European Tour: This Pot Has Been On The Stove For 400 Years
Posted on April 28, 2014 | By ebassford
The show is not actually in Lille. It is in Wicres, a tiny town of 380 or so on the outskirts of Lille. The promoter has a concert series in which each concert is held in a different location. The series is supported by government grants at every level, and the idea seems to be to bring the arts into some of the more far-flung provinces. I had not previously realized the great extent to which all the shows we play rely on the largesse of the French government, but it makes sense. No way would any of these promoters be making money on us otherwise, especially with the 4+ person stage crew that seems to be the standard around here. The show, it turns out, is in a beautiful old church in the center of town. Across the street there is a sort of tourist center which will serve as our green room. We have been set up with a truly epic spread of snacks, as well as wine, beer, and a bottle of Jack Daniels. We’ve had a rider requesting such things forever, but only in Europe do they actually read and comply with it. Again the beer is Kronenbourg, which I appreciate.
Old El Paso, it seems, is everywhere. After some snacking, we go into the church to set up and do a soundcheck. The sound is, of course, extremely weird on the stage, which is in front of the altar. There is a long natural reverb in the room, and neither the bass nor the kick drum is audible from where I stand despite the fact that I am standing right in front of both. The sound in the house is amazing, but I have to actually watch the skin of the kick drum vibrate to make sure I’m locking with it. This is a night to break out some of the slower, quieter songs we don’t play as much. Fortunately, the typical hourlong French soundcheck allows us ample time to practice. After soundcheck, I receive some bad news from the promoter: no wifi. Anywhere in town. I will be completely unable to work today. This stresses me out pretty hard, as I have a lot to do for Monday that may or may not require other people’s input, and I am missing my chance to get a head start. But there’s nothing to be done, I am in the country, with not even a grocery store in sight, let alone a coffee shop. People here must just drive to do everything, or take the one bus that goes in a sort of roundabout way to Lille. I’m just going to have to cross my fingers today, and put in some hours on Saturday, sacrificing precious time off in London. Since I have no choice but to kill time in a non-productive manner before the show, Becca and I go out for a walk.
Wicres is beautiful, sporting the widest variety of flowers I’ve seen. Gardening is a serious thing here. There are no people on the street, and no businesses I can find except a metal shop and a florist, which features a comically portly and short-legged dog. I like dogs in direct proportion to how short their legs are relative to the rest of them. They have to take so many fluttering little steps to travel such a short distance. They are God’s little jokes to himself. Bonus points for big ears or excessively droopy faces. This one has such a high width-to-height ratio that she legit waddles as she runs towards us. She is pleased to have all these new smells brought right to her doorstep.
The town is peaceful and dead quiet. It threatens to rain, but the temperature is perfect. About a half a mile into our journey, we see some horses in a field. Becca makes a horse-beckoning noise, and to our great surprise and delight they come galloping towards us. Thanks to Becca for this picture of man and beast, together at last.
There is a big one and a little one; possibly a mother and daughter, as they look quite similar. The little one is shy, but the big one comes right up to us. We pick clumps of grass, which she eats right out of our hands. She lets us pet her a little bit each time, and then draws her head back inside the fence until we produce more grass. She is clearly an old hand at interacting with humans, and knows how to game the situation for maximum grass procurement. We spend a long time hanging out with the horses. The novelty never really wears off. Two adorable blonde children, a boy and a girl, approach the field. They are each holding a chunk of bread, from which they tear pieces to feed the horses. I didn’t know horses liked bread, but far be it from me to second guess these kids; the horses are eating it and coming back for more. An older lady who I suppose is their mother comes a few minutes later, bearing more bread. She sees us with our grass and offers us a large piece, which we happily accept. We all spend a while just silently feeding the horses, until the bread runs out. We thank our newfound companions, which is one of the only things we know how to do in French, and keep walking. I have a flashback to my brief time in Japan the summer after college, when I took a day trip by myself while my traveling companion attended to some business. I took a day trip to Nara, a beautiful island populated by friendly deer with fuzzy reddish antlers. It was weather just like this, promising rain, and a lady from the parks department gave me some flavored rice crackers to feed to the deer. We could not communicate; she just intuited my desire to bond with deer, and gave me something with which to do so. This small gesture of kindness touched me deeply.
By the time we’re done bonding with the horses, Carlos has caught up to us from down the road and joins us on our walk. I remark that I want to see a goat, my favorite farm animal, and lo and behold we do. Unfortunately it has no interest in interacting with or even acknowledging us. There are also two ducks who get pretty territorial, puffing up their feathers and quacking in a uniquely French style. We try and hang out with this horse too, but he bites Carlos and we decide to cut our losses. We are hoping the street loops around so that we can take a new route back to the church, but signs point to another town. We turn around to see about some dinner.
Dinner will be personal pizzas brought from an adjacent town. I order one with salami, merguez, and olives. I am no great lover of olives, but I want a pizza with a lot of meat, and I have adopted a philosophy of acceptance about them. If olives are included in a dish, I will not remove them, because they are there for a reason. Julian and Malko both order the “indienne”, which is topped with curry chicken. The promoter cautions us that this will be a “provincial” interpretation of Indian food. But they know what they’re getting into; it’s too weird to pass up. When the pizzas arrive we all exchange small portions, and the indienne is actually quite good. It’s the sort of thing you might find at Vinnie’s back home, served to you by an attractive young stoned person. There is pizza left over, which we consolidate into some boxes for later.
Opener Ivory Lake is just vocals and guitar, and sounds amazing in the room. I am thoroughly blissed out listening to him. The acoustics in the church are perfect for this sort of thing, and the lighting adds a lot. We see the woman and her daughter who gave us the bread, and exchange a smile of acknowledgment. This is clearly the only thing going on in town tonight. I wonder how often concerts happen at all. People probably mostly just go to Lille. Our set is thoroughly nerve-wracking for me and also for Julian. The same sound issues as before, now in front of a room full of people. But they enjoy it, and a lot of people buy things, and some people offer to take us around Lille. I’m tired, but along for the ride. Nights out with locals are one of the more fun parts of tour. You get to see places you would never find yourself, and you’re treated as a friend of a friend instead of a complete stranger. We’re going out within walking distance of the hotel, and one of our hosts has agreed to escort us there at the end of the night. It is an ideal situation; I can’t pass it up.
We are led to Amul Solo, a low-key spot with a fine selection of Belgian beers. Ch’ti and St. Feuillent are the best, I think. We all get different things and pass them around for sampling. Each beer has its own distinct kind of serving glass, the most novel of which is the Kwak. One of our hosts says that because of its proximity to England, Belgium, and Germany, Lille has every type of beer glass. Some of these Belgian beers are normally difficult to get outside of Belgium, with Lille being one of the rare exceptions. We have truly lucked out. I don’t learn everyone’s names, but they are all good company and speak enough English to have a conversation without great difficulty. Most of them are musicians, and we have a good time shooting the shit. It’s nice to be out interacting with non-band members. My seat is an extremely comfortable car seat with armrests. I am living the life. One of our hosts also introduces us to Ti’Punch, a simple cocktail from the French colonies. It’s just rum, cane syrup and lime juice, but it’s delicious. I normally don’t like my drinks that sweet, but the cane adds a nice complexity beyond mere sugar, and the intensity of the whole thing compels you to really savor it. If I had my druthers I’d add some ice, but I don’t want to appear gauche; everyone is drinking theirs sans rocks. Closing time is 2, but the bartender is cool and lets us hang out after. One of our party used to tend bar here; we have an in. The ratio of rum to cane syrup is 3 to 1, in case you’re curious, with the juice of an eighth or so of a lime. If I were making it myself, I’d probably do 4 to 1 and a half a lime to make it more like a strong rum sour. This is a bar I would go to all the time if it were near me. They are playing consistently great music, including a full album of James Brown. The ambience is nice and dark, but not too dark. You could totally take a date here as well as a loud crew of tourists and have a fine time. Drinks are reasonable, too, with most beers costing 4.50 euros and shots only 2.50. We don’t hang out that long after closing time, as we are all pretty tired. Before we enter the hotel, we make a stop at the van. We still have all that pizza, two and a half or so total of assorted varieties. What happens next is efficient and brutal. We are like a swarm of ants reducing an animal carcass to a skeleton with deadly precision. That pizza never stood a chance.
Back at the hotel, I see that I have 15 emails from work. It’s the first time I’ve been able to get on the internet all day. Fortunately nothing too urgent, but I’ve got a lot to do this weekend. Hopefully Wicres is the most remote we get for the rest of our journey. I believe it will be. Our hotel is the nicest yet, and I try to put work out of my mind and sleep, eventually succeeding. In the morning, we spend some time wandering. It is a beautiful city, but the rain is discouraging. I have been trying to find a stamp to send a postcard for a few days now, and I keep failing. At first I didn’t have coins for the machine, and since then it’s just been an issue of proximity and timing. The issue persists, as everything closes early in France on Saturday. It’ll just have to wait until the UK.
We get to the UK by way of a cargo train through the Chunnel. I’ve never seen anything like this: a line of vehicles simply drives into a big train, and it goes under the water while the occupants sit inside. It is a magnificent feat of civil engineering. After a relatively painless border crossing, our journey takes about 40 minutes. When Malko first told us we’d be taking a train, I honestly thought he was joking. I had envisioned something like the Holland Tunnel, with just cars driving through it, only deeper. Now I see why this Chunnel thing was such a big deal.
We have a scenic drive through the countryside to London, and when the scenery gets old I get some reading done. We will be staying with our friend Luke, formerly of Krill, who lives in Brixton. Because no one has a usable internet connection, it takes a while to get in touch with him, but eventually Julian finds his number and Malko arranges for him to meet us. We are hungry, and decide to have some pub food while we wait, but the places we easily find are either too expensive or no longer serving food. We haven’t the foggiest notion where to go, and no internet to help us. After some fruitless wandering back and forth, we decide to just have a pint and wait for Luke to guide us.
Waiting for Luke turns out to be the best decision. He immediately takes us to a sort of covered outdoor market bustling with all sorts of enticingly-scented activity. Our destination is Fish, Wings & Tings, a Caribbean restaurant that manages to cram a pretty impressive amount of people and staff into a tiny space. I am not-so-secretly thrilled about this turn of events. I don’t mind some pub food, but I couldn’t help noticing the high density of Caribbean businesses in the neighborhood, and that’s more my cup of tea. Luke is a food writer, so he and the owner know each other. The owner is Trini, so while some things on the menu look familiar from Jamaican food, others are a little more obscure. I am briefly tempted by the jerk chicken when I see the tremendous, juicy leg someone else has ordered, but Luke steers me towards the curry goat, and I trust his judgment. Most of us get the goat, chased with dark rum and Ting. Ting is an amazing Jamaican grapefruit soda with real juice, sort of like Orangina but much more tart. It is the perfect mixer for any hard liquor, and the combination here is delicious.
I am not being hyperbolic when I say this is the best curry goat I have ever had in my life. It is tender, savory, and complex. It falls off the bone. A lot of people are freaked out by goat, but as Luke points out, it’s really just like lamb and in some ways less gamey and intense. When you get curry goat in New York, you usually just get goat on top of some rice and peas (“peas” in this context meaning “beans”). But this plate also includes a slightly sweet purplish slawlike substance, and some pickled green beans with pepper and whole garlic. I would eat a whole meal of just the green beans. The rice and peas is expertly done, and soaks up the excess curry sauce perfectly. Like any self-respecting Caribbean restaurant, this place also makes its own hot sauce. There are three varieties, and the one we try is a vinegary-sweet habanero. It cuts through the heavy curry just right, adding a wonderful slow-burn finish that blooms on the tongue. I am ecstatic. Everything on this plate is an ideal complement to everything else. I wish my dad could try this, he would absolutely freak out. I shamelessly gnaw on the bones and suck out the marrow and chew off every bit of fat and gristle before surrendering my plate. Such gnawing is totally acceptable in the Caribbean culinary tradition, and is in fact flattering to the chef.
I am full but I want to eat the whole thing again. I’ll have to come back for that chicken. As we pay our bill and walk out, I reflect on how so much of the best food I have eaten is the byproduct of some grave historical wrong. The only reason there is such a large and vital Caribbean presence in this part of town is 400 years of slavery and colonial oppression. You can’t go too far back in the history of American barbecue, which might be my favorite cuisine in the world, without touching on our own history of slavery. There are so many other examples. Even the fact that tomatoes grow in Europe dates back to Spanish colonization of the Andes. I loved this meal tonight, but it is only accessible to me because the world is so different from the world I wish to live in. The history of human suffering is inscribed in food, and you eat it, and then you just shit it out and eat more. Of course there is joy as well; I don’t mean to be a downer. Good food is a triumph of the human spirit. When life gives you colonists, make curry.