One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Away in a Manger,” which makes me think of a crèche, with all the innocence of a five-year-old looking at a bunch of dolls. I grew up with the James Ramsey Murray version and remember vaguely being outraged when I learned there was a different (and to me wrong!) version by William Kirkpatrick, which happened to be older. But I didn’t know that. What you encounter first is what you think is normal and right.
The santons of Provence are famous, but there are so many other variations on the crèche, which is a French word. It dates to the beginning of the 12th century and meant a manger (which literally in French is pronounced mahn-JAY and means “to eat,” but if you want to do apples-to-apples meaning-wise, the French version is mangeoire (mahn-ZHWAR), or long feeding trough for animals). It didn’t take on a religious connotation until 1223, according to the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales–the etymology police.I have a bunch of photos from over the years and wanted to share them. It’s why I took them in the first place. “Somebody else needs to see this!”For example this crèche scene has life-size figures made of straw by a Polish farmer. The biggest figures are 1.80 meters tall (5’9″). The figures are based on an iron base, to which is woven balls of straw. The explanation sign said the straw symbolizes that Jesus was born in a stable, poor among the poor.This has nothing to do with the crèche, but where I grew up there were no crenellated castle walls with towers on any altars. Oh, France. Kids here who see such walls (big ones, for real) on a daily basis must not even notice small reproductions in a dark corner of a church. Nothing special.Another shot of the crèche at the top. Again, check out that altar!
There are other quaint Christmas touches around.
How is your Christmas season going? Is your shopping done? We are going ultra light this year. For the tree, too. Just the blue balls and white lights, and actually it’s very pretty. Sometimes less is more.
Yesterday was unusually quiet here in France profonde. Almost no traffic. Most people stayed home if they could. We slept in late. This impromptu vacation day was thanks to the national strike against pension reform.
I wanted to have a light, happy post today after last week’s Debbie Downer rant. But yesterday’s strike, which is continuing today, is inescapable. Even if you don’t live here, you probably want to retire one day, so read on.
The French system is pretty generous, but demographics–folks live longer and have fewer babies–mean that while there were five workers for every retiree in 1960, today there are three. While pensioners and those close to becoming one argue that they paid for their retirement, the system is like many others, including Social Security in the U.S.–those working now pay for those retired now. It isn’t an account like a 401(k) where you put in your money and you have it later.The problems with 401(k)s are that (1) most people don’t save enough, (2) those who do save don’t invest the money wisely, being either too risky or too conservative and (3) if the market drops when you want to retire, you might not be able to afford it. As with any investment, you could lose everything.
A broader system offers better protection for the average Jacques. Also, because it’s run by the government, workers don’t have to worry about their employer going belly-up and their retirement disappearing in a poof of smoke with it. Remember Enron? A few greedy guys made some sour deals and cooked the books, bringing down the company. More than 9,000 employees had retirement plans based on Enron stock, which became worthless. The problem in France lies in the details, as is often the case. There’s retirement for a special few, and then retirement for everybody else. President Emmanuel Macron wants to get rid of the 42 régimes speciaux, which cover only 3.4% of the working population. Most French think the exceptions should be abolished–most of them don’t benefit. Probably many of those with an exception think the other 41 régimes are unworthy, but don’t even THINK about touching theirs. And some fear a domino effect–if one exception is eliminated, then the others will eventually go as well.
I have a friend who retired in her 40s. Seriously. She was a secretary for a notaire, or notary. In France, notaries are inescapable, necessary for formalities for property purchases, wills, etc.–more like lawyers than like a notary public in the U.S. The notaries created a special retirement regime in 1937, before the general one, and their exceptions got grandfathered in. Granted, they pay in a lot more than regular workers do. In general they retire if they are 55 and contributed for 25 years, but there’s an exception to the exception, which my friend enjoyed: If you worked 15 years for a notary and you have three kids, you can retire at any age you want.
Ballerinas at the Opéra de Paris (but not ballerinas elsewhere!), can retire from age 40 to 60, having paid in for 10 to 15 years (there are subcategories to this subcategory). Extra credit for having kids. It’s true that being a ballerina is physically taxing, poorly paid and not something that translates to other professions. If you have an injury and can’t continue, your options could be limited.
We know somebody who was a train conductor (as in ticket taker, not driver). Yes, decades ago, working on a train was dirty and dangerous. But today they are electric and automated. He says, “When I was hired, I signed a contract with the terms that I would retire when I was 60. They have to honor that.” I pointed out that when he joined the railroad, life expectancy was 73. Now it’s 83. The contract was based on calculations for the lower life expectancy, even if that wasn’t stated explicitly. Was he willing to live (or die) up to his side of the bargain? He sputtered and admitted that people living longer in retirement would require more money, but that should come from somebody else, not him. Younger people should pay more. Not so easy. Youth unemployment is high–almost 21%–for a bunch of reasons. One is that workers enjoy some protections from being fired, so employers try to make do without hiring rather than get stuck with a bad apple. That also is changing, with protections being chipped away–sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The bane of gig jobs is creeping in, like kudzu or some other invasive species. But changes to worker protections did help lower unemployment overall to 8.5% from double digits a few years ago.
People say, well, older workers should retire and make way for younger ones who need jobs. But this is bad for the economy. The French call retirement “les grandes vacances”–the big vacation–but it’s really more akin to unemployment: It’s taking money from working people and giving it to non-working people. The more people who work, the more the economy hums, and the more jobs there are. In the case of Japan, where 30% of working-age women don’t work, every one percentage point increase in work participation by women would boost the economy by half a percentage point. It makes sense–you turn to services to make life easier, maybe ordering takeout or going out, having the house cleaned and laundry done, looking good by having haircuts more often. It doesn’t have to be all about consumption of stuff.Raising the retirement age is inevitable–retirement initially was based on an age that most people wouldn’t reach. So yes, you would work until you died. The idea wasn’t for a big vacation but to prevent the elderly, no longer able to earn a living, from becoming destitute.
In effect, broad-based pensions are demographic Ponzi schemes that worked until the baby bust. This is not an argument for more babies–far from it, the global population is big enough–nor is it an argument against government pensions. It’s an argument that nothing is set in stone, and that programs have to adjust. It isn’t sustainable to have people work for 30 years and be retired for 40. Even a 40-40 split doesn’t work. Retirement has to be shorter. Retiring later beats dying earlier.Working longer is easier said than done. I know so many people who have been laid off (not in France, though), even as their employers advertise job openings. I suspect my friends have been culled because they’re too expensive. They are all extremely sharp and diligent, so it isn’t because of their productivity. Their employers are profitable and hiring. Employers increasingly look at workers as disposable, even in sectors that need “knowledge” workers. With job applications now almost entirely online, it’s hard to cut through the algorithmic filters, even if you don’t fill in your graduation dates or if you drop off a decade or two from your résumé. If they want 5-7 years of experience for a “senior” job, then you’ll be spit out if you have pared down your experience to 10 years. Older people (anybody over 50) are considered slow, lacking innovation and tech-savvy.
It all means the problem is thornier than just changing the age, and look at what that step provoked. 800,000 protesters across France yesterday. I really love the way the French take to the streets to show what they believe in–Je Suis Charlie, Nous Toutes, the environment. On the other hand, I often disagree with their causes. The Gilets Jaunes originally were mad about a pollution tax. And with the pension strike now, it’s about people saying “I want mine even it it costs you.” Every French person under age 50 who isn’t part of the 3.4% enjoying special status should be out in the streets protesting in favor of change. They’re the ones getting stuck with the bill.
How many times do you walk past doors, wondering what lies inside?
Sometimes they’re ajar, allowing a peek to interior worlds.
Sometimes, even ajar, we keep walking.
Mostly I do just that–keep walking, preoccupied with my own life. These are the stories about the times I stopped to think.
The first one for me was in Africa. I was young and only newly out of my protected bubble, where such problems were hidden from view. There was a burger joint in the capital that we would frequent, Hoggers, where cassette tapes (it was long ago) of an LA pop radio station played, complete with traffic and weather reports. It was like stepping into America. I stepped out one day, belly full, and came face to face with a man, nearly naked, who was eating trash from the pile–not even a bin, but an open pile–in the alley.
My heart broke. What happened to put him there? His eyes, desperate, confused, sad, haunt me decades later.
In my village in Africa, there was a crazy man. He would come after me mercilessly. He would follow me around, yelling at me in a mix of Swahili and English. He was crazy but he was completely bilingual. “Hey! Mzungu! You! White woman!” His legs looked like they had been broken and never set, so the tibiae were completely crooked. The rags he wore were filthy. He had only a few teeth, although he wasn’t much older than me (and this was very long ago). I was terrified of him. Nobody ever stepped in as he walked behind me, haranguing me. But I think everybody kept an eye on him. Yelling at me was one thing; after all, he was crazy. I was the outsider, the easy target. When I wasn’t around, he did it to somebody else. I am sure I would have been protected if he had tried to hurt me, which he never did. There was a careful equilibrium. In the absence of mental health care, he was given food and a margin of error for strange behavior. Sometimes I think it was a kinder system than in the West.A couple of years later. At a high school class reunion, somebody thought it would be funny to pick up Ron, the once-blond football player who looked a lot like Sean Penn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He had fallen into the rabbit hole of drugs, eventually scaring his mother to the point that he was kicked out and lived on the streets, collecting cans. I didn’t approve of his lifestyle choices but I didn’t think it was at all funny to haul him in for ridicule.
Later, but still many years ago, in New York. I was reading the paper and having a coffee at an outside table at the now-defunct Café Borgia II in Soho. I sensed somebody was standing by me, so I looked up, expecting to see the waitress. Instead there was a disheveled homeless man, and I had committed the cardinal error of making eye contact. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!!” he exclaimed.
I decided that earnest incompetence was my best recourse. “Sifahamu,” I said with a big smile and my hands turned up in the universal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ symbol for I don’t know, which is what I had said. I correctly wagered that he didn’t speak Swahili.
“You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he repeated, more slowly and loudly and enunciating every syllable, as one does with foreigners who don’t speak your language. “Sifahamu. Pole sana,” I told him. So sorry.
“Deutschland über alles!” he told me, and walked off, shaking his head as if he had rarely encountered such stupidity before.More recently, I was walking around the Saturday market, filling my colorfully striped caddy with healthy produce, and I noticed a man whose age and big beard reminded me of a relative back in the U.S. who for years self-medicated his psychological problems with unhelpful results. He was small, both in stature and build, and his winter coat seemed three sizes too big. He walked with his arms kind of hugging himself, as if to make himself even smaller, and to not touch anything. He looked a little too intensely at the food on display.
It took a minute for all this to register. It dawned on me that this man, who looked so much like my fragile loved one, was probably homeless. I looked for him, but he was gone. I toured the market, frantically trying to find him, but without luck. A few weeks later, I saw him again, in the same pathetic posture. I tapped his arm and looked him in the eye and handed him a €5 note. His eyes widened. He searched my face–is this a joke?–then immediately looked at the ground. “Merci,” he said. “Bonne journée,” I told him.
When I got to my car, I cried buckets.A couple of weeks ago, I was driving down one of the boulevards with my kid. It was cold and windy. A homeless man with a big dog was seated on a bench in front of the courthouse. At the corner, waiting for the light, was a different man, tall, very thin, wearing a big red-striped knit cap and a neatly belted green trench coat. He had a small backpack over one shoulder and one of those big reusable grocery bags in his other hand. He looked lost.
“Was he….?” I said. “I think so,” my kid answered. “We should go back,” I said. “What about the one with the dog?” Kid answered. I am afraid of dogs. I will cross the street to avoid one, even if it’s on a leash. I will go around the block if it isn’t. “They have dogs for company, because nobody talks to them….anyway, you can’t save everybody,” Kid said.
Last Saturday, I was walking back to my car after the market and there was the same man, on the same corner. As he passed me, I touched his arm and said, “Excusez-moi,” handing him €5. A paltry sum, I know, but at the moment we are counting every centime as digital disruption decimates my business. Still, we live in a house and have enough to eat.
I had taken him in as he approached: he had on a polar fleece jacket, zipped up high under the trench coat. It was smartly belted again, but I could see it was old and worn. His shopping bag held some strange articles–I spotted one of those plastic drainers for dishes to drip–but very neatly arranged. Everything about him indicated a huge effort, but one that was failing catastrophically.
I looked him in the eye as he started to talk. What came out of his mouth was pure gibberish. He clearly struggled to speak. What had happened to him? Something in his brain short-circuited? And perhaps he didn’t have family to get him the help that France generously provides but that, all the same, requires a fair amount of bureaucracy, this being France? I would never know because conversation was impossible.
He went on for quite a while, and I looked at him and listened, thinking it was probably rare for him to be acknowledged as a member of the human race. Finally, I excused myself. I thought of pointing to my watch, but the juxtaposition of his state and my FitBit seemed too much. I have a watch that tracks my steps because otherwise I sit too much and eat too much. And I was standing in front of a man with no place to sit or to sleep, who doesn’t know what he will eat. I just bid him good day, and crossed the street as the light changed.Some years ago, my kid announced in franglais, “We are really pourri-gâté”–literally spoiled rotten. Yes, we are. In the 1980s, there was a trend about bootstrapping and responsibility, and it seems to be back, bigger and meaner, ignoring that some people never had bootstraps to begin with; for others, the bootstraps disintegrated for reasons that might or might not be their own fault.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and, while we didn’t do a dinner, gratitude was on my mind. I am grateful for my family–not just my nuclear family but the whole extended clan of cousins and my close friends I count as family. I am grateful for good health. I am grateful for such a full belly that I have to make an effort to exercise. I am grateful I won the birth lottery. I am grateful to live in France, where even though there are homeless, the system seems kinder.
There are many problems in the world, and you might prioritize something else. But on Black Friday, before you click to buy something you or your gift recipient don’t really need, see whether you can also do something for someone in need.
One sunny Friday afternoon in Barcelona, I was blithely walking down a busy street toward my hotel, pulling my roller carry-on suitcase, with my Furla tote sitting on top of it. A guy came out of nowhere, grabbed the bag and ran. Except I never let go. That meant he dragged me down the street. Despite my screaming bloody murder, the many people on the street just watched and did nothing.
I was not going to give up. My suitcase was nothing–it contained very replaceable clothes for a weekend. But my bag? It had my passport, my driver’s license, my credit cards. No way was I about to spend my weekend in Barcelona trying to get a new passport.
The guy finally let go, I got up, my bag intact (bravo, Furla!), and went back to my suitcase. I learned a valuable lesson: do not carry your valuables where somebody can snatch them.I’ve traveled around the world, and even hitchhiked in Africa, without incident except this. (Well, there was another time, also in Barcelona. We drove relatives to the airport there, which required two cars. Heading back home, I was alone, following my husband and kid in the other car. At an intersection, a big van rear-ended me. I honked at my husband, who didn’t notice, it turned out, because he was enjoying a chance to drive without me and had turned up godawful Euro-pop oldies on the car stereo. Anyway, I knew the scam–a woman driving alone in a car with French plates was a perfect target. The van driver would get out and while I was distracted talking to him, his accomplice would take my bag out of the car. This has happened to friends. So I ran the light, which by then had changed, and caught up with my husband’s car, too bad about any crumpled bumper on a 10-year-old Polo.)Here are a few tips to keep your travels uneventful.
Before You Leave
Make two copies of your passport. Give one to a relative or friend at home. Put the other in your suitcase and leave it at your hotel/AirBnB. If your passport is stolen, you can get a replacement more quickly. If you lose everything, including your bag (why I say to put the copy in your suitcase, because you aren’t going to put your passport there), you can call your relative/friend to fax or email the other copy. Do this also with your itinerary.
Have at least two cards: a credit card and a debit card. Your credit card is for purchases. Most credit cards come with protections in case of theft; debit cards don’t. Make sure you know your PIN, because in Europe, points of sale use chip readers. Your debit card is to withdraw cash at an ATM. Do not use a credit card to get cash! It will cost you a fortune in interest and fees! Have your card numbers someplace (with your passport copy) in case you have to call and report a stolen card.
Know your ATM limit and what the fees are for using your card abroad.When you make reservations, find about about the security deposit. For vacation rentals, some platforms deduct the security deposit in advance and reimburse you after your stay. This gives them the opportunity to make money on those funds that are in suspense. Fine, as a business model. But if you are changing apartments every three days over a two-week trip, and each one has a €500 security deposit, you could be near your credit limit and have far less available to spend than you might have realized. FYI: AirBnB doesn’t debit your account for the security deposit unless the host reports a problem within a certain amount of time after you’ve left.
Tell your bank where you will be traveling. I had been living in Brussels for a while and going to Paris on weekends pretty regularly when, late one night in Paris, my card didn’t work. I called my bank (I knew the number by heart–that’s another thing, either know the phone number or have it in your phone contacts, but memorizing is better–what if your phone is stolen?) and learned that they had detected unusual activity–that my card was being used in Paris. After answering all the security questions, they were satisfied it was me and took the hold off my card.Check your phone plan, especially for data. You need data for things like ride-hailing apps or GPS. You don’t want a nasty surprise when you get home. Check out this article. This article is a little old, but gives you a broad sample. Rick Steves also has advice, though his stuff on Carcassonne is so off-base I am not sure how much to trust it; maybe he’s better on tech.
Take out your passport only at airports and when checking into hotels. The rest of the time, leave it in your hotel safe or your AirBnB. It’s unlikely hotel staff would steal a passport–the ramifications would be severe, since electronic door keys show who entered a room and when. On the street, though, plenty of people would love to get hold of your passport. Don’t carry yours around. You don’t need it to go to a museum.
If you aren’t driving, don’t carry your driver’s license. Again, think of the hassle to replace it. Bring another ID. At a hotel, they will use your passport. What else do you need ID for? Maybe with your credit card, but it’s unlikely. Some countries (including France) require individuals to carry ID when in public. In any case, it’s smart to have something on you that says who you are in case you’re in an accident and can’t speak. Don’t bring other stuff–Social Security card, insurance card, etc. Make a copy of your insurance info and give it to your friend at home and put another copy with your passport copy. If you end up in a hospital, you might have to turn in paperwork to your insurer, but unlike the U.S., in France they will treat you first and worry about payment later. If you want to bring your insurance card, fine, but leave it with your passport at the hotel. Don’t walk around with it.
As I said earlier, credit cards tend to come with theft protections, but not debit cards. Even though I said to be sure to know your PINs, the problem is that many U.S banks don’t connect with the European system. This has two possible results: your card won’t work at all at some points of sale (this could be awkward if you’re out of gas or at a péage/tollbooth) or it will work but not ask for a PIN. That means that if your card is stolen, somebody can use it freely without inputting the PIN. Free money! From your account! Sometimes the receipt will ask for a signature, but salespeople don’t always bother to get you to sign, which is not reassuring either.Leave your debit card where you’re staying and take it out only to go to the ATM to withdraw cash. (See above–if they get your debit card and it doesn’t ask for a PIN, they can drain your account.) Use your credit card or cash for spending. Don’t carry all your cash on you. Just carry what you need for the day, with a little cushion stashed in a different place (pocket? shoe?). Leave the rest of your cash where you’re staying.
Other people have written about different bags and belts and other things for carrying your valuables safely. Never underestimate the creativity of thieves. I was in a crowded Brussels restaurant with a big table of friends. The chairs of one table touched the chairs of the next, with barely enough room for the diners sitting on them to breathe. Certainly, there was zero space to squeeze between the diners. A friend, sitting next to the wall, three friends next to her and four across, had her bag on the floor between her feet. It was stolen. Somebody had to have squirmed on the floor between diners’ legs to get to it. Somebody else I know was in a crowded bus in Nairobi, his billfold in the buttoned front pocket on his shirt. It was stolen. Another friend, a native Parisian, had her phone stolen from her bag on the Métro. I know of many backpacks and bags and back pockets whose bottoms were slashed, their contents falling out without the people being aware. BTW, if this does happen to you, check the trash cans nearby; often the thieves will take the cash and throw away the billfold. Finding yours could save you a lot of hassle.My experience with the purse snatcher was unusual. Most crime in Europe is sneaky and not violent. Somebody will distract you, often in a very pitiful way, like asking you to sign a petition for some worthy cause like deaf people or handicapped people, and they will appear to be deaf or handicapped and you will feel like a heartless creep for not simply signing your name. After going through this a couple of times, you give in. Then you turn around and discover your billfold has been slipped out of the banana bag you had been–and still are–squeezing under your arm, without you feeling a thing.
I don’t want to scare anybody; these tips also hold true for domestic travel. European and French crime rates are low. I live here feeling very safe. I forget to lock the doors; no problem. I rarely lock my car. Once, the Carnivore took out a big duffel bag out of the trunk of his car in the center of Carcassonne, and drove away, forgetting it was on the sidewalk. He came home (a 30-minute drive), realized his mistake and rushed back. It was still there, intact. Frail old ladies walk around with their handbags dangling. Little kids skip down the street toting baguettes and cartons of milk they had been sent to buy. I see people taking foolish risks, too, like leaving their phone or even a laptop (!!!) on the table at a café terrace while they went inside to use the bathroom. Yes, everybody around had the same instinct, to guard over it. But yikes. Il ne faut pas tenter le diable–don’t tempt fate.
Travel tips and secure bag recommendations welcome in the comments.
So retro, so unconnected. A piece of metal to spare one’s knuckles when summoning residents from within. They sometimes are as simple as a ring or bar of metal, but often, in usual French fashion, door knockers are elaborately decorated, sometimes as fantastical figures. They are made to last multiple generations. I love them.
Door knockers were the subject of conversation recently, and I decided it was time to post my collection, which is getting out of hand. The conversation was with a reader, who was visiting the region with her husband. These IRL (in real life) meetings are a surprising but gratifying aspect of writing this blog. The conversation turned on which model to choose, how to carry home something so heavy, and oohs and ahhs over various examples we spotted on doors as we wandered about Minerve.
Take the angel at the top. What work went into it! The chubby face, the interesting sleeves, the patterned torso.And how about this beauty? I think I stared at it for 20 minutes. There are three faces, not counting the creature itself. Is this from a story, a fairy tale? Who created it? Who lived there and decided “THIS is what I need on my door!” Was it a commissioned piece? Was it one of several choices presented to the homeowner? Where do I get one of these?Lions are a classic. None of the lions I’ve encountered (remember I lived in Africa!) would be inclined to hold a ring in its mouth. Did you know there were lions in Europe? As late as the 4th century AD, in part of Greece. I wonder how the makers of these knockers came to visualize lions.
Then we have a combination lion and ouroboros, the Egyptian symbol found on King Tut’s tomb and later associated with alchemists and gnostics, though other mythologies also included the self-eating serpent.
Fish are another theme for knockers. They look great. I’m not one to go knocking on strangers’ doors, so I am not sure how they feel in the hand. I’m a bit put off by those faces. Do you agree?The swan is a bit more elegant, don’t you think?Or this gentleman, with his pageboy coiffure and Bolton-esque moustache, gazing to the heavens in…what? exasperation? Disgust that somebody did a bad patch on the door above his head? Or, worse, that somebody scratched the door?The one my friend desires is the classic woman’s hand holding a small ball. The hand is supposed to signify welcome, and the ring symbolizes the theory that a vein runs from that finger to the heart, signifying love. What I love is that the cuff is elaborately detailed and that the fingers are delicately perched on the ball. Note that the base also is decorated behind the hand. Never miss an opportunity to add a design.
After all, more is more!Tell me which is your favorite. For great detail about the history of knockers, or heurtoirs, check out this post (in French but you’ll still get a lot out of the photos) on Paris Myope.
Before everybody bundles up in winter gear, here are a few final fashionable moments from this fall.
The woman at the top has it all: Mustard. Orange. Leopard. Rolled cuffs. Great glasses. Great hair. You can’t really make it out, but her bag was orange with a narrow turquoise-green strap, picking up on the turquoise in her shirt. This one is the opposite: monochrome from head to toe. I cut off her also awesome hair (simple bob) but even her graying blonde color went with her clothes and looked good.More mustard. Two examples of what to wear for Saturday shopping. I like to think their choices reflect their personalities. I love the flowing duster but I’m not much of a flowing kind of person. Much more of a blazer type. How about you?Speaking of flowing, lots of long dresses worn with sneakers. Love it. Same day, not that long ago! It was warm! I love that she went for bold color. You can’t really tell but she had great posture and moved fast through the crowd.Another long dress, this one with impractical boots. The skirt was tiered and very big when the wind took it, but otherwise made of a material that hung straight down. Interesting.I love the straight business skirt worn with sneakers.This is a lousy photo but it was to show the little details: a canvas bag with a cool rope handle, the shirt cuffs folded over the sweater.
One thing I’m seeing in shop windows but not so much on the street are high-waisted pants, especially dressy wool pants. Shown with shirts or sweaters tucked in. I like it.
The fashion sightings are getting harder as we move into the rainy season. Folks are covered up and it’s hard to take pictures while holding an umbrella. Although I have to say that even if it’s raining, don’t forget your sunglasses. Sometimes you need them AND the umbrella at the same time. Crazy. When I lived in Brussels it was the opposite: even if the sun was out, it would be only momentary and you’d better have an umbrella ready.
Are you colorful or neutral? Bohemian or business?
Yesterday I crossed paths with the cutest fairy–I was horrified later to realize she was a fairy, having incorrectly called her a butterfly–with irridescent rainbow wings and matching skirt. Even her face had been painted with colorful swirls. She came up to my knees, which is not much at all.
We were crossing the street, the fairy clinging to the hand of her mother. The sun was shining, despite the storm clouds. Just as the light changed, the skies opened in a kind of localized ice-bucket challenge. I was soaked to the skin before I had made it across the two lanes. Preoccupied with dodging the drops, I didn’t see how the fairy fared.That was about the extent of Halloween for us. We don’t get trick or treaters, especially since our kid is too big for such things. What I do see all over is Christmas. No! It’s still warm out! Until the rain arrived, even a light sweater was too much during the day. Of course, the rain is welcome; it’s what turns the countryside a brilliant green in winter. The vineyards are only starting to change color, not yet reaching their vivid peak. Flowers are blooming, especially wildflowers in the garrigue. As I made my way through a wooded area on my walk/run route, I heard a very loud buzzing. It sounded like what some poor idiot hears right before they stumble on the decaying body of a murder victim in a horror film. So it was with great relief that I realized the buzzing was bees, working a flowering vine that had taken over a dead tree. I put a short clip on Instagram. Unfortunately, I can’t electronically share the lovely perfume of the flowers.My new route takes me along the edge of the garrigue, that magical wilderness that smells of pine and herbs. I wear an orange cap I bought in the hunting aisle at the sporting goods store and fluorescent pink windbreaker to let hunters know I’m not a boar (maybe a bore, and at times a pig, especially around chocolate, but never, ever a boar). It only later occurred to me that the more dangerous encounter might be with an actual boar. I decided to sing to ward them off. It’s the perfect place–not a soul.
Sadly, that is changing. I see fields where vineyards have been pulled out, marked off for new housing construction. The centers of villages and towns empty out as people want freestanding houses with yards, encroaching on nature and transforming the landscape in ways that will be hard to turn back. The newcomers do not appreciate chance encounters with wild boars, either.
Today is a holiday–All Saint’s Day–and I’m contemplating how to spend it. Probably raking up the golden leaves, which fall faster than I can pick them up. Gardening is a Sisyphean task.What are you up to? Ready for winter? Or is it already winter where you live?
Since we’ve doubled down on being vegetarian, meal planning has been a challenge. Vegetarian meals aren’t just the same as traditional meals minus the meat. They’re a completely different animal (non-animal?).
Instead of grabbing a package of meat, a vegetable and potato and voilà, dinner, things are more complicated. Plus, we make an effort to get complete proteins, even though it’s possible to have some of the amino acids at lunch and the complement at dinner (beans plus rice, for example).
Our kid has become quite the foodie, doing a lot of cooking and learning techniques from the Internet, especially from Bon Appétit, whose employees now feel like old friends.
A few weeks ago, local teens were treated to a kind of low-budget TED Talk about food waste, hosted by the company that does municipal solid waste removal, Covaldem. A repeat of the talk in the evening was aimed at adults, with a no-waste tasting afterward. The theater was full.
They even gave away a little booklet of “anti-gaspi” (anti-gaspillage = no waste) recipes by local chefs. For example, autumn vegetable soup with croutons, a velouté (thick soup) of potimarron (a kind of small, sweet pumpkin) with a “tartine” made with the potimarron skin, nuts, and grilled potimarron seeds. The idea was to either use everything, or to transform leftovers.
The talk pointed out that 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year worldwide, which accounts for a third of food produced. It went through expiration dates (many of which are n’importe quoi–whatever–except for meat and fish), and pointed out ways that supermarkets have been pushed to reduce waste, such as by having a display for discounted food that’s about to expire, or for “ugly” vegetables and fruit, also discounted. They also said restaurants are being encouraged to let diners take home what’s left of their meals, not in “doggie bags” but in “gourmet bags.”
The talk also pointed out that meal planning can reduce waste. A few days later, a friend told me about an app for meal planning and it’s everything I wanted. It’s called Jow, and it seems to be available only in France. That’s because it links to several chains of supermarkets to make your shopping list, which you can then order online. The app is free, so they must make their money by getting a commission from the supermarkets.
I prefer to buy my produce at the market, so I haven’t made any purchases through the app. Curiously, even though the app is French and I never made any language selection, some of the recipes turn up in English. Or partly in English and partly in French. It’s fine with me–it’s how we roll in our house.
First you choose your supermarket (you can put anything, just to continue. A Walter Mitty moment where you can pick your dream French town). Then how many people you’re cooking for and how many are children. Then what you eat: everything/vegetarian/vegan/no pork/no gluten/no dairy.
Next it asks what you have in your kitchen: oven, microwave, stovetop, fryer, blender (and what kind), automatic cooker (Thermomix or other brand–they’re listed). Then you put in how many meals you want to plan: 2? 5? 7?
Et boum! (Not a typo–that’s the French spelling.) Meal ideas, mostly one-dish, with recipes and compiled shopping list. The recipes change each week. Doing it just now, Jow suggested onion quiche with chèvre and honey, shakshuka, eggplant curry, pear and gorgonzola pizza, and sweet potato gratin with chestnuts. If you don’t like something, you click on the remplacer button and it suggests something else.
Click on the red shopping cart to get your shopping list. There, you can eliminate items that you already have in your pantry or add other things you need, like breakfast foods or dish soap. The entire list for the five menus above come to €49.40 at Leclerc.
I made the eggplant curry, but I had only a tiny eggplant, so I added other vegetables (mushrooms and spinach stems….yes stems. You can get bags of baby spinach at the store but at the market it’s much bigger, sometimes with the roots still attached). Last week there was a quiche with roasted butternut squash and red onion; I substituted leeks and zucchini. I also made the risotto with red peppers.
Other suggestions under vegetarian: onion tart tatin; Tunisian lablabi; roasted camembert; crunchy tofu with quinoa and broccoli; roasted tomatoes with feta; chèvre and spinach tourte; eggplant parmesan; lentil and avocado salad; salad with dried apricots and spice bread; beet, chèvre and nut quiche; zucchini crumble; pasta with muchrooms; gnocchi with spinach and gorgonzola; polenta with roasted tomatoes. And you can click on more recipes. There are other buttons to try: favorites, new, exotic, autumn, express, desserts, healthy, veggie, gluten-free.
It’s easy to eliminate things you don’t want. The recipes are quick and easy and they give an idea of reasonable portion sizes. Some, like the tarts and quiches, are for four–you can’t really make a quiche for two–so we have leftovers for lunch. I realize that while I eat very healthy–everything homemade, heavy on vegetables–I eat too much. Portion control is the very French way of dieting. My Fitbit tells me that even with running I barely pass 2,000 calories in a day, far less on the days I don’t run, then something has to give. FitBit’s calculations are based on averages for age, height and weight. At some point recently, I seem to have passed into a new category, because for the same number of steps in a day it was telling me I was burning significantly fewer calories. Wake-up call! How middle-age spread happens.
Years ago, I tried to do the same thing as Jow, but using a spreadsheet, not with all the wonders of app technology. It was an utter failure–clumsy, bulky, hard to change, hard to organize. I am sure there are other apps out there, ones that connect to your local supermarket. But if you want some meal planning help with French flavor, check out Jow.
This isn’t sponsored. I just really like Jow. If you have similar apps that you like, please mention them in the comments so readers in your country can find out about them.
When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.
The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.
Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.Some were colorful, very dramatic.You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.
We had a reunion last weekend. Two sets of neighbors who had moved away came for a visit, spurring a long, chatty lunch with the entire gang. We dined en terrasse, where it was borderline hot. The day before had been incredibly windy–my laundry was ripped off the line and scattered across the yard. But on the appointed day, there wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze. The sun shone. The birds joined the jazz playing. It was perfect.
It wasn’t last minute but not with great advance warning either, so the food was simple. One neighbor brought nuts and charcuterie for the apéritif; another brought cheeses and apple pies (three! homemade!) for dessert; we supplied barbecued ribs and non-meat options–spanakopita, hummus, Patricia Wells’s red peppers with cumin. One of the returning neighbors has been vegetarian since before it was fashionable the last time, as well as a yoga teacher since well before the Beatles discovered yoga. My role model.
Everybody was thrilled to be reunited. Truly tickled pink. We’re several years older now, and it’s these gaps in gatherings that make everybody look back and realize that OMG Time Has Passed. My role model remarked on how much our palm trees had grown since she moved away. She kindly didn’t mention how many wrinkles I had acquired. But back when the palm trees were shorter than me, my face was smoother.That’s the least of it. So many medical issues, all around. They seem to give everyone an urgency that life is short and precious.
There is also, for me at least, a hard-won intimacy that comes only with the passage of time and true affection, though I always think I should do more. The others, for example, helped dig each other out after the historic flood that hit before we arrived. They did each other’s laundry. They had each other’s back. Muffin deliveries can’t measure up to that.
Yet, little by little, it happens. I’ve learned which ones got pregnant before their weddings and other little tidbits that are water under the bridge and no longer anything that would raise an eyebrow but not usually common knowledge either. These stories amuse me to no end and make me love my friends more than ever.
In town, there’s a group of friends I call the Fashionable Glasses Group. They are in their 70s, all meticulously dressed, and all with very not-ordinary eyeglasses. They meet at the same café every Saturday morning at the market. One time I was sitting at a table next to them, and more and more of their friends came and asked to take the empty chairs at my table. Eventually I suggested they also use the table for their coffees, and somehow I finagled my way into their conversation, which was brilliant.
Recently, I once again was seated next to the Fashionable Glasses Group. A guy in the same demographic came up and started chatting, then sat down. Eventually his wife, as immaculately dressed as he (in coordinating colors with him–post on that coming up) arrived, flicking her hands sharply with the south-of-France gesture that means “extreme/lots/you wouldn’t believe it,” and saying she was held up because, as she walked down the street, she just kept running into people! I couldn’t help myself. I eavesdropped. I did more that that. I took notes.
The gentleman then explained that he likes to go to the forest. He described preparing his thermos of coffee. He rhapsodized about the whispering pines, the piercing stars at night, the song of the cigales, or cicadas, in summer.
One time, a cigale drowned in his pool. “She wanted to save it,” he said, gesturing at his wife. “What could I do? Mouth-to-mouth?”
“It didn’t move. The poor thing was dead. My sister gets crazy from the song of the cigales. You know, it can drive you mad.”
At this, the Fashionable Glasses Group nodded in agreement and interjected their own tales of having been driven over the edge by the incessant ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of these insects. There also was a tangential discussion of how big they get, which I thought resembled some fishermen’s stories.
“So I wrapped up the dead cigale and put it in an envelope to send to my sister as a joke,” he continued. “A few days later, I went to put the envelope in the mailbox. Just then, it started vibrating! It was alive! I opened the envelope and the cigale flew away! So I didn’t get to play a joke on my sister.”
When you see a group of classy, bourgeoise French friends sitting at a café and talking animatedly, now you know: this is the kind of stuff they are discussing.
I love it.
If you want to know the names of some of these, click here.