jeudi, décembre 22, 2005

05.12.22: Foggy day along the Meuse


I had a few days to do some exploring, so I thought I'd check out some of the places Grandpa stayed when he was here. So, here is the story of what I found.

Drove east out of Paris for 2 hours on A4, then exit and continue on, mostly further east and a little north. At every intersection, take the smaller of the two roads, until finally all of the roads are barely one-and-half cars wide, just ambling through the French country side. All small towns. To an American driving through on a cold December morning, they all look the same. Agricultural countryside, crops long since harvested for the year, winter rye showing through the frost. Towns spaced about every 10 km. Rolling hills, reminiscient of western Kentucky, without the split rail fences, and without the roadside advertising.

All the towns have really only four identifiable features, and three of them are the same for each town.

The black lettering on the white sign to tell you where you are on the map; about 10 or 15 old grey buildings, older than memory, serving as either houses, cow barns, or maybe a local general store;

a church in the center of the town, the tallest structure;

and next to the church, a memorial to the local men who served, and mostly died, between 1914-18.

Rolled through a slightly larger town, Varennes-en-Argonne. Looked strangely familiar. I think, perhaps, Grandpa was here. Can you check his stack of photographs?
This is what it looks like today:

I seem to remember a similar photograph or two, black & white, with soldiers about, of the church, and the mill on the hill across the river.

Went into the hotel to use the restroom. Three old men sitting in the bar, one with a cigarette, one with a beer, one with a glass of red wine. It's 10:00 AM on a cold December morning. The one with the full head of grey hair, the beer drinker, telling a story, the other two acting like they had not heard before. The interior of the old building is spotlessly clean.

Drive on, visiblity low, temperature steady at 1 deg C. Fog hangs heavy, like the history in this area.

Grandpa's DSC citation says he was in action near Mamey and Cuisy.

OK, so on to Mamey first.

To an American on a cold December day, 3 days before Christmas, nothing special about this town is obvious. One old man walking up his mud drive carrying a bucket, perhaps some feed for the chickens.

No place to stop for a coffee, no other activity about.

No reason to think this should be a decisive location in the history of the war, but I guess battles don't care what came after, or before, for that matter.

Drive on towards Cuisy.

Another hill, another town.

Down in the valley, a small cluster of buildings, captive between two facing hillsides. Must be Cuisy in the valley below. One can imagine countless trenches and artillery lined up on opposite sides of the valley, facing each other, waiting for the first to flinch to decide the moment, the day, perhaps the rest of the war.

Turn right, drive down the dirt road.


Same small town, same church, same memorial. One of hundreds of similar French towns in this part of the country. This one is unique to me, only because Grandpa survived long enough again this day to gain the other hillside. No place to stop for a coffee, no activity about on a cold Thursday afternoon, 3 days before Christmas. One house has a few red and gold decorations hanging outside a window facing the main street.

One backyard has a small American flag next to the barn. Noone about to ask about this; it will stay a mystery.

Decide to walk about, over the next hill. Ground nearly frozen this time of the year. Better than September and October when Grandpa was here. I imagine it was just as cold then, but everything turned to mud from the rains and the constant footsteps and heavy vehicles. Through the fog, crest the next hill, an abandoned structure. Bombed out church. Taken by the Germans on Sep 11, 1914, re-taken by the French and US forces in September 1918. In the intervening years, the town and the church destroyed.

This town different than the others in the area; this one not to be re-built.

Keep moving, further north and a little westward. Next hill. Through the fog, smooth white surfaces. All day, everything has been stone and earth. Shiny white marble looks stangely out of place, yet calm, not disturbing. The boundary between the marble and the fog is elusive. Look again. 14,246 pieces of marble, each one marking the grave of an American who didn't leave France.

The markers have names, dates, divisions, home states marked on them. All of the states, all manner of family names.
Choice of marker: Latin cross or Star of David.
Choice of date: September, 1918 or October, 1918.

Up the next hill, introduced myself to the supervisor of the memorial. Middle aged guy, American accent, ball cap with American flag on the front. Told him my grandfather earned the DSC in this area; he expressed great interest in knowing more when I told him Grandpa was a balloonist.

This is what he told me: "You know, there was only one American balloonist killed in the war. Amazing when you consider how dangerous it was. He is buried here, out in that field. Perhaps your grandfather knew him".

And then he said this: "You know, there was one balloonist who used up three balloons in the same day, and survived."

This is what I said: "Yeah, that was my grandfather." He read the copy of the DSC citation I had with me.

Then he said: "Can I have a copy of this?" And: "Do you have a photograph of him that I can have? We are putting together a display that we share with visiting dignitaries, about the history of the Americans who served in this area." So I told him I would gather up some photos and send them to him.

Then he said: "You know, you oughta come back the last Sunday in May. We do a real nice memorial ceremony here with both American and French troops. I think your grandfather would appreciate it. The fog should lift by then."

mercredi, décembre 14, 2005

05.12.13: Rebel desserts, with a cause

The idea when I left the US was to develop and feed an obsession for wine and cheese. Seemed pretty straightforward. About as difficult as standing at 5th & Lex and developing an obsession for taxi horns.

Instead, I am becoming enamored with desserts.

To be sure, I have sampled some pretty nice wines and cheeses so far -- some downright extraordinary.
  • Exhibit 1 -- every damn fromage from Auvergne - Auvergnians are maniacs about their cheeses, and I think they have a point. More on this another day.
  • Exhibit 2 - wine & cheese show in the Marais a few weeks ago. (Metro ligne 1, St-Paul) Met this very ambitious vigneron from Languedoc who has concocted some very sexy wines in the last few years (syrah, cabernet, carignan, grapes grown on the side of a volcano).
    Made a commitment to visit his domaine next year for a major dégustation.

But the desserts here are can be just downright intriguing.

So, check this one out from MusicHall (Metro lignes 1 or 9 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, walk about 3 blocks north, and oh yeah, they have a few street names here I can sort of pronounce correctly).

Le Havane:
carpaccio de poire au sirop de tabac, et ses fines meringues croquantes garnies de parfait glacé à la réglisse

Not sure I have this completely figured out, but should be something like this: thinly sliced pear, served with a little crunchy almond biscuit with licorice ice cream and tabac soaked in caramel.

Tabac, as in tobacco. Kentucky's finest. For dessert. ("I usually only have a cigar after a good meal", he told the hostess.) No kidding. They take some tobacco leaves, soak them in a very sweet caramel syrup, dry them out (I assume in a little dessert tobacco barn with La Poche Poste painted on the side) and then stand them like little gothic buttresses to create the parfait arrangement. Interesting mix of acrid tobacco encased tenderness. A very nice set of flavors to finish a meal with, and to precede un café.

France is a lot like La Havane. Visually very attractive, a little bitterness coated in sugar. Just the proportions change day to day.

(Oh yeah, the photo at the top .... we went down to Boulevard Haussmann the other night to enjoy the Noël window displays and outside lighting at Printemps and Galeries Lafayette.)

samedi, décembre 10, 2005

05.12.09: Visa, et nous ne faisons pas américain express

Subtitle: Kafka does Isle-de-France

Remember that character in the Drew Carey Show, the incredibly large woman with the massive blue eye shadow and the bubbly personality? Well, she dyed her hair red, lost any redeeming qualities she might have had with her personality, and she lives in France now. She is in charge of the visa status of hundreds of non-French citizens on a daily basis.

And she is reeeaaalllly unhappy about the whole situation.

Oooh, j'exagères! Not! I really wanted to take her picture just so you would know that I am not exaggerating this time, but I figured that would be the end of my France vacation for sure.

Okay, so here's the story. We need to officially change our visas to long term stay, and the process has multiple steps, beginning about 6 months ago, and culminating in a visit to our local préfecture this week.

Thursday, 8-Dec
07:45 - Arrive at the préfecture. Cold, rainy. We are about the 100th persons in line.
09:00 - Stated opening time of the préfecture. No activity at the front gate.
09:15 - The gate opens, and the town crier announces multiple categories of people, none of which seem to apply to us, so we remain in the default line.
09:45 - We are now 6th in line outside the big gate; there are about another 50 people behind us. Gate closes. Town crier announces that is all that will be admitted today.
09:45:15 - Bedlam, melée, teeth gnashing, paper waving. Noone else passes through the portals of french freedom this day.

Friday, 9-Dec
07:20 - Arrive at the préfecture. Thankfully it is not raining on Friday. Unthankfully, the temperature has dropped a few more degreees, so it is just above freezing. We are about the 75th persons in line. We also have with us an appointment letter faxed to us from the préfecture yesterday, for an appointment at 8:00. We are not overburdened with confidence.
07:30 - I wanted to do a little photo shoot, you know, give me your tired, your poor, etc. We were in that kind of a line. I took one photograph. It was, of course, still dark out. The flash, of course, fired on the camera. I was immediatley verbally abused by about half a dozen young men.

I found out later I was standing in the line of people seeking asylum. No photos please.
So, anyway, my career in photo journalism ended early this morning by a desire to stay in line long enough to at least have the opportunity to be turned down again by the French gouvernement for a visa.

08:00 - Check my watch, check my appointment letter. No activity at the front gate.
08:30 - French army nurse Mimi struts out of the gate. Barks orders, checks papers. We get assigned to line number 3. Behind the Bulgarians, but ahead of the dread-locks.
09:15 - We, along with the refugees, are in the building. We are now warmer while we get verbally abused by this frightful woman.

Let's imagine that this very large, unhappy woman is really here to help us. Let's imagine that we have an obsession for fondling paperwork (originals + 1 photocopy, please) and verifying that we can distingiush between the original and the photocopy. (See that small stamp of blue ink in the corner .... it must be the original, a photocopy would be all black print, of course). Let's imagine we need to ponder for 10 minutes why immigration did not stamp my passport on my most recent entry to France. Let's imagine that it is significant if I entered France on October the 12th or the 13th, given the fact that I am standing right here in fricking front of you! Let's imagine that it is important that I have one piece of paper that verifies that I have the second piece of paper, and that both of them are here with me today. Let's imagine that all of these are incredibly important details that determine if I (and my lovely wife) will, in fact, be legally or illegally in this country after Monday.

Let's imagine I'm a white guy, with resources available to me from one of the largest corporations on earth, and this is how I got treated.

Let's imagine that I'm not so fortunate, not so white, not so wealthy, and don't get through this process after 2 days of standing in the cold and rain. And imagine this is only one of many ongoing encounters with the fonctionnaires. Could lead you to want to burn a car or two (thousand). Or who knows, we could all get lucky, and the next to go could be a certain préfecture.

11:15 - Exit the building with new fancy stickers in our passports. We assume we are now legal. After all the shouting and arguing to get them, we are in fact just happy to leave the building.
11:16 - Still not content that I didn't get to complete my photojournalism task for the day, I snap a photograph of a protester outside the gate on our way out. He is standing next to a policeman. Bad move on my part, I guess. The policeman starts yelling at me, then yells at his compadre to call the chef de la sécurité. They have a long discussion on the phone. They tell me to leave. I'm not sure if they mean France or just the area in front of the building. I choose the latter, for now.

Am I ranting? Ah, tomorrow I will go to some 10th century architecure marvel, and truly be humbled and amazed. But the stench of the Créteil Préfecture is not likely to wear off for some time. And, rumours to the contrary, I guess all French women ain't all that skinny, and Lady Liberty was parked in the Seine this week, with no reach to the unfriendly confines of Créteil.

Irony of the day:
The french word for a little label is étiquette.
Go figure, encore.