Monthly Archives: May 2013

Feeling Like Home Around Here

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New England, like every other place in the country I’ve lived, has the saying “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”

The difference between New England and South Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin is this:  here, that statement is actually true.

Case in point: Monday, I had to fire up the furnace, because it was freezing in the house.  And only 38 outside.  Saturday, we had a record low high temperature for the day: 48.  Today, Thursday, it is 90, with a heat index of 94.  This pattern (bloody fricking freezing followed immediately by sweltering hot) has been repeated three times in the last four weeks.  Last night, we had thunderstorms that are impressive for this area – but would have been pretty much a Usual Spring Evening in Texas or Wisconsin.  The difference here is that in Texas or Wisconsin, those thunderstorms would have happened because an approaching cool front with nice dry air ran head-first into a big swampy mass of hot steamy air.  The result being that when the storms were over, it would cool down.  Not here.  When those storms were over, around midnight, it started getting warmer and stickier, to the point where 1am found me going through the house, closing all the windows, and turning the air conditioner on.

Today, it is every bit as disgusting as any nasty May day in Houston. And Houston can get pretty darned vile in May.  This is right up there.  Dewpoints hovering just under Miserable (70), temperatures hovering around Bake (90+) and an Ozone Alert.  Ugh.

It’s kind of sad when a person walks outside into a revolting steam bath and says “Ah, yes, just like home” with a sigh of satisfaction.

The bad news is that there’s no way in hell I can work the Wonder Horse when it’s like this.  I don’t need to put this kind of stress on his body or mine.  We’re not used to it.  He can’t decide whether to grow in his winter coat or to shed it out.  I might be used to this weather by July, but not when I had to put a sweater and warm socks on three days ago.  Not even Texas has weather this psychotic.  Texas weather is more impressive, I’ll grant that.  But certifiably insane?  No.  Not to this degree.

The good news is that I haven’t lost my Houston Know How in the last decade of living away.  This is grilling weather.  Only someone every bit as nuts as the weather itself would be heating up the kitchen by using the stove or oven in weather like this.  This is why the Good Lord Gave Us Gas Grills.  Yes, I know, I’ve just invited caustic commentary from the Charcoal Briquet Crowd.  I, myself, love the smell and flavor imparted by the good old charcoal grill.  However, when it’s 94 outside, I want the convenience of going outside, turning a knob, pressing a button, and returning to the air conditioned climate of my Great Indoors.  I do not want to stand about flicking matches, and repeatedly checking to make sure the briquets are ashing over evenly, and then rearranging them once they’re good to go.  That’s just more time in the sauna, to my thinking.

So today featured a Festival of Marinade.  A balsamic, oil, garlic, honey marinade for the fennel bulbs.  A mustard and watercress marinade for the salmon fillet.  And – best of all – a tequila lime marinade for tomorrow’s chicken.  That one left my kitchen smelling like a fresh margarita.  All afternoon I’ve had to resist the urge to break out the blender and whip up a frozen concoction.  All I need now is a six string and a blown-out flip-flop.

Tequila and lime and steamy hellish heat.  Feels like home. Anyone seen my lost shaker of salt?

Tequila-Lime Chicken

Marinate the chicken overnight.

Juice of 6 limes (approx 1 C)
½ C tequila
½ C orange juice
half a bunch of cilantro, chopped
large fat jalapeno, deseeded and minced
2 T chili powder
1 t salt
generous grinding of black pepper
6 chicken breast halves with skin

Mix marinade in bowl. Add chicken, coat, cover, chill overnight, turning a couple of times.

Preheat grill to medium and brush rack with oil. Grill chicken until cooked through, turning twice. Chicken should be cooked to temperature of 160.

Dock

Chappaquiddick, not Texas. But it could be.

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Are You Stupid? Or Just Delusional?

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Roy prevailed upon me to go to a Mexican restaurant in a nearby town, appealing to their production of a blood orange margarita. Which was tasty, yes, but had only slightly more alcohol content than tap water. I wasn’t pleased that the drinks were weak, “weak” being the Understatement of the Year. Then we ordered chips and tres salsas at $4.50 the order (yes) and some Kitchen Flunky (not our waitress) brings out three pots of salsa, each of which contain exactly 2 tablespoons of salsa. Four dips of a chip exhausted the supply of salsa in a bowl. I had thought I was annoyed about the expensive yet feeble drinks, but as it turned out, the depths of my disapproval had barely been plumbed.

So there we are, with weak drinks, expensive chips and salsa, a TRULY pinche hand with the helpings of salsa, and a 45-minute wait for a table. The combination was sufficient to bring on a low-volume barrage of non-profane invective regarding the entire situation. Those of you who are long-term friends of mine will be able to imagine this perfectly, I think.

Roy, looking for some kind of Silver Lining, says “Well, the chips are good at least.”
“The chips are out of a BAG” I said. “Probably a PLASTIC BAG.”

A random employee was cleaning the table next to ours and stopped to say “They’re not out of a bag. They’re homemade.”

I cocked an eyebrow at her and dished up my Most Incredulous Look. After 10+ years teaching college, my Incredulous Looks can peel paint off a wall.

“They are,” she said with a sneer. “They’re made at home by a woman in San Francisco and flown in every other day.”

This unlocked a hidden achievement: Ultimately Incredulous Look. I didn’t even know I HAD one of those because I do not believe anyone has ever rolled out such an implausible and blatant lie to my face and actually expected me to believe it.   I’ve been told a lot of flaming whoppers by students wanting to get out of an exam/an assignment/a poor grade/a whole class/the consequence of some action that were clearly spelled out in the syllabus.  I’ve told flaming whoppers myself – I was young once and had to learn that no one buys the “dog ate my homework” excuse just like every other kid.  But I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone tell me a flaming whopper on a scale like this.  I was already highly offended by the drinks and the cheap helpings of salsa and getting charged almost five bucks for chips and salsa.  Having someone drop a load of steaming hot bullshit on my table and tell me it’s truffle pate was One Thing Too Many.  I poured every scrap of irritation, annoyance, and outrage into that Ultimately Incredulous Look, and it started to actually flay the skin right off her face, and she fled.

Then I was left trying to explain to Roy 1) why this flaming whopper was so thoroughly objectionable and 2) how I knew it was a flaming whopper in the first place.

I hardly knew where to start.  Was it with the fact that freshly made tortilla chips are completely impossible to mistake for the ones out of the bag?  If you’ve had fresh tortilla chips – and if you haven’t, you should – you will never look at the ones in the bag the same way.  Yes, it’s common for restaurants serving food at the low end of the cost/flavor spectrum to serve chips out of the bag.  No, I don’t actually object to getting chips out of the bag.  I object to paying five bucks for a basket of chips that came out of a bag, but that’s a different matter.  I’ve eaten enough tortilla chips in my time to fill the cargo holds of a Navy Destroyer, both bag chips and fresh chips, and they all have their time and place, but even my Pet Rock can tell the difference between the two.  

Was it with the fact that any Mexican restaurant that wants to serve fresh or homemade chips can turn them out at extremely low cost by the vat-load?  For Pete’s Sake.  All you need are big stacks of corn tortillas, the kind (also out of the bag) they had sackfuls of in the kitchen and were using to wrap all of the tacos, and a whacking huge pan of very hot oil, the kind they had in the kitchen and were using to fry the fish for the fish tacos which were then wrapped in the corn tortillas.  To make “fresh” tortilla chips you stack up the tortillas, cut them into 6 or 8 wedges, or if you’re feeling really generous and making a name for yourself on this, into quarters.  Drop them into the vat of hot oil. Wait one minute.  Pull a utensil through the vat to stir the chips.  Wait another minute, fish out, and put into a basket to drain.  Dump in the next batch.  It’s easier than making McDonald’s french fries.  There is no reason for a Mexican restaurant that wants to promote themselves as serving fresh tortilla chips to outsource them to anyone.

Was it their suspicious uniformity? Real fresh or homemade tortilla chips are notoriously easy to break up.  That’s part of what makes them so delicious.  They shatter in your mouth with a heavenly blast of hot corn and oil.  Tortilla chips out of the bag, on the other hand, do not break up and that’s why they can be sold by the bag.  You don’t transport fresh tortilla chips because they will turn to dust.  This is because they aren’t loaded up with binders and preservatives and stuff like that.  These chips on our table had the minimal flavor, leathery consistency, and suspicious uniformity of size and shape that I associate with cheap bagged chips.  The kind I don’t even buy for the house.  Not even Green Mountain Gringo chips.  We’re talking…Tostitos.  Or worse.  Generic Store Brand Tortialla Chips.  That kind of thing.

No.  Any of those would have done the trick for me, but I think what really made my brain spin was the prospect of anyone flying in tortilla chips in to New England from California three times a week.

Still, where do you even start with this?

The whole thing settled several questions for me, such as “Will I ever patronize this restaurant again?” and “Have I reached my Absolute Absurdity Limit for the year?” while leaving me with the more Burning Issue unsatisfied.

Was this chick just being a total low-rent smartass?  Or did she believe this rubbish about the little old lady in San Francisco turning out homogenized tortilla chips in her house and shipping them via air cargo to New England three times a week?  Has someone actually hoaxed this restaurant into a scam?

I’d like to think that it’s the first, and that this is someone who is just on the fast track out of the Service Industry.  But I know this area, and the possibility that it is truly the second cannot be discounted.  Roy’s impression – as a seasoned recipient of flaming whoppers for thirty years – was actually the latter.

And that, kids, raises an even more pressing question for me.  If someone is actually sending this restaurant repackaged Tostitos and has persuaded them that they’re some kind of Artisanal Chip being shipped in from the West Coast…would it be possible for me to start my own Cottage Industry in Tortilla “Manufacturing” and undercut the competition?  I could definitely carve off the “shipping” costs.  Depending on what kind of prices they’re paying for the “homemade” chips, I might even be able to retire on the proceeds.

I Am Being Very Wet!!!

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It has been being very dry here for a long time.  This is hard on a horse.  It is OK to roll in dirt but it is better to roll in mud.  That is because mud sticks to a horse better than dirt does.  But when it is being so dry, there is not any rain making mud, and a horse has to make his own mud.

I am hearing you say, But Huey, clouds and rain make mud.  How is a horse being able to make mud?

And I am telling you.  Sometimes a horse can make mud by pushing his water bucket over on the ground.  I can be doing that with the water buckets in my stall because I have two of them, which is more than other horses get.  But it is not as good to be making mud in the stall.   Dirt makes good mud, but there is not being dirt in my stall.  Only little tiny pieces of wood.  And wood does not make good mud at all.  I will do it if I have to, but it is better to be starting with dirt.  So I am making mud in my paddock.  But the water bucket in my paddock is very huge and it is not easy to push it over.  I have tried but it did not work.  It just sits there holding all that water inside.  So I cannot be making mud with the water bucket.

But you are saying So Huey, how do you make mud?  And I am telling you, I use the water from the bucket.  I do not use it by pushing the bucket over.  I use it by drinking it.  And after I drink it, it comes out the other end and makes mud!!  If I drink lots of it, lots of it comes out the other end, and then I get lots of mud!!!!  And then I roll around in it, and it sticks to my hairs.  And that is good.

It was not so good when my rider came after and was brushing me and talking about how dirty I am like always.  But then she said Huey! You smell like pee!!!  What have you been doing?  And then I am telling her about making mud and then she is saying That Word.

You know That Word.  That Bad Word.

Bath.

Yes.  And then it is happening, my rider is showing up and I am thinking it is going to be riding time and instead, she is taking me to the hitching post, which is being outside the barn where there are bugs and not inside the barn where it is nice and quiet and the bugs are not there.  Much.  And I am forgetting that the Bad Word got used before and I am wondering why I am on the hitching post, and then I am seeing it there, on the ground.  It is the HOSE.  And then I am knowing what is going on.  And I am saying Rider! I am not wanting a bath!!  But she is saying You are getting one anyway, you smell disgusting and you are covered with dirt.  And I am telling her that I have been working very hard to get that dirt on, and I do not want it off!!!!  But she is putting the Hose on my anyway, and then smelly foam that does NOT taste nice at all.  The only thing good that is happening is that she is squirting the hose on my jaw and right there by my cheek and neck where the bridle goes and the halter goes and it is always being itchy.  I was forgetting about that nice part of a Bath, getting the water to rub my itchy spots.  And then it is done, and I am clean, and my rider is saying Now it is time to dry off in the sun, let’s go eat some GRASS.  And I am saying Grass?  I forgot that I get to eat GRASS after getting a bath!!!!

Then I am going back in my paddock and Shamrock is saying Huey. You smell funny.  And I am rolling around in the dust to make some of that funny smell come off.  Besides, it is not easy work to be getting very dirty and I am having to start that job right away.

The next day, my rider is coming and we are riding, and then I am making myself all wet because it is being hot.  And the rider is putting me back on the hitching post and bringing out the hose.  And I am saying It is not fair!! I just had a bath!!  But she is saying You are not getting a bath Huey.  You are getting Hosed.  It is not the same.

And she was right.  It is not the same.  Getting Hosed does not make any smelly stuff and I do not have to stand around quietly for ages while my tail gets brushed.  It is also shorter, and it has the bit where I get scratches on my jaw with the water.  Getting Hosed is OK with a horse.  And best of all, it is also having the part where I stand around and eat grass while I dry off!!  And this time, my rider put me into the pasture and took off my halter.  I got to go naked into the grass!!!!  Well, naked except for my fly mask, but I do not want to be being outside without my fly mask at all in the summer because bugs go in my ears and on my eyes.  I hate bugs.  So the Wonder Horse Fly Mask does not count for being naked.

It was not being very long at all before my rider is coming back with the halter.  I am saying Rider, I am not done.  But she is saying You have to stop eating grass now or you will be getting a belly ache.  And that is meaning it hurts and the vet comes.  So I am saying OK, I will go, but after I finish eating all the grass right here.

But then she is putting the halter on my head while I am eating.  And then?

I AM SEEING A SNAKE IN THE GRASS!!!!!!!!!

AND I AM JUMPING UP IN THE AIR A LITTLE AND SAYING HELP!!!!!!!

And then my rider is making a VERY LOUD NOISE right in my ear!!!  And she is saying AAAAAAAYYYYYYAAAAAAA!!!!! And I am saying Rider! It is a snake! We have to run!!! But then I am hearing her say OVER HUEY OVER OVER OVER OVER OVER!!!

I am knowing what OVER means.  It is meaning I am supposed to move over.  That would be away from the snake so I do that.  And then my rider says OH MY GOD YOU STEPPED ON MY FOOT!!  And I am saying I thought that the ground was feeling strange under my hoof.  But there was a snake!!!

And my rider is saying Huey! There is no snake.  That is your lead rope lying on the ground!

I looked at it, and it was.  It was my lead rope!  My lead rope is fat and green, and it was in the green grass, so a horse cannot be blamed for thinking it was a snake.  My rider was not being angry, but she was shaking her leg like she had a bug on her belly.  And saying Ow, Ow, Ow, Ow, Ow.  And I am saying If you are shaking your leg and saying Ow, is that meaning I can eat some more grass?  But she is saying No, time to go back to the paddock.

When we went back, guess who was in the ring?  It was Shamrock!  And he was trotting.  But he saw me and said Huey! Watch this! and he started cantering and hopping around.  His rider did not like him showing off, and my rider said You are distracting him, Huey.  Move on.  And I am saying OK.

Then it is raining and the clouds are making lots of mud!!  I am going to be rolling for a long time!!!

This is me, scratching my face on the water.

Golfing It Old School

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Roy and I played our first nine holes on Cape Cod this morning, and we did it at the oldest golf course on the Cape.  Which also has the distinction of being the only “links-style” golf course in the region.  The course website makes a fairly big deal out of the last, which led me to believe that I had no real idea what they were talking about.  As far as I knew, “links” was a slang term for a golf course, any golf course.  So why the big deal about the “links-style” course and rarity of same?

This, friends, is where Wikipedia shines.  Not, as I tell my students, in research for the classroom.  It’s too shallow, insufficiently reliable, and not the place I want my accounting majors to regard as Authoritative.  But for ad-hoc research like this, it’s invaluable.  Wikipedia revealed to me that yes, “links” is now a general term for a golf-course…but…it has a historical genesis in that the land originally used for golf courses back in the Old Country (Scotland) was the land between (linking the) the ocean and the farmlands.  Coastal sand dunes, called link lands from the Old English “hlinc” meaning “rising ground”.  Golf courses, on link-land, become “links”.   And that “link-style” means that the course is right at the ocean, that it’s sandy, that there aren’t many trees so it’s also windy, that the roughs – which on your not-links-style courses are just zones of longer grass – are truly “rough”, and that there’s an exceptional diversity to the terrain.

All of which was Completely True about the place we played today.  And it had the Added Bonus of a Real, Working Lighthouse!!  Right there in the middle of the golf course.  And a World War II Air Force Surveillance Station, and a medieval-style granite tower that was erected in honor of Jenny Lind.  It was like the best putt-putt course imaginable, only huge.

It was awesome.

This course roars straight through Old School and doesn’t even slow down until it gets to Primitive.  It’s Roots Golf.  Not because the grounds are unkempt.  They aren’t.  The fairways were in beautiful condition, and while the greens were not exactly “pristine” they were as nice as anyone could possibly hope for this early in the growing season.  In truth, I expected the conditions to be a lot more…iffy…since the course is proximate to some spectacular sand dunes and directly on the edge of the ocean.

No, it was Primitive because of the Golf.  The Rough was, well, dune grass.  Very durable dune grass, but dune grass nonetheless.  That is, where the Rough was not massive planations of beach plums and wild cranberries.  And rugosas. And one frightening mass of some kind of tree I thought only existed in animated Tim Burton films.   The fairways existed as narrow bowling lanes of green grass in between the terrifying expanses of Rough.  It doesn’t take the brain of a rocket scientist to realize that you had better hit the ball straight on this course, or it will be gone forever. 

I know that fans will be clamoring to know what our Team Score was, given our golfing history.  Here it is:  5.  We lost only five (5) balls on the entire nine holes.  This was our previous record low score, and while I would ordinarily not be impressed with racking up that kind of score – not after playing an entire eighteen (18) holes with only losing one (1) ball…on this course, it was Cause For Great Rejoicing.  When I sussed this course out initially, my mental estimate of the Permanently Lost Ball Score was in the double-digits.  Well into the double-digits.  So when you’re expecting to lose, say, twenty (20) balls forever, losing only five (5) is something to celebrate.  And all of those were Lost To The Terrifying Rough.

And – by the way – a couple of the extremely friendly course employees assured us that if we came back in another month or six weeks, the game would be even more exciting due to the Rough really Coming Into Its Own.  They made gestures at approximately mid-thigh-height to illustrate what this meant.  The mind boggles.

Back to the Primitive Golf.  Back In The Day, any dirt that got moved to make features on a golf course, or to even out terrain, got moved by shirtless muscle hunks with shovels and blisters. Not like today, where it’s all John Deere and Komatsu moving the earth for you.  Evidently, yer links-style (i.e., Authentic) course has features Made By God, Weather, and Tectonic Activity.  They put the tee boxes in the flattest spot they can find, they carve the fairway out with grass, and the greens, well, the greens are where the fairways end.  Wherever that is.

The “tips” provided by the course management involve keeping the drives low…because otherwise, the constant on- or off-shore winds will grab high-flyers and take them…wherever.  And hitting straight, yeah.  And expressing Deep Gratitude and Thanks any time you manage to come in anywhere near par.   They also involve words like “moor” and “heath” both of which I did see as we made our way around.

The second hole had a fairway that was twelve (12) yards wide.  That’s where the Terrifying Tim Burton Thicket was, too.  Roy lost two balls on that hole alone.

The third hole involved hitting the ball straight up.  Well, not exactly straight. Straight as the crow flies, maybe.  But there were three (3) small ravines as the grass located in the position that should be occupied by a fairway on a Civilized Golf Course dipped and ran in ways that magnetically attracted a short-hit ball.  Roy stood in the tee box, gazing skyward at the flag, and simply said “This is insane.”

And it was.  Or, we thought it was, until we arrived at a later hole to discover that  you couldn’t actually see the green from the tee.  This wasn’t your garden-variety hard-to-see-the-flag-because-of-a-dogleg.  No.  This was a totally lunatic impossible-to-see-the-green-because-of-a-horizon.  You had to hit the ball up and over a completely blind hill, hoping that the general shape of the fairway as it headed up the hill was some vague indicator of the direction in which you would find the green.

“No,” I said. “This is insane.”

We sent the balls over the top, like foot soldiers out of a battlefield trench.  Roy hiked forward while I pulled the cart up.  We found the balls, lying in the middle of the fairway, with another totally blind hill confronting us.  That’s right.  We took our second swings, still with no idea at all of where the green was.  

“Really insane” I said.

I was wrong.  What was really insane was that when we found our balls lying from the second swing, they were still out of sight of the green, still with another totally blind hill to send them over.

Someone, decades past, described this course as having “aboriginal hazards”.   No kidding.  The sixth hole is a short par 3, and looks easy until you realize that if you over-hit the ball, you could send it directly into the mass of tourists clustered on the observation deck overlooking the sandy cliffs. If a bunker is a Sand Trap, this hazard would have to qualify as a Tourist Trap.

Golfing this course was everything I’d hoped it would be.  Terrifying, intriguing, challenging, and fun.  And we only lost five balls!!

Retro Rewind: French Creperies and Chateau Dracula

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“When you’re at a creperie in the French countryside, order. the. crepes.”

July 2003

Also previously published under “A Lori Special in the Vendee, Or, The Low Point of France.”

Roy has amazingly good luck with things. He’s one of those people for whom planes and trains run on time, and if they don’t, he winds up with free meals, cash allowances, and upgrades. This is the polar opposite of my luck. He enjoys my travelogues from a distance, says he finds them amusing. I warned him that he might not find them as amusing when he winds up participating in them. It was his belief that his Good Travel Luck would prove superior to my Bad Travel Luck. It is an empirical debate, after all…the Immovable Object and the Irresistible Force.

When we arrived at Logan to take off for our trip to France, he started to understand that I never exaggerate these stories, if anything, understate them. It was a typical scene for me, a total disaster at the ticket counter exacerbated by ludicrously long wait lines. Airline personnel were canvassing the lines for people who needed to check in for [name your destination] flight, pulling them out, and taking them to Timbuktu so that they would make the flight. These are people who arrived an hour and more early, as recommended, not scoff-laws who are trying to arrive at the very last second.  That is how long the lines were. This was all complicated by the mass confusion at Security Scene, with the result that people wound up standing in the ticket lines while believing that they were waiting for the security checkpoint. After standing in line for 1 (one) hour, I wagered Roy that just as we reached the ticketing counter, the line would be canvassed for people on our flight (and this was the line for the Gold-level frequent flyer travelers). He never believed it, and, as a result, when I stepped up to the ticket counter and opened my mouth only to be cut off by the call for travelers for Paris, I won a beer from him.

Roy said then that he understood what it was like to travel for me. I told him he didn’t understand Jack. At least not yet.

The day we left Paris for the countryside, he attained Enlightenment. We had tickets for the TGV (high-speed train) from Paris to Angers on Tuesday morning. We picked up the train at Montparnasse. Things went fine until we got on the train. We wrestled our anti-social luggage, all five (5) large bags of it, into the rack. Then waited, and waited and waited. An announcement came. My French is…passable…in many situations, but it is not up to the task of announcements made in rapid-fire over a tannoy. All I was able to understand was that there was a mechanical problem with the train. Roy was confident that we’d be taking off any time now. I knew, based on extensive personal experience, that once we heard that announcement, we could have disembarked and eaten a three-course gourmet meal at a nearby brasserie before re-boarding the train. I was more or less right, too. Eventually, we got another announcement, one that I could not understand at all. In a fit of Dark Humor I said to Roy “Ah. Doubtless we’re now being told that the train has been fixed, but the crew has been lost.”  He said, “You’re kidding.”  I addressed myself to a couple sitting behind us to see if they spoke English and could translate.  To my Complete and Total lack of surprise, it transpired that there was going to be a delay of thirty or forty minutes because the conductor could not be found.  I hate being right.

Roy started laughed in disbelief. I assured him that we were not done.

Finally, the train departed. It did, in fact, go at very high speeds. Something to the tune of 185 miles per hour. Very impressive. Very smooth ride, too. The countryside outside of Paris looked exactly like east Texas, including the round hay-bales, which it turns out that Roy always thought were some kind of special French Thing.

We arrive at Angers over 1 hour late, and into an extraordinarily potent heat wave. Normal high is around 75. This day, it is 97 and EXTREMELY humid, just like Houston in July. We commence the search for the Avis rental desk. It is decided that I will stand with the five (5) large bags on the sidewalk while Roy looks for the desk, which is either in the hotel across the street from the station, near the hotel across the street from the station, or across from the hotel across the street from the station, depending on the accuracy of Roy’s recollection of the instructions given at the Montparnasse station Avis desk. Roy’s French is limited to “Bonjour,” “Bon soir,” and “merci beaucoups” which he uses completely indiscriminately, including as a response to other people’s “Pardon” (“please move aside so I may pass”).

Finally, Roy locates the desk, which is in fact across the street from the hotel across the street – one wonders why the preposition “next to” never came into play. Probably the Avis clerk forgot how to say that. I know I perpetrated many of the same kinds of things, once referring to our innkeeper as the “wife of the brother of the man at the vineyard” (I did not know the word for “sister-in-law”). The desk is in a trailer (probably forgot that word, too) which is air-conditioned (an uncommon phenomenon in our travels), so we drag our five (5) large bags into it, completely filling the space. There is some inevitable confusion over where, exactly, the car is to be found. I finally decide that it will be easier to conduct the negotiations in French (very scary, given my French) and discern that it is parked on a nearby street and that we may identify it by the license plate. Which we do. Roy says with premature relief that he is glad that the Travel Drama is over.  I laugh.

At this point, he sits down and discovers that he cannot put the car into reverse. It has a Euro transmission, so reverse is on the left side. No matter what he does, it stays stubbornly in first gear, and we inch precariously closer and closer to the car parked in front of us on the steep hill. I retrieve the manual from the glove box and attempt to discern what “transmission” “shift lever” and “put the car into reverse” are in French. Unfortunately, none of this was covered in any of my classes, nor in conversations with my grandmother, nor in my handbook of useful French phrases. Roy decides that the thing to do is to hike back to the desk and ask. Unfortunately, it is 5:02 at this point, so he must make speed through the heat wave.  Five minutes later, I miraculously decipher the manual, and get the car into reverse. This was the High Point of my personal linguistic adventures, believe me!!

We congratulated ourselves extensively, pulled out on our way to the Autoroute, and immediately got lost. In a maze of one-way streets, closed avenues, and thoroughfares randomly and maliciously marked Interdit (restricted).

It is also Rush Hour.

Twenty-five minutes later, we are headed to B.F.E. Roy, a life-long inhabitant of the North East, is profoundly unfamiliar with the concept of B.F.E. I, a life-long resident of the Deep South and Texas, am intimately familiar with the concept of B.F.E. We are to stay three nights in a chateau, the kind that has evolved over the last thousand years from a giant stone keep. The chateau is in B.F.E. It is also quite gorgeous. It is owned by a Vicomte and his wife, who kept it as their Country Residence until the children left the nest, and now they run it part-time as a B&B.

Unfortunately, the Vicomte and his wife are not in town when we arrive. The only employee on the premises has been on the job for 8 (eight) hours. As in, This Is Her First Day. Thankfully, she’s a graduate student from Haiti, going to school in Nebraska, and speaks English perfectly. It takes a while to discern this, though, as I address her in French, thus delivering the impression that I am an imbecile, not a foreigner.  My accent is…very good.  Too good.  Good enough to allow me to Pass, which only gets me in trouble.

Roy and I have had the equivalent of one (1) pastry each so far in the day and it is now 6PM. Since we are in B.F.E., we have to get a recommendation for a local restaurant from the woman who has been living in the area for eight (8) hours. This recommendation is based on a business card she found on a desk somewhere. The business card provides a small map. Unfortunately, the roads are shown but not labeled, and none of the villages on the card-map appear on my road-map, and the woman is unable to tell us where, on the card-map, the chateau is located. She attempts to telephone the owners. One hour later, we have directions: Turn right out of the chateau. Go to Pouzages. We think there are signs for the restaurant once you get to Pouzages. We are unsure of how far Pouzages is from where we are, and because where we are does not appear on my road-map, we can’t use that either.

The room, by the way, is exactly what one would expect from a well-maintained five-hundred year old Renaissance chateau. Quite gorgeous and completely devoid of air conditioning. We fling the 10-foot windows open to let in a cross-draft, and depart for Pouzages.

Pouzages turns out to be deeper into B.F.E., which sparks a debate as to whether you can be in the center of B.F.E. or whether, by definition, there is no center to B.F.E.

We find our way to the restaurant despite all this.

One quick piece of advice: When you come across a restaurant deep in the French countryside that calls itself a “creperie,” order. the. crepes.

Five minutes after arrival I have successfully determined two things: one, that the restaurant staff speaks little or no English. Two, that the local French accent is completely unlike the Parisian accent that I have and to which I am accustomed, which means that I can no longer understand what people are saying. Nor can they understand me.

We are seated on a patio and manage to acquire a couple of kirs (aperitif). We begin to unwind. Roy surveys the adjoining grassy yard and says “Is that a bull?” I consider the occupant, 30 feet away, and tell him that in Texas, at least, bulls do not come equipped with an udder. He’s from the Bronx. Who can blame him?

I survey the surroundings and observe that it feels like ten minutes ago I was on a Parisian metro car with 150 other close personal acquaintances, and now, suddenly, I find myself on the patio of the only open restaurant within 60 kilometers, right next to a cow pasture marked off with 12 pieces of rusting re-bar and 2 pieces of string. The pasture is occupied by a cow wearing an honest-to-God cow bell, the first I have ever actually seen, and there is a stray dog aggressively canvassing the restaurant tables for scraps.

“Culture Shock” only begins to cover it.

The waitress arrives, and with great effort and maximum inefficiency, I convey to her Roy’s desire for not one, but two, appetizers: fish soup and some kind of salad with beans that makes him smell nastily of onions for two days. I, thinking fondly of the foie gras I had two nights before, order the foie gras salad. And a house item, the “raclette”. I have no idea what this is, beyond the fact that it involves cheese, potatoes, and chunks of cooked pork.

The waitress delivers the appetizers. My foie gras is not a foie gras, but a perfectly circular slice of pate foie gras. The kind that in the states would be loaded with enough nitrites to have me sick in the bathroom for hours. I offer a prayer to the heavens that the French would not tolerate that kind of canned pate and fall to.

The waitress arrives again, and informs me at length and with some urgency, about something.

The only word I can understand from this litany is “probleme.” And “votre plat” (referring to my main course). We exchange mutually unintelligible comments three times at which point she says, in desperation, “changez les places” (you move your place). I inform Roy that we need to move, but do not know why. By this point, everyone else in the restaurant is laughing discreetly into their wine.

We move. Eventually, a nearby diner offers, in broken English, the explanation that the “hachette” required for my dinner does not have an electric cord long enough to reach our former table.

I ordered something that requires an extension cord??  I realize that I am shortly in for a Surprise.  What an adventure!

At this point, the sky emits a low and threatening rumble.  I am not making any of this up, I have a witness.

However, I am too delighted to not be in whatever passes for a toilette in this region, puking from the pate, to be very concerned with the rumble.

Dinner arrives. To my dismay, the “pieces of cooked pork” (menu translation) are not “chunks of pork” at all, but neatly rolled slices of ham, country bacon, and pastrami. All foods that have a history of making me barf. It’s like a Little Plate of Poison.

The “hachette” turns out to be a rather large portable broiler with a giant wedge of cheese. I stare at it in broad mystification. Our neighbors take pity on me and show me how to use it. The general idea is to broil the cheese and then scrape it off with a special spatula, put it on a potato and a Cold Cut, and eat it. How revolting.

However, I’m starving, it’s late, and I’m realizing that there is an electrical storm in the neighborhood and I am seated on an outdoor patio, under a metal awning, right next to a large electrical device, and that we’re not entirely sure we know how to get back to the chateau.

I eat the “raclette”. It is every bit as nasty as it sounds.

I plead with Roy to forego dessert in favor of an early (pre-midnight) return to the chateau. By the time we get to the car, the rain is starting. Big fat drops. Amazingly, we find our way back to the village. It is 10:45, pouring, and the village is darker than a crypt and locked up tighter than a vault full of gold. We are grateful for the lightning that periodically lights the road for us, as it is the sole source of illumination for the signposts…when there are signposts. It occurs to us simultaneously that this is scene directly from H.P. Lovecraft and every scary story we were ever told around a campfire, and we make a pact that if something happens to the car, no one will be leaving to get help. We will sleep in the car and stay there until morning.  When the deranged felon with the hook for an arm shows up, he will get us both.

Miraculously, we find the chateau. It is completely dark. As we fumble for the door, the rain starts in earnest, soaking us both to the skin instantly. We cannot open the door. It is locked. Roy lunges about the courtyard trying to find the bell and pounding on doors. The only way I can track him is with the lighting and the noise. Eventually a door opens (the wrong door) and erupts with people, who usher us into an adjacent (but not connected) part of the keep and give us towels.

I address our unwitting host with a cheery “Bon Soir!” and attempt to explain our predicament in my crummy French. I do not know the words for “locked out” and resort to the all-purpose “interdit”. The man cuts me off with a protest that he does not speak French. I move the towel out of my eyes and realize, to my amazement, that he is sporting a 2003 NBA Championship t-shirt. I croak in disbelief and soon we have sorted out that he and his three buddies are from San Antonio and work or worked a block away from my old apartment. His wife, on the other hand, is from a town in Kentucky that is right near the town my grandfather is from.

Roy is staggered.

I inform him that NOW, and only now, he can fully understand the Lori Travel Twilight Zone.

He and one of the Texans take off into the downpour to try to rouse the innkeeper. It pours harder. Those of us left in the stone keep remark on the similarity of this experience to Dracula’s Castle.

Naturally, exactly at this moment, the lights go out.

Roy and the other fellow returned, even wetter, if possible, than before. He meets the news of the power failure with Complete Incredulity. I laugh, and remind him that we left our windows wide open. Eventually, we find a way into the chateau. The thunderstorm, straight from Central Casting, roars on. The floor is soaked, I am soaked, and all I can think is how grateful I am that we are not on the top floor – at least the bed is not soaked. I sit down to make notes so that you can all share this experience, and as I write, the lights try to go out three times, and a while ago, we heard nearby screams.

We do not investigate them.

Loire Sunflowers 2

Where sunflower seeds come from. The heat and the rains brought the fields into full bloom early, granting us a magnificent gift.