In my self-imposed exile in a city of complete strangers, I have only two situations in which I can count on speaking to any one at all, never mind in French. During the week, there are the archivists and librarians, my guinea pigs, who listen patiently as I attempt to explain just what the hell I’m trying to accomplish in Bordeaux. Because so few people here have heard about the subject of my work, Edmond Dédé, I get a lot of practice running through the highlights of his biography.

Over the weekend, I talk to the market people. On Saturday, at the Marché des Capucins, the level of French I speak now consists less often of, “how much was that again?” and more of “I could have sworn the Spanish cheese stall was on this side of the market. It’s over there? I’m completely lost.” Finding the stalls I prefer in the Capucins, especially on Saturday when whole families and their dogs jam the aisles, takes a little leg work.

Last Sunday morning, I walked a mile to the Chartrons district on the downriver side of town to an open-air market on the embankment. The best bread I’ve found in all of Bordeaux is here (can’t tell you the company’s name because they don’t post a sign. All I can tell you is that it’s the boulangerie stall furthest downriver on the river side). From a charcuterie stall, I bought a few slices of bone-in ham, cut off a big ham right there, and a small dried chorizo.

CrevettesIt’s the take-away food that I succumb to. Last week, even though it wasn’t even 11 am, I stopped for a cornet (paper cone) of griddle-seared crevettes sprinkled with an herb mixture. As the man slapped the shrimp around on the grill like a plasterer with a trowel, his wife asked me where I was from. “Oh, my niece lives in America!” I asked where. Pause. She couldn’t remember the name of the place. She turned to her husband, “What’s the name of that place where she lives?” “New York,” he said. It’s nice to be reminded that the Big Apple isn’t the center of everyone’s world. I wished them a bonne journée and walked off munching the shrimp.

DSC02350On my way home through the place des Quinquonces, a large ceremonial space with a monument to the Girondists, I witnessed a duel and its aftermath. Whatever.

This week at the Chartrons market, I skipped the crevettes and considered oysters with a small glass of wine — at 11 am. My first Sunday in Bordeaux I enacted a great 19th-century French idiom, tuer le ver. I killed the worm, which is to say, I hade a glass of something alcoholic for breakfast.

But this Sunday I decided to try something different: escargots. Not, mind you, the escargot that are the delightful excuse to deliver garlic, parsley, and olive oil into my system. Instead, I stopped at a stall where an idle, pleasant-looking man stood next to a big cauldron of escargot in a bacon-tomato-shallot-white wine sauce with a warm aftertaste of chile-pepper. He clearly belonged to the School of “Bacon Makes Everything Taste Better.” Not cheap, at 8.50 euros a small container. But very tasty. I learned his aunt lives in Carmel, California where [something unintelligible] lives. It took me 30 seconds to understand that he was saying “Clint Eastwood.” He loves California.

Escargot BxMy only other purchases today were a small roast chicken (7 euros), slices of grilled eggplant (5 euros), and a bottle of local hard cider (4 euros). I’m well stocked for a few days of intense writing. I have to finish a draft chapter for next Saturday, when I’ll be off to Biarritz for a little bit of vacation.

 

 
DSC02336  Would I emigrate to France for the cheese? Would it be worth moving here for the wine, since wine sales in France are falling (see here) and I’d have more of it to myself? The pâté, like the duck-fat dabbed smudge on a baguette slice I’m eating right now? The bread? (No, not the bread. That’s been the single biggest disappointment since I arrived in this city. I’ve found only one great boulangerie and it’s booth at a Sunday market.) Those are all reasons to come here occasionally. I don’t think I’d outlive a ten-year diet of that playlist.

But I might move here for the lettuce. These French people, they know their way around a head of lettuce. I see in the markets luscious bouquets of red-tinged and lime green leaves. For one euro, a market man forced on me two floribunda heads of lettuce that would look terrific as a centerpiece and I couldn’t say no.

Now, every night I dress my salad with Molly Wizenberg’s Bordeaux-appropriate delicious vinaigrette, available here (I add shallots), and munch on the lettuce while I keep the football teams company (to call what I do in front of the TV with the World Cup playing anything else would be inaccurate to an extreme. France just lost.).

Tomorrow is Saturday. Oysters!

 

For the past week, I have wandered around the city at large on my way to one library or another and have come to view Bordeaux very differently from the previous two times I was here. Bordeaux is a beige, bourgeois city. Uniformly pretty and perpetually mercantile. Most of the buildings are made of limestone, a favorite of eighteenth-century architects and builders — think Georgian England, the Cotswolds, and the city of Bath. Here, either the stone was either cheap or there must be plenty of it nearby because it’s everywhere you look. The city center, particularly in the areas that attract visitors, looks like the Place de la Bourse (above). Then, there’s the city inhabited by the bordelais, who apparently have come from elsewhere at some point. Bordeaux is, after all, a river port, and so immigration has long been a part of its history. My neighborhood, St Michel, contains French people of long descent, more recent immigrants from the francophone Middle East, African states, eastern Europe, and Spain and Portugal.

And they seemingly all turned up this morning at the flea market on the river, the produce market at the foot of the pilgrim church of St Michel, and at the Marché des Capucins — which is a completely different experience on the weekend than the sedate market I’ve shopped at during the week. Tapas bars, a stall serving food from the island of Réunion, Peruvian food, cheese stalls, charcuterie, butchers, Italian products, fresh produce, and fish and seafood are all in high gear on Saturdays.

I sat down at an oyster bar. A lively woman behind the counter whipped out a small wine glass, filled it, and put a napkin and small metal pail in front of me. I ordered a plate of 6 oysters and 6 shrimp. When she served them, I said with a touch of excitement in my voice that they were the first oysters I’ve had all year. “What? Did you take a vow?” The oysters and the wine sang to each other inside my mouth. As I peeled the shrimp and dropped the shells in the little pail, I watched a film crew walking backwards between the stalls as they filmed a small 50-ish man dressed in jeans, white t-shirt and vest,  wearing a beret and waving a baguette to emphasize whatever it was he was saying into the camera. He was, I’m sure, the only man in a square mile who was wearing a beret. A young woman next to me at the counter rolled her eyes. “Such a cliché.”

 

 

I am here in the city of Bordeaux to finish my book on a fellow who lived here for thirty-six years in second half of the nineteenth century. I know no one here. This is my third visit, but this one will be my longest to date. The previous two times I spent one and then two weeks here. This time, the pleasant studio I have rented in the St Michel quarter will be my home and work space from today, June 16, until September 1. My landlady, Catherine, and her husband and son live above.  As far as I can tell, she speaks no English. We’ve been communicating well, to my surprise. One week ago in California, someone spoke to me in French and I stammered to the point of incomprehensibility. My ability to speak French to a non-native French speaker in California felt like flailing and gasping for air in the shallow end of a pool. Here, in France, thrown head-first into the deep end, I rise to the surface and swim.

On the morning of my first day, I found it easier to settle in than I expected. Perhaps it will disappoint you to know that I found the Carrefour (think Safeway), the Bio C’Bon (think Natural Food Co-op), a good bread store that I will restrict myself to visiting twice a week, a cheese shop, and a wine shop. The fridge now contains almond butter, almond milk, soy sauce, salad greens, all my day-time vegan staples at home. On weekends, the carnivore in me comes out of its lair sniffing the air for the scent of blood.

My flat stands two blocks from the Marché des Capucins, the big covered market where all the city’s chefs reputedly shop. I see nothing precious or picturesque about this quarter, which is just fine with me. My landlady characterizes it as “populaire,” “of the people,” so to the speak. Stores for African ingredients, Middle Eastern food shops that also carry Vietnamese fish sauce, Moroccan restaurants, as well as fast food joints line the main streets of this area. Closer to the historic district, I found the Librairie Mollat, a huge independent bookstore. The clerk in the wine store pointed me in the direction of the Apple Store. We take the good with the global, and savor the amply infused sense of place tasted in the bread with golden crumb I had at lunch, the butter laced with orange zest and reminiscent of the city’s favorite orange-flavored apéritif, Lillet, and the flash-fried, unshelled tiny shrimps — crevettes — I popped in my mouth.

Good start. Now to work.

 

DSC01318The thought that I could be home by noon woke me up at 5:00 am in Tehachapi, California. After three restful days with relatives in Flagstaff, I hit the road on Saturday morning. Six o’clock on this Sunday morning, I stopped in at Starbucks. It was open. Opening time during the rest of the week is 4 am. I’m in trucker territory — although, come to think of it, I always pulled out of the trucker motels where I stayed earlier than any truck.

The drive from there to Tehachapi took longer than I thought. I’ve never driven across high plains and seen three distinct, simultaneous weather systems. Dark slate clouds and lightning to the left, sheets of rain in the distance to the right, blue skies ahead of me. By 10 am, I realized that the closer I got to home, the more tired I felt, even though I haven’t felt tired at any point during the trip.

One stop at my local grocery for supplies and then home. It took me half an hour to unload the car. It’ll take me several days to put everything back in order. I flopped on the couch and fell into a deep sleep for an hour. I’m home.

As I’ve already said to a couple of friends, I feel extraordinary lucky — maybe even cheated — that the worst I can say about any part of my trip is “been there, done that.” I’ve seen so many sites that I’ve always wanted to see and talked to so many strangers, visited much loved friends and family, that I’m afraid of the let-down in the days ahead.

Furthermore, I have also been highly conscious of how peculiarly American my trip has been. Perhaps it’s only the America of baby-boomers, to whom Route 66 means something and the price of gas is not intimidating. Every country has variegated cultures within its borders. Other countries, like Russia and China, have ethnic complexities of their own equal to ours. Unlike them (as far as I know), we have a romance with car travel. The vastness of this country means that it requires effort to sample a swathe of them. Our sense of distance is as relative as Einstein’s time/space continuum. Five hundred miles? No big deal.

Oddly enough, now that I’m home, the strongest urge I have at the moment is to get another dog. In other words, this trip helped me work through a restlessness that emerged after my last dog died two years ago. Now I’m ready to put down roots again.

Thanks to all of you who have read these posts. I’m ready for bed.

DSC01315What a relief to leave the oven that Phoenix is and head north to Flagstaff. Whenever I drive this road, I forget how beautiful the view is from the summit around the turn-off for Sedona. The temperature  plummeted. After a short rest at my family’s house south of Flag, we attended a wine dinner at Tinderbox, a very good restaurant in the city center. All the BBQ ribs and brisket I ate over the past month were nothing compared to the cold corn soup ladled over a piece of smoked butterfish and a scallop; the pea-shoot and arugula salad with beets and blue cheese; the mushroom and duck confit risotto with crispy thin onion rings; the thick slices of balsamic-fennel crusted lamb sirloin, roasted broccolini, and pan-sauteed new potatoes. Stop! Mercy! we fifty diners cried. Kevin Heinonen, owner, and his cousin, Scott Heinonen, the chef, really have something special here. I’ll never forget the fried housemade-baloney sandwich I ate there three years ago. The Jersey girl in me was in heaven.

Tehachapi on Saturday, home on Sunday.

DSC01307Twice in an hour emergency weather alerts buzzed and rattled our phones lying on the coffee table. “Emergency: Dust storm approaching. Do not travel.” We looked out Margaret’s tall south-facing windows overlooking Phoenix’s downtown. Maybe the sky looked a little pinker in the southwest corner, but, naah, nothing serious. Time to drive to dinner. I’d been looking forward for days to dining at True Foods in the Biltmore shopping. Vegetables, at last!

Within the time it took us to reach the garage, the sky took on an apocalyptic hue. Our trip to the restaurant turned into a race against the dust storm that was rolling right over the city in the same direction in which we were heading. Daylight almost disappeared two hours before it was scheduled to. The high winds buffeted cars on the road from side to side. The dust beat us to the corner of Camelback and 24th. We weren’t able to get inside the restaurant before the sand started, but we missed the sheets of rain that soon followed. Capacious flashes of lightning illuminated the tawny air like klieg lights on a movie set. I swear I saw a horizontal streak of electricity whip down the length of the parking lot. An earnest waiter, speaking in a soft funereal tone, gave us his spiel about how healthy and “non-inflammatory” and adaptable the menu was to patrons with all kinds of dietary restrictions. From our table, we had a clear view of Nature’s hissy fit while we ate a scrumptious meal (a good kale-lemon-parmesan-bread crumb salad with a woodsy mushroom-taleggio thin-crusted pizza). By the time, we headed to the car, the air was clear.

The True Food franchise, owned partly by the Tucson-based holistic physician Andrew Weil, has now reached southern California and Colorado. It would be nice to think they’re just teasing the healthy eaters of northern California by keeping us waiting.

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