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Monday, 24 November
Avignon, Meal One

On our first night in Avignon, we got completely and utterly lost. This is easy to do in Avignon, as the city is laid out in a completely chaotic fashion, without regard to sense, direction, logic or geometry. Walking the streets of Avignon is a lot like watching I Heart Huckabees: a desperate, sweaty plunge into madness where around any corner you might find Dustin Hoffmanesque nebbishes yelling gibberish at cobblestones.

This sophisticated metaphor breaks down, however, with some prolonged exposure to Avignon, as Avignon actually eventually becomes really charming once you work out its more challenging features, as opposed to the ongoing urge to rip Avignon out of your DVD player and fling it forcefully into the Negative Zone.

Our lost first night led us--eventually, circuitously--to Mamma Corsica. I couldn't find it again if I tried, I don't think; it was located somewhere on the fringes of Avignon's non-Euclidean environs, off in some dusty corner of this French hypercube of a city. Mamma Corsica greeted us herself in the small space and immediately seated us at a Lilliputian table, slapping down a couple of menus for us. Then, beginning what would be a theme for the evening, she immediately left us alone with a giant, propped-up menu for us to examine.

Then she immediately returned and said something incomprehensible in her rat-a-tat French; the wife discerned it had something to do with aperitifs, somehow. The wife has mickle powers. She ordered a kir, and I panicked instantly, but then spied a large beer poster ad stapled to the bar. It was some sort of Corsican beer; everything in the place was (not surprisingly) Corsican. I pointed at it, and Mamma Corsica beamed. I got the feeling not many people ordered the Corsican beer. She rushed off.

And immediately rushed back, drinks in hand. CLANK! She dropped them on the table as if they were radioactive (well, it is France--they love them their nuclear power) and looked at us expectantly, ready to take our order. The wife calmly ordered the pork planc--basically a charcuterie plate, as far as I could tell, and that sounded good, so I turned to Mamma Corsica to order the same thing, and beheld the empty space where she moments ago had stood. She had noticed something at another table that required her attention and had sped off, leaving me to gape at the Mamma Corsica-shaped hole she had left in the fabric of reality. I glanced at the wife, and she shrugged. Was I to go hungry this evening?

Suddenly, there was an urgent, Gallic voice clattering in my ear, and I stifled a small scream. Mamma Corsica, having put out whatever notional fire that had ignited at the other table was now hectoring me for my dinner selection; the woman was a terrifying dervish. She was like one of the Triplets of Belleville, only insane and capable of drawing on the Speed Force. She made some meth addicts I've encountered look positively lackadaisical.

We had, somehow, also managed to order a pre-pork salad to share, and it of course arrived picoseconds after we had taken a sip from our drinks. Thank God we agreed to share it. BLONK! The now-supersonic Mamma Corsica delivered it to our table without actually slowing down enough to become visible; the salad was the size of, oh, I'm going to say Denmark. Happily, it was delicious. Periodically, as we munched the dish, Mamma Corsica blinked in and out of quantum superpositions around the room.

Soon after we finished our salad, it vanished from existence, possibly thanks to invisible ghouls, Mamma Corsica presented us with our pork plancs, served rustically on wooden cutting boards. The bacon alone was enough to cause Road-to-Damascus-like conversion reactions--I have seen the pig! And I was starting to warm up to the Corsican beer; it was all wonderful for all the chaos surrounding us. It should be noted that nobody else seemed to notice that our hostess was a living Feynman diagram.

At length, we finished our ridiculously great meal; Mamma Corsica materialized again beside our table to see if we wanted anything else. The wife ordered a cafe, and meanwhile I had been eyeing the mysterious bottles behind the tiny bar. Whiskey? I asked, taking a stab.

Mamma Corsica's face lit up like a Pachinko machine, but then crumbled into a rather piteous look, as if she expected that what she was about to say was going to be terribly upsetting.

"Whiskey," she breathed, and pointed to the three lonely bottles on the shelf. "Is Corsican, all." She wrinkled her face at me. She seemed like she had met disappointment before when explaining this. To which all I could think was, Who in the fuck passed up the opportunity to try out Corsican whiskey? She needn't have worried.

"C'est bon!" I hollered. I embarrass myself. I pointed to my selection, and she fairly roared over to the shelf to pour me my libation; I had picked the ten-year (trying to economize, y'know; she also had a twelve-year that I ached over).

I shouldn't have worried, of course. She was so pleased to have someone order her whiskey, she brought over a sample of the twelve-year as well, so I could compare. This is, of course, the way the world should always work. I try to behave this way. You like a thing I like! Oh, God, you have to try this similar thing! For the record, Corsican whiskey, while nothing that will blow your mind, is pretty good stuff.

If I think about it--not too hard, of course--this is sort of the essence of why we like to travel. We're not so different! Shall we share? Mamma Corsica clapped her hands at us when we bade our good-byes, and then she whirled madly for a moment and disappeared, a singularity occasionally, magically visible to those lost enough to stumble over her.

Monday, 17 November
Getting There, Getting Around, Getting Back

I have a troubling confession to make. I really like airport Bloody Marys.

Not because they taste good; they manifestly do not. Least of all in Heathrow, where what you will get when ordering one of these is a glass half-filled with vodka and tomato juice, and then a bottle of Tabasco, a bottle of Worcestershire, and a pepper shaker. Hey, thanks! You fucking limey creeps. Incidentally, fuck you, Terminal Five. Heathrow's new Terminal Five--roughly the size and shape and carrying the same charm as Winston Churchill's dead, grotesque liver--is thoroughly and wholly the living international shits.

Let's clear this up: Terminal Five handles most if not all of British Airways' international traffic. When you deplane, you are immediately herded onto these godforsaken little trams, and then you take a ride to the terminal itself, a ridiculous gulag of a building with this preposterous sign posted outside of every door: "It is unlawful to smoke anywhere inside our outside of this building." I've got news for you, Terminal Fucking Five: I broke the law several times today.

(I actually broke the law while in Terminal Five itself. When I was taking a shit in the bathroom outside "Huxley's," the impressively inauthentic English airport pub, I hotboxed a good four puffs on a cigarette because I exhibiting early signs of nicotine psychosis. One of those signs is ordering a Bloody Mary from Danish waiters working in Heathrow's abominable Triumph of the Will-styled cathedral bars.

Oh, and here's an actual conversation with a waitress:

"Is there a smoking area anywhere in here?"

"You cannot smoke anywhere in here."

"Oh. So I guess I'd have to go outside to smoke, then."

[Puzzled and pitying look] "You cannot leave, sir."

This is actually true. Unless you are vomiting blood, or have a thorax full of chestbursters all erupting at once, you cannot leave Terminal Five. Terminal Five is, quite literally, Hotel California. The Brits have settled on a fairly literal definition of the word "terminal": It will make you want to die.)

Anyway. Airport Bloody Marys. I don't know what it is about these terrible things, but I always must have them prior to boarding a plane. Part of it is the wan little celery garnishes and the microcephalic sword-impaled olives, and most of all, the abrasive chemical peel you get in your mouth from the wretched seasoned salt they rim the glasses with. All of these terrible details wake up my lobes and tell me: TRAVEL IS AFOOT! Plus, they help me deal with ancillary issues, such as settling into my BA seat only to find out that my next nine hours of air travel will be unadorned with such fripperies like a working set of earphones. When I went to plug in the 'phones, the entire jack caved into my armrest, causing me to spontaneously order six whiskies and then watch seventeen silent dumbshow reruns of Martin in a stuporous gloom.

I'm just kidding. I fell asleep. I'm stupid, but I don't hate myself. Not that much.

The only other in-country travel that we faced while in France was getting from Paris to Avignon via the astoundingly awesome TGV train, which travels so fast that you get to watch time dilate. We greeted our train at the Gare de Lyon with an hour or so to spare, so naturally we settled in to . . . the cafe/bar at the train station's soaring outgoing depot. The wife had an espresso while I opted for a beer. We settled in and watched all of the charming bustle. Ten minutes in, I picked up my beer and brought it to my lips. But I noticed something.

"What the fuck?" I said. The wife beetled her brows at me, questioning. I wheeled my beer glass around this way and that. There appeared to be tiny little slugs in my beer. "What the fuck?" I hissed again, showcasing my firm grasp of this uniquely American idiom. I peered at the tiny slugs. One appeared to be clinging listlessly to the rim of my glass. I picked at it.

"Slippery fucking thing," I grumbled. It kept sliding out of my grasp. What the hell was going on? I finally got a hold of the damn thing, but then it promptly dissolved in my fingers and fell like an ectoplasmic nightmare into the depths of my beer, creating a noisome cloud.

Gare de Lyon's upper depot is basically open-air. Trains come in and out on one end, passengers do the same on the other. There aren't any doors. There weren't any slugs in my fucking beer. One of the dozens of pigeons that make their home in Gare de Lyon had taken a desultory shit into my glass. And I had just spent ten minutes fingering a good quantity of it--had, in fact, come bare seconds away from drinking it. I suddenly glared up at the ceiling, staring at these hateful little fucking vermin, and then I had to laugh. The wife called over the waiter, and, her normally very good French failing her, pointed at my beer, then at the damned birds and said, "Ah . . . . pigeon . . . ah, boom?" Here she mimed a bomb drop. The waiter smiled easily and motioned me to hand him my glass and promptly replaced it. I noted clinically that he did not wear a hat; I doubted that this was his first skirmish with the evil avian bombardiers lurking above. I peered gloomily at my shit-beslimed fingers and sought out a bathroom.

And one last thing about Gare de Lyon. When we came back from Avignon, this station was also our point of disembarkment in Paris. So we got off the train--and we could not leave the station. We walked towards the "Sortie" signs; they took us deeper into the bowels of the terrible place; we soon found ourselves staring at subterranean train stations threatening to take to places prefixed by the word "Aix." We scrambled back upstairs; the wife spotted a sign that said "INFORMATION" with a helpful arrow; it pointed to a blank brick wall.

"WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?" I screamed. Nobody cared; the noise was incredible. Everyone was rushing everywhere and nowhere at once. Any direction could have possibly been the correct one. We ran up against a bank of alarming turnstiles; more trains. These promised to take us to towns named Glottal Stop and Swallowed R. We shrieked like bats and ran in circles; I contemplated asking the nice man in full camo gear for directions, but was given pause when I noticed that he carried not only a professionally terrifying moustache but also an automatic rifle that he cradled with no small amount of paternal warmth.

We finally emerged from this Gehenna thanks to some Parisian fellow that the wife managed to buttonhole: "GO LEFT! GO LEFT!" he screamed insistently, though it is possible that this was simply his local exhortation to vote for Barack Obama. We blinked as we staggered outside, and then hailed the worst cab driver in existence; he dropped us off three blocks from our hotel, saying, as far as we could tell, that he could "see it from here." The cab smelled like degraded polymer chains.

Exhausted, depleted, we finally discovered our hotel. And, the next morning, on the flight back home, I watched The Dark Knight. Not bad! At least my headphones worked. Halfway through, the steward offered me some inedible thing purporting to be a sandwich; I think it was alleged that it contained some sort of marmalade. (British people: I know American food is, on the whole, laughable and dispiriting, but is this a competition?) I politely declined and asked: "Can I get a Bloody Mary?" It was perhaps eleven o'clock, local time.

Bless him, he only paused for a moment.

Tuesday, 11 November
The Women, Dogs And Poisoners Of Paris

HELLLOOOOOO EVERYBODY! The wife and I are back from France! Did you miss us? HOLLA IF YOU MISSED US!

. . .

HOLLA!

. . .

GOOD TO SEE YOU TOO! Anyway, sorry it took a while to get back to writing. I'm still kind of temporally fucked up from the trip. I've been back to work for two days now, and that's been oddly okay--no shootings yet, except for that Mary bitch with the motor disease or whatever--but it turns out that my geriatric nap schedule has been somewhat thrown into disarray, and now whenever I attempt my usual evening sleep period during when "How It's Made" comes on, I get this weird sensation that slavering wolves are breathing on my genitals, and I just lie there and sweat. I trust this will pass.

We had a great time over there, of course; we spent four days in Paris then a week in Avignon. A real writer would recount the entire trip in a roughly linear fashion, going off of his copious notes and dedicated scribbles. I, of course, cannot be bothered with that shit, so over the course of the next few entries, I will recount various vignettes and anecdotes in a more or less completely broken and incoherent fashion, so that the entire narrative will, eventually, come to light in a postmodern, fractal kind of way--think Pynchon, think pointillism, think CSI: Miami. Or do what I do and renounce thinking entirely.

Our first few days were spent in Paris, waiting for the wife's appalling fortieth birthday to pass, which it eventually did, much like a kidney stone, causing me to clutch my penis in horror, realizing that my old lady was, finally, genuinely old. Oh well. We tried to pretend to enjoy ourselves anyway.

We were staying in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, locale of the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, Musee D'Orsay and Rodin, and several fragrant public toilets--good for taking a hearty shit in provided that you're too hoity to get down on the sidewalk with the dogs and just leave it there.

Right around the corner from our hotel was our adopted cafe, the Cafe Du Marche, whose busy staff rarely managed to ignore our hideous French; we enjoyed started our days there, with the wife enjoying an "EX-PRESSO!" and me more often than not sipping a Campari.

As many people have observed, Paris is a crazy dog town, and we, being dog people, enjoy dog-watching even more than people-watching. One fellow on a particular morning sat down with his tiny little graybeard black dog in his lap and ordered a coffee. The dog was adorable. The dog was also the most fantastically caniopathic dog I've ever seen in my life: he hated every single other dog that came within five yards of his lap-ambit. He would be sitting there placidly on his owner's lap until he spotted another dog pretty much anywhere (and he was preternaturally good at seeking them out) at which point he would stiffen, chuff indignantly for a minute, growl and then FREAK THE FUCK OUT, writhing in his owner's lap like a sack full of angry eels, barking and howling as if someone had suddenly stuffed its asshole with a quantity of cilantro. He was outstanding. I'm pretty sure he was Napoleon brought back in tiny dog form. The other dogs looked at him lazily in any case, often stopping to take a desultory shit on the cobblestones, offering their professional opinions as to the efficacy of the tiny dog's threats.

Not that people-watching ever disappoints, especially in Paris. Particularly, for some reason, the old ladies. It must be said that Paris, pound for pound, contains the most undiluted concentration of hilarious crones that I've ever seen anywhere in my life. They are, quite honestly, incredible. On any given afternoon on the streets of Paris, you will witness the most astonishing collection of grotesques, gargoyles, termagents and just plain caricatures than you would believe; this was just at the Marche cafe. I saw things such as an upswept dye-blond beehive-cum-pompadour with half-inch long visible roots, wraparound designer sunglasses, pleather jackets with "NO MERCI" on the back, and high-heel leather boots with a crosshatched rhinestone design. Unfortunately, I saw all of these on the same woman at the same time; she of course also yanked along with her a tiny little dog whose only clear purpose of existence was to be stepped on by passersby. Watching old ladies in Paris is like owning free tickets to a Commedia del'Arte show every day for free: Columbinas tottering around with their little mewling canine Punches.

One day at Cafe Marche, watching the street show scroll by, I noticed that they served hot chocolate ("chocolat chaud"). That sounded nice. What also sounded nice was some rum with that. I flagged a waitress; the wife ordered some coffee, and then I gasped out in my typically horrific French: Je voudrais un chocolat chaud avec rum!

She looked at me as if I had opened my mouth and a plague of moths had flown out. Rum? she said, looking alarmed and not a little horrified. Oui! I replied, showing her my molars. She retreated inside a little shakily. She came back seconds later.

Rum? she asked again. I nodded. She motioned for me to follow her inside, clearly wondering what the fuck I was talking about. I followed her in. A bartender was drying glasses, staring at me warily. I turned to the wife. "I cannot possibly be the first person who ever asked for a hot chocolate and rum," I said. "Maybe you are," she chirped. Fuck you, Jack, I've got my coffee, was the clear subtext there. She was enjoying the weirdness.

I examined the bottles behind the bar and beheld no rum (the wife claims she saw some, but I didn't). Then I saw some whisky. "Whisky OK!" I cried, pointing at the bottle. The waitress looked, if possible, even more stricken now, and the bartender pulled a truly disgusted face, raising his pained eyes to the ceiling as if to seek answers from the mottled tin above, grimacing when the Gods did not immediately favor him with a suitable explanation as to what the stupid fucking American could possibly be asking for. C'est bon! I hollered defensively, and witlessly rubbed my stomach. The bartender stared flatly at me. He and the waitress chattered for a moment and then seemed to settle on a game plan; the waitress motioned us back to our table outside, clearly still unsettled by events.

We waited. I wondered what the hell was the problem, but right then my drink showed up; the waitress wore an expression that I figured was similar to the one worn by whomever had to serve Socrates his teacup. Merci! I said.

After the first sip, I realized what had gone horribly wrong, I'm pretty sure now. If I'm correct, my huge mistake was ordering chocolat chaud avec rum (or, later, whisky). What I should have said was chocolat chaud et rum/whisky. "Avec" means "with." "Et" means "and." PISH TOSH, right? Well, not so much. By ordering the hot chocolate "with" rum/whisky, what I had signalled to them was: replace the water you'd normally add to hot chocolate mix entirely with booze.

I was served a hot chocolate not with steamed water but with 100% steamed whisky. They must have used close to four shots; I nearly sent my first mouthful into my wife's hair in a concentrated jet. It was, of course, fucking awful. After a giggling half-dumbshow with the waitress explaining the misunderstanding, she burst into delighted gales of laughter and let the bartender know what the mix-up was. After that, my disgusting alcohol bomb became the topic of much hilarity: the waitress would periodically make a show of mopping my brow; I would periodically ask her to call me an ambulance or curse her for poisoning me. I worried what I was going to be charged for the awful mess, considering how much booze must have gone into it, but they apparently decided that its humor value more than made up for the whole episode, and only charged me five euros and some change.

Two days later, we were back at the Marche. A woman on a motorcycle screeched up to the outside seating area and pulled off her helmet, shaking out her long hair. It was the waitress. We grinned and said our hellos.

"You are not dead!" she cried. C'est bon!

Indeed.










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