I bumped into this email I sent in 2010 when I was last in my now-gone apartment in Hyéres, France and made a trip to Italy.
My toilet is the shower or else my shower’s in the toilet. I’m not sure which. It is very messy. One needs to put one’s towels somewhere where they can’t get wet or one will be drying off with wet towels, I’ve discovered. And what’s with these towels in Italy? They are like table clothes. And so is my blanket. Do you think this is something I can blame on the pope?
I drove to Italy yesterday from my apartment in France, the 2 hours in France was a leisurely trip along the Mediterranean and then the second you get into Italy everyone is driving 180 miles an hour and zooming around you like hornets. I was driving a mind-numbingly fast (to me) 150 Km and I had Smartcars, which are literally just half of a real car with teeny wheels, buzzing around me like I was standing still. Four hours of death-grip-on-my-steering-wheel later I arrived in Lucca and painfully slowly progressed through what would seem to be completely impassible alleys in a warren of tiny passages to get to my hotel. The good news is that the Italians are not like the French. They are all perfectly friendly, broken Italian? No problem we can talk half French, half English, half Yiddish . . . we’ll get through it!! Sooooooo not French.
So far the best thing is I’ve seen is the uncorrupted remains of St Zita. Except that they look pretty corrupted to me. I mean, if she were walking around like that people would be REALLY concerned. She’s a saint because she’s a virgin is all I could find out. This leaves pretty much everyone I know out of the running, in this category anyway. And why, do you suppose, are there no men who are just saints because they are virgins?
So my last batch was good but they were more like brat buns than the soft pillowishness I was looking for so I decided to try brioche dough. Brioche is the soft yellowish bread that is typically a breakfast bread in France. It’s slightly sweet which isn’t usually what I like but I think it works with hamburgers. Sorta like that Hawaiian bread. If you’re thinking I could just buy them, you’re right but then I’d spare myself this insanity.
These were good but also not exactly what I was looking for. And so now it’ll be some damn thing I keep doing until I find just exactly what I want. Unless I don’t and then…shoot me.
I needed toothpaste so I made a quick trip to France. It’s a long story and I won’t bore you with it but I use this certain kind of French toothpaste and I am running out. It’s a testament to how many times I have been to France that I have used this toothpaste exclusively since 1988.
Anyway, Strasbourg is just an hour plus from Frankfurt on the fast train and Ashish was working so I, you know, popped over. Strasbourg is beautiful. I mean seriously beautiful and I had it all mapped out. Visit this and that, get the toothpaste, have lunch and get back. Things didn’t pan out exactly and I ended up at a brasserie or bistrot or some damn thing near the train station which is never an ideal spot for food. I always think food near a train staion is just stuff getting foisted off on tourists fresh and hungry off the train. But well, It’s France. How bad can it be?
So I sit down and they bring me a beer but then I waited and waited, timidly putting my hand up as the servers buzzed by serving everyone and their crying infant children (god almighty) and I had yet to place an order. The guy in front of me had 2 bright green drinks and his lunch and I was sitting there unnoticed with an empty beer glass. Finally when there were 3 or 4 servers in front of me at the check out I said loudly, “Excusez moi?” And they all turned to me and I said, “Est-ce que quelqu’un peut m’aider?” Can someone help me? And the one guy server looked at me like I was nuts, and said scornfully, “Avec quoi?” With what? Well, I told him, I’d like to order lunch—Ben, je voudrais commander le déjeuner. And the green drink guy barked out a gaffaw. This may have been his reaction to my accent, I hope not but who knows. The waiter came over and grudingly took my order.
A pâté sandwich and french fries. It was divine. It is, after all, France. Rudeness and all.
I have no idea what compelled us to go into this place. It was Italian. We’re in Paris. That’s France. Nineteen euros later I got this miserable plate of bolognese. I mean out of a can might have been worse, but not by much. First meal in France. Not so much.
The next night, no reservations, no room at the inns, three of them. Finally got seated outside at some crappy place only to have every person around us light cigarettes. We left. We did eat, but it was nothing to write a blog about.
There is a kind of comfort being a in country where you can communicate (sorta). So it was with some sadness we left France for the low countries with their gutteral bewrokitijies kruutifructisch. But at least in Belgium the food is good, the people are nice and speak English when pressed. And it was good to get away from the rat hole we were staying in. Good location, treacherous shower, oily headboard and lumpy bed. Ashish’s apartment affords a kind of luxury the hotel room did not, like the ability to move freely rather than shuffle laterally in the 3 inches of space between the walls, windows and beds.
We planned to break up the drive with a stop in Cateau, the birthplace of Matisse, to have a look at the museum he endowed for the city and to drive on the back roads rather than the highway (do not attempt this without the guidance of the GPS lady). It is really quite lovely and pastoral. In the middle of some lovely small village we passed a woman on a bike running a horse on a tether with a brown sheep chasing them. I’m not sure the scene was pastoral but it was really funny.
I wouldn’t send anyone to the Matisse museum. Unless it was to look for that sheep. But we did stop at L’Abbaye de la Musee or some such place to have lunch. I had a salad that turned out to be mostly charcuterie and Ashish had flammekueche (or however you spell that) and that turned out to be a tortilla with cheddar cheese and an egg. Not that it was without its charms.
The very north of France is quite industrial and the drive from then on was less pastoral than stop-and-go truck following. But that turned out to be a trip to the park, or maybe the zoo, compared to our triumphant return to Ghent. The Belgian law requiring cars to stop for pedestrians has considerably less charm when you are driving. It’s great when you’re walking but behind the wheel of a Ford (?!) negotiating a thousand year old central city with Saturday afternoon traffic that includes, scooters, buses, ginormous tour buses, trams and pedestrians lurching into the street willy nilly, not so much. If you live here and are used to stopping for every feeble-minded goofball that decides to cross the street to get to the hoodlewinkeltijites it is probably fine but I live in a land where the car stops for no man. Though I’d stop for that brown sheep.
After the mille feuille caramel breakfast we left Grenoble for Strasbourg. Our navigation system took us from Grenoble, through Switzerland and Germany before we arrived back in France. Later, on our way to Belgium we’d also zip through Luxembourg one of the world’s richest countries. Who knew?
As Switzerland is not part of the European Union (because they would have to be more transparent about the money they hold for various murderous dictators, drug lords and evil crime syndicate kingpins) there is a border crossing and it was heavily guarded. As we sat in the line of cars to get through the frontière douanière and into the country I became a little worried. I could see these guys were no nonsense. These were not the Swiss Guards who stand officiously around the pope in those sissified leotard get-ups with feathered hats and useless, Wizard-of-Oz hatchet weapons. These guys looked like CIA operatives. Scowling, middle linebackers with real live weapons and real freakin’ uniforms. And when I got shooed out of the line and into a sectioned off area I nearly passed out. I was preparing to hand Ashish over and admit his guilt for whatever offense we were being accused of or, maybe, run screaming from the car while they gunned me down. But as it happened, they only wanted us to pay for a sticker to put on our windshield so we could drive on their freeway system. For the record, the French do not need military personnel for this. They have a little machine into which you put a credit card and it gives you the ticket without the rifle in the throat. Just sayin.’
So off we went singing Eidelweiss into the charming, if industrial, Swiss countryside. Yes, there was quite a lot of mustard in bloom on the route, but there was also a lot of industry along side the freeway and so when lunchtime rolled around I thought we’d get off it and take a peek at a more charming side of Switzerland. We exited at Bissengiünneringein (At this point, Jane our GPS navigatrix, became very disturbed, repeatedly demanding that we make a U-turn and issuing all sorts of imperative directives. Eventually she petulantly stopped speaking in a fit of passive-aggressive behavior) and we then drove through Thrussorischienneringer, passing Grürreingluschtereschiess. Finally settling on a quaintish local restaurant in a reasonably cute (and definitely clean) little town whose name escapes me but rhymed with Schlossingersheissenhoft, we went in for lunch.
One of the many reasons I like being in France is that I can understand what they are saying (even if they can’t understand me very well) so when the waiter greeted us with a series of guttural noises and apparent throat clearings I knew language might be a different kind of border that would need to be crossed. Fortunately the limited menu was easy enough to comprehend. Schpaghetten appeared to be spaghetti and salat, well, obviously salad. On the other hand one never knows. It could have been red meat salad but we were willing to take the risk, besides it couldn’t have been worse than the “Caribbean style” boudin I’d had in Hyéres which is blood, just plain blood in a tube. There were only 2 things on the menu anyway. I thought. There may have been other stuff since other people were being served things other than pasta and fish. But we ordered salad and pasta.
First though, little tomato soldiers, an apparent nod to our recent run in with the Swiss SSwaffen were very proudly presented as an appetizer. They were nice enough in an oddly cute, straight forward sort of way. I was more fascinated with the 2 condiments in the basket on the table. Both of which were bouillon. One, dry and shakable, and the other in a liquid, pourable format. Neither of which were something I could feature using regularly.
Our salads, thankfully, were really good. Chopped fresh herbs in buttermilk dressing and it gave us hope for our main courses. But our hopes were dashed when they arrived. It was just spaghetti and not anywhere near as good as my mothers’. Oh well.
When we got in the car Jane was still not speaking to us as we tried to make our way back to the freeway, the use for which we had very nearly paid with our lives. Finally after some aimless wandering she must have become overwhelmed with our stupidity and couldn’t help herself or else we’d been forgiven. She began abruptly barking orders at us and we were able to find the autoroute that headed north where, after much additional touring of Swiss industry, we exited the country and entered Germany without so much as an auf wiedersehen.
Tuesday was the day I was to meet my sister Ann’s friend Annabelle in Lille, France. It is a short train ride, maybe 45 minutes. (If Gent isn’t perfect enough, it is just 45 minutes to the gloriousness of France!) I had planned on leaving on the 1:30 train, walk around the city for a few hours, meet Ashish at 6 when he would arrive after work, and then we would meet Annabelle at 7 at Le Petit Barbu a restaurant she had suggested on the edge of the old part of town. And then we would catch the last train back. Right.
But in the morning I had to take the tram and then a bus to IKEA to return a window shade I had bought for Ashish that was the wrong size (I am an idiot). So I arrive at IKEA bright and early thinking it opened at 9. But it didn’t open until 10. Froze my ass off. Returned the shade, stopped for coffee in the ultra groovy cafeteria there. Went to check out with the new shade and it turned out I didn’t have my credit cards. Hm. Left them at home? Dropped them in the store? Pick pocketed? I had enough money in my pocket to pay for the larger shade so that was no problem but rather than go to lost and found right away (I am an idiot) I decided to get back to the apt (have I mentioned 5 flights of stairs?) and find the damn thing — the “tram/bus” thing to and from IKEA is not something I am really familiar/comfortable with and it requires a hefty walk through a construction site in the middle of the route — I get back to the apartment and no wallet. I call Ashish who calls IKEA (really nice nice people, not like France) and they have it.
So fine, back to goddamn IKEA on the tram/bus. It’s getting late but I think I can make the 1:30 train to Lille. Yeah, the tram is behind a garbage truck. You cannot imagine what a hoopla garbage is. People have to argue with the g-men to get their crap picked up. And they do. And I’m on the tram to IKEA and I’m gonna be late because there’s a lady arguing about a box they won’t pick up. Eventually they do. The tram ride continues to its stop. I sprint through the construction site, catch the bus that actually goes to IKEA and get to customer service only to be in a line with people needing to discuss every single nut and bolt on the blésterfløçt aan keuken they are having difficulty with. Watching people compare nut sizes is really fun.
So I get my wallet, thank you very much, bolt for the bus/construction site/train station. I had to get a ticket for the rain to Lille. Again, line, people talking about God knows what, Dutch is incomprehensible, possibly nuts and bolts. Made my train with minutes to spare. Had to change in Kortrijk. Anxiety provoking. I was seriously sweating.
I made it to Lille but I had not had the time given the mess I’d made of my morning to recharge my iPhone. Do you realize how helpless I am without an iPhone??? So I had about 20% of a charge. This is a crucial issue since I would have to find Ashish and then Annabelle who I don’t really know that well and we’ve already had some difficulties with email.
Lille is a lovely city. People speak French so I can actually communicate which is nice. I look at the old city, visit a few churches, resist the urge to use my phone, my sister Ann calls chewing up precious battery time. Anxiety gnaws at my feet. Ashish shows up, his phone is dying too, fer chrissake, he’s a molecular frazzmologist at least I can blame my problems on my tenuous relationship with technology.
So we walk to the absolutely adorable Petit Barbu and meet Annabelle (also absolutely adorable). We had a lovely meal, which I won’t describe since this is too long anyway. But three bottles of wine and one kir royale (guess who drank that) later we were on our way to catch that last train. Annabelle drove us (like something out of James Bond) and we just made it. Really, catching trains and trams and busses could kill you.
Finally, I was happily on the train heading back to Gent after a freaking long, arduous and adventurous day. But then 15 minutes into the trip at the Belgian border the train stopped. Train strike. Just like that at the French border (Belgian strike though) Seriously!!!!!! No phones. We were in Mouscron. Have you ever heard of Mouscron? NO, because NO ONE has ever heard of Mouscron!! They made everyone get off the train. The station was closed. It was 10:30 at night. There was nothing there, Mouscron might roughly resemble a Belgian version of Genesee Depot without the cute stores or signs in English.
Did I mention the candle I lit in the Cathedral of St Maurice earlier that day? When we walked out onto the street there was a cab. Sure it cost 120 euros but he drove us back to Gent.
This was the beginning of my next to last meal in Hyeres before I left without knowing I would never be back. I was at La Taverne Royale a restaurant that locals think is ridiculous. All suits of armor and crests. It may look foolish to them and they do not go there but it’s their loss, the food is great, if not the service.
This gazpacho was absolutely incredible. I have no idea how they accomplished it or what made it so good or even why I thought it was the best I’d ever had. But it was. And the slightly charred cheesy toasts they served along side were also amazing.
I wanted to go back again the next night with Loralyn for my last meal but they wouldn’t let us sit at our own table. The place was virtually empty but they wanted us to sit at a four top with other people (WHO WERE SMOKING!!!) and although there were at least 10 empty tables, they said no. Loralyn said (in French) “So you’d rather have us walk away than sit at a table for four?” The maitre d’ said “Oui!”
All the people there laughed out loud (at him, in case it wasn’t obvious). And we walked away.
When we walked by later after a lovely meal elsewhere, the place was closed. Tant pis.
Bolognese in France. I cannot resist bolognese sauce. I have it any time I see it on a menu. I generally don’t even care it’s not all that good. This pasta, however, at the small corner restaurant in Hyeres, Le Bon Coing (Provençal for the good corner) had great bolognese and I had it often. This particular picture is my desktop photo and I never look at it without being able to taste it and dreaming about a big bowl of it.
Last year I was in Paris on my birthday and although I love the food in France, I had my birthday meal with my friends and family at an Italian restaurant. It was awesome. My favorite restaurant in France is in Nice, supposedly the oldest restaurant in Nice, La Cambuse on the Cours Salaya. The food in Nice, while French is Italian at its heart. In September of 2010 I stopped in Nice on my way from Lucca, Italy back to my apartment in Hyeres, France and ate lunch there. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Mushroom stuffed, very home-made ravioli and some sort of beef falling apart in in its own gravy.