Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ma Poubelle Nouvelle

It's kind of like the woodburner. Last year, just in time for my birthday, Eric hooked up the second hand one we'd found through the classified ads. It had been a dream of mine, after seeing them in so many homes out in the country - the pile of logs in a corner, a cozy glow through the glass front, the dry warmth and crackling and popping and smoky smell. This thing was going to change me, or my image of myself - it wouldn't just be practical, but impart a new calm and wisdom that can only be achieved by staring into the flames.

The reality was different: logs that wouldn't stay lit, cold ash and charred wood in the morning, mess everywhere and, when the fire was finally going, heat that chapped your face and made half the room a no-go area. While the rest of the house stayed cold.

I'm not saying all woodburners are bad. I've seen good ones that stay lit all night long, that really do keep the whole room and even the room with the chimney running through above perfectly warm. This is a case of wrong woodburner, wrong room, bad logs.

That's how it is with France. Maybe I had a dream, a fantasy about the place. It's a common one for Americans, and the English too. You just say the words "I live in France" and people get a faraway look. They see Belmondo, think of the best meal they ever had in a tiny place they could never find again, picture Jeanne Moreau in a newsboy cap and Bardot in ballerina slippers and striped top. Or a towel, or nothing - sex. Countryside and castles, great thinkers. Wine and endless conversation. Art, intellect, sophistication. Freedom from pointless striving. A lot of people come here for that. I can't say I thought it through but knew it was something I wanted. Who wouldn't?

And all those things are real, at some point in time. But so are houses like peach-colored boxes, mountains of paperwork, websites that go nowhere, restaurants with fluorescent lighting and tiled floors and some of the worst food I've eaten in my life. Sidewalks with fences and planters and concrete balls stuck smack in the middle. Supermarkets with sullen checkout girls and food way past the sell-by date, markets with the same overpriced stuff you can buy at the supermarket. Stifling rules for everything. A general joylessness, or downright depressed feeling, almost everywhere you go. When there is somewhere to go - finding a place that's open when you want to go out is often impossible.

But honestly, I could probably take it all in stride, for the beauty, the idea, the genuinely lovely people I've met - if we could work here. If the gigs weren't so difficult.

Not just difficult - pointless.

Take Thursday night. We knew going into it that it was a pub, an ersatz Irish place run by an ex-madam and her husband, in the town of Angouleme. Last time we'd played over the din of talkers and drunks with a few actual listeners while the owner shook her estimable cleavage. Not great but not soul-destroying. It was my birthday and even though I would have liked a nice night out on the town I'd started to look forward to playing. We were hoping for a little more of a cultured crowd with the Festival de la Bande Desinee in town.

That brought a few people in, beyond the ploucs with money who make up a good part of the population (plouc is a kind of French hick). But in general it was a tough bar gig, and we made it through two sets with some enjoyment. No big deal, just a paying gig.

Hung around talking to some of those who'd been into it. Packed up and ready to start loading out at 1:00 AM or so when the ex-madam called me back behind the bar - time to get paid.

She wanted to know what our guarantee was and I told her. Then she started demanding how we could charge something like that and only play for two hours. She'd had too much too drink and kept counting out the money and shaking her head and barking at me that we had stopped playing at midnight! midnight! What kind of value was that? I asked her why she hadn't just asked us to play longer, when our stuff was still set up? I knew that it was because she'd been too busy carousing and hadn't been paying attention. Her husband was too drunk to get involved in anything that involved putting words together by now. She sort of threw the money at me and brought out their younger nephew who kept asking if I could honestly say we'd done enough work to earn the guarantee. Like he wanted to shame me into backing down.

But why were we having this discussion anyway? There is no way they would ever value what we had done and what we have to offer beyond it providing some noise and color for a corner of their lousy bar. So yeah, we got paid what we were supposed to. I'm not completely depressed now because we've already made the decision to leave.

Wrong woodburner, wrong room. Bad logs. We just don't fit here, as musicians. We're not "rock" enough, or "garage" enough, or "60's" enough, or "punk" enough. Or "musicianly" enough. We don't do enough songs everybody knows. And even if we did there's no place to play. Over the last four years the number of places willing to put on music has dwindled to almost nothing.

I'm not harboring any illusions cause we've been all over the US and UK, Spain, Ireland, Germany, and things are tough everywhere. But I'm thinking of this year's birthday treat - a new kitchen bin.

A new poubelle is nothing to get excited about. No fantasies of snuggling around the kitchen, gazing at the garbage can, taking turns putting things in it.

But a few days before my birthday this year, Eric installed one under the kitchen sink. You open the door and it swings out. I don't have to trip over the bin or look at it when I'm not using it. I had no expectations but the thing gives total satisfaction. Because it works.

That's all I want, when we move away from here. Something that works.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Got The Fève


Our friend Peter is here helping with painting and decorating which is going at a fever pitch. He brought along some films to watch at night but I swear all I can do is look at the paint surfaces, wood grain, brush strokes on walls and woodwork behind the actors. And to think when we first came here I couldn't bear to be in the attic - old dust and cobwebs, weird rusty farm implements, ancient poison bottles, tiny wooden shoes - all a little Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte or Baby Doll or Miss Havisham or the French equivalent of any of those for my delicate sensibilities. Now I feel like I know every stone, board, splinter and beam intimately as I'm jointing, sanding and painting all the walls and doors and windows that Eric put in. And it continues - will we ever be done? We know we're on our way out of this place, getting it ready to sell, but it feels good to keep it alive, make it better than it was. It had been empty for years and nobody (except us) would look at it twice. Now somebody else is going to love it, I just know it.

Mick brought his chainsaw and took down the unruly parts of a half dozen trees so now there are three or four bonfires worth of branches and trunks to deal with. I think I feel a music video (or at least an album cover photo shoot) coming on.

We have a show this week in Angouleme - January 27 at Le Kennedy Irish pub run by a French couple. It's the first day of the massive Festival International de la Bande Dessinee which is probably a little like Anthrocon but with cartoons instead of furries? It's my birthday that day and I was picturing a trip to a nice little restaurant, good food and wine - a chance to wear something other than paint-splattered clothes and the baseball hat I need in the attic because my head attracts low-hanging beams. Instead it's a gig which is how I've spent a good percentage of my birthdays over the last twenty-five or so years. It's probably the most natural thing to do. There is no doubt that playing is energizing and life-affirming, even if it's telling the people telling us to be quiet so they can converse to get lost. Stomping on a distortion pedal and blowing back what was left of that old guy's hair probably isn't on the menu for Thursday - I imagine the apero crowd will stay safely indoors with shutters bolted in place while the comics-mad youth run loose in the streets of Angouleme.

Two days until I go back to the doctor - the place where he hacked now resembles a botched nose piercing. I'm hopeful it'll be okay but if it's not apparently it can all be taken care of. Whatever happens with that I'm supposed to have good luck this year - I got the fève from the galette we ate the other night. The fève is a tiny porcelain favor baked into pastry and almond paste, one per cake. I think this one is something special - mysterious and alluring, it's just the kind of thing I came to France to find. I'm going to treasure it.

Friday, January 14, 2011


hortensia before

Got to move things along from yesterday's post - I feel bad about sharing something like that, really. Not that this is one of those upbeat I Love France sites or vibrant artist with so many creative irons in the fire sites or anything (though sometimes I really wish it was. Life would be so much easier than how it is right now, which is knowing we need to move on, really looking forward to it, but wondering how the hell to make it all happen.) The truth is whatever the writer feels like putting out there, right? So today I want to celebrate deadheading.

I took advice from our friend Mick who's coming by to do some recording tomorrow. He said it was a good time to cut back the hydrangeas, or hortensia, which grow like crazy in the summer and fill the courtyard with luminescent flower balls.

It was so satisfying, attacking these things. They were six and seven feet high in places, all brown and sad-looking. Now they've got crew cuts. Ready to be reborn in spring, to come back more lush and beautiful than ever.

And I've got a new blog post. There - that feels better!

hortensia after

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Who Loves The Sun

I'm trying not to freak out and panic after leaving the doctor's office two days ago looking like Jake Gittes post-reservoir.

I'd used the topical chemotherapy the doctor had prescribed for small but worrying sun spots and in some cases it seemed to be working. But this one, well he had to take a biopsy. Cut a tiny piece of skin from the side of my nose to send to a lab to diagnose for skin cancer.

He kept telling me, in French, that I'm too young for this, "how old are you again?" as if no one below senior citizen age in the history of modern civilization has had to deal with damage from the too much sun many of us had when we were young. Please, somebody tell me this happens all the time, nothing unusual, easily taken care of as long as the necessary steps are followed in a timely manner. Isn't that what you want a doctor to say?

The doctor knows I'm a performer - do you stand at the front or back of the stage? he asked, of course leaving me convinced I'll end up so disfigured I'll have to wear a veil for the rest of my life. Oh wait, they've banned the burka in France. So maybe if I have to I can learn to take it like a man, like Keith, flaunt the scars and dents.

So, if I'm a little silent, a little preoccupied, aside from a full home redecoration I'm waiting for the results of the lab test to help me figure out what I have to do next. And walking around looking vaguely dangerous.

Forget it. It's Chinatown.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Back Where You Belong

Our car was stolen a few months ago and we'd accepted that we'd never see it again. Came up with all kinds of exciting scenarios for how it had happened: Russian car theft rings, deranged farmers with wild dogs who come down to the villages and lift cars every now and then, chop shops - we thought we'd imagined every possibility.

But the reality was much less glamorous. Some country sad sack needed a ride home to the next village one night, and "d'uh, I take this one!" nicked our lowly Ford Escort from in front of the garage where it had recently been repaired. Left it sitting there, parked on the sparsely-traveled street, for almost two months. A local, noticing the blight on the landscape, eventually called the police.

They summoned us to the village where the garage is located back in October. The day a paper had come from the auto insurance company, asking Eric to verify his identity before they could proceed with any claims. We'd met with four policemen in front of a shabby, ancient barn, all of them tall and in knee-high polished black boots (and the rest of the gendarme outfit but it was the gleaming boots that captured my imagination). The tallest one with the little mustache r-o-l-l-e-d back the barn door and shined his flashlight in.

"Is this your automobile?" he asked.

Eric, overcome with emotion, hid his face in my shoulder, sobbing "Oh my God." (He didn't really, but as they were acting so CSI, it would have made sense.)

As he stepped forward to throw his arms around the car, one of the officers shouted, "Ne touchez pas la voiture!" They instructed us to circle the car, as they held up stuff they'd found inside. "Is this your...CD?" (The Eels! We thought it had been lost forever). "Two ancient pines cones?" Check. "Is this your...bag of garbage?" (Three empty water bottles and a crumpled boulangerie bag, present and accounted for!)

After all this verifying, they took Eric into the station where he signed a report. Then we went away on tour for two months.

This past Friday, we went back to the garage. Sitting out front, looking the cleanest it has in four years, doors unlocked (ahem), good as or better than it was before - the Ford Escort.

Happy New Year!