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Friday, August 10, 2018

Another Happy Day in Metz, France

Another Happy Day in Metz, France

I drive to Metz fairly often and have posted a few blogs about the fabulous old city, the capital of the province of Lorraine.

Looking at the list of my verbosity, I guess I’ve spent more time there than I thought.  Lots of things bring me back, many of which I’ve already written about:  The Cathédrale de Étienne, the Marché Couvert (fabulous covered market), and the old stone city in general.

It’s not just the city, but France that draws me like a horse to wine.  I do like France, with it’s relaxed formality that insists all proper conversations begin with “Bonjour!”  France is more cultured than Spain, more excitingly alive than Germany…but oh, poor France, Italy! is friendlier.

Everyone talks about the food in France, or the food and wine, or the famous art and artists, and who can forget the lyrical language that makes Les Misérables sound infinitely better than The Miserables and Jean so much more sophisticated than John, which in American vernacular can also signify a toilet.  How about Guy (Giee) instead of just plain Bill.

Ok, I’ll get to my plan to talk about the food, but first come the French women.  A French woman, no matter the age or facial beauty, is so graceful and inherently sexy that if she is married, you feel a sudden urge to drop to your knees and kiss her wedding ring. 

The simplest movement shows you how aware she is of her body.  I glanced at a seated French woman subtly smoothing her skirt.  She must have been eighty, but if my significant other hadn’t been close at hand… (Please, let’s keep this our little secret!)

French women show the casual sexiness that exudes an attitude of, “Of course everyone is staring, but I’m used to it.”  Meanwhile her French husband displays the casual arrogance that says, “I’m way too good for her.”

Is it getting hot in here?  Anyway, I need to chat about lust lunch.  But, first a stroke of the broad brush.  The French can teach anyone how to eat, with the very possible exception of the Italians.  But, with much of the western world content to simply eat, the French dine.  A glass of wine and some excellent French bread compliments every meal. (Sorry, Germany, your bread is good, but the French bread makes you  exclaim “Mon dieu, ce pain est incroyable!) Then why are the French generally slender? Besides the natural Gallic sangfroid my guess is:  bicycles, walking, conversation over meals, small portions, contentment and pleasures of taste that override the American need to eat faster than a thieving monkey, then race for the seat on the couch.   Eye appeal? 

The French chef is a master or mistress of eye appeal. Even the casual Bistro cook will please the eye as well as the palate, as well as the taste.

In Metz, I normally go to a favorite bistro at 27 Place St. Jacques, just down a windy street from the cathedral and the covered market.  Place St. Jacques is a large open square with bistros, ice cream shops, bars and restaurants and a few stores lining all four sides.

My special place is Enfin, which proclaims Bistrot & Cuisine Sympathique!  I have only eaten lunch there, wait a sec, many lunches there.  I only order one meal:  Quiche (after all, I’m in the Province of Lorraine), which comes with the best pomme frites (French fries, although it translates to apple fries), a small salad with vinaigrette and a slice or two of light tan bread that I want the recipe for.  This is one of the best meals, not only of the bistro variety, but of any variety.  I’ve had Michelin three stars meals that don’t measure up to this simple fare.

Of course, I accompanied the meal with some mineral water and a glass of the house white wine.  If you can’t trust a constantly crowded, bustling French bistro to pick out the wine, whom can you trust?

I finished with an espresso, which was so tasty and acid free that it needed no cream or sugar.  But, what the hell, I wasn’t driving home, so I added an Armagnac to the bill.  Best Armagnac I’ve ever tasted.  Smooth as silk and a perfect accompaniment to the espresso.  Had Armagnac?  Oh, you poor, sober drinker!

Armagnac, the oldest brandy region in France, comes from the south, just a bit southeast of Bordeaux.  It’s another area like the Champagne and Cognac regions, and like the others, the name Armagnac is protected and cannot be used for brandy produced elsewhere.

Hunger and thirst satisfied, we move onward.  In Metz there are many onwards and even on shaky legs I sally forth.

First we hit the covered market for Mirabella plums and some violet colored French garlic.
Mirabella plums are only grown in a couple of spots in France and if you want a tree, by international agreement, you must import it from Lorraine.  So Mirabella plums are almost impossible to find in the U.S.  But, in Lorraine, if it’s August, it’s Mirabella time for fresh fruits and cakes and liquor and cookies and jams.

But, the market was not the end of my Metz Day.  We wandered the brick paved 
streets, stared into many a boulangeries (bakery) and pâtisseries (pastry shop).
Not to mention a liqueur stores, in my quest to buy my new favorite Armagnac, 
Duc de Camilhac.  Didn’t find it.  

Also studied fashions in the  boutique windows.  I learned quickly that sex is
the product.  I can imagine a 75-year-old Frenchman, with the patina of age, 
breath that would rust a fender and in the thick fog of Alzheimer’s, thinking, 
if I only buy those jeans and that yellow polo, the girl of my dreams will surely...
We stopped for another café at the Bar de la Luna, right across from the covered
market and right by the cathedral.  This time it was a cappuccino and no Armagnac.

I started thinking, or daydreaming how easy it is to become such a jaded traveler
that you can walk right past a cathedral and even go inside and still have the first
thought be, "Where can I get a beer?"

But, Catholic or not, pause for a moment to contemplate the extreme detail of
the magnificence of the Catholic vision to bring the glory of God to earth in a form
that the middle age royalty and peasants alike could view and understand.  If a
 picture is worth a thousand words, how many sermons is a cathedral worth?
Now, how about that beer?
Hell yes, I enjoyed my day in Metz, as I always do, and as an Austrian once
said, “Al be bach!”

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Chamblin Bookmine, Jacksonville, Florida

Chamblin Bookmine, Jacksonville, Florida

Last time I took you to The Inn at Ocean Springs.  Now we’ll speed across the country to more than a bookstore, a book lover’s happy dream.  Chamblin Bookmine is unlike any bookstore you’ve visited. I know you’re saying to yourself, “Yeah, sure.  A bookstore is a bookstore.”

Oh, how wrong you are, silly knave.  Think B & N is a real bookstore?  I’m not a complete snob.  I do go to B & N for a coffee and to take photos of books I can buy cheaper on Amazon.

I’ve browsed fabulous bookstores in London, attired in 19th Century dark wood paneling and multi-levels of tomes that make you gasp.  Even strolled a few dozen times down the justly famous Charing Cross Road and trod through the many musty and narrow shelving corridors, in dozens of used bookstores.  If you get to London, try it.

See, this is not bragging.  This is called building up my creds, so when I tell you about Chamblin Bookmine, you’re more apt to place your trust in a true book lover and tread in my well-intentioned footsteps.  Do you follow?  (Pun intended)

Ok, I admit it.  You’re not a knave.  But have you been to Chamblin Bookmine?

Use your gps to find it.  Even though you can see the white concrete building from Roosevelt Highway (Hwy 17) going north, it’s a twisty, turning adventure to actually get to the front door. However the long, bold, black letters posted high on the fascia let you know you’ve arrived at book Nirvana.  Small parking lot that’s perpetually crowded.  Be prepared to be impressed. Toss that need for espresso and dark wood paneling aside.

Even a world traveler and bibliophile such as myself, who walked in expecting the all too common warehouse approach to offering unsalable books, was immediately impressed.

To my surprise, I found a beehive of fellow book lovers exchanging smiles as they passed, asking each other for directions through a seeming endless warren of narrow corridors lined with shelves so high you can barely reach and I’m 7’ 2”!   Actually I’m closer to 5’ 8”, so women who are 5’9” intimidate me.

But, enough about me. Let’s get back to the 23,000 sq. feet of books, or about half a football field. That IS intimidating.  However, have no fear, the organization is remarkable, with books of every genre, alphabetically easy to find.  Having trouble?  The counter clerks are wizards at pointing you in the right direction and the owner, Ron Chamblin is also happy to help.  He’s the one sitting at an open desk beside the clerks, peering at a computer and helping another customer find a book.

I looked for a certain southern cookbook and searched the cookbook shelves in vain.  A smart young woman at the counter steered me to a special section for ‘Southern Cooking.’  Search for that kind of prompt and knowledgeable help in a major chain bookstore. 

Mystery sections, romance, general fiction, history divided by era, science fiction, thrillers, non-fiction, poetry, wine, it’s all there.  When I say ‘section,’ I’m not speaking of an arm’s length of covers to stare at.  The history section alone has more books than most bookstores. If you plan to see everything, bring a lunch. There’s even an Erotica section.  I really didn’t find the first four books interesting.  But, I only finished reading three.

Let me give you a brief sketch of the owner, Ron Chamblin (above).  He’s a tall man, or at least taller than I am, with startling white hair, glasses and such an easy manner that when you ask him a question, you’d never know you’re imposing, while he’s busy trying to do three things at once.  He stops.  He listens with full attention and if he can’t find you a book, Google couldn’t either.

“We started Chamblin Bookmine in 1976 and now we have 23,000 sq. feet and I’m buying another 8000 sq. feet.”  He also mentions there’s a Chamblin Uptown at 215 N. Laura Street, tele 904-674-0868, which is about the same size!  Two of them together?  Football field!

I am in awe at the sheer volume of books!  Hardbounds, paperbacks, used, new, there’s no beginning and no end. So where do your get this many books?  “All kinds of sources.  We bought out five bookstores that were going out of business.”  He didn’t mention it, but Chamblin’s also buys used books as well, as the sign says outside.  To judge from the ebb and flow of customers, there is no more shortage of sources than there is a shortage of grains of sand in the ocean.

Matter of fact, when you go to checkout, the clerk will ask if you have any a book credits, meaning have you sold us any books.  The credit will be used to discount the prices of the books you’re buying.

A group of three of us went twice.  Couldn’t stay away.  Bibliophiles will have no sense of time or cost.  No telling how long we were in the Bookmine.  I only know I was happy to peel off the bills and tote my armful of wonders to the car.

Will I be back again?  Of course.  Ya gotta read, right?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Inn at Ocean Springs

The Inn at Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Noticed I haven’t written a blog in some time?  Been on the road for the best part of three months.  Visited Michigan, took a cruise around Ireland and the British Isles, and did the southeastern United Colonies from Georgia to Louisiana to Florida and back to Georgia.

Time to give both my loyal readers random looks at my discoveries.  Let’s start in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  If you haven’t been in Mississippi in a few decades (I’m holding up my hand), it’s time you took a trip.  I stayed along the gulf coast and didn’t venture into the northern parts.

Ocean Springs is a wonderful art community nestled among Biloxi, Gulfport, Latimer, and probably a few more villes I’m not familiar with.  But, let’s forget all the fab seafood diners and BBQ places that remind you of the 50’s, and let’s settle on downtown Ocean Springs.  

The Old Town, the home of Mom and Pop coffee shops, art shops, fashion boutiques, breakfast nooks, bakeries, and a very special place called simply The Inn.  The magazine Coastal Living called Ocean Springs a ‘dream town.’ Pretty much dead center on the truth.  Walk down Washington Avenue and you’ll see at a glance what I mean.

The biggest thing you’ll notice about the small town south is that people are friendly.  I’m not just talking about the shopkeepers, but everyone.  People just know each other.  They stop and inquire because they want to know.  “How’s your momma doin’?  Heard her dog died.  I know she loved that dog.”  Look for that on the streets of Chicago or Cleveland.  Best get yer-seff a concealed carry permit before you go lookin’.

Old town Ocean Springs is small town.  Park your car and walk down the old live-oak lined streets.  Browse, enjoy, relax.

Let’s poke our heads in The Inn at Ocean Springs, right in the beating heart of the old town.

Takes the kind of robust nerve I admire to hang out a sign that says, this ain’t an inn, it’s THE INN.  Should be a subtitle of ‘Best Coffee in this town or many many others!’ 

I stopped in to chat with the proprietors, Ted and Roxy Condrey, but Roxy wasn’t there, so Ted showed us around, offered us a cup of the finest coffee I’ve ever tasted and told us about how he and Roxy started the place.  

Ted is an easy man to chat with.

Only two bedrooms, but what bedrooms! You’ll think you stepped back in time.  Such tasteful antique furnishings, with a lovely porch outside.  You’ve just returned to the long ago days of southern hospitality, when men wore linen suits, white shirts and ties, even in the summertime, when ladies wore dresses and hats and the only air conditioning appeared with they unfolded a fan.  A taste of elegance is what I’m trying to say.

But, let’s not get too carried away with the taste of nostalgia. The rooms, which are more like suites, have private baths, air conditioning, flat screen TVs and a selection of other amenities.

Care for tea and biscuits and jam on the long, southern style porch? This is the place.

Wait a sec.  Only two rooms and no room in The Inn?  The Condreys also own The Bradford House, only a four-minute walk away from The Inn, offering another two splendid suites, including one with a kitchen.

But, time to talk about the wonderful coffee.  Ted buys roasted beans from Tuxachanie Coffee Company.  But, what makes his coffee so different…. Almost lost track of what I wanted to say, memories of Ted’s coffee is just that delicious.  He didn’t tell me how Tuxachanie does the roasting, but from the taste, I’d say they roast at a much lower temperature than the big boys and probably for a longer time.  The result:  Coffee with robust flavor that demands a second cup, but without even a hint of acidity and bitterness.  If you’ve been to Gimme-yer-Bucks, you know quite well what I mean.  Even if you don’t usually drink your coffee black, you can drink Ted’s black.  Smooth and delicious.

The Inn is not just an elegant guest house, but a travel adventure in a “dream town”, but even if you don’t need a room for the night, be sure to stop in for a chat and a cup of fresh roast.