Last August, I realized that I had reached a total shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment (apologies for the unfortunate expression) in writing my dissertation. As in, if I didn’t sit down that very minute and write the darn thing, there was no reason for me to keep pretending that I was going to finish the degree I had started when, well, if not when dinosaurs walked the earth, certainly well before my looks had faded and I turned into my current, mean old crone iteration. Appropriating the title of a rather unremarkable Asian Dub Foundation song that my college boyfriend had liked, August was declared “New Way New Life.” I woke with the sun, packed a PB&J, hauled my ass to the library, and staked out my favorite carrel. I wrote, in the great words of Cheryl Strayed, like a motherfucker. All day, every day that I wasn’t at my consulting gig.
At the end of the month, my dissertation wasn’t exactly done, but I at least had enough written that I felt I would have a fighting chance to enter the fall academic job market (snort, chortle, etc.). To half-heartedly celebrate, we decided to go to the beach in Newport for an afternoon and muck around on the jetty, known in these parts as the groin. As you well know, B positively lives for any imposing rock feature that he can scramble around on. We started out about an hour before sunset, easily making our way out on the initial stretch. Close to the shore, the boulders are tight against one another, making it easy to jump from one to the next. But it’s a really, really long jetty, you guys, and as you get further out, it becomes increasingly tougher going. In a grand tradition of bad footwear decisions, I was wearing sandals and found it difficult to keep my footing on the boulders, many of which were now slick with water from the rising tide and the waves crashing against the Balboa side. Lest you think I’m kidding about the size of these waves, take a quick Google of The Wedge. It was cold, I was miserable, but we just kept going. And going. And going.
As we neared the end, we started to reach groups of fishermen, many of whom make their living by fishing daily off the groin. It was of course mortifying to watch their nimble negotiation of the jetty rocks, as I flailed and slipped and scraped my hands. Nearing the end, I made my way over a particularly gnarly stretch only to find myself suddenly face-to-face with the bloated corpses of two big manta rays, likely abandoned by a bewildered amateur fisherman days or weeks earlier. They stunk to high heaven, and I was so startled that I actually screamed when I saw their putrid, cloudy grey eyes.
I thought, of course, of this:
The whole trip had taken on a totally manic quality by that point, and I was psychically overcome with fear as we neared the furthest reaches of the jetty. Fear that if I didn’t go all the way that B would be angry and disappointed in me, fear that we wouldn’t have enough light to navigate our way all the way back to the beach, fear that the tide would come in even higher and that I would slip and fall to my death. Fear, quite frankly, that I had reached some kind of turning point in my life where all of my good luck had run out and the darkness was descending. As we reached the lighthouse—rank with fish guts and littered with trash and used condoms—B awkwardly attempted to stage a romantic moment, putting his arm around me as the wind whipped through our hair. The stench was overpowering, and I choked back fear-or-fish-smell induced vomit, smiled weakly, and said, “Great, we’re halfway there.”
Yet somehow—and this I knew from years of hiking—the turn-around point is never really halfway. It’s actually much farther along. I found myself suddenly more agile on the rocks, deftly jumping over those dead mantas and nodding happily at the disinterested fishermen. B and I began to chat, and in this direction, we weren’t just talking about the best trajectory or how miserable I was. “You’re taking me to the Crab Cooker tonight,” I declared, “and I’m getting a cold beer and entire Dungeness all to myself.” B, who was likely amazed that I hadn’t chickened out much earlier, eagerly agreed to my terms. We jokingly began to compare climbing Newport jetty to the process of writing a dissertation. “Where are you in the writing now?” he asked. “Here!” I announced, just as we reached the final section where the boulders were suddenly closer together, smooth from the many casual feet that had only ventured this far. The beach was close, and I could practically taste my crab.
The Crab Cooker, for those of you not in the know, is a Balboa Peninsula institution that opened in 1951. I suspected it was a landmark of sorts when I first arrived in Orange County back in the dark ages, as my teenage guilty-pleasure show The OC had featured a thinly veiled “Crab Shack” in many episodes. The Crab Cooker is a small seafood market and a bigger restaurant, and it’s one of those remarkable places that just keeps doing the thing that they do well, year after year, paper plate after paper plate. Nothing is fancy, and the sides are pleasantly retro, but if you want a cup of soul-soothing clam chowder, some deep-fried soft shells, or a skewer of some of the plumpest scallops you’ll ever eat, this is the place. It’s touristy, and there is often a long wait, so we don’t go very often. But, I’ll tell you what, nothing has ever tasted as good as my cold Bud and my Dungeness crab did that night after we climbed the jetty.
If you’ll continue to humor this entry’s odd metaphor for a moment, I’ll confide to you that I was of course not even remotely as close to the finish line as I thought I was that night. Sadly, I was probably only at my first glimpse of the dead manta rays, nauseous with fear and still twenty yards from the lighthouse turn-around point. I still had to spend months searching endlessly for jobs, sick with worry like clockwork every morning at four a.m. I still had months of near-misses on dream gigs, punctuated by stomach-churning rejection letters from schools in places like Pocatello, Idaho (no offense). It was a real fish-gut-and-old-condom kind of experience, if I’m being totally honest. I still had another New Way New Life period in store for three weeks this spring, days where I battened down the hatches, snarled at anyone who came near my carrel, and wrote an introduction and a last-minute chapter. I wrote again, dear reader, like a motherfucker.
I’m happy to tell you that I have finally reached those smooth, evenly-set boulders. I sent my full dissertation to my committee a few weeks ago, and now I am just waiting for their scrawls of approval on my filing form. I have a bit of work to do—some copyediting, a bit of shuffling, a few citations. But I’m almost there. I think I’ll skip the climbing the jetty again and stick with the most delicious part of my reified analogy. I think you know where I’ll be going to dinner the night I officially file this damn thing. I’ll keep you posted.
Penned inside this enclosed microcosm in which everybody knows everybody, condemned without the possibility of escape or relief to live with others, beneath the gaze of others every individual experiences deep anxiety about ‘people’s words.’
– Pierre Bourdieu, “Différences et distinctions” 1966.
It’s strange to return to your blog’s statistics page after months of inactivity, especially when you discover all the myriad ways people arrive at your site while you are busy ignoring it. A lot of people arrive here searching for Aperol, Pasolini, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, Picasso in his marinière, and—a wee bit puzzlingly—piñata sex. But however they arrive, I’ll take it. Today somebody got here from a Paris-based wine blog’s entry about Breizh Café written in the spring of last year. My Hungerdome regarding some local crêperies received one of links in this oenophile’s annotated bibliography on the subject, which reads as follows:
A 2008 piece on Breizh Café @ DavidLebovitz, containing the benign authorial blunder of complaining about hipsters (really? in the Marais? how hip? hipster complaints invariably demonstrate an anxiety about cool equal to or greater than that which the author purports to disdain in those about whom he is complaining)
A recent comparison of Breizh Café and West Country Girl @ LesBonsBonsdesRaisons, unfortunately written in the voice of a 9-year-old game show host. (It also contains complaints about Marais hipsters. It’s like people walk into the Marais and turn into frowning Mormons, or something.)
Wow! This is a series of amazing firsts for me. First off, David Lebovitz is an unofficial deity among Paris food writers, so this is surely the first time anyone has ever voluntarily mentioned anything I’ve written and anything he’s done in the same breath. Secondly, I can’t say that I’ve ever been likened to 9-year-old game show host OR a frowning Mormon, much less in the same paragraph. I’m pleased, however, to finally have such a canny explanation for the deep lines that mysteriously arrived on my forehead during the two years I lived in the Marais (though admittedly not in the “nicer more genteel” neighborhood surrounding Breizh but rather smack dab in across the street from that shower show). It’s from anxiously scowling at all those goshdarn hipsters day in and day out! Thank goodness that Pierre has come back from the grave to diagnose old David and me!
Obviously I’m showing my thin skin here, but this did feel rather like being inexplicably kicked by a stranger on a crowded subway car. I recognize the impulse to link to other better-trafficked blogs of niche celebrities like Lebovitz, Clotilde Dusoulier, or Deb Perelman in an attempt to drum up traffic for one’s own writing, but I’m genuinely bewildered why someone would be compelled to shit on my unobtrusive and mostly uninhabited corner of the internet. Aren’t there bigger fish to fry? I guess there isn’t much more to say about it besides that, but it left a nasty taste in my mouth all afternoon.
Ugh, what a mess we are over here at the ranch. B admirably fought off my vicious übervirus for nearly two months, no small feat given our four foot square apartment and our luxurious two star hotels in Portugal: “Hey! Is that your foot or the shower head?!” But he has finally succumbed to the beast. Our home has turned into a contest as to who can cough the loudest. He’s trying his best, but his weakling four-day-old cold is absolutely no match for my mature demon. Having completely exhausted my supply of mucus and lung tissue, I’ve begun coughing up lost elementary school biology papers, pieces of swallowed gum, and lead paint I chipped off a desk and ate when I was seven years old. I’m digging deep, dear reader.
I must be a seriously miserable sick person to live with. I spend most of my time surfing the web, looking for alternative diagnoses, and coming to the conclusion that my swollen lymph nodes actually indicate that I have tuberculosis and spleen cancer. I inherited this charming case of hypochondria from my mother, who once concluded from an errant lab result and an afternoon spent on Web MD that she had early onset Alzheimer’s, which she announced to me right before we attended a production of Madame Butterfly. Fortunately, you are allowed to sob through the opera. Needless to say, she didn’t have Alzheimer’s, nor do I have tuberculosis or spleen cancer. The internet is an ugly place for people of our disposition. Let’s just say that B has begun to lose his patience with sentences that begin with “According to Wikipedia, gallbladder failure begins with a faint sense of doom…”
Yet despite our cacophony of coughs and my rabid internet-fueled death fears, we had a pretty lovely Valentine’s Day, if you happen to care. I know you didn’t ask about my Valentine’s Day, and barf to hearing about other people’s romantic holidays, am I right? But one particularly cool thing transpired, namely that B bought and killed his first live lobster! I guess sometime in the past six months I said that the most romantic thing I could think of was someone making me lobster bisque from scratch. I don’t even remember saying it—I have a brain like a sieve for anything other than pop song lyrics—but B remembered my weird little request and filed it away, likely on an Excel spreadsheet that he maintains for this very purpose. On Monday, he left work and tracked down this amazing creature:
I was still teaching rather late into the evening, a rather brutal graduate class I’ve been assigned in the school of education in which my students are twice my age and seem to arbitrarily resent about half of the things I tell them about the English language. Still, a steady stream of text messages from home kept me duly entertained:
Success! That fishmonger on Rivoli had a lively selection. What a beautiful boy!
He’s watching me chop the vegetables for the bisque! A great kitchen companion!
Can I touch it!? YES! [If this doesn’t ring a bell, scurry over here immediately and promptly make your own day.]
Goodbye my lobster friend!
OMG escape attempt! Thwarted!
OMG, he actually changed colors!! Why didn’t we charge the camera! Can I use the photobooth on your computer??
OMG, HE is a SHE! EGG SACK!
I came home to Sade and Stevie Wonder on the stereo, a perfect bouquet of orange tulips, a box of fancy chocolates, and fragments of lobster shell mysteriously shellacked to the walls of our kitchen. The bisque itself was a labor-intensive, resounding success. I often describe things as “sex on toast” (no idea where I got that one), but this was even better. It was like sex on a fresh blini. Always a stickler for the correct word, B explained that it less of a bisque and more of a chowder, as he decided to submerge a half-lobster’s worth of meat in each bowl upon serving (insert heaving sounds of joy here). He cobbled together his masterpiece from a mixture of French and English recipes, so I’ll try and convince him to give me the recipe to post here. There really is nothing like the slaying of a live animal to really let your lover know you care.
On Monday B and I went to the Préfecture du Police in an attempt to renew our paperwork so that we can continue legally living and working in France. Because, uh, it’s kind of unclear as to whether or not we are currently legal, a state of affairs that is strikingly reminiscent of the first three hazy months I spent in France. It was a dark time. I didn’t have hot water or internet or a bank account with money in it or real friends just yet, so I spent most of my time eating falafel and shivering next to my radiator. I had been told that renewing my contract and my visa would be a snap compared to last year. I should have seen this headache coming, but somehow in the halcyon days of summer it didn’t seem like anything could possibly go wrong.
Somehow, however, papers managed to not get filed by my employer to reauthorize me to work in France. I’m not blaming anyone, though I do suspect that the bug-eyed woman at my university who is supposed to be handling our affairs with the office of immigration might have slacked off a bit this summer. This woman has made an art form out of plaintively blinking and stammering. She’s an expert in this peculiarly French office-drone trick of passing the buck, usually down the hall to her unsuspecting colleagues. I guess that person exists in every office, in every corner of the world, but somehow it never makes you feel any better to know that when someone drops the ball and suddenly phrases like “You’re not getting paid!” and “You might be deported!” start getting tossed about. So I’m waiting, nervously, for a renewal of my “authorisation du travail” (work visa), so that my “carte de sejour” (life visa?) might also be renewed, so nobody can use my name and “deported” in the same sentence for a while.
“Visa” is a problematic term here, as is “carte de sejour,” “titre de sejour,” and “authorisation du travail.” I apparently have anywhere between one and all four of those, though I don’t actually have in my possession anything that is actually titled as such. So it’s difficult to say what paperwork needs to be filled out for renewal. I have no idea what that paperwork is actually called, and neither do the French people. There were some reforms made sometime recently, reforms that were supposed to make the process easier for people like us. You know, people who are only here for a limited period of time and make the equivalent of six sesame seeds in wages ever month. Apparently not everyone in the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that deals with foreigners has been alerted to these reforms, however, so the process that one goes through for renewal is decidedly unclear.
There are many of expat blogs devoted to bitching about French bureaucracy, which is admittedly Byzantine. If I could write a novel about it and make a million bucks I totally would, but I think that has already been done six hundred times or so. It hasn’t been that bad, not by a long shot, and I feel guilty when I bitch about the number of hours I’ve logged at various offices around town and seemingly millions of copies I’ve made for various applications that seem to go nowhere. Obviously, most foreigners that find themselves trying to work in countries like France and the United States have a much more difficult time than I do, which is why you shouldn’t be interested in my kvetching (and also why you should give Stephen Colbert a big giant round of applause for his recent testimony before Congress, the final moments of which we watch on a near-hourly basis).
So anyway, we went to the Préfecture on Monday with everything from our electric bill to x-rays of our lungs, all in triplicate, so that we might have the opportunity to continue teaching the youth of France outdated American idioms for another year. Oh, yeah, and so that I can also continue going to restaurants and taking pictures of things I eat and sharing them with you here. Let me tell you what, going to the Préfecture sucks. It’s the place where Marie Antoinette crashed the night before she hit the guillotine, people. To say that it has a lousy vibe would be the understatement of the year. After being nearly strip-searched at the entrance, you go into the special area for renewals. The smell of nervous foreigner body odor hits you like a wall when you walk in. You take a number, hope for a chair, and then wait for what feels like sixteen years, only so you can be told that you don’t have all the paperwork you need (even though you’ve brought everything on all seven different lists from four different websites that you’ve managed to get your hands on). They’ll give you what’s called a “recipisse,” which is basically a document with a stamp on it that certifies that you are indeed jumping through all the hoops that are being set in front of you, and this is apparently enough to keep working and living in France, that is, until you get your mother’s cousin’s birth certificate and your dead dog’s immunization records and return for another round in two months. It’s awful.
Despite having strictly-worded appointment times, B and I had to wait three hours to speak with our immigration officer. B, his usual cool-as-a-cucumber self, quietly read poetry and examined the maps on the walls. I sweated through my shirt, agonized about how I had filled out my forms, tapped my foot, and picked the cuticles on my thumbs until they bled. I had to pee about an hour in to the wait, but I was terrified that my number would be called if I went to the bathroom and they would deport me for my transgression. After another hour of fantasizing that I would actually wet myself when I sat down with my application, I finally decided it was worth the risk and went to the ladies room.
The bathrooms were horribly bleak, with no toilet seats and crusty door locks. The sink was a long, trough-like apparatus, with cold water and soap that smelled of ammonia. As I was washing my hands, I glanced down at the drain and saw a trail of blood that led to a cream-colored object. Horrified, I examined it more closely and discovered that someone had left a bloody tooth in the sink at the Préfecture. And not just a baby tooth or a little chip of a filling either – a huge, ghastly-looking molar with long bloody roots still attached. I gasped and redirected the steam of water so that I could turn it over and get a better look at it. I was so aghast that I almost went to get B so that he could see it.
What the hell happened there? I could just imagine some poor woman pulling out her own tooth, abandoning it, and then returning to the waiting room so she wouldn’t be deported, perhaps with a wad of toilet paper stuffed in the oozing socket. Can I admit something to you? I have to say that tooth kind of made me feel better about my day. I mean, no matter how bad things got for me from that moment forward, I wasn’t having the worst day possible. Not even close. Not by a long shot. I was practically relieved when I was told by the immigration official that my file was incomplete and that I would have to return again in two months. Paperwork! Paperwork is easy compared to extracting your own tooth in a dirty public restroom!
Anyway, I haven’t felt like I’ve had much to write about lately, but I knew I’d have to tell you about that tooth. Man, I wish I’d had my camera, though there were enough complaints about the cyst-popping video thing that I suppose that the really abject stuff isn’t what you really go for, dear reader. On the off chance that you are the one person reading this blog that really does go for the gross stuff, I’d love to direct you to my newest obsession: ear-wax extraction videos. There are lots of different kinds, but I like the medical ones where you actually go inside the person’s ear canal with some kind of amazing little camera and watch as whole giant slabs of crud are pulled out with tweezers, revealing the shiny clean eardrum beneath. The best part is when the person with the earwax clod goes “OH WOW!” because they can suddenly hear for the first time in like six years. They do it every time. There’s something comforting about that.
“What happened to you?” all six of you may be asking. I was doing so well, what with those ten thousand word accounts of my vacation that nobody was reading. I jest, of course. My mom and dad were reading them. I’m a real hit with my parents. I was really in the groove with this blogging thing. Then a few things happened that took me away from this little site, some happy and some stupid.
I’ll start with the happy: B moved in to my apartment. I don’t know what I was anxious to tell my family and friends about this development. My parents are old hippies that lived together for the better part of a decade before getting married, so I probably should have anticipated that they would regard this as good news. Half my friends are living in sin, for reasons that range from the deeply romantic to the flatly economic. Yet I still anticipated a chorus of “It’s too soon!” and “Young people these days move in together far too early!” and something about cows and milk and my rapidly degenerating looks. Well, either my looks have already degenerated to the place that everybody thinks I should just take whatever I can get, or B is actually a really terrific guy, because everyone I’ve told about this news has been nothing but congratulatory.
I’ll admit that it’s kind of a big deal for me, as I’ve never lived with anyone before. In fact, in the five years I’ve been living alone, I’ve been the poster child of judgment towards those who rush to cohabitation, projecting all my own fears onto the happy couples around me. Fun, right? To be honest, most of my previous relationships led me to assume that living with someone was going to be a huge pain in the ass. A lot of my relationships were with guys that owned giant Jagermeister posters and left Coors Light cans and dirty dishes around the house, the kind of men who looked at an empty garage or dining room and thought “What a perfect space for a beer pong table!” It had genuinely never occurred to me that living with someone could actually make my life better, or easier, or simply more fun. Living with B does all of those things.
One thing that is especially strange for me is that having him around 24/7 doesn’t annoy me. He left for a few days earlier this week and I spent the whole time moping around my apartment. I’ve realized that I actually like it much better when he is around than when he isn’t, something that might make anyone who has known me for a long time gasp. We’ve been having a really great time getting everything set up for the two of us, including purchasing a giant poster for our bedroom that reads “Après le fait, mais avant le déluge.” Cohabitation is awesome, people.
Now for the stupid stuff. First of all, I decided in B’s brief absence to do one of these juice/raw food detox things that I’m constantly reading about on the internets. I chose the one that Gwyneth Paltrow did on her lifestyle blog GOOP, which I read with rapt fascination week after week. Feel free to strip me of my intellectual street cred immediately. Anyway, it’s basically no red meat, alcohol, sugar, dairy, caffeine, shellfish, wheat products, and nothing in the nightshade family. Basically everything that comprises my totally hedonistic diet. I’d been having some lingering health problems that I won’t bore you with and I hoped that it would help me feel better. The good news: it did! The bad news: I would kill myself if I had to eat like for more than a week. All I could think about was my next disappointing meal. I literally spent the whole week fantasizing about the things I couldn’t eat, to the point where B actually came home to find me rolling around on the couch in a fugue state muttering “pizza.” Anyway, now I’m trying to exercise this horrible thing called “moderation,” which means that I haven’t really been going out to eat very much, given that the French philosophy of cooking tends toward adding more butter until delicious. We’ve also figured out though the process of elimination that I may have developed a late-life allergy to raw tomato skin, a realization that has sent me into a blithering state of mourning for BLTs and caprese salad. At the same time, I’m glad it isn’t something else and better, like cheese or cured meat or booze.
The other stupid thing: I fell down the stairs. I knew that this would happen eventually, what with the three flights of steep, slippery, uneven stairs that I pound up and down daily and my lifelong penchant for clumsiness. I could actually do an entire feature on the stupid injuries I’ve incurred over my lifetime. But I really nailed the stairs when it finally happened. I hadn’t seen B in a few days and was off to meet him at his old apartment. I had bought him a jar of tartufo (white truffle paste) as a gift, which I had in a bag in one hand, I wasn’t holding the railing because I was fumbling with my iPod with the other hand as I began running down the stairs, which happened to be wet because it was raining and my neighbor’s dog is like an animate sponge. I promptly slipped on the top stair and tumbled down an entire flight of twenty stairs, somehow managing to make it around a curve and crashing headfirst into my downstairs neighbor’s front door. I screamed the entire way down, so everyone in my building rushed out of their apartments to see what had happened. While I was really quite hurt, I was so mortified at the small crowd of concerned French people examining my crumpled limbs that I couldn’t do anything but aggressively apologize for the noise. One of my neighbors is apparently a doctor, and he looked me over in case I had a concussion (I bashed my head twice). The biggest casualties seemed to be my now black-and-blue ass, which took a significant percentage of the stairs, and my right arm, which looks like it received an Indian burn from Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1984. My left arm was miraculously unscathed, as I somehow managed to hold it high in the air as I fell so that I wouldn’t break the jar of tartufo. Yes, I’ll go ahead and say it for you: my priorities are probably pretty warped if I managed to protect a jar of mushroom paste over my skull.
I’ve effectively been a rickety mess since I fell, as everything seems to hurt and I’m nothing if not an excellent complainer. I’ve also been enjoying far too much the reaction that strangers have to my terrifying bruises. B and I were at the vegetable market yesterday and I noticed the cashier gawking at my arm as I handed him a bag of lettuce. The cashier immediately shot a hateful gaze at B, who smiled uncomfortably, unaware of his sudden interpellation as an abuser. I almost cracked up. B has since been enjoying telling people that I “fell down the stairs” in scare quotes. Domestic abuse isn’t funny, of course, but it’s helped to lighten the mood while I look like a human punching bag.
Anyway, sorry for being a slacker the past week. There will be new food-related content in the next few weeks, including the inaugural entry in a series called HUNGERDOME (two restaurants enter, one restaurant leaves!). See you soon!
First of all, I don’t even understand what I’m supposed to call this place. H. A. N. D. (39 rue de Richelieu, 75001 Paris, Métro: Palais Royale) stands for Have A Nice Day, but I don’t particularly want to call a restaurant a conversational pleasantry: “Do you want to go to Have A Nice Day for dinner tonight?” At the same time, it feels odd to spell out a recognizable word: “Do you want to go to H. A. N. D. for dinner tonight?” So I’ve been calling it Hand, which I also kind of hate, because who wants to eat a restaurant called hand?
So I was skeptical about the name from the very beginning, but my friend BC won me over with talk of a duck burger, slick interior design, and a good review in Le Fooding. I love duck! I love burgers! I love slick interior design! And Le Fooding is how I plan my week! But our attempts to eat at H. A. N. D. were foiled during BC’s final week in Paris, as it seemed to be either closed or too far out of the way every night we contemplated going. I’ve been pretty fixated on going since then, especially since B and I walked by the restaurant on our way to see the Rose C’est Paris exhibit at the BNF (resounding “eh” and I haven’t felt this bad about my boobs in years) and the slick interior design was resoundingly confirmed. H. A. N. D. is really darling inside with indigo walls, bare bulb light fixtures, antique globes, and stacked Campbell’s soup cans. The menu, a spare list of yummy-sounding burgers and a few other French bistro and American diner classics, was intriguing. I’ll admit that despite having eaten some good ones, I’m still on the search for the perfect burger in Paris. Despite their ubiquity here, burgers just aren’t quite what my good little American self wants them to be. As an aside: damn you, SoCal residents, for getting another location of The Counter within throwing range of my old abode.
All this is to say I had high hopes for our visit to H. A. N. D. on Tuesday night. B and I had met up with M at the Palais de Tokyo to take in their newest exhibit Dynasty. I keep going back to the Palais de Tokyo because I bought an annual pass during my initial museum-pass buying frenzy when I moved to Paris. We then discovered that if you have a student identification card and say you are an art history student, admission is free, a fact that never fails to piss me off when we enter the museum. On Tuesday night, our entry went something like this:
Ticket office employee: Eight euros.
B: Actually, I’m a student. An art history student.
Ticket office employee: Really? What kind of art history do you study?
B: Medieval art history.
Ticket office employee: (sighs) Okay. You’re free. Next?
M: I’m an art history student too.
Ticket office employee: Oh really! How convenient! And what kind of art history do you study?
M: (flustered) Uh, the same.
Ticket office employee: Are you kidding me? You also study medieval art history?
M: Uh, yes. I mean, no. Photography.
Ticket office employee: Medieval photography.
Ticket office employee: Okay. Here’s your ticket.
Obviously technological development and art history are not strong subjects at the American Apparel College for Future Hipster Museum Employees.
I have no idea why they decided to call this haphazard amalgamation Dynasty, as all that unites the work is the fact that it is new work by emerging young artists in France. Moreover, I seriously think that the Palais de Tokyo is actually trying to make me hate contemporary art entirely. The last several shows there have made me to nothing more than hit my forehead with the palm of my hand in frustration. While B carefully made his way through the exhibit, reading each unnecessarily cryptic description of each unnecessarily obtuse piece (you should see this guy in a museum that actually interests him!), M and I turned into ADD kindergarteners, taking silly pictures and making fun of our fellow museum goers. I can’t believe she’s leaving me for a month.
After a frustrating visit, I convinced everyone that H. A. N. D. would be the salvation of our evening. What couldn’t a duck burger improve? So we strolled into the first arrondissement for dinner, something we really never do unless we are getting Japanese. At first, everyone was happy with our choice. The restaurant is so cute! The staff is friendly! The menu is on a chalkboard! I chose the Super Duck, an anatine patty topped with sautéed mushrooms and melted chèvre. B chose the Cheese + + +, a regular beef burger with three different kinds of cheese. M chose the steak tartare as she is leaving Paris for a month and wanted a final fix before she left.
I’ll start with the good news.
B’s burger wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t the best burger in Paris, but it certainly wasn’t the worst (that honor goes to Café Francoeur in Montmartre). H. A. N. D.’s burger was at least properly cooked! The fries were soggy and the bun was stale, but hey, it was edible.
Less edible was my “duck” burger. First off all, let’s be frank: it wasn’t made of duck. Lamb, possibly. Or maybe a strange cut of beef. But waterfowl never even got close to that burger. The mystery meat was dry, dense, and strangely mealy. The cheese and the mushrooms were good, however, and after drowning the whole operation in mayonnaise, I got it down.
But then there was this:
Let’s just say I didn’t want to have to do this, H. A. N. D.
When we told you, H. A. N. D., that the steak tartare was “pas correcte,” what we actually meant was: “This steak tartare was completely inedible. It is at once mushy and sinewy, and it is dark brown! Frankly, it looks like someone defecated on the plate! That this dish would be served at any restaurant in Paris is an insult to French food! You should immediately fire your chef and your beef supplier. Short of this, you should at least remedy the situation and remove this atrocity from our bill, as my poor friend only ate two gracious bites before turning pale, quivering slightly, and setting down her fork for the rest of the evening. Shame on you! Make this right!”
I have to say that here is a difference in ethos between French and American restaurants. You say something is gross or inedible in the States and you can pretty much expect that it will be taken off the bill. H. A. N. D. even shocked me by French standards, as saying something is “not correct” in France is basically the most significant objection you can make to a dish. I almost hit the roof when we discovered that they still charged us for the steak tartare. I wouldn’t have even written this review if they had adjusted the bill properly. But they didn’t, so here we go:
Please don’t patronize this restaurant. They will lure you in with their kitschy décor and their cute typeface. You’ll make stupid American assumptions, like “How could they mess up a burger?” But something is not right here, people. Something is not right with the meat. Off-putting meat is the place where even I, devoted patron of sketchy taco trucks and guys who sell things out of coolers outside of nightclubs, draw the line. One of the best things about France is that meat is of such better quality across the board (largely because Europe has outlawed such terrifying practices as the use growth hormones in factory farms). So a place like H. A. N. D. that should specialize in high-end beef comes as a complete shock and something that nobody should put up with (especially not for a 14 euro hamburger – at current conversion rates, that’s $18.26). Frankly, I’m surprised and relieved that no one got sick from our visit. You might not be so lucky.
So when we last left our travelers they were having an amazing time in Sardinia, eating lobster and smug in the knowledge that they had succeeded in their careful planning of the trip and assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong. They were getting along famously, having cultivated a series of running dumb jokes and finally bested the first rounds of mosquito bites from Corsica. The day in question began innocently enough. The plan: leisurely drive through inland Sardinia, stop at Su Nuraxi (ostensibly the mother of all prehistoric sites on the island), and arrive in Cagliari in the early afternoon to drop off the rental car and spend one night before flying to Sicily.
I knew we were in trouble within the first hour of driving. Despite being a breathtakingly beautiful road, I realized that reaching tiny towns on the map was much, much slower than we had anticipated, thanks to mountainous terrain and perpetual switchbacks that made driving over 20 mph nearly impossible. My penchant for carsickness when I’m not driving kicked in after an hour, so we switched positions. Soon B was carsick as well, but nauseous and cranky, we drove on. And on. And on. A trip that we had anticipated taking three hours in total gradually consumed the whole day. We couldn’t find anywhere to eat lunch, and were forced to stop at a terrible hotel restaurant where we ate something so pitiful that I’ve blocked it out entirely. And then we kept driving, and driving.
One nice detour came in Ghilarza, the town that is best known as the childhood home of the political theorist Antonio Gramsci. The town now houses the Casa di Gramsci, a small museum and research center. As we are theory dorks of the first order, we stopped and marveled at the small collection, which included many of the books Gramsci’s personal library:
Here you can see his signature glasses:
We especially liked looking at his old report cards from school:
After taking corny photographs of ourselves next to Gramsci’s portrait (geek love!) and chatting up the lovely woman running the museum, we bought souvenir t-shirts and postcards, brushing aside of the irony of buying consumerist clutter to commemorate one of the most important communist thinkers of the twentieth century. Pish posh. Revived, we began driving again.
Another seven hundred nauseous hours later, we finally arrived at Su Nuraxi. Now, I’m sure my dear reader already knows this, but Sardinia is literally chock-a-block with these enormous piles of rocks called nuraghi that were actually the dwellings of pre-Roman Sardinians. The largest of pile of rocks is Su Nuraxi, a prehistoric military fortress that was also used by the Phoenicians and the Romans. Dating from 1500 BC, it’s a massive archeological find and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now, let me just say that this kind of thing isn’t particularly my bag. But B had been incredibly patient about all of the aspects of our journey that were important to me, including pretending that “second lunch” is a legitimate meal. And we had been largely daunted in our attempts to see cool prehistoric things until now. In Corsica, we were unable to visit Cauria without a car and the Museum of the Prehistory (sic) was like watching paint dry. In Sardinia, we were perpetually thwarted in our attempts to visit sites of archeological interest: the Nuraghic village we had attempted to visit near Oliena was closed, Tharros was obscenely expensive to visit and my boyfriend is cheap (sorry, that one slipped out), and the dolmen we tried to find in a cornfield based on a shitty road map was, well, nonexistent. I felt like I owed B this damn nuraghi. But I was tired and terse, and the winding roads we were forced to take to visit Su Nuraxi had easily tripled the length of the drive to Cagliari. After driving around in circles in the town of Barùmini like idiots for a half hour or so, we finally found Su Nuraxi. We quickly discovered that you can’t just wander around the thing unattended, but are required to take a guided tour. When B started to balk at the ticket price and the idea of a guided tour, I hissed at him that I didn’t care if it cost a hundred dollars and our tourguide only spoke gibberish if that was what it took visit this damn nuraghi. So we forked over fourteen euro and waited semi-patiently for our tour guide. While we browsed the gift shop and contemplated buying a neon nuraghi-shaped ashtray, B got to listen to my conspiracy theories about the site, namely that it wasn’t actually a prehistoric fortress but instead a canny scam built by a bunch of unemployed Barùmini locals after World War II. Of course he tried to contradict my (flawless!) logic with his knowledge of fancy things like carbon dating, but I was feeling petty and continued to pretend I thought it was hoax to get his goat. It worked.
After about twenty minutes we were joined by our guide, a sharp young archeologist. The tour was actually pretty cool, as you get to climb into the nuraghi itself and explore the various towers. Our guide patiently and adeptly answered all of our questions despite her shaky English and our pathetic Italian. The only moment of embarrassment came when B happened upon a giant slab of granite and asked “Is this where the sacrifices happened?” Our tour guide didn’t understand the question at first, and so B decided to pantomime human sacrifice by throwing me down on the slab and air-stabbing at me Psycho shower-scene style. While I’m sure it was a nice release of tension for B, our tour guide seemed horrified at the implication that the Nuraghic people were human-sacrificing barbarians, which of course prompted a long rant from B later about the European archeological disavowal of sacrifice in its early cultures. I don’t know much about these things, but I can say that I’m happy to not be a Nuraghic person. As far as I could tell, all they really did was haul giant rocks around and fight neighboring tribes. I can’t imagine that life for women was anything other than nasty, brutish, and short, a sentiment that I demonstrated in a series of hi-larious photos in which I pretended to be a Nuraghic person. But seriously, not to sound too hippy-dippy about things, but there was something really off about the way that some of the spaces inside of Su Nuraxi felt. One tower in a particular gave both B and I a terrible vibe. I attribute this to the pack of killer mosquitoes that descended upon me and nearly ate me alive. B attributes it to a “palpable feeling of evil.” Guess which one of us knows more about tarot and astrology? Either way, it gave both of us the creeps and while we were pleased to have successfully visited the site, neither of us wanted to stick around too long.
Returning to the Panda, I realized I was now covered in inexplicably bloody mosquito bites and we both were completely sick of driving. But it was only an hour or so to Cagliari. Our plan was to drop off our bags at our hotel, drive to the nearby airport to drop off the rental car, take a bus back into town, and explore Cagliari for the evening. And while I guess that is basically the series of events that ensued, each step was so comically thwarted and difficult that the evening damn near killed us.
As we reached the periphery of the city, B discovered that somehow we had managed to omit the address of our hotel on our meticulously typed itinerary. Initially we assumed we would see signs for the hotel, but quickly discovered that Cagliari was a properly chaotic Italian city, full of angry drivers, poorly marked signage, and an impossibly difficult layout. It took two hours in a paid parking spot (expensive! listen for it…), a visit to the tourist office (worthless! keep listening…) and an internet café (more expensive! keep listening…), and three passes on the most bizarre one-way street I have ever encountered to find our goddamn hotel (… and there it is! the sound of our brains exploding with frustration!). At some point in this narrative I morphed into the most annoying backseat driver in the history of time (my mother): clutching the armrest, squealing in fear or gasping in frustration with every single thing B did as a driver, and providing a running narrative of everything going on outside the car (“Oh my god, there’s two people trying to cross the street! Oh my god, there’s a car in the left lane! Oh my god, this is a one-way street!”). While I thought this was helpful, I slowly realized that B was on his last frayed nerve and I was strumming it like a banjo.
After we dropped our bags at the hotel, we hopped in the car and with a minor amount of yelling arrived at the airport. Expecting to find a gas station directly next to the airport, we had waited to fill up the gas tank as we needed to return the car full. I was especially panicked about being charged some ridiculous fill-up fee, so I insisted that we follow the letter of the law on this particular issue. Except…there wasn’t a gas station near the airport. Or anywhere near the airport. Cut to us driving around in an industrial park for a half an hour searching for one until we decided to head back into Cagliari to get gas. I was about to cry with anxiety and frustration, and B’s knuckles were white as he clutched the steering wheel. We finally happened upon a self-serve Agip outside of town. No problem, we thought. Despite the fact that we had only encountered full-service gas stations thus far on our trip, we both assumed that we could properly fill up a car given that we have both been driving for more than a decade.
Wrong wrong wrong. As I sat in the car waiting for B to fill up, I heard him struggling near the fuel tank. I got out of the car to find him drenched in gasoline and cursing like a madman. The machine, which only accepted Italian credit cards and cash, had already eaten ten euros and B had failed to even get the nozzle into the fuel tank. Cocky, I snatched the nozzle from B and attempted to fill up the car by inserting yet another ten euro bill into the machine, only to discover that the nozzle really didn’t fit into the gas tank when the gasoline gushed out and covered me as well. At this point we both entered the climax phase of our frustration. I began yelling obscenities about Italy. B shut down into a terrifyingly silent rage. A kind guy who was filling up his own car observed our meltdown and offered to help, showing us that we were actually trying to put diesel in the car, hence the mis-sized nozzle. After depositing another ten euro bill and some effusive thanks to our good Samaritan, we were back on the road to the airport. At this point, we were barely speaking to one another, as of course the logical thing to do when the world fucks you over is to take it out on your partner. When the location of the entrance to the Eurocar parking lot was unclear, B declared with rumbling rage that he would abandon the car in a ditch before he left the airport again. I snapped back that it was easy to talk about abandoning the rental car when it wasn’t his credit card that Eurocar had on file, wasn’t it? We were near total emotional collapse. We managed to find the lot and the check-in counter, and at first everything seemed to be fine. The car was in perfect shape, making me regret the extra insurance that I had insisted we purchase from superego-induced dread, nearly doubling the cost of the car. It was only when I demanded a receipt that we discovered (wait for it!) that due to our many detours and hang ups, we had missed the return deadline and were going to be charged for an additional day. With our absurd amount of collision and theft coverage, this would total over a hundred euros. It wasn’t the money, exactly, but the aggregated frustration from our afternoon caused me to double over under the counter and begin weeping. B launched into a loud and elaborate defense of our heinous attempts to get gas in the car, culminating in him thrusting his gasoline-soaked hand in the face the rental car employee and demanding that she “SMELL MY HAND!” as proof of our struggle. She declined, politely, and said that there was nothing to be done. We were in Europe, after all, where the customer is decidedly not king and nobody gives a damn if you threaten to never patronize them again. She wished us a good evening and we left, B shaking with rage and me crying into my gasoline-soaked sleeve.
As we waited for the bus back into town, we slowly recovered from the afternoon and our first real fight. After airing all sorts of anxieties and worries and hurts that had nothing to do with killer mosquitoes, long drives, lost addresses, or rental cars, we recovered and decided that we would continue the trip. By the time we boarded the bus, we were nauseatingly lovey-dovey again.
Returning to Cagliari, we were famished and exhausted, if decidedly happier with one another and relieved that the mess was finally over. We decided that the best remedy was gelato. We had read about the enormous Isola del Gelato (Piazza Yenne 35) with greedy anticipation and agreed that we needed ice cream before even contemplating finding a place for dinner. Isola del Gelato is a seriously enormous place, with whole counters dedicated to fruit sorbet, soy and other dairy-alternative ice cream, sour frozen yogurt, and semi-freddo (logs of layered frozen mousse and cake). Perhaps most impressive (if unappetizing) is their fantasy counter, where giant mounds of gelato are decorated to look like a children’s dreams of mountains of candy and ice cream, complete with bubblegum avalanches and tiny chocolate mountaineers. I have no idea what flavors we chose, but I remember enjoying the experience.
After our gelato-and-rally, we strolled through town to Il Fantasma (Via San Domenico 94), which our guidebook described as having the best pizza in town. While it was quite a walk, we enjoyed wandering through the hustle of dirty Cagliari, which I can now say resembles Sicily more than it does Sardinia. Il Fantasma was a homey place with perhaps the worst wall treatment I’ve ever seen in my life. The pizza was fantastic, however, and staggeringly inexpensive to our Paris-acclimated eyes. Two enormous pizzas and four pints of beer set us back only twenty euros, which helped alleviate the pain of wounds still smarting from the gas station and rental car counter. It’s a great little restaurant and our evening made me wish that we had a bit more time to explore Cagliari.
That is until we returned to our seemingly innocuous hotel room and discovered that the central air conditioning unit made a buzzing noise the likes of which I’d never encountered. It was perhaps the single most annoying noise ever produced by an air conditioning unit: loud, erratic, grating, and impossible to turn off. We tossed and turned in frustration, neither of us sleeping a wink until our alarm sounded at four-thirty a.m. so we could catch our cab to the airport, the very airport we had left just eight hours earlier. I can’t say we were unhappy to put that leg of our journey to bed.
Next up: We head to Sicily! Get ready, the grungy part of our vacation is beginning. Palermo is just as bad as you’ve heard, maybe worse! Stay tuned!