European Tour: Overeating Paris

I can’t really tell you what Bourges is like because we’re at a festival, and festivals are an altered state of reality. As with most festivals, we are greeted by a surly guard who prevents us from driving in the direction that obviously makes the most sense. European cars are really comically small to the American eye, and our giant van navigates the tiny closed-off streets with some difficulty. After a series of wrong turns that ends with us being waved through by the very same guard who turned us away the first time, we reach the band parking lot. There are several stages, and vendors hawking their wares out of tents. It looks like Union Square on a Saturday morning, minus all the vegetables. Backstage is also a tent, in which we have the back room. There is the standard bread, fruit, meat and cheese, as well as a keg of Kronenbourg and some cookies. Included amongst the meats is a hearty chorizo iberico and a delicate prosciutto, with which I assemble several tiny sandwiches. A solid spread. Kronenbourg is a sponsor of the festival, I guess. The product they are pushing this year is a thoroughly disgusting fruit beer, available in lemon or “red fruit” flavors. This is not the good sort of fruit beer, a proper lambic like Lindeman’s Framboise, which is really one of the tastier liquid substances I have ever had the good fortune to drink. No, this beer tastes like B-stock Kronenbourg to which artificial fruit flavor has been clumsily added, and which still manages to retain an incongruous pilsner aftertaste. In exchange for sampling a ~2 ounce serving, I am given a psychedelically-patterned tote bag and a totally sick pair of matching sunglasses. I am glad to be given something in exchange for putting this swill into my body. I deserve it. Fortunately, the Kronenbourg available in the tent is of the standard variety. I love Kronenbourg, it is clean and crisp and legit refreshing, and the ~6 oz serving size is just right for the occasion.

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Look at these fucking sunglasses. Amazing. They make me feel like a million bucks. Not flimsy, either; the frames are pretty sturdy. I didn’t bring sunglasses because I knew there was no way they’d survive the journey, and now the benevolent forces of marketing have bestowed them upon me. Capital! I do hope they make it home.

Shortly after our arrival, it is time for soundcheck. Soundcheck in France is very different from back home. It is a long and regimented process, taking 30-60 minutes per band, and involving at least two or three stagehands as well as one engineer for the monitors and one for the house. Equipment is never shared; every band completely breaks down their setup after their set assisted by the crew. At our show in Rennes, they even went so far as to move the drum riser between us and the second band. The sorts of shows we play in America, we tend to forgo soundcheck entirely. Everyone plugs in their instruments to make sure they produce sound, says a few words into each mic, and we’re good to go. But the French are perfectionists, spending solidly five minutes on each drum and requesting that we play multiple complete songs. Nothing wrong with this, of course, the end result is extremely high-quality sound, but it’s a funny adjustment. I’m curious to see if this model is emulated in European DIY shows, which we have yet to experience.

After soundcheck, three of us go to an adjacent park to be interviewed by some news outlet or other. They ask us the standard sorts of questions we still don’t have good answers to, like “how would you describe your sound?” When asked if we have any parting words, we are at a loss, and all I can think to say is “Thank you for all the cheese, it really is spectacular!” I have a one track mind, clearly. But I will say that food is generally a good topic in these situations, when you’re talking to someone in a new place and can’t find any other common ground. Everyone is proud of their food, and your appreciation of it establishes the desired power dynamic of gracious host and grateful guest. I really am impressed by the cheese we have encountered on our journey. The first time I buy a neon orange block of Key Food Extra Sharp Cheddar back home will be a sad one indeed.

Most of the band goes off to explore the festival, and I hole up in the tent with my laptop to do some work. The internet connection is entirely too shitty for Skype, as a botched call to my assistant reveals, but good enough for downloading spreadsheets and shuffling emails around. It’s open enrollment time back home, which is sort of like Black Friday for any HR department. Lots of plates to keep spinning, but it always comes together in the end. I continue to snack as I work. There is proper catering available, but apparently it costs a not-insignificant amount of money, and I decide to make do with what’s free. Every food group is represented, and there’s plenty to go around. Eventually everyone gets back and it’s time to play. The set goes well, even though Carlos is deathly ill with some sort of 24-hour bug and has been sleeping all day. He always brings it when it is needed. We sell a few records. A guy comes over to the merch table to say he knows the promoter in Lilles, and that we’ll be in good hands. One nice thing about all these France shows is that we have been paid in advance via wire transfer, so there’s no need for the standard ritual of waiting around to get paid. We can leave right after our set, and we do.

The hotel is the comically named Mister Bed, which looks quite a bit like the sorts of places we stay back home.

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We have two rooms with one double and one single bed apiece. The bathroom is tiny, and it is impossible to take a shower without soaking the entire floor. The shower is separated from the rest of the bathroom by an inch-deep depression in its floor, and the curtain does not quite reach the ground. Why couldn’t they make it just a little lower, or the curtain just a little longer? It’s so easy! I get to stay with the ladies tonight, which is always a treat. There’s just a different sort of conversation that happens in a room where most of the occupants are women. I can only imagine what it’s like when I’m not there. They also tend to emit way fewer unpleasant smells than a room full of dudes. No one’s trying to hang out that late, though, as we are all exhausted and this promises to be the first proper night’s sleep of the tour. After trying and failing to upload some pictures to the blog, I give up and call it a night. The single bed is the top bunk and the double is the bottom. The climb to the top is a pulse-pounding thrill ride, and the sense of mortal danger is compounded when you reach the top and realize the guardrail is not nearly tall enough to actually prevent you from rolling off. I move as close to the wall as I can, and as soon as my head hits the pillow I’m out. We all get solidly ten or eleven perfect hours, sleeping right through breakfast and not caring. It’s just bread and jam anyway, worth a couple euros later to get the sleep.

Our next stop is Paris, where we have a rare day off. We hit a supermarket on the way for lunch, and as usual I am amazed by the novel selection of beverages and snacks. Julian and I split a lump of chevre, a poppyseed baguette, and some pancetta for sandwiches. I also purchase a large bottle of Schweppes Citron, a bag of crispy caramelized almond cookies, and some sort of crispy fake onion ring snack. Schweppes Citron is a perfect soft drink, not unlike San Pellegrino Limonata. It would make a great mixer, and why they don’t bring it to America in large quantities is completely beyond me. There’s also a grapefruit equivalent that catches my eye, I’ll have to get that one next time. Europe in general has a dazzling array of citrus sodas that are difficult or impossible to find back home.

Back in the van I learn that Becca has purchased some dates. This changes everything. In addition to my sandwich, I can now make one of the most perfectly-balanced hors d’ouvres possible: a pitted date, stuffed with chevre and wrapped in pancetta. It is a salty, sweet, creamy, toothsome delight. I make a few.

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When we arrive in Paris, I get an immediate good vibe. We are on the outskirts, in a neighborhood that looks and feels an awful lot like my old one in Bushwick, only with all these North African-looking people in full religious garb. Women in hijabs, men in thawbs. Where there are observant Muslims in large numbers, there will be tasty halal food. I’m thinking back to an African halal place Carlos and I found late at night after Hillstock a few years back and getting excited. One tip I remember from my early culinary explorations with my father is that food prepared under any sort of old school religious dietary restriction tends to be of better-than-average quality, with New York Kosher delis being one of the more famous examples, and Jamaican I-Tal being one of the more obscure. The Sikhs at Punjabi Deli are probably my favorite, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore and I don’t even care that everything is vegetarian. All other things being equal, more thought goes into the preparation when the person preparing it is trying to satisfy his or her god(s) as well as the consumer. It’s not a hard and fast rule, as anyone who’s had a bad lamb over rice back home will tell you, but when coupled with a strong general food-seeking instinct it is a useful guideline. I will have to explore this neighborhood and eat something. But that can wait until tomorrow, as right now the consensus is to go into the center of Paris and do all the touristy stuff we didn’t get to do last time. Malko has agreed to take us on a long walk that will cover most of the bases. It’s getting dark, and a little wet, but we are determined. Last time we were in Paris we spent most of our time at the airport in a snowstorm, and we are determined to finally see what all the fuss is about.

This is our first time on the Paris subway. It is notably cleaner than the New York subway, and the seats far more ergonomic, with a nice little bump to support the lower back. The trains appear a bit shorter, and some are completely open inside, with no doors between the cars. You have to open the doors yourself if you want to get off at a particular stop, and some platforms have plexiglass-and-steel barriers which open when the train arrives. To prevent littering? Suicides? Unclear. Each trip costs 1.70 euros, which even adjusting for the exchange rate is cheaper than back home. I notice that the only obviously non-French name of a train station is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was probably the last American president the French had straightforwardly good feelings about. I also notice that there is no standard graphic design among the stations; each one has a different font and layout for the name. New York varies too, of course, but not as much.

When we get off, we set out in search of dinner. We’re in a pretty pricey part of town because we’re near all the tourist stuff, and we settle on a restaurant that looks reasonable. I order one of the specials for 10 euros, a simple salmon thing over rice with a lemony butter-based sauce. I am tempted by a beef dish involving foies gras at 17, but frugality prevails.

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It appears to be a very thin fillet rolled up with herbs. It’s not bad, but it is unremarkable and way salty. I suspect it is not the best cut of fish and they are covering for its inadequacies, but the meal is satisfying and I feel like I got my money’s worth. I wash it down with a Leffe. Most of us get the same thing. Carlos definitely wins dinner with a chicken tagine, served in a clay pot with slices of preserved lemon. Nourished, we set off on our walk. I am waylaid by a sweet shop, and purchase a package of macarons. They are spectacular, delicate and rich with a deep, lingering sweetness. The blackberry is the best. I have two or three before something in my body tells me I’m done. I give the rest to my compatriots, who are similarly enthused.

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Even more spectacular is this little pastry, which is the size of a Hostess cinnamon roll and weighs approximately half a pound. This is among the top ten sweet things I have ever eaten. Imagine a soft, buttery, croissant-like dough, rolled up and dipped in perfectly ever-so-slightly salty fresh caramel on both sides. Inside, crushed pistachio, imparting a delightful green color. This thing is fantastic. It is the perfect dessert, it is last-meal status, I really can’t recommend it highly enough. I wish I caught the name. I am tempted to go back and get another, but between that and the macarons I am all sweetsed out. Moderation in all things.

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Malko has done this before, and he has a solid route planned out. The fact that it’s nighttime and intermittently drizzling turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as most of these places that would normally be mobbed are relatively empty. We walk along the river, we see Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre, unfortunately both closed but still magnificent structures to behold. We see the Arc d’Triomphe and the Champs d’Elysees, which Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza has imitated quite successfully. We walk along the river, a beautiful promenade tainted only by the occasional whiff of centuries of piss. We see the Eiffel Tower, lit up with glittering lights for the nighttime. Street vendors sell the same selection of keychains and laser pointers, and do that thing where they present female visitors with a rose and then try to get them to buy it if they accept. It’s kind of a shitshow, but it really is a majestic thing to behold up close. We opt not to go up, it costs money and frankly I’m terrified of heights.

It was a very long walk, several hours, from the Bastille to the Eiffel Tower with several diversions and stops. By the time we get to the Metro, we are all exhausted. The hotel is mercifully close to the station. Along with us on our journey is a truly intolerable cadre of college-age German boys which happens to be leaving the tower when we are. There are fifteen or so, they are wasted and rowdy, and they are staying at our hotel. When we make it upstairs we can hear them catcalling women with some of the more overtly disgusting come-ons I have heard uttered out loud. I suddenly feel less bad about my obvious tourist status in this land of strangers. I’m just trying to live and let live over here, see some sights and eat some food. I am not subjecting passersby to graphic descriptions of the indignities I would like to visit upon their bodies. I imagine most of their targets don’t understand English, as most French people I’ve met know only a few words, but the intent is probably clear nonetheless. Props to the women who deal with this shit and worse every day; the fortitude it must take to get dressed and go outside is truly admirable. None of these dudes will be getting laid tonight, unless they find a working girl who can negotiate in English or German, which is a possibility in this medium-grimy neighborhood with so many hotels serving tourists. But I suppose saying these sorts of things so loudly in public is more about posturing and homosocial signaling than actually attempting to convince a woman to have sex with you anyway.

I end up staying up pretty late to finish work, and go to bed around 4:30 in the morning. Before we sleep, Julian and I make a pact to go out and find something good to eat. I send everyone else a message via WhatsApp to invite them along. WhatsApp is really invaluable to the foreign traveler, as it provides a great substitute for texting via WiFi. I’m hoping no one tried to text me for real in my absence and got insulted by my non-response. I won’t know until I get home. I set my alarm for 10:20, and we make it out around 10:45, accompanied by Felicia. We easily find the main drag of the neighborhood, populated by a sort of outdoor dry goods market as well as several enticing-looking restaurants. There are some really amazing-looking knockoff shoes in the 15-20 euro range, but none of us know our European sizes. My first stop is a bakery. They have standard-looking things like baklava, but some others I have legit never seen before; easily twenty different varieties of pastry on display. This is exactly what I want: tasty-looking foods I have never seen before. I buy the three that I think look the coolest. One is pistachio, one is date and semolina, and one looks like a sort of candy vase whose contents I can only guess at. The best one is the pistachio, as predicted. The others are a little heavy on the syrup and rosewater.

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The guy behind the counter knows a little English. He expresses pleasure at meeting some musicians from Brooklyn, and does the well-worn shopkeeper trick of quoting the price with “for you, it is [whatever the price normally is]”. Some things are the same everywhere. As I’m about to pay, I notice something else: an oily-looking bread with an enticing red tinge. It looks like some sort of savory roti, possibly stuffed with filling. I still want to get real lunch, but I figure I can eat it later and/or someone will help me. It’s mostly about the experience. I buy it along with the sweets, and we’re on our way.

We don’t have a whole lot of time to explore, and it’s about to make a choice about lunch. My companions have agreed to defer to my choice of restaurant, and I pick one. It is the most promising-looking of the options we have passed. It’s hard to express exactly which factors weigh into a successful restaurant selection. I just spent a lot of time watching my dad do it, and eventually got reasonably good at it myself. This place offers the standard array of kebabs and things one cooks on a flattop, but it just gives off a good vibe. I immediately settle on a lahmajun.

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A lahmajun is a flat bread, vaguely similar to a tortilla but with a soft, pillowy texture. Spread onto it is a thin layer of meat, peppers, onions and spices. It can be rolled up and eaten by itself, but this one has meat added, along with a delicious white sauce and some lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. What sort of meat I can’t say, but it is wonderful: savory and juicy and just salty enough, with a nice kick of spice. It is supplemented with fries and more white sauce, and paprika is available for sprinkling on top. There is something else in the white sauce besides the standard yogurt, garlic, and lemon, and it is the perfect supplement to the heavy food. It is not fancy, but it is fresh and delicious and thoroughly filling, and at 5 euros the price is right. We also get some very strong coffee in tiny mugs. Even in this small and informal restaurant, there is no garbage can or bussing tray accessible to the customer; they take away your trash and dishes for you. Felicia has dipped out to go get something healthier, as is her wont, but ends up helping us finish. You can’t not eat some of this if it is in front of you. I am tempted to get another lahmajun without added meat as a snack for later, but I remember I already have snacks and exercise some restraint for once.

Back at the hotel, we learn that our van was broken into the night before. To our infinite relief, they didn’t get any of the gear, as it is stored in a separate trunk space inaccessible from the rest of the vehicle without the key. I debated the pros and cons of bringing my nice G&L on this tour instead of my crappy old Ibanez, and I’d be heartbroken if something happened to it. I don’t even know what we’d do in that situation, we’d basically have to book an earlier flight and just go home. But they did smash a window and steal Malko’s radio, which means we will be without music for the duration and he’ll have to spend some money and take some time to get the window fixed. This is solidly a bummer. Pretty much every vehicle on the block has been vandalized in some way, too; whoever did it was on a roll. We are probably not dealing with the most experienced thieves, either, as they neglected to take the DVD player, TV, and microwave. Malko says he’s stayed in this neighborhood before with no problems. I guess we’re bad luck. Malko expertly covers the broken window with several layers of tape and plastic, and we are on our way. I open up the strange red roti thing and pass it around. It is delicious. There is no separate filling, but tomato and paprika and onion and red pepper are baked right into it. It is savory with a mounting spiciness that hits you only after you swallow. It would be even better warm, but we can’t stop eating it. Another successful culinary find. Not bad for just an hour of walking around.

Tonight, we will play in Lille. It was nice to have a day, but I’m excited to do a show again. It is, after all, what we’re here for. I’m also excited for the weekend, and being relieved of most work duties for a few days. I look forward to sleeping late, talking to some strangers in my native language, hoisting a few pints, and eating some heavy-ass fried food. Rule Britannia.

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