Abbey Secrets

IMG_2197As mentioned on Tuesday, sparkling wine originated in the south of France, specifically at the abbey of Saint-Hilaire about 15 minutes’ drive south of Carcassonne. The abbey itself is a magical place where time stops. There were only two other people there during our visit, a real opportunity to let the imagination run among the old stones that echo with the past. There are even ghost stories.IMG_9428IMG_9429IMG_2148It’s hard to pinpoint when the abbey was founded, but Charlemagne made donations in the 800s. It originally was named for Saint Saturnin, aka Saint Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse, but in the 900s the name was changed to Saint Hilaire, after the sixth-century bishop of Carcassonne.  In the 1500s, the monks invented sparkling wine, with documentation dated 1531.

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You’re seeing it: where sparkling wine was born. This kind of aggregate is called poudingue.
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Trap doors in the ceiling for locals to give food to the monks without actually interacting. Because you know, they can’t be tainted with thoughts from the outside world.

That’s also about the time–1534–that the abbey got a lay financier.  The main abbot, Gérard de Bonnet, administered the abbey from 1509 to 1536 and had his own room lavishly decorated. The ostentatiousness was to signal to anyone who entered just how powerful he was.IMG_2174In the most private room of the already off-limits abbey, we see some wild stuff. Hard to know where to start. The historical notes in the room described the panels below as “inappropriate,” so avert your eyes if you’re more delicate than a dirty old monk.IMG_2181The part on the left has a naked woman in a bath, and a guy is slipping his hand into the water. The inscriptions are like comics bubbles, with the woman saying “what do you expect to undress?” and the man says “I was just waiting for your invitation.” The guy in the panel next to it, dressed in red, holds a pot of oil and ointment, wanting to participate in the bath scene. My goodness!IMG_2185The other eyebrow-raising panel, above, shows a guy mooning us, known as “souflacus,” or “man who farts.” I supposed that back in the day of chamber pots (which were emptied out the window onto the street below) or just going in the street, people must have been rather relaxed about bodily functions. Even the Christmas santons of Provence usually include some vulgar examples.IMG_2187The historical notes speculated the half-man, half-beast above was intended to ridicule someone, but it isn’t known who. Pre-Twitter burn! IMG_2191The woman emerging from a snail shell isn’t explained beyond a note that snails are hermaphrodites and can change their sex. Make of it what you will.IMG_2182The hand is Saint Hilaire’s, and the inscription says “Saint Hilaire blesses people.” Next to it is a falconer leaning out a window.IMG_2186The archer above is shooting at a menacing rat in the next panel, which didn’t turn out. Sorry! It has to do with the plague, which nearly wiped out the population in the 15th century.IMG_2176IMG_2183Not every panel is explained, but above you can make out a carpenter and a joiner.IMG_2175I think this might show Jeanne d’Arc.IMG_2188Monsters are on the beams across the middle of the room. Threats to those who defy authority.IMG_2189There was no explanation of this panel, which seems to show people of African origin. A similar depiction is on a coat of arms above the door. It says “fidelity and valor” on both. Anybody know?IMG_2194It resembles the coat of arms of Henri-Marie-Gaston de Bonnechose, born in 1800 and bishop of Carcassonne in 1847. The Carcassonne link makes sense, and the room was renovated in the 19th century. It was then that the ceiling, which (luckily) had been covered with panels was rediscovered and refreshed and the walls were painted with the names and coats of arms of all the the 55 abbots, along with their date of election.IMG_2177The whole place was fortified, and a village grew up around it. The bad old days, when you had to be in by dark or you could be jumped by roving bandits. IMG_9432The church itself is mostly austere, but there are interesting carved things.IMG_2160IMG_9434IMG_2157The most interesting piece is the sarcophagus of Saint Saturnin, aka Sernin, made of white marble from the Pyrénées. Saturnin/Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse in the third century, around 250, and is pictured being arrested, martyred by being dragged by a bull, and buried.IMG_2153The sculptor, whose name isn’t known, is called the master of Cabestany and is credited with more than 100 works across Europe–as far as Spain and Italy, plus several around here (Rieux-Minervois, the Saint-Papoul abbey and the Lagrasse abbey, in addition to Saint-Hilaire).

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Under this stone, no human bones but animal remains and pieces of pottery!
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This unmarked tomb holds a mix of bones, probably of nobles, lords and monks.

Whether you like knowing where the skeletons are buried….IMG_2164…or you just like old stones, Saint-Hilaire is a trip in time. There is so much to see, all while listening to the wind whistle. If you come in summer, the wind will be drowned out by the chattering of the cicadas. Still peaceful. Probably unchanged since Saint Sernin’s era in 250. Or before.IMG_2161IMG_2163IMG_2159I highly recommend taking the back roads. The main one is very nice–the Pyrénées are smack in front of you–but the little country roads offer spectacular views.

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Do you see the snowy peaks of the Pyrénées?

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Birthplace of Bubbly

P1090410Where did champagne come from? Not from Champagne or Dom Pérignon! The first sparkling wine can be traced to the 1500s in the area around Limoux, just south of Carcassonne. It was first mentioned in a document from 1544 (the town of Limoux was ordering some!), but it was in 1531 that monks from the nearby Saint-Hilaire abbey figured out how to make sparkling wine on purpose–previously it had just been by accident and not considered a good thing, either. Dom Pérignon wasn’t even born until 1638, nearly 100 years later.

My friends who recently visited are fans of champagne, and I just had to give them a tasting of blanquette de Limoux–in fact, it was the first stop on their first full day here. We went to Sieur d’Arques in Limoux, the biggest house and sponsor of the Toques et Clochers fundraising festival I wrote about here. Sieur d’Arques was a real person, the lord of the region in the 1500s. IMG_2147We tasted the range of Premiere Bulle wines–named for being the “first bubble”–sticking to the brut, or dry, offerings rather than the sweeter ones. The traditional blanquette brut has three kinds of grapes: at least 90% Mauzac, plus Chardonnay and/or Chenin blanc. The grapes are pressed and fermented separately before being mixed and bottled. The magic is in the mix–only those grapes are allowed, and the winemaker can choose whether to add 10% Chardonnay or 10% Chenin blanc to the Mauzac, or a little of each, in some ratio that adds up to 10%. A second fermentation happens in the bottles, over nine to 18 months.

The bottles are stored on their sides until it’s time to put them into riddling racks, almost upside-down, so the sediments move to the neck of the bottles. They are turned–rémuage–then the sediment is disgorged and the bottles are topped up.IMG_2146The méthode ancestrale uses 100% Mauzac grapes. The first fermentation is in vats, then the wine is bottled at the waning moon in March for a second fermentation of only two months, to reach only 6 degrees of alcohol. I’m not a fan of ancestrale, because I find it too sweet.

Then there’s crémant, which is made from a majority of Chardonnay, mixed with another grape–Chenin, Mauzac or Pinot noir (which produces rosé). Crémant has to age for at least 12 months, and Sieur d’Arques ages its crémants for 18-30 months.

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Love the sconces.

Sieur d’Arques isn’t the only maker of blanquette de Limoux. Other large producers include Antech, Aguila, Guinot and Anne de Joyeuse. Here’s a complete list.

Blanquette de Limoux is considerably less expensive than champagne, which, coming from near Paris, became fashionable among the royal court in the 1600s and has enjoyed superior public relations ever since. In the 1600s it would have been a very long, rough journey from Limoux to Paris. Consider this your insider tip for the good stuff whose price hasn’t been jacked up by branding.IMG_2226We did have some champagne, as well, from Chanoine Frères, which is the second-oldest champagne house. It was so fancy it came with a little jacket to keep it cool. It was good, but the blanquette was just as delicious.

Have you had blanquette de Limoux or crémant de Limoux? Or are you sticking with champagne?

 

Five Days in the Other South of France

IMG_2130On Tuesday, I said goodbye to our latest visitors, a friend of many years and his sister. It was a really good visit, and they claimed they enjoyed it even more than the week they spent in Paris before coming down here. The pace is calmer, the lines are shorter to non-existent, the weather is sunnier, the food is better and there’s no shortage of things to see and do.

As usual, I made a spreadsheet. I gave it to my friends so they would know what was in store each day. It wasn’t about keeping a strict schedule; instead it was to know whether to dress for walking or visiting. For me, it was to group destinations geographically.Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 8.52.21 AMHowever, this was overly ambitious. It’s a little bit like a buffet serving only foods you like. You want to taste everything, but it isn’t possible–there’s just too much. Everything looks so conveniently close on a map, but in reality, especially on small roads in the mountains, it takes a long time to get from A to B. Happily, the driving is accompanied by jaw-dropping views, no matter where you go. So you have to pick the best options, which are sometimes just the most realistically accomplished, and really relish them. Here is what we actually accomplished:Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 9.13.41 AMWe started the days a little later than I had expected (totally fine! it’s vacation! but in case they were ready to charge off early, I had a plan), we spent more time than I had expected at each place, and some things ended up just too far to drive. Even though my friends stayed at our apartment l’Ancienne Tannerie in Carcassonne, just a short walk from la Cité, we didn’t go Carcassonne’s main attraction until Saturday afternoon, when other family obligations limited how far we could venture. It was good to have a sight to see that was so close by. We returned to la Cité on Sunday morning to see the museum and to walk around again when there were fewer people. We also didn’t go on Thursday because it was a holiday and was certainly crowded.

Toward fireplace
l’Ancienne Tannerie

We alternated restaurants and home cooking to avoid feeling overfed, but two of the meals at home were copious anyway because we had another visitor–a longtime friend of the Carnivore’s from Belgium. Luckily he spoke good English and my friends were able to get another European perspective in the dinner conversation. We cooked our greatest hits, almost all of the recipes having appeared here on the blog. The cooking portion will get its own post.

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At our favorite restaurant, le Clos des Framboisiers. This is special off-menu starter, a flan with red peppers, served on a bed of vegetables, with asparagus cream. Delicious. The very first photo is half-cooked foie gras, with a balsamic-raspberry jam, a mini-waffle, and sprouts seasoned with a raspberry vinaigrette.

If you’re staying in a home or apartment and want to eat in but you don’t have all your recipes or usual utensils, you can pick up prepared dishes at supermarket delis or at butcher shops. We got a cassoulet from the butcher with each round of visitors–just put it in the oven. Couldn’t be easier. And believe me, the local butchers make very good cassoulet. Another thing we picked up was aligot, a cheesy potato dish.

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Another starter: Sautéed scallops with an orange-curry carrot cream and a drizzle of provençale oil.

Our friends arrived at lunch time, so the first thing we did was go to eat. I had expected to have a simple sandwich at a café on the square, but they had left their hotel in Paris very early to get to the airport and hadn’t had breakfast. So we went to a little restaurant on Place Carnot, l’Artichaut (The Artichoke). One had duck, the other a macaroni dish with blue cheese and beef, and the Carnivore and I both had steak tartare.

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Another not on the menu: stuffed chicken breast on mashed potatoes, and I forgot what all was in it. OMG.

Somehow we managed to work up an appetite by evening to go to our favorite restaurant. Le Clos des Framboisiers was recommended to us shortly after we moved here and it has stayed our favorite spot ever since. The food is always interesting, never ordinary, and both the Carnivore and I (with opposite ideas about food) find offerings we like. The service is impeccable and the setting is gorgeous–it’s in an old stone farmhouse that once was on the edge of town, or even outside it. A housing development has since grown around it–you wind around the maze of streets to a cul de sac, where almost all the customers’ parked cars sport 11 license plates–each département in France has a number, and Aude, where Carcassonne is located, is 11. Even though it’s in walking distance of la Cité, it’s hard to find and has no website, so it remains a locals’ favorite, and you had better reserve. Once you pass behind the tall walls, you’re in another world. There are several rooms, each intimate yet different: One has stone walls, another overlooks the pool, another is all wood, with lots of African and other ethnic art. The diversity of the décor–which changes frequently–make each visit feel fresh. The menu changes frequently, too. We were there in March, and two months later it was different. Here is the latest:IMG_2129Plus there were a starter and a main dish that weren’t on the menu. The only thing missing is a vegetarian option, though I see they make alterations; will ask next time. The menu is prix fixe–apéritif, starter, main dish, cheese and dessert for €32 per person. I think the only reason le Clos des Framboisiers doesn’t have Michelin stars is that the décor is too relaxed. On our early visits, everything clearly came from brocantes, and no two chairs matched. Same with the cutlery. I loved it. Personality! Certainly the food warrants Michelin notice.

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Steak with a morel-port reduction.
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Duck breast with caramelized pear, perfumed with flaxseed.
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Lamb with a honey-onion jam, deglazed with balsamic vinegar.

My friends thought the restaurant and food were a surprising mix of fancy and casual. The food was delicious, as always, nothing industrial or prepackaged about it. It isn’t a chain, but a restaurant run by the chef and his wife, using locally purchased ingredients. The restaurant felt relaxed, but everybody there was wearing what might be called casual smart. It didn’t seem like a fancy place, but it was so much nicer than, say, Carraba’s or Olive Garden, yet the same price or cheaper for similar menu items, and far less than a chain like Ruth’s Chris. The portions aren’t gigantic–doggy bags are unheard-of here–but even the Carnivore is stuffed to the gills by the end of the evening.

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Brie de Meaux.
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Crottin de Chevre (goat pellet!), hiding under the toast, with honey. Classic.

Not to forget there’s a cheese interlude. Because: France.

For some reason, I don’t have photos of all the desserts. There was a lemon sorbet with vodka and pear sorbet with pear liqueur.

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Dark chocolate ganache with whipped cream.

I think we were at the table for more than three hours. It never felt long, and any time between courses was a welcome pause to prepare for the rest. Also, the conversation was fantastic. My friend and I had a lot to catch up on, picking up the thread of each other’s lives as if it hadn’t been three years since we last saw each other. I guess when you’ve known each other for more than three decades, such a gap is nothing. And his sister turned out, unsurprisingly, to be my soul sister. It was a total delight to get to know her, yet frustrating, because she wasn’t staying.

Don’t you love making those connections? Where you discover someone who has come to more or less the same point in the world, albeit by another route? The sister and I couldn’t be more different on one hand–she said her goal in life was to be a stay-at-home mom. I put off having children until it was almost too late, rebelling against the pressure to have kids and to accept second-class status in my career because the sacrifices to succeed would be incompatible with family life–for women, not for men, who had no problem having kids and working. Early on in my work life, my supervisor (we’ll call him Kent, his real name) told me that “the problem with America is women like you: white, married, educated and you refuse to have children.” Of course, the real problem is supervisors like Kent, who count the number of hours spent at work rather than the quality of the work done.

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Another special not on the menu: a raspberry mousse with dark chocolate crumble, topped by raspberry whipped cream.

The sister was not someone who sought refuge in child-rearing because everything else was too hard. I’ve met more than a few of that type, too–let the men go to work and handle the money, and the women can cook and clean and take care of the children and not worry about anything. Paternalism. If that’s what some want, fine, but don’t impose it on others. Anyway, my friend’s sister was simply passionate about children, and they are endlessly interesting, if energy-sapping. She also loves cooking, in an intellectual way, understanding how the chemistry works. She knows how to make things with her hands: not just food but also textiles. I was impressed. But where we communed was our mutual curiosity about the world. Either you see the world as a troubled, scary place to turn your back on, to shut out, wall off, keep out of your ordered, predictable existence. Or you see the world as a fascinating place, full of adventures and surprises. There are few things as satisfying as presenting such a curious person with a new experience–a painted medieval ceiling, a hidden picnic spot, a gorgeous view, a new food, new drink–and watching them discover it with the enthusiasm of a child unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.

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Outdoor dining around the pool at le Clos des Framboisiers during the summer.

Thanks to my friend and his sister for giving me that joy over the past (too few) days.

French Underground Redux

IMG_1962What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.

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A couple of columns.
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An impressive column, millennia in the making.

With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria). IMG_1954IMG_1957IMG_1929

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Reflections

The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.IMG_1915

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A drapery or curtain formation.
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Bear scratches. In the first room. All the bones and bits of pottery were found in the first room–before torches nobody–not even bears–dared go farther.
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The ceiling looks like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, no?
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This also looks like abstract art.

The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.

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A fine column.
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In another part of the cave, you can see the water lines, which is how the “ballroom” would have formed.

IMG_1941IMG_1940The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.

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The water in this “lake” rises as high as that stalagmite in the center, and dries completely in November.

There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers.IMG_1934 IMG_1931IMG_1932The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.

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A big puddle of water, perfectly clear, the bottom like an eerie moonscape.
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Another puddle. Can you make out where the reflection is?

IMG_1926The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. IMG_1950IMG_1953I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!IMG_1912

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What sculpture nature makes!

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Facelift

P1090909Carcassonne has been encouraging property owners in the center of town to freshen up their façades. At first, the results seemed garish amid the predominantly sandy shades of plaster past. Painted ladies. But now that so many have been done, the effect is festive. P1100777P1070868It’s also an opportunity to hide all the wires that have accumulated over the decades. As one of the historic preservation people told me, folks put in an electric line for one lightbulb per room, then they added lines as they added radios, refrigerators, and other appliances, usually without redoing the wiring, and just bundling everything on the outside, because these walls are stone, as thick as an arm’s length. Indeed, the wiring in our apartments was frightful, and we had it completely redone. I see lots of hanging wires still, but the regulation is to hide them, so it must be coming.IMG_1535The central square, Place Carnot, fairly gleams now. Above and below. All those colors are so Instagrammable.P1090755IMG_1534P1090122Even the safety netting was celebratory.IMG_1532The main street, rue du Verdun, also is looking smart.IMG_1017IMG_1015Below, a façade that has seen some history. Those claw-like things are to reinforce where the wall is threatening to buckle.P1100775I kind of enjoy the traces from the past, like the walled-over door. But there’s a fine line between character and disrepair. I’m also chuckling because I took these photos over several months and somehow the sky is consistently azure.

More visitors are arriving this week, and I have to keep this short so I can finalize preparations. On the menu: asparagus omelette, strawberry-mushroom risotto (my kid’s new specialty), cheese soufflé (which I have had my past two rounds of visitors make and it was perfect both times, proof even beginners can make it!), and chocolate mousse.

I’m sure we’ll see some fun things to share soon.

South of France Street Style

IMG_1540Before the weather changes too much–it was downright hot yesterday–and these photos make everybody uncomfortable, I needed to give a nod to the stylish people I’ve encountered.

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Aren’t they adorable? Skirts, sneakers, black motos. Even as kids, French women have class.

IMG_1610At least some of them. It isn’t easy to take photos! I always have other stuff in my hands and have to search for my phone (at least now I have a phone that takes photos. New for me. Such a convenience!). And my targets are on the move, sometimes very speedy. Plus there are lots of other people getting in the way. I tip my hat to those who manage to take good street style shots.

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Matching couples crack me up.

As you can see in the first photo, low boots, not too bulky, with cropped or cuffed pants are popular. I also have seen a number of young women with cropped pants that are more flowy, wearing high socks that match their shoes (for example, wide black pants with red socks and red shoes). Not a look I would adopt, but if you’re a daring type…

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Maroon pants, maroon shoes.
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Green pants, green shoes on a guy.

Similarly, I see lots of people–men and women–matching their pants and shoes. These are just the two shots I got, but I have seen more red pants/red shoes combos than I can count. Even mustard pants with mustard Pumas. IMG_1683 2Olive green is everywhere, as I noted previously. This lovely lady was entirely dressed in sage. I have seen so many others; one who impressed me wore olive from head to toe, and her olive boots had a metallic sheen. I’ve seen other monochrome outfits as well, such as a woman in a silvery gray, with silver boots. This has always been a chic choice when done in black, but it’s in other colors, too. A French style tip that anybody can pull off anywhere–dress completely in one color. Matchy-matchy is back.IMG_2085This lady was dressed to travel. I blurred her face. Note her simple-yet-a-statement necklace and pretty earrings. Her red jacket was fitted and matched her suitcase. The jewelry and jacket make her look dressy despite jeans and (red) ballerinas. And she had an excellent haircut. She had a little makeup on–neither “made up” nor bare-faced. Just soignée–well-maintained.IMG_1544I’m not artsy or bohemian enough for this look, but kudos to her for mixing a leopard coat with an Indian bag. And her boots have embroidery. I bet she is interesting.IMG_1733Sorry about the awful photo, but it’s to show pants I see all over: self-tie, rolled cuffs, high/natural waist. With or without the cargo pockets, but in light, silky fabrics, not the usual twill.IMG_1546With the weather changing, I’ll be hunting for summer looks, and I’m still gathering men’s pics. Anything here that you would wear? Do you see the same trends where you are?

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Carcassonne’s market…my style hunting ground, where locals dress to shop.

 

Camon, Village of Roses

IMG_2044What could be cuter than a French village? How about one with sumptuous roses climbing up its stone walls. Camon, in the southern French département of Ariège, is Rose Central. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the “Plus Beaux Villages”–Most Beautiful Villages–of France, which is an official thing.IMG_2055IMG_2047IMG_2041IMG_2036In fact, last weekend Camon held a Rose Festival. Just before, I went with some visitors (which is why I didn’t post last Friday–stop the computer and smell the roses; I did however use my phone to take photos). It was funny to see folding tables set up in the little lanes, in preparation for the communal feast. IMG_2043Camon possibly has more blooms than humans (population 143). It’s called “Little Carcassonne.” It does indeed have lots of stone walls and a château, which is now a fancy hotel. It looks nice, but Camon is really, really quiet. I’d rather be in big Carcassonne, in our apartments to be precise, and take a daytrip down to Camon, which can easily be covered in meticulous detail in under an hour.

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Undoubtedly where the “Little Carcassonne” moniker came from.

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Hmph! Not old at all, at least in these parts!

IMG_2037Camon is just 10-15 minutes’ drive from Mirepoix, so you get a two-fer. A new Mirepoix post is coming soon, surprise, surprise.IMG_2049

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All the roses are planted in the tiniest holes in the pavement. No mulch possible!
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Rose bushes at the end of vineyard rows. Roses attract the pests first, alerting the winegrower. Like a canary in a coal mine.

IMG_2051It was raining the day we visited, but the light drizzle didn’t deter us. It might have even added to the ambiance, making the roses even brighter.

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Églantine, or sweet briar, a kind of wild rose. I have a friend named Églantine; isn’t that a gorgeous name?
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Rose petals on the ground…and not a speck of trash anywhere.

 

 

 

Unmistakably French

P1020091I am still collecting French fashion photos, especially couples and men. So many chic people out and about! But today is crazy busy so I’m going to share my penchant for all the fancy carved details that let you know you’re in France.P1060854P1070102IMG_3076

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Because the railings are too beautiful not to show.

P1030324P1080847P1070070IMG_0016What are your favorite decorations? Faces? Lions? Really old dates? Coats of arms?

All in the Family

IMG_1772Hardware stores are my happy place. They promise solutions to problems. Often know-how is required (where it all falls apart for me), but still, those neat shelves of fixes lower my blood pressure. Hardware stores set the world straight again.

One day a while back, I was happily strolling through a hardware store when for some reason I found myself actually listening to the piped-in radio. And tears started streaming down my face.

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Doors and windows of Toulouse, to accompany reflections about staying and leaving.

The song, “Je Vole,” was a hit in 1978, written and performed by French pop idol Michel Sardou. The song inspired a movie, “La Famille Bélier,” about a girl whose parents and brother are deaf. She is their indispensable translator. But she discovers she has a gift–an incredible voice–and her music teacher is encouraging her to go to a special school, far from her family.

Here are the lyrics. I’m crying just typing this. It gets me, as a mother and as a daughter.IMG_1790First in French:

Mes chers parents

Je pars

Je vous aime mais je pars 

Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant

Ce soir

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je vole

C’est jeudi il est 5 heures 5

J’ai bouclé une petite valise

Et je traverse doucement l’appartement endormi

J’ouvre la porte d’entrée

En retenant mon souffle

Et je marche sur la pointe des pieds

Comme les soirs

Où je rentrais après minuit

Pour ne pas qu’ils se réveillent

Hier soir à table

J’ai bien cru que ma mère

Se doutait de quelque chose

Elle m’a demandé si j’étais malade

Et pourquoi j’étais si pâle

J’ai dis que j’était très bien

Tout à fait clair

Je pense qu’elle a fait semblant de me croire

Et mon père a souri

En passant à côté de sa voiture

J’ai ressenti comme un drôle de coup

Je pensais que ce s’rait plus dur

Et plus grisant un peu

Comme une aventure

En moins déchirant

Oh surtout ne pas se retourner

S’éloigner un peu plus

Il y a la gare

Et après la gare

Il y a l’Atlantique

Et après l’Atlantique

C’est bizarre cette espèce de cage

Qui me bloque la poitrine

Ca m’empêche presque de respirer

Je me demande si tout à l’heure

Mes parents se douteront

Que je suis en train de pleurer

Oh surtout ne pas se retourner

Ni des yeux ni de la tête

Ne pas regarder derrière

Seulement voir ce que je me suis promis

Et pourquoi et où et comment

Il est 7 heures moins 5

Je me suis rendormi

Dans ce train qui s’éloigne un peu plus

Oh surtout ne plus se retourner

Jamais

Mes chers parents

Je pars

Je vous aime mais je pars 

Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant

Ce soir

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je vole

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je voleIMG_1735And in English:

My dear parents

I’m leaving

I love you but I’m leaving

You won’t have children anymore

tonight

I’m not fleeing but I’m flying

Understand well, I’m flying

Without smoke without alcohol

I fly, I fly.

It’s Thursday it’s five-o-five.

I’ve buckled a small suitcase

And I softly cross the sleepy apartment 

I open the front door

And hold my breath

And I walk on tiptoe

Like the nights

I came home after midnight

So they wouldn’t wake up.

Yesterday evening at dinner

I really thought my mother

Was suspecting something

She asked me if I was sick

And why I was so pale

I said that I was fine

It’s very clear

I think she pretended to believe me

And my father smiled.

Passing next to the car

I suddenly felt something strange

I thought that it would be harder

And more exhilarating a little

Like an adventure

At least less heart-breaking.

Oh, above all don’t turn back

Go a little farther

There’s the train station

And after the train station

There’s the Atlantic

And after the Atlantic

It’s bizarre, this kind of cage

That blocks my chest

That almost stops me from breathing

I wonder whether later 

My parents will suspect

That I’m crying

Oh above all don’t turn back

Neither eyes nor head

Don’t look back

Only see what I’ve promised myself

And why and where and how

It’s five to seven

I fell back to sleep

in this train that gets a little farther away

Oh above all don’t turn back

Never

My dear parents

I’m leaving

I love you but I’m leaving

You won’t have children anymore

tonight

I’m not fleeing but I’m flying

Understand well, I’m flying

Without smoke without alcohol

I fly, I fly.

If your eyes are still dry, you are a tough cookie.IMG_1787It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I truly appreciated my own parents. Especially my mother. She would do anything and everything for her children. And yet, I felt tethered to a leash. I was pushed to succeed, but in a very narrow sense, defined by traditional gender roles. Good grades in math were not appreciated–nobody would marry me, she warned.IMG_1780IMG_1781All the same, she wasn’t happy with traditional roles. She was an artist and completely uninterested in housekeeping or cooking. We her children stifled her, too. When she would sing with the radio, we would cover our ears and howl for her to stop. Leashes are attached at both ends.IMG_4324But I was rarely there for her. Flying the nest wasn’t enough–I felt the need to cross an ocean, too. I dreamed of seeing the world. I didn’t want to end up like my mom, my life a series of laundry loads and of getting supper on the table. And yet. If “Let It Go” is playing somewhere, and of course I sing/belt along, my kid gives me the same treatment I gave my mom. The circle of life.IMG_1766In a way, I was her translator. She was very shy, insecure, worried about being a problem. She joked that she was Edith in “All in the Family,” and my dad certainly did a good imitation of Archie Bunker. In a store, if she didn’t find what she wanted, she would slink out. If I said, let’s ask a clerk, she’d be horrified–“don’t bother those people! They’re busy!” But I would do it anyway, and almost always they would have exactly what she wanted. All she needed to do was ask. Or have me ask for her.IMG_1771I wish I had been easier on her, had held her hand more through situations that made her uncomfortable. How did she, such an introvert, manage teach me not to be afraid, which is not at all the same as being brave? If you’re brave, you’re aware of just how badly things can go but you feel compelled or obliged to do something anyway. If you’re not afraid, you’re confident everything will turn out fine. IMG_6034She’s the one who gave me my wings, so I could fly.

I don’t approve of Hallmark holidays, and every day should be mother’s day, something you realize most pointedly when you’ve lost yours. If your mom is still around, give her a big hug many big hugs or, if she’s far away, a phone call … and cherish every word.IMG_1792Here are links to the immortal Sardou singing his song, “Je Vole.” And here is the version by Louane, who played the daughter in the 2014 movie.IMG_1788

Day Trip to Toulouse

IMG_1793Toulouse, the pink city of the south. Pink because of the pale red bricks that dominate the architecture. A friend and I decided to brave the gilets jaunes in order to get a needed breath of city air. IMG_1768The city air has much improved since Toulouse limited so much of the center to pedestrians only. What a joy to stroll around. No crowding on the sidewalks. There’s plenty of room for those who want to stop and look in the windows and those who are in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s perfect for flâner, that quintessentially French term for strolling leisurely in town, certainly with some lèche-vitrine (literally translated as licking the windows–window shopping) along the way.IMG_1782The car-free streets have led to an explosion of bicycles. Perfect.IMG_1765So much prettiness everywhere. And since we weren’t really interested in shopping, our eyes paid more attention to the architecture. Quite a mix.IMG_1767Do you see the old tower? And the half-timbered building?IMG_1789A steeple perfectly framed by the narrow streets. (Note the rental bike dock.)IMG_1791Then there are more modern touches. Haussmann’s influence is felt down here, though the old lanes weren’t eliminated in favor of grand boulevards. There are some boulevards, to be sure, but they follow the traces of the ancient ramparts. Plenty of Belle Epoque buildings.IMG_1774I’m so glad the little lanes survived. Like the Marais  in Paris, but without the crowds. Some of the main shopping streets were noir du monde–full of people–but they never felt like a crush of humanity. And on the little side streets, we got to eavesdrop on conversations. A group of young men, I’d say in their 20s, were in a lively discussion about cheese. You would have thought they were going over a controversial call in a sports match. For several blocks, they walked just behind us, talking excitedly, while my friend and I listened and exchanged smiles. Only in France. IMG_1794We saw groups of gendarmes at nearly every intersection and square. Near the building below, we bumbled onto the assembly point for the gilets jaunes, and passed a bunch of people in T-shirts with DIY labels of “medical volunteer.” They had spritzer bottles tucked into the straps of their backpacks. I didn’t want to be around for when those would be needed.IMG_1786We managed to avoid any action. Anyway, the timing of things here works to one’s advantage. Nothing, but nothing is going to happen anywhere until after lunch, which ends at 2 p.m. Talk about sacred. Which means the yellow vests were just getting together around then and didn’t start marching or whatever until a good hour later. By then we were far away.IMG_1775I would like to live across the street from this building. Across the street so I would see it every time I looked out my windows. I’m a sucker for Art Deco and a sucker for mosaics. They don’t make buildings like they used to.IMG_1776For example the one below. It was on a narrow street, so the interiors must be terribly dark with the metal façade, which apparently can open like shutters.IMG_1796IMG_1795On the other hand, I rather liked the geometry of the building below, with the sharp zigzags contrasting with the layered cake rounds that resemble the Guggenheim in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.IMG_1785IMG_1769I liked the repetition with the rounded columns on the Art Deco building in the foreground on the left. (More bikes!)IMG_1799We parked on one of the boulevards rather than in an underground garage, which I usually use. Another example of good city planning: two hours of parking was only €1; four hours was €2 and four hours and 45 minutes was €20. This encourages people to park for short errands and discourages the nearby office workers from leaving their cars there all day (you can’t just feed the meter, either–you have to enter your license plate number and you get a ticket that you have to leave on your dashboard.) Our feet were plenty tired before our four hours were up. IMG_1797I took so many shots that I’ll do another post with just doors and windows.