Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Calendar Boys

It's that time of year when the local fire department comes around with their calendars, accepting donations for the work they do.

People joke about how you better not stiff these guys, because they might hold it against you and ignore your call if you should ever need their help. I doubt that's true but it would be rude to not pony up and deny them the chance to give you a copy of their specially-designed calendar.

It might make sense to go with the old standard and use pictures on the calendar that make it something cheery to hang on a wall: flowers or puppies or local chateaux or firefighters in provocative poses.

But that would all be too random, too ordinary. I'm not sure what it's like in other towns and villages in France, but around here the calendars are absolutely literal: burning houses, cars turned upside down in flames, vans wrapped around light poles. They'd show one of the men in blue getting a kitten out of a tree but that would probably be too cutesy and might bring a smile and a warm fuzzy feeling - this is cold, hard firefighter reality and if you want to be reminded of where your donation is going, just check out the head-on collision for March.

I celebrate the sapeurs-pompiers and their calendar. I hope that none of the lurid photos in this year's version involved any injuries or loss of life - would they have remembered to ask permission to use the photos?

I'm a little miffed they left out the exploding woodburner.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas


No kids, no tree, no lights.

We're having a quiet Christmas: unpacking from almost two months of traveling, and trying to whip this house into shape. Eric has tiled the kitchen, I'm on caulk gun and undercoat.

No foie gras this year, just a couple of steaks and some Champagne. Chocolate treats from my favorite patisserie.

A Steve McQueen film fest, and maybe "A Mighty Wind" which we know so well we don't really watch it so much as act out all the parts.

This morning we walked in a nearby village - checking out what's for sale, what's been sold. Looking at smoke coming up out of the chimneys, and a little bit of snow on the roof tiles. It was cold but lovely, walking in the sunshine.

Our fifth Christmas in France. I wanted to take some photos this morning but decided to just look and think about the other years.

We miss everybody but feel lucky to have seen my whole family in America and Eric's mother, daughter and granddaughter in England this month, along with lots of our dear friends.

I feel happy to be here with Eric, a musical hero who can tile a kitchen. And having had the chance to go out and play a lot of shows this year. I want to say thank you to everyone who visits this blog. I know I spend a lot of time on here complaining, crying "Why?" etc. I know I'll be doing that again soon. But it's Christmas, a time for celebrating. It's been a hard year and we made it through.

I could spin a holiday story about this display of two hulking wooden figures that sit in a parking lot in Nontron, a dull, pretty town famous for knives. But I won't - I just know that it makes me laugh every time I see it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Running Between The Snowflakes


For days the British headlines screamed warnings of a snowstorm, freezing temperatures and icy roads. They urged people to say home, but where was home for us? We were on the road and still had gigs to play.

Maybe we died a few weeks ago in New Jersey, in the parking lot of that rogue Alamo car rental office out back of the Renaissance hotel on Route 1, and were now zombies doomed to criss-cross the highways and motorways and autoroutes of the world with a van full of battered equipment, loading in to bars and clubs and beautiful homes and even Boy Scout lodges at 5 PM for all eternity. That might explain the fact that we drove from the south of England all the way to the north of England, then traveled east to Norfolk, then back south to Kent and over to Dover and barely saw a snowflake.

It might also explain why the roads were practically empty. Like Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense, we could only see the other zombies? Those rosy cheeked other customers in Costa Coffee - all dead? (The employees too, but that's nothing unusual.)

Occasionally we'd pass a car covered with snow, panic-stricken driver gripping the wheel inside, peering out through frosted windscreen. Meanwhile we cruised along in a ray of sunshine.

At every stop along the way, we were greeted with concern: "How was it out there? Was it awful? Can't believe you made it!" and we shook our heads, wondering what everyone was talking about. Eric's mother called, frantic that we were stranded somewhere. She'd been so worried we wouldn't make our gigs, she'd tucked some money in one of our bags, just in case.

The fact that we'd left our mobile phone behind somewhere in America only added to the drama/Sixth Sense scenario - people trying to get in touch with us got a mysterious "not available" message. And every time we stopped at a services and looked for a payphone, we'd see another rack of newspapers shrieking of certain peril for anyone on the road and we'd rush back to the van to try to beat the snowstorm that was coming from...everywhere.

When we reached the ferry and were ensconced with the lorry drivers and other zombies in yet another Costa Coffee, drinking our espressos and reading of Heathrow passengers stranded for days and driving expert Jeremy Clarkson having to ditch his car and walk 11 miles in the snow to Oxford, they made an announcement that our departure would be delayed: they had to board three busloads of foot passengers who'd been stranded at a train station in London due to weather.

When they finally let the weary hordes onto the boat, hollow-eyed, lugging their rolling suitcases, looking like every banished contestant from every reality show ever broadcast all brought together in one mismatched bunch, we had to chuckle at our good fortune.

No passport check at Calais, to prove we still really existed. That's not so unusual - they generally can't be bothered. And for hours through the frozen French countryside, as fog swirled and trucks sprayed, we held on to the idea that we were the only people, living or dead, left on the earth. France has that effect sometimes, especially after England - where did all the people go? Through empty towns with boarded up gas stations and eerie Christmas lights blinking on and off, until the snow had run out and we pulled up in front of the house.

I walked up to the supermarket, the air wet with rain and warmer, much warmer. Complete silence - maybe we had come back to our final resting place, a small village in rural France.

When the door slid back, I saw mounds of gift-wrapped foie gras and stacks of fancy chocolate boxes that would no doubt sit gathering dust in the recipients' houses until they were passed on next Christmas. I heard Ace of Base, who are always playing in some supermarket in France, as if the last twenty years never happened.

And there, in the glow of the cash register, I saw the beady eyes of Rat Face - evil checkout girl. Nothing had changed. I was still alive.

Or maybe that piece of candy I stole from the Giant Eagle when I was six had finally caught up with me and just like Sister Mary George warned, this was how I was going to spend eternity?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jetlagged Ramblings

Flying over to England the plane was filled with glamorous women with glossy long highlighted hair, expensive jeans and suitcases too heavy for their scrawny arms to lift into the overheads. I kept imagining that if the plane went down all that would remain would be hair products, bobbing up and down on the surface of the Atlantic.

I slept for a while after watching "The Kids Are All Right" for the second time. I loved this movie - Annette Bening's performance is right up there with Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter and Paul Giamatti in Sideways for having me on the verge of tears throughout the entire film - awe and emotion, "how did she do that?"

The first time I'd seen the movie was on the way over to the US, back when I was still almost young (ie one month ago). Then, the main question in my head was how I'd survive touring with a hideous cold.

Now, heading back overseas, I was still trying to process all the things I'd seen and done on the trip.

It was screens that I remembered, that kept flashing in front of my eyes: the screen of my ersatz iphone, the EZ Pass LEDs, hotel and motel flat screens. The laptop on stage, laptops in cafes. People in the audience for the Hanukkah show looking at Facebook on their iPhones - why? Movies in movie theatres, chosen not for their merit but because they happened to be playing at the right moment - and how movies are filled with laptops and iphones now, as part of the action. Just as I used to enjoy watching movies from the 40s and 50s for the vintage clothes and apartment furnishings, I now find myself enjoying dumb romantic comedies from the 80s and 90s for the lack of technology - who cares about plot and dialogue, just see how the actors manouevre with phone cords and shoving coins into payphone coin slots, offices where people flip through rolodexes and file cards, slide folders across arid desktops.

Public bathrooms, where everything is automated now - you don't have to touch a tap or a soap dispenser. Wave your hand for a paper towel. And in all the rest rooms, or hotel bathrooms, you never really know what you look like, only that some mirrors are forgiving and some are brutal.

Have I been away awhile, or have servers in restaurants become even more aggressive in their "I'll be taking care of you today" insincerity - shamelessly working the tip, only to disappear midway through without a word, replaced by another "team member"? We count sometimes no less than six people to deal with in order to eat lunch at say, Bravo - a chain Italian restaurant. By the time we pay the bill, I feel like we should have a brand new set of friends for life. But we walk out to not even a robotic "thanks and come again" because the team has moved on.

At the same time some of the lowlier service workers, at Walgreen's or Shoprite, seem sincere and sweet in comparison to the disinterested, disdainful and often downright hostile people (well, women - always women) in similar jobs in France.

Did I mention the shows? We had audiences, and fans! Attendance is down for everything but it still feels worth it (though the balance sheet would argue with that - when, how, will I ever figure out how to make a living?). They really rub it in at the airport, charging $60 per extra bag, which takes a Russian American/British Airways attendant forever to process due to the combined computer systems - while you wait there's a stack of magazines full of exotic expensive homes and sleek motorcars to buy. Where are the rich people? I just see families with taped-up cardboard boxes and shrink-wrapped luggage begging to get out of paying the extra $60. Us included ("waive the fee! waive the fee!" we chant for the 45 minutes it takes to accept our payment).

The Newark crew were whooping it up as the carry-ons rolled through, cracking jokes and helping us get the guitars safely off the belt. Where were the full-body scanners we'd been promised? All I saw were ads for in the bins to be passed through the xray machine. The security guard waved me away when I asked if we needed plastic bags for liquids and gels - "Aw, they don't do that no more." The rules change daily. No wonder the fashion brigade looked so fabulous all through the flight.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

We Were The Washington Monument

There was one guy in the room, standing in front of the stage, as a Zombies record played and showtime drew nearer.

"It is what it is," I said to Eric backstage, repeating a phrase I'd often heard in the short time I lived in Cleveland and never completely understood. "Stuart's here, out in the bar, and my older brother John. Alan said he'd be coming, and maybe Graeme too. My old friend Sarah...and with the guy in front of the stage, that makes - an audience?"

"We'll play and it'll be fine," Eric said.

"Should I wear this dress?" I asked him, looking at myself in the mirror. Remembering that stupid drunk guy in Brighton, worried I'd look like I had expectations.

"Of course," he said. "You look great."

"Let's go then," I said and we laughed and did that little show folk thing that Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara do in "Waiting For Guffman" - click click, sad face happy face, pull my finger.

There were seven in front of the stage now. We started playing the opening song and like magic the room was filling up. Familiar faces and sort of familiar faces and guys in suits and ties youngish people and ones with white hair and glasses. People in black rock and roll t-shirts and work clothes.

It was Washington DC on a Wednesday night and the room was suddenly full of people who'd come to see us play. There was laughing and shouting, pogoing and clapping. Croatians, Russians, people from England and the beltway. It was the last show of a winter US tour I'd looked forward to and then been too sick and out of it on cold medicine to fully appreciate. I didn't want it to end.