Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Across the South – Part 3: Decadence at Dawn (From Dawn to Decadence)

I am trying to get to Monaco, but am stranded in Marseilles. Bad omens abound. My connection to Nice that I need to make my way onwards to Monaco is already 2 hours late and a third hour has been tacked on. My friend and I wander around the train station, pursued by a truly creepy guy who spits repeatedly on the floor, drips cheap beer and keeps referring to me as “Sir Alex Ferguson” after overhearing my name. As much as I enjoy being likened to Manchester United’s longstanding, and seemingly Olympian manager, the pool of mucus, beer and piss forming at the gentleman’s feet is off putting. My friend produces a can of Faxe, which proves itself to be a thoroughly undrinkable concoction - a beer that sits at 10%, has a Viking on the label, and comes in one liter cans. One sip of the stuff and we toss the rest, only to have it found by our gentleman stalker, who only becomes slightly more frenzied after drinking it.

Eventually we make it to Nice, but its after midnight and any hope of making it to Monaco is long since eroded. The bureaucracy of the French train system at this point continues to intrude. They will not refund our ticket to Monaco, and will not help to book us a hotel in Nice because, despite not being able to go to Monaco, it is apparently our final destination. We eventually, as a result of stealing wifi from a nearby McDonalds (French McDonalds being ever so fancy and perpetually en vogue – and remarkably the only place in all of France that offer free wifi) and secure lodgment in Nice. We wander the immaculate Nice streets finding until we find an open bar at 3:00 AM.

The next day, we decide to scrap Monaco and are off to Cannes – for the film festival. We discover as we arrive at the Cannes station at 6 PM that we have taken the last train as a result of a strike that has magically sprung up as a result of someone in the French rail system feeling slighted by the offer of a new retirement package being offered by the Sarkozy government and the rest of the service calling a strike in solidarity. France: ever the land of petulant revolutionary ardor. As a result of already having a modestly priced hotel in Nice, and Cannes hotels costing somewhere in the range of what I would get for my left kidney, we elect to, following our movie (the 1967 version of Bonnie and Clyde, which is really quite good by the way – and Faye Dunaway certainly a respectable object of lust) to stay up all night and walk the totality of Cannes. Having spent the previous day exploring Nice before going to Cannes, while my friend took a nap, my feet ache and swell as we make our rounds. My estimate is that I walked about 40 kilometers over the course of the day, in dress shoes no less.

The film festival itself, (apart from the free repertoire showings of old movies – hence Bonnie and Clyde –put on for the general public, and actually projected onto a screen affixed to s stage erected on the sea, with the audience seated comfortable on the beach) is for all intensive purposes an opportunity for the film industry to give itself a collective hand job. Ugly ostentatious displays of wealth abound. Celebrities, and their slightly creepy stalkers abound. For two weeks, Cannes ceases to be a French speaking place, and the unreasonable demands being imposed in English, by crude American Hollywood types is evident in the ever more lined eyes of the cities always prompt and always pleasant wait staff. It speaks to a certain toughness in the French characters, or perhaps the potential of lucrative tips that keeps these poor wrecks alive and moving.

Eventually, blurry eyed, and prevented by overly attentive security guards from sleeping on the beach, we manage to catch a bus back to Nice at 8:30 the next morning and collapse into bed – only to find sleep elusive on the Cote D’Azure. It pours rain but clears in the evening. At this point, trains are running again and we decide to make the jaunt back to Cannes in order to see the 1937 Errol Flynn pirate epic Captain Blood – which is even better than I remember it. Then again, any film that stars Flynn as a doctor turned pirate named Peter Blood cannot possibly be bad. An inattentive Brit collides me with as we leave the film, who almost bowling me over, and then quite rudely acting as though this is somehow perfectly acceptable behavior. I tell him to slag off, only to my amusement realize as I walk off that I just called Eric Clapton and “incentive for birth control” – and to his face no less. Upon hitting upon this realization, I feel like throwing a few well-worded phrases explaining to the man how a poorly conceived and wasteful 3-minute piano bridge ruins a perfectly serviceable song in Layla, but decided to hold my ire.

The Cote D’Azure itself is nice – like the city of Nice – owing much to the high concentration of money in the region that results in gentrification – a little of which would go a long way in Marseilles, but I digress. The Cote D’Azur is in fact Azure in color. The public art veers away from the ancient and towards the modern, or more painfully, post-modern. (What are they going to call the emergent art movement following post-modernity I wonder, neo-post-modernism? Neoclassicalism? Post-deconstructionist with modernist overtones?) Of course there is nothing wrong with post-modernism per se, and what could be more French? (I have a friend who refers to all things post modern as “Getting Frenchy with it”) but one can only take so many giant colored triangles and at one point, an enormous arc segment looking like the St. Louis arc was cut in half and then left on its side.

The trip back to Montpellier coincidentally finds me running into a bizarre Czech who my friend at I met outward. He was going to make a pilgrimage, by foot to San Francisco (the religious site in Spain, not the American city) without speaking a word of French of Spanish – apparently as a means of wrestling with his existentialist angst. One day of hiking and a night of rain were enough to convince him to abandon his quest, return to his girlfriend in the Czech Republic, and blow the money he was brining for provisions on original pressings of Pink Floyd vinyl – which is apparently the key to enlightenment. I tell him about the old trick with Alice and Wonderland and Dark Side of the Moon and he decides this somehow gives life new meaning. He makes me promise to read his 40 page novella about relationships – of which he claims to be an expert and I agree to put him up for the evening as the friend he staid with on the way in has grown tired of his sudden unannounced appearances and his tendency to fulminate endlessly on how functional his dysfunctional human relationships really are. I’m well enough entertained, he affable enough I a sort of bizarre way, and his random non-sequitors break up the routine task of packing and cleaning before my jaunt back across the Atlantic.

Across the South – Part 2: Unspeakably Delicious

After a brief, and decidedly regenerative, holdover in Montpellier, I was off to Marseilles, this time on business. In order to secure a specialized Visa for my upcoming Niger jaunt, I had to go to the American embassy in Marseilles where my patience and general goodwill towards humanity was put to all manner of tests. I would like to think I passed with flying colors, but I feel it is safe to say that embassy workers would not know an act of human compassion were it served to them on a skewer in a sauce bĂ©arnaise. Eventually, after multiple trips, multiple half hour security moves and having explained my self to no less than twelve people – including a surly guard who upon informing I would be returning replied: “you do that.”, my paperwork was finally accepted and my friend and I were free to drink mind warping pastis - after being served 3 other cocktails in advance. Upon ordering the pastis, we were cheerily informed by the bartender not to mix pastis with other types of liquor as the hangover (or as the French say: tete de bois - literally “head of wood” - which seems somehow very appropriate) would be biblical in scope . This as he poured us the pastis, having already served us other liquors and knowing full well what was to come. I detected what may have been a hint of a maniacal chuckle sequestered deeply within his veneer of bonhomie and good manners. Suffice it to say, we managed to escape with merely a few hours of penance.

Here I should pause to share a few quick words on the hotel situation in Marseilles. Regardless of what you pay for a hotel in downtown, it will be so filthy that you think maybe sleeping on the sidewalk is the more sanitary option. Evenings in Marseilles are hot, sticky and noisy. Cars run all night and all day. Insane Italians and arabs engage in mortal combat on the streets outside of every window. Showers do not work, and when they do, the water is brown. The constant automobile traffic gives the whole city as thin mist of carbon monoxide that can leave you light headed if you spend too many hours outside. This taken with the pastis – that foul anis concoction that is the official drink of Marseilles – and who is to argue with tradition – saw us seeing a bumpy night. While the French to begin with have a thing for public urination – this seems to have been elevated to a pass time in Marseilles, in which people are more than happy to piss down the middle of the steps of the central train station – among other places, giving the whole city a stink of urine that is only mitigated by the sea.

To say that my friend and I were delighted to leave Marseilles would be akin to saying that a condemned man, when spared the death penalty via a gubernatorial pardon via telephone just as he is being strapped into the electric chair is “relieved”. We made straight for Avignon, where we ate a surprisingly civilized lunch of duck fau gras (the French and their delicious uses of organs) and semi-toured the papal grounds before collapsing on the river bank beside the collapsed bridge (get it) and having a much-needed nap. Avignon is a strange city. It is of course the site of the former second head of the Catholic church during the years of schism in which dispute over the pontiff saw the French installing their own pope in Avignon and the Rome and Avignon pope intermittently fighting wars against each other between the Crusades. The papal grounds are as ostentatious and grand as one would expect, and that is something that really must be given to the Catholics – they do grandeur and awe far better than the Protestants ever will. Catholic Churches are designed to be monolithic – to encourage one to think that there is something greater than oneself, while the protestant ethic towards a personal relationship with god (and yes, my atheism compels me to use the little “g”) means that Protestant churches are nothing that anyone in their right mind would ever want to tour, unless of course one had an unquestionable taste for cheap wood paneling, off-pastel paint, and that ever-so-sickly smell of mold.

Eventually revived, we swallowed a restorative pair of Guinni (the unofficial plural for Guinness – and not to be mistaken with residents of the Oceania Island, or for that matter the African state) and drifted eastward to Nimes where we saw a bullfight in a 1st century Roman Arena (leading to my wondering how many people had died there over the years of Roman Gladiatorial combat.) This of course after consuming deliciously seasoned tripe sausages; which despite being traditional may not necessarily be what you want to eat before watching bulls and men gored. If fox hunting has been described as the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible, then bullfighting can best be judged as the unspeakable locked into mortal combat with the highly edible - a point reinforced, as following the fight, the recently murdered bulls are butchered and given to the town’s poor. Of course there is nothing fair about a bullfight. The bulls are systematically weakened before they even come out where they are then lanced by a picador (one of whom, over the course of the bullfight, had his horse killed from under him), and then further slashed with barbs, leaving a bleeding and weakened animal to fight the matador. This does not prevent the bull from getting the upper hand from time to time – a point driven home by a particularly ornery bull getting the drop on an overly flamboyant "lancer", goring him on a horn and through the ass – with gleeful cheers from the audience. The fighter insisted, though he needed to be carried off on a stretcher, in finishing off the animal, as a point of pride, and then slashing off one of its ears as a sort of macabre trophy. Our Roman surroundings, and the glee to which the crowd supported the bull as it maimed its assailant got me thinking that maybe we should bring back traditional Christians vs. lions conflict – if anything as a point of international unity. Who after all, with the exception of perhaps a few American evangelical Christians, is not going to be a lion’s supporter?

Following the fight, we managed a quick dinner of seafood (the frequently advertised bull steak did not delight the senses) and boarded the last train back to Montpellier, swilling wine , before finally collapsing into bed.

Side note:

The original plan was to go to Lebanon. Beirut has always fascinated me and I had a friend I was going to stay with in Tripoli. In the end, despite the trouble I had in exchanging the ticket I had bought, I am glad we ended up not going as Lebanon was has been transformed into a war zone during the period I was supposed to be there. The day we were originally scheduled to arrive in Tripoli, the BBC screamed that the city had been, for all intensive purposes, razed. Never before had fighting in Lebanon moved that far north in the country and every sign seems to point towards the re-emergence of civil war, which like the rats in Camus’ “La Peste” have lied dormant in their metaphorical sewers, but are again being sent up to die in the streets of a free city. The tragedy of Lebanon has always seemed avoidable. Lebanon is one of the most pluralistic, open countries in the Middle East, and it is always shocking when violence erupts, often suddenly. Lebanese politics remain labyrinthine – and the delicate balance of Hezbollah, various Maronite militias, Druze, Turkmen, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Pro-Syrians, Anti-Syrians, Shiia, Sunni and dozens of others remains at all times unstable. The history of Lebanon is tragic beyond all else but much of the current instability can be attributed to US policy within the Middle East, which has further brokered instability. It is fairly clear that it was Syrian action that brought about, directly or indirectly the Hariri assassination, which has resulted in this newest mutation of violence within the Middle East, but the decision to make Hariri a symbol of the West, and the pressure leveraged against Assad by US action in Iraq and in posturing in many ways forced his hand. The results remains terrible, and the situation has only worsened following Israel’s vicious and widely condemned attempt at reinvasion of Lebanon during the 2006 summer war – of which Hezbollah emerged the big winner further shoring up their support at home. My Lebanese friends all expect the worst and many have changed their plans to return to Lebanon over the summer – opting instead to stay in Europe. As Lebanon descends into hell once more, one must take pause.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Across the South – Part 1: Spanish Eyes

The return to Barcelona, though not unexpected, has certainly come as shocking. I was supposed to be there hours ago, but I missed my train. Migraine headache. Couldn’t be avoided. Spent the day locked in fetal position, this after borrowing a car and driving someone to the hospital, learning how to drive stick-shift on the way. Unlicensed, and with my rather slip-shot skills behind the wheel, things could have gone far worse.

One of my best friends is waiting for me in Barcelona. We were supposed to see a futbol game - a real slaughter as it turned out with Barcelona thumping poor, and now for the better, Ronald Cumin-less Valencia 6-0. I miss the game because my head is splitting and I’m on the train. Feeling weak, half-blind and otherwise bloodied.

The train slides across the French border into Spain, and the quiet French crowd begins to thin out. While the French chatter in code, brief sentences tucked away, they are replaced by the Spanish who spout Latin cluster. Almost magically; conversations explode into a patois of Catalan with the occasional Castilian accent ripping through the din. I change trains to a commuter train tied to the Barcelona metro system. It fills immediately – old women and children fighting for seats as the train hurtles down the track. Wall to wall Catalan. Barcelona won tonight I hear. The city is happy. Celebrations crackle on the train, everyone seems to forget about the ugly business of getting along until manana. I try not to stare at the beautiful Spanish girls who look through me, reducing me to a permanent evanescence.

I jettisone the train at the Passagia de Gracia – feeling somehow sanctified – as if baptized by Spain and stumble into the hot Barcelona night. I am ravenous and stumble into the first tapas place I can find, wolfing down a plate of seafood and making small talk with a Mexican communications engineer sitting next to me. I can’t find the hotel I’m supposed to meet my friend at. There are apparently two and I end up wandering to the wrong one and spending a half hour trying to explain the problem to the doorman in my broken Spanish. He doesn’t speak a word of French or English and to call my Spanish (let alone my Catalan; which to call it primitive would be to give insult to Neanderthals.) Eventually my motive for polluting his lobby with my silly anglo mannerisms becomes clear. A cab is called and I leap in.

The driver and I manage to communicate in a sort of broken French on his part. We are stopped before we leave by two North Africans demanding directions to Portugal. My cab driver precedes to have an argument with them, in French, with me providing useful vocabulary for the next twenty minutes before we set off. We are then followed by the two, who continue to ask directions at every traffic stop. While this sort of schizophrenic conversation my driver seems perfectly at home in. I correct his grammar for him at his request, which is the first time, I think; I have ever spoken better French than anyone. The whole experience leaves me feeling, as P.G. Wodehouse once put it, as though hell’s very foundations were quivering.

Finally, the two pull off in their dilapidated Reno filled with baggage onto the highway that will take them to Portugal, a ride they have apparently made in a cot fueled two day sprint. (Cot is a nut that serves as a powerful upper, but takes hours to take full effect – popular in North Africa and in the Eastern horn – and having previously served as fuel for Jihadists the world over similarity to the way Eastern Europeans, and soccer militias, fuel their militants with vodka.) We reach the hotel, which ends up being next door to the Sagrada de Familia and I spent my evening drinking cheap beer on the balcony of the hotel and arguing about determinism – eventual nodding off just as the sun comes over the smoggy Barcelona horizon.

We get a relatively early start, sleep-deprivation aside, to discover everything of cultural interest closed on a Monday and end up going back to France that evening. Tortured pulls of whiskey and mega-doses of caffeine keep us moving.