Desperation, part deux

As registered contrarians, we consistently use things in ways they were not meant to be used. By we I mean people in our family and our extended family. By not meant I don’t just not mean the excellent cold cure involving Nyquil and Single-Malt Scotch.

For instance? We frequently use our ipods for non-music purposes, like scavenged/ borrowed Teaching Company lectures.  Dee got blown away by a 382-talk series about ancient Egypt. I was utterly seduced by Elizabeth Vandiver’s commentary on the Iliad. None of this was easily accomplished, because iTunes wants only to rub up against Christina Aguilera’s shiny lyrics.

iTunes firmly resists importing unregistered uncommercial audio unless you copy it onto your hard drive and slide it into a pre-existing file, drag that into iTunes and hold your nose and turn around three times stamping your feet in Birkenstocks.  By now we’re almost used to it.

Other examples? We have our Turkey Day on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, so our daughter and son-in-law and their kids don’t have to choose among various relative dinners on Thursday. Plus many of us had to work on the day, in the past — me as a journalist, Megan as a chemo nurse, Nate as a paramilitary nuclear defense guy. Turkey Saturday has become so traditional with us I felt I had to give it a name. I call it Givethanksing.

So there was an attractive contrariness to vacation on the Outer Banks in the winter. Neither of us care for crowds or sunbathing on the beach or shopping for pricey crap to fill up knick-knack shelves we don’t have at home. We like walking on the sand beside the sea, sitting on the couch reading, writing and Twittering — and grilling fresh fish for dinner. December seemed as good a time as July for that. So we rented this house:


If you look at the center of the photo and notice the staircase line, there’s a standing grill right behind it, which became The Problem.

Fish, definitely not the problem. Even though the main market in Duck is closed until April or so, there’s plenty of fish. I steered past the tiny, creepy plywood FISH 4 SALE shack awkwardly nailed onto the gas station in Southern Shores, went to Food Lion on the main drag for staples and then hit the small fish market on the south side of Rt. 158. Bought some salmon and a bunch of oysters and headed back to the beach house.

It was windy. I planned ahead. The sun would be way down by dinner time, I realized (for me, that was a real Duh Moment.)  The charcoal I bought at Food Lion was pre-lighter-fluided, because I didn’t want to be fooling with explosive liquids in what I was realizing would soon be total dark.  I put some newspaper on the bottom of the grill pan, covered it with a pile of charcoal and went inside.

Hours later, I returned with a pair of tongs, the salmon, a pile of oysters, a book of matches and a Yeungling Black and Tan. I am addicted to grilled oysters. They have a strange buttery succulence that goes way beyond anything else in shellfish land. I planned to eat as many of them as I could while the fish was cooking and serve the rest as an appetizer at table. (See, I can share.)

I put down everything but the beer and the matches and prepared to light the fire. The first match blew out before I could get it near the charcoal. So did the second one. I put the beer down. I huddled over the grill and lit the third match, managing to touch it to the charcoal pile before it blew out.

The wind was from the west, coming off the Sound straight at the open section of the grill. I smothered the charcoal pile with my body and somehow managed to wedge my arm, with the matches, inside the small open area between the front of my jacket and the pile of charcoal.  If the fire suddenly exploded into being I would be toastified. Didn’t care. Must light fire with remaining matches. Knew just how Neanderthals would have felt if they had matches.


I climbed the stairs to the cottage realizing any sensible person would call for pizza now.  Got more matches.

This time, I slouched my body over the grill, wedged the matches into the opening and lit the whole pack at once. They flared and whooshed as I tucked them under a corner of the charcoal pile and waited happily as the fire sought out the lighter fluid, tempting it toward fiery magnificence.

But while I was waiting, I wondered when the bag of charcoal got put on the shelf at the Food Lion. End of season? Maybe August. Or maybe the store manager was really aggressive and laid in a couple skids during July, figuring they’d sell. Before, you know, December. Would the light fluid have evaporated in the intervening six months?  (I’m not a chem major.)

Possibly, because the next three packs of matches had no effect either. I climbed the stairs being very grateful that I’d bought a package of chicken at Food Lion.

After I told Dee about the non-fire, we had a moderately good if slighlty tension-filled laugh. It was getting late. I opened the cabinet to grab the the olive oil.  No olive oil. Opened the fridge. No chicken. Sensing some spousal stress arising from my stomach, I asked Dee where she’d put the chicken and the olive oil.  “What chicken?” she said.

What chicken, FFS?!? I looked in the cupboard and there was also no salt and pepper, no red pepper flakes, no trash bags — all things I remember we put in the cart. I called Food Lion but they didn’t have an extra bag of groceries sitting around. We looked at the receipt. None of the stuff we were missing was on it.

Hmmm. There had been a weird moment at the grocery when our cart went missing. I am seriously not making this up. After we both looked in several other aisles a woman came along with a chuckle in her voice asking, “Did someone lose a grocery cart?” and pointed to one back near the produce section. It was ours.

That seemed so odd. If she had taken our cart by mistake, wouldn’t she have said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I took your cart by mistake. There it is.” But we were in the South. Southern humor? Southern hospitality? We got the cart and finished shopping. We thought.

But back at the house facing a chickenless fridge, I wondered if this odd woman had raided our cart for things she was too shy to acquire by the normal public process. Didn’t really matter. I wasn’t driving back to Food Lion now to buy more chicken.

Plan C: call for pizza.

No answer.

WTF? The pizza place A. wasn’t answering the phone, or B. had closed. It was 8:15. I got in the car and drove to the pizza place in Duck, which had taken Option B. I kept driving until I found my self past Southern Shores at Cosmo’s, next to the Food Lion. Ordered. Waited 2o minutes. Drove back to the house.

We ate. We drank beer. I wondered at the wondrous complexity of a contrary life, and decided we usually have more fun than other people, if not more pizza.


Desperation, part one

That our first meal in southern France was at McDonald’s always gets a laugh. Like a great New Yorker cartoon, it immediately balances the warmth and beauty of life by the Mediterranean.

I’ll make this short, so I can get to why we’re eating pizza tonight in the seafood capital of the Outer Banks, N.C.

We got off the train from Paris on a Sunday afternoon, had to take a taxi to the airport to pick up our rental car, managed to lose ourselves on the way out of Nimes and finally found our cottage in St. Mamert du Gard after some confusing encounters with people who speak the language a hell of a lot faster and better than anybody in our car.

Saint Mamert, town square

Saint Mamert du Gard

This photo shows the square. Our gite was on a street nearby, under olive trees. The landlady was away, but we found the key to the front door above the lintel.

Note the closed shutters in the square. Since we’d driven through town, we already knew the grocery was closed. So was the tiny bistro we saw, and the boulangerie. Small town, sleepy Sunday. Sun going down. Hunger coming full on.

Back to the car, but to go where? We headed for the highway and went north. (South to Montpellier would have been a better choice, but who knew?) Tried a few exits and found nothing but houses. Hunger had become a third voice in the car, an unpleasant finger-pointing WTF-Were-You-Thinking snarky voice that didn’t sound like calming down soon.

About an hour into our search, with only headlights and moonlight around us, a soft reddish-yellow glow appeared on the right side of the roadway, miles ahead. It looked M-ish.

HFS — it was an M. It was a McDoubleCheeseBurger M, a McFries With That M, a Where’s The Damn Exit M that pulled us clean off the highway and into a long line of Peugeots and Renaults.

It’s called McDo en francais, and done with full French efficiency and courtesy. Uniformed servers walked the lines of cars, taking orders and taking money, so that when we got to the takeout window all we had to do was grab our hot bag of holy junk food and find a place to park.

And give thanks.