Sunday, January 24, 2016

Corkscrew, 1981

“How do you say corkscrew?”

“No idea,” I said.

We sat on either side of a small round table in a shabby courtyard. Alex squinted through her bangs as she inventoried the table: cigarettes, lighter, two wine bottles (empty), two glasses (empty), one unopened bottle of wine. Zero corkscrews.

It was getting dark, the end of a hot August day. An hour ago the courtyard was full of people, some bearing corkscrews. They left to attend a concert. I was blasé about the concert. Alex was blasé about everything. We were drinking wine. We were on our own.

I stood up, feeling self-conscious and tipsy. “I’ll get one.” Alex pushed away from the table, brushing hair from her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’ll come too.” She was small. She’d matched me glass for glass, but she seemed steadier than I was.

We pushed open the huge wooden door and turned right, out of the courtyard, onto a narrow street. We didn’t talk. The silence felt awkward, and I was trying to remember: “What do you call a corkscrew?” I knew how to ask for a beer or, later, a bathroom.

We took another right at the corner. A sad-eyed old man, quiet and dignified in a hat and dirty suit, sat cross-legged on a large piece of cardboard over a grate in the sidewalk, scritching the ears of a huge black mutt on a leash. Written in large letters in French on the cardboard: “I’m hungry.” Another thing I knew how to say.

Across the street was a brightly-lit shop not much larger than a walk-in closet. Inside you could find everything you would ever need: cigarettes, cheese, wine, toothpaste, band-aids. A stocky, balding man stands smoking behind the counter. He glances at me, then looks Alex up and down.

“’Scuzez-moi,” I say. He looks back at me, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. In French I say “We have need of,” put my fists in front of me, swiveling one of them in what I hope is a recognizable pantomime of opening a wine bottle, and say with emphasis “pour VIN.”

He says something.

Comment?,” I reply. Without taking his eyes off me, he reaches under the counter and with a flourish reveals a corkscrew, as if executing a magic trick. He repeats the same something he just said.

I point at the corkscrew — “Oui!” — and give him a thumbs up.

Smiling, he says something else to me. He looks at Alex and winks. She smiles back. “Oui!” she says.

He punches some numbers into the cash register, then points to the price on the display.

We’re splitting this, maybe? I look at Alex. She smiles at me, motionless.

I pull a bill out of my pocket, the last of my francs aside from some coins, and put it on the counter. The man takes the bill, drops it into the register, puts the corkscrew into a paper bag, then counts out the change and puts it on a little tray on the counter. He places the bag beside the tray.

I pick up the bag and the change. It’s 12 francs short. How much is 12 francs? Math is not working in my head right now. Is it worth even doing something about? Yes: I’m poor.

I hold out my hand with the money and say “’Scuzez?” His eyes widen, and he freezes mid-puff. He looks at me with a pure, open, waiting face, as if he’s having his portrait painted.

I point to the change in my hand. He takes a drag from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“It’s not correct,” I say in French. He frowns, shrugs his shoulders, and makes an uncomprehending grunt.

Douze francs,” I say.

Shoo-shoo-shoo,” it sounds like he says, out of the free corner of his mouth. Frowning, he looks at Alex and says something. She smiles. She has no idea what’s going on.

He turns to me, arches an eyebrow, and says loudly in a slow, pained voice, “MON-sieur!” He leans over the counter and motions for my hand with the change. I show him the money in my palm. Suddenly he grabs my wrist. I’m too shocked to pull away. His hand is surprisingly moist and warm, and his grip is very firm. For a split second I have the impression he’s about to spit in my palm.

He sighs. Gently, like a dad explaining numbers, he fingers with his free hand the various coins I’m holding, tallying them up. As he announces the value of each coin, cigarette bobbing in the corner of his mouth, he gestures for me to repeat the French words.

Stunned, I do as I’m told. We go through the change in my hand, him counting off in French and me repeating, a math lesson and a French lesson.

For some reason, I get tears in my eyes. I glance at Alex. She is watching our hands, mesmerized.

He is finished. He releases my hand. Blinking, I look down, trying to focus on the coins. I have the correct change.

“Sorry,” I say. He’s looking at me intently. The lesson over, Alex brushes the hair from her eyes and looks up at me. “Je suis,” I start. “Je regrette.” I stop. I have no idea what to say, and no idea how to say it. “Sorry,” I say again, in English.

“O.K.” the man says. Alex says “Merci,” and the man shrugs and half-waves, “O.K., O.K.” as we turn to the door.

We cross the street. As we walk past the hungry man and his dog, Alex asks “What was that?” We turn the corner at rue de Fourcy.

I have NO desire to talk about it. “Weirdness about the price,” I mumble.

“Tears?” Alex starts to say.

“What?” I interrupt her, defensively.

We’ve stopped walking, and she looks at me, frowning, trying to make sense of me.

Teer something?,” she says carefully. “The word for corkscrew?” We start walking again, more slowly. “I thought you spoke French.”

“I’m studying French,” I say. “I don’t speak French.”

“Okay,” Alex says mildly.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Olcott Beach

(Click on any image to launch slideshow view — highly recommended!)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cooperstown & Brewery Ommegang

If it had been a baseball game, it would have been called on account of rain. This was no game, however — this was the Deadly Serious business of beer tourism, and neither rain nor snow ... well, actually, snow would’ve been an abomination and frankly unacceptable after That Particular 8-Month Expletive Deleted Winter recently endured — so yeah, this far into June snow would have been less welcome than even a downpour of frogs and serpents, and would have sent us scurrying right back home to hide under the bed.

But, anyways, it WAS just rain, so we soldiered on, once again following (more or less) the path of the old Erie Canal via the I-90 before finally veering south into unexplored territory, a bit east of Syracuse.

Cooperstown, New York, is best known for baseball, of course: back in 1839, Abner Doubleday invented the Great American Pastime in a cow pasture there, in much the same way that back in whenever-the-hell Buddy Bolden (or was it Jelly Roll Morton?) invented jazz — which is to say that the stories, while appealing, are perhaps about as reliable as accounts of Paul Bunyan logging entire forests with a single swing of his axe...

At any rate, baseball, whatever its mythical origins, wasn’t the draw for us, even if it put Cooperstown on the map: we drove 4 hours so that we could drink Belgian-influenced beers at Brewery Ommegang...

In my college days back in the ’80s, I drank beer because I was more or less old enough to do so, and it was fizzy and cold and refreshing and an effective intoxicant. I didn’t savor beer for its taste, obviously — because it didn’t taste very good!

However, as long as it went down without too much difficulty and dimmed the pressing concerns of a worrywart college kid, it was Extremely Adequate beer!

I first tasted great beer in Bavaria, the first summer I worked at a music camp there. Bavarian beer was shockingly different, AND varied, AND delicious, and I tried everything poured in my direction: sour pale beers, dark beers, wheat beers, beers with syrup drizzled in them, and on and on.

My friend Robert, a fine Bavarian saxophonist and clarinetist, was my German beer ambassador (“You MUST try this...”), and as he presented me with glass after glass he solemnly told me that German beers, and especially Bavarian beers, were the best in the world, and I knew he must be right.

Then I went to Belgium.

Belgian beer was downright exotic compared to German beer: spicy and ... musky? and ... strange — but compelling and delicious! My OTHER friend Robert, a Belgian trombonist, solemnly told me that Belgian beers, and especially Flemish beers, were the best in the world, as he reverently passed foamy glasses my way. Bavarian Robert, seated across the table from Belgian Robert, maintained that German beers were superior — and to be certain of his opinion, he savored each and every Belgian brew put in front of him.

When I reluctantly returned to the States and resumed my college life, I had to leave those wonderful beers behind: in the mid-Eighties in my western Wisconsin slice of the universe, at least, German and Belgian beers were entirely unobtainable.

I went back to drinking American beer because I was in America, dammit, and that’s what there was to drink!

This revealed a lack of imagination on my part.

The folks who started Brewery Ommegang, on the other hand, faced with that same predicament after being smitten with Belgian beers and not being able to find them in the States, refused to surrender: first they tried to import them directly from Belgium and, when that proved unsatisfactory, decided to just brew the damn beer themselves!

Eventually Ommegang got good enough at it that they were acquired by the legendary Belgian producer Duvel.

These photos include a few rainy shots of Cooperstown, including Otsego Lake and the old-fashioned, clean, comfortable, and just slightly shabby Tunnicliff Inn where we stayed; Ommegang in all its glory; the unexpectedly delightful Farmers’ Museum; and our FANTASTIC final flight of beers at Council Rock Brewery — a presumed competitor highly praised (correctly!) by the folks at Ommegang as Very Worthy of a visit!

The last two shots are just pure Beer Porn: two lovely bottles purchased at Ommegang’s store, from their “sister” brewery, Boulevard Brewing Company, based in Kansas City and now also owned by Duvel: Tank 7 in particular was a marvelous and spicy saison that we’ll be seeking again...

(Click on any image to launch slideshow view — highly recommended!)

The View From MY Window!

Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” runs a weekly contest with a very simple format: a photo is taken looking out a window. Where in the world is this window? Photos from all over the world have been featured, and it’s always fascinating and fun to try to sleuth out an answer. (Generally, I suck at it!) This week’s contest featured one of MY photos (!!) from my trip last week to Monticello! Check out what people came up with...

Friday, July 4, 2014


(Click on any image to launch slideshow view — highly recommended!)