29 September 2010


Bouillabaisse is Marseille's signature dish. Calling it a fish soup doesn't do it justice. It is not eaten, it is celebrated, and yesterday I celebrated it at the Miramar at Marseille's Vieux Port, the old fishing harbor.

First, waiters come brandishing large silver trays, loaded with fish and langoustes (lobster) decorated like a work of art. They smile, maybe expecting applause, and then take it all away again and get to work on a large worktable in the middle of the restaurant, while we have our apéritifs and our entrées. As the word indicates, an entrée is an appetizer, only the Americans think it's the main dish. Speaking of the misuse of French words: maître d' means "master of" and will leave your French friends waiting - maître de quoi? Master of what?

Anyway, when the bouillabaisse is finally ready, you'll get a bowl of reddish-brown broth, with a plate of croutons and a surprisingly spicy tomato paste. (Surprising because the French don't like hot food, waiters normally ask for confirmation with worried looks on their faces if you ask for spicy food, which then turns out to be very mild.) Croutons are thin slices of white bread fried in oil until they become dark and very dry and crisp. They have nothing to do with the small yellow bricks they sprinkle over Cesar's salads in less enlightened countries.

The soup is delicious. The taste of fish is strong but very smooth, not at all "fishy", although it is difficult to identify all the kinds of fish and shellfish that went into it. It's also strongly seasoned with herbs and spices, making it very savory without overpowering the fish flavors. It's quite filling, and when I had finished my bowl I was getting ready for the desserts.

But that was just the first course. After the dishes were cleared away, I got another bowl of bouillabaisse, only this time it was filled with several different kinds of fish filets, two large lobster tails, and a red crab perched on top looking at me accusingly. I got a fresh spoon but this time nobody ate the soup, just the meat. Which can be a challenge: you need to separate the meat from the bones and skin, but every time you apply the knife the piece submerges and you can't see it anymore. You need to plan your surgical maneuvers ahead and then execute them blind. In the end, only the crab survived the massacre, it's there for decoration only.

At this point everybody was close to bursting, and the conversation turned to the restaurant scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life. If you aren't getting the reference, prepare some wafer-thin mints and watch the movie now. We also understood why, quite contrary to normal practice, we were asked to place our dessert orders before the meal, because after a bouillabaisse nobody really has space for a dessert. Professionals at work. After a suitable delay the chocolate variety plate was quite good though.

With all the appetizers and little side dishes and intermediate courses, the bill came to about a hundred euros; they boillabaisse alone is 58. Without drinks. The company was paying. The dinner lasted almost four hours - Bouillabaisse is a serious matter and not something for a quick bite during lunch hour (in France, lunch hour is actually an hour and a half). I expect that if you ask for a can or frozen box of bouillabaisse in a grocery store in Marseille, the authorities will have you deported to Romania instantly with their usual disregard for EU law and due process.

I didn't take a picture of the Bouillabaisse, that would have been crude. So I'll show a random Marseille harbor picture with fish in it.

22 September 2010

In on bail

French law protects tenants. Your landlord can't kick you out and can't raise your rent, the law is completely on your side. So landlords choose their tenants very carefully.

Suppose you make 3000 euro and the rent is 1001 euro. You won't get the apartment because the rent is more than one third of your income, an iron rule of renting. Landlords are also keenly interested in your ability to pay the rent, and will ask for a bank guarantee. Most people will ask their parents to sign the guarantee, which is perfectly acceptable even if the parents live on welfare in a nursing home. In my case, I was allowed to put a year's rent into escrow, 10000 euro. Easy. Another thing to watch out for is the état des lieux which lists all damage, like broken tiles - forget something and you'll pay for it when you move out. I have some flaking paint in the kitchen, which the landlord will get repainted asap; five months after the signature someone will definitely maybe come and take another look before the painters will perhaps come (this is southern France, after all). Once the contract - bail in French - is signed, the place is yours.

If I had tried to arrange all that on my own I'd probably be homeless now. An agency, Provence Relocation, did all the work. They arranged a visit of a number of available apartments, and all I had to do was pick one. They did everything else. The service is expensive, but the French government is once again helpful: you get a little welcome gift of over 3000 euro, just like that, which pays for the relocation agency and the real estate agent too.

The process is so complicated that people don't move much in France.

So I now have an apartment at La Plaine in the old center of Marseille, in walking distance to the old harbor and the mediterranean sea. There are lots of small cafés, shops, and restaurants in narrow pedestrianized alleys (pedestrianized means there are fewer cars) around here, and from my window I can see four boulangeries (bakeries) making fantastic French pastries. Most buildings here are 300 years old, which means high ceilings, French windows, and creaky old staircases, and everything is so densely built that the courtyards are narrow shafts. My place has a creaky old staircase too but the unusual luxury of windows with views on three sides, and those famous Provençal mauve sunsets that inspired painters like Vermeer and van Gogh; may they inspire my kitchen painters too. The floors aren't level, the walls aren't straight, the fireplaces can't be used because the chimneys are used as cable tunnels, and the bathroom is a daring combination of mint green and black. But I like it anyway.

14 September 2010

Nothing moves

The French TGV bullet trains are marvels of technology. They are built by Alstom and test trains have run at 575 km/h, although regular service is slower. France built the fastest train in the world and proudly handed it over to - the slowest train operator in the world, perhaps. It's not that SNCF, the French national railway company, would be poorly run or incompetent. The trouble is that it employs 180,000 French.

The work ethic in France is based on different principles that in other countries I have worked in. Suppose SNCF were to decide to let half the employees go, and there would be a massive strike - a grève - that would stop all wheels in France. The same massive strike can be expected if some union worker's aunt's little brother's hair dresser has heard a rumor that the new transportation minister may have said something about SNCF. Grève. A passing cosmic ray? Grève. Works every time.

Right now the government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to - well, guess, maybe 67 like in Germany? No, 62. An outrage! And that after working a grueling mandatory 35-hour work week. Grève! Seven different unions decided the time has come to play a little havoc on the economy last Tuesday. The roads were packed with cars because the trains didn't go, and I didn't see any buses either. And the air traffic controllers never miss a grève. Nobody complained, they might have a little grève too this afternoon maybe so let's all have some fun. They'll do it again next week.

When I first arrived in France, they were already several days into a grève of tank truck drivers who supply all the gas stations. You can imagine what that did to traffic; turns out that gas stations don't have much gas stored at all. No French city would be complete without earnest men in safety vests handing out grève leaflets at intersections.

On the other hand, the train from Nice to Marseille I used last Sunday was perfectly punctual. Trains in France work really well between grèves. If only they wouldn't route every line longer than 100 meters through Paris. But that's for another blog post.

Hm, I like pictures but I don't have grève pictures. Grèves are characterized by what's not there. So I'll show you a typical "summer opening hours" sheet you'll see in shop windows, to illustrate the hard life that French retail workers must endure until their well-earned retirement. Yet French workers manage a higher productivity than their industrious neighbors, the Germans.

05 September 2010

Dead People Storage

I have no intent to turn this blog into a chronological diary, so I might as well start at the end. Someone else's end of course.

The biggest cemetery around here is Saint-Pierre. Nice scenery, no doubt, although I doubt that the customers appreciate it. Nice orderly well-maintained rows of marble tombstones, with pretty flowers. The flowers are made of porcelain, which probably cuts down on maintenance a lot. I saw very few real flowers, or other visitors. Many tombs have little stone tablets with gaudy pictures of the dear departed, usually grinning zombies that would make you cross to the other side side of the street if you'd meet one. I wonder who picks those pictures? Better put one in your testament file now, and write "use this one" on the back.

The cemetery is big but the customer list is bigger, so there is a shortage of space. But the French are never afraid of solving a problem with large amounts of concrete, so they built a huge parking garage where they park their dead relatives. No ramps but the typical elevators, dark corridors, broken flourescent lighting, and tasteless concrete facade. There are no cars, just concrete shelves, big enough to stuff a body in and affix an engraved slab of marble. Very efficient. There is still space, reserve now!

Now I am an atheist like pretty much everyone I know, and I don't care if they stuff my body in the recycling bin after I die. (Timing matters.) I won't be needing it anymore and nobody is going to row me across the Styx. Now I understand that the family may want a place for grieving, but then why rent a slot in a parking garage, nail some plastic flowers to the lid, so they never need to actually show up? Kind of defeats the purpose, n'est-ce pas? Deferred for further study.

Cemetière Saint-Pierre, first class.

Final parking at Saint-Pierre

Inside the garage. Vacant economy-class bins in the back.