Relentlessly Beautiful France

P1070308Beauty can take so many forms. The voluptuous lusciousness of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting; her magnificently lined face photographed in her later years. The plump, kissable cheeks of a baby; the undulating starkness of the Sahara’s sands. The south of France has both extremes of beauty–the soft and the rugged. Right now, we’re in the soft season.P1070426P1070424P1070419Douceur in French means both softness and sweetness, which captures the spirit of spring in France. The air is perfect–as our kid remarked, it’s just right no matter what you’re wearing, whether a T-shirt or a sweater. It’s richly scented with newly cut grass and so, so many flowers blooming. We want to fill our lungs greedily with this nectar. Even though our winters are far from insufferable, we gorge on spring as if at a banquet after a famine.

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My crummy camera almost captured the gaudy pink sunrise on the snow-capped Pyrénées.
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I think that peak is Canigou, near the border with Spain…also near the Mediterranean.

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And, turning around, the Black Mountains.

The trees have mostly filled out with leaves, changing their shape from Giacometti sculptures to something more in the style of Botero. The platanes that were heavily pruned stay bare a while longer, with little tufts of green looking somewhat ridiculous on such big trunks. The vineyards are the same–pruned down to a single vine per stump, little leaves popping out in single file, catching the sun like emeralds.P1090884

The architecture and engineering of an anthill, bigger than my fist. How did they make such a perfectly round tower, with perfectly round entries?P1090893P1090894We take our time to savor the market, noting the appearance of each new player on the season’s stage. Bernard, the strawberry man, is back, attracting a line of customers, many of whom he greets by name, not having forgotten during the winter break. Promises of summer show up from Spain and Morocco in the form of melons and tomatoes. It’s so hard to wait, but we will hold out; flavor doesn’t travel well.P1070373The cafés are full…outside. The locals greet each other with kisses; the wide-eyed tourists take it all in, probably wondering (judging by the number of people toting both cameras and real estate brochures) whether maybe they, too, should move here for the sweet life.P1090907P1090900P1070405

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Monks and Ghosts

05.FEBRUARY 12 - 44Saint-Hilaire is a pretty village of ancient stone buildings and a more-ancient abbey, nestled in the first hills that rise from the plain of Carcassonne until they become the mountains of the Pyrénées. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 21The Benedictine abbey began early in the 9th century, when King Louis I, son of Charlemagne, granted it a charter. Louis was nicknamed “the Fair,” “the Debonaire” and “the Pious,” which is an interesting combination indeed.The abbey is mostly famous for having claim to the first documented existence of bubbling wine, which was made at the abbey but which is known as blanquette de Limoux, after a nearby town. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 1705.FEBRUARY 12 - 29Despite the abundance of bubbly, life wasn’t so good for the monks. You would think that, being monks, they would have come out well in the crusade against the Cathars in 1209, but instead they got into a fight against the formation of a Dominican abbey down the road in Prouilhe–the “cradle of the Dominicans.” 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 2405.FEBRUARY 12 - 33By the 1300s, money was tight, but the plague, the 100 Years’ War and roving mercenaries called routiers forced the monks to fortify the abbey into a military outpost. A real litany of threats that make a person happy to be living in the 21st century.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 38

05.FEBRUARY 12 - 39
Drawbridge Street

Things went from bad to worse: by the 1500s, François I persuaded the pope to let the king appoint the lead monk instead of the monks themselves. Such monks usually were aristocrats and didn’t have to follow any of the order’s rules or even live at the abbey. The money problems worsened. I didn’t find out whether the monks sold their wine, but the idea that prices would naturally go up wasn’t accepted any better than the idea that gravity pulled objects to the ground or that the earth revolved around the sun. Prices were considered to be immutable, and you weren’t allowed to raise them.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 4505.FEBRUARY 12 - 34By 1748, the monk left. The abbey’s church was used by the village and its cloister used as the village square. The abbey was sold off before 1800, as were many religious institutions after the Revolution.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 2805.FEBRUARY 12 - 40There’s a legend that outside Saint-Hilaire, the monks had a little country getaway, which fell to ruin and disappeared after 1748. On a Christmas night centuries later, before the Great War began, a local man passed through the moonlit domaine and heard bells ringing. But no bells were within earshot. Then he heard singing, and witnessed a procession of ghostly monks.

It does seem like the kind of place where, if ghosts exist, you might find them.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 1905.FEBRUARY 12 - 25The abbey is really pretty and open for visitors all year. A peaceful haven.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 13

Sweater Weather Packing

IMG_5929Blizzards and storms hit parts of the U.S. last weekend. Here, we’ve been  getting plenty of rain…and sun.

When you’re packing, it can be hard to imagine being somewhere much warmer or colder. Plus, northern France–Paris–has quite different weather than here in the south.

It was upon moving to Belgium that I learned the concept of the summer sweater. It’s the sweater to wear when you are sick to death of candles, hot chocolate and curling up by a fire. When you’ve had it with hygge, but it isn’t yet warm enough to bask bare-armed in the sun.

(Don’t these make you want to cringe after March 20? The one on the right is yak hair, from Katmandu. I get around….and come home with something to wear. It is VERY warm.)

I remember being dumbstruck early in my European séjour, by a movie on TV in which Catherine Deneuve walked a pebbly Atlantic beach, dressed in white capris and a loose turquoise sweater. I forgot the movie, but I remember that sweater. A sweater! On the beach! (And pebbles on the beach!!!! So many new concepts at once.)

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My first summer sweater, like Catherine Deneuve’s but not turquoise.

I soon learned that yes, you might need a sweater on the beach, even in summer. A bunch of colleagues and I went to the (sandy) beach at Ostende one weekend. The wind was wicked. I bought a windbreak (not a windbreaker but a long strip of plastic with posts and a rubber mallet for pounding the posts into the sand) and we all huddled behind it. At work the next Monday, other co-workers ridiculed our claim that we had been to the beach–where were our tans? In fact, the only skin we could bear to bare was on our faces and hands. We froze. In mid-summer.

The summer sweater is is cotton or silk, not wool, unless it’s the finest, thinnest cashmere. It has a smooth, flat weave, or else a loose, open weave. It isn’t chunky.

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Navy and white stripes….so French.

The best ones can be worn with a shirt underneath, or alone. Options, layers. Perfect for travel. Lots of shirts, which are light and pack small, and just two sweaters.

Even better is to have a matching or coordinating cardigan, so you can have yet another layer, or wear it open instead of a jacket on warmer days. And if it’s really warm and you never wear your sweater or cardigan (I bet you’ll wear them at least in the evening), you won’t kick yourself for having loaded up your suitcase for nothing.P1090872Also, take a scarf. Always! The pashmina still is worn around here and is always good against a chill. The large square silk scarf is a classic.

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Chèche, pashmina, winter go away.

What’s very popular among both men and women is the chèchea very long cotton scarf that you wrap a million times around your neck or that you leave hanging long. But don’t be like Isadora Duncan. The value of chèche is that it can be surprisingly warm when it’s all wound around you and it can be no more heavy than a necklace when it’s worn hanging long. I have a gorgeous 9-foot-long dark purple one I bought in Timbuktu…and in true Berber fashion it turns my skin bluish-purple when I wear it.

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Fashion tip for French nonchalance: Tie the belt, don’t use the buckle. 

Favorite French coats for this time of year are the perennials: the leather moto jacket and the trench. My trench has a zip-in lining–if I were traveling in early spring, I would take it and be almost as warm as with a winter coat (because I don’t want to wear anything with furry trim come March). In late spring, I’d leave the lining at home.

Either option is good for dealing with the possibility (probability…higher as you head north) of rain. The tips for winter travel hold for spring’s tempestuous days, but you know what they say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. I’d rather have a rain hat than an umbrella, but better yet is a hood, and best of all is a hidden hood.

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Option 1: waterproof hat.
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Option 2: Hood….
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…that rolls up and is held by velcro…
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…in the collar of this very light windbreaker. I also love the pockets on this thing.

What are your astuces for packing for uncertain spring weather?

Stone-Faced in Toulouse

P1090199When walking around French cities, don’t forget to look up. Somebody might be looking down at you.

Oh, the things they’ve seen!P1090155

This one is wearing a lion skin. Look at that paw on the right.P1090146

And the next window seems similarly dressed, with the paws tied in front. Are those weapons on the left? Even then, women were smooth-faced, while men could have wrinkles.P1090147

This one seems happier, and with flowers, not animal skins. I also like the shutters, with that shade of almost-blue faded gray.P1090148

Sometimes you have to look way up.P1090188

This lady seems to be studiously ignoring the antics of the buffoons on either side of her.P1090168

There will be building after building with no more decoration than the character of their stones and bricks, which, truth be told, is mighty fine in itself. But then a building will have something–or someone–at every window.P1090154P1090155P1090156

Gorgeous railings, eh? They’re called garde-fous, which literally translates to crazy guards. P1090150

The one above was a consulate, hence the barbed wire.P1090175

All the photos are from Toulouse.

 

Bonus! Our Apartment on Hello Lovely

living to fireplaceThe very francophile blog Hello Lovely has a feature on our AirBnB rental apartment, la Suite Barbès. Michele, Hello Lovely’s author, has given us a royal spread. I hope you’ll stop by her blog to check it out….and it’s one to subscribe to if you like a steady diet of beautiful interiors. Michele offers up a daily moment of zen with the calm, collected spaces she features. And her positive attitude and warm personality come through her writing. It’s a read I look forward to every day.

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In the bedroom of la Suite Barbès.

The direct link to la Suite Barbès on AirBnB is here. And our other apartment, l’Ancienne Tannerie, on the same floor, decorated in the same style, is here. They both have four stars from the tourism ministry!

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In the living room of l’Ancienne Tannerie.

 

Color My World

IMG_4898Yeah, everybody does 5k races, and everybody even does them throwing colored powder at the runners. But not everybody does them around a medieval fortress.IMG_4802We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

On Saturday, the young, healthy and energetic citizens of the city gathered along the Aude river for “Color My Run.” It’s in English because that’s cool, authentic. The symbol is a castle because … France.IMG_4758I know these color runs have been a thing for quite a while, but we are in France profonde–deepest France–and it was a first here. Put together by a group of students (more cheers for young people!), with proceeds going to Secours Populaire, or People’s Relief.

It was all organized in usual French fashion, which is to say, extremely organized, except that, in European fashion (I won’t pin it solely on the French, since a number of other nationalities do it, too), the lines were more amoebas than lines, but at least they moved quickly. The young organizers scanned participants’ tickets (you had to sign up online–of course) with their phones (of course. Does anybody use phones to call? I don’t think so, but they do everything else). It helps that Carcassonne is small and not very cut-throat. People are still registering at the starting time? Well, we’ll wait until everybody is ready. Plenty of time! Relax!

I tell you, life here is good. Even people running a race have all the time in the world.IMG_4765We were not on top of the fashion situation, because lots of runners came decked out in crazy outfits.

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You can see a couple of runners on the other side of the river. Gorgeous place to work out.

IMG_4767One group of young ladies even dyed their hair, half green, half red. That’s dedication.

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The red-headed guy with red shorts was the first finisher, by a long shot. He loped by alone as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Amazing.

The runners took off along the Quai Bellevue–it does have a pretty view–then crossed the 14th century Pont Vieux, or old bridge, which is entirely pedestrian.IMG_4771

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A sea of white T-shirts on the bridge. It’s so pretty here.

IMG_4843IMG_4872I thought the route was going to be an easy loop along one side of the river–semi-wild, very pretty parkland because it’s in a flood zone–and then on the other–more parks, all flat. However, just after the bridge, the route included a quad-melting climb to the walls of la Cité.IMG_4828IMG_4810

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The powder was corn starch with food coloring.

There’s a new art installation, called Eccentric Concentric, by Felice Varini, with 15 yellow circles on the ramparts. I am no art critic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but to me it looks like either the symbol for wifi or the symbol on the highways to warn that there’s a radar ahead.IMG_4868IMG_4866As long as it’s temporary.

When I lived in New York, first I was downtown and constantly marveled at the high-rises and bright lights. I’d go to the top of the World Trade Center just because it was nearby and always a thrill. Later, I lived in Brooklyn and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go home, always gazing in wonder at the view out the back window, even after years of it. Now, it’s la Cité that makes me pinch myself. How is it possible that such a place existed? An even bigger question: How is it possible it still is intact today?

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The bridge, the castle….even the “new” town is from 1260. Pinch me.

To do something as universal and ordinary as running, while in the shadow of such a place, well, I never can believe it’s real, even after so many years.IMG_4783The thing is, all the stuff around it is so pretty but la Cité is so awesome you don’t even notice the rest. Like the pretty little dam on the river with a little footbridge.IMG_4799At the end of the run, which was noncompetitive, there was an afternoon rave with the cutest DJ brothers. They clearly took their work very seriously, and made playing music look as complex as any scene from the command deck of a space ship that’s under attack, yet they seemed to enjoy it at the same time. The post-run crowd relaxed by jumping madly (after a run!) and had good, clean fun, as you can see below.

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A smoke machine! The DJs lead the dancing.

IMG_4910IMG_4901IMG_4896IMG_4888IMG_4876And if anybody now has an earworm of Chicago crooning “Color My World,” bringing back a flood of prom and homecoming memories, well, maybe next time you will run, too?IMG_4895

 

 

 

 

Overfunctional

1st strawberriesWhat do the French do on a long weekend? They go to the countryside! Easter Monday is a national holiday, because although the Revolution established France as a diligently secular country, folks weren’t so foolish as to relinquish days off.

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Easter bunnies? On sale at the market.
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Not a bad view.

On a back road that rivaled any pot-holed, rutted safari track, cars with not-local plates passed nonstop under a brilliant spring sun. More cars were parked under trees, their passengers scattered in the brush–a taste of wilderness without having to walk too far.

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It’s obvious, right?

They were after asparagus, mostly. The thing to eat on Easter Monday is an omelette, preferably with asparagus, preferably wild asparagus. You need better eyesight than mine to spot it–fine green stems against more green. “It’s not the same green!” my friends explain. But I have gone asparagus-ing and even when it was right in front of my face I didn’t see it. However, I got plenty scratched up. Now I get my wild asparagus at the market or from generous friends.

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Look closer! That’s an asparagus plant. No delectables on this one…somebody had already passed.

People of all ages were tramping through the brush–the touffes, or tufts, are called la matte in local Occitan lexicon. Somehow, la matte sums up the state of the inpenetrable tangle. That didn’t stop people from trying. I saw a dad coaching a little girl, who was wiggling like a commando through a little opening to get to asparagus gold.

It takes a long time to get even a handful.

There are other wild things along the way, and I’m not talking about parents. The flowers! Wild orchids:

Wild irises:

A very decorative plant whose name I was told but forgot, and whose fruit grows not off the stem but off the leaf:

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Can you see that the berry is attached to the leaf? The little star-shaped flower on the other leaf will turn into a berry.

This little flower is called un petit souci–a little worry. I wonder whether a bunch of petits soucis becomes a big worry.

People here say all the time, “Petit enfant, petits soucis. Grand enfant, grands soucis”–small children, small worries. Big children, big worries.

Sigh. Happily ours is sans souci at the moment. Knock on wood.

Speaking of big, the pinecone on the left was bigger than my fist. It also was very sticky with sap, so it didn’t come home with me.

While we swoon over the views again, let’s discuss the title of this post. It’s from a podcast by Esther Perel, who is a revelation. Her podcast records her therapy sessions with couples. Wow. Even if you aren’t dealing with the issues discussed, you can’t help but learn. Learn to listen. Learn to get past what people say and understand what they mean.P1090810P1090825In an episode titled “Leaving Shame Behind,” Perel counseled a couple dealing with the aftermath of crises–a brain tumor, a car crash and the husband having a near-fatal heart attack that left him mostly disabled for a long time. The wife had to do everything–what Perel called “overfunctioning.” Isn’t that just the perfect word? Are you overfunctioning?

P1090827P1090829She said many wise things, but one that really hit me was: “Apology is not weak. The one who apologizes first is the stronger one.”

 

A Day in Toulouse

P1090162In the dead of the past winter, we spent the day in Toulouse. It’s such a lovely city, one that punches above its weight in sophistication. P1090200I suppose travelers might think of Carcassonne as a daytrip from Toulouse, but I prefer to think of Toulouse as a daytrip from Carcassonne.P1090142My favorite thing to do in any city is flâner–to walk aimlessly. I don’t need to shop, though I enjoy faire du lèche-vitrine (literally, licking windws, but it means do window-shopping). And of course some time en terrace at a café to people-watch.

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The pre-Christmas outdoor dining scene.

The architecture is a bit different from Carcassonne. Grander, for sure, in such a big city. But there’s also the use of red bricks, which give Toulouse its nickname of La Ville Rose, which was adopted as a tourism slogan more than a century ago, after the author Stendahl wrote insultingly of his visit. P1090180P1090141Over the years that we’ve lived in the region, Toulouse has cleaned up nicely. More streets in the center are limited to pedestrians, new tram lines have been built and parking is nigh impossible. Bikes are everywhere. Hipster boutiques and restaurants are filled with young French women who look beautiful despite bedhead and young men with bushy Brooklyn beards. The brick walls are authentic.

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An optician. Of course.
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Rue Alsace-Lorraine is closed to vehicle traffic. On Saturdays, it’s packed.
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Rue Saint-Rome is one of the first pedestrian streets. Isn’t this couple adorable? So typical. People dress up to go out.
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Christmas decorations at Galeries Lafayette.

I never get enough of the narrow, crooked streets. P1090197P1090143P1090192P1090149P1090163P1090181

 

You have to look up.P1090145P1090189P1090183

You have to look down.P1090172

So many grand entrances, to let in carriages.P1090152

Sometimes you get to peek inside.

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Notice how green it is, just before Christmas. And do you see the little fountain?

Have you been to Toulouse? I have more Toulousain treats in store.

 

Age Is Just a Number

P1080404Trying to explain what is “new” and “old” in France to somebody from the Americas is challenging. In a place where the first buildings still standing went up in 485 CE, something from 1663 is relatively new.P1060555

I never liked history because of having to memorize dates. It’s very strange, because I’m good with numbers and am likelier to remember somebody’s phone number or zip code than their name. I guess we also had to memorize a lot of names. Not enough emphasis on the stories!

I finally have a few key points under my belt, such as July 14, 1789: Bastille Day. These things never happen on a whim. The kindling is laid for years, and then when the fire is sparked, it takes off ferociously.

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The U.S. was one year old.

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The houses above were built in the period when things had been getting better to the extent that people lived longer and populations swelled. France had the biggest population in Europe. For a while it was boom times, then prices for food rose sharply.P1090682

This 1790 house was built in the early days of the revolution, not far from the 1780 house. Had the unrest reached this far into France profonde? To get here, you have to pass the mountainous Massif Central, until the band of plain where these houses lie. Beyond here, you hit mountains, where sheep outnumber people, and then Spain. P1090591

I constantly marvel and am thankful that these houses, with their not-square corners and not-plumb walls and not-level floors, have been inhabited and tended to, rather than torn down for something modern. P1090684

In the little streets, time stands still.P1090588P1090676P1090539

Despite the simple tools of the time, curves (the intentional ones!) grace the architecture.P1090548P1090546P1090544

Concrete and glass can be beautiful, but after a while, so many pure lines feel bland. Give me a nice stone wall that has seen some things.P1090545

Arched door, arched back.

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I mentioned just last week, on the first day of spring, that the trees had a green haze that hinted at leaves, which I predicted would burst out all at once. Well, the switch flipped. The photos below are from almost the same spot. The one on the left was from a couple of weeks ago with the first buds, and the one on the right was taken yesterday.

Spring fever is contagious. My kid occasionally  often forgets to be a sullen teen, for example, yesterday, exclaiming at breakfast that the birds were singing. Indeed, a whole chorus of birds chirped and twittered in the background of a belted-out aria from Merle, our resident blackbird. Un merle is French for blackbird, and I think it’s a good name for such a singer. He often sits on the peak of our house and serenades us as we dine en terrace in the evenings, something we can finally do again.

I hope your spring day is as beautiful as mine.P1090510

One Bad Apple

IMG_5518It seems impossible to ignore the sad events that came to my beloved town.

They are uncharacteristic. As I have remarked before, this is a small, sleepy town where young children and old ladies walk around on their own with no problems. It’s not as gentrified and Disneyfied as the villages of Provence that attract droves of tourists and where real estate is now out of reach for people with modest salaries, like teachers. Carcassonne, and the region around it, remains modestly rooted in the past.IMG_5824On Friday, I was in Trèbes. Not in the supermarket, though we shop there often. But I was in the crowd on the corner, as close as the gendarmes would allow. Many of the people gathered were immigrants. The older people were livid that a young delinquent was bringing unflattering attention to their community. They had businesses. They loved France.IMG_4637Later, I was near the low-income housing project where the attacker lived. It was built in the 1950s for workers of the Salsigne gold mine, who were a mixed lot of nationalities. Keep in mind that while France suffered in World War II, other countries were much poorer in the postwar years. Working in a gold mine, despite the risks, was a path to a better life. Even for locals–several of our older friends worked at the mine, which is in the mountains about 10 miles north of Carcassonne. When it closed in 2004, it was a mixed blessing, as often is the case–it was good to end the environmental disaster, but the loss of jobs was devastating. The neighborhood was named after Frédéric Ozanam, a founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Its mundanity feels a world away from the historic Cité.

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Where the locals came under attack in the crusade of 1209.

The neighborhood was quiet and tidy. Not a speck of litter on the ground. No graffiti. It was clearly very modest. It’s the worst neighborhood in town, but worst is relative. A boy and a girl, about 8 or 10 years old, played basketball on a nice court, unsupervised. A knot of maybe 20 young men hugged each other. We talked for about 15 minutes. I could see their minds churning–how to process the news, how to react, which side to take. They were emotional but mostly respectful. I read that their tempers got away from them later, when journalists arrived en masse.P1090734A block from the young men, an old woman was pushing her walker down the center of the street–easier than navigating up and down curbs and around light poles. This spoke volumes. She must live there, since she was on foot, heading toward the main street, where there are some shops. She felt safe about going out alone. She even felt confident that any car that might come along would brake and wait for her to get onto the sidewalk. At the corner, she was one door away from where the military jogger was shot that same morning.

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The people gathered are journalists interviewing a neighbor directly across from the shooting.

The next day, Saturday, was sad. The brave gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame, died of his injuries. It seemed as if the skies opened to cry for him. The market went on, life went on, though more hushed than usual. I still saw little old ladies out for their groceries, walking alone. Because one wrong man cannot undo us all.P1090738