Upon reviewing the array of bands at Hellfest on day two, it appears that the Scorpions are the only act that I would really give a shit about seeing. There is plenty of good music on the schedule, but none that excites me nearly enough to want to deal with the train or the festival all over again. Day three holds the meat of the lineup, with Opeth, Ozzy, and Judas Priest, among others.
In order to preserve my sanity, and be in prime shape for day three, I make the executive decision to be “Rocked like a Hurricane” another time, and sit out day two in favor of flying solo in the city. When Joel finally wakes up and is informed of my important resolution, he seems to wholeheartedly agree, most likely relieved to not have to listen to me whine all day, not to mention acknowledging the fact that a solo adventure may be good for both of us. Relieved, and comfortable with the fact that the state of my vagina will once again come into question, I assess the almost full bottle of 2002 Rene Geoffroy Champagne that I had foolishly opened shortly before passing out. The wine has actually held up brilliantly, and is quite possibly even better than it was when the cork was freshly popped. This makes complete sense, as I remember Jean Baptiste Geoffroy explaining to me that he prefers to decant many of his vintage offerings, letting them breathe and sacrificing a small amount of bubbles in lieu of much added complexity in the flavor.
After a few sips I already feel much better, and upon getting out of bed and roaming about, I notice eight very large glass bottles of Vitel mineral water on our small lounge table. I now remember becoming insistent on room service last night, and the bewildered look on the front desk clerk’s face, as he strained under the weight of nearly a case of water loaded on to a cocktail tray, when instructed to “put them down anywhere.” Though a tad awkward last night, I am certainly delighted to have them this morning, successfully avoiding a repeat of day five’s “big bear attacks vending machine” incident.
What happens next, at least in my opinion, is a very festive morning at the Hotel Mercure. Nothing puts me in a better mood than drinking Champagne on an empty stomach (although at this point, how empty could it really be?), and I begin to mercilessly harass Joel, who can’t for the life of him figure out how to work the coffee maker, declaring that he is no longer the “Tranny Boss,” but rather the “Barista Princess.” I’m not actually sure if he was ever able to get it working, but after being repeatedly asked if he had “checked if it’s plugged in,” I observe him filling up a glass with Champagne instead.
The bright red tray used to slog the case of water up by the front desk clerk last night is actually quite nice. It has a very “grippy “ surface, and I begin making plans to steal it and use it to wait tables back home. I will be much like Manfred Von Richtofen, also known as the Red Baron, descending out of nowhere on to unsuspecting tables and waiting the living fuck out of them. Throughout the city, terrified diners will tell stories about the rogue waiter “ace” with the bright red tray, who has the potential to show up unannounced at nearly any restaurant and beat hapless patrons into submission.
It becomes apparent at this point that I am yammering to myself, as Joel has taken steps to mastering the vital skill, while travelling and otherwise, of tuning me the fuck out. Excited at the prospect of a day with no plans, I insist on returning to the Vietnamese restaurant I had scoped out the day before for a breakfast of Pho. While I finish off the bubbly, Joel decides that he is going to need caffeine regardless of whether the piece of shit coffee maker works, and steps out to make this happen.
After cleaning up and getting our array of fixes, we re-group and march into town. I vow that if the Vietnamese place is closed, I will proceed to burn it straight to the ground and do an MC Hammeresque dance number on the ashes. I suggest that Joel get ready to make a few phone calls explaining that “Joe, may not be coming home for a long, long time” and “Well, you know how he likes Pho, right?”
Luckily for both myself, and the nice woman who is the proprietor of Restaurant Le Vietnam, they are open for business. Upon entering, the exotic scents alone are enough to get me all worked up in a lather of joy. This may prompt some to ask why, if I am so obsessed with the cuisine of Southeast Asia, don’t I go on a vacation to Southeast Asia. The answer to that question would be that it simply makes too much sense for me to really be onboard with it.
The dining room is small and quaint, with two floors and large, centrally located staircase. We are seated on the first floor, and presented with a basket of crispy shrimp crackers while we take a gander at the menu. I crank it up with a few Saigon Lagers, while the “Tranny Boss Barista Princess” conjures up a Lychee Juice drink with a simple wave of her magic wand.
Though tempted to order one of damn near everything, I am forced to observe the boundaries of reality and narrow it down a bit. My level of excitement and high expectations makes me realize I might be flying a little close to the sun and setting myself up for soul-crushing disappointment. I begin to rehearse the Hammer dance in my head all over again, just in case.
To start we get spring rolls, beautifully presented on a stone slab with pickled carrots and nuoc mam sauce, garnished with peanuts. These are fresh and delicious, with the shrimp providing a very pleasant snap. In addition to these, we fire up an order of frog leg fritters, tender little morsels suspended in perfectly crispy and airy batter, to be wrapped up in lettuce leaves and dipped in sweet chili sauce before being hungrily devoured.
We each line up Pho as a “main” course, served blazingly hot in a large bowl with Thai basil, fresh bird chilies, and wedges of lemon, which is an interesting deviation from the lime wedge that I’m accustomed to. Neither Joel nor I have eaten anything spicy all week, so we liberally shovel the fiery bird chilies into the bowl, basking in the pleasurably Satanic sensation of our mouths going numb while sweat forms on our brow and tears well up in our eyes. The broth itself is more of a rich, meaty style, and not as sweet as many I’ve tasted, which compliments the squeeze of lemon juice nicely. If I had to guess, I would say that judging by the thickness and density of the noodles they probably make them in-house.
I take the large bowl right to school, dispatching it in under five minutes, to the point where I forget to order another beer to keep my buzz going. The owner takes note of our enthusiasm and comes over to chat, asking where we are from and what we are doing here. I explain that I am in the wine business and Joel is basically just here to look pretty. It’s refreshing to deal with the English to Vietnamese language barrier instead of English to French for a change. I inform her that she may very well see me again today, but that we must go because, motioning towards Joel, “she needs to catch her train.”
On the walk back to the hotel I begin taking mental notes for later activity. We discuss Joel’s festival itinerary, and I stress to him that he should be careful and don’t make me worry, which in hindsight is just adorable. He unloads his bag from the previous day, arranging his Hellfest “China” in a neat fashion on the shelf near the TV. He promises to return with plenty more, and I bid him farewell.
I proceed to take a four-hour nap that is more rewarding and invigorating than all of the sleep so far on the trip put together. Physically and mentally refreshed, I get dressed and head out into the streets, intending to scout out a few castles before rolling downtown for some drinking. While wandering about, I speak to my mother on the phone, explaining to her that yes, these are in fact real castles I’m staring at and no, I don’t actually know where I’m hell I’m going. This of course is untrue, as I am beginning to get a pretty good grasp of the cities geography, based on the various train lines and a few landmarks, such as the brothel, System X.
I have to be honest, I generally get tired of sightseeing activities after about twenty three minutes, so I duck into a small beer shop, with various bottles lining the walls. It turns out that if I purchase a beer, I can actually drink it at one of the small tables in the shop. As I attempt to order a bottle of Duchesse de Bourgogne Flemish red ale, my French completely fails me, but after much accelerated English and Ricchio sign language, I am able to obtain a bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru, a delightfully tart effort from Belgium. In this particular moment, it tastes better to me than any beer ever has, and when I express my approval the shop keep, who looks a lot like the singer from Coldplay, he attempts once again to carry a conversation with me, admitting defeat and retiring to the back room for a “quick break” after 32 seconds.
Feeling self-conscious, I pay for my beer, over-tipping dramatically, and am on my way. I walk up and down the many bustling alleys, passing restaurants as well as a few more Nintendo mosaics, pausing to stare at sidewalk menus while getting increasingly hungry and frustrated. I know deep down that it’s only a matter of time before I break down and go back to the Vietnamese restaurant anyway, so I’m not sure why I keep torturing myself. At least there we have already established what the language barrier is, and they already know me, which at this stage of the journey can go a very, very long way.
In the meantime, each time I consider entering a bar, I find myself getting paranoid that everyone is staring at me, and as I look around, I see that they are. After a couple of tries, I convince myself that this fear is idiotic, and I should actually embrace being able to walk into a place where people don’t assume that Joel and I are an outrageously mismatched couple, and that “I must be the one with the money, or something.”
I finally settle on a bar that looks from the outside to have a reasonable selection of beer. I belly up to the bar, and seeing they’ve got Rodenbach Grand Cru, order up a tall bottle. The bartender speaks a little bit of English, and seems impressed that I like this particular beer so much. We chat for a couple of minutes, and he decides to introduce me to the other bartender, a guy in his mid-twenties who actually speaks very good English. I take advantage of this to plug him for restaurant recommendations, to which he begins to excitedly direct me to an Italian restaurant that his friends own. Alas, it quickly becomes apparent that he does not know enough English to insure that he won’t be getting me really, really lost. To make it up to me, he happily buys me another “Bach,” as I will be referring to it from here on out. I thank my new friends, and after a brief and awkward French language fail with a very pretty girl at the bar, I’m off to re-visit Le Vietnam.
The dining room is much busier this time around, but the owner immediately stops what she is doing to come and greet me, seating me at the exact same table from lunch, while referring to it as “my favorite.” I opt to check out the wine list while shoveling shrimp crackers into my mouth, and as it turns out my girl is into some pretty interesting producers. I order a half bottle of Chateau Le Targe Saumur Rouge, Cabernet Franc, in honor of our beloved farmland adventure on day four.
I lead off with the appetizer assortment platter, a treasure trove of fried bits and what not. Working my way from left to right, I encounter the following:
1. Shrimp parcel – folded up like so
2. Fresh Spring roll – out of place in the valley of the fried but still delightful.
3. Some kind of blood/offal cake – pleasing spongy texture
4. Egg roll – burn your mouth wonderful
5. Pork and Lemongrass curry parcel – much better than passed hors d'oeuvres at a shitty wedding.
6. Fried shrimp tempura – like the frog legs from lunch, but different because its shrimp.
7. Shrimp and scallion samosa – wonderful little satchel of aforementioned ingredients.
Accompanied by more pickled carrot glockenspiels and of course, nuoc mam to dip in.
In addition to stocking my pantry with shrimp crackers, I also ponder swapping out all of the plates in my home with stone slabs. Maybe I will take a hiking trip to Bradbury Mountain in Pownal, pick out several large stones, and polish them down myself, much Roy Hobbs did with his bat Wonder Boy in The Natural. Just as Wonder Boy tore the cover off of the ball, so too will my custom stoneware tear the skin off of my hands.
My entree is Bun Cha, tender, marinated kebabs of meat served with cold vermicelli noodles, mint, carrot, and fried shallot, all wrapped up in lettuce like a taco and dipped in nuoc mam. These are very messy, but I hungrily rip through them, giving up on the taco approach in favor of chopsticks. I periodically look around at other diners, curious as to how often they utter the words "aren't you tired of French food?" to each other.
Without Joel around to rush me back to the hotel, I decide to linger for a bit and order dessert. The list is small, and I decide on the lychee beignet flambéed with sake. I enjoy dishes that cause a spectacle, especially when dining alone, as it implies that maybe all of your friends ditched you on your birthday but you're not going to let that stop you from celebrating! It is for this reason I have always wanted to sit at a Hibachi table all by myself, cheering loudly and making the chef very uncomfortable.
To go with my beignet, which are actually a touch bitter, a glass of Cognac infused with almond seems like the appropriate route. It is sweet and delicious, allowing for the phrase "warm the cockles of my heart" to be recklessly brought into play.
As she rings up my bill at the counter, the owner suggests I visit a mechanical elephant, about a mile away but still in the city. While thinking to myself that this sounds as fun as watching paint dry, she sets a ceramic shot glass in front of me, fills it with sake, and instructs me to look into the bottom of the glass, where depicted is a naked Japanese woman spreading her vagina lips. She giggles as I do the shot, and invites me to come back and see her anytime. As I begin to say “how about around closing time?” I think better of it and bid her goodnight.
Feeling great and not wanting to deal with speaking any more French, I begin my happy and dreamlike walk back to the hotel, at a very leisurely pace. When I arrive, I crack open the bottle of Domaine Hautes de Sanziers Saumur Rouge obtained on day four, and drink the whole, delicious bottle while listening to my headphones and staring out the window at the train station below. This time spent lost in my head were absolute perfection, allowing for clear reflection and positive thoughts.
Tomorrow is the final full day in France, before this epic journey comes to an end.