with local folk instruments called  grallas and this reminded me of something I wanted to go on about. A few posts ago (Trombone 101), I appended things with a video in which Jeeves the Butler puts in his papers over Bertie Wooster's playing of the trombone. In the original Wodehouse story, Thank You, Jeeves, the offending instrument is a banjolele and why the screenwriter thought a trombone would be better, who knows?  Irrational prejudice is something trombone players have been dealing with since before Arthur Pryor's time and it's why we don't look down on accordions.     

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Tom Brantley

            In between ravings I've decided to do posts on my favorite trombone players, My Trombone Heroes, as it were. Like everything else, I'll probably decide who and what as I go along but I wanted to start with the theme of trombonists-I-dig-who-have-paid-my-bar-tab.
            The first, actually the only one, is Tom Brantley, the trombone professor at the University of South Florida. I got to know Tom after I retired from the FBI and decided to go back to college to study music.  He was the first teacher I ever had who was born the year I left high school and probably deserves some kind of medal for sitting through my lessons for 2 1/2 years. Plus, he's just plain good people.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bleepless In Barcelona

            Okay, now that the bitching about street thieves has been taken care of, I can tell you some good things about Barcelona. First of all, if you want to make a city look even better, put it on a large body of water like the Gulf of Mexico or Mediterranean Sea. This strategy isn't foolproof, as any normal person who's ever been to Holly Beach, Louisiana, can tell you. On the other hand, if it weren't for the Atlantic Ocean, almost every place on the Jersey Shore would be just another town full of Garden State shitheads.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I Left My Phone In Barcelona

           When you've worked for the FBI, you come to accept that people sometimes expect you to possess powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Sometimes I expected it myself, at least in hindsight. But among friends I've heard, more than once, "I still can't believe you were an FBI Agent." Well, that makes two of us.
            Part of the problem stems from being, at my core, naturally trusting of others while doubting my own skills. The trusting part might come as a shock to some that know me but it's true and probably genetic. My father, who prided himself on his business sense, was nonetheless the most easily cheated person I've ever known. Most of the cars he ever bought, mainly from people he knew, were astonishing lemons yet I never heard him express hostility toward any of the sellers. It never even occurred to him that he might have been had. My mother was even more naive. I think they both had the attitude that everybody thought and acted as they did. They wouldn't think of taking advantage of anyone, least of all someone they knew, and neither would anyone else. I've learned otherwise, the hard way, but it hasn't caused the complete suppression of my natural inclinations and there have been occasional lapses of vigilance. I mention all this as a means of defending myself, in my own mind at least, for being robbed by a couple of goddamned street thieves in Barcelona.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Trombone 102, Are You Man Enough?

Melba Liston

            My last post was about the trombone studio recital at the Conservatoire in Bordeaux and some of the difficulties these young kids were going to face in wrestling with their new horn. The group included a number of girls and this post is for them.
            Not surprisingly, the trombone was not the first choice for most people who end up playing it. I'm not sure I even knew what it was when one was handed to me in fourth grade. And my bet is that even in France, kids showing up for band without an instrument are steered to a trombone. But for a boy it is at least not a girly horn. How they get little girls to play it is beyond me.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Trombone 101

            Last Saturday night, thanks to Alan, a Welsh ex-pat and my new trombone brother, I went to the trombone studio recital at the Conservatory here in Bordeaux. Considering the name of this blog and the picture hereon featuring me holding one I figured it was about time I wrote something about playing the trombone and this recital reminded me of a few things.
            The first was that I have no idea how to take a decent picture with an iphone or if it's even possible. The inspiration for this post occurred to me early in the recital so I thought it might be nice to have a picture or two to illustrate my points. The one you see here is the absolute best of the lot so I'm adding cell phone photography to the list of things at which I'm incompetent.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Driving Mademoiselle Cynthia

© 2013 Cynthia Hinson
            As you might recall, the last post ended with a thought about the type of car we might eventually buy.

             The last cars we had in the States were a Lincoln LS and a Fiat 500. We bought the Fiat thinking that it might be easier and cheaper to take a car with us, an idea that turned out to be one of the most stupid I ever had. And to get the 500, I had to give up my Mazdaspeed6 (MPS in Europe), which Cynthia was not sorry to see go. Even under the best conditions, I'm not a patient driver with the added curse of a lead foot. The Mazda was only the second car I owned that I really wanted (The first was the '65 GTO I bought a frightening 42 years ago at the age of 18) and I drove it like the name suggested I should. At 18 this is expected of you but at nearly 60 it borders on pathetic and stupid, even if it's still damn fun. This will not be an issue here, especially since most of what is sensibly priced runs on diesel.
            Unlike the Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and other European makes in the U.S., the average car driven in Europe is an underpowered slug, probably because the price of fuel has always been so high. Remember when we saw Monty Python or Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS, thought all British TV was like that and lamented that we couldn't get it here? The reality was that what we got was the best they had and almost everything else was mediocre to down right awful crap. So it is with European cars and it's hard to decide what to buy.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Get Your Kicks On The...

Autoroute designation sign

            If you're an American who wants to live overseas, oh, wait, before I forget, I'm marking today, the 30th of January, 2013, as the day I saw someone actually pick up after their dog. Had I been able to competently express myself, I might have said, "Madame, I am moved by your civic pride, public spirit and sense of self-sacrifice! You, and you alone, have disregarded the indifference and selfishness of your peers by putting your community and country first. You are a hero of France and I salute you!" Or, "It's about fuckin' time."
            So, where was I? Oh, right, living overseas. Anyway, if you're determined to leave North America behind, as I see it you have two options - either live where they speak the same language or where they drive on the same side of the road. If you pick the latter it leaves you one less thing to worry about as you're trying to figure out what the hell the road signs says.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bordeaux 15144

            For the eight years that Cynthia and I lived in Florida, we spent a lot of time looking around public places and saying, "We're the youngest people here." For the past 4 months we've been looking around and saying, "We're the oldest people here."  This is definitely better but I'm still not too shot in the ass with being 60 so it's good to be living in a place that reminds me of the United States I grew up in.
            Like Springdale, where I was raised, Bordeaux sits on a major river, the Garonne. It is, however, missing the array of smokestacks that bracketed both ends of town. But Springdale is missing the ruins of a third century Roman amphitheater like the one just down the street from our apartment. In fact, this city like the rest of France, has places that went up centuries before the sprouting of the trees used to built the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria. There is evidence that people lived here in the sixth century B.C. and they settled permanently a few hundred years later. The Romans came along at the time of Julius Caesar and the oldest building in town is their aforementioned amphitheater. In fact there's so much significant stuff here that Bordeaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site, an honor not likely to ever be bestowed on my hometown. But as beautiful as it is here, none of that is what takes me back.
             Four months isn't enough time to start drawing any hard and fast conclusions about the natives and their attitudes. I have noticed, and already mentioned, that they don't seem to mind stepping in dog shit every five yards. And our French friends claim that "The customer is always right" hasn't really caught on here in a big way but we haven't seen much of the stereotypes we were given to expect. But is does seem to me that, apart from the architecture, there's a continuity to life here that I think is missing in the U.S.
            When I was a kid, my hometown must have had a dozen little grocery and variety stores and they are all long gone. The bakery, butchers, shoemakers and hardware stores (two) are, likewise, memories.  Even Shoop's, the tavern and the town meeting spot that had been there as long as my mother could remember, closed up a few years ago and downtown Pittsburgh is almost unrecognizable as the place where I went to work in 1972
             Walking around Bordeaux, I can still find these sorts of places. Within spitting distance of our apartment are two different cordnonniers that look like they've been there since de Gaulle was a corporal. Every time I walk past it feels like Johnny Basilone ought to be inside. Johnny, Springdale's shoemaker, was a little guy with black curly hair who didn't say much and always had a lit Pall Mall in his lips that was generally about 2 1/2 inches of ash. I was at least 20 before I ever saw him take a drag or heard him talk. If one of these places does happen to be run by the same kind of guy smoking a Gaullois, at least I won't have to worry about talking to him.
            The Wal-Martization of America seems to have made it certain that the Steve Mikus, Lou Mazolli and Pete Cincilla kinds of store are gone for good. But those places still exist here in spite of and side-by-side with mega-stores like the Auchan at Mériadeck. This French chain’s local branch takes up 3 floors and sells everything from bulk walnuts to washing machines. (I admit, though, that I love it, especially on what we've been calling Alsatian day, when they set up a big wok-like tub and cook choucroute garnie, sauerkraut with sausage, ham, potatoes and anything else they can think of, and it’s only €13 a kilo. I like to stand right beside it for a while and just breathe deeply)
But everywhere there are little épiceries, charcuteries/boucheries, patisseries, boulangeries and variety stores that I’m too lazy to look up the French word for. Sometimes there’s more than one of the same type on a block. How they stay in business, I don’t know but a few of these shops have on the wall a little photograph of the place from about a hundred years ago as the same type of business. (These pictures almost always contain at least one woman that looks like my Aunt Min, a sturdy farmer’s wife.) A hardware store near us has been in business since 1831, although it has been forced to move a couple of times.
There's a possibility that I’m over-idealizing all of this. I did, after all just have a birthday and there’s something about having that 6 on the front of it. Like all those things from my hometown, my youth is gone for good so maybe I’m just fighting against the day when I have to admit to being old. But I can tell you that being in a pâtisserie in France is just like being in the Springdale bakery when I was 9 years old.  And I still can't have one of everything.
It's also occurred to me that a big part of my motivation to come here in the first place was the fear of aging. Some guys buy Harley's, some dump their wife to chase women half their age. I brought my wife to France and so spent more than one, less than the other and more wisely than both.  

Ruins of Palais Gallien

Photos ©2013 Cynthia Hinson


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

In Sourzac

            The day after Christmas, 2012, marked the 60th anniversary of the birth of a poor white child in the hospital at Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, so Cynthia and I planned to celebrate by renting a car and driving into the country. A few years ago we had visited Sarlat, a village in the Périgord, known to people like my wife as one of the best preserved medieval towns in France, and to people like me as the place that served one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.
            To get to Sarlat from Bordeaux you take the A89 east toward Perigueux, follow it for about 20 miles, realize how boring it is and how much the tolls are going to cost, then get off and find a more picturesque route.  Fortunately, in this part of France just about any two-lane road will do. For us it was the D6089 which parallels the Isle River and the D47 from Perigueux, much of which reminds me of U.S. 30 between Ligonier and Gettysburg in western Pennsylvania. The scenery is the same kind of rolling farm land but missing the barns with the faded "Chew Mail Pouch" signs and the "See Indian Caverns" billboards. I swear that more than once as we rounded a curve I expected to see Storybook Forest.
            Not missing, however, was the inevitable line of cars trailing a pensioner- piloted RV and the experience here is exactly the same as on Route 30. There is virtually nowhere to safely pass and when an opening finally comes, the opposite lane, which for the last ten miles has been nearly deserted, okay, right, you know what I'm talking about.  Here the problem's compounded by the Citroën C1 you're driving being able to accelerate to the requisite passing speed only if it's driven off a cliff. And the European Manual of Conduct for Men over 65 apparently prescribes the same headgear for operators of slow moving vehicles as the American version, because the vieux chevres here, like the old goats at home, are always wearing the same hat. Again, you probably know what I mean.  My sister used to say they looked like toilet seat covers.
            So when your chance comes, you whip and flog the little C1 to within a red centimeter of throwing a rod until, finally, you make it past M. & Mme. Hulot. This will all turn out to have been futile when within the next kilometer will emerge a scene that your wife absolutely has to capture in pictures. In this case it was something you definitely won't find along Route 30 - a tiny village built into the hillside and, according to the roadside sign, the site of continuous human habitation for 24,000 years. (I guess if you believe the earth is 6,000 [or is it 9,000?] years old, this could be metric years.)
            In Sourzac, a little town on the Isle River, we found something else you won't see in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else in the U.S.  Next to the little riverside park where we stopped to eat lunch was the town war memorial. Every city, town and village in France has one of these and I always feel compelled to have a look. The inscriptions are often touching  and usually include the names of the enfants who never came home. Even in small towns the numbers from 1914-18 are astonishing. But here, along with the names of dead soldiers was also inscribed "FUSILLES PAR LES ALLEMANDS LE 11 JUIN 1944" (Shot by the Germans, June 11, 1944). Below this were the names and ages of 18 men, the oldest being 47 and the youngest 16. Across the street was an old, rusty street sign reading, "Avenue du 11 Juin 1944."  
            If you're French, you don't need an explanation. Over 350,000 French civilians were killed in World War II,  230,000 of these between 1940 and 1944 in reprisals by the Germans. But I wanted to know what happened here and found the story on the internet. On the night of June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day, Resistance members attacked a German troop train in the neighboring town of Mussidan. The SS troops involved easily fought off the guerillas, killing nine of them in the process. The next day, in retaliation, every man the Germans could find, 350 in all, were herded into the town square. Those over 60 or disabled were eventually let go. The remaining 52, including the 18 from Sourzac, were shot.
            As an American I have a hard time trying to imagine this since nothing in our history compares. What was it like to have your country invaded, your army beaten and then to suffer the humiliation and indignity of over 4 years of occupation? What was it like to live day in and day out knowing that the armed strangers might someday decide you were the one to shoot. And what effect does an experience like that have on a country and its people?
            Then I  thought about what's gone on in the United States since 9/11.  As bad as it was, we were never seriously threatened with anything remotely close to what Europeans suffered and yet life in the U.S. has been fundamentally altered. Americans now seem to live in a state of almost constant fear, so exercising a constitutional right isn't the only reason there's a firearm for almost every single person.  The current state of discourse in America has the country being split almost 50-50 and intransigence is the order of the day. Conservatives don't just disagree with liberals, they hate them. Mass killings have become so commonplace that most don't even make the front page.  Not even 20 children being rounded up and shot can make the National Rifle Association consider that arming everybody might not be such a hot idea.  And, in anticipation of the next time, more people buy guns. 
            Americans don't need the Germans. We've got each other.