European Tour: “Cheese With Rice!”

Shortly after boarding Turkish Airlines Flight 1821, departing from JFK at 12:50 PM, I am offered a drink. How classy, I think to myself; like brunch. Don’t mind if I do. I have deliberately stayed up much too late the night before so I would be able to sleep. If I’m really being honest, I stayed up late because I was in a spectacularly good mood, but I have retroactively justified this decision by telling myself it will help me sleep on the plane. I should be able to sleep. Between waking up early to get to the airport, dealing with the gear, and using every single idle minute to keep abreast of work while still on Eastern time, there is no reason I should not be able to sleep. If I were at home under the same circumstances, beset by obligations but unable to address any of them for the next 18 hours, I’d be in deep REM having fucked up stress dreams to be remembered only in uneasy disconnected snippets. But here I am, bolt-upright and wide awake. Yes, I will have a drink. They have whiskey, gin, vodka, and something called raki, which of course I order because I have not heard of it. “Be careful,” the flight attendant cautions me, “it’s strong.” She winks. This well-worn gesture of camaraderie is clearly a part of her schtick, intended to make me feel like a cool risk-taker for ordering the weird Turkish liquor instead of something familiar, but I eat that shit right up. I am susceptible to flattery. Raki turns out to be very much like pastis, a clear spirit which becomes cloudy when water is added, tasting like licorice and anise. I nurse it for a while, as I assume there will not be another. I could use another; I am still wide awake.

It is only when we are served dinner that I realize this is not a brunch thing. We are just on Turkish time. We have the option of a simple pasta with tomato sauce and chicken, or a Turkish minced beef thing with tomato rice. The pasta is the safe choice, but I can’t resist the beef. I know we’re only going to be in Istanbul for 45 minutes or so before our connecting flight to Paris, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to have at least the ersatz airline version of some Turkish food. I must say, I am not disappointed.

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Look at this spread. The meatballs are pretty dry, but well-seasoned and actually quite tasty. The rice is a bit bland, but I can see what they were going for, and it works well with the meat. I could make this and it would be real good. The vegetables are legit delicious, as is the crumbly farmer’s cheese. There is also a chocolate-nougat mousse cake, of which I have two because Carlos doesn’t get down with sweets. This is solidly above-average airline food. A good omen. Now I just have to entertain myself for the next 10.5 hours without the benefit of the internet. I have brought a book, but I’ve always had trouble reading on planes. I get through a chapter or two and I’m spent. Something about this environment makes it hard to focus, even though I always do my best reading on the subway. I look to the console on the seat in front of me. A crude touchscreen interface with hardwired remote offers me several options. They have a solid selection of movies, and I flip around for a while before settling on The Untouchables. Didn’t David Mamet write that? He did. Robert De Niro as Al Capone. I bet he chews the hell out of that scenery. Sold.

This may sound like a whiny audio nerd complaint, but it’s really problematic how shitty the compression is. The soundtrack is way louder than the dialogue, so you have to pump the whole thing to borderline painful volume to hear what’s going on. It is also heavily bowdlerized. I don’t think David Mamet ever wrote the word “crap” into a script with any great frequency, or had a captured bootlegger defiantly tell his interrogators to “give me a break”. After the flight, Becca informs me that another film she watched changed “Jesus Christ!” to “cheese with rice!”. But even under these constraints, it’s a solid movie. If you’ve ever been to the sort of bar where a cocktail costs twelve dollars, you know Prohibition occupies a very particular space in the American collective memory. It was a time when the simple act of having a drink marked you as a rebel. To ridicule the idea of Prohibition is to reassure oneself that things are getting better, that our very own duly-elected government would never do something so abjectly silly again. We are so much smarter than our forebears, aren’t we? We can dismiss them while admiring their classic cars and natty suits. Giorgio Armani’s name is one of the first you see in the credits, and he does not disappoint.

The movie makes the moral stakes pretty clear up front, by having one of Capone’s men plant a bomb that kills an adorable little pigtailed moppet running an errand for her mother. This is not fun and games; innocent people are dying. De Niro’s Capone is a charismatic sociopath, expertly manipulating the press with defiant soundbites as the city crumbles beneath him. Kevin Costner’s Elliott Ness is a sanctimonious goody two-shoes, and you’re supposed to sort of dismiss him at first. From our modern standpoint, his crusade seems pointless. His peers do not take him seriously, and he is repeatedly made to look like a fool. You want to grab him and shake him and tell him to man up, already. And then he does, and you feel kind of fucked up about it. At least I do.

In his first speech to the unit he commands, Ness draws a clear moral line. He knows everyone likes to have a tipple now and then, but this is no longer to be tolerated. It may just be a harmless drink, but he and his men are charged with upholding the law of the land, and they must remain true to their mission. His speech is met with silent derision. Just before his first raid, Ness rallies the troops with a cry of “Let’s do some good!” in complete earnest. They don’t find anything, of course; someone tipped off the bad guys about the raid, and Ness is openly mocked within the department. It becomes clear that none of his men have any intention of helping him, and that many are in fact working against him. He must assemble his own unit-within-a-unit out of people who have not already been bribed and browbeaten into full complicity with Capone. These are the eponymous Untouchables: an egghead accountant, a promising young recruit from the police academy, and a cynical Irish lifer played by Sean Connery. Connery’s Jimmy Malone is the first member of the team, and the character who sets the real [a]moral arc of the movie in motion. Unlike Ness, he is not concerned with merely doing good. This is established in an early conversation, when Ness asks Malone why he wants to help. “Because I have sworn to uphold the law,” Malone replies, “and if you like that one I’ll tell you another.”

It is not insignificant that Malone and the accountant both die shortly after having consumed alcohol. The accountant takes a sip out of a bullet-riddled barrel as it bleeds out onto the ground. The scene is played for laughs, a la Looney Tunes, but the consequences are real: he is shot to death in an elevator at the trial of one of the bootleggers in the next scene. Malone’s death is even more explicitly linked to his private indulgence, as he pours himself a generous whiskey in his kitchen immediately before being gunned down by Capone’s men. Ness is unaware of both of these transgressions; only the viewer makes the connection. The young recruit, played by Andy Garcia, does not have a drink, and he is the only member of the team besides Ness who survives. But as Ness himself sinks deeper and deeper into hypocrisy, he is rewarded for it by gaining ground on Capone. He begins to lie and manipulate in pursuit of his goal, and eventually even kills Frank Nitti, Capone’s gunman, by pushing him off a roof. Capone’s conviction follows immediately thereafter. It makes sense, if you think about it; the two men are playing different games. Ness is trying to serve the law, and Capone is just trying to win. You can’t win if you are bound by constraints your opponent does not obey. The movie ends with a reporter asking Ness what he’ll do when Prohibition is repealed, and he responds with the famous line: “I think I’ll have a drink.” The triumphant swell of music that ends the movie contravenes the deep cynicism of his statement. Ness’s men die because they break the law but do not violate their principles, but Ness does the opposite and survives, and now the law itself is no more. Sure, he kills that one guy, but there would be a strong case for self defense if it were ever brought up, which it isn’t. Winning in this movie means meeting the thing you hate halfway, and taking a part of it into your own being. Heavy shit. Also, props to Billy Drago as Frank Nitti. He is legit terrifying to behold before he even speaks a word. Do you kiss your wife with that grim rictus, guy?

The movie kills two hours, and I try to read some more. For a while I succeed. Then I try to sleep, and fail again. The hours pass, somehow, and breakfast is served at the time I would like to have dinner. Unlike dinner, breakfast is disgusting: a mound of wet egg-mass, some toast with tapenade soaked through with nasty egg water, and a grilled tomato that tastes like a besweated sock. I eat the toast, the roll and some cheese, washing it down with watery orange juice. This is more the sort of food you expect when you get on an airplane. I play some shitty video games on the console. I close my eyes and try again to sleep. Somehow, we land. The security checkpoint at JFK didn’t bother me, but the flight has worn me down, and the one at Ataturk really pisses me off. There are few things more undignified in modern first-world life than the awkward dance of removing your shoes and belt, emptying out your pockets, partially unpacking your carryon bag, letting a stranger touch you and give you a suspicious once-over, and finally struggling to dress yourself and gather your belongings as a crowd of equally irritated people advances behind you. There is no graceful way to do this. If there were a hell, there would be a special place in it for that guy who put the bomb in his shoe. He ruined it for everybody. For some reason, the shoe thing really bothers me more than the rest of it. Why not make me take my pants off, too? Who knows what I’ve got in there?

The flight from Istanbul to Paris is only about four hours, but it feels twice as long. That little taste of fresh air on the tarmac has only served to taunt us. Eventually it is over. At the airport, we meet Malko, who will be our driver and all-purpose go-to guy for the duration of tour. Hiring him will eat into our profits, of course, but as soon as we sit down in his van we are assured of the wisdom of our decision. It is a great mercy to not have to drive or navigate right now, and it will come in handy to have someone on the team who speaks at least a little bit of every language we will encounter. The van is huge, and cozy, and finally I get some sleep in an assortment of just-sufficiently-comfortable positions. So does Julian.

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At a rest stop, I buy a baguette with ham, emmenthal, and butter. It is perfect. In America, to eat a gas station sandwich is a last resort; the act of a desperate man. But in France, the same sandwich is delicious. The bread alone is worth the price of admission. I also purchase some seltzer, and a raspberry-cassis-apple juice which catches my eye. The juice is too sweet, but when I drink half and mix it with the seltzer, it is perfect. I am as rejuvenated as a jetlagged, exhausted person can be.

The first show is in Rennes, at Ubu. Last time we were in Rennes was several years ago, at Transmusicales, and it was a transcendent experience. We played for two or three thousand people, and they absolutely freaked out, and the guy who ran the festival went out of his way to make us feel welcome. Back in those days there were seven of us, and the songs were far more complicated, so absolutely everything we knew how to play was in the set. I got worried when they wanted an encore, but Carlos saved the day by going up and doing a solo version of an old song the rest of us hadn’t learned, just vocals and guitar. He had them clapping and singing along by the end. It was pretty fucking special to be in that room right then. We sold out of all our records, right at the beginning of tour. One of the biggest regrets of my musical career is not going back to Europe right after that; we kind of missed our window to capitalize on a strong entrance. But the way our lives were back then, it just wasn’t going to happen. Now we’re back, and I have no idea what to expect. It’s been a while. I’m not sure anyone here remembers.

The place seems cool; they have a big stage crew, and a proper green room. There are snacks and soft drinks, and Malko makes a thoroughly delicious pot of coffee. Some sandwiches appear, which we do not want but will save for later. If rule number one of tour is “show up”, rule number two is “no free food or drink left behind”. I hate Red Bull, but I stash one in my bag for when I will inevitably need a boost later in the week. The only thing worse than drinking that swill is paying for it. Jean-Louis, the organizer of Transmusicales and the man responsible for bringing us to Europe the first time, has come to see us. We give him our last two records, and he gives us a CD of this year’s festival lineup. He invites us to the bar for a pastis. As far as I can tell, he basically runs music in Rennes, and this is his club. It’s easy to see why he’s so successful; he makes everyone feel like the most important person in the room. It is good to catch up, and to be greeted by a friendly face so soon after our arrival. I ask him if he’s ever tried raki, as I imagine he would like it. He has not.

My positive first impression of the venue is confirmed when we see the restaurant. It is not open to the public; they have a real live restaurant on premises for the sole purpose of serving the staff and bands. This is the sort of thing that simply does not exist in the US, where if you are lucky they will maybe order you a pizza or give you not-quite-enough money to go find food on your own. There are waiters and a proper kitchen, just for us. We are given a carafe of decent red wine, which is constantly refreshed. The first course is tomato pie, which I did not even know was a thing, but goddamn, is it ever. This pie is amazing, caramelized tomatoes on a buttery crust, supplemented by some greens and a tangy dressing with shallots.

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I would eat an entire meal of just this, but there is more. There is a cheese plate, which contains quite possibly the best cheese I have ever consumed. My favorite looks sort of like a bleu cheese, but it’s even tangier and creamier than I had thought possible. There are also variations on brie, including a goat brie, and something that I believe is raclette. I eat too much cheese, on fresh crusty bread. No regrets.

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The main course is some kind of salty white fish with slivered almonds and fingerling potatoes. These are little fish, the kind where you don’t bother to take out the bones, and they hit the spot. Herring? I am unsure.

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Each course is small, but the cumulative effect is perfect. I feel mostly full but not overly so, and fill in the spaces with more bread and cheese. I have to get exercise on this trip, I tell myself. I will walk a lot, I will do yoga, something, but no way am I missing out on the culinary experience of France, especially on someone else’s dime. During the meal, we have another visitor: Ludo, our de facto tour manager from last time around. We all give him a big hug. Ludo was really invaluable on our first trip: driving, translating, dealing with the money, staying out late to party with us but always waking up just on time, prepared for all situations. He has also helped considerably with the logistics of this tour. It is good to hang. I have to nip out periodically to answer work emails, which is going to be the norm for the rest of the trip. Last time I just took vacation, but it was a much shorter trip, and I had an experienced assistant to cover for me then. My new assistant just started last week, and while I am thoroughly impressed with her so far, full autonomy after only four days of training is not a remotely realistic expectation. We have a lot of systems, and a lot of long-term projects that predate her arrival. I have to be on call for the things that come up while I’m away so my being away is not an undue hardship for my colleagues. I am fortunate that the time zones work in my favor, so that morning back home is afternoon here, and I should be available the vast majority of the time I need to be. If I were in, say, Japan, I’d be screwed.

There is a good-size crowd, especially considering there are only two bands and we’re first. I couldn’t tell you how the set went, I am focused primarily on staying upright, but the crowd is into it. We play a song we haven’t played in a while as an encore, and I make a complete bollocks of the bridge, so the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. We sell some merch, and a few people do actually come up to say they saw us last time. I’ll be damned, they remembered. Jean-Louis invites us upstairs for champagne, for which he has brought a little box of plastic flutes. He gives us a few notes, but is very complimentary about the set, which puts my mind at ease. It really does feel celebratory up here: we finally made it back to Europe, and we’re all in one piece, and we’ve got more than two weeks of solid shows ahead of us. All we have to do is get some rest. But somehow, when we get back to the hotel, rest is the last thing on our minds. We’re in France, finally relieved of all obligations for the day! We’re supposed to just go to bed? Rennes is a beautiful city, and we’ve only got the one night. After a long, rousing bout of conversation and cheap Scotch in one of the rooms, it’s time to explore. Did I mention they gave us Scotch and hotel rooms, on top of everything else? The band-only hotel party is an important tour ritual, and to have both necessary elements supplied is a rare treat.

Last time we walked the streets of Rennes we had a local guide and it was daytime, but now we’re on our own. The streets are silent as a tomb, and I am hyper-conscious of our loud otherness as we barrel ahead in no particular direction. We easily find the town square. Some of the buildings around here date back to medieval times. Last time around there was some sort of festival here, and I went a little crazy with buying bread and things to put on the bread, most memorably a jar of marinated whole garlic and a little tub of delicious baby octopi soaked in good olive oil. None of these are to be found now, but we are well full anyway. We just want to see where the action is. It’s nearly 2 in the morning, though, and this is clearly not a late night town. The high-end retail stores we pass suggest that we are in the Rennes equivalent of Soho or thereabouts, but there are no bars to be found. We don’t even need to drink; far from it. We just want to find a place with other humans to interact with. Maybe some who speak a little English, but if not, we can just smile and gesture and yell and clink our glasses. I had a totally proper night out in Japan once during which only one of my companions spoke any English at all. The complete failure to get one’s point across is mutually hilarious among people of good will.

We do finally find a bar, nestled in a side street, completely silent from outside but bleeding neon pink light out of the high windows onto the street. It is guarded by two cocky bald men with generous potbellies, who eye us with amused derision. One of them has a walkie talkie. He must be the bouncer. I am unsure if the other guy is formally employed by the bar, but they seem to be friends, as he continues to hang out after finishing his extra-pungent French cigarette. A Gauloise? From what I can gather of our conversation, they are not keen on letting us in. A crowd of attractive and well-dressed young people is headed there too, and I remember that I have not changed my shirt or showered since early Monday back home. I am sure I look and smell like hell. I cannot follow the conversation between them and the bouncer, of course, but I see some hand gestures directed our way, and laughter. I can only imagine. I see that they are not being allowed entry into the club, and I get the paranoid suspicion that we are blowing up their spot just by standing there. No way is the place full, unless it’s really the only place in town open this late, which I suppose is theoretically possible. We are the Ugly Americans. Becca tries to converse with some of the other group in Spanish, with mixed results. It’s the only Romance language I know a little of, too, but I don’t have the cojones to actually talk to someone, and I admire her boldness. I imagine it is roughly analogous to approaching someone in New York and addressing them in Dutch. After a minute, self-consciousness gives way to stubborn pride. I see your countrymen barreling down the Lower East Side making inebriated fools of themselves, and now it is my turn. Courtesy of the red, white, and blue. I am enjoying just breathing the fresh air and looking at the old buildings and walking the narrow cobblestone streets and I could give a fuck less what anyone I’m never going to see again might think of me or my compatriots. I am in France!

After only one wrong turn, we find our way back to the hotel, aided to a great extent by Malko’s large and ostentatiously blue van. I am sharing a room with Malko, and I am concerned he may have fallen asleep locked in with the only key. Just in case, I secure the right to crash on someone else’s floor. But there’s no need; he’s a pro, he knows what bands get up to, and he has left the door unlocked. I don’t want to wake him up by taking a shower in our rather close quarters, but I do give my face a good wash and brush my teeth. I start to feel ever so slightly human again. I’m still bubbling with energy from our walk. The streets here have a dreamlike quality at night that makes sleep feel redundant. With some effort I find my way onto the internet, and am able to chat with some friends back home. It is, after all, still pretty early over there. My connection dies, and it suddenly hits me how tired I am. I am fully horizontal for the first time since Sunday night. I have time for maybe two or three REM cycles before our early departure. Tomorrow, Bourges. Is that where the word “bourgeois” comes from? Stay tuned.

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