Le Shopping Outlet

P1080406France doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but le Black Friday is gaining popularity, right behind Halloween.

It’s nowhere near as crazy as in the U.S. For one thing, France has soldes–sales–twice a year, starting in mid-January and mid-July, and they last for six weeks, with bigger markdowns (and less choice) as time goes on.

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The “soldes” signs, in case you’re under a rock and not aware that the entire country is consumed by biannual discounts.

The French are pros at faire le pont—taking a bridge day between a mid-week holiday and the weekend—but with no Thanksgiving, the Friday after is just another workday.

France doesn’t have many malls of the Mall of America, “Clueless,” senior-speed-walker genre. The centres commercials usually are anchored by supermarkets, there usually are no food courts and they’re just much smaller.  I will admit it can be efficient to hit 20 stores without setting foot outside when you have a deadline to find something AND it’s 20 below zero. Happily, the weather here is not as brutal so I don’t miss the lack of malls at all.

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This is not a mall. It is a charming courtyard in downtown Toulouse. The pleasures of strolling the streets.

At the end of the summer soldes, my shopping buddy and I did the rounds in Toulouse. I was limited to leche-vitrine (window-licking, which is the wonderful French term for window shopping), but I got vicarious thrills by her spending. We strolled around the center, where many of the streets have been closed to traffic, except for bikes, which are now ubiquitous, and (parked) food carts. I love strolling in Toulouse. It’s a big city but not in a dangerous, pushy way, except on the périphérique. It’s mostly clean, with beautiful architecture, interesting boutiques, lovely little parks and squares, and a fun sprinkling of eccentrics to make hicksters smile. Don’t you want to go into a shop that has flying bare-breasted women nibbling on grapes over the entrance (see the top photo)?

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Some more Toulouse love: Those shutters! Those railings! Those bricks!
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Three–count ’em, THREE–lions. You don’t get that at the mall. The fountain (la fontaine Boulbonne) is an allegory representing the Garonne river offering electrical power to the city. Allegories are also in short supply at the mall.
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Some traditional architecture. See below.

Despite our best efforts to cover the entire downtown, a couple of items on the list hadn’t been found, at least not in the desired fit. On the way home, I asked whether she wanted to check out the factory outlet center in Nailloux. Why not, she said.

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Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in France anymore. No, Dorothy, this isn’t Kansas. It IS France!

It was a real mind trip. I had a similar experience going to the French-owned American-style Italian restaurant chain. I thought I was in the Midwest. We drove up a hill with waving fields of wheat on either side of the divided highway. At the top of the hill, we turned toward the flapping flags, and came upon a wonder of an American-style “outdoor” mall, designed to look like an old-fashioned main street rather than the dolled-up strip mall such things really are. They have none of the climatic convenience of a real mall and none of the charm of a real downtown. A few, like Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, are pretty enough, but a little sterile, with no real link to the surrounding city.

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Parking for a billion people? Check.

Anyway, Nailloux Outlet Village is one of them. Vaguely Spanish/Mediterranean/medieval (fake half-timbered) architecture. Music piped to its sterile sidewalks. Oceans of parking. Familiar brands: Levi’s, Nike, Samsonite…Also many French names: Little Marcel, Princesse TamTam, Comptoire des Cotonniers, Gérard Darel….and more.

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FAKE half-timbered buildings. And pseudo-Spanish something.

My buddy scored jeans that fit and some running shoes. We had ice cream in the “plaza.” I had a hard time speaking French and an urge to call up one of my friends back home to come on over and meet us. Le Temps des Cerises aside, it felt like an island of America.

These outlet villages are all over France. Here’s a link to a list. For all my complaining about the architecture, there are bargains to be had.

And there’s even an outlet village not far away, in Spain, north of Barcelona: La Roca Village.

Haven’t been there yet. Going from France to Spain and thinking I’m in America might make my head explode.

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Sour Grapes

P1080971Waste not, want not.

One of the easiest things to DIY is vinegar. Here’s what you need:

A vinaigrier, or vinegar crock, with a spout and a lid. Vinegar likes to live in the dark.P1090104Une mère–a mother–the starter.

Wine. Yes. It’s clearer in French. Vinegar is vinaigre, or vin aigre–sour wine.

Long before we met, the wise Carnivore had acquired a vinaigrier and a mother (of the vinegar variety). Whenever we have a bad bottle–whether it’s corked or past its prime or left over from a party and not sealed up–we dump it into the vinaigrier. The resulting vinegar mostly goes on salads. P1090106It’s possible to make your own starter. Plenty of foods rely on starter cultures–sourdough bread and yogurt, for example. You can buy a mother of vinegar or you can make one. I don’t have a photo because you can’t tell what it is–just a blob of slime.P1090111You put the mother and the wine into the crock and wait a few months. It takes us that long to go through a bottle of vinegar–and to round up enough wine to add to the crock. Red ferments faster than white.

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Many choices at the vide-grenier.

You can get a vintage vinaigrier around here for between €10 and €50. Pretty and useful!P1050575

 

 

 

Connections, by Invitation Only

IMG_4957 copyStarting a new life in a new place is fraught, but doing it in a different language and culture adds a layer of complexity.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe expat bibliography is stuffed with tales of misunderstandings and scams suffered by poor newbies ignorant of the wily ways of the French contractor and the Kafkaesque requirements of the French bureaucracy.

We experienced none of that. Everybody was very professional. But at the beginning, with the Carnivore gone at work all day and me at home with a new baby, no car, no job and no friends, the transition was shockingly hard. Happily, very quickly, many people reached out, making connections with us and connecting us with the community, much to our surprise and delight.

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Why so many rainbows? Even when it rains, there’s sun.

One of the first was our neighbor’s father, who did not quite approve of foreigners next door. However, he gave us the name of a trustworthy local, J-C, who would keep tabs on the place when we were gone.

When we moved in for good, J-C was our guide. He told us where to find a doctor. Which led to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist looked at my address, said she lived in the same village, and that I should check out the gym classes at the community center.

The gym classes became my go-to for all kinds of information. The relative advantages of the various supermarkets in town. How to sign up a kid for preschool. Where to take baby-swimming lessons. What all those French acronyms mean. Any time I needed to know something, I would ask at gym class. I exercised my vocabulary as well as my muscles during the Wednesday night sessions. (For the most accurate weather report, eavesdrop on the line at the bakery.)P1070029The park was another touchstone. It must have been a magical time, because now when I run around the park, I no longer see mothers with little ones on the manicured lawn. I was lucky to have a nice clique of three other mothers as insistent as I was that kids need to go outside unless it’s pouring rain. They had kids the same age as mine, and our four were sometimes joined by various others who were more relaxed about the park-television ratio. Even on wintry days, we would go, huddling against the wind as the well-bundled little ones (emmitoufler is the adorable French word that means “to wrap up in warm clothes”) intently picked up rocks or leaves or chestnuts from one place and dropped them someplace else, while similarly well-bundled little old ladies perched like delicate brown birds on a bench against a sheltered, sun-warmed south wall, watching the spectacle. Who needs cat videos when you have live toddler performances?P1060482When I had surgery on my foot and was laid up for a month, these mothers came by every day to visit me. Every day. They also did the school runs, while another handled swim lessons.

That is when I knew it. I was loved. The roots were sinking in.

Have you ever planted seedlings from a nursery and then later pulled them out, the roots still in a tight ball? Meanwhile, other plants are nearly impossible to get out, having sent their roots wide and deep. 21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 432A difference with humans, though, is that we can have roots in many places at once. Mine are now spread across countries and continents.

I don’t like to think of having lost touch with old friends; there’s no repudiation of the time spent with them, and it’s only normal that we all devote most of our energies to those in our presence. Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, yet that’s sometimes on a superficial level of headlines about what’s eating up our time. 278.RainbowsOn the other hand, I regaled my mom with her faraway grandchild’s antics via email, and she would write back as soon as she read it several time zones later. My mom even babysat from almost 5,000 miles away. She and the kid would get on Skype, and talk. They would draw pictures and hold them up to the camera to show each other. I would be shooed away during these sessions, with a curt, “We are TALKING!” And talk they did. I couldn’t always hear the exact words, but they came in a steady stream, punctuated by plenty of laughter.

My dad preferred snail mail. I would get a thick envelope from time to time, every bit of every page filled with his distinctive writing, which got shakier and shakier. The topics were stream of conscious—certainly his mind worked faster than his hand, and by the time he had scratched out a sentence, he was already paragraphs beyond. He always signed off with “I love you and always will.” Always.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen my siblings or old friends, on the rare times when the stars align so we can get on the phone despite the transatlantic scheduling challenges, we pick up as if we’d last seen each other just a few days ago. The details don’t matter. I love them deeply, fiercely, and that’s all that it takes to keep the connection.IMG_3627 2This post is part of the group “By Invitation Only,” which this month is discussing connections. For other points of view, please visit Daily Plate of Crazy, where you can find not only D.A. Wolf’s sensory take but also links to other By Invitation Only participants. And tell me about the connections that are important to you.

Night Owl

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When the time changes in autumn, the shift to earlier darkness always casts familiar landscapes into unfamiliar shadows. On the one hand, it feels suddenly subdued–no kids out playing. On the other hand, it feels unusually busy–what are all these people doing out so late? Even though it isn’t late at all.

As the emboldened night envelopes us, lights come on, making the outside seem even darker. Peeks of glowing interiors, through windows not yet curtained or shuttered, reveal tableaus of dinner tables set, cooks toiling, televisions strobing colors across living rooms. The homes look intimate and cozy, even those of the elderly residents who favor fluorescent lighting in their kitchens. Dinner smells dance through the streets. Colder nights demand dishes cooked long and slow. Comfort food. Soups, not salads.

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We light these candles most evenings in winter. We also have candlelit dinners nearly every night. Little rituals to mark the seasons.

Carcassonne attracts visitors all year because the weather is mild even in winter. But the streets definitely are much quieter off season. It’s like looking at someone you know when they are lost in thought. Their features are familiar, but you cannot reach the churnings inside. They can seem like a different person than the one you know from conversations.

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Place de Lattre de Tassigny, around the corner from our apartments. Like an outdoor living room.

Place Carnot, the central square, is like an old, chatty friend, and usually I visit on Saturday mornings for the market, when it’s in its bubbliest mood. I have rarely missed a Saturday market. Even when it’s pouring rain, I’ll go for the excuse of wearing my multicolored polka-dot rubber boots and getting out my multicolored striped umbrella (for someone who wears black most of the time, so much color is exceptional). The square bustles with people at a very civilized level all day, every day, and it turns into an outright party on Saturday mornings. A civilized garden party, not a frat party, with lots of kissing on both cheeks and café crèmes that segue into chardonnays. But as with any good party, more people attend than there are seats available, and even the stateliest Carcassonnais will dive for a table that frees up.36.Carca by night6So to be at Place Carnot very late, or very early, feels almost like intruding. The café tables and chairs are stacked and wrapped in tarps. There isn’t a sound but my own footsteps. The square is mine alone.33.Carca by night3It makes me think of other hushed moments. Snow does that. It slows everything down and muffles all sounds. Boots crunch on the snow, making that satisfying chewing sound. But cars get quiet, as if they’re driving over woolen blankets. There was something so cozy about being in the family station wagon, under a blanket in the back seat with my siblings. Warm but cold. The air so chill it made one’s nostrils pucker and cheeks prickle. But under the blanket, cocooned in a coat over sweaters over shirts over thermals, hands making fists to keep poor thumbs warm inside mittens inside pockets, we were toasty enough to fall asleep before traveling many blocks. I wonder whether my parents knew how safe and happy they made our childhood. P1090058For some reason this makes me think of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song:

You, who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so, become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye

Teach your children well
Their father’s hell did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

And you (Can you hear?) of tender years (And do you care?)
Can’t know the fears (And can you see?) that your elders grew by (We must be free)
And so, please help (To teach your children) them with your youth (What you believe in)
They seek the truth (Make a world) before they can die (That we can live in)

Teach your parents well
Their children’s hell will slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you will cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

For my mom, whom I miss every day.IMG_1486

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A magical, shining castle competing with the stars.

Château de Puilaurens

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The castle ruins bristling atop hills are reminders of the religious and geopolitical strife that once tore at southern France. The Château de Puilaurens is one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne,” built to defend France from Spain when the border was farther north of today’s line.P1010161The first mentions of the château date to 985, when the site held the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. Around 1241, it became a harbor for Cathars–Carcassonne had already surrendered in 1209 in the crusade against the Cathars by Pope Innocent III. Catharism was a dismal religion that espoused that everything on earth was evil and who were ascetic to the extreme–quite the juxtaposition with the corruption in the Catholic church.P1010143Eventually, though Puilaurens surrendered, though nobody knows exactly when, possibly around 1255. The fortress then was fortified by King Louis IX, aka Saint-Louis, to stand up to the Kingdom of Aragon (Spain wasn’t united until the 1700s). By 1659, though, the Treaty of the Pyrénées made it obsolete by moving the border south, into the Pyrénées. During the Revolution, it was abandoned completely.P1010148It’s easy to see why. It’s in the middle of nowhere!

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Part of the forest was royal, set apart by a 7km stone wall, remains of which exist in parts, including stones engraved with the fleur de Lys.

P1010132P1010130Which is charming in its own way.21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 287Puilaurens makes for a nice day trip from Carcassonne, a chance to mix nature and history and to get the very different feel of the mountains.

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The Boulzare Valley.
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The village of Lapradelle.
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The viaduct is for a rail line, originally for passengers, then for feldspar, and today, in summer, for tourists.

It’s not for the weak of heart, or of legs. The path is rugged, and the last bit is the steepest, the better for archers picking off invaders. Not being a bird nor having a drone, I don’t have the bird’s-eye view, but you can see some here and others here.

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The zigzag path

One of the towers is called the White Lady tower, after Blanche de Bourbon, the granddaughter of Philip IV (aka the Fair or Handsome, but also known as the Iron King), who stayed in Puilaurens, but it’s hard to say when. Maybe on her way to be married, at age 14, to Peter the Cruel, king of Castile, who abandoned her three days after their wedding and had her locked up. So much for the alliance with France, which was the reason he married her at all. Blanche died eight years later, supposedly on orders of her husband, either by being poisoned or shot by a crossbow (but she might have gotten the plague). She supposedly haunts the grounds of Puilaurens as a white, misty apparition. However, it is often misty at Puilaurens. It’s at an altitude of more than 700 meters (2300 feet).P1010137P1010144P1010162

I don’t have good photos here of the castle’s modern conveniences–latrines and a speaking tube cut into the stone that allowed people to communicate between different floors of a tower.P1010126P1010127

If you like history, check out the post on the Châteaux de Lastours as well.

Easy Cheesy Soufflé

P1090024Cheese soufflé has been on my list of French dishes to master. Done right, it’s like eating a cloud. A creamy cloud. Of cheese. Are you swooning yet? You should be.

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Like a cloud. Yet creamy. A mind-blowingly delicious combination.

But it seemed so intimidating. All those jokes about the soufflé falling and not turning out. The expression retomber comme un soufflé –to fall like a soufflé–means to suddenly lose interest.

I bought a soufflé dish for €1 at a vide-grenier.  It languished, reproaching me every time I passed it by for some other utensil. Finally, I committed to the act and set out to research.

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My €1 dish, with just enough butter to grease it.

After comparing many recipes, and not feeling any more confident about the mission, I decided to also watch videos. I just watched one: on 750g.com, a cooking Web site created by two brothers, Jean-Baptiste and Damien Duquesne. The recipe is demonstrated by Damien, who is a trained chef and who has a restaurant in Paris called 750g La Table. In typical fashion, I was listening to podcasts while cooking, so I watched the video with the sound off and it was still very clear. So don’t be intimidated if your French is rusty–the actions speak louder than words.

It was a revelation. It didn’t look difficult. And best of all, there were no fancy gadgets. Just a whisk. Of course. Cheese soufflé has been a revered dish for about 400 years, since the chef Vincent de la Chapelle invented it.

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Speaking of butter, have you heard about the shortage in France? This is frightening!

The base is béchamel. In my old French cookbook, soufflés are right next to choux pastries and gougères, which also start with a roux paste and then add eggs.

If you want the chemistry of why soufflés puff up, read “Histoire de soufflés.” It’s a battle of water vapor vs. egg whites. Your egg whites need to be very firm–beaten to the point that the whisk can lift the whites as a block. This keeps the vapor–and air–inside like blowing up a balloon.

Cheese Soufflé (serves four)

6 eggs

1 cup (120 g) grated cheese like Comté or Gruyère

nutmeg

salt/pepper (but be careful with the salt–there’s some in the cheese)

1 2/3 cups (40 cl) milk

4 1/4 tablespoons (60g) butter (plus a little to grease the dish)

2/3 cup (60g) flour (plus a little in the greased dish)

Preheat the oven to 360 Fahrenheit/180 Celsius.

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Basic béchamel.

Make the béchamel: melt the butter completely, then stir in the flour. Let it cook for 3-4 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Pour in the milk. I did it like Chef Damien, a little at a time at first, to avoid lumps, then the rest. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Raise the heat a notch. Stir!P1090018When the béchamel comes to a boil, take it off the heat and stir it vigorously for a minute or two. Then put it back on high heat for one minute, continuing to stir. Remove from the heat. Add the cheese. Do like Chef Damien and add the egg yolks one at a time, dropping the whites into a mixing bowl. Stir well between each yolk. Put the mixture into a (separate) large mixing bowl.

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After egg yolks, before egg whites.

Beat the egg whites. Lazy, I used an electric mixer, but Chef Damien, being a pro, did it by hand. More power to him, especially in his right arm. As noted above, beat those egg whites to stiff peaks. (The French term is so lovely–en neige–in snow.)

Add half the egg whites to the béchamel/cheese mixture. Delicately mix, ALWAYS STIRRING IN THE SAME DIRECTION and gently folding them toward the center. Then  do the same with the rest of the egg whites. This is where the video really helped–to see how homogenous the final mixture is.

Pour the mixture into the greased, floured dish. (You can also do this with individual ramekins). Wipe around the edges. P1090022Turn the oven to the grill/broil setting and put in the soufflé. Leave it at that temperature for 2-3 minutes. Then turn the oven back to 360F/180C. Cook for 20-25 minutes (much less for little ramekins).

Serve immediately.P1090032BTW, in the unlikely event that there are leftovers, they reheat fine in the microwave.

‘Appy ‘Alloween

P1090042Halloween–or as they say, ‘Alloween–has taken off in France. (I get teased about my accent, so turnabout is fair play.) The supermarkets have stands dedicated to candy, makeup and decorations.

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Typical.

The village holds a costume contest, and a high proportion of the residents participate in handing out treats, which are almost always not individually wrapped!!! I freaked out the first time, but I soon knew almost everybody. In fact, our kid chose a big container of not individually wrapped candies (licorice and fake fruit flavors) for us to distribute. I wanted to get mini Snickers, figuring that if there were leftovers, they might as well be something good. But my kid informed me that on Halloween, kids want candy, and chocolate isn’t candy, it’s chocolate and is for Christmas. Somehow it seems very French to elevate chocolate above mere candy status.

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A perfect haunted house, in a deep, dark forest, too. (It was for sale. Probably still is.)
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Lots of potential, but surely this is a place where things go bump in the night.

The French haven’t yet adopted yards full of inflatables, probably because front yards aren’t a thing here. Either you have a townhouse whose front door opens right onto the sidewalk or you have a “villa” (which includes quite modest free-standing houses) with a garden behind the privacy of a wall or at least a fence. None of those golf-course-like lawns stretching unimpeded between house and curb, unused except for holiday decorations.

In France, Halloween costumes are strictly scary. Save your astronaut and princess outfits for Carnivale on Mardi Gras. Our village is so small that it doesn’t take long for the kids to circulate in large groups. They bang on everybody’s doors, lights on or not. One time, before a house that was shuttered up tight, one of the parents hollered “Papi!” (Grandpa!) and a little old guy opened up and released a sweet into each proffered bag. The whole porch light signal doesn’t work the same way without porches.

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Scary grave straight from central casting. Not decoration!

After pillaging the village of sugar, the ghoulish kiddies traipse through the community center to have their loot weighed and costumes judged. Our kid won the costume contest one year (headless–it really turned heads), then raised the ante the next year with a zippered face, which was even more horrifying. We waited for the costume winners to be announced, but nothing happened. Then we realized the other kids had left. The lights got turned down, the music got turned up, and we were confronted with the horror of the village’s singles population, and soon-to-be singles population (I recognized a few too many married parents of the kid’s schoolmates, not with their spouses), checking each other out, and not for best costume. Most were already tipsy and you could see that Nov. 1 was going to be a day of regrets for more than a few of them. The kid was crushed the zipper face hadn’t won, but somewhat consoled that it appeared there were no prizes at all that year.

Since the kid got too old to trick-or-treat and is too young for the singles-and-swingers dance, Halloween means a trip to the haunted house, followed by a small party at home with scary movies. The haunted house operates year-round in la Cité of Carcassonne, run by the same people who have the “museum” of torture.Remparts à la Cité de CarcassonneLa Cité is definitely a good set for a scary movie. Gargoyles aplenty. Stern stone walls. Today promises to be bright and sunny, with not a cloud in the bluest sky, but when gray clouds hover low and the wind howls, you can imagine it as a haunt for ghosts.IMG_2149IMG_2148IMG_2139IMG_2118IMG_1918While the gang goes through the haunted house, I plan to visit the cemetery just outside the walls. I have gone to cemeteries in a number of towns in France, and something about them is so interesting. Again, no vast expanses of green lawns. They are real cities of the dead, with incredible chapels and tombs, a few engraved words conveying stories of the residents’ lives.

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Priez pour lui–pray for him.
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Spanish surnames…reminders of refugees from past war.

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Born March 21, 1799. That just amazes me.
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Only the ceramic flowers remain. Is the family gone, or did they move?

P1090040Our village cemetery draws a parade of people every day. Mostly they’re the little old ladies wobbling along to tend loved ones’ graves and say prayers. For the past two weeks, though, the cemetery has been a hive of activity, with cars parked along the perimeter as families tidy up and bring in big pots of flowers ahead of the real holiday, Nov. 1, All Saints Day–Toussaint. Chrysanthemums are the favorite, to the extent that putting them in your garden is just not done. I got a gentle reprimand when I put a pot of mums by our front door. Too bad–they’re such pretty flowers.P1090052In Paris, the Père Lachaise cemetery draws visitors because of the famous people (Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison) buried there. I went there on a Christmas Day years ago–it was one of the few things open on Christmas. And there were lots of people! The delightful podcast The Earful Tower had a segment about Jim Morrison’s grave. Another interesting one is the Montmartre cemetery. But even small cemeteries in small places are fascinating. They’re really proof that they are more for the living than for the dead.

And below, some random bits:

Re: Friday’s post about hunters and boars: here are some prints I came upon in a vineyard:

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Deep! An indication of the weight of wild pigs.

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Tomatoes are still going strong in some gardens (photo taken two days ago): P1090006

And this was such a pretty scene, with the white horse and colorful vineyards:P1080995

Heigh Ho, the Derry-oh

P1050776Gunshots cracked the Saturday predawn silence. It happened again on Sunday. I heard more that evening, as we ate on the terrace, our cone of lamplight surrounded by still-balmy darkness.

The hunting season began Sept. 10 in the forests, but not until Oct. 8 in the vineyards because the grape harvest was still under way.

With still-warm nights, we sleep with a window open, and so many sounds come in along with the sweet autumn air.

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Beware Traps Danger. Hunting reserve.

Crickets. Where were they in the summer? Maybe it was too hot and dry. Now they chirp loudly in the first hours of darkness. When we first moved here, the nearby river was full of frogs that screamed all night. They didn’t croak; they shrieked like little girls in a haunted house. It was a somewhat stressful addition to the natural soundtrack, but now that the frogs are gone I miss them. Too hot? Too dry? Too polluted? No idea why they disappeared.

 

During the night, there are some birds that break out in exquisite arias. Soloists. Other birds blast a sharp warning during their nightly hunts; being a city person, I don’t know bird calls, but they don’t sound like the “who-who” of owls, which we also hear from time to time. The roosters I recognize, at least.

At around 5 a.m. every morning, a scooter sputters toward the village. In my mind’s eye, I follow its route up and down the hills, getting louder, crossing a bridge, rolling through the stop to turn onto a main road and head into town. The minimum age for driving is 18, but one can drive a scooter from age 14. It seems so dangerous—scooters have small engines and barely make it up steep hills, which is also where cars can’t pass safely. The way this one coughs, it’s just as well it isn’t making the journey during rush hour. The driver must be some teenage apprentice heading to a very early shift…at a bakery, maybe? I send out kind thoughts for a safe trip and a good day.

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A camionette. Not the rickety one full of dogs, but you get the picture.

Even earlier, well before the first inkling of morning, a rickety old camionette—a kind of enclosed pickup favored by vignerons—rattles by with what sounds like a pack of dogs barking in the back. I used to think it was an old guy in the village who had an old camionette and about a dozen beagles. But some years ago the beagles disappeared and the house has been closed up tight, its garden overgrown, so I fear the old man died. I don’t believe in ghosts and the rickety camionette with barking dogs is quite real, so clearly it’s somebody else, most likely off for a morning hunt.

A few days ago, I climbed one of the dry rock retaining walls along my walking route in order to get a better vantage point to take a picture of a vineyard whose leaves were a brilliant orange. As I went up, I realized I would have to find a different way down. So I walked along through the wild brush, looking for a better way down. It was easy—there were clear paths crisscrossing all over, with the tall grass matted down flat. Then I got a look at a bare spot and realized the paths had been made by sangliers—boars. The prints sank deeply into the soft ground. How was the ground there soft, anyway? Our garden is dry and hard from so many days of sunshine. Maybe all the vegetation held in the moisture from the last rain.

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Was it worth the climb? Not quite high enough, methinks.

I wondered about the boars piecing together a life in the scattered morsels of brush and stretches of garrigue between the vineyards. Houses gobble up more and more land, hopscotching farther out, like an infestation of fungus or weeds or a dread skin condition. Trees and brush are torn out, vineyards ripped up, replaced by either lotissements of identical sorry cottages or hideous Mediterranean mcmansions (post on abominable French architecture coming up). When the ancient villages were created, everybody lived close together, within fortified walls, for safety. Crime was rampant back then, with marauding gangs on the few roads. Now crime is rare, and the dangers of walking in the countryside in the dark are limited to getting hit by a car or coming nose to nose with a wild pig.

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An abandoned vineyard, with food for wild pigs.

The French also have a hunting song for children. Here’s a charmingly simple video of it, because the hand motions are key. The lyrics:

In his house, a big deer

Looked out the window

A rabbit came to him

And knocked on the door.

“Deer, deer open up for me

Or the hunter will kill me!”

“Rabbit, rabbit, come in and come

Shake my hand.”

 

Sign of Something

P1050358Living in another country, in another language, makes one stop sometimes to consider things locals just take for granted. Weird, funny, pretty or poetic. Signs are a favorite.P1080464 2

Take, for example, a sign warning that of a submersible bridge. Between us, what is the point of a bridge that goes under water? Also, I just love all the exclamation point signs. They’re a cross between OMG and WTF. The road equivalent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”IMG_4601

On Tuesdays, we get a thick stack of ads from the supermarkets and elsewhere in the mailbox. Plenty of folks would rather not get this stuff, and, like New Yorkers who put “no menus” stickers, the French put “pas de pub”–no ads–stickers on their mailboxes. This one says, “no ads, have pity!” Again, I picture “The Scream.”P1070723

“Access reserved except those having the right.” Well, DUH. That is a sure-fire way to make me want to go check it out.633.Acces parking pietons

“Access parking pedestrians” or, in French you could read it as “access to pedestrian parking,” because adjectives (here, piétons would be serving as one) follow nouns (parking, because they say parking and not parking lot). It conjures up an image of a bunch of pedestrians, their walking shoes laced up, pacing in individual parking spaces.

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This one has been up for at least a decade on a road into Carcassonne. “Warning: hen nests forming,” which is a way to say potholes are developing. However, several months ago, the city repaved this stretch so it’s now as smooth as a baby’s bottom, starting from this sign on into town. The sign remains, because, I guess, new potholes will be developing as soon as the fresh asphalt went down. Or else there are chickens lurking around that I haven’t spotted.

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I have featured this one before, on my post about driving in France. But it still makes me laugh every time I drive past and still makes me think of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure.” I only just realized Tim Burton directed that movie. No wonder it’s so great. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 51

As if anybody would miss a village up here on the top of the mountain. Unless you blink. And the village, Labastide-Esparbairenque, only has a center. It has more letters in its name than inhabitants in its village. Just kidding. The population is 83. Its name is a synonym for Timbuktu for Carcassonnais who want to say a place is at the end of the earth.IMG_4629

“No two-wheelers (bikes, scooters, motorcycles) allowed. No dogs allowed. No fires allowed.” And someone added “No idiots allowed. Forbidden to be a pig.”P1030175

This one is in a similar spirit (no stupidity allowed), but more polite. A boulodrôme is the place to play boules or pétanque. “Reserved for pétanque players holding a national license. The company and the municipality refuse any responsibility for all accidents provoked by unlicensed players. Spectators are asked to not cross the games. Thank you for your civility.” IMG_3169

Somehow it makes sense that the wine cooperative is on Avenue of the Bunch of Grapes. But the cemetery? BTW, if you see wine from Siran, buy it; it’s good.

Now a couple that deserve the exclamation point sign.P1030246

“Warning. Drivers beware. In case of a storm, you are asked to urgently evacuate your vehicle. The commune (the town) cannot in any case take responsibility.” It’s at a parking lot in Banyuls, on the coast. Makes sense–if the area risks flooding, it can’t be built on. And if the weather is nasty, people aren’t likely to go to the beach, so the extra parking probably wouldn’t be needed.P1050147

“Danger Bulls.” Running loose in the streets before the féria of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.P1070069

We’ll end with some pretty ones. I love the old road signs.IMG_4462P1080819

Wouldn’t you want to live on Little Fountain Street?IMG_4388

A blast from the past: public baths and showers, in Bize-Minervois. Until the 1970s, some houses in the ancient village centers didn’t have plumbing. Residents had to go to a bathhouse, which may have operated only once a week (to economize on keeping water and the building itself warm). P1020922

One of the faux road signs sold at tourist shops. Apéritif Place. With pictures of a glass of jaune (pastis), peanuts, olives and a glass of p’tit ponch–a little punch–rum with lime.

À votre santé!

How to Live Like the French

P1070601I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.

They are lying to you.

The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.

What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. P1060893They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.

P1040987Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.

Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.

And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.

Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.

—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.

Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.

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Is this your idea of buying groceries?

—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.

—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms in fall or asparagus in spring in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions do work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.

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Taking time to smell the coffee.

At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.