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the fortified town of carcassonne: invaders welcome

siege of carcassonne, 2014AD

The siege of Carcassonne, 2014AD

From the time it was first fortified by Romans in 100BC, Carcassonne has been built, invaded, destroyed, rebuilt, pillaged, rebuilt, extra fortified and destroyed over and over again until about 1659 when it pretty much fell off the map for a few centuries.

Cut to 1853 when it was restored by the theorist and architect Eugene Viollet-le Duc.   It became a UNESCO world heritage sight in 1997.

Ironically, the very walls constructed to deter invaders are now attracting them in droves.    Today, I am one of them.

As the train draws into Carcassonne station I catch a glimpse of the old city on the hill.   It really is an incredible sight, but at the moment I’m concerned about how far away it looks.   They don’t expect me to walk all that way, do they?

I work my way through the lower town, which is also old and kind of charming (except the glut of French chain stores). Once I get through the old town there’s a park and a river.   Very pretty.   And (gasp!) From the bridge, I can see La Cite.   I’m a wee bit atwitter. It reminds me of the Alhambra, which is supposed to be a present day wonder of the world.IMG_20140807_202810679_HDR

First I must conquer the hill!   the closer I get, the tinier I feel. But the truth is, it’s all paved and nice and pretty darn easy.   Not the least bit dangerous like the good old days.

Tourists swarm around the relatively small front gate.  I do not consider myself a tourist and expect them to part for me.   No such luck.

My first instinct when I get inside is to flee.   So many shops filled with junk, loitering tourists and flashing cameras assaulting my sensibilities, but I push onward. I take the first right and find myself on a lovely, quiet little street that leads towards other lovely quiet streets and squares, cafes, churches and yes, some tourist shops.

I’m thinking the majority of tourists must only enter the gates, hit the main square which is probably what Times Square is to New York City, and leave.   Or maybe they flee in terror like I almost did.  I’m glad I didn’t.

There are some people who say Carcassonne is over-restored.   That it’s like a Disneyland attraction. I see their point. On the other hand, this is a place that has always been either in a state of siege or restoration.   This current restoration (and siege of tourists) is a part of Carcassonne’s ongoing history.

Furthermore, everything has been beautifully and authentically done (except that woman in the Dolce and Gabbana dress).   I can feel what it must have been like here back in the Middle Ages, despite the souvenir and candy shops and people pushing strollers.

I watch a seven year old in plastic armor solemnly brandishing his sword at a threatening lamp post.   He can feel it too.   Yeah, I like Carcassonne. It may be fake, but it’s spectacular.

***

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rage against the machine (and the jerks who drive them)

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jackass on loud motorcycle

I have a terrible confession.   I entertain dark thoughts.   Violent fantasies.

It usually happens when I’m sitting on my balcony and one of those motorcycles with the cranked up mufflers comes thundering down the hill at 9 million decibels.   I imagine that, with perfect timing, I pour a bucket of water down, drenching the motorcyclist and the street.   It makes me feel good, no great, to see the shocked driver spin out of control.

The daydream continues as the driver, with the motorcycle on top of him skids out, violently ricocheting between the parked cars and buildings lining the narrow street.   He is smashed.   Bloody.   Most probably dead.   I am now a murderer and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

On one hand, the guilt is a heavy burden.  But something had to be done.   Not just for me, but for all of mankind.   Well, at least whoever falls in the audio range of the bike, which I’m fairly certain includes Northern Italy and Switzerland.  But murder…Can I live with that?

Now that I’m confessing, I might as well also cop to the fact that the other day I heard a skid and a crash followed by anguished yelps.   I ran to the balcony to see what happened and saw it was a downed motorcycle and driver.   I did a happy dance before calling emergency services.

Before you label me a terrible person (which I probably am), you have no idea how obnoxious and annoying they are until you’ve lived in a fairly popular French village.   Mere de Dieu!

I can block out a lot of noises, but that particular din pierces through everything.   It’s like a jackhammer to the head.  I don’t know what the decibel level is, but I do know it’s the worst form of noise pollution, probably qualifies as torture and offenders should be prosecuted.   No tortured.   No, executed.   No, tortured AND executed.

I mean seriously, only a dangerously insane person wants to make THAT much noise.   Who else would want to inflict that kind of suffering on innocent people who are just trying to have a thought, conversation or watch a movie?   Clearly they must be  card-carrying sociopats.   Either that or they’re recklessly overcompensating for something.   Some shame or deficiency.   Small ears, perhaps? A high squeaky voice? A complete lack of physical presence?  Whatever,  they’re a danger.

Worse, these mother effing a-holes, use their size to muscle their way through pedestrian zones and quaint ancient villages.   It’s disturbing the peace at the very least.  And illegal.   I guess the French legal system deals with loud vehicles in pedestrian zones the same way America’s deals with assault weapons (which are also very loud, I’m told).

Lets not forget that the insufferable noise itself poses a threat, and not just to eardrums   I’ve come precariously close to injury when the sound exploded through my windows, shattering my focus, which left me unable to maintain my balance during a yoga pose.

IMG_20140913_185645921_HDRI read somewhere that there are some enthusiasts who argue that the horrific noise they inflict on humanity makes their lives safer from accidents because the noise forces other drivers to notice them.   To them I say, bull hickey!   You chose to ride that infernal machine.  Don’t inflict your goddamn choice on the rest of us.   Drive defensively, wear a helmet and put a cork in your goddamn exhaust pipe, you goddamn self centered sociopath with small ears and a squeaky voice and zero physical presence!

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.   I’ve seen people shake their fists and middle fingers at them as they roar past. Some people grow red with rage when discussing them. Some peoples’ blood pressure rises precipitously at their mere mention.   We hate them with a white hot passion.

Someday, we’ll all rise up against them.   In the meantime, I’ll be sitting on my balcony.   Watching. Waiting. Dreaming.

finding something to fear in marseille

view from train station

view from train station

Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”

Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos

 When people talk about Marseille, there’s no grey area, it’s either black or white.

On the “love” side you hear things like: “one of the great cities of the world!”; ”a beautiful Mediterranean melting pot”;   “it’s becoming an art and design center on par with Barcelona”.   On the hate side we’ve got:   “I would rather watch every episode of the Kardashians than go back to that God forsaken place”; “Filthy” (ironic for a place famous for its soap); “It’s like the middle east without the charm”; It doesn’t feel safe!(this from a guy who feels comfortable in downtown Beirut). And we’ve also got good old Jean-Claude Izzo up there, scaring the crap out of me.

I visited Marseille once about a gazillion years ago (I’m avoiding telltale numbers).   I was with my parents and we drove from Aix to Marseille to go to Galleries Lafayette to find a certain tablecloth that my mom had to have. Construction was going on near the port and they had just dug up an ancient boat. We had lunch somewhere along the port.   I remember my mother felt sorry for the multitude of African guys trying to sell carved wood animals . My memory sees it then as being a little run down, but I didn’t really form an opinion one way or another except to watch my purse.   And while I survived, a vague sense of foreboding rises inside of me when I think of it.   But that could have been the fact I was a teenager on a family vacation.

Since I’ve lived in the South of France, the closest I’ve been to Marseille is looking down on it from the relative safety of the Marseille St. Charles train station.   It’s a pretty great view and it has made me long to venture down the hill and into the heart of it, however dirty and dangerous it may be.  But then fear takes over and I decide to go back later when I have more time and a flak jacket.   Which of course, I never have on me.

It’s a bit of a slog for a day trip (2:15), but hell, that’s a one way commute in the Bay Area.   And since I’m taking the train, the stress level is very low.   Well, as long as I don’t think about the danger I may encounter in Marseille.   Dirt.   Disenfranchised North Africans.  Germs.  Ebola.  Did you know the plague probably entered France here?  Racial unrest. Violence.   It seems the only thing I fear that isn’t here in Marseille is the IRS.

I’ve got to say, Marseille is beautiful.   I visit the old port, Fort Saint Jean, the brand new MuCEM (MUsee des Civilizations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée) and its phenomenal building and public space designed by Rudy Ricciotti in collaboration with Roland Carta, and the old town, which is called “le Panier” (the basket). I’m tempted to ascend to the omnipresent Notre Dam de la Garde perched on top of the hill, but it wasn’t long ago I was downed by a cathedral and I’m already pressing my luck by even being here, so I skip it.

Except for the prospect of climbing the cathedral, I feel no fear.   I have a perfectly lovely day puttering around aimlessly smelling soaps, admiring views, looking at art, taking pictures, eating lunch…   I don’t get food poisoning.   No one mugs or murders me (that I know of).   No terrorists attack. There are no race riots and by the end of the day, I’m still not convulsing with fever and bleeding from every orifice.   I made it!

I board the train home triumphantly.   I plop down into my seat with relief.   I made it!   I congratulate myself in between looking at the scenery and the photographs I took of Marseille on my phone. Jean-Claude Izzo was wrong!   Beautiful pictures.   Nothing terrible happened.IMG_20140909_175111324

But when I get up at the Antibes stop, I realize something is wrong. I feel a slight pull, look down and realize tragedy has indeed struck.   Goddamn merde de putain, somebody left gum on my seat!   My cute skirt is ruined!

***

While Izzo was right about Marseille-related tragedy, he was still wrong about Marseille not having beauty that can be photographed.   As you’ll see in the pictures below.  Fortunately, he was also wrong about the death thing.

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et tu, france?

Crepe on a stick

Crepe on a stick

One of the nice things about France has always been their approach to eating.   They sit, enjoy and savor finely prepared foods (even if that food is a goddamn snail).  In moderation.

I’ve seen that trend fading with the preponderance of fast food places and prepared foods at the grocery store (which I like to pretend are geared towards american tourists, even though logic tells me otherwise).

But I’m sorry, a crepe on stick?   Yes, this was at an outdoor festival of food.    I’m sure it’s lovely to be able to stroll around with one hand free while eating a crepe, but this just isn’t right.

Jeez, the next thing you know they’ll be making camembert-whiz and drinking wine out of berets.

Wine-Hatphoto of wine cap from www.likecool.com.

 

the night of a billion bubbles

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If the bottles pictured above were mid-priced champagnes, together they’d be worth over a thousand dollars.   But these are bottles of cremant, roughly valued at $250.00.   Much more my speed.

Cremant is basically a sparkling wine made in the traditional “method champenoise” manner.   The only thing that separates a cremant from champagne is the origin of the grapes  (in order to qualify as champagne, the grapes must be from the Champagne region of France).   And the price, of course.

There are all sorts of sub-categories, like “Cremant de Loire, Jura, Bourgougne, Alscace and Limoux.   Some are called Vouvrays, some are called Blanquettes.   But if it says “method traditional” on the bottle, you know you’ve got the closest thing you can get to real champagne at a fraction of the price.

So I get to thinking:  there’s got to be one or two cremants that rival fine champagne.   A cremant that, in a pinch, I can pour into an empty Dom Perignon or Kristal bottle and pass it off as the real deal.

I must find them.

There are a lot of cremants out there and I have my work cut out for me.   I begin collecting bottles of cremants.  Once I have 20, I gather a qualified international panel of experts for the first annual Degustation des Cremants, Antibes 2014.

My distinguished international panel:

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Vlad Bertin Roudenko

  Vlad hails from Paris.   He is French with Russian ancestry (nobility, of course). Vlad’s life experiences have been limited to consuming only the finer things in life. His dream is to someday eat a bucket of chicken nuggets in boxers while watching crappy television.   He considers tasting faux champagne with the bourgeoisie a step in the right direction.

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Romain E. Lix

Elegance is Romain’s middle name. He was born in the country that REALLY brought us French fries and Hercule Poiroit (Belgium).   You know Romain possesses impeccable taste and refinement just by looking at him.   And if that’s not enough to prove it, he’s gay.

 

14896_10154303726590315_4817333573199544993_nJoc Even 

Joc owns and operates one of Antibes’ finest dining establishments, Miam Miam, 1 Rue Vauban, Antibes, Currently rated #7  out of 433 restaurants in Antibes on TripAdvisor.

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Angela Duley1604516_10104403875180714_1716919940_n  

Angela is an American from Texas.   I know what you’re thinking; how could an American from Texas (the state that brought us George Bush) have any discernment whatsoever?   To that, she answers, “shut up or I’ll blow your brains out!”   Just kidding.  Believe me, she’s a culinary explorer with very discerning tastes.   Proof?  She always orders what I do at restaurants.

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 Adam Duley

He is a brewer and connoisseur of fine beer.   I figured, beer/champagne, what’s the difference?   They’re both bubbly and get you drunk.   Clearly his input is invaluable. Also, he is the only one in attendance who knows how to open a champagne bottle.

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IMG_7127Michel Khoury

Originally from Lebanon, Michel is not a terrorist.   In fact, his background is Catholic, which means he knows his wine.  Very, very well.  On the culinary front, he can down a pound of Haribo gummy tarantulas in less than an hour.

 

 

1016647_10152926550305065_315480438_nVirginie Haziers

Virginie is French, thus her knowledge of wine-based beverages is a birthright..   She is beautiful, discerning with impossibly refined taste. Except in men.

 

 

 

WP_000727Tomislav Jonjic (the man, not the dog)

From the burgeoning Croatian food and wine destination, Istria, Tom knows his stuff.   He also claims to be an expert vinar, stručnjak za hranu, gurman, hortikulturista, renomirane hrana kritičar i srce kirurg.   We’ll just have to take his word for it.

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The tasting.  Notes, comments, scores:

Everyone gets  a list of the cremants in order to score (1-10, 10 is the best) and make comments anonymously.    My notes, the comments and scores follow.

Bottle #1:   Louis Bouillot Perle de Vigne Grand Reserve Brut Cremant de Bourgogne. 2011.

Comments:   “fruity but dry”, “really quite good”   “excellent, fruite” “buttery sparkling chardonnay” “This pleases me” “not bad for less than 10 Euro”

Scores:  from 8.5-10

Bottle #2:  Arthur Metz Brut Millesime 2011 Cremant d’Alsace

My notes:   This bottle exploded all over the place when Adam opened it. I didn’t shake it, I swear!.  We already hate this bottle

Comments:   “appley”   “bitter, flat,” “meh,”  The name sounds like an accountant:   Arthur Metz CPA.  flat and lifeless.    Less bubbly (said one kind soul).   “Sans ebulliance. Triste.”

Scores:  from 3-8 (8????? Wtf)

Bottle #3:  Patriarche Pere & Fils Brut Cremant de Bourgogne

Comments:  “Average”, ” “c’est normal” “comme ci comme ca,”   “I’ve already forgotten it” “You call this cremant?”, ” Not the worst thing I’ve ever tasted”.  “a bubbly glass of hope that dissolves into disappointment.”

Scores:   5-6.5

Bottle #4: Bouvet Saphir Saumer Brut Vintage 2011

My notes:  Vlad says he has crossed from tipsy to drunk.

Comments: “Hey, this is pretty good!”, “She, she, she!!!” , “deeeeeeeelish!”, “why yes, I’ll have another”, light with just the right balance of fruit and dry”

Scores:   7-8.5

Bottle #5: Veuve d’Argent Chardonay Brut

My notes: Talking about Lebanon and the Middle East.   Michel says some people only know Lebanon for hummus and terrorism,

Comments:   “deeeeelish!”   “Fraiche,”   “Dry with a nice hint of berry,” “subtle, refreshing, nice lively bubbles”, “I don’t even LIKE hummus. fuck them!”

Scores:   From 6-8.5

Bottle #6: La Cave de Reine Jeanne Brut Cremant de Jura

My notes:    Joc tells us that Jura is the region where Comte cheese comes from.

Comments:   “comte, wine>crap”, ” Puppies!!!!! ”   “Deeelish!”   What is this shit?”  “She, she she!”, “they should stick to cheese”, “tastes like loneliness.”

Scores:  2-5

Bottle #7:  Wolfberger Brut, Cremant d’Alsace

Comments:   “appley, average”   “mushymushymush,” “deeelish!”, “bitter. Like me,”    “promising dry appley start with a bitter aftertaste.”  ” Milk, coffee, toilet paper” and something in Arabic.

Scores: 5-33

Bottle #8:  Wllm Brut, Cremant d’Alsace.

My notes:   Michel! Pants!

There are only two comments on this one:   “huh?” and “deeeeeeeeelish!”

Scores:   yaaaaaaaaaah!-k

 

my new french teacher is a bitch

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Professor Iota

Up until now, the only person I felt comfortable conversing entirely in French with was my cat.

I babble away endlessly and she never corrects me, never judges, always understands.   However, like me, her primary language is English, so it’s really not much of a challenge and I’m probably not learning much.

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Romain, Iota, Vlad

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely, young French whippet.   Her name is Iota (pronounced e-yoh-ta, almost like “Yoda” with a “t” instead of “d”). She’s the daughter of my friends Romain and Vlad who are Belgian and French.   French is Iota’s mother tongue, so to speak, but being only seven months old, she’s still learning.

She impressed me immediately with her intelligence.   When Romain told her to assis, she sat.   And when he told her to debout, she stood up (and I learned a new word!).

Turns out, our French skills are very similar (okay, she’s a little better than I am).   We both know some words, but neither of us can conjugate or string together a sentence to save our lives.

While I’m still not good enough to confidently conduct an intelligent conversation in French with French humans, I think I’m ready to graduate from English speaking cat to French speaking dog.  The beauty of dogs is they totally live in the present, so I won’t have to deal with that pesky conjugation problem.

Today is our first session.  I’m taking her for a walk.

iota bisousI release her from her bedroom and she bursts out, happy to see me.   After the obligatory bisous are exchanged, I nervously speak.

“Bonjour Iota, Ca va?   Oui, tres bien!   Tres, tres bien!   Tres, tres, TRES bien!   Ou’est la…. Hmmm, quel est le mot pour “leash” en Francais?”

She’s too excited to answer, but she doesn’t roll her eyes or snigger at my accent. I consider that a minor victory.   I find her leash, attach it to her collar and she pulls me out the door.   This is going to be a piece of cake.

When we get to the sidewalk, I start to worry. Do I address Iota in the formal or familiar.? Do I tell her to viens, or venez? I don’t want to offend her right off the bat.   She’s pedigreed, so perhaps she demands formality.

As a rule, I always assume a certain level of familiarity with anyone who has already licked my face, so I opt for viens.  She seems okay with it.   On the other hand, she doesn’t viens, either. In fact, she kind of ignores me in favor of the much more interesting cigarette butt she finds on the grass. I chalk her reaction up to being French.

I speak to her sternly.

“Non!”

She looks at me and puts down the cigarette.   Ahhhhh, communication!

I pet her lavishly and shower her with compliments.

“C’est bien.   C’est tres, tres, tres bien.   Tu est une tres, tres bonne chien!”

She’s proud and very excited to be acknowledged.  I’m thrilled at the effortless exchange and meeting of the minds.

We walk along the beach, Iota occasionally pulling me towards bushes, picnics, cigarette butts and where ever the possibility of treasure lies.   When she does, I’m no longer afraid to speak my mind.

“Pas tirer!”

She slows down and walks with me.   Success!   I’m starting to feel like the dog whisperer…The FRENCH dog whisperer!

I’m not saying there isn’t the occasional language barrier. At one point, no amount of “NONs” and “pas tirers” can stop her from dragging me off towards a family picnic, forcing me to converse with actual French humans. But even this turns out to be a positive–it gives me the opportunity to try out a whole new French phrase: “Monsieur, je suis tres desole que ma chien a mange votre repas.”

After we say our au revoirs, I walk home alone along the ramparts. I’m feeling pretty good about my afternoon with Iota.   It was a lovely walk and I think it was tres beneficial.  Unlike my last French teacher, she doesn’t make me feel stupid.  I’m not living in dread of the next time I see her.   I’m looking forward to it.

I light a cigarette and look out over the bay at Nice and Cap Ferrat.   A child shrieks and shouts “NON” in the distance.   I reflexively drop my cigarette.

See?   I already learned something!

my name is lesley stern and I am an addict

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My first taste was during the Menton Citrus Festival in February.   Some pusher on the street was handing out samples. I guess you could say it was peer pressure…I was trying to be agreeable. I generally pass on samples because I’m afraid they’ll make me buy something. That was the least of my worries.

The substance? Mille et un miels, Delice au miel au Citron de Menton (Honey with essence of the coveted Menton lemon). I’m pretty sure whatever they put in Starbucks Mocha Frappucinos (a habit I had to move to France to break), is also in this honey.   Something evil and irresistible.

I remember the flood of pure bliss when the honey first hit my lips.   My body was unprepared for the seratonin surge of lemony-honey goodness.   I think I blacked out for a few moments.  My friend Angela found me dazed on the sidewalk with a huge smile on my face and the plastic spoon still in my mouth.

I talked her into trying the honey (please don’t judge me, my intentions were good—I just wanted her to experience the pleasure, I swear!). The next thing you know we were both in the store buying a couple of jars each.

Since then, all my thoughts and actions have revolved around this nectar of the Gods.

Honey paraphernalia

Honey paraphernalia

I’ve been stocking up on honey paraphernalia.   I’ve googled the health benefits of honey.   The side effects.  Honey recipes.  The dangers of eating too much honey.   The history of honey.   Honey as medicine.  Signs of an overdose.  You name it.  Sometimes I have to rush home and indulge when the vague thought of a baguette, goat cheese and lemon honey has me jonesing for a hit.

Two jars don’t even last me through the following week. Granted, the jars are small (about 2/3 of a cup per jar) but it’s clear this is going to be a problem.   Especially since the minute I opened the second jar, I began to worry about how to get more.   As the jar empties, my worry rises to panic. The voice in my head becomes shriller:   Gotta get more.   Gotta get more.   GOTTA GET MORE!   QUICKLY, BEFORE I RUN OUT!    The mere thought of facing a morning without lemon honey slathered on toast/yogurt/fruit/ricecake/oatmeal/baguette/croissant/my hand… fills me with despair. I long for simpler days, when a cup of coffee was enough.

I make the 50 minute train ride to Menton a few days later under the pretext of visiting the Cocteau museum on the waterfront. It’s very nice; a glaringly modern (yet elegant) building that stands out with Menton as its charming old-world background.   It seems entirely fitting. There’s a lot of art, ceramics and stuff.   But enough about Cocteau!

I buy four more jars of honey and head on home.   On the train, I begin to worry that four jars isn’t enough. I’m already giving a jar to a friend as a thank you gift.   Oh jeez.   That only leaves me three jars.   And I will probably give another jar as a birthday gift.   Two measly jars?   That won’t last two weeks!   They need to make these jars in a large economy size!

I consider getting off in Monaco and going back for more, but I’m tired and the four jars of honey are pretty heavy.   And then there’s the embarrassment of going back in and buying more jars the same day. The shop girl will judge me.

Then I notice the flyer in my shopping bag.   There’s a website .   Maybe they sell this stuff a little closer to Antibes.

I hurry home and peruse the website over a refreshing cup of iced honey.   I discover there’s an online boutique and immediately order five more jars which will be delivered in two days.

The e confirmation arrives.   For the first time in weeks, I have this overwhelming sense of peace and that all is right with the world.

 

Postscript: I gave one jar to Michel, who called me immediately after trying it and told me his mouth had an orgasm and he was about to smoke a cigarette and take a nap.   I gave another jar to my friend Joc.   The following day, she chased me down the street holding out wads of cash, asking me to get her more next time I go to Menton.   Hmmmm, this might be a good way to support my habit.

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