I got one pleasant day of sun in Paris, bookended by days of cold rain and angry winds. Museum days. Hole-up in cafe days. Regardless of the weather, however, I made my annual pilgrimage to Rue Mouffetard, a market street in the 5th, that slaps you with the smells of roti-chicken, fresh melons and sour cheese all at once. The water running down the sides of the cobblestoned-street is saliva, really, as you've got to be dead to not get hungry here. My mission was straightforward -- a coffee and croissant at one stop; fois gras, fresh and tinned at another; a basketful of cheese, primarily goat from the Loire area, and two loaves of pain de campagne. And then done (but not before contemplating a Charentais melon, but then figured that its uncanny resemblance to a petite bomb and my pending airplane flight probably didn't go well together) and off to huddle cafe-side for an hour or two. And now at Orly, as charming as a Grayhound bus station and about as delicious.

So next time, the plan is: sharing all these treasures with John not after a long plane flight but on the ground, renting perhaps a small studio in the 5th so we can shop and cook for ourselves on these alternating rainy days, and travel by train, so we can hoard bottles of painfully cheap Sancerre and Saumur and enjoy popping corks on the long, slow journey home.



I have no idea how the ancient beams in my room in this 17th-century Bordeaux chateau are holding up the ceiling. The current owners, Mr. and Mrs. D., apparently rebuilt the place from the bottom up when they purchased it; what remains is an old skeleton, the bones tossed in the closet by a family that apparently had plenty of both in the very small town of St. Emilion.

We got a dose of the heart of the town this evening. With no actual facts, I've always imagined Bordeaux to be a polished silver kind of place, with plenty of modern touches and little left of the peasant-farmer life. It may be further removed than most from the salt of the earth, but it's still surrounded by history carved in limestone blocks and ancient Gothic-inspired churches, one wall of which stands like a tireless sentry at the entry of the town. The "city" spills in reds and browns down the chalky hillside, a wash of tiled roofs under the imposing hulk of a 14th century church built on the top of one from the 1100s. We eat at a local restaurant; I would not be exaggerating to say that there is no way any location could be more local. The owner is the ringleader, orchestrating introductions and tourist agendas, glad-handing and glancing at new faces over reading glasses always perched searchingly on the end of his nose. Mr. D. was immediately sucked up into one table, while we wandered outside to gawk at the terrace seating under one of the eaves of the church. A pity that it was both cold and raining.

Halfway through dinner the ringleader saunters over and nobly announces that the evening will begin; at this cue another bespectacled older man starts to recite poetry, an ode to wine and winemaking. From what I can parse out the French is both flowerful and sticky; I slowly chew my first course while the ringleader and poet exchange reading stanzas with alternating levels of emotion. A party is in full swing in the private room upstars, interruping the recital with frenzied "shhhh!"s every few minutes; at a particular high point the church bell tolled, giving the moment extra resonance. "I don't know what he said but it sounded serious," sez P. "Blah blah blah," said winemaker D. He understood the poems; and told us later that the man had never raised a pair of cutting shears in his life.


drink this

We spent an hour or so ferreting among barrels in the basement of R., who somehow grows grapes which turn into rubies and then when melted become wine. He is so good that last year, he made me cry. His wine, that is. Which is a tad embarrassing when everyone's standing around being very serious and nodding-like, thinking about Deep Things and Wine. I sniffled, profoundly.

Which is why meeting R. Sr. was a ticklish shock; he's a Pan in the wrinkled French suit of a 70-year-old, sporting cut-off jeans and thick, dusty glasses, who moves like an 18-year-old who's told he can have the car for the weekend. There were negotiations in the cellar with R. that didn't seem to go off too well; so, as an ameliorate, the taster extraordinare knocked on Dad's door. Just like any small-town family, there's a little friction between son and pop. So when we get a cold shoulder from one, we go to the other. R. Sr. opens the door, sees he has a small gaggle of foreign guests (one of which happens to be a petite female who, so far, appears younger than her real age. This, I have learned, gets one far in France) and immediately decides that it's time to open some bottles. Because that's what one does after a long life of getting up at 5 a.m. and toiling in mud and rain and mildewed plants at retirement; one opens a bottle of really damn good wine whenever one feels like it.

So we file into the kitchen and a bottle of 1990 Clos Vougeot is slammed on the table. Glasses follow. There's no spitton. This is not tasting time, this is drinking time. (And practically another reason to cry; the day has been filled with mid-malo Pinot Noir, at least 10 gallons' worth, and my gums are close to bleeding. Will I taste this? I certainly will try.) We swirl and gawk and pray to the happy Pan, who is rattling off his latest woes to our taster extraordinaire, who raps Burgundian French like the pro he is, and even in the process gets a couple of gentlemen's agreements for some extra-special bottles. And that's how business used to be done, we're told later (a reoccurring theme, told with a tinge of sadness, by the taster whose business goes back 20 years or more) -- the "younger" generation has no time for yarns and special bottles, infrequently pulls out that dusty special vintage if not asked directly. This kitchen sitting is purely for plasir.

And then our prince of old bottles (he has eight hidden cellars all over Burgundy; I can only imagine the complicated locks and keys he must keep) decides it's time to pay attention to the petite femme a table. How old am I, I'm asked. A rather pointed question, especially from a Frenchman; I tell him to guess. (Another fairly naughty thing to do.) He looks to the taster extraordinaire for assistance, and then answers quite diplomatically, that it's clear that I'm "young." Brownie points for Pan. I am 34; which puts my birth year at 1973, a year that couldn't have been more miserable for wine. I am not a good vintage. He pauses, then pounces on a box behind us, producing a 1972 Charmes Chambertin. This will do, he says, as he wouldn't serve us 1973. Well, shucks. I've always been into older guys, anyhow.

cellar time

We're lucky to have been born in the time we were, I say to M. He nods, and agrees. He's the fifth in a long line of winemakers who were given the gift of earth and grapes, which when properly tended blend to create nothing less than magic. He's a peasant's son turned international superstar, by virtue that he is well-aware that there's a world (or market) out there. Dad (and the older generations) were different; the square kilometer of the village was all they knew, or cared, to know. M.'s presented us with magic, too, in dusty bottles he's unearthed and brought to our table. We're a clumsy gathering of sellers and buyers, admirers and those admired. It's always awkward until the fifth wine or so, and then things loosen up a bit. The salesmen talk fly fishing and trips to Montana; I talk poetry and the impossibility of capturing in language the soul of a 1978 Morey St Denis "Millandes." An empty glass may be as eloquent as one is able, and only if that single glass is emptied over three hours.

Earlier we spent three hours in M.'s cellar tasting every red wine there is in Burgundy; it's a lot. we wander from room to room, spitting on cement floors and metal drains that ricochet liquid well; by the end of the afternoon I notice I've been standing by the impromptu spittoon too often. My legs are speckled with Pinot Noir; my toes are an inconvenient purple. I try not to think that it's not just grape juice, it's backwash and grape juice, but that's just simply nasty. Thankfully I'm too engrossed in my notes (am I getting better at this or are the wines actually expressing these varied flavors, faded rose petals, blood orange rind, dried strawberry jam...?) to really acknowledge that i'm being spit upon. It's all part of the job, I guess.

M. is a dynamo, possibly the only type-A personality in all of Burgundy. Young, driven, possessed with an uncanny sense of land and vine. He's tasted and re-tasted, more student than farmer. He knows his place in time is unique; he intends to not fetter it. I fear he will burn out, perhaps, before he gets to where he feels he needs to be.

L.'s son is the same way. There's a burning in the eyes that tells you that there's so much more in store from what seems a humble person, but the knowledge is fathoms deep. It says, just you watch. I haven't even begun to test these limits, if they even exist. And it's so important to remember how many layers these jobs have; I tell R. that when looking at five glasses in front of us on an opulent banquet table, we see romance and seduction and a life of leisure and pleasure -- the true tones of such a life are dirty, crimson-dyed fingernails and a life of serious labor, real labor with a capital L; and marketing, pushing, always fighting for a buck as this is a life that is not cheap, either. Artist cum businessperson cum marketing manager; who can do these all well? Few. Which is why M. stands out so well; I think he knows the jeweled times may be few. Not all life's opportunities can be stored in a cellar and sampled 33 years later.


karmic considerations

I have done something terribly wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the karmic powers that be deprived me today of a serious helping of Champagne -- I'm talking Cotes de Blancs Champagne, the cream of the serious crop Champagne, small grower-producer tasty toasty biscuity Champagne -- and in exchange gave me a shitty cup of coffee. My plane was delayed five hours from Berlin to Paris; oops. And then I sat in a train in Paris for another two a cause de "multiple accidents"; oops. (The mental anguish was such at one point that I realized that the French word for bread was really, truly "pain.") And there went the day, in planes and trains (and eventually, automobiles) when I finally, finally got to Vertus, a small town in the region of Champagne, just a stone's throw (or an hour, as the SNCF flies) from Paris.

We're here overnight; tomorrow, driving south to Burgundy and Morey-St.-Denis, a small village in the heart of the Cotes de Nuits. I'm traveling with three salesmen; one, a buyer, the second, an owner, and the third, my boss and taster extraordinaire. So much so that over dinner (my first solid meal of the day, hurrah!) I just sat and demurely nodded to each of their gushings over the yellow pages-thick wine list of the hotel restaurant (which, as a weird aside: French hotel restaurants, especially in the wine regions, somehow always look as if they've been decorated by the B-team at Denny's. Sea foam green napkins, baby-blush pink walls. Somewhat like a hard candy sucked and then spit aside. It betrays what often is, or at least can be, a pretty good damn restaurant.) I can't play the price game. As I've often detailed, we're a 5-Euro and under household, and damn proud of it. I know what certain wines cost, and am more than happy to expand my knowledge when riding on the tabs of others.

All this to say is that I'm still oggling a crusty cork from a bottle of 1982 Chateau Montrose, a kiss of rose petals and poached plums, that still (still! we finished dinner an hour ago!) lingers on my tongue with stolen kisses on soft earlobes. Silk-lined kisses.


barrel of monkeys: prelude

Over the next eight days I will raise to my lips 197 different glasses of wine. Most of these I will be expected to spit; thankfully, as that much alcohol would probably send a person of my size and stature (let alone someone twice as large) straight to the emergency room, or the nearest street corner to curl up and croak. I'm as excited as I am apprehensive; I'm a newbie taster, and even though I've made my living for the past two years scribbling madly about nature's finest fermented product in liquid form, I still get a little nervous when sitting and spitting next to the big boys. And I do mean boys -- there won't be a female winemaker (or companion aside from lil' 'ol me) among the hoards we're to visit, which makes me sad. But that's not to say they're not out there. But that's a subject for a later rant. Tonight, to pack and be ancy about a 5 a.m. wake-up call. Tomorrow, to try to swill Champagne without foaming at the mouth.


sound bites

Remembering to take vitamins every day is hard. Sitting down to actually examine one's head and then write about it is even harder. I made a promise (out loud, so it would count) on the passing of my 34th year to every day write at least a page in a journal. The promise was, in one sense, an attempt toward a sort of personal discipline -- an intimidating concept to which I've never really been able to adhere (see vitamins, above, or language study, or general exercise, u.s.w.) It also was an attempt at capturing time -- in parenthetical sound bites, of course (I can't write for more than 15 minutes without getting a terrible cramp) -- and putting it back into something I could physically hold. Like writing real letters, which I wish people still did (or I could, without the cramping.) At risk of sounding like a complete Luddite, I both love and hate email (and IM too) as while I can harass people I love with greater frequency while being physically far away, a five-minute hasty type doesn't even touch the, “so really, how are you?” question as would/could an uninterrupted hour of inky scribbling.

But maybe I'm deluding myself and killing trees at the same time. The last personal, paper letter I received from a friend was, I think, back in 2003; so I write to myself, claiming both the time I'd take to read a letter and the time it would take for a friend to respond for my own, and spill these minutes of thought into my journal. Which typically means about 20 minutes of aimless thoughts and a still hand; and then five minutes of frantic scribbling amid frustration that my pen moves so much slower than my fingers over a keyboard. I've yet to give myself a whole hour, as discipline and I are still wrestling with time-management -- should I write or surf Berlin blogs? Check email for the 105th time today? Laundry, anyone? Snacks! At the end of the day time is writhing on the floor, killed with a thousand blows of inane action. Hopefully my modest promise will teach me to pick it up, dust it off, and play nice.


where's the metal

So it's almost midnight and we're still counting votes for the Eurovision 2007 spectacle, which, really, was WAY less spectacular than it should have been. Where are the miniskirts? Where is the FIRE? Where are the winged devil spirits armed with battle-axes? We spent the evening with some good friends who patiently sat by while we argued the fine points of Georgian pop and Ukranian cross-dressing. And the Ukraine! Singing in German and telling Russia in English -- not so politely, mind you -- to go? How provocative!

So we did run away from our friends, sparing them the two-hour point countdown, while we sped home on our trusty bicycles to catch the results in progress. And what were we singing on our way home? Hard! Rock! Hallelujah! Lordi still rules.

UPDATE: OK, so Serbia won. Neat song, sure. Singer has great voice, and, she wasn't wearing a miniskirt. Can't say I can remember a bar of the tune. Oh well. There won't be T-shirts this year. That said, it's terribly funny listening to the German post-commentators bitching about the West-East conspiracy (considering how few points the jazzy Germans sucked up.) Five euros that the contest ping-pongs among former East countries for the next 30 years...


den' pobedy

A few days late, but the boys have good things to say here, and here. I stood in the crowds during a "Victory Day" celebration in Moscow in 1993; the crowds were thick and gray haired, many with medals and plenty of red stars pinned to shabby sport coats and threadbare jackets. It was a serious affair. This woman (in photo, above) reminded me of the darkness I saw in so many of the eyes, back then -- the memories of those lost, and the realization that the survivors today are almost completely gone. Hopefully we won't forget; we can't afford to.


park in your pocket

One finds the strangest things in our northern 'hood. After lounging at the Schlosspark (and being chased away from our sunny spot by a small hund who, apparently, really had to go, and had to go just a few steps from our blanket) we biked west from the Pankow U-Bahn down Florastrasse. The whole area seems to be in the throws of a beautifying frenzy. Gentrification train, here we come...The neighborhood altbaus are pastel and perky, and fledgling mini-trees line newly paved sidewalks that one can skip down without fear of tripping. The coolest part, however, is this pocket of park at the end of the street -- it's said to resemble the first floor of an old house (that I'm guessing stood here at one time, circa 1895, or so says the park plaque) done in Alice in Wonderland-sized mosaic. All that cozy stone armchair needs is a marble cat.


fill 'er up

If we all lived up to our childhood dreams of what we wanted to be when we grew up, the world might be a more creative, lively place. Or perhaps not, if you're a Berliner? I certainly was convinced that I was going to be a veterinarian; I was (am) a small girl and I loved (love) animals. Case closed. Until I accompanied my coughing-wheezing tortoise to our local vet one fateful day, and the kind vet, after hearing of my desires to join his lot, proposed I assist in giving the tortoise a vitamin shot. (It had to have been some sort of placebo. The wheezy thing died within a week anyway.) I eagerly agreed, sticking the long needle into the poor tortoise's rear. And hit a tortoise vein, or whatever they have that shoots blood vigorously over metal examining tables and small girls. The tortoise kicked, protesting silently in tortoise speak; I passed out on the tile floor.

And that was the end of that dream.

But others, perhaps, are made of stronger stuff. I was witness to a gaggle of frolicking Kindergartners the other day near Zionkirchplatz; it was one of those gloriously sunny and warm days, and even though the church grounds don't really qualify as a playground, per se, the kids didn't seem to mind. All the little boys of the group, about six of them, were armed with tricycles. (The girls were picking flowers. Sigh.) While the boys rode the trikes in circles, they mimicked the emergency vehicle sound. BEE-DOO-BEE-DOO. Loudly. Incessantly. I was about to start throwing things before I noticed that one of the boys, without trike, was jumping in front of his speeding friends, screaming "TANKSTELLE!"

Tankstelle. Filling station. He was playing the gas man. And violently so. His karate-chop arm would come down, smack the riding child in the chest, forcing them to a screeching tricycle stop. The stopped child would scream. The gas man would fastidiously run over to the right side of the trike, pretend to unscrew a cap, insert his other hand as a hose, glug some imaginary petrol in the hole, and then fasten the cap again. There might have been some discussion then over windshield cleaning. And then, with a majestic raising of the arm, the frustrated yet now-fueled trike rider would speed off for more donuts around the potted plants.

After one particularly heated pit stop (the Nein! Doch! Nein! Doch! went on for at least three minutes) the gas man finally closed his tankstelle and kicked a flat football around. A practical child; a modest dream. I fear, however, that the next generation of Berliner ought to dream bigger.


andrew bird

Now on heavy rotation...

if we can call them friends then we can call them on their telephones

and they won't pretend that they're too busy or that they're not alone
and if we can call them friends then we can call
holler at them down these hallowed halls
just don't let the human factor fail to be a factor
at all

don't, don't you worry, about the atmosphere
or any sudden pressure change
cause i know
that it's starting to get warm in here
and things are starting to get strange

and did you, did you see how all of our friends were there
and they're drinking roses from the can?
and how, how i wish i, i had talked to them,
and i wish they fit into the plan

and we were tired of being mild
we were so tired of being mild
and we were tired...

i know we're going to meet some day
in the crumbled financial institutions of this land
there will be tables and chairs
there'll be pony rides and dancing bears
there'll even be a band
cause listen, after the fall there will be no more countries
no currencies at all, we're gonna live on our wits
we're gonna throw away survival kits,
trade butterfly-knives for adderal
and that's not all
ooh-ooh, there will be snacks there will
there will be snacks, there will be snacks.

Go see him.