Ma Poubelle Nouvelle

It's kind of like the woodburner. Last year, just in time for my birthday, Eric hooked up the second hand one we'd found through the classified ads. It had been a dream of mine, after seeing them in so many homes out in the country - the pile of logs in a corner, a cozy glow through the glass front, the dry warmth and crackling and popping and smoky smell. This thing was going to change me, or my image of myself - it wouldn't just be practical, but impart a new calm and wisdom that can only be achieved by staring into the flames.

The reality was different: logs that wouldn't stay lit, cold ash and charred wood in the morning, mess everywhere and, when the fire was finally going, heat that chapped your face and made half the room a no-go area. While the rest of the house stayed cold.

I'm not saying all woodburners are bad. I've seen good ones that stay lit all night long, that really do keep the whole room and even the room with the chimney running through above perfectly warm. This is a case of wrong woodburner, wrong room, bad logs.

That's how it is with France. Maybe I had a dream, a fantasy about the place. It's a common one for Americans, and the English too. You just say the words "I live in France" and people get a faraway look. They see Belmondo, think of the best meal they ever had in a tiny place they could never find again, picture Jeanne Moreau in a newsboy cap and Bardot in ballerina slippers and striped top. Or a towel, or nothing - sex. Countryside and castles, great thinkers. Wine and endless conversation. Art, intellect, sophistication. Freedom from pointless striving. A lot of people come here for that. I can't say I thought it through but knew it was something I wanted. Who wouldn't?

And all those things are real, at some point in time. But so are houses like peach-colored boxes, mountains of paperwork, websites that go nowhere, restaurants with fluorescent lighting and tiled floors and some of the worst food I've eaten in my life. Sidewalks with fences and planters and concrete balls stuck smack in the middle. Supermarkets with sullen checkout girls and food way past the sell-by date, markets with the same overpriced stuff you can buy at the supermarket. Stifling rules for everything. A general joylessness, or downright depressed feeling, almost everywhere you go. When there is somewhere to go - finding a place that's open when you want to go out is often impossible.

But honestly, I could probably take it all in stride, for the beauty, the idea, the genuinely lovely people I've met - if we could work here. If the gigs weren't so difficult.

Not just difficult - pointless.

Take Thursday night. We knew going into it that it was a pub, an ersatz Irish place run by an ex-madam and her husband, in the town of Angouleme. Last time we'd played over the din of talkers and drunks with a few actual listeners while the owner shook her estimable cleavage. Not great but not soul-destroying. It was my birthday and even though I would have liked a nice night out on the town I'd started to look forward to playing. We were hoping for a little more of a cultured crowd with the Festival de la Bande Desinee in town.

That brought a few people in, beyond the ploucs with money who make up a good part of the population (plouc is a kind of French hick). But in general it was a tough bar gig, and we made it through two sets with some enjoyment. No big deal, just a paying gig.

Hung around talking to some of those who'd been into it. Packed up and ready to start loading out at 1:00 AM or so when the ex-madam called me back behind the bar - time to get paid.

She wanted to know what our guarantee was and I told her. Then she started demanding how we could charge something like that and only play for two hours. She'd had too much too drink and kept counting out the money and shaking her head and barking at me that we had stopped playing at midnight! midnight! What kind of value was that? I asked her why she hadn't just asked us to play longer, when our stuff was still set up? I knew that it was because she'd been too busy carousing and hadn't been paying attention. Her husband was too drunk to get involved in anything that involved putting words together by now. She sort of threw the money at me and brought out their younger nephew who kept asking if I could honestly say we'd done enough work to earn the guarantee. Like he wanted to shame me into backing down.

But why were we having this discussion anyway? There is no way they would ever value what we had done and what we have to offer beyond it providing some noise and color for a corner of their lousy bar. So yeah, we got paid what we were supposed to. I'm not completely depressed now because we've already made the decision to leave.

Wrong woodburner, wrong room. Bad logs. We just don't fit here, as musicians. We're not "rock" enough, or "garage" enough, or "60's" enough, or "punk" enough. Or "musicianly" enough. We don't do enough songs everybody knows. And even if we did there's no place to play. Over the last four years the number of places willing to put on music has dwindled to almost nothing.

I'm not harboring any illusions cause we've been all over the US and UK, Spain, Ireland, Germany, and things are tough everywhere. But I'm thinking of this year's birthday treat - a new kitchen bin.

A new poubelle is nothing to get excited about. No fantasies of snuggling around the kitchen, gazing at the garbage can, taking turns putting things in it.

But a few days before my birthday this year, Eric installed one under the kitchen sink. You open the door and it swings out. I don't have to trip over the bin or look at it when I'm not using it. I had no expectations but the thing gives total satisfaction. Because it works.

That's all I want, when we move away from here. Something that works.