Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Musical Interlude

The final part of the ANCIANT European Travel Divine Comedy will probably not arrive until after the holidays.  In the interim, I'd like to ask everybody to respond to this question:  what is the single worst lyric that occurs in a hit song of the 1980s? (The 1980s part is key: we have to limit our search, a little.  Plus, this way we have an excuse to think about songs from the 80s).

I think I already have the winner.  It occurs in an otherwise fantastic song--"Africa" by Toto.  (Please note, that we're using the word 'fantastic' in a very specific way when we talk about 1980s Pop.  Nevertheless, I will happily argue for hours with anyone mad enough to claim that "Africa" is NOT a great song.  Because it is.  GONNA TAKE A LOT TO DRAG ME AWAY FROM YOUUUUU)

Toto in the 80s.  How I Miss Them.  (The Band and the Decade)

This is not to say, however, that it doesn't contain an absolute disaster of a lyric.  I refer, of course to this little doozy:
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I was sure, last time I heard this song that lyric was "as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a LEPRESS above the Serengeti."  I'm still not convinced that ISN'T the lyric, but I'm going to bow to the many sites on the Internet that claim it's Olympus.  It's still awful.  Way too many words have been crammed into the music, the simile is confusing, and the allusion to Olympus only confuses whatever is at stake in the song.

All right.  That's my submission.  The floor is open.  I await to hear from all my fellow 80s music loving fans.

Wait, first.  I can't help it--this lyric begs to be mentioned right away.  This way, we can get it out of the way.
He sees her, he starts to shake and to cough.
Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.
This should be a reference point for would-be poets on what constitutes a forced rhyme.  To pick at just one of the lyric's many many problems--the protagonist of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, is not an old man; he's middle age, at the oldest.  Also (need to stop--don't go down the rabbit hole) he is NOT at all embarrassed or ashamed of his love for young women.  He revels in it; he would never start to 'shake and cough' on seeing a young girl; that suggest guilt.

Man.  I'm wondering if we should just limit this discussion to Sting lyrics.  Because that is a rich vein to mine.

Anyway, now the floor really is open.  Let's hear 'em!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

European Vacation, Part II

After a week in Brussels we began the vacation portion of the trip.  First stop, Strasbourg.
Yesterday we took the train to Strasbourg, which has impressed us mightily.  We originally planned to go straight from Brussels to Dijon, but our guide book spoke so highly of Alsace we decided to stop en route.  We're glad we did.  So far, Strasbourg's been great.

The city is beautiful; all French cities are. There are no Liverpools or Daytons in France.  It's one charming panorama after another.  We're also ended up in a lovely hotel. (Le cour de courbeau--"the heart of the badger").  Strasbourg is in far Eastern France; we're literally walking distance from the German border.  As a result, half the guests in our hotel speak German.  (The other half speak Malagasy.)  The hotel staff seem to all speak French, English and German perfectly.  It's impressive.  And, slightly shaming.   (Recalls the old joke: What's the name for a person who speaks two language?  Bilingual.  What's the name for a person who speaks one language?  American.)

In planning this trip, one of our guiding concerns was where we would eat.  It's sort of one of our things--eating in 'destination', Michelin-star type restaurants.   Like a hobby?  No, that's way too yuppified and annoying to be a hobby.  It's an interest, let's say--and a way to organize and motivate travel.  For example: we're planning a trip to Chicago next year, in part because of all the supposedly great restaurants there.  Now, while I'm there, will I stop by the Bears Training facility and work with their O Line on how to implement a zone-blocking scheme?  Probably.  But that's not the impetus for the trip.  With Strasbourg, at least part of why we decided to stop here was because of the presence of highly-touted traditional Alsatian restaurant le Beureheisel (English: "the Beureheisel").  Last night we went there.  And the food, while good, probably doesn't qualify for our "great meals list."

In some ways, the whole thing of going to highly-regarded restaurants (for me at least) is a bit like how it used to be seeing live music. You go to see a band, because you hear that such and such a band MUST be seen live. OR, you just feel, as a music fan, that it's your duty to see Eric Clapton. You hope it will be a transcendent experience, one to tell your grandkids about (though why your Grandkids would want to hear about Eric Clapton is another story).  Usually it's not, but, regardless, you have a good time.  It's the same with the restaurants on the "Best Restaurants in the World" list, e.g.  (Which I admit to perusing frequently).  You hope, if you can make it to Alinea or the French Laundry, you'll have a sublime, live-on-in-memory type experience.  Usually you don't  (if the experience were common, it wouldn't be so exciting), but when you do, it's all the better.  I'd say only one of the restaurants we ate at on this trip reached that level.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

And now, having already started this hare, I feel motivated to think about "foodiesm."

The word, like 'hipster,' has acquired a lot of negative (even, overlappingly negative) stereotypes.  But in its best form, a foodie, is like a passionate 90s indie music fan.  The archetypal, ur-foodie experience, I would argue (and this was already covered in a recent Sunday times article, but reassert its truth) involves going on Chowhound (the website that's the hive brain for serious foodies), reading exhaustively about all the best places in your city to get, I don't know, beef pho, and then methodically and unswervingly trying them all.  Jonathan Gold, the LA food critic, is the model here.  (In fact, a credible argument could be made that he was the first foodie, that he invented the whole...thing).  But the point (or at least a point) is that Foodie-ism is NOT about fine dining, per se (though most foodies probably do also do a lot of 'star chef', fine dining too) but adventurous, encyclopedic dining.  It's about eating offal, or grasshopper, or sheep testicles.  It's about knowing (or believing you know) THE place to get Ramen on the south side of Chicago, or the difference between a true omakase and a westernized version.  Etc.  Anyway, according to this definition, the Wife and I are NOT foodies.  

To continue with the 90s indie music fan analogy... Foodies, like the people who worked at my college radio stations, tend to value "creators" (chefs or bands) who manifest the same traits.  1) They're spiritually pure.   Just as indie rock fans reserved their strongest disgust for bands that 'sold out' by signing with a big corporate label, so do hardcore foodies tend to sneer at chefs like Wolfgang Puck or Bobby Flay--people whose image adorn every type of sauce and refrozen burrito in creation.  (Emeril used to fall in this category, but he's rehabilitated his foodie-cred in recent years).  2) They're off the beaten path.  The 90s indie fans were almost most excited about being the first to recognize the greatness in a band that no one had heard of.  Same holds true for the real foodie; being the first to advocate for the greatness of an Albanian fried pork dish that can ONLY BE had from the back of a food truck which food truck ONLY CAN be found if you have a friendship with the driver...that's a big thing.  Hence the growing fad for pop-up restaurants and secret invitation-only supper clubs.  This overlaps with a larger desire that we may all have--to be 'inside' and not outside.  But that's not unique to foodieism, by a long shot.

I regret starting this hare.  

A final point--if true foodies resemble 90s indie rock fans, my wife and I come closer to the mainstream readers of Rolling Stone (or a less lame alternative).   We have the time or energy to see every concert or listen to every album, and so we're willing to pay to get good seats when to the few shows we do attend.  Except that that analogy doesn't give us quite enough credit, because the average middle-age Rolling Stone reader (at least in my stereotype) probably gets a lot less good information about music than does the average Chowhound reader about food.  I hope.

Let me also say, before turning back to France, that I often do feel an amount of weariness and self-disgust at all this fetishizing of food, and that the contradictions and maybe even immorality inherent in spending on a single meal what some people earn in a month is not lost on me.  And that while I may write about our 'concerts', 90% of the time we eat at home on food that I cook, and that said food is neither unhealthy nor expensive (roast vegetables and grilled chicken, sautéed greens and tri-tip, etc.) 

Let us, at last, abandon foodiesm.  The point is, we ate, on our trip, at a lot of 'good'  (well-reviewed, highly regarded, much recommended restaurants) in Europe.  And this place, the place in Strasbourg, le butter house, or whatever, was one of them.  And though it was "good" in all the expected ways, it won't live in memory.  Like seeing Clapton, or Sting, but not, I don't know, Bowie on the Earthling Tour, or U2 on Achtung.

Also (and here we can at last return to my telling dissections of foreign mores) a notable exchange occurred at end of our meal.   Our entrees finished, we decided not to order any coffee or dessert (in part because we were full, and in part because we'd already been given a plate dessert amuses, which featured what was for me the 'best bite' of the meal, a delectable mango fruit gelee on shortbread).  Ten minutes after our plates were cleared, we'd left the table and gone to wait in an anteroom off the dining area for a cab.  The sommelier, walking by, reacted to seeing us as if he'd stumbled on some teenager publically urinating on floor.  What were we doing?  Why had we left from our table?  Hadn't they offered us dessert?   Coffee?  Tea?   What about cheese?  Some more wine?  Over and over we assured him that, yes, they'd offered us everything, we had just wanted to go.  (We'd been there 2.5 hours at that point.)  He was dumbfounded.  It was almost as if, we'd insulted him.  

Because, of course, in Europe, when you book a table, you have that table for the night.  And what sane person wouldn't want to linger at said table, engaging in witty banter over the port and walnuts, as it were?  Whereas in America, of course, restaurants like nothing more than for a guest to leave immediately after dinner; it means they can seat another guest.  (This leads to interesting moments, at high-end American restaurants, where they really really really want you to leave, but don't at all want you to feel like they want you to leave.   At the better places, they solve this problem by offering to buy you a drink in the bar.  Meaning, essentially: get up from your table and I'll give you free booze.)  But, in Europe, not only can you stay at a table for at least an hour after the entree is done, you really SHOULD.  I guess.  To a certain extent, he might have just thought we didn't know that we were welcome to stay.  He was a nice guy.

Okay enough about food.  The next day in Strasbourg we went to the Strasbourg Cathedral.  Said Cathedral was fricking awesome.  I include photos, but they weren't taken by us.  I don't know why we didn't take pictures--because it was so phenomenal.  But, anyway.  Here are pictures.  The characteristic pinkish stone comes from the Vosges, a chain of cactus-laden mesas in Southern Australia (not really).

The Strasbourg Cathedral Astonomical Clock

Inside the Cathedral we got to see something my wife called "The Chicken Clock."  Basically, it's an elaborate clock that chimes once a day.  I recommend you read about said clock in more detail.  It has many many moving parts, and plays out a series of scenes involving Biblical stories every time it chimes.  There is also a chicken (well, a rooster) that crows, three times, as the disciples in the clock pass by Jesus.  We waited in the cathedral for 30 minutes, in a crowd of other expectant tourists, to watch it chime.  It was worth it.  I loved the chicken clock. 

Detail of the Clock

* *

The afternoon of the chicken clock viewing, we took a train to Colmar, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece.  Said Altarpiece is one of the three most important pieces of art done in the Middle Ages.  (Such a claim, of course, is well-nigh impossible to defend.  But nevertheless, I make it.  Undaunted.)  So, I decided we should go and see it.  (It came up a several times in my college and grad school art history classes).  After all, we were only an hour away, and Colmar is not a town one passes often.

Nothing stood out too much about the day in Colmar.  Except...given that the Isenheim Altarpiece is by far the most overriding reason anyone would visit Colmar, it was curiously difficult to figure out where it was located.  But we found it in the end (in part because I struck up a conversation with a French student, who then asked the natives, and guided us there).  Le retable (the French word for "altarpiece."  Also "canned tuna") didn't appear as impressive as it could have; it's kept in a monastery that's been repurposed as an art museum, and the museum’s keepers had been very sparing in their installation of electric lights.  The only way you could really see what was inside was through natural light, and since the day was overcast, the whole interior had a murky funereal vibe that made viewing difficult.

Still it was a worthwhile trip, although by this time, I'd become slightly disenchanted with train travel.  (I viewed it more romantically, I think, before the trip began).  It's not so much the train ride itself which I've grown to dislike, but all the before and after--the haul to the station, the arrival, the search for ticket booth, the line, the back and forth with the agent, the search for the platform, the buying of the snacks preparatory to the ride, etc.  

The Isenheim Altarpiece

Some interesting knowledge picked up in the Isenheim museum--St Anthony is frequently depicted in Medieval art with a pig nearby.  And, around the Antonine monastery where we visited (where the Isenheim altarpiece was stored) those pigs that monastery property were marked as such with a ring through their ears.  That ring meant those pigs could not be used by the villagers, those were allowed to roam free, and none of them could be killed by the villagers.

In our next episode: The Burgundy wine country and Paris.