Hitler Dream

I’d come back in time to observe first-hand the upper-workings of the Third Reich.  Like I was some kind of time-journalist.

The Nazis let me accompany Hitler on a whirlwind PR tour across Germany.  He’d show up, give one of his rousing speeches, then his entourage would retire to some private party for champagne and finger food.

Somehow, Hitler knew about his eventual defeat, and going down in history as the most evil man ever, and that as a traveler from the future I’d know about this.  He seemed really embarrassed about it.  Sheepish, almost.  He kept trying to make me like him by telling me jokes, slapping me on the back and being an all-around jovial guy.

He also endorsed products.  After each speech, which was typically Hitler-screamy, he’d say, in English and in a smooth 1950s-style radio announcer voice, “By the way, friends, did you know I’ve never had a more comfortable pair of shoes? Yes, that’s right, and they’re available at a very reasonable price at Karstadt department store.”

Eva Braun was part of his group, and sat behind and slightly to the side of him during his speeches.  I had always thought they didn’t flaunt the relationship, but apparently I was wrong.  She looked way younger than I thought, and cracked her chewing gum and wore a miniskirt and pink tights — the kind that aren’t connected at the top but are more like really long socks made of tights-material.  (Not being a tights-wearer, I’m not sure if such hosiery actually exists.)  She kept sticking her left hand down her left tights-leg and resting it there, stretching out the material.  You could tell Adolph’s handlers wanted to tell her to quit fidgiting, but nobody wanted to risk pissing off The Führer’s girlfriend.

At one after-speech party, glasses of Sekt in-hand, Adolph took me aside and said in a low voice that he wanted to let me in on a secret: the plans for the upcoming Denmark/Norway dual-invasion.  He pulled a worn piece of paper out of his pocket, and unfolded it.  On it was a map of northern Europe, hand-drawn in pencil, with a series of northerly-pointing arrows drawn over Denmark and then bending slightly into Norway.  At the top was written “PROJEKT VOGEL” (“PROJECT BIRD”).  Beaming with pride at his plans, he asked me what I thought.  I asked him if it was to be an air campaign, and he said “No, we’ll hit them with everything we’ve got!” and smacked his right fist into his left open palm.  I asked him why it was called Project Bird, then, because that would imply flying or doing something in the air.  He looked confused for a second, then an expression of realization set in on his face, and he said he could see why I’d think that.

Dumb Things Europeans Say About America

  • You’re not Irish, you’re American. Weirdly enough, I’ve seen more English than Irish get upset about this one. Why? Do you honestly think Americans who say it are claiming to be ethnically Irish? Or, maybe, just maybe, do you suppose they say “Irish” to mean “of Irish descent”? I suspect you know exactly what they mean, and choose to ignore it because this is one of the particularly tendy ways to point out Americans being idiots, despite it making no sense and being retarded.
  • One thing you don’t realize until you get there is how big America is.” Oh really? Have you looked at a map? Hey, let’s move the conversation to the recurring favorite topic about how bad Americans are at geography.
  • America’s aggressive foreign policy can be explained by its youth as a nation; hundreds of years ago, European nations were all warring with each other at the drop of a hat too!” Wow, it’s as simple as that! Christ you’re intelligent! Yes, I’ve actually heard this from people. Also: hundreds of years ago? Try up until the late 1950s. Some might say that losing control over global empires, two new superpowers on the block, and massive war debt prevented them from having the means to be the bullies they once were, but that’s just American baby-speak, as we shout “You, all right! I learned it by watching you!” eastward, then storm off to our rooms to blare some Metallica. Anyone who’s not a moron can tell it was a sudden flash of enlightenment and goodwill in the hearts and minds of European nations. Americans should hope to one day evolve so highly.
  • Americans are so culturally self-absorbed, they don’t bother to learn any other languages.” And neither do the English; why don’t we ever hear that about them? Maybe if English was as useful in the global marketplace as, say, Flemish, we’d have to study up too. But at this moment in time, English is the lingua franca, probably due to England’s colonial days spreading the language far and wide, and its and now America’s position in the world. It wasn’t always English, and it won’t be English forever, but right now it is. There’s nothing about being born in Norway that makes you smarter or less lazy; you learn English because, unless you want to be isolated from the rest of the world, you pretty much have to.
  • They call them ‘French Fries’ to make them sound fancy; they’re actually Belgian.” French… Fries… From… Belgium… cannot reconcile these two facts… Think hard about it. Consult a history book.
  • Their money is all the same size and color!” I have no idea why this one riles up so many Europeans so much. See it’s got these numbers printed on it that say how much it’s worth, and somehow the even blind survive. While people who have this complaint are apparently less capable than those born without vision, somehow the fact that none of our coins say how much they’re worth on them is A-OK.

Lest you think I’m anti-European, see my previous post: Dumb Things Americans Say About Europe.

Dumb Things Americans Say About Europe

  • The service is just so bad everywhere.” It’s just different. If you want to get the attention of your server, you have to speak to them as they go by, or possibly wave at them. You can’t expect to make subtle eye-contact and have them rush over to see what you need, like back home. Why Americans, who are usually quite bold when it comes to speaking to strangers and asking for help, suddenly become timid as chuch mice in restaurants, I do not know.
  • It’s like coming home! No it’s not. Your home is America. You have no genetic predisposition to feel at home within political borders that were probably completely different when your ancestors left. What you mean is that it looks the way you expected it to, which means you’re in the tourist district.
  • The French are rude and snobby.” I just don’t understand this one; I’ve been to France several times and locals have been polite and friendly. I suspect it’s a case of people running across the rude Frenchman and letting him confirm what they already knew, despite the previous 10 friendly locals who made no impression at all. (To be fair, Europeans do this too; not only regarding America, but also their neighboring countries.)
  • The pace of life here really makes you realize what a hurry we Americans are always in.” Well, guess what, you’re on vacation. Check out rush hour London, or Paris, or the massive traffic jams around Cologne. And when you get home, take a day off work and spend it at cafes and museums. Does anyone look like they’re in a hurry? No, because they’re not at work, just like the people you saw out and about in Sienna at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
  • There’s such a history here that the US doesn’t have.” The US has thousands of years of history, but it belongs to poor, marginalized people that you don’t feel any connection with.
  • If it wasn’t for us, they’d all be speaking German.” That’s probably true, but it’s even more so the case for other countries. World War II had been going on for over two years before the US joined, and we suffered fewer casualties than France, England, the Soviet Union. Also, if you refer to the WWII-era America as “we,” unless you’re my grandfather’s age, you’re an asshole.

Lest you think I’m a turncoat, stay tuned for Thursday’s update: Dumb Things Europeans Say About America.

January 1st in Berlin

First real weekend in Berlin, having given up my old apartment in Düsseldorf on Thursday.

Set off around 9 to visit a club I’d read about in Mitte, only to find that it doesn’t open until half past midnight.

Had a couple drinks in a nearby Irish pub, talked a bit with some english stock brokers.

Tried to get down to the Brandenburg Gate by midnight to see the fireworks, but could only get about 7 blocks away due to the streets being packed with people.

The fireworks didn’t last very long, but I guess the city doesn’t have money to burn.  More impressive were the fireworks being set off everywhere by normal people.  In Germany, the cool ones are legal, and there’s something about having fireworks in-hand that makes Germans go crazy.

Went back to original club only to see a very, very long line to get in extending out the door.  Decided I didn’t want to wait.  Took the train back to my neighborhood and passed by a nearby club which wasn’t letting anyone else in, but had a beer tent set up outside, where I had a quick one.

Then home and to bed.

Baden-Baden, Part 2 of 2

[Read Baden-Baden, Part 1]

Naked and on my back on the table, he was coming toward me with a brush and bucket of soapy water. Guys who didn’t pay extra were walking through the room, dongs flapping shamelessly. Why oh why did I pay extra for the massage?

He dunked the brush in the water and started with the right leg, near the foot, working the brush with his left hand and gliding the right, palm-down, along next to it, and I think: how far up the leg is he going? I decided that, if he gets to the goods, I’d shamelessly pour out my American puritanism and tell him that, whoa buddy, not there thank you. I’d never had a massage before. Is this normal? They use oils, jellies, and other scented goos, right? I didn’t know, but as his brush and soapy hand glided farther and farther north the only thing I could think was that this was 100% not the way I swing.

Blessedly, he jumped from the thigh to the belly. As he worked up to the shoulders, I started to imagine myself as a new car — a candy apple red convertible, being lovingly scrubbed clean of dirt and bugs. The same sort of withdrawal from reality is reported by rape victims.

He gave me a slap on the belly, which I took to mean “roll over.” I did, and clenching tightly to eliminate any chance that he could see… things… he did the same on the other side.

The massage ended bizarrely, with a spank on the back of the thigh, and he pointed me in the direction of the steam room. I tried to put my sandals back on, and he said I couldn’t — they were only for the hot air rooms. Trying hard not to think of foot fungus, I pulled open the heavy door and walked through the hot blast of steam that billowed out.

Every surface of the steam room was covered in green tiles. It was lined with hard beds and had a pyramid of benches in the middle, the highest one being about six feet up. A few of the beds had men lying on them, covered in beads of water and sweat, and I realized that taking one of the empty ones would mean putting my bare ass where someone else’s bare ass was just a moment ago sweating. The thought made me shudder, and I realized it was probably also not possible to sit on the pyramid without the same problem.

High on one wall was an deep alcove where water poured over a series of very hot, very large metal pipes, hissing away into clouds of steam as it made contact. Another monstrous contraption that probably had the initials “M.T.” carved into it somewhere. The very strong fragrance of menthol, or eucalyptus, or some other windpipe-clearing stuff hung in the air.

The sign recommended 15 minutes. I’d been operating under the assumption that whoever put these signs on the wall had bathhouses down to a science, and to disregard them would be unwise and any final judgement I had on the place would be unfair. 15 minutes. If you’ve ever been in a stream room, you know that they quickly begin to make you feel weak and lethargic. Compounded by the fact that this is also my normal state, I needed to sit down.

I decided to sit at the very top of the pyramid. Nobody was up there, so I figured that’s where the ass-sweat factor would be safest. I stepped up the four or five levels to the top and was nearly knocked over by intense heat, heat which I had forgotten rises.

Next was the really hot steam room, where the normal temperature on the floor was about that what I felt at the top of the pyramid. There were no beds, and it had only a set of very large steps against one wall. Nobody was sitting, everyone was standing on a different level, and I almost expected them to start singing because it looked like a choir. A naked, sweaty, old man choir.

At this point, the door opened and in stepped a Japanese girl of indeterminate age. She looked around and started calling someone’s name, over and over, still calling long after it was clear that nobody was going to answer. Why is she just standing there? Is she actually looking at the penises? Finally one of the old men told her that this was a men-only room. She laughed and left.

Five minutes in the really hot steam room, and finally it was time for some hot-spring action. I stepped through the door to the first pool and suddenly was overwhelmed because oh my god it’s breasts oh holy Jesus naked women naked women everywhere wrong door I’m going to jail. I stepped back into the steam room and double-checked that this was where the sign was directing me. One of the old men told me in German that, yes, from here on out, it’s all mixed.

I walked out and got into the pool. OK. Eyes down, make no contact of any sort with anyone. Just like in a big city. Just study that big statue there, the whoa she’s good looking no no just look at that lovely Romanesque tile mosaic on the wall, hunker down in the pool and close your eyes, yes, don’t think about how many people’s hopefully-peripheral vision my privates are appearing in at this very moment.

15 minutes later it was time to move to the warm water pool, with jets. I had to open my eyes to walk there. Getting in, I realized that this was apparently the point where couples who’d come to Friedrichsbad together met up, and apparently sitting naked in the warm water pool, with jets, put them right in the mood, the 20 strangers sitting in there with them be damned. One young couple sat in the corner making out, while the gentleman from an older couple across the pool stared at them shamelessly. (Sometimes you just get the feeling — usually from middle-aged men — that someone’s just hoping an orgy will break out.) When the old couple’s 20 minutes in the pool were over, they got up and moved on, his wife either oblivious to his plainly-visible stiffy, or silently thinking how to murder him later.

Next was the exercise pool. Filled with cold water and big and circular, you were supposed to, I dunno, swim around or something. Some people did leisurely laps around, others just hung around the edge. The young couple from the previous pool was now there, frolicking. They both looked about 16, she clearly in possession of a razor, and again I thought there was no way I should be legally seeing this.

I did a few laps, killed the 15 minutes in the exercise pool, and then followed the signs back toward the locker room. A rinse in the showers was prescribed, and then a full-body dip in the ice-cold water pool. I got in knee-deep before deciding that this was to be fucked, and stepped back out.

A gentleman at the door handed me a towel, and said that the many many varieties of lotion in the locker room were at my disposal. I hate lotion. But I love free stuff, and I lathered myself up but good. I could have, at this point, made use of their tanning beds, but three years in Germany not being long enough to pick up the bizarre national obsession with tanning, I made for the more promising-sounding “nap room.”

The nap room was dark, and other than a gentle snoring coming from a few directions, quiet. Soft beds were positioned around the room, and when I entered I was given a large towel the size of a sheet, and told to wrap up. I did so, and was guided into a vacant bed with a big, soft turned-down blanket. The attendant wrapped me up tightly in the blanket, burrito-style, and let me be. Being hung over, as I am in pretty much all of my stories, a nap really did sound good. Just like crashing waves on the seashore, the gentle snoring lulled me to sleep.

I woke up about 45 minutes later and decided it was time to get out of there. It was getting to be evening, and I had to gussy myself up for the casino. I unwrapped the blanket and got dressed.

For my first foray into the popular German pastime of going to the spa, I chose one of the classiest. I had hoped that, afterwards, I’d feel like a new man, totally refreshed. But as I headed back out into the cold, snowy evening, I didn’t. But luckily I’ve found there’s little ails a man what gamblin’ can’t cure, and there’s one other thing that Baden-Baden is known for.

Baden-Baden, Part 1 of 2

I put my clothes in the green locker and pulled the little key-band tight around my wrist. In just a moment I’d have to open the door and step out. They didn’t give you a bathrobe, a towel, nothing.

Germans. Lots of them. Naked. Strutting around the chilly locker room as if their penises weren’t visible. OK, settle down, I came here, I knew what I was getting myself into.

It was late February, and it’d been freezing cold for going on five months now. The relentless cycle of snow melting into slush and then re-freezing into a thick, solid sheet of ice covering the sidewalks forced me to walk slowly and awkwardly down the street every morning to work and back, gripping the nearest lamp post with my gloved hands to try and keep my feet from slipping out from under me. Five months.

All I knew about Baden-Baden was that it was famous for it’s natural hot springs, which they piped indoors into classy old Roman-looking bath houses and sold tickets. I’ve never had any desire to go to a sauna before, but after so many weeks of below-freezing weather, the idea started to sound pretty good. That there’s a casino in Baden-Baden was icing on the cake.

I hopped the next train down, and in a few hours was checked into my hotel and ready to steep myself in some piping-hot spring water. I decided on Friedrichsbad, the oldest and classiest looking of the two major bath houses in Baden-Baden. Romanesque with its interior covered in tile mosaics, it was built in the late 1800s and a favorite of Mark Twain himself during his time in Germany. I figured if the man knows half as much about bath houses as he knows about, uh, river boats, then Friedrichsbad must be the ticket.

I entered the huge, elaborate building, stomped the snow off my boots, and paid the woman at the counter. Did I want to pay a bit more for the massage, she asked? What the hell; how often am I in Baden-Baden?

She gave me a key and sent me upstairs to the locker room. The routine was: Step into a little cubicle, remove your clothes, step out of the cubicle, stow your clothes in a locker and hit the showers. Why the cubicle was involved, I do not know. Apparently strolling around naked was OK, but actually disrobing in front of people is undignified.

I’m usually a pretty logical guy, but when it comes to pissing, shitting, or getting naked with strangers, I tend to get a little neurotic. You know who pisses, shits, and goes around naked? Animals. Animals without shame. Animals without dignity. Once we admit we’re animals, it opens the door to all sorts of distasteful behavior, like humping lawn gnomes.

And there I was, standing in the little cubicle, clothes in-hand, about to step out naked into a sea of naked German men. The Germans, they are OK with the nudity. A co-worker of mine who’s particularly keen on the sauna once invited me to come with him some time. To the sauna. Where we’d be naked. Full-on wang-visibility. I don’t remember what kind of non-committal answer I muttered, but I declined the offer. I don’t want to see my co-workers naked. If some kind of pecking order based on anything other than skills and seniority emerged at work, I would become a nervous wreck.

Another thing that was causing me great angst at this juncture of the story is that I had just come in out of the snow. And it was mighty cold out in the snow and even a might chilly there in the locker room. Things were, let us say, not all what they could be at that particular moment. I’m fairly certain that my afore-described anxiety in the face of pissing, shitting, and being naked isn’t caused by fear of inadequacy. But shrinkage wasn’t helping any, either.

I stepped out of the cubicle into the locker room. Wangs: as predicted. And the buttocks — Jesus, I hadn’t even thought about the buttocks. I was not prepared for buttocks. Quickly I stowed my things in the locker and sped into the shower area, where I had more trouble.

The showers were huge metal contraptions, with pipes running all up and down the walls and shower heads the size of wagon wheels. Seriously, that goddam big. Clearly the engineering of another age, I think they were the same showers that Mark Twain must have used there. In front of each one was a single large black lever. No temperature controls? That’s funny. Not wanting to blast my skin off under the huge shower head, I pulled the lever just barely, until water started pouring out from above.

Water which was ice-cold.

I had actually been thinking that the sooner a gentleman who’d just come out of the cold was to get to a hot shower, the sooner a gentleman’s necessaries and particulars could, uh, right themselves. This ice-cold shower was a wrench in the machinery, no doubt about it. Taking a nervous glance around the room, I noticed that the other men seemed to be standing right in the full-on blasting streams of water from their showers. What? In exactly how many ways are the Germans crazy? I violated the “silence please” rule and asked the man next to me, in my poor, broken German, “Is the water supposed to be this cold?” Without speaking, he motioned with his hands that I should pull the lever back all the way, really open ‘er up. Water blasted out and within a few seconds heated up. Temperature on these showers, apparently, increases along with flow. OK.

Finishing up the shower, I was given a towel and a pair of sandals and ushered into room number two. The entire place is divided into 15 numbered rooms, each one with a sign indicating how long you’re supposed remain before moving on to the next room. Room number two was the hot air room, completely covered in colorful marble mosaics and with wooden recliners positioned around the room. The reason for the sandals became clear — without them, you’d burn your feet on the tile floor. Similarly, the towel had to be laid down on the recliner before flopping one’s self down. Finding an empty one and lying down, I began to relax. Studying the tile mosaic opposite me and having not a single wang in my peripheral vision, I enjoyed the warm air, and it started to feel like my very bones were warming up. 15 minutes in the hot air room wasn’t going to be enough, but room number three was the really hot air room.

After 10 minutes in the really hot air room, all was right with the world. Yes, all.

My content was short-lived, however, because the next stop was the massage. I’d never had a massage before. This will probably not shock you, but the idea of a massage really kind of creeps me out. All the rubbing and the kneading and the popping into place of various things… hands to yourself, thank you. I was starting to regret having sprung for the massage.

Trembling, a nervous wreck, I shuffled naked and sweaty into room number three. Three massage beds stood side-by-side. A man in a t-shirt and shorts took my massage coupon and instructed me to lie down on the nearest one. Wondering if he’d hosed it off after the last guy had been there, I climbed on and was told that, no, I needed to lie down on my back, as he picked up a big bucket of sudsy water and a bath brush. Oh God. Oh Jesus.


[Read Baden-Baden, Part 2]

 

Moments of Oddness

It’s Dublin, the Sunday after St. Patrick’s, and the Temple Bar neighborhood is still going strong.  On the way from one pub to the next, he stopped me.

“Hey man, hoow’s it gooin’?”

He had a strong scottish accent.  I’m trying to write his dialog, phonetically, the best I can.

“Oh, pretty good.  How are you?”

We got to talking.  I could barely understand him with that accent.  I finally ask him:

“So what do you do?”

“Ay kem wit te shayps.”

“Uh… sorry?”

“Ay kem wit te shayps.”

“Uh… sorry, I don’t know what you just said.”

His face crashed into a look of sadness, and his eyes turned toward the sidewalk.

“Ay’m sorry.  Ay hev a spaych impediment.”


It’s Saturday night, and I’m in a taxi on my way home from the Düsseldorf Altstadt.  The driver looks about 60, with silver hair and glasses down on the end of his nose, the skin on his face cracked and dry.  At the first red light, he tells me, in German (which, besides one key word, I’ve translated to English here):

“Anschnallen, please.”

I answer, in my bad, broken German: “Anschnallen?  I’m sorry, I don’t know that word.”  And apologetically: “I have bad German.”

The driver turns his head to the right and begins to just stare at me, giving me the evilest eye ever.  He stared — I am not exaggerating — the entire 20 seconds or so that it took for the light to change.  For reasons unknown to me, he was apparently, and suddenly, pissed off.  I wanted to look away, but I knew that if I broke eye contact first that’d be as good as admitting guilt for whatever it was I’d just done that’d so enraged him.

“Um… anschnallen?” I repeated.  “Can’t you explain what that is for me?”

WHAT THE HELL IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?” he snapped back at me.

I broke the eye contact.

A few seconds later, I muster up the nerve to say “I’m sorry if I said something wrong…?”  He just sat, silently staring into the traffic ahead.

By the time he stopped the cab at my building, I hated him, and I gave him no tip.  I went upstairs and looked up the word.  It means “to buckle up.”


Back in Dublin.  Out of nowhere, another Scotsman has come up, and the two of them begin chatting to one another, totally (to me) incomprehensibly.  Suddenly, Scot #2 says to me:

“Ay’menebelmeh.”

Here we go again.

“Uh…. what?”

He leaned in real close, his face right next to mine, and said it again, louder:

“Ay’menebelmeh!”

“Uh… I’m sorry, I don’t know what you just said.”

He pulled a laminated card out of his wallet, and held it up right next to his face, still leaning in close to mine:

British Institute of Embalmers

“Ay werk with DAYD PAYPLE.”

An Informal Poll

I met an artist.  We got drunk and I asked him how much to paint my portrait.  He said it’s hard to find people willing to be live models, and that he’d do it at-cost — about €20.

I’m trying to decide what to wear.  Cast your vote in the comments.

A)  The country gentleman.  Me in full English fox-hunting getup, holding the horn, possibly with monocle.

B)  Jungle Safari.  Khakis and a pith helmet, standing on tiger-skin rug and leaning on elephant gun.

C)  The Baroque.  Frilly, lacey sleeves, standing in front of harpsichord and gripping silver snuff box.

D)  The Hobo-Clown.  White face, large red nose, tattered clothes and belongings tied up in a hankie on the end of a stick.  A single tear running down my cheek.  (Painted on velvet?)

E)  You decide.  Describe in comment.

Jellied Eels

jellied eels, as seen through my camera phone
It’s summer, 2004, and Matt and I are waiting outside La Perla for Brian to come out. The outside tables surrounding the plaza are full, of course, so I ask this guy sitting alone with a book if we can share his while we wait for our friend.

We get to talking. His name’s Lee and he’s from London. When Brian eventually does come out, he takes a seat and the four of us pass the afternoon with mixed drinks in the sun, which is pretty much what everyone does after the bulls have finished running, at 8:04 a.m.

Lee spends the next four days with us — the remainder of the fiesta. We get along, and I ask him what the one thing is that I shouldn’t miss in London if ever go. Without hesitation he tells me: Jellied eels.

None of us believe him, but he assures us, unbelievable as it sounds: jellied eels. Get yourself to East London and tell them: “Double pie, double mash, extra jellied eels.”

Fast forward. It’s February, 2005, and I’m in King’s Cross, London for the week. Every night after the conference, my co-worker and I hit the nearest pub and one night I strike up a conversation with the middle-aged couple at the bar. They are married, and overweight, and missing teeth. They ask me if I am from America, and I say yes. What am I doing in Europe? I tell them I live in Germany, to which they reply “Oh dear, it just keeps getting worse.” Oh, that English wit. We chat a bit but I am aware that there are brass tacks which need getting down to. I ask: “Where can I get some jellied eels around here?”

They tell me that King’s Cross is prime jellied eel territory — perhaps the jellied eel district in London — and give me directions to a pie shop which turns out to be right next to where the conference is. They are impressed that I’ve heard about jellied eels, and even more so that I want to try them. It makes me feel good, like I’m more than just a tourist. This is how Jane Goodall felt when the monkeys saw that she wanted to eat bugs with them; this is how it feels to be accepted.

“I will warn you,” the man says to me, “the jellied eels are an acquired taste.” He stresses those last two words. It is clear that this is a warning. It makes me a little nervous though I’m careful not to show my fear. I excuse myself and return to my co-worker, whom I’ve left sitting alone with his beer for the past 10 minutes while discussing eels.

The next day is the last day of the conference. When it gets out, we follow the directions to the pie shop down a short, pedestrian-only street filled with vendors of incense and home-made jewelry, fresh fish on ice, leather wallets and purses, that sort of thing. The kind of outside street-market does not give one the impression of prosperity. I later learn that jellied eels became popular in East London for once being the absolute cheapest meat one could buy.

It often saddens me in Europe to see McDonald’s all over the place, making it look more and more like America each day. I realize at this point though that providing a cheap-meat alternative to jellied eels may be the one acceptable reason for seeing Ronald McDonald painted onto the facade of a 300-year-old building.

We find the place, at the end of the street. “Pie and Mash” the sign says. “Jellied eels.” It does not look sanitary, and my co-worker informs me that he’s going back to the hotel. But I haven’t come this far to turn back now.

I go in and say to the woman behind the counter: “Double pie, double mash, extra jellied eels.” I glance at the menu written out in chalk above her head, and find it odd that “Pie” and “Double pie” are both separate menu items, the latter costing exactly twice as much as the former. Similar configurations of mash are offered.

The woman is brought what looks like a large metal muffin tin by a younger version of herself, but instead of muffins the wells of the tin contain pies. Their faces — her and her daughter — are just a little puffy, eyes tired, long blond hair looking a little stringy. They look like they’d rather be home chain smoking and watching soaps. This may just be what a day in the pie shop does to you. They both have the comedy London accent that Dick van Dyke tried to nail in Mary Poppins, which I like, and are friendly.

Mom pops two of the pies out of the tin and onto a plate, then opens up a large metal vat in the counter and scoops out a generous portion of mash. Then she turns around to another vat behind the counter which I can see contains one solid block of gelatin inside of which are suspended eels.

She scoops out a bowl’s worth with what looks like an over-sized ice cream scoop. I wonder if this actually is an ice cream scoop or if utensils are specifically made for jellied eels and, if so, who makes them?  Could I pick up an Onieda cutlery set, complete with demitasse spoon and eel scoop?

She gives me my food and I slide into one of the wooden booths that line the shop. The jellied eels are in a separate bowl, on a separate plate, and I choose to ignore them for a few minutes. I’m not ready. The two pies and the mash are covered in a strange white sauce with green bits that I think might be … dill? I’m not sure. They look dry and unappetizing. I look nervously at the eels and dig into the mash. It tastes the way it looks, bland and bad.

And now I decide it is time. I slide the bowl of eels toward me. They’re cut into thick round sections, like unbaked cookies from those tubes of pre-made cookie dough. They’re completely white, except for a ring of blueish-grey skin that reminds me of a corpse.  I have decided that I will not eat the skin. Each one has a core of bone the diameter of my thumb.

I raise a bit of eel on my fork to my mouth. It has bits of trembling gelatin clinging to it, and doesn’t smell like anything at all. I pop it in quickly. Don’t think; just do.

I chew, and out gushes cold, cold water rife with the flavor of the sea, the flavor of floating scum and oil along the dock, the flavor of death itself. Oh my God, it is bad. I am petrified, and can no longer will my jaw to move.

Oh, Mother, oh God, oh please someone help me, help be keep this gagging and urge to vomit at bay. I find that if I remain perfectly still I can’t taste the eel juice, and this gives me time to think. What do I do? Spit it out on the plate? No, this would be messy and unsightly, and could not be done fast enough to avoid tasting the eel water. The only thing I can do is try for one quick, swift swallow, and chase it down with a big spoonful of mash. I try to focus, to prepare myself. I know that if I do the normal moving-the-food-to-the-back-of-the-mouth-then-swallow action, I won’t make it, and the resulting scene will not be pretty, not pretty at all. Every time I start to move the muscles of my mouth to swallow, I gag. I takes four or five times before I get it down.

I’m now eating mash to get the taste of eel out of my mouth when the daughter comes up to my table and asks “So, do you like ‘em?”

“The jellied eels?” I ask, hoping she was asking about something else, and I wouldn’t have to lie.

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Well, I had been warned that they’re an acquired taste.” I stress the words.

“Have you acquired it?”

Oh, that English wit.

“I’ll let you know if I do before I finish the meal.”

I eat the pie, I eat the mash. It is bland, but not offensive. I go extra slow, to make them think I am also enjoying my jellied eels, and then get up to pay the bill.

“So, did you like them?” she asks me again.

“The jellied eels?” The image of her, nude and holding the eel-scoop, pops into my mind.

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Yes, I loved them, but I ate so much pie and mash that I just didn’t have much room left for eels. Poor planning, I’m afraid.”

She looks at me for a second, puzzled, and says, “So, you did like them?”

I want to leave before her or her mother notice the large bowl of uneaten eels, but as I step out the door I stop and ask her if she likes jellied eels. She wrinkles her nose and replies, “I don’t really like sea food.” And I leave the shop.

Continuing my trend of ending these tales on a sentimental note; Lee, if you’re out there, go fuck yourself.

Wimereux

It was a sunny but chilly Sunday afternoon on the Côte d’Opale. I stopped for lunch in Wimereux, having driven up from my hotel in Boulogne-sur-mer. I chose it at random on the map, Boulogne-sur-mer. I liked it because of the “-sur-mer” in the name, it reminded me of the fictitious town in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but when I arrived to see a rather dirty big port town I was a little disappointed. Wimereux, a 15 minute drive away, was more what I had wanted, I could tell this at first glance: Twisted little brick roads between charming old buildings advertising crabes and moules, and an ability to see the sea from almost everywhere.

I parked the car — a Mercedes something-or-other with every irritating, dinging, beeping feature that I’m too lazy to figure out how to turn off turned on by default — and walked down to the shore. I could already feel the wind coming in off the ocean. Large stone stairs lead down to a rocky beach where a couple in hooded sweatshirts sat watching their kids and dog run toward and away from the moving water as it receded and then slid back up the beach, their toes getting just close enough to the cold English Channel that ending up ankle-deep became a real danger. They were having fun. Across the water you could actually make out tall white cliffs, but whether they were the white cliffs or just some others on an inward-curving section of this same coast, I don’t know.

I sat for a while and watched. Reflecting. Thinking. Pondering. Contemplating the shit out of so much shit you would just not fucking believe it, is what I was doing. Gulls were flying around.

It was lunch time. After enough contemplating to work up un grand appétit, I walked back up the stairs from the beach and toward the shops and restaurants to see what was on le lunch menu. I am not one who generally eats what comes from the sea. All waterways flow to the sea, and the sewage pipes of no nation make an exception. The sea, full of dead things. The sea, the world’s toilet. The sea, that big moist hole where the world’s dead matter rots and festers. The last place I’d ever want to reach in and pull back something to eat. I sort of hate it.

The outside tables of each cafe, restaurant and brasserie were surrounded by diners, diners reaching into big steaming pots and pulling out tiny black shells clamped tightly shut, prying them open, ripping out the insides and piling the now-broken shells high onto scrap plates in the middle of the table.

Muscles. If I had the patience to give it enough thought, there’s probably a lesson about death there, or at least an insightful observation. But I don’t have the patience to give it enough thought, and get instead an instinctive sort of dread, a dread at seeing and thinking about pulling these little alien black creatures from the sea — the sea, that place of death and cold where we throw our shit and try not to think about how there seems to be more than just a little we don’t understand or know about it — pulling these black creatures without arms or legs or even eyes or anything else that’d put them on some kind of level with animals we understand and don’t fear, serving them in big black pots right on your table, prying them open and eating the little blobs of flesh inside, and piling their dead husks up right there on plate next to the one you’re eating off of. I watch and I get feelings of confusion tinged with fear, the same feeling I imagine alien abductees get, the same feeling I used to get watching high school pep rallies, a feeling that what you’re seeing is altogether alien.

The fact that every restaurant in every town I’d stopped in along the coast was boasting moules did not however escape my attention, and made it very clear that this was, were one to want the  Côte d’Opale experience, a thing to be had. I entered a restaurant on the corner and took a seat at an empty table. The restaurant was old, but well-kept. The floor was made of small colorful tiles. The tablecloth and place mat were white and heavy. Cups on saucers. The chairs, solid and wood. No paper or plastic here. This is one thing I like. This is what I expected of France. The waiter approached me and asked point-blank: “Apéritif?” I had come home.

I asked for the menu, and he handed me a thin cloth-bound book that looked like it’d seen many years of wear. I paged through the options. I studied each dish. I compared meal to meal. I don’t read French. Nor do I speak it. Yes, monsieur, a small carafe of the house red, please? The rioja? I mean, uh, the rouge? Yes, rouge, small. Carafe. Small carafe. I still didn’t know what anything on the menu was. But I did see it: Moules. The prospect was still sickening. The black pot, cauldron-like almost; the plate of dead shell parts, piled high; that cracking noise they were sure to make as I pried them open and the tearing of the little ligament thingy where the two shell halves meet and the sea my God the sea the smell of the sea still on them. I started to sweat.

I couldn’t do it. I compromised and went for the crab. Yes it’s from the sea, but at least crabs at least have legs and eyes and a face, something you can understand. And if I left this place on the sea which apparently prided itself so well on its seafood, well, I just might regret it.

The crab was course number one on the menu I ordered, the second being something that I think contained beef, followed by a final cheese plate. A cheese plate. Now there’s something a man can look forward to.

The waiter came and whisked my silverware away, replacing it with strange utensils I’ve never seen before. One looked like a large nutcracker, in the shape of a crab’s claw, and oh God Jesus I think that must be for busting open the crab’s body. I swallowed hard. The other utensil was something that was obviously meant to be used for picking and scraping at things. It looked like it belonged in a dentist’s office. I had no idea what to do with these things, and started to dread the grisly mess that awaited me.

Finally, out came the crab. He was accompanied by four small shrimp and the first side of salad I’ve ever actually been glad to receive. I stabbed my fork at the salad, taking small bites, chewing slowly but knowing as I looked into the cold, black antenna-extended eyes on my plate that I couldn’t put it off forever. It wouldn’t be long before I had to… crack open this sea creature’s carcass and, taking my best guess as to the purpose of the other tool, scrape out and eat his insides.

Me taking the claw-shaped shell cracker into my left hand is one of those rare occasions in life where I think it’s really warranted to describe it as being done gingerly. With my right hand — index finger and thumb, actually — I took the right claw of the crab and slowly, carefully… The crack was the same cracking noise I’ve always imagined your leg would make when it twists around 180 degrees in a skiing accident. It occurs to me that cracking open the claw of a crab with a cracker which itself looks like the claw of a crab is sort of morbid in the same way hamburger joints with happy burger-eating cow mascots is sort of morbid. The shell broke cleanly in half and could easily be pulled apart into two sections. I took up the scraper and poked it into the now-freed piece of crab claw, open like a tunnel at the cleanly-broken hole. Scraping around, trying to pull out the white and (what I assumed was the) edible part, all I could think of was how in addition to the edible white meat I was scraping tendons and veins and Jesus I don’t even know what else a crab has inside this exoskeleton, exoskeleton for fuck’s sake.

The taste was not devoid of the taste of the sea. People will tell you that seafood that is good and fresh does not taste like the sea. These are the same people who will tell you that WWF is real, unable for reasons that I don’t understand to cop to the obvious truth right in front of them. I have never in my life tasted seafood that did not taste like the sea. It does not exist, this sea-flavor-free seafood. No matter how it’s cooked, no matter how fresh, no matter what spices and seasonings are employed, it will never be rid of the death and the sewage in which it has for so long steeped.

But I continued. My French waiter was extremely polite and attentive, and though I couldn’t understand a damn word he said, I got the distinct impression that he was genuinely concerned that I enjoy my meal. The French, I have found, with the exception of a couple of bitchy little Frenchmen I met in Pamplona, are entirely undeserving of their reputation for rudeness and snobbery. They are on the whole quite helpful and friendly, and I could not hurt this man’s feelings.

I ploughed ahead with the crab. The claws had proven to be the easy part, the legs less so but manageable. Now all that was left was the crab’s… torso? Body? Head? … Thorax? You know, the main part. I couldn’t figure out how to get it open. It was far to big to fit comfortably in the claw-shaped cracker, and I didn’t see any openings into which I could jimmy the scraper and pry it apart. Maybe I had to put it in the cracker and try as much as I could, then turn the crab around and crack him the other way, and hope the two cracks in his shell meet in the middle and he breaks in half, like a graham cracker along its perforation? Sounds good to me. I wedged him into the CSC as far as he would go, face first, and cracked. OK, OK, that went pretty good. I turned him around and and did the same, and he did in fact look like the slightest bit of effort would break him apart. I set the CSC aside, grabbed both sides of his shell with my hands, and gently, very gently … oh sweet mother of shit what is this greenish-brown goo leaking out of the crab? Oh my God this is it this is the very thing I’ve been fearing about the sea this is it this substance right here materialized right inside this crab.

I must have made some kind of commotion when I dropped him back on my plate, or maybe even screamed a little, because the waiter came over to see what was going on. There wasn’t really a good way to explain my hyperventilating or the terrible crab faux pas I’d just made, and that’s when it happened.

I have, all my life, attracted good samaritans who want to set me right when I’m exhibiting my incompetence in anything. Why they can’t just be embarrassed for me and pretend it’s not happening, I don’t know, but it only takes one gutter ball at the bowling alley for the old codger who’s been bowling all his life to hobble across 7 lanes of bowlers to reach me, put a Parkinson’s-addled old hand on my shoulder, and start trying to show me how to bowl. My first scratch on the pool table, and somehow he’s there in the bar too. In a way, I’d known it was going to happen. I’d known ever since he set those god damned utensils in front of me. Like a psychic premonition, I could see it playing out in my mind, even when I was only on the salad.

He stooped over me and put his right arm over my shoulder, the way parents do when they show their kids how to cut with a knife a fork. The scraper in one hand, steadying the crab with the other, he smashed through the right and left sides of the crab’s breast revealing what I do have to admit was the mother lode of crab meat I’d have been looking for if I enjoyed the taste of dying things that live in shit. I smiled and laughed and shook my head in an “oh yeah I get it now” way, hoping he’d go away and we could both just forget how embarrassingly ignorant I am when it comes to crab anatomy.

I think he was pained by the amount of crab meat I still hadn’t discovered when I made it clear that I was finished with the first course. I would have explored further but by this time the greenish-brown goo was mingling with other things on my plate and, actually, now that I think about it, my inability to control the goo in a sanitary manner may be why he wore his pained expression, not a waste of meat.

The second course passed mostly uneventfully. It was in fact beef, though it was some sort of lining from some kind of organ, which had a surprisingly good taste but was disconcertingly soft like tissue, so soft you could push your tongue right through it without having chewed at all, and I will say no more about that.

Finally, the cheese plate. Back in my element. Part of me hoped I could redeem myself in the eyes of the waiter; I like to think I know my way around a cheese plate. He brought it out and I scanned around the dial: Camembert at 12, Emmenthaler at 3, something I’m not familiar with at 6 but that’ll be your goat-influence right there for sure, Roquefort at 9. Hmm, no grapes or walnuts, though; nothing to help clear the ol’ palette… and it was as I was taking stock of all this that I realized to my horror that I’d started absent-mindedly eating the very cheese plate I was preparing to eat and what’s more that I had dived right in to the six-o’clock position thereby ruining any possibility of enjoying the weaker cheeses by starting with a stronger one.

It was at this point that I realized that the waiter — my waiter, my friendly, helpful waiter — would never respect me. He would smile politely and take my money, but he would never respect me. This classy land, with its apéritifs and its old colorful tile floors and its cheese plates… I was not worthy of it. He offered me no digestif, the waiter, and I could not blame him.