It’s cold, 5:30 a.m. and I’m trying to stuff a nuss plunder in my mouth while reading a U-Bahn map. I will forever look back on this memory of Berlin fondly. Why am I wolfing down a pastry and hopping onto mass transit this early in the morning? I’m on an adventure, and I need to catch a train to the mountains. I have friends waiting for me. (For a full explanation as to why I suddenly found myself in Europe a couple of weeks ago, I invite you to read the previous Hidden in Plain Sight.)
Fun fact: Berlin’s actually got three airports. There’s Berlin-Tegel, which handles most of the farther-flung flights. Then, there’s Schönefeld, geared more for the inter-European flights. That’s the one I was bound for at 5:30 a.m. The third, Tempelhof, is now closed to air traffic after serving as an airport to the Nazis in WWII, then serving as the center for the Berlin Airlift in 1948. Now it’s being used as a giant public park. None of this matters, of course, because I’m bound for Schönefeld, which is clear across the other side of the city and I’m covered in pastry crumbs.
Somehow, though, after one U-Bahn ride, one trip through airport security, an EasyJet hop from Berlin to Geneva, a four-hour layover in the Lake neighborhood (go find Parfums de Beyrouth for lunch), and then a train ride through the Alps, I found myself being smothered with hugs by my friend Méli at Gare de Grenoble. After three days straight of old-city tourism in Berlin, and another three days straight of old-city tourism in Paris ahead of me, I thought a few days in the mountains and wilderness would do me well. Also, Méli promised me the food was better in Grenoble.
What followed over the next 72 hours was a exploration into an unbelievably gorgeous town, several trips up the Vercors and Chartreuse, and a tiny peek into a vibrant music community. I wasn’t prepared for an amazing town.
Méli and I spent the days alternating between hiking up and down the cloudy mountain slopes, poking our heads into the older corners of the city (they’ve got a cathedral that goes back to 960 AD), seeing La Rencontre (a play about the fictional meeting of Marat, Danton, and Robespierre– for a better idea of who these guys were, listen into John Green), and devouring some of the local cuisine. I highly recommend the Ravioles Grebobloise, which are full of goat cheese and herbs. There are very few ways to go wrong here.
Thibaud, Méli’s brother, tells us there’s something we should definitely check out when we’re done stuffing our faces. There’s a house concert series on the rise in Grenoble, called Parquet Sonore, and Thibaud’s got an in for us. We were told it would be a riot grrrl act called Human Toys, and that I should definitely bring my camera. A quick hustle across town, through an alley, up an old apartment building’s back staircase, and through the door, I’ve arrived at very familiar scene.
House concerts are kind of their own little microcosm of music. It’s less about the genre, and more about the space. Unlike a conventional venue, house concerts tend to put the performer on equal footing with the audience. Usually, this means the artists are much more accessible, and approachable. It’s a very different kind of performance, one that I love dearly, both as an attendee and performer. On this night, in the heart of the Alps, thousands of miles from D.C., I am very much at home.
Human Toys is a French duo, currently living in Marseilles. They’re loud, they’re brash, they’re bombastic, and very much like cartoon characters onstage. They are marvelous. For a solid hour, they gave a relentless barrage of guitar feedback, howling screams, theremin squeals, and aggressive volleys into the audience. The band wanted the audience to be as worked up as they were. This is the way house concerts are meant to work. It’s supposed to be incongruous. It’s not supposed to make sense. There’s a band playing in a living room, the singer just went through the audience, and jumped up on top of the kitchen counter. You might as well dance.
The rest of the night was spent in a rolled-cigarette and red wine haze. The band left their instruments on the impromptu stage, covered in sweat, thoroughly wrecked. I got a CD from the band, and insisted they autograph it. Soon, the crowd parted, and someone turned on the record player. Drinks flowed, music was turned up, and the dancing was still in full vigor when Méli turned to me and said in perfect French “I’m drunk. And starving. Let’s get food.”
In the heart of the mountains, in one of the oldest cities in France, surrounded by art, music, and forward-thinking intellectuals dancing like mad to a riot grrl band, Méli and I went to the only place still open – McDonald’s.