Ceci n’est pas un Cheeseburger

When our French goddaughter was visiting recently, we wanted to show her some iconic Atlanta landmarks. She had been to the Aquarium and World of Coke; seen Centennial Olympic Park, the Margaret Mitchell House, Fox Theater, and MLK museum; she’d even eaten at a Waffle House and liked it. So, I figured we had to take her to The Varsity. Granted, I hadn’t eaten there since I was a kid, and my wife (being from California by way of Florida) had never set foot in the place.

But hey, locals rave about it to this day, so how bad could it be? It’s been there forever and was one of the few pregame fast food joints available to fathers and sons going to see Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets or Atlanta Braves games. Celebrities, president’s and president’s-to-be have all eaten there. The building was a cutting edge design when commissioned, and it still looks retro cool to this day. The sign and logo have that retro cool vibe as well. There’s the catchy “what’ll ya’ have!?” and ordering lingo that includes the gem: “naked dog walkin’.” I’ve even heard it was the largest-by-square-foot fast food place in the world at one time.

We were starving when we pulled into the lot, but I felt obligated to play tour guide to the newbies and offer a brief history. I pointed out the cool architecture, the carhops, and the size of the place. Our goddaughter Ines was impressed. We entered to a throng of people waiting to order and “what’ll ya have!?” being shouted over the din. Ines got a little intimidated by it all, so Alex ordered cheeseburgers, and onion rings for us. “What’s a frosted orange?” Alex asked me as the guy punched in our order. “It’s like a shake,” I said as she turned to add to the order, “but just get two, I’ll have a sip of yours.” Alex was looking at other people’s food coming out as she replied, “I think you’re going to want one.” To which I stupidly said “nah.” After many years together, I should know better and just take her advice.

When we got our food it looked like something from a public school cafeteria circa 1985. They may call it The Varsity, but the food is more JV, or peewee really. The bun was a smashed white bread of the cheapest kind. The cheese was still cold, and the thin burger disc (I couldn’t even call it a patty) was grey/brown in color and had those little grease bubbles that only appear on this type of meat. The onion rings didn’t look or taste much better. Ines wasn’t much to complain, but I swear I heard her mumble “ceci n’est pas une pipe” before digging in anyway.

Alex, after a few bites, took a sip of her frosted orange. “You can have my food, I’ll just enjoy my shake,” she said with a smile. I shrugged it off and gave it the old college try. About halfway through my onion rings, I noticed Ines had given up on her meal and was enjoying her shake as she looked at Atlanta’s skyline through The Varsity windows. I got up to order a frosted orange for myself and decided my wife was just as right about the shake as she is about most everything, and Ines was right about the cheeseburger not being a pipe– or a cheeseburger for that matter.

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Ghosts of Savannah

The Georgia church sign read: “There are many choices in life but only two for eternal life. Which do you choose?” Maybe the ghosts of Savannah didn’t get the memo…. Or maybe Savannah was their choice.

Minus the humidity, Savannah is kind of heavenly with its giant fountains constantly bubbling and spraying water, its little square parks surrounded by beautiful old homes, its Spanish moss and cobblestone streets and waterways.

Alex and I took the 4-hour drive from north Atlanta, through Macon and southwest to the sea. I’m not sure if this is the route that Sherman burned with his infamous march to the sea, but the 160-some-odd-miles from Macon to Savannah were pretty desolate. If Sherman had to rely on AT&T for communication back then, he’d have been SOL here.

We pulled into the Bohemian Hotel on the Savannah River and were greeted by a deluge of rain. We settled into our high-floor room with a view of the river below to wait it out. As we were getting our suitcases opened, Alex gasped as she looked out the window: A cargo ship bigger and taller than our hotel was slowly floating by. It almost looked like it took a wrong turn and ended up on a river smaller than it could maneuver through. People gathered under porches on the main drag below to gawk and take pictures.

“This is the 4th busiest port in the country,” I said, trying not to sound too much like Cliff Clavin. “That explains all the big trucks we passed getting here,” said Alex. She hated passing trucks, and I hated sitting behind them, so our drives were often a little edgy. We grabbed a drink on the rooftop deck to take the edge off. The big ship was gone, but its wake was still roiling the river.

We looked across the other side of the hotel toward town, and saw old rooftops and spires of churches popping out of giant moss-covered oaks. The squares created a nice symmetry to it all.

“Look, a hearse,” Alex said, pointing to the street below us. And then into the hearse climbed a group of people with giant drinks in their hands like from a Mardi Gras parade. When the hearse pulled out of its spot we saw a painted sign on its door that read: “Ghost Tours.”

We weren’t particularly ghost people, so we didn’t do the tour, but we couldn’t get away from the spiritual around Savannah if we wanted to. That night, at dinner in what was an old house, our friendly waiter told us of the spirit that looked over the place. She was known to be in the upper story window looking out from time to time. Doors would shut without provocation, and even things in the kitchen would go missing. I’d worked in a few restaurants myself, so the fact that things went missing only spoke to the strictness or looseness of the employee alcohol policy. By the “happiness” of our waiter, I guessed this place was pretty loose.

The next day we went to the Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous in the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” It was set on a quiet promontory on the water. Gravel and dirt paths went from one site to the next. The breeze from the water made the sun dance through lacey green-gray Spanish moss overhead. A bench sat alone with the best view of the water.  The statues here were as pretty as any I’d seen in Paris or Rome, and the setting sublime and serene.

Alex was taking pictures while I came across the gravesite for Johnny Mercer. It was a little square unto itself, that had a marble bench etched with his silhouette and some of his famous songs. One of them got to me for some reason: “Accentuate the Positive.” I sat there and had a spiritual moment; feeling the breeze, humming the song and reflecting on life and death. Alex approached; “It’s getting kind of humid isn’t it?”

On the drive home I passed a giant truck, probably stuffed with Chinese-made goods from the port. Alex winced. Trying to take her mind off the road, I waxed poetic: “If there are ghosts, I could see why they would choose Savannah.” Her reply: “And if you were a ghost, you probably wouldn’t feel the humidity!”

As Johnny Mercer sang, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”

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Getting Past the Get-Up: Beggars, Thieves, Attention Seekers & Average Joes

“Neighborhood Alert! There’s a meth-addled child molester at the Target parking lot!” read the group email put out to our entire subdivision. We had to chuckle a little at the jump-to-judgment, since we had just been to that very Target and saw this so-called “meth molester.” He looked to be your run-of-the-mill beggar.

I guess in Atlanta’s northern burbs they don’t see too much of this, but back in LA it was a constant: There was the guy on Robertson with a giant boom-box who flailed around dancing like no-one was watching; the flute player at the Ralphs grocery parking lot off Topanga; the turban-wearing guy playing electric guitar on rollerblades at the Venice boardwalk (who was rumored to be an MIT grad with a well-paying job who just liked the attention); and the guy with the sign that read “No lie, need money to get high!”

Some of these folks were just putting it on, some were possibly dangerous and some were probably bat-shit crazy. How did they know the guy at the Atlanta Target was on meth anyway, and not just too many mocha frappuccinos? I mean this was a Target with a Starbucks inside. Or maybe he just got out of the dentist office next door (I’d been there myself once and could have used a little more laughing gas for that experience). Heck, maybe he just had a bad combination of perfectly legal prescriptions that day (a friend of ours once admitted to being on Ambien and wine, driving to the store in the middle of the night, buying food, and not  remembering a thing until she saw the grocery bags on the counter the next day).

The child molester statement was a lot more loaded. We found out later that the guy had approached the man’s daughter and said “hey little girl, do you have any change?” A little creepy, yes, but not quite 911-worthy.

I will admit it’s kind of nice not to be approached by dirty strangers so much, but there is a certain bohemian quality to the shopping experiences in LA that I sometimes miss.

The Target near us in LA had a guy that may or may not have been on the Target payroll, who always dressed like a cross between a Village People person and one of Janet Jackson’s rhythm nation—not sure if he had the same outfit for every day of the week, but this get-up never varied. The parking lot was his domain. He took empty abandoned carts to their proper place, and helped out customers from time to time. Alex and I pretty much ignored him, and giggled at his get-up.

One night I had just returned from a work trip and Alex led me outside for a poolside dinner. Our old table was newly surrounded by a large gazebo. There were pretty twinkle lights framing the whole scene. “How did you even get this into your car?” I said, astonished. “You know the Village People guy at Target?” she asked rhetorically. “He helped me load it. Turns out to be a real nice guy if you can get past the get-up.”

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Chateau de Merde

The next day we saw old town Apt in a completely different light. This was market day, and it was lined with merchants selling everything from hats to hand baskets, ham to handkerchiefs, haddock to haute cuisine.

We made our way through the throngs and bought some fresh produce: Alex finding purply-pink garlic with 6-inch stems; Jen finding a batch of deep red cherries on the other end of the long table. When I took out my money to pay, the vendor couldn’t figure out who I was paying for; “Les deux” I said, meaning both. “Bravo” the vendor nodded in that French male conspiratorial way. I just shook my head and laughed.

A little further into the market a store caught my eye that sold little placards for mailboxes, or doors or what-have-you. We had two cats at home and Alex was always trying to hide their litter box. Finally she came up with the idea to buy an old French provincial style dresser, cut a hole in the side, put the litter box in and voila: Chateau de Merde. Once we found the dresser, we would need a sign to declare it officially a “House of Shit”. Of course they didn’t have one that read Chateau de Merde, but I thought maybe they could customize one for us.

I struggled to translate this, finally getting my point across to the French sales lady. The lady looked at me a little funny, but said “of course we can order anything you want.” It was expensive, but I was tempted. Thankfully, Alex talked some sense into me: “This stuff is probably made in China. We can find something on-line for half this price.”

And that’s the sad truth about many of the items we found on our trip: “French linen” with the tag cut off which probably had said “Made in China”; “French Truffles” that were packaged in France, so they could officially be labeled “Product of France”, even though the actual truffles inside came from Chinese soil. You really had to look carefully for the treasure and look past the crap… but isn’t that true of any real treasure?

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Worth the Crawl

For lunch in Saignon, we settled on a spot below the castle ruins near a church, a cemetery and a grade school. There was almost as good a view from here as from above— if I could have read Alex’s thoughts I’m sure they’d have said “why did we risk life and limb when this view was here all along?” I pulled some Chipsters, a baguette and some wine and cheese out of my backpack. Chipsters are like American potato chips, but a bit lighter, more airy, and seemingly less greasy (and they go great with red wine). We ate and drank, and enjoyed the hilltop breeze that carried the sounds of kids playing in the nearby schoolyard.

Leaving the village by car I noticed a sign with a slash across the town name, Saignon, marking our departure from what I would remember as the least touristy, most quaint and most authentic feeling of all the villages we visited.

That afternoon, back in Apt, we got ingredients to make a quiche from the local mini-mart-type grocer. This place had everything we needed: more kinds of ham than I’d ever seen, farm-fresh eggs, crème fraiche and shallots. They even had a nice selection of inexpensive wines and a boulangerie attached—not bad for a small store. We passed on the bread, since we were still getting our morning delivery of fresh croissants and baguettes from our hostess.

A little later we enjoyed Alex’s quiche with cheap but delicious Bordeaux while watching the sunset through the top floor windows of our Restoration Hardware meets French country apartment. From our window view, the promontory of Saignon was lit up by the late afternoon sun. “Can you believe you climbed up that today?” I said proudly. “More like crawled up” Alex answered with a mix of fear and self-deprecation. “But it was worth the crawl?” I asked. “It was worth the crawl,” she said with a proud smile.

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Now How the Hell Do We Get Down?

We wound around narrow cobblestone paths, walking by local residences with colorful blue or orange or green doors and shutters. Their flowers and vines were neatly tended; even a wildflower rising through a crack between the curb and the street was supported and tied up to help it survive. Pride of ownership was obvious in this clean, graffiti-free place.

The rock promontory at the top of Saignon is the perfect place for a castle to sit; only ruins remain, but you can tell why they chose this spot hundreds and hundreds of years ago. From the top you could see for miles in every direction and imagine a guard detecting the approach of a savage hoard and screaming out to prepare the catapults, or hot oil, or whatever defenses they had at the time.

Getting to that vantage point at the top, even today, is not easy—especially for Alex. This is someone who has been game for almost anything: bungee-jumping head first off a platform in the Atlantic—no problem; learning to snow ski at the ripe age of 30-something—why not? But these steps…these steps were steep, uneven and winding with no rails. The only forgiving thing was that they were wide. So I told Alex just to hug the mountain as she climbed. She did a lot more hugging than climbing, but we eventually made it.

This is where France and America differ greatly: America would have a big, ugly, chain-link fence along that trail at worst, a prefab plastic fence at best. God forbid some idiot tests the boundary and falls and someone gets sued. Maybe France is not as sue-happy as we are, or maybe it’s their own form of Darwinism… either way, I liked it. Alex, on the other hand, was not so sure. “Don’t get so close to the edge!” she blurted, mid-climb, as I took a picture standing a good two feet from the drop off.

After some threats from Alex of turning back, and much coaxing on my part, we finally made it to the top. Having conquered her fear I thought Alex was the better for it, but her first comment was “now how the hell do we get down?!” Needless to say, she hugged that mountain going down just as much as she had on the way up.

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