Monday, February 16, 2015

Walkin’ (Well, Not Exactly) to New Orleans

Dec. 25

So here we are channeling the spirits of Fats Domino and Marie Laveau. 

The trip down was easy enough. Christopher dropped us off at the terminal. We got there early so we could have breakfast, but the McDonald’s mentality rules at Newark. One chain restaurant—Friday’s or Ruby Tuesday, or some other day of the week—refused to serve breakfast after 11, and another concession selling breakfast sandwiches couldn’t serve anything without American cheese. 

We wound up having a Dixie-fried food festival at a seafood joint up the hall: Fried shrimp, fried squid, fried clams, hush puppies, and sweet potato bites (also fried). Having been frequently fried myself, I could identify.

Reasonably tasty, especially for airport food, but the kind of intake that could earn me concerned phone calls from my GP and the cardiologist.

It was not quite 12, but it wasn’t Sunday, so they could serve beer. I had Sam Adams or something else pretty much mainstream.

The flights were OK. The planes were jammed, as they always are, and there was a little bit of turbulence, but that was God’s doing, not the airlines’.

I bought the tickets through Expedia, and got one of those strange itineraries. You almost never get to fly straight through. This time we actually flew from Newark to Dallas, to connect with a plane that would carry us back eastward to New Orleans. That was on American Airlines. The trip home is on Delta, and that will go more sensibly through Atlanta. But then, maybe it’s company policy that all Delta planes have to stop at Atlanta. 

Nancy and I flew Delta to Orlando when we took the kids to Disney World years ago. They were non-stop flights, but if I remember right, we were all supposed to wave as we flew over Georgia.

At Dallas, everything was cowboy. So we stopped in at the Cowtown Saloon or something, where I had to check my sixgun at the door. We split a cowboy cobb salad and I had a cowboy ale.

We got to the hotel around 8 and I had no idea what to expect. Would the city be buttoned up on Christmas night? Would there be anything to do?

Oh, he of little faith. There was stuff open everywhere, even one of the two Voodoo liquor stores in the neighborhood.

We stood in line to register. We haven’t been to the lobby at any hour without seeing a line of people waiting to register. I don’t know whether the place is just that popular or just that inefficient.

We learned that you have to ask to get your towels changed and the bed made. According to one maid, they only clean up when you check out. We’re here for nine days. I’m single, and I change the towels and sheets more often than that when I’m home.

So be warned. If you stay at the Crowne Plaza in the French Quarter, they cut corners.

We walked up and down Royal Street, which is next to the hotel. We found a bar called Ole Saint that was open. We asked about the oyster po’boy but found that the oysters on that one were fried. We had already met our recommended daily allowance for fried food at Newark, so we had gumbo and a surprisingly good hamburger. I had a couple of local brews, an Abita amber ale that was OK but a little thin, and a much better IPA made in Baton Rouge. It was sharp and hoppy. I forget the brewery’s name, but I can go back and get more.

We went into a few shops on the street, including one that bills itself as a praline shop and hot sauce bar. They also sell a variety of coffees, including one called Wake the Fuck Up.

Dec. 26

We were out of the hotel around 10 or so on Boxing Day, and headed for Cafe du Monde. Good coffee and better beignets, we’ve been told.

We took Royal (so we could see it in daylight) to St. Louis Cathedral. There was a service in progress, so we didn’t stay there. We walked over to Cafe du Monde. The place was mobbed. 

The takeout line stretched around the place. The line for tables was a block long. They stay open around the clock. Maybe if we can go back for an early breakfast—say, 3 a.m.—the wait will be shorter.

So we crossed the street to Jackson Square and found a place called Stanley on the corner of Ann Street. We had a 15-minute wait for a table, so we stood outside and watched a magician do tricks with coins and rings.  He was all by himself when we went outside but by the time our table was called—literally by a shout out the door—the illusionist had a growing audience. 

Joanna had eggs and toast with Creole home fries. They were made with red potatoes with the skin on.

I had a mimosa and a plate that combined eggs Benedict with fried oysters. Splashed with a bit of Louisiana hot sauce, it was delicious.

We walked a while on Decatur Street. One of the places we visited was a clothing store with strange stuff, including feathered vests and long black vampire gowns. Remember, this is Anne Rice country.

Bourbon Street was the next destination. 

This is the honky tonk heart of the city. There isn’t one, but two clubs identified with Larry Flint’s Hustler magazine. There is one place that bills itself not only as topless but also as specifically bottomless. That term has always seemed unfortunate to me. OK in a bar: a drink that never empties. But a strip club? I know it means no pants on, but the only picture I can get in my head is some poor soul with no gluteals.

All along Bourbon Street, there are street musciians, bars, guys holding signs for “huge ass beers,” and little convenience counters that sell drinks to go. Drinks like a 32-ounce daiquiri for $13.

We came to the Jean Lafitte Absinthe House, which claims to date from 1807. Celebrities including Jean Lafitte himself, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, and William Howard Taft stopped here. So who am I to pass it by?

We went in and had an absinthe cocktail made with Pernod, mainly because that’s the only brand name I recognized. The bartender balanced a sugar cube on a slotted spoon resting on a rocks glass. She poured the liquor in and lit the sugar with a match. Then she dripped water from a pitcher. Oddly enough, the sugar kept burning.

I had done something like this at home. Kate and Brian bought me the whole setup—absinthe, spoon, glass, and sugar cubes. But I didn’t know about lighting the sugar.

When the absinthe had changed from its pure pee-yellow transparency to a foggy, almost white, it was ready to drink. It tastes like strong anisette. 

We stopped in at a shop named for Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess. It was a shop full of altars and “no’s”: Signs telling you no touching, no photos. 

Several blocks farther we came to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Turns out, I had mistaken the absinthe house for this place, which I had read about. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop describes itself as the oldest bar in the United States. It dates to 1772. I think Fraunces tavern in New York may be a few years older.

Legend has it that Lafitte and his gang used the backsmith shop as a cover to fence stolen goods. The signature drink of this Lafitte’s is the hurricane, which is based on rum with 151 proof rum on top of that. The absinthe was still rolling around in my head, so I ordered (forgive me, Pirate Lafitte) Campari and soda, which is one of the drinks I take when I’m on the wagon. (The other, by the way, is dry vermouth in club soda. I can sober up on that.)

We walked up St. Philip St. toward St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, to see Marie Laveau’s tomb. We stood on a corner to look at the map. Kind of to one side and facing a fence so as not to be too obviously lost. A disembodied voice calls out “Where do you want to go?”

This is too funny, so I figure, hey, maybe it’s true that absinthe makes you crazy. But no, there is a real guy, who’s standing in the dark inside a garage across the street, and he is, indeed, talking to Joanna and me.

So we tell him we want to go to the cemetery. He directs us to a white wall that we can just make out, maybe a couple of hundred yards down the road on the other side of Basin Street. 

We got there a few minutes late. The gate closes at three. It’s close enough, though, that we’ll go there again. 

We took Bourbon Street back to the hotel. It was after three now, and along with the guys holding signs and menus in front of bars, there was more, and louder, music. There were girls standing in front of the strip clubs in their underwear.

We stopped at Remoulade Oyster House on Bourbon Street, mainly to use the rest room. We shared an oyster sampler, and I had a half dozen on the half shell besides. They didn’t have an IPA, which is what I prefer with raw oysters, so I settled for an Abita amber.

These may have been the tastiest oysters I’ve ever had. We were told they are Louisiana Gulf oysters and they are in season now. So if you like oysters, visit New Orleans at Christmas.

We changed into evening clothes to go to Antoine’s. 

But this story runs too long already. A little about that next time.

The photo of the day is “Harry and the Pirates.”

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Dec. 27
Jean LaFitte!

He helped us and we did him wrong!

Here’s to honoring Jean LaFitte!!!

Glad you and Joanna are having a great time in New Orleans.

Is the opera company still functioning? It used to be excellent.


Dec. 28

There's a bar on Bourbon Street called the Old Opera House. They were playing rap the other day.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

October 21

Larry drove us to the TGV station at Avignon yesterday. The ride was beautiful, with a thick fog on the fields and the Rhone. You pass under the famous bridge shortly before you reach the station, which is not far, maybe less than a mile, from the old city walls,

We got there in time to have breakfast at the Alfred Kayser bake shop. The yogurt served in France has a remarkably different flavor from the stuff we get at home. The pastries at this place are flaky and light. They bake it at the shop, and there’s a picture window where you can watch the baker work.

Then we waited for a short while on the platform for the Tren a Grande Vitesse to Paris. The trains work and are on time here. I enjoy train travel, even in the States, but the trains I’ve taken in France, Spain, and Italy put American rail service to shame.

Once we got to Gare de Lyon, things got weird. And stayed that way. 

RER, the light rail system, requires a transfer between Charles de Gaulle airport and Gare de Lyon. Not a good idea with the weight we were carrying.

I know Cars Air France Line 4 stops at Gare de Lyon, because we took that bus line to Montparnasse on the 8th. 

But there is no sign, no clue, not even anybody to ask about where to meet the bus or buy a ticket. I wound up springing for a cab ride for 60 euros. This isn’t just any cab ride, it starts at a curious intersection of highways where two intense streams of vehicles play chicken to cross each other.

Then you get into bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic and pass through an industrial part of town. You keep going until everything is a combination of boxy warehouses, rust, and weeds. Even the ride to Newark Liberty isn’t as grotesque.

The original plan was to take the Cars Air France bus service from the train station to the airport, maybe have dinner there, and then cab to the hotel. 

A couple of months ago, I tried at least eight hotels—all that I could identify—that were in or next to the airport and not one had a vacancy.

The best I could do was some place called Campanile in a village called St. Witz. So I figured, since I was already taking a cab, Joanna and I could go straight to St. Witz. 

Which appears to consist of a large housing development in the middle of farm fields and an isolated section where our hotel is. It’s a corner with five or six budget motels and four bad restaurants, exactly like one of the commercial developments that have cropped up at every rural exit on Interstate 95.

Handy, bland, and smack in the middle of nowhere. 

Our room was on the second floor. That’s the European second floor, our third, and of course the place has no elevator. So we had to lug the bags up.

I was starving. It was three or four in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since the Avignon rail station in the morning. All the restaurants were closed till 6:30.

I was tempted to go to McDonald’s. Yes, they had one of those too.

This is France. How do you get a Chinese buffet selling pizza? The place smelled of garlic, soy sauce, and MSG.

The restaurant at the Campanile was all buffet service, too, and I don’t eat that way. The food is chosen and cooked according to how well it will last on a steam table, not how good it will taste. You don’t know how long it has sat out or who has sneezed on it.

There was a place called Aldo or something that was supposed to be Italian.

We wound up at a French knockoff of the Rustler or Lone Star steak houses in the States. I figured naively that it would be American themed but really have a French twist. Like maybe interesting sauces for some of the food.

The comedy of errors continued. We ran into our first serious language barrier at the American theme restaurant. We tried to explain that Joanna wanted the lamb done so it was pink inside. Not rare. She really preferred it well done (bien fait) but that was out of the question. 

She finally ordered a hamburger instead because for health reasons ground meat is always well done. It seems, though, that in our bilingual discussions of gustatory preferences part of the message almost got through. My rare steak with fries and green beans on the side came medium well done and without the fries.  

The beans needed salt, so I tried grinding some. The cap fell off the grinder and buried the haricots verts in salt. I finished the piece of shoe leather on my plate, because I could scrape the salt off that.

The cheesecake for dessert wasn’t bad, and besides, I was drinking wine, so how unhappy could I really be?

I wanted a fourth glass, but nobody stopped at the table. Or even glanced at it. After sitting too long, we decided that all we wanted was the bill. When it finally came, they had left off Joanna’s burger, so I pointed that out to the waitress. Entrecote, oui. Cheesecake, oui. Trois verres des vins pour moi. Et pour madam?

We stopped at the salon of the Campanile for a nightcap of Bordeaux. Well, I had the nightcap and Joanna watched me drink it.

The people at the Campanile were helpful, but the place is a mess. There was no privacy curtain on my front window. The bathroom light had to be fixed. 

Language was a problem here for the first time this trip. Most of the motel staff speak little English. 

That’s doubly strange. Although the Campanile doesn’t seem to depend strictly on the airport trade (The number of cars in the lot suggests that many customers come from the highway.) many guests are probably international.

But more than that, we just got back from a week in the wilds of Provence. Larry did a lot of the talking. I was able to place fragmentary requests and order from menus by slipping from Pidgin French into English. 

Joanna was watching TV and said she recognized three French words—oui, non, and voila. I think she knows vin, blanc, and rouge too. 

But she had no trouble with language. Larry’s theory is that anytime Joanna said something, people were so relieved that the conversation wasn’t in Chinese that they bent over backwards to speak English. 

The lady at the Campanile desk gladly called to arrange a cab for us at seven. 

I lugged the bags down to the lobby ten minutes early, but the cab never showed. The man at the desk had to call not once, but twice more. 

I was keenly feeling the helplessness of isolation.

During one of the calls, the desk guy relays a question from the other end of the line. “Quelle avion?” Which plane? No, I’m not letting a cab driver tell me when I need to be at the airport. I don’t even try French: “I need to be at the airport in 20 minutes.” More important, I wanted to get the hell out of St. Witz.

When the driver showed up, he came in a van that had the name of the Campanile and another hotel on the side. Is this a company van and they still couldn’t get the guy to show up on time? I don’t know.

By this time my temper is just about gone. But I have to control myself. I’m going to an airport, where I will have to behave. But I’m waiting for the next hit. 

Joanna told me, “Don’t think that way.” I know she’s right, but I couldn’t escape that sense of being jinxed.

We had told the driver “United” and gotten a blank stare. “United Airlines.” “Terminal One,” he says.

And damn, the driver circles Terminal One and can’t find where to drop us. 

I had something like that happen when I got reckless and tried a discount cab service one time.

That driver was a foreigner who couldn’t find Newark Liberty Airport. Who gave him a cab license? Of course, this was in New Jersey, so his brother-in-law could have bribed a politician. 

But anyway, the guy was either too embarrassed or too naive to ask for directions at the office. Instead, he relied on a GPS that with all the wisdom of a computer directed him to take local streets through Newark, because on the map that’s the short way. I had to direct that cab driver to the airport.

“What airline?” asks our French driver again. 



And he makes another pass and takes us to the right door. I don’t know which part of “United” he didn’t get the first time.

And this was no discount service. He charged 35 euros. That’s more than half the fare all the way from Gare de Lyon to St. Witz, a drive three or four times as far.

Funny thing is that we went on highways, including a toll road, to get to the terminal. It was a distance of a few miles, to reach an airport we could see from the motel.

Checking in was not bad nor was passport control.

We stopped for breakfast on the way to the security checkpoint. I had an espresso and a tall glass of white wine—strictly for medicinal reasons. 

I set off the metal alarm, and went through a pat-down. And we never did figure what triggered the alarm. Maybe hair gel. But that episode was amusing.

The gate, however, was a mess. I never expected to see anything that makes a New York airport look well designed or competent. But Charles de Gaulle Airport managed to do it. 

There is no place for people to line up, so they stretch across the entire waiting area and block the way to the seats. Reminiscent of Italy, there were no real lines. People tended to flow in a group past random airline employees, who seemed to be confused, as if they had never done this before. 

United may have been boarding flights at adjacent gates. Somebody called our boarding group and everybody tried to get into the gate at once. Groups that hadn’t been called were crowding the space. Maybe they thought it would get them to New Jersey sooner.

I kept asking who was in Group 3 and who was in Group 4. I wanted to be the last guy in Group 3. I don’t ever want to jump into a mob of panicked tourists, many of whom have small children. 

I heard them call Group 4 before my group was finished. As I say, it’s like they’d never done this before. But I got in without losing, or drawing, any blood. I was a little short-tempered, though. A kid came up and asked the security questions: Is everything yours? Did you pack it? etc.

All I could say is, “We’ve done this before. We know what to do.” That’s impolite, I know, but I just wasn’t in the mood.

General de Gaulle was a great man. I was moved to read de Gaulle’s words etched into stone under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. He was a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He deserves better than this. 

One thing I’ve decided after this trip: If the only way to get to France is through Charles de Gaulle Airport, I’m going to Italy.

I’ve written this on the plane, where I have no Internet connection. So remember, if you receive this, it means the plane wasn’t highjacked to Cuba.

I did, however, manage to spill half a cup of water into my lap about an hour before we got to Newark.

The photo of the day is of better times. Claude is on the left. That's Sophie with the great smile, and Pierre, their son, next to Larry. We're eating Larry's dog food stew and drinking Chateauneuf du Pape. 

Dinners aren't even supposed to get better than that.

Love to all.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Orange and Limon

October 20

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s.” Well, yesterday we visited the place that gave all the Oranges in New Jersey their name.

It’s less than an hour from Beaumes de Venise, and it has a reasonably good pizza shop, where we had lunch, and the best-preserved Roman theater in Europe. I believe the only other one in as good a condition is in Asia Minor.

The pizza was OK, the flavors not as strong as I would want, but tasty enough. I haven’t had pizza in weeks. This one was called Diavola, and had pepperoni on it. There was some heat, but not as much as I’m used to. This may have been a traditional Continental style, but for my taste the tomato sauce needed more oregano and basil.

The flavor gained a great deal, though, because we were sitting outside, under an awning, by a street named for the Princes of Nassau, the family that eventually became the rulers of the Netherlands. They also held title to the city and territory of Orange, which didn’t become a part of France until maybe the 18th century.

One of the Nassaus became William III (just like me, almost) as the king of England. It was to kiss his ass, I imagine, that all those Oranges got named.

The theater in Orange is a semicircle of stone bleachers facing a huge wall. 

It would be impressive to see by itself, but the addition of the audio guide makes it fascinating. The city began as a Roman colony, created by veterans of Julius Caesar’s army. The theater was neglected, then burned by marauding barbarians, and has been partly reconstructed. The place is still used for performances. 

Seating was arranged by class. The top few levels of seats were reserved for slaves, prostitutes, other fringe groups, including foreigners. So that’s where I’d have to be, and it sounds like great place to hang out.

Historians believe there were relatively few traditional Classical tragedies played here. The crowds tended to favor comedies, and there were several kinds of those. I’m not sure what the evidence for that is.

Some farces had stock characters, identified by their costumes as a glutton, an old man, and so forth. Blond hair signified a simpleton. Dumb blond jokes go back that far.

Most of the female roles were played by boys, but at least one genre of mime had women taking roles. These were very popular because the women wore little clothing to begin with, and the crowds would encourage them to take that off too.

Then the Christians took over and shut it all down.

A hundred or so years later, the Visigoths plundered the city and set fire to everything that would burn, including the wooden parts of the old theater, mainly the stage and roof beams. 

The stage has been rebuilt and the seats may have been, too. There is an etching from the 18th century that shows the theater in detail. The seats, which are now made of stone or conctete and go up in steps, appear to have broken down into a bank of rubble, like much of the Roman Colosseum today.

The structure of the wall behind the stage is largely complete, although almost all of the elaborate decoration is gone. An imperial statue in a large niche was recovered in a dig and reassembled. Portions of original columns also were unearthed and put into place.


About three-quarters of the way up the rows of seats, you come to the entrances to an enclosed gallery. Off the gallery are smaller areas that look like caves. The theater is built against a hill, so for all I can tell, these may have been developed from natural caves or maybe they were built to look that way.

In some of the rooms are short films combining conventional video and holographic projections, so sometimes transparent people step out of the screen. I don’t know how the Romans did that.

One showed what one of the Roman farces might have been like behind the scenes and on stage. Larry and I were a little disappointed in that one because the girls kept their clothes on.

Another was a collection of brief excerpts from opera performances at the theater.

We went across the street to the museum, where we saw a few more fragments recovered from excavations at the theater. And many etchings of Nassaus, generally not a handsome bunch, but there was one of a princess with frizzy hair that kind of gave her the swagger of an affluent hooker.

We stopped at the cave of the Beaumes de Venise co-op on the way back. I bought two bottles of the Trias wine, one aged in oak and one not. 

Joanna wanted a bottle of the sweet muscat to take home. There were several types, and she couldn’t remember which one she preferred. So she tasted a few. I took a sip frome a couple of her samples.

So far on this trip, it has been the other way around. I was tasting wine to see which one to buy, and Joanna would take a small sip from my glass now and then. Here, Joanna was the taster and I was the sipper.

Dinner was a kind of a surprise. Remember the dog food? Larry bought beef at the Vaison market on Tuesday morning. We thought he said “dog” but actually he said “daube,” a traditional Proven├žal dish.

Following Claude’s advice, Larry made the stew on Wednesday and then reheated it for a couple of hours every day until Sunday. Everybody knew it was coming, but I think Larry was a little nervous. This was something that Claude and Sophie had grown up with. Their mothers and grandmothers made it for them from native recipes.

I forget all that went into it except for the olives and dog food. There was a multitude of other ingredients besides. Maybe mushrooms, leeks, garlic, or onions. We had it with plain boiled potatoes on the side, and a bottle of the Eddie Feraud red Chateauneuf du Pape. Then Larry came out with the big surprise, the 2001 Beaucastel. 

When Larry tasted it, he said “leather.” And yeah, once he said it, I could see how you could get that illusion, but I tasted soil and minerals, as well as a certain kind of perserved-fruit flavor that I associate with Chateauneuf du Pape, especially.

One of the remarkable things about the wine—besides its being 13 years old—is that it contains a high percentage of mourvedre grapes, which are difficult to grow in the area. It’s apparently important that the grapes have a hard time. Larry told me that the tougher it is to grow the grapes, the better the wine will be.

The rules say you can blend 13 grape varieties in Chateauneuf du Pape. Most of them don’t use all the grapes, but I think some do, including the Beaucastel. 

Grenache and syrah are the two most common grapes the regional wines we’ve been tasting. It may be different in the northern end of the Rhone Valley, but we didn’t go there and I don’t know.

Because mourvedre is more difficult to grow, it is often 5 percent or less of the finished wine. The Trias that I bought at the co-op consists grenache, syrah, and mourvedre, which is the minority member of the trio.

The Beaucastel may contain 30 percent mourvedre.

Later, Sophie and Joanna were talking about the house, and Sophie brought out a photo album. This wasn’t the first big house that the family had renovated. 

They had bought one years ago in Paris, in a blind auction, placing bids on a property that none of the bidders had seen. The house was unoccupied, and so the doors had been filled with cinderblocks to keep squatters out. One of the photos shows Claude’s mother entering the house for the first time, after Claude and Sophie won the auction. 

A couple of courses of block had been removed and she was climbing through the space onto a step ladder. 

Even so, some squatters had gotten in. One of them, Bozo, had left a message on the wall that Claude preserved in a photograph. Bozo complained about his neighbors who were leaving shit all over the place. “This is my squat.”

The current house had also been officially unoccupied for a long time. It wasn’t actually unoccupied, though, because squatters had moved in. Unlike Bozo’s housemates, the people here were a little more hygienic. They shat into plastic bags that they tossed out of the window.

There were before and after photos. The kitchen roof had been raised about three feet or more. Some windows were turned into doors and I believe some windows were cut into the walls.

When the wine was almost finished, Sophie brought out the bottle of limoncello. They pour it into little egg-shaped cups from a bottle that once held mineral water. That’s because it’s bootleg, made by a friend of the family. I think it consists of neutral spirits infused with lemon zest. 

Anyhow, a good time was had by all. No stew or wine went to waste. Considering all the wine I had, it was a surprise that Harry didn’t even get wasted.

The photo of the day is a selfie by Larry that shows the three of us in front of Claude and Sophie's backyard vineyard.

Bon journee, mes amis.


October 20
Hey Grasshopper,

How did your voyage to the hotel go today? How are your digs? What's the area around the hotel like?

I've been catching up: laundry, computer set-up (great machine! Thanks again for schlepping for me), moving back into the apartment, etc. I even cooked veal for Weds.

So correct about mouverdre. Yes, the Beaucastel is indeed 30 percent mourvedre. It's one big reason the wine lasts so long and ages so well. And you're correct when you report that very few, if any, producers use all 13 grape varieties. Except, you guessed it, Beaucastel. There might be one or two others, but I don't know them.

It was great having you here. I look forward to our next meet-up, who knows where. But I guess that's the fun of it.

Have a good flight back to the States.



P.S. My daube had no mushrooms.