Friday, January 29, 2010

Fifty Plus One

My birthday was the other day. It was easier than last year.

Last year was fifty - that involved a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Fifty was "goodbye to all that" and "what was it all for?" (see one side of that new Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby single).

This year's birthday was a nice break towards the end of a long dark month. A month not made any better by knowing it was a long hard month everywhere, for everyone.

Have I suddenly become the most negative person in the world? Or have I always been this way? Having passed that watershed year last year, am I just settling into my role as full-time crank?

But the birthday, that was fun! Nothing bad to say. It started with a haircut. I decided to try this new hairdresser, an English one. I felt a little disloyal, being in France, but I thought maybe he'd be good and he was. He greeted me at the glass doors of his converted barn, in the middle of the deep countryside, impeccably dressed in a pin-striped suit and Beatle boots, speaking in a full-on Manchester accent. So for that alone he got my vote. His wife does coloring and he cuts the hair, Michael William is his name for anyone wandering lost in rural France who just realized their roots need a touch-up.

Then came the installation of the woodburner. Newly coiffed, I hurried back to help Eric finish heaving this cast iron stove into place - he'd been slaving all afternoon to box in the pipe, determined to have the glowing log fire of my dreams in place in time for my birthday - what a nice man.

We'd decided to go to Rochefort and or La Rochelle for something good to eat and a movie. Three hours is kind of a long drive for lunch, but we've fallen in love with that part of France, the Charente-Maritime, and will use any excuse to go there. Heading west toward the Atlantic, as soon as you pass Angouleme the light becomes clearer, brighter, the buildings change to a lighter stone, and there's sky everywhere.

Typically, we were kind of late for lunch but we found steak frites and strolled a little in Rochefort. Then we went to the old port in La Rochelle: gorgeous white stone buildings, boats, lots of shops and cafes. We found the only version originale movie playing - City Island with Andy Garcia, a film pretty much on par with the crappy DVDs we buy for 4.99 at the local supermarket. In other words, we enjoyed it immensely. We were the only people in the whole cinema, except for the projectionist. When we left at the end even the cashier had gone home, and it was only eight o'clock.

We'd spotted a nice-looking little restaurant near the water and went in for some oysters. I asked if there'd been some catastrophic event that had wiped out the entire population of La Rochelle, but the waiter said it was just the cold weather, honest. We ate oysters fresh from L'Ile de Re, a half hour away. Eric joked that my family and friends were all supposed to have shown up in the empty restaurant, to surprise me. If it had been last year, for my fiftieth, I might have fallen for it.

Back to the hills and forests of the Limousin. I know it's kind of canned, the whole Facebook birthday wishes from everybody thing, but it still pleased me to go online and see that. The virtual equivalent of a roomful of pals - true, they all came for the open bar but they still mean it, don't they? And the fact that no one actually emails anymore made it that much more exciting to open my Gmail account and find that rarest of things - a sweet note from my daughter. In the warm glow of the log fire and computer screen, I reflected that as birthdays go it had been better than okay.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rural Gothic


We went searching for a used woodburner yesterday.

Don't be alarmed - this isn't the same kind of woodburner that exploded last weekend. That was a rather old one in the barn that was supposed to run the heating system, an alternative to the more expensive fioul option. Though our local plumber had deemed it still capable of working, one of the neighbors told me it hadn't been used in something like twenty or thirty years.

I felt proud that I was able to comprehend that much from Francoise. She speaks so fast and her eyes are going every which way behind her glasses so I'm either trying to follow her gaze or what it is she's talking about. But I realized a while ago that she usually says everything at least three times, so if I can hang on a little while, it begins to sink in.

This is my fourth January in rural France. As we drove down into the Correze to check out a poele a bois, a woodstove you set up in the main room of the house, I remembered driving down that way when we'd first arrived, to pick up the bike I'd won on eBay. I had looked at a map and it really didn't seem so far. There were lots of roads on the map, and I imagined them mostly with houses on them.

I couldn't imagine a three hour drive where occasionally we'd see smoke from a chimney, or a tiny village and not a soul in sight. I couldn't conceive of how empty the countryside is here.

All the things I thought about France are constantly undergoing adjustments. Like many Americans, I used to think "France - Paris. Cafes, chic people, art, literature." I used to think it would be possible to find a nice little restaurant out in the countryside, to get a cheap lunch on one of our excursions. Now I know much better - unless you do some research, plan your route around stopping somewhere to eat, and most importantly calling to make sure the place is actually open at this time of year and serving food, you end up having to find a giant supermarket that's open from 12 to 3. I make sandwiches.

We'd been to dinner at some friends' house the other night, and their cozy woodburner pushed us over the edge - if we're going to be here out in the middle of a forest, with piles of logs everywhere, we might as well take advantage of the country life and be able to sit around a glowing fire.

It's rural gothic. People in slippers at the hardware store, a cafe with bad coffee, 50's moderne bar and four dozen dusty pairs of thong underwear hanging on the wall, from a charity contest several years back.

It's Michel trying to tell me the name of the composer of a particular song. "Bud E. Delay."
Me: Bud E...Delay?
Michel: Bud E. Delay.
Me: Buddy D'Lay?
Michel (trying a little harder): Bud Iddlay.
Me: Bud Iddlay, Bud Iddlay?

Bo Diddley, I finally realized, after a few more people got involved in sounding it out.

It's comprehending the difference between "péypère" - sort of semi-retired, laidback, easygoing (masculin) and "mémère" slovenly, letting-it-all-go, sluttish, bad-humored (feminin) and ideally, straddling the two because going in the one direction is boring and going too far in the other direction is depressing.

We found the people who were selling a nice prospective woodburner, on top of a mountain, in a housing development. When the deal was done, the three of them, a man and two women, tipped the thing into the back of our car, spilling ash everywhere. He ran and got a dustpan and brush and moved the dust around on the carpet with it. Then we drove off, leaving me to wonder how to make use of this growing understanding of the countryside. At the same time realizing that such a question is completely beside the point.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Le Boum

There I was being all smug, talking to some friends about keeping warm in winter.

"We have one electric heater that we huddle around," said Angie. "The house is freezing."

"We tend to just stay close to the wood burner," said Chris. "And wear lots of sweaters."

I told them about our fabulous heating: blistering hot radiators, scalding water on command. How both Eric and I are lightweights when it comes to surviving the cold.

But when we got home, the heating had stopped working. We worried that we'd run out of oil and figured it was time to switch to the alternative - using the old wood-burner system to heat the radiators. Problem is we'd never used that part of the system before.

We bought fire lighters and scavenged wood from around the place. It's been a while since we had fuel delivered - the stuff is damn expensive - and this being a lean month we got all enthusiastic about heating with wood.

"We can take turns stoking the fire!"

"It smells great, the woodsmoke, doesn't it? So cozy. And it doesn't cost a thing - there's nothing but wood around here."

The fire was good and strong but the radiators still weren't getting hot. I got a little nervous when Eric was standing in front of these pipes and valves, twisting and turning them. What if something went wrong and steam and hot water came spraying out?

We left the 19th century behind and were sitting in the kitchen in front of a space heater when an explosion shook the barn.

The part with the heating system was full of smoke and we called the sapeurs-pompiers (firemen). Luckily we'd sprung for their annual calendar when they came around a week or two ago. But had our donation been enough? I wondered if they had a telephone system like Domino's, where they know your house (and the amount you gave) by the phone number. If it was under a certain amount, maybe they'd take their time coming?

They told us to get out of the house. We figured we weren't in much danger - these buildings have stone walls a couple of feet thick. But we were pretty shaken up.

A firetruck arrived, blue lights flashing. The guys all trooped into the barn with flashlights. The smoke had cleared by now. The wood burner had blown up - sending the cast iron doors flying across the room, spraying the barn with hot water, steam and ash, and making a fuel delivery an absolute must. No possibility of heating with wood now, ever. Not with the old system anyway.

Six or seven firemen stood around the exploded burner, surveying the damage. They chuckled but were sympathetic, and they pointed out how lucky we were not to have been in the barn when the thing blew up.

I thought they'd leave at this point, back to the station house to play cards or eat cassoulet. But then another fire truck turned up, and a police car. Our neighbors were all coming outside to see what had happened. The Chalus firemen had to say their hellos to the St. Mathieu firemen - lots of handshakes. By now there were about fifteen firemen hanging around.

Angeline next door said, "Offer them something to drink."

I asked if they wanted some coffee or wine.

"Aperitifs! Aperitifs!" a couple of them shouted.

"Some wine?" I asked again.

Their leader shook his head. "Le whiskey?" he asked. "Ricard?" I said we didn't have either of those.

"Forget it." The French have standards, and this was not a wine occasion. Then they went back to hanging out. The St. Mathieu firemen, who'd been first on the scene, had to show the Chalus firemen the exploded wood burner. Everyone stood around laughing and talking for another ten or fifteen minutes. By the time they left, they'd probably forgotten why they were even there.

And I know a lot more about heating than I ever intended to learn.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Obligatory Snow Post


"I got the blues so bad, Clyde." We watched Bonnie & Clyde the other night. It gets better every time I see it.

Is there anyone who doesn't have the blues around now? We've barely been able to leave the house for the last five days. Until today we were pretty much stuck in the village and I felt myself feeling sad and empty, mostly because the good bakeries are all in the next village and fresh bread and pastries are what I live for. I thought of setting out on foot but figured it would end with Eric having to search for me and then stumbling onto a snowdrift and spotting a mittened hand clutching an icy baguette sticking out.


I did manage to take a very peaceful walk on Sunday when the sky cleared for an hour or two. I wanted to make sure one of our neighbors had enough to eat. I was happy to see that someone had brought provisions in for her.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Now Focus

We were watching the signs go by: Antwerp, Leuven, Amsterdam, Groningen. Felt like we'd been on the road for weeks. Eric asked if I was hungry.

I turned to answer him, expecting to see him gripping a steering wheel. Which would have been odd, because we were sitting on the couch. The film we were watching, "Still Crazy", about a group of aging rockers who reform and tour the dumps of Europe, had us revisiting the types of places we'd been spending every evening in, only a few short weeks ago.

"Look at us," I said. "We can't stop touring. When we're not out there, we watch other people doing it. We could be watching "The Man Who Would Be King".

"Is that really much different?" Eric asked.

We started with Saxondale, the brilliant Steve Coogan series about an...ahem, aging roadie who keeps fighting the good fight while running a pest control business in the suburbs. The music of Focus screeches and yodels over the opening and closing credits.

The show only ran for two seasons, so to stretch it out we watched Oil City Confidential, the new documentary about Dr. Feelgood. I knew enough about the band to be interested, but wasn't prepared to be completely blown away. Wilko Johnson is a complex, entertaining narrator and the way Julien Temple pieced together band footage with old British gangster films (what movies are these clips from and where can I see them?), photos, clippings and some soft fictional footage was clever and imaginative but to a point. One of the best band documentaries I've seen.

Then we went back to Saxondale for a few more days, until we'd watched even the extra features a few times. Not ready to move on, we fell back on Still Crazy which is corny as hell but always works for me.

I keep coming back to one scene - there's this snowy parking lot in the middle of nowhere. The band pulls up to a deserted cultural center and follows a lone set of wet footprints in through the theatre doors. The place is completely dark except for cold blue stage lights. A smoke machine is hissing, the smoke swirling and catching the dim light. Steely Dan is blasting from the P.A. while a shadowy figure sits in silent reverie in the center of the theatre seats, hands folded as if in prayer. The sound man.

They ask him if there's any way he can get someone to clear the ice away from a treacherous loadin area. Like the Grim Reaper, he points them to a broom closet, where there's a crude shovel and bag of rock salt.

After the interminable soundcheck, he tells the band about the highlight of his year, no - his life, when a certain Dutch group came to play, only three short months before. He rhapsodizes about their musical brilliance, their humanity, while barely hiding his contempt for the band in front of him - as if to say, "see what I'm reduced to now, working with you losers".

To emphasize his point, the dressing room has one of those hospital-style TVs mounted high up on the wall, where a video of Focus' live performance at this very venue plays relentlessly. The group asks if they can turn the TV off, or at least turn the sound down. He says he'll see if he can find a ladder. But he never comes back.

Shit. That wasn't in the movie, that was some Belgian venue a few weeks back.

Friday, January 1, 2010

I Hereby Resolve...

I celebrated the New Year by looking at my horoscope - Susan Miller advised me to figure out which bad habit was always cropping up to set me back. Peering into the lights of the Christmas tree (as much as one can peer into a strand of twelve budget lights on a misshapen pine branch), I thought for a while.

"Self-sabotage. That's my worst habit." I remembered all the incidents of self-inflicted ill-timing (Norwich stage dive anyone?), strings broken at key moments mid-show and me with no spare G or D. Relationships I knew were only going to lead straight to the sackcloth, or the therapist's couch, often embarked on just as I had a new record out. Split-second decisions made almost in defiance of good judgment and the resulting fallout that constitutes, if not the entire thing, then at least major portions of my adult life.

I blame a lot of it on being half-Irish. Who is more willfully negative and fatalistic than an Irishman or woman? Things are bound to mess up anyway, so having a hand in the disaster at least lends a sense of control.

But how to change something so ingrained, so much a part of my makeup? It would be like asking someone to have their dodgy eyes exchanged for a better pair. The new ones would help you see better, but all the adapting you'd learned, the odd perspective you'd grown up with and adjusted your behavior to, would have to go out the window. Leaving you more effective, possibly, but in a cold Children Of The Corn kind of way.

No, I decided that maybe the best course of action was to work with the bad habit. To embrace my contrariness. By cannily planning to do the opposite of what I should be doing, surely I might succeed about 50% of the time, due to ingrained bloody-mindedness and the law of averages?

So here are my new year's resolutions:

Drink more - one or two glasses of wine a night is not nearly enough. Why not aim for a whole bottle?

Why bother trying to maintain some kind of an artistic profile? Putting out records, busting my ass booking and playing shows, maintaining websites, trying to get promoters to put my name on the poster - why? Embrace obscurity. Demand to play in a darkened corner of the stage, wearing a hood, with my back to the audience. Become a "whatever happened to?", another Bobbie Gentry.

Accept that I may have already said everything I need to say. Exalt in the emptiness.

All my journals over the years sing the same sad refrain: "I need to make more money." "How can I make more money?" "There must be some way to make more money." Never seems to work. This year my goal is to earn less. Or nothing.

Stop worrying about getting in better shape. So what if my clothes no longer fit - that's what those big sweatpants they sell at the market in Chalus are for.

I have yet to begin investigating all the canned and frozen, heavily-processed food I see in the French supermarkets. Why fret about making balanced meals with fresh ingredients when there's a wealth of already-prepared exotic crap with high sugar and salt content to choose from?

Spend more time on the internet. There's probably a very good reason why I need to know what other movies the guy who plays Matthew McConaughey's buddy in "Failure To Launch" has been in. And while I'm checking that out, might as well take a look at Terry Bradshaw's bare ass scene from the same movie. Which reminds me, how have the Steelers done this year? Better check and see...

And on and on. By resolving to do worse, any promise I fail to keep will at very least keep me right back here at square one.