Monday, April 13, 2015

Nurse the Hate: The Second Coming of the Lorna Doone



I had not sat in a hospice situation for a number of years.  It’s an experience that is counter to everything that you have been led to expect in a health care facility.  As opposed to trying to find solutions to get that person out of bed, it is about trying to provide them with “comfort”.  This usually means pumping them with as many painkillers as possible as they fall in and out of consciousness.  Meanwhile the concerned visitors look on trying to figure out what to say to each other or figure out an activity that seems to help in some small way.  It is waiting for the inevitable with nothing to do.  It is an awkward and uncomfortable situation.

As the end arrived, the hospice facility rolled in “the hospitality cart”.  I had forgotten about the hospitality cart concept from when my father had died years ago, but it all came flooding back to me.  I remember telling the hospital personnel that we had decided to let events run their course and let him die.  Then, in a perfectly coordinated movement, a curtain was pulled back and a cart rolled in with the spokesperson saying “take all the time you need”.  I found it odd then and find it odd now that when it has become starkly apparent that it is the moment that marks the end of your parent’s life that the culturally accepted response is to have a snack.  “Sorry about your father, but please enjoy this off brand soft drink and cookie snack pack!”

The thing I kept thinking about then was the small bowl of individually wrapped Lorna Doone cookies sitting on The Hospitality Cart.  How had they decided this was the Official Cookie of Comfort?  I don’t know what cookie would be my go-to cookie of choice in that situation, but it seemed to me that the Lorna Doone was an incredibly obscure cookie choice.  Who the hell eats Lorna Doones?  Chips Ahoy.  Oreo.  Nilla Wafer.  These are the market leaders.  Lorna Doone?  Isn’t that strictly for grandmothers and their bridge groups?  It’s my most vivid memory of the whole experience wondering how those cookies got there.

So here was the second Hospitality Cart I had encountered in hospice.  There they were.  Sitting in packaged four packs.  Once again, the Lorna Doone.  Offering comfort to the grieving along with 7 oz. cans of Diet Shasta cola.  What the fuck?  First of all, let’s get past the confusing appearance of an off brand like Shasta that I had assumed was as extinct as a carrier pigeon.  The fact that Shasta was available, and as an obscure half can, was very confusing.  But how had the Lorna Doone once again wedged itself into this moment of human grief? 

I now believe that there is a dedicated sales force within the snack industry that has somehow created a market niche for the Lorna Doone brand.  Tirelessly this sales force meets with food service managers of hospice and end of life health care facilities with unbelievably persuasive power point presentations focused on the warm emotional hug of crunching into a buttery Lorna Doone. 

“Allison… You have a terrific nursing home here, but I see one area of concern…  When the family gathers at the end of a resident’s life, God forbid, what are you serving them?  Chips Ahoy?  Nutter Butter?  Allison…  How can you serve such a frivolous cookie as the Chips Ahoy?  It’s like breezing into the deathbed room with a pair of skater shorts and asking if anyone wants to catch some waves… Hey, it’s me Chips Ahoy!  Who wants to party?...  Don’t get me wrong Allison… The Chips Ahoy is a good cookie.  Solid cookie.  Tastes great.  People like it.  It certainly has a place here at the facility.  Chips Ahoy… great nurse’s lounge cookie.  Perfect for office get-togethers.  But when things get serious… When it is all going down…  When things require a delicate touch… That’s when you bring out the comfort and the unmatched emotional strength of the Lorna Doone.  It lets people know that it is all going to be OK… That we are going to get through this…  Together.  Allison, I need you to do the responsible thing here and sign this two year exclusive commitment for Lorna Doone to be the official Hospitality Cart cookie of Sunset Meadows Hospice.  Let me get you that pen…”
I don't know how else to explain it.  Those Lorna Doone sales guys have really done an amazing sales job.  They have somehow created a market for a cookie that is as quaint, old fashioned, and out of style as a rotary dial phone.  Bravo to the cold blooded sharks at Nabisco and their mercenary snack distributors.  While I did not crunch into one of the Lorna Doone snack packs, I recognized it was there.  As it maybe always has been and always will be...   
 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Nurse the Hate: WSET Level Three




I set out to complete my second goal of 2015.  The real reason I went to France was to pursue a WSET Level 3 certification in wine.  As far as I can tell, the WSET is a self-appointed English organization that has attempted to create one language and set of standards for wine and provide measures for how much an individual knows about the subject.  It sort of goes like this…  In Level One the student learns that wine is made from grapes not peanuts.  It's really basic. In Level 2 the student identifies major wine types and sources as in really good pinot is from Burgundy. Barolo makes the best nebbiolo wines.  Level 3 is a big step up where you are expected to familiarize yourself with the German wine guild of Verband Deutscher Prädikats-und Qualitätsweingüter and soil compositions of sherry production vineyards outside of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  Um, what?  While there is currently no practical application for this in my own life, I figured why not challenge myself and see if I could pass this exam?  I would possibly be in over my head, and that idea interested me.
I figured that if I was going to go after this type of thing it made no sense to sit in a classroom in Dallas or Chicago.  I needed to go to the source, Bordeaux.  I found the classes offered in a condensed five day marathon in Bordeaux City Centre in English headed up by a charismatic woman from Newfoundland.  I liked what I saw of her online much more than the potential stuffy English dudes that can suck the fun out of anything.  It should be noted that there are plenty of wine classes available on this planet run by guys named like “ J. Reginald Spalding M.W.” that seem like they would be as enjoyable as a tax audit.  These are the guys that like to keep up the mystique of wine, fill it with exclusionary language, and make it seem impossible to understand.  
I can’t tell you the number of people that said to me “Oh, I can’t tell the difference between good wine and bad wine”.  Let me clear that up.  You can.  You have just been led to believe that you need some kind of special training and highly refined palate by the wine elite.  Wine is a beverage.  If a person can tell the difference between a Sprite and 7-up they can offer an opinion on a 1989 vs. a 1982 Lynch Bages.  Do you prefer Burger King or McDonald’s hamburgers?  If the taster can spend just an instant of concentration they can easily distinguish the two and decide which they prefer.  The same is true with two glasses of chardonnay at a wedding reception.  It’s not that big of a deal.
I was the only American in the class which was made up of five Asians, three French people from the area, and a Hungarian expat.  The Chinese are suddenly flush with cash after nudging towards capitalism.  This has led the super elite of China to ask themselves, “What do rich people spend their money on that will impress other rich people and identify me as a bastion of taste?”.  The answer is all of the classic luxury brands like Armani, Prada, Mont Blanc, Rolex, and First Growth Bordeaux.  Fifteen years ago a bottle of Mouton Rothschild could be had for $150.  Now it is $2500 in great vintages strictly from market pressures from Asia.  These guys are like rappers knocking back Cristal in the VIP area of a club in South Beach.  They aren’t exactly sure why this drink is supposed to be good, but they are knocking it back very publicly.  “Check me out Boy!  1959 Lafite on the rocks motherfucker!”  
This China thing has been an unbelievable gold rush for the top Bordeaux properties.  Imagine if you will that you owned Lafite Rothschild.  You used to make 20,000 cases annually of your first wine that you sold in an off vintage for $65 a bottle wholesale.  $65 X 12 per case X 20,000 cases= $15.6 million.  Not a bad little profit on a few fields of grapes.  Now try it at 2015 prices. $200 X 12 X 20,000= $48 million.  Triple revenues in 15-20 years?  Thank you China!  
All of these Chinese students are here to be certified to allow them to receive better pay at their jobs at home as wine professionals.  It’s all about commerce and luxury brands.  It is interesting to watch them.  They aren’t terribly interested in anything but the headline makers of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  One guy literally slept on the table hungover while the instructor went over the Loire Valley, a place that has great value but low profile reds and whites.  The Chinese can taste a wine that they don’t care for, have the bag removed to reveal the identity, and when discovering it is actually classified growth Bordeaux scramble for a photo of the bottle and remaining liquid.  It is like walking into a party with a weird looking suit.  Someone says, “Hey man, that looks like shit.”  When you tell them “It’s Prada…” they immediately reverse course and tell you how incredibly nice it is.  I only spent a few days with the Chinese students, but it appeared to me that they sort of missed the whole idea of each wine having the opportunity to be a beautiful snapshot of where it was made no matter what the perceived level of value.  Wine is, at least in some respect, art.  To them it seemed like the right designer tag on a brand of jeans or a really good watch.  There appears to be a cultural disconnect on everything but the status level.
So here I am in this room in France.  The class is in English.  For everyone else it is their second or third language.  This fact only reconfirms that I am a dope and a slacker. We go over in depth viticulture like pruning systems, sun exposures, root diseases.  Most of it glazes over me.  I make the occasional wisecrack that no one understands except the instructor who always keeps a straight face.  I think everyone looks at me as The American Douche.  On the first day at the end we do a blind tasting on a couple of reds.  As luck would have it, one tastes familiar to me.  The class carefully extends guesses as to what the wine might be, the Asians petrified about being publicly wrong.  The two French guys, David and Francois, think it is Bordeaux.  I know what it is, a Cote du Rhone specifically from St. Joseph.  How do I know this?  I don’t know, maybe just a taste memory from a trip to Avignon.  It’s the specific white peppery finish.  It indeed turns out to be a St. Joseph and I win a modicum of respect from the French.  “He may be a douche, but he did know the wine.  Hmmm…”  The book is still out on me.
The amount of material is mind numbing.  It is so far beyond what I thought it would be in regards to the depth of information.  Methods of port production.  The white wines of the Coteaux du Layon.  Southeast facing slate vineyards in the Mosel. Grosse lage auslese Rieslings.  Permitted grapes in the Languedoc.  Over 800 grapes in Italy.  Hungarian and Uruguay wines.  Challenges of high wind in Greek vineyards.  Chilean irrigation systems.  Carbonic maceration.  Up and coming New Zealand pinot noir regions.  Comparing and contrasting four methods of sparkling wine production.  Portugese vs. Spanish vineyard management.  Grape yield caps.  The more you understand, the more you realize you don’t know.  It is peeling back an onion that never ends.  I have no idea how the instructor has managed to remember it all.  She’s really impressive.  The only person that knows more facts is the Japanese kid that has somehow managed to memorize the entire text book and can regurgitate the information seemingly at will.  “Tracey!  I believe that the permitted percentage of non-Napa grapes in these wines is 85%, not 80%!”.  There is no doubt he is right.  He is always right.  He is like a near sighted Google.
The key to the whole class is learning the WSET tasting method.  This is meant to create a common language on how to communicate what a wine is all about.  So often wine press reads like “A flamboyant announcement of boysenberry confidently rides a crest of confident fruit that regales the taster with the wine’s lineage”.  I have no idea what the fuck that means and neither did the guy that wrote it.  The method we were taught is all about being able to taste for key attributes like fruit, oak flavors, acidity, tannin, and the various levels of each.  If the taste buds can get dialed in, it becomes logical to be able to figure out a wine’s identity.  For example, if a wine is noted to be a clear white wine with high acidity and medium plus nose of green fruits with a herbaceous edge like cut grass and a ripe fruit body, it is reasonable to assume that it is from the New World (more ripeness than Europe).  It is unoaked as there are no cedar, toast or leathery aromas.  There is high acidity and a herbaceous edge,  so it is probably sauvignon blanc.  New World sauvignon blanc with that flavor profile?  Probably a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, maybe California.
This little parlor game seems easy until your mind starts to play with you.  That smells like cherries.  Or does it?  Maybe that’s strawberries.  Wait... Is that blueberry? Does that oak have enough vanilla in the nose to be American oak?  It must be a shiraz.  We just talked about Australia.  Or maybe they are screwing with me.  Maybe it is a merlot or cab.  Maybe it’s something crazy like carignane?  Is this a Bandol?  A Minervois?  No, there’s not enough tannin… Or is that acidity really tannin?  It is the very definition of Man vs Self.  I have found that I have the remarkable ability to talk myself into almost anything.  “That’s a grand cru white Burgundy from Puligny-Montrachet!”  Umm… No, that’s a glass of port.  “Oh”.
At various times I had convinced myself I knew absolutely nothing, getting wine after wine wrong. I was regressing into a deep dark pool of doubt.  Meanwhile this little Japanese woman at another table would routinely pop her head up and quietly say things like, “Tracey… On the nose there is a little nutmeg right underneath the violet and minerals, don’t you think?”.  Meanwhile I’m saying things like “I smell apples.”.  On some days I was almost like a Cro-Magnon man sitting with his hairy hands wrapped around a wine glass grunting tasting notes.  “Uh!  Taste like blackberry!  Gunga like!  Pour more for Gunga!”  The whole thing can be maddening.
The entire massive cram of information is all leading up to a test.  There are 50 multiple choice questions, a bunch of short answer questions, and finally a red and a white wine poured blind that you are expected to identify after making complete tasting notes.  The sheer amount of information is overwhelming. You cannot possibly memorize it all, unless you are that Japanese kid that showed up with the text completely absorbed.  I found myself falling back to my old slacker college habits.  I figure the key will be to have Bordeaux and Burgundy down as those are the epicenters of fine wine.  I literally knew almost nothing about the Loire and Italy before coming in, so I will cram those really hard.  I spent a couple of days in Champagne knocking back various offerings from Veuve Cliquot and Pommery while on their tours, so some of that must have sunk in.  I’m not going to worry about New Zealand, Australia, and South America.  I will take a quick glance at sherry, port, and fortified wines.  Germany and their complex web of labeling laws is an impossible task.  I will take my lumps there.  I think I have a solid game plan…
I sit for the test and it is really formal, like an SAT.  I was expecting something much more loosey goosey.  I might be in over my head.  I sign all kinds of documents.  The proctor counter signs.  I don’t even know for certain what I signed.  I might have joined the French Foreign Legion.  I can’t be sure.  I break open the seal of the test as the clock signals I have one hour and 45 minutes.  My pre-test plan immediately seems flawed. Eight of the first ten questions are about New Zealand, Australia, and German wine law.  A thought passes through my head.  “Oh fuck.  I’m fucking fucked.” I’m flaming out. I will return back to America a failure.  Wrapped in the blanket of my shame.  Having to change the subject of this Bordeaux fiasco forever whenever someone is curious enough to ask.  This is not what I planned.  I press on.
I may or may not have righted the ship on multiple choice.  The short answer questions are very English.  They ask me about Pinotage from South Africa, a wine no one likes, even the guys that make it in South Africa.  It is the sort of wine that needs a good advertising slogan like “Pinotage:  Slightly Better Than A Hyena Bite” or “Pinotage:  When You Are Out Of What You Really Like To Drink”.  By sheer chance, Tracey our instructor had poured us what was allegedly a good pinotage from a very recent trip she made to South Africa, and we discussed it at much greater length than anyone has reason too.  This may be the last time I ever willingly have pinotage unless of course I find occasion to travel to South Africa with Tracey, in which case I will buy her any pinotage she desires to even up this score.
The rest of the short answers are a blur.  I know they want the answers to be very WSET jargon heavy as in “this New World chardonnay has been in new oak barrel and undergone maloactic fermentation to help add flavor on the medium plus finish and to help balance the medium acidity” whereas I want to write “all these California chards used to be buttery oak bombs because it tasted like that Kendall Jackson shit that sold 50 billion cases, but that fell out of fashion now so all these hippie winemaker dudes backed off on that crap and are now trumpeting non-oaked like it's a new idea”.  It’s not easy to stay on point, but I try my best.  I really have no idea how I fared.  It might be OK.  It might not.  I haven’t taken a test like that in 20 years.
Then came the tasting.  Generally you do the white first as the tannins in the red can throw you off.  I smell it.  I give it a taste.  I’m thinking, “That’s a torrontes from Argentina”.  I’m also thinking “there’s no fucking way they pour me an obscure white second class grape like torrontes as the only white wine in a test”.  They gotta pour me a burgundy, right?  An Alsatian white or German riesling at worst.  But this?  Two weeks before coming out to France I read an article about Argentine wine.  In it there was one lonely paragraph in all the malbec talk that said something about this white grape variety called torrontes that they made a lot of that “had a particular taste”.  I make an effort, found three different bottles and taste them all.  Two weeks ago.  I know this wine. Son of a bitch, that’s a torrontes!  For better or worse, that’s what I went with…  The red?  I sniffed the glass and immediately knew it was a red burgundy.  No problem.  I either did really well or flamed out in spectacular fashion.
The test was sealed up and sent to London to be graded.  I like to picture a guy in a three piece suit and a pocket watch hunched over one of those desks Bob Cratchit used in “A Christmas Story” grading it as he clips me point by point for my relaxed language.  Ironically the Chinese, who speak English as probably a fourth or fifth language, will have everything worded perfectly.  It is supposed to take eight weeks to get the results.  If I pass, I will make a big deal out of it and begin to ruin wine for any of you that I come into contact with as I comfortably nestle into some high ground of inflated authority.  If I fail, I will let this slip from your memory and maybe take the test again quietly in a Chicago strip plaza some summer evening. If I pass that, I will trumpet my success, leaving out the fact of my initial failure and also not mentioning the re-test.  This really points to my extensive character flaws, but I am honest and own up to these so that must count for something.
I was done.  I then proceeded to have one of the best nights I have had in probably a decade, starting by crashing Bordeaux En Premuer events and drinking down lots of free Bordeaux samples with the Asians.  The stars were in alignment my friends.  I was in the right place at the right time, if just for one day.  I felt very much like myself. I find it intellectually engaging, and I like the other people that are drawn to this wine world.  I hope I can carve out a little place for myself there.  I really found the whole experience to be one of the better ways I have spent time in my life, but I think I got lucky with a good group of people in the class and a really talented instructor that was well suited to put up with my nonsense. I chose wisely.

Now I quietly wait for the results with a chilled glass of torrontes in hand. If I pass, maybe I will try Level 4. I might have to cheat off that Japanese kid though. I wonder if he has the book memorized yet?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Paris Cafe


The perplexing actions of the French waiter...

One would think that in an industry that is 100% service like restaurants, the key attributes would be to generate warm generous hospitality in an ever watchful state.  This is not the case in France.  I have never had the horrible encounters that one hears as cautionary hushed tales at cocktail parties.  I have always suspected these to be mainly the fault of the story teller.  An amazing trait Americans have while traveling is to be stunned when things aren't exactly as they are back home.  One would think that the whole point of traveling would be to surrender to a  new culture and way of doing things, but it seems that the continued rudeness of the French people for daring to speak French in France is a sticking point.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard people tell me about how rude the Parisian service employees were when they failed to respond to the storyteller's demands in English for having something done in a way that it is typically not done in France.  Change a few key details.  Make this a story about a French guy visiting New York.  "So I'm in Brooklyn at this pizza joint and ask for a slice of pepperoni in French.  The guy behind the counter starts yelling at me in English because he can't understand me (things like "This is America!  Speak in English!").  I couldn't believe how rude he was being.  You know they all know how to speak in French.  They just pretend they don't know how just to fuck with you.  They are all so rude there.  Why can't they just speak French?"

I have always gone with the idea that I am a guest in another country.  If I can't speak the language, that's on me.  It is a bit much when the French think that if you set foot in their country you should be fluent in French, as I don't think I could absorb Italian, German, Flemish, and French via Rosetta Stone the next time I pop over to Europe for a tour.  Maybe they can give visitors some flexibility?  The move is to keep it simple.  Apologize a lot and hope for the best.  Most Americans when frustrated by the cultural gap in France will then go to the "you'd be speaking German if not for us" card.  That usually warms everyone right up.  They love that shit.

The stereotype of the French waiter does have truth though, as most stereotypes do.  I had the experience of walking into a cafe in Paris in late afternoon.  There was one other table seated.  I asked if it was OK if I took a particular table.  I got the nod of assurance.  The waiter goes back into the cafe by the bar area and starts screwing around with the chalkboard menu.  I sat.  I sat some more.  15-20 minutes go by and he doesn't even drift out or once glance in my direction.  I'm the only person there.  I don't have a drink.  Why else would I be there?  My frustration has been explained to me as a cultural misunderstanding.  While I thought he was ignoring me and failing to do the absolute bare minimum for actually even being considered employed, my new French pals assured me that he was being considerate.  See, the culture is to not make you feel rushed.  Take your time.  Relax.  Wait for your friends.  We don't want to rush you.  We will come to give you service.  Eventually.

This sounds great until you factor in that the customer probably wouldn't have sat down in the first place if they didn't want a refreshment of some kind.  There is a different place where you can sit without getting service.  That's called "the park".  I have a sneaking suspicion that the idea of keeping the goal for good service low is a result of diminished expectations.  Being at a cafe in Paris is like being over at a stoner's house.  "Dude!  Do you want, like?  A beer?"  Then the waiter guy wanders off, maybe grabs a smoke, remembers you wanted a beer, and then attempts to bring it over to you without getting occupied with some other distraction.  A typical French waiter in Paris will take as long as someone named "Gary Starshine" to bring you a beverage.

Another way to think of them is like difficult women.  She will do what she wants to do when she wants to do it, but not before the moment when she is ready.  The service will come.  You must wait.  When that moment finally arrives appreciate it like the attention of a popular and head strong woman.  She has many options but she has chosen you.  You are lucky.  Bask in the attention.  Appreciate the moment.  Play it cool.  You may just get her attention again if you play your cards right.  If you slight her?  Oh, you are dead to her then.  You will die in that cafe seat with an empty glass.

So I sat at the cafe watching the mysterious Parisian girls walk by, just like little cats.  They wear almost no makeup, hair natural, just pulled back.  Each one of these beautiful little creatures are so unreachable, unknowable.  They move with grace through the city, aware that they are being observed.  Little flowers that open only when they have decided, a precious treasure.  We have no common ground.

A great mistake I made while a young student was not to study here for a year.  The immersion in the culture would have been good for me, but the experience of being handled by one of these women would have been ideal.  I would have been so hopelessly outmatched by these cooly indifferent girls.  I can picture myself standing outraged in a tiny battered apartment as she sits calmly in an uncomfortable looking chair.  She is smoking with heavy eyelids, bored with me.  "Yes.  I made love to Claude because I love Claude.  I love you too.  But not like Claude.  But I am with you.  Not Claude.  It meant nothing but he gave me pleasures that you could never know.  Ever.  Now stop being a child.  We will go to the cafe.  I love you.  I hate you."

It would have been great.  But it was not to be.  And now I sit at the table watching the parade of people.  My table is empty.  I try to get the waiter's attention.  He ignores me.  I will have to wait.  He will come.  Eventually.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Rock and Roll French Stairs



I had been walking around the city of Bordeaux for a couple of hours.  I had spent an entire day sitting in a classroom learning about viticulture.  As I can barely keep my lawn alive despite a team of well paid chain smoking technicians applying mountains of dangerous chemicals on it weekly, this is not an area of strength for me.  As I struggled to retain the concepts of photosynthesis and the mechanics of plants while staring at a flood of presentation slides, it reminded me of being in sixth grade not paying attention either.  Then again, I was also sitting near Corina Luciano, as exotic a thirteen year old girl that I had ever laid eyes on.  She was a recent transfer student from Italy.  I was a boy with a struggling boner, bad hair and bad clothes.  The current edition of Webster's Dictionary has a picture of me from that year looking at her sitting at her desk as the definition of the word "unrequited".

After a day of not retaining viticulture and fighting off memories of Corina Luciano, I decided I needed a beer.  When I walked by a shithole bar with The Stooges blaring out of it I thought, "That looks promising.".  It was a typical Euro "rock and roll" bar.  This means that a weird juxtaposition of rock and roll influences are proudly displayed on the walls, like David Bowie posters, Bon Jovi stickers, a Cliff Richard photograph, Madonna album cover, and an MC5 banner.  While here, those things would never be grouped together, there it announces "we are very rock and roll".  As they also had LaChouffe, I figured this was as good a place as any to check my email and see what was doing.

The bar begins to fill up with students and lowlifes.  Almost all the lowlifes were drinking enormous glasses of Meteor Beer, a very forgettable lager.  The place is very small, with lots of little nooks to sit in.  A winding staircase goes upstairs to another hobbit hole to drink giant Meteors.  I look around for the men's room, as in a Euro bar it could be anywhere.  To the right of the tiny bar, behind it really, is a tiny little door festooned with stickers.  That couldn't be it, could it?  "Excuse em moi?  Toilet?  WC?"  The bartender chick points to the tiny door.  Alright then.

Let me describe to you France's most lethal staircase.  The door itself is small, only five feet and a half tops.  As I am of normal height, this catches me by surprise as I carefully duck to avoid bashing my head on the door frame.  It is almost as if they did this as some sort of evil design, as not hitting your head becomes the primary thought as you enter the pitch black staircase to the basement toilet.  This takes your mind off of the real challenges ahead.  At the very bottom of the stairs a dim glow emanates from the far left, just out of sight.  This, you assume, is your target.  No light fills the actual staircase itself, so there is no way to judge the ridiculous steep angle that the stairs are positioned.  These are stairs designed for a mountain goat.  They somehow have achieved becoming a midpoint between "stairs" and "ladder".  Making matters worse are the stairs are ludicrously thin, a real test for any human being with a shoe size larger than an adult five.  The piece de resistance however is the radical right turn these skinny stairs take in the darkness, away from the only light source, and at an angle designed by someone at the NFL combine to test agility.  Let me be perfectly clear.  There is not an insurance company or city building permit that would allow this in Mexico much less the United States.  It isn't so much a lawsuit waiting to happen.  It is a mythological trial set up by a terrifying creature guarding treasure, in this case a place to pee.

I laugh so hard by myself in that dark basement that tears roll down my eyes.  I take photos from multiple angles, none doing it justice as I have to use the flash to get any image whatsoever to register.  It's like trying to photograph the Grand Canyon or a rainbow.  The pictures cannot capture the majesty.  I return to sit back at my trusty stool to nurse my LaChouffe when providence strikes.  A vodka sales rep arrives with some promo bullshit stuff in a box.  He is instructed to take it downstairs.  He gingerly opens the door and begins to descend uneasily when I see panic strike his face.  He drops the box as he begins to fall downstairs, the promo items falling to the ground as he instantly disappears from view, the door closing behind him.  Two employees see this, and leap to the staircase to check on him with worried faces.  He emerges from the basement, a little embarrassed, and gathers his materials.

At this point I get the bartender chick's attention.  "That man?  He fell?"  Yes.  "Does that happen often?"  Oh yes!  It happens all the time!

That is what I love about Europe.  Something is fucked up, they know it is fucked up, but no one does anything about it because that's the way it is.  Viva la France!

  


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Air France



I had written multiple entries in a journal during my recent trip to France and will drop those in over the next week or two.  This was typed into my phone as I once again stood in a line that made no sense.  The French are very good at making wine, pastries, and setting up soul crushing bureaucracy.  A long history of socialized everything has created a society where coming up with noteworthy innovation is dangerous to those above you and could possibly make these overlords look bad.  The average worker that shows initiative will be rewarded with more responsibility but no gain in compensation or title.  The real goal becomes doing as little as possible and protecting their fiefdoms.  Air France is a great example.  Really nice and stylish planes with dynamite pain du chocolat and espresso served in flight.  Good luck at actually getting on the plane promptly...

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The perplexing inefficiencies of Air France continue to astound and amaze.  The system of check in at the Bordeaux airport are similar to most modern airports.  A self help kiosk allows travelers to immediately print out bag tags and boarding passes.  One would think that this would allow one to have the benefit of immediate bag drop off and access to security as all of the necessary documents are secured and ready to go.  Ah, but this is France.  All passengers are then herded back into the exact same line to wait as the two clerks for the entire line attempt to deal with every French person that apparently has none of the requisite documentation or may not have even purchased tickets.  They may have wandered in here by mistake thinking it was the license bureau.

Each traveler before me settled into the agent's station with blank faces.  Quick conversation.  The clerk immediately picks up the phone, held it to their ear in the "I hope someone picks up" stance.  Then we all resume waiting.  No conversation ever occurs on this phone.  The line continues to make no progress.  It's all business as usual.  Who could she be calling?  What answer is she seeking?

There are 63 people in line.  There are two (2) clerks.  I am the only person that has taken advantage of the 16 self help kiosks and is ready to go.  Of course, one would think that to encourage efficiency that a self help kiosk drop off desk would exist, to increase expediency.  Not at Air France.  It's just two women looking at computer screens searching for some unknowable answer until they take a break to call someone on the phone that no one ever answers.  It's perfectly designed gridlock.  

To the left of the huddled masses is the priority one elite check in area.  Three clerks await to check in passengers.  There are no passengers.  These clerks stare straight ahead.  They do nothing to assist moving the line which has grown.  A new woman arrives with a walkie talkie.  She assesses the situation and speaks into the walkie talkie, and then takes some sort of break with one of the two women checking people in.  No Calvary arrives.  We are now down to one clerk and 67 potential passengers.  I'm the only person that sees this as odd.

I have flown a couple of hundred times.  I can't recall ever being in a situation that each and every passenger seems to be in.  Each one runs into what appears to be insurmountable problems on what is a routine domestic commuter flight.  I would think that on this 620a flight we all had the exact same situation where Air France sent us an email confirmation to our phones providing us with two different options for immediate check in.  It doesn't seem possible I was the only one afforded this convenience, does it?  I look down the line.  Only I have my boarding pass and bag tag at the ready.  The rest of these 66 sheep are only waiting to look at the only clerk that will not talk to someone on the phone that might not be connected.  Maybe the walkie talkie lady will come back?

At last, I walk up to the counter.  Bon jour!  It takes 17 seconds.  I'm in.  What are these other people doing?  Why did I have to wait with them for an hour and change?

Then I go to security....  Ye Gods.  It's worse.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Tournament Day 3



Today I am on my way to Bordeaux to tackle that WSET Level 3 exam and crash some En Premeur tastings at chateau where I have no business being.  Thanks to the marvels of The Interwebs, I think I might be able to watch college basketball while I travel.  Logic naturally dictates that I should really get after it today after yesterday became almost a wash.  In retrospect I should have just bet on West Virginia as aggressively as an angry Hun. Had that been the case I would have purchased two tickets to some tropical paradise and then flown the Frenchies in to teach me there while watching my bikini clad female companion trot about while I debated the merits of Burgundy vintages.  Ah, the path untraveled...

The way I see today fleshing out is like this.  I really talk myself into a dangerous wager on a mid afternoon game.  I lose that, seeing the end of it in an Airport Lounge while I spit out statements like "play some fucking defense you fucking fucks" and "how the fuck do you miss that layup you piece of shit?".  Despite the lounge being crowded, there will be an empty one seat cushion around me in all directions as the cloud of bad vibes will be evident to even the most clueless observer.  I will finally get up after the final buzzer seals my fate and the other patrons will make eye contact as if to communicate "finally that creep is out of here".  This will turn set up the doomsday scenario of me being stuck in coach watching a dicey Direct TV feed on the tiny screen in front of me.  Some French guy will sniff dismissively as I contort in the uncomfortable seat with each lead change.  My thinking is that this distraction must be better than watching Transformers 3 or Two and a Half Men re-runs.  The die has been cast.  Let's begin...

The great thing about those first round upset teams is that how sudden their fall from "instant celebrity" to "incredibly obscure college basketball team" strikes.  I fully expect UCLA, who benefitted from a shockingly bad goaltend call to even be here, to eliminate UAB.  The Public likes Cinderella.  I like The Chalk.  UCLA -5.

 As I don't know anything about any of the teams, I will continue to bet on teams where I have some affection for the fan base.  The University of Cincinnati is a great place to go to school if you want to be assaulted by street thugs on the way to your freshman level English class.  I remember trying to load the van one time as a race riot came to a boil after a show. It should be pointed out that we did nothing to instigate this race riot, but played a set obliviously at Sudsy Malone's, a club and self serve laundry.  The smoking was so heavy in that place that it may be the only laundromat in history where the clothes came out dirtier than when they went in.  Ah Cincinnati University...  Look, they are going to lose to Kentucky. We all know that.  Every dipshit on the planet is betting on KY.  I'm going the other way and hope that Cincinnati can just sort of hang around in the game.  This is probably a mistake.  Cincinnati +17.

I'm going to bet against Xavier.  That fistfight of a game they won two days ago had to have taken something out of them.  Looking at their results, they tend to play close.  I had never even heard of Georgia State before Thursday.  They are that perfect example of sudden stars that none of us will remember on Tuesday.  I just need them to keep it close.  I am taking Georgia State +7.5.  As an aside, this seems like the type of school where Krusty may eventually get a job, grumpily teaching "Introduction to Politics" to uninterested C students from the outer rings of Atlanta.  He will have to say at least once a day "No, I don't teach at Athens.  I'm not at Georgia.  I'm at Georgia State."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Tournament Day 2



I got after it yesterday.  After typing in my ill advised picks, I jumped on UCLA and Utah as well.  While these were winners, without question the greatest moment of yesterday was when some VCU guy drove for a meaningless layup and a backdoor cover over Ohio State.  I was on Ohio State up to my eyeballs, and Krusty was sitting next to me reveling in my defeat.  I can't think of any other word than "reveling" as he had both arms lifted to the sky as Ohio State failed to play defense.  He began to cackle when the scenario became crystal clear.  "March Madness!  March Madness!"  He had no skin in that game, but was just soaking in my failure.  Ohio State -3.5.  Ohio State wins by three.  Loser.  Drink up Krusty.  Enjoy your Dortmunder with side of schadenfreude.

The good news is that yet another full slate of games come stampeding in at Noon.  My coffers are fairly stuffed after going 4-2.  I am going to be aggressive today.  In the parlance of the gambling community, I am going to "Swing For the Fucking Fences".  This is really interesting as I don't know anything more today than I did yesterday, yet stumbling into a few winners yesterday has inflated my confidence to a dangerous level.  If this goes wrong today I will be forced to leave the country in a bid to escape my creditors, and if that fails I may well be left to dance on the docks for nickles.  Either scenario is grim, so let's all hope my momentum continues.

I am getting on West Virginia is a big way today over Buffalo.  I don't know what criminals Bob Huggins has somehow crowbarred from the State of West Virginia Justice System for the Mountaineers.  I know that these thugs will be unable to read or perhaps even speak English in more than grunts.  However, they will be rebounding monsters, have astonishing quickness, leaping ability, and ball handling skills that are well beyond whatever sad sacks the MAC rolls out.  The MAC really sucks and has for years.  Around here there is this memory of those magical Kent State runs and limited success from Akron.  Although only a handful of people have actually seen the University of Buffalo team play, a snowballing belief that they will upset WVU has gained speed.  That's absurd.  I am filling a truck with American money to place on West Virginia -4.

This guy I read says that New Mexico State is the strongest 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history.  That is a big claim.  It could be all shit talk.  Look, for all I know this guy is a meth addict that is on some crazy binge typing maniacally on a greyhound bus bound for Sante Fe.  He might be on his fourth day of no sleep and completely focused on finding the electromagnetic grids in the desert that are well reported on "The Deep Web".  I am just taking what he says at face value as he seems to exist only to watch college basketball games.  Meth would probably help in that department.  Here's what I have learned...  New Mexico State's two best players were hurt for a stretch, and they went 7-7.  The rest of the season they went 16-3 with close road losses to Wichita State and Baylor.  They are 13-0 since getting the full roster back.  Meanwhile Kansas is without one of their ringers.  Is New Mexico State going to beat Kansas?  Hell, I don't know, but it doesn't seem like they will lose by more than 10.5.  New Mexico State +10.5 

I love to bet against Indiana.  I have a longstanding beef with that state due to their long history of terrible bathroom conditions off of the turnpike.  I also have had a couple of tepid shows in Bloomington, a town with way too many jacked up pickup trucks piloted by backward baseball cap dudes.  I spent a weekend in Indianapolis being carted from strip plaza chicken wing bar to strip plaza chicken wing bar while two huge men filled the vehicle with monsterous farts that made my eyes tear.  Gary had an acoustic guitar stolen once (that we later found after someone had discarded it).  I don't have a lot of positive memories of Indiana.  Knowing how important basketball is to the state, I just enjoy seeing their dreams crushed by someone like Wichita State.  I'm down with the Shockers.  Indiana has lost 9 of 14 going into the Tournament.  I don't think they "get right" against an elite team like Wichita State.  Wichita State -4.

St. John's lost their last two games by a combined 54 points.  Their only real big man just got suspended for marijuana.  They will basically play this game with four guards and a forward.  That's going to be a problem against San Diego State.  I keep seeing words like "mismatch" in regards to this game.  It's nice to imagine all the New York money flooding in on St. John's while no one in San Diego is even aware that the city has a college, much less a basketball team.  San Diego residents are all about surfing, drinking really hoppy beer, and finding a place to live on the right side of Interstate 5.  At some point at a beach bar in Mission Beach a guy will look up at a TV and say something like "Brah!  Those uniforms say San Diego!  Do we have, like, a school here?  No way!"  That should keep this line nice and low.  San Diego State -4.