The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Matthew Bellamy Diet

A few years ago, Hannah and I went to see Muse in St. Louis at the Pageant. It was awesome. Matthew Bellamy, the lead singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboard god of Muse was wearing a black dress shirt and pants, a skinny white tie, shiny white shoes, and the most awesome coat I've ever seen. Long, white, perfectly cut, billowing out behind him as he rocked out hardcore, it was a sight I will never forget. At some point during that night, I believe, the joke about the Matthew Bellamy diet was born. Or perhaps it was a few days after. In any case, it was born out of the fact that Bells is thin as a rail, and Hannah came to the very logical conclusion that there was an inverse relationship between how well he can play guitar and how fat he is. It was decided that the most likely explanation for this was that every time he felt like eating, he played guitar instead.

I am now on the Matthew Bellamy diet, out of necessity.

Yesterday I bought a guitar, even though I have just about enough money in my bank account to pay for said guitar. The result is that I have almost no money for food (or anything else) until I get paid again, which is about 10 days from now. So, instead of eating, I will play guitar, and that will sustain me instead. This is not the first time I have made such a choice. I have chosen art over food many times in the past, and most of my friends and co-workers at Barnes & Noble share the sentiment. It's come up at work a few times, the same thing is almost always said: "Given the choice between books and food, I choose books." I've chosen reading over eating several times at work, and choosing music over food is the same thing. I like to think of it as fasting for the love of art. Don't worry; I'm not completely starving myself, not that there's any chance I'll actually starve to death in 10 days. I have vast reserves of stored energy in many regions. No, I will just be living on a diet of bread, cheese, clementines and peppermint tea for the next week and a half or so. If I eat only bread, cheese, and fruit, I can sustain myself on about 5 euro a week, which I think is a pretty awesome accomplishment.

Lucky for me, I also had an absolutely fabulously delicious "last meal" yesterday. There are no music stores in Berck, so one of my colleagues, Georges,* offered to drive me to Etaples, which is the next town over, to buy a guitar there. He also lives there, and he was bringing his son to Berck in the morning for a guitar lesson (they don't sell guitars here, but the guitar lessons are here? France.) so he said it would be no trouble to pick me up on his way back to Etaples, and then drive me back in the evening. He picked me up at noon, and unbeknownst to to me, had planned to have me over to his house for an elaborate meal. I met his son, Zac,* his wife, Simone,* and his dog, Snoopy. They were all very nice. Simone had prepared a French feast, which I will now describe in wistful detail.

(*Names changed to protect the innocent. I don't know how French people feel about blogging, so I'm playing it safe.)

The first course could have been a meal in itself. It was thin slices of perfect salmon on bread with crême fraîche and gruyere cheese, toasted in the oven until the cheese was all melty and golden brown and the salmon and crême fraîche flavors had married and the bread was warm and soft and crunchy on the edges. We each had *three* slices of the salmon toasted bread, which was enough to be a whole meal for me. During the eating of the appetizer, there was some sort of catastrophe with the wine. Simone had told Georges that he should open some champagne to go with the salmon, and they got out champagne flutes and everything. Georges retrieved the champagne from the frigo and opened it, but after he'd poured it and Simone came to the table, she realized that he had got out the wrong bottle that we weren't drinking champagne at all, but something else, which was also carbonated white wine but was sweeter than champagne, much to sweet for salmon. Apparently, this drink was meant to be had with dessert, which a sweet cake of some kind. It didn't taste all the sweet to me, and I didn't know the bloody difference, but she seemed to think it was some sort of terrible error and teased Georges about it. He hadn't actually made the mistake of thinking that dessert wine went with salmon, but rather had just grabbed the wrong bottle by mistake because it looked like the champagne bottle. They went back to the wine frigo and argued about it a bit, then returned. She came to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done about it, because it was already open and we were drinking about it, but she teased Georges about it because "that's supposed to be your job!" In France, the selection and serving of the wine is traditionally the job of the man of the house; it's sort of a lordly duty. I repeated over and over that "ça m'est égale"---"it's all the same to me," and they finally let it go.

So yes, the stereotype about French people being particular about wine, and which wine goes with which foods, is very true, as well as amusing.

After the salmon, the main course was served. It was coquilles St. Jacques, or scallops, cooked in the oven in individual ceramic pots with crême fraîche, salt, pepper, and herbes fines. The pots were covered with a sheet of butter pastry, which formed a crouton on the top of the pot when baked. I was afraid I wouldn't like it, because in the US I hate scallops, but these were not American scallops. They were delicious perfect French scallops, and I loved them. They were like little rounds of sweet, buttery crab meat. She served the scallops with endives, or leeks, cooked in cream, and a bit of rice. We dipped the steamed endives in the cream/scallop broth and the taste was extraordinary. I don't know what it is, but somehow in French cooking, all the flavors are heightened yet subtle, pure and distinct in themselves and harmonious in their relationship with the other flavors. It's just wonderful.

After the main course was the cheese course, which is always interesting, especially in the north. There's the obligatory camembert, then a few other, stronger regional cheeses. I enjoy them enough on bread in small doses, but you definitely have to avoid breathing in through your nose right before biting into it. Then there was dessert, which was a fresh baked apple tart, served with more of the (apparently) too-sweet wine. Then coffee. Then, a few minutes later, clementines. Did I mention that a full French meal goes on for about six days?

Between the final courses, and after the meal, I played music with Zac. He played guitar, and I followed him on the piano. It had been a while, but I was thrilled to feel the keys under my fingers again. I followed his strumming with chords, then played a few simple pieces out of their Elton John songbook, sight reading the chords and singing, not bothering with the complex notes. My sight reading is out of practice, too. It was an incredibly warm feeling, playing music with them in their home, full of wine and good food on a peaceful Saturday afternoon. I miss my family and friends all the time, and moments like those, that make me feel at home with people, are rare.

After a while, we went to the music shops. There are two in Etaples, and in the second one I found a dusty secondhand guitar for about 100 euro, which was what I'd been looking for. It didn't look like much, but I tuned it and strummed a bit, and it didn't sound bad. I could tell it was still solid and the sound fine, so I told the clerk I'd take it. I asked him for some oil so I could clean it, but he cleaned it and restrung it himself, free of charge. He even cleaned the fretboard before restringing it, and he used Martin steel strings. By the time he was done, it looked like new, with a warm shine to it. I also bought a capo and a handful of the pink picks I like, and I was all set. In the french fashion, he didn't offer any sort of bag, and I couldn't afford a case, so I just walked out of the shop with the capo in my bag, the picks in my pocket, and my shiny new guitar in my arms.

I played when I got home and again this morning. I'm studying it in earnest now; before, I'd always just looked up chords on the internet and strummed my way willy-nilly through songs while I sang along. This time, I want to learn to play for real. I'm practicing scales and watching videos on you tube to observe strumming patterns and get a rhythm down. I can't practice for long stretches right now, because my fingers are soft, but I'm hoping I'll get callouses in the next few days. It hurts pretty bad to play right now, but it's totally worth it, much like learning French, or moving to a new country, or really anything in life that's worth doing.

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