Wednesday, May 21, 2008

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 béarnaise. 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.

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