A Day in Montpellier

IMG_6946We recently made a nice day trip to Montpellier. We usually do our “big city” shopping in Toulouse, but we decided to mix it up. It’s an extra half-hour drive, but it feels completely different than Toulouse–Montpellier lies on the Mediterranean coast, and its stately avenues are lined with palm trees.

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Streets lined with palm trees and trams covered with flowers.

We didn’t get outside the city center; in fact, we didn’t even explore all of the city center. So much to see! Especially since I had to stop every few steps to gasp, and then photograph, the over-the-top architectural details.

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Note that there’s another pair on the left side of the arch.
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I would call that look one of disdain.
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The sky was really that blue. Giant women, lions, curlicue ironwork…excess is not enough here.
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To give you an idea of the size of that door.

The center of Montpellier is an interesting mix of tiny streets and big squares. The center has been off-limits to cars since 2004, when Montpellier created France’s largest pedestrian-only zone–24 kilometers without traffic.

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Definitely not made for cars.

IMG_6945Place de la Comédie, above and in the top photo, is enormous, full of people passing through or hanging out, yet not crowded.

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A jazz trio. They were good! (The yellow jackets in the background were encouraging people to quit smoking–this was taken before the protests.)
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An art installation for the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI.

Small streets open up to little squares, always filled with café tables, which were always bustling.

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Folks sitting outside for a coffee … in NOVEMBER.

I loved everything about this street–the turret made me stop, but then I saw it has a tiny arched window! And look at that “balcony” full of plants. And the double-extension window boxes on the left!P1100787On rue de la Loge, brass circles in the street mark the Camin Roumieu, one of the main routes to Compostella, linking Arles and Toulouse. P1100792P1100793So you have to look down, but you also have to look up!

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Those are some big earrings.
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One of the allegoric faces on the Opéra Comédie, which are supposed to represent Comedy, Tragedy, Song and Poetry. Which one is this?
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More is more.
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Lions plus faces in the ironwork.

There are other kinds of artwork as well.P1100783

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Can you even see the trompe d’oeil? It’s well done.

Montpellier is a lovely city. I can’t compare it with Carcassonne, which is like a big village. Montpellier is much more go-go, with people walking quickly, shops full of quirky stuff and restaurants touting the latest health crazes. In Carcassonne, one sees little old retirees wearing pajamas and slippers as they walk their dogs, not very early, either.P1100790Chic shops! Arches! No cars! A ROOM OVER THE STREET! I’d love to know what’s in there and who lives there.

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And under the arch, a cross marked 1623. Chapelle Saint-Foy is the oldest in Old Montpellier, but only because the older stuff came down in a siege in 1622. Stuff like this makes me fall in love with France all over again.

Have you been to Montpellier? Any tips to share?

 

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Christmas in Brussels

IMG_4548With temperatures here more like April than December, I’m trying to get into the Christmas mood with some photos from a visit to Brussels last year.P1090294 2Brussels is such a pretty city. During the six years I lived there, I didn’t appreciate it–I would hop on the Thalys fast train to Paris or show up at the airport with only a carry-on to check the bulletin board of cheap last-minute tickets. One year, I traveled 50 out of 52 weekends. It was a good way to see Europe.P1090299 2We’ve gone to Belgium for all but one of the past 14 Christmases, and will finally spend our first Christmas at home this year. The highlight of the Belgium holidays was always our day spent in Brussels, amid the lights and pretty architecture, so different from the rundown towns of southern Belgium that are the definition of the word triste.P1090298 2The center of Brussels is its famous Grand-Place (which, despite being LA Grand-Place is not la Grande-Place, a mystery I must resolve one day). The fancy houses on the Grand-Place, mostly with wood construction, were burned down in three days during a bombardment by the troops of Louis XIV in 1695. The wealthy merchants, guilds and corporations weren’t put down, however. By 1697 were rebuilding, this time using stone.

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La Maison des Brasseurs, or the Brewers’ Guild Hall, from 1698, houses a beer museum.

The Grand-Place became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998, noted for the harmonious yet eclectic mix of buildings that have stayed the same for more than three centuries.

The most outstanding building is the gothic Hotel de Ville, or city hall, built in three phases–the left wing (from 1401-1421), then a nearly identical extension on the right (added from 1440-1450), and finally the top of the tower (from 1449-1455). So obviously it survived the big fire. The top photo shows most of it.P1090300 2Do you notice anything strange about the main entry?

Supposedly the architect became so upset about the mistake that he jumped to his death, but that seems to be urban legend, and the portail is likely off center just because the building got added onto.

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When I lived in Brussels, la Maison du Roi was black and foreboding. Some years ago it was cleaned. A revelation.

The Maison du Roi, or King’s House, is directly across from the Hotel de Ville. It actually is a 19th century reconstruction of what the architects would have wanted to build at the beginning of the 16th century, replacing a building that also survived the fire and that was built in 1515. That building was falling to ruin, and the city spared no expense with the replacement, which took 22 years to build (1873-1895). Keep in mind that Belgium became a country only in 1830. At the time the King’s House was built, the king was Leopold II, the same one who colonized and pillaged the Congo. So that’s where his deep pockets came from.P1090296 2La Maison du Cygne, or Swan House, originally was an inn but now houses a very swanky restaurant. Very good, too.P1090291Not far from the Grand-Place are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, three glass-roofed arcades that connect.

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A respite from perpetual rain.
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Even more twinkly by night.
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One of the shops. Also several chocolatiers.

All around the galeries, the neighborhood is a warren of medieval “streets” that are more like cobbled footpaths. For example, l’Impasse Saint-Nicolas is one of 17 impasses, or dead-end paths, in the area that lead to buildings that are behind buildings. The entry to our apartments is a similar impasse, a former medieval street leading to an interior courtyard that used to be a tannery, and to buildings that don’t reach to the main streets.

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Just under St. Nick there’s a sign for Duvel–Devil–a brand of beer.

A bit farther off, old and new sit cheek by jowl. La Tour Noire, or Black Tower, remains from the first ramparts of the city, now nearly swallowed up by a Novotel.

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Not a comfortable juxtaposition.

P1090307 2The above excepted, there ARE are plenty of classy buildings, dolled up for the festivities.P1090310 2Even the Christmas street lights are classy.P1090313 2Not far from the Black Tower is the Place Sainte Catherine, site of a Christmas market. It’s near the quais of the canals built in the 1500s and another in the 1800s to transport goods, since the river that the city was born next to (aren’t all cities next to rivers?), the Senne, was hard to navigate. In fact, the city covered over the river 200 years ago, since it had become mostly a sewer.

The quais now are lined with restaurants, especially those for fish and seafood.P1090303While we’re excited about having Christmas at home for the first time, we will miss getting a hit of city sparkle. Meanwhile, the gilets jaunes are the Grinches stealing Christmas. People are shopping online rather than in stores to avoid having to brave the gantlet of protesters. Already the Internet was killing stores; the outlook is decidedly unfestive.

Do you shop in stores or online? Have you been to Brussels?IMG_4550

 

 

 

Butter No Parsnips

IMG_0059Continuing my mission to try out the incredible cornucopia of winter vegetables available at the market, we come to parsnips. Panais in French (pah-nay). Have you had them?

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Colored carrots…cousins of parsnips.

As I noted last week, these white cousins of the carrot make regular appearances in baby food in France. Native to the Mediterranean region, these ancient vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals (especially potassium, calcium, vitamin C and Vitamin K1). They grow throughout the winter down here where the ground doesn’t freeze, and for folks up north, back in the pre-fridge days, they would be stored in a root cellar for months. Today, they are forgotten or ignored, though the French seem to still enjoy them.

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Parsley root…another old-time winter vegetable.

The first thing that struck me about parsnips was the perfume–very strong yet pleasant. I wondered about the flavor, but that turned out to be mild and a little sweet, a bit like celery root. Parsnips can be served raw–sliced or grated in a salad, like carrots. They also can be roasted, boiled, sautéed, braised, you name it. They can be served whole, sliced or puréed. If you can do it to a carrot, you can do it to a parsnip.

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Celery root. Very popular grated, as a salad, with a creamy dressing. Typical school cafeteria fare.

However, they get bigger than carrots, and when they do, there’s sometimes a tough core that’s better to cut out. You can peel them but if you have a good vegetable brush, a scrubbing will do. Either douse them with lemon juice or cook them right away or they will oxidize and turn a bit brown, as potatoes and apples do, and similarly it doesn’t affect how edible they are but makes them not as appetizing. They don’t turn brown as fast as, say, avocados, and I skipped the lemon juice as it took little time to cut up three parsnips (one large per person) and toss them in oil.

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You can see the woody core, which I removed.

I was serving them with a white bean gratin, so I wanted to cook both dishes in the oven. I cut them into sticks like fries, tossed them with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread them on a baking sheet on the upper rack in a 400 F/200 C oven. I considered adding garlic and parsley, but we already were having dishes with those. When they started to brown, I put in the dish of beans on the lower rack. I took the parsnips out to turn them but found I didn’t need to–they browned all around. It took about 15 minutes, but I waited longer, distracted by the sautéed spinach, and some got overdone.

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They brown slowly then quickly. Watch them!

In retrospect, although the parsnips were yummy and we all took second helpings, they would have looked better with something other than white bean gratin (a big can of white beans puréed with some of their liquid and one clove of garlic, spread out in a small glass baking dish and topped with grated parmesan). Two white foods in one meal! We also had spinach (green) and some hard-to-get mushrooms that I scored at the market. (I don’t know whether it’s because of the weather or overpicking, but wild mushrooms have been scarce at the market, and the price for lactaires is now €20 a kilogram, vs. €13 two years ago.)

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OMG these are good.

Although they look like and have a similar texture to potatoes as oven fries, parsnips are very low in carbohydrates.  I’m not looking to eliminate any food group (except refined sugar), but I do find that on my plate potatoes tend to turn into a butter and salt delivery system that I try to rein in.

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Lactaires delicieux, aka rousillous.

In this case, the parsnips were lightly coated with olive oil, to help brown them and keep them from sticking. Butter no parsnips! Actually the phrase is fine words butter no parsnips–butter is the verb, like butter up somebody, and it means the same thing here, that flattery gets you nowhere.

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Another neglected vegetable, often substituted for potatoes: sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, aka topinambours, which is so delightful to say. Very sweet.

If you serve parsnips, the compliments won’t be empty.

Baby Meals in France

IMG_0005We recently enjoyed a visit from a Parisian friend and her 13-month-old, and the baby’s meals struck me as very French. Our own child was never so lucky. We moved here when our kid was three months old, and I pretty much relied on family and friends back in the U.S. for advice. When I started to make friends here, I realized that the whole baby thing was different, but this was many years ago and I had mostly forgotten about it.

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Left, risotto with small vegetables and rosemary. Right, risotto with mushrooms (chunky). Both for 12 months old. Both for night–see the stars?

The biggest difference is that French baby foods are marked by time of day. Protein is for midday and never in the evening. I vaguely recall French moms telling me this back in the day. I searched around a bit to see whether baby foods sold in, say, the U.S. were marked for evening or whether nutritional recommendations said anything about protein in the evening, but I found nothing (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). I considered calling up a pediatrician, but (1) they don’t have time and (2) there’s a broad range of advice out there. My friend, in fact, was horrified at what her friends feed their children of the same age–cereal in the formula to get the kid to sleep at night, sweets, etc. All I can say is that if there were only one way to raise a child, there wouldn’t be 7 billion people on the Earth today.

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For lunch. Notice also that the baby here is looking lively, whereas the one at the top is sleeping.

There are two arguments about protein at night: that too much protein is taxing on the kidneys, which are delicate at such a young age, and that protein is hard to digest and will disturb sleep. The latter argument also applies to adults, and in fact quite a few of my friends have supper (souper) of soup. And that’s it. They eat a big meal at noon, not at night. All the ones who do this are very trim and fit, by the way, even though they are retired.

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Seen at the supermarket: “My good night dinner.” Vegetable risotto (with smooth texture), left, and lasagne gratin with celery root (not the green stalks! “melting morsels” of the root).

Another thing is that French kids don’t drink milk. Babies get formula in bottles, but when they get bigger, they might have hot chocolate with milk for breakfast and that’s it. In France, McDonald’s Happy Meals don’t have milk among the drink choices, but it’s typical in the U.S., even in school lunches. French kids are expected to drink water (and yes, there exist French parents who give their kids juice and sugary sodas).

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For day: Pot au feu is a kind of soup with beef and vegetables, but the vegetables are whole or, if cut, left in large pieces, so they aren’t all mixed up.

And then there are the menus for babies. Get a load of these:

Navarin de petits légumes, agneau français–a kind of ragoût with lamb and “small vegetables”: carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and mushrooms. This was marked for lunch.

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Tenderness of little vegetables with rice. You can tell it’s for night by the stars and moon. Too cute. The note on the left side says “Suggestion for presentation,” which seems to be humor, since, of course, baby food is puréed.

Patate douce, chataigne, pintade fermière du Poitou–sweet potato, chestnuts and guinea hen from the Poitou department. Also for lunch.

Légumes verts, panais, boulghour–Green vegetables (peas, broccoli, carrots, zucchini, coriander), parsnips, bulgur. For evening.

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“My first vegetables…diversification offer.” Left: carrots, white carrots, parsnips, leeks; right: carrots, green beans, zucchini, pumpkin. For 4-6 months old. LEEKS!!!

Douceur de panais, carotte des Landes, polenta–sweetness of parsnips, carrots from the Landes department, polenta.

Other evening meals included broccoli, green beans and rice; and fondue of carrots, sweet corn and quinoa.

Seriously, when is the last time YOU ate parsnips?

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Applesauce with quince.

The snacks included apple with chestnuts; apple with quince; and mirabelle plums with apple. For the all-important quatre heure–four o’clock snack.

My very clever friend orders the Babybio meals online and has them delivered–smart move to not have to carry groceries in Paris. She even had some delivered here.

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At the left, “for exploring from 12 months,” “for savoring from 8 months,” “for getting started from 4/6 months,” “evening dishes” in purple, organic.

To refresh my memory, I strolled through the baby aisle at the supermarket. The shelves are marked by age AND there’s a separate section for evening meals.

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Top: summer vegetables with spaghetti; bottom: vegetables and Basque-style poultry.

All I can say, is these kids eat well. I wouldn’t mind Basque-style poultry with vegetables myself!

So: similar? different? surprising? not?

 

 

Shining Cité on a Hill

P1080806Even after so many years of living in Carcassonne, I still get tingles at the sight of la Cité. As I drive into town, my eyes scan the distance for its distinctive turrets. I know where to train my eye on my usual routes, but yesterday I ran an errand in a different direction, and, wanting to avoid les gilets jaunes, made a big detour.P1060641Les gilets jaunes, or the yellow vests, are the latest wave of protesters, so called because they wear the high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to have in their car. They are angry about a 10% increase in the tax on diesel. Previously, diesel had been significantly cheaper than unleaded gas. In addition, diesel cars get about 30% more mileage, and diesel engines need less maintenance and last longer. So even though diesel cars tend to cost a few thousand euros more than standard cars, they can be worth it if a person drives a lot.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 01At least that used to be the case, and it’s why there has been a proliferation of SUVs–called quatre-fois-quatres, or 4x4s–that are too big to negotiate turns on little village lanes or to fit in typical parking places. In the Bastide, the heart of today’s Carcassonne, they often hop onto the sidewalk, being wider than the streets.Empty street la cite 4Transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in France, and private citizens’ cars make up more than half of that. At one time, car makers promised they had found a way to make diesel clean, which led France and other European countries to push people to switch to diesel cars by making diesel cheaper than unleaded. But it turns out diesel still is dirty.

While I sympathize with idea that people feel squeezed and many have yet to feel an end to the 2008 global crisis, at the same time, hearing SUV drivers complain about a tax on diesel is like hearing smokers complain about a tax on cigarettes.P1060643To broadly generalize, the French like the idea of revolution, of protest. To the barricades! Stick it to the man! Friends fondly reminisce about 1968, even though most were too young to have been throwing pavers in the streets of Paris. When, some years ago, the education poobahs tried to cut a teaching position at our village school, which would have increased already-crowded class sizes, parents immediately organized a strike. Some had strike kits, the way a crafty mom might have a gift-wrapping station, all ready to pack up and carry to wherever it might be needed. Spray paint, poster board, old sheets… I joined them on the roadside–it was how things get done in France, I was told. Indeed, it worked, at least temporarily.P1080790Anyway, on my detour yesterday, I spotted the faraway turrets, ghostly in the rainy mist. As I neared, I came around a turn by the old hospital, where one has a particularly good view, and I gasped, as I always do.P1060644Back in la Cité’s heyday (before 1209), transportation was by foot–by horse if one was wealthy. France’s population is guestimated at around 17 million in the 14th century (an official census didn’t happen until much later, not to mention the issue of changing borders–check out this cool time-lapse video). Today the population is 67 million. Before 1884, when Edouard Delamere-Deboutteville of France built the first (?) gasoline-powered car, there were no automobiles; today France has 32 million passenger cars, and 30% of French households have two cars. When you live in a place where the “new” town dates to 1260 and local history stretches back more than 2,000 years, the change brought by cars in just over 100 years is shocking. And that’s just France–the same change is happening across the globe. Pollution knows no borders.Main drag of la cite emptyClearly the streets of la Cité were made for walking–at most, hand-pulled carts. La Cité’s unique double walls and 52 towers were built to resist attacks and were never breached. The only time Carcassonne fell was in the Albigensian crusade, when Pope Innocent III called for the extermination of the Cathars. Even then, after holding out for two weeks of siege, the inhabitants weren’t overrun but decided to surrender, having gotten news of the mass slaughter in Béziers. They fought the man, but the man won. In fact, the Inquisition followed.Remparts à la Cité de CarcassonneThe gilets jaunes vow to continue, and even ramp up, their protests. The president, Emmanuel Macron, vows to stay the course. Taxes here are high, yes. But of all the taxes to protest against, why the one on pollution? This protest leaves me ambivalent.

What are your thoughts?

Deuxième Studios Shoes

534352-5cbfb63482e5413fa1b00ac1bff0d204On Tuesday, you met Oliver Gee, of the Earful Tower podcast, who visited Carcassonne as part of the honeymoon tour of France with his bride, Lina Nordin Gee. The lovely Lina is interesting in her own right, as a shoe designer, company founder, and chic Parisienne.

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Lina in L’ancienne Tannerie. In gold shoes.

I ran into Oliver and Lina at the Saturday market in Carcassonne, where I was waiting to meet up with a friend and her husband–the same couple whose love story I described here. My friends were delighted to meet Oliver and Lina, and C kept leaning over to me to whisper about Lina: “She’s so beautiful!” “Seriously, she is very beautiful!”

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My friend is right: Lina is lovely.

And it’s true. From the bits of time I got to talk with Lina, I learned that her heart is as beautiful as her face. And she’s a businesswoman! Her brand is Deuxième Studios, and the shoes show that you don’t need heels to be chic.

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The Trocadero. Flats that look good with pants!

—How did you get into shoe design?

When I grew up, my mother started her own brand, designing and selling traditional clogs. I started helping out at weekends and after school. A few years later I graduated from Istituto Marangoni in London (and a year in Milan) with a BA in Fashion Design, I continued to work with my mother as well as taking on freelance work for other brands. I also started designing and making custom wedding dresses on request. In 2016, I decided to start my own brand, designing and selling my own line of shoes.534352-91d0f20f3a7d4dcd843b4d1e6b6e6e2f—How did you end up in Paris?

I have moved around quite a bit since I turned 18. As soon as I finished high school, I moved to London to study fashion design, from there I moved on to Milan and Abu Dhabi, only to move back to Stockholm (where I grew up) a few years later. I spent about a year back in my home town, but it wasn’t long until I got restless, so I sent off an application to study a semester of french at the Sorbonne in Paris. In December I got the letter from the university welcoming me to Paris, and I moved a couple of weeks later.

 

—How did you start your company?

It took about a year of preparations and planning before I launched my brand. In 2016 – my first year in Paris, I started thinking about starting my own shoe brand. At the time me and my now-husband Oliver–then boyfriend–were living in a tiny chambre de bonne (basically shoebox sized) apartment in the second arrondissement (deuxième arrondissement in French), in the very bullseye of Paris. I guess it must’ve made an impression on me because I settled on ”Deuxième Studios” as the name for my brand. I was still working with my mother’s brand, and therefore had all the connections with suppliers (shoes, leather, shoeboxes, etc.) I needed to start. So I went ahead to register my new name, I flew to Portugal to develop and order my first shoe samples, I ordered shoe boxes and made a website.Lady Lock pumps collection backAfter about a whole year I was ready to show my first collection to the Swedish press. It went well, and I got in contact with some of the biggest fashion influencers in Sweden. They showed and shared my shoes in their channels, and before I even opened my webshop, I had customers waiting to order.

trocadero gold nov1The first collection existed of basically one model (in an array of colours, hot pink to powdery beige) – a fluffy slipper. I have just finished the new samples for autumn/winter 2019, the number of models have increased over the four seasons I’ve been active, from the first fluffy slipper to a full collection of boots, ballerinas, pumps and sandals! 534352-2a49dc12157842fbabbbeb32460d3bf4—Tell us about your philosophy/ideals about the perfect shoe.

I started Deuxième with the idea of offering shoes that didn’t have to have a towering heel to look fun. Living in Paris and marching the cobbled streets every day, heels is not always the best option. I wanted to make shoes that can transform an outfit, something simple yet special. A shoe that can take you from day to night. Oh – and it had to be comfy! I basically wanted a shoevolution, haha. Sounds pretty ambitious, but I guess you need to dream big to dare to take the step of actually starting your own company. It helps if you’re a little crazy!534352-3e529433d76d4b68960999b495915797—How are your shoes made?

My shoes are made in the north of Portugal, around Porto and Guimaraes, to be precise. They are produced in a small family run factory run by the owner named Paulo. I source some of the materials myself, and some are sourced via the factory’s connections, but it’s ultimately me who will ok a material before it’s used. It’s so interesting to see a a shoe being assembled by all these pieces and processes, from initial sketch to a pair of beautifully made shoes wrapped in silk paper, ready to be shipped to their new owner. 

534352-78d98eed13974eb5aa386ab99525da38I am pretty vigilant when it comes to quality. It pays off to choose a more expensive leather/sole/lining in the long run. The shoes ages better and will by the same logic live longer. It’s extremely important to me to offer a sustainable option in the fashion world. 

 

I am currently working on extending the Deuxième family further, I’m in the process of making a few models of bags! About six months ago I contacted a hardware manufacturer in Milan, and I recently got the finished samples of the custom bag clasps I designed. 2019 will be an exciting year for me, new shoe models, very new bags, and I might just be in talks with a well-known department store in Sweden.

Check out Lina’s site, Deuxième Studios, and also her very chic Instagram @deuxiemestudios.

 

France’s Cutest Couple?

img_0658This summer we had the pleasure of meeting Oliver Gee and his lovely bride, Lina Nordin Gee, when they passed through Carcassonne on their honeymoon trip around France on an adorable red scooter. They stayed in our AirBnB apartment, L’ancienne Tannerie.

Oliver is the founder of “The Earful Tower,” a podcast and blog as well as fun Instagram about France, especially Paris. The stories are excellent–in fact, when I discovered The Earful Tower, I immediately binged all the episodes and have been listening ever since. Often I go back and listen again, because there are so many great details. And plenty of puns. I can now confirm what I suspected when listening–that he has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, what the French call espiègle, quick to spot humor in a situation.

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There he is, reading Peter Mayle in L’Ancienne Tannerie. The Earful Tower has a book club–check it out.

Oliver was gracious enough to submit to a little interview:

Who are you and what in the world are you doing?

I’m Oliver Gee, an Australian who has called Paris home for almost four years. Around a year ago, I quit my job as a journalist to focus on a podcast I’d been running called The Earful Tower. It’s been quite the gamble, but my goal was to make the project my full-time gig and I’m pretty much there.Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 11.54.20 AMWhat are some of the biggest differences you observed between Paris and small-town/rural France?

The biggest difference I noticed was that people have more time for you outside of Paris. Paris is hectic, almost chaotic, as most big cities are. The baker doesn’t (usually) care to comment on the fact that you might be speaking French with an accent, they’ve probably heard that accent before anyway. In the countryside, there’s not a long line of people waiting for their food, drink, car to be serviced… whatever. What was really great about this for me was that it meant I had the chance to really converse with people in a day-to-day way, which is an excellent way to improve my French!

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There he is on the ramparts of la Cité de Carcassonne. Regular listeners will know Oliver loves a good, old wall.

Do you find it easier to eat well outside Paris? I have been to some fantastic restaurants in Paris, but they were pricey, whereas in the middle of France profonde you can get some awesome meals and they’re cheap. 

I have to say that the best meal I’ve had in France was in the middle of nowhere, in Puymirol at a two-star Michelin restaurant. It was my birthday so we splashed out while on the honeymoon trip. But the food options in Paris are so exponentially greater than in the countryside that – statistically at least – you’re more likely to find what you want in Paris than elsewhere in France. Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 11.53.39 AMWhat about culture? Paris is chock-full of cultural sites and activities. Would culture-loving travellers find enough to satisfy them outside Paris?

There’s all kinds of cultural things to do around France that are very unique, and that you won’t find in the capital. We found old caves in Burgundy, very well-preserved Roman arenas in Provence, and unique museums like the tapestry from the 11th century in Bayeux, or the D-Day beach museums. Paris, of course, has a way bigger and better collection of monuments and museums – but there’s plenty for a traveller outside of the capital. 

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We were in awe of how lightly they packed, but you can understand why they had to.

What are some things that travelers should consider doing on a trip beyond Paris? I think for a lot of people, France consists of Paris and Provence, and in Provence they go to the markets, see the lavender and visit cute villages, all of which are undeniably satisfying. But how about some other reasons to venture out? Maybe historical sites? Or jaw-dropping scenery? 

France is extremely diverse. Once you’ve got Paris and Provence out of your system, explore the other sides of France that are very different from what you typically imagine when you picture France. The Alps, the vineyards, the Mediterranean coastline, Carcassonne, the picturesque island Ile de Ré, the dense forests of the national parks… The big thing I learned from this trip was just how wildly diverse France can be.

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Annency.

What is one famous and one obscure thing in Paris and in France profonde that travelers shouldn’t miss? Some things get derided as being touristy, but they draw tourists because they are truly amazing, so I’m thinking of the things that are worth braving the crowds. And then the hidden treasures that don’t have crowds until we ruin them by telling everybody.

In Paris, go and walk along the remnants of the Philippe Auguste wall, it’s a fascinating insight into France from 800 years ago and most people don’t know anything about it. For the more famous side of the city, you’d be mad not to take a stroll through the Marais district, down onto the islands on the Seine River, then along the river sides.

As for France, I found the tiny village of Vezelay to be really interesting, though I don’t think it’s a huge tourist destination unless you’re doing a pilgrimage. They’ve got a bone on display in the crypt of the cathedral that legend says was Mary Magdalene’s. As for a more-known option, check out Annecy in the Alps. Absolutely the most beautiful town in France, end of story.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 11.53.17 AMDid you have any movie moments during your trip, where you saw or experienced France as it’s portrayed in films? I sometimes see little old men wearing berets and riding bikes, with a baguette strapped to the back—absolutely like the iconic photo, though I think several times it has been the same guy. 

When I was struck down by Lyme disease and had to visit two separate doctors in two separate villages, I felt like it could have been a movie scene. They were so friendly, and just as keen to talk about our trip as to cure me. Otherwise, we met so many colourful characters that it felt like it could have been a movie in itself. Small-town mayors, dairy farmers, talkative bartenders, and scores of friendly villagers… I’d love to see the movie version of our own trip!

So, francophiles, do yourself a favor and head on over to the Earful Tower! An interview with the lovely Lina, who is a shoe designer, coming soon!

Window on Europe

P1050851There’s a lot to love about Europe. Not just the food, the history, the culture, the architecture, the countrysides, the windows (with a few favorites chosen today to accompany the text). A big part of what makes life here so good is thanks to the European Union. Photos of pretty windows aside, this isn’t the usual light fare yet everything is relevant to most people’s lives–like protecting you against bank fees and phone companies. What’s not to like?IMG_5618A favorite pastime seems to be making fun of silly legislation passed by the European Parliament. But that is often unfair, and sometimes the supposed laws aren’t even for real (get your news from mainstream media!). Take, for example, the Great Olive Oil Affair. The EU wanted to make olive oil labels easier to read and to ban restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable containers … because restaurants were refilling with lower-quality oil. In fact, the olive-oil producing countries were in favor of the ban, yet it was cited as a reason to vote for Brexit, because the Leavers wanted the right to be cheated by restaurants. P1050993In fact, everybody but Emmanuel Macron loves to bash the EU. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit about  “what have the Romans ever done for us.”

Lest anybody think otherwise, I wrote most of this ages ago, and it’s absolutely not intended to troll the U.K. for Brexit. While we all whine about how things need to be better (and lord help us if we get self-satisfied and give up on improving!), we don’t appreciate enough how far we’ve come. Think of this as a pre-Thanksgiving post.P1060197Aside from the big things, like peace, and the ability to travel and trade easily, here are a few ways the EU has improved life:

—Probably the biggest thing has been the reduction of poverty and modernization of southern Europe. Spain, for example, wisely used its generous handouts from the EU to build top-notch infrastructure like high-speed trains. My taxes make Spain better? YES!!!IMG_5219—Since 2006, the EU has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed to fatten livestock. More than a decade later, the U.S. banned certain antibiotics for fattening livestock. While it isn’t 100% proven, some scientists theorize that the obesity epidemic is linked at least to some extent to people consuming so much meat that contains antibiotics. However, the bigger threat is from antibiotic resistance.P1050167—The EU eliminated mobile phone roaming fees within the EU with a “roam like at home” rule. So I can use my basic (yet with unlimited calls) plan of €2 a month even when I’m in another EU country and not get hit with surcharges.

–The “Universal Service Directive” (those EU bureaucrats kill it with sexy names for their laws, don’t you think?) lets you change mobile phone companies but keep your number–and they have one day to switch you over. It encourages competition by making it very easy to switch operators.

—It required the same bank fees for payments, transfers and ATMs within the EU as domestically. No surcharges if you use your bank card at a shop or ATM while traveling.IMG_5129The euro reined in prices. Inflation in France was 24% between 2001 and 2011, compared with 68% between 1981 and 1991. Regarding the years chosen: in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations for the euro. That led to 199, when a single currency in fact, but not name or physical currency, began, because the exchange rates among the first euro members were locked in. The actual euro coins and notes appeared Jan. 1, 2002. (If you click on the link, the headline reads: L’euro fait flamber les prix depuis dix ans? Que nenni! Which means: The euro made prices skyrocket over the past 10 years? Not at all!) And let’s not forget how nice it is to travel around Europe without changing money–that also saved money because each time people or businesses exchanged currencies, they paid a commission.IMG_2694—In particular, prices fell for electronics and home appliances, largely because of cheap imports. And those were possible in part because the EU set standards for member countries (except the U.K. and Ireland), which previously had slightly different plugs, the better to protect domestic producers. IMG_5078All in all, life in the EU is good. Life expectancy has soared to 81 years today from 69 in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from a high of 10 metric tons per capita to 6.7. Those regulations have improved air and water quality, and thus life in general. IMG_4593Things aren’t perfect here, and there are plenty of ways the system could get better. But overall, the EU is a great example of how the government is indeed the solution, not the problem.IMG_3499

South of France Fashion

P1100781 2What to wear? If the photos of Parisian fashions seem too crazy, take some cues from the more laid-back south of France. On some outings to Toulouse and Montpellier, a few trends were evident.

While I usually use only my own photos, it was next to impossible. Either I photograph or I shop. As I was with a very chic friend who wanted to shop, there was a limit to how much I could stop for photos, especially since I have an ancient point-and-shoot camera whose shutter works when it decides to. (New phone with decent camera on order!)

However, please note in the top photo, taken in Montpellier, the color. An orange coat, a red coat, and a woman in a bright yellow coat with yellow tights.

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I’m disappointed I didn’t get her two-tone shoes–black and beige.

I did stop a woman at the market. I was with the same friend, who told me, “THAT’S how you should dress,” pointing to an extremely elegant woman buying vegetables. She really was stunning. I went up and asked to take her picture. She demurred, then agreed as long as I cropped off her face. I showed her the photo afterward to make sure she was OK with it.

We got to talking, and it turned out she was 82!!!! I would have guessed 60-something, and maybe less from farther away. She walked like a dancer, with perfect posture. Tall, slim, with a great haircut and just-right makeup–enough to not look faded, not so much as to look painted. I have seen her from time to time since, and she is unfailingly elegant.

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I liked the pink shoes. Her socks matched her sweater. I wouldn’t have thought to pair pink with this burnt-orange/brown.

As I don’t always have time to talk for 15 minutes for every photo, I sometimes snap from behind, to get the idea of the outfit without someone’s face. But too often people cross in front, and it’s hard to focus….

So I took some photos from a few popular retailers that one sees around French cities. I link to their sites as a thank you for using the photos. I don’t get anything from it and they aren’t advertising. Any advertisers you see here are thrown in automatically by WordPress to make up for me using the free version and I don’t get anything from them nor even know who they are.

We must admit a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words. So here are the main trends I saw:

The fanny pack as bandolier.

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Here.

Mostly spotted on men, but I did see it on a few women. It was far more common in Montpellier, where everybody seems to be under age 25, than in Toulouse. I have seen it only once in Carcassonne, which someone once described to me as “une ville mémère”–granny town. In Montpellier, I saw a woman whose fanny pack/bandolier had a metal chain strap like a Chanel bag. Go figure.

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Similar metal strap. Here.

Tucked in.

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With not-incredibly-tight jeans. Cut off the doo-dads. Here.

Untucked is over. Men and women alike wore their tops tucked in–all the way around. Not the fake tucked-in-front, out-in-back move. That is so 2015, Jenna Lyons.

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Here. That paperbag-waist.

Again and again I saw young women with enormous, chunky sweaters tucked into their trousers or jeans. The sweaters weren’t cropped–that would have been a boxy shape on top. The trend was to create billows of material just above the waist.

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Loose jeans. But with the sweater tucked all around. Here.

My fashionable friend explained that it was about the silhouette–you can’t have a big top and looser bottoms without defining the waist, otherwise it just looks sloppy.

High waists are back.

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Corduroy is everywhere, too. Pants, skirts, jackets. It’s the ’70s! This is the infamous “carrot” cut, with a very voluminous tucked top. Like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally.”

I have heard this routinely ever since waistlines started to descend in the late 1990s. It seems to be true this time. Those big sweaters are tucked into high-waist pants or jeans, and cinched tightly with belts. Self-belts that match trousers are OK, but with jeans you need a brown leather belt that’s way too long and you loop the extra end around artfully.

Also, the jeans can be oversize mom/boyfriend cut, preferably large enough to create a paperbag effect when you cinch that belt.

You don’t have to wear jeans.

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Here.

Lots of very young women and teens were wearing pinstripe and plaid (glen or tattersall) trousers. If the pants had wide legs, they were cropped. Otherwise, the “carrot” shape with tapered ankles was common.

(No idea why this photo is so small!)

 

The ugly shoe has arrived.

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This hits so many trends (minus the oversize sweater): loose jeans, bandolier fanny pack–in CORDUROY–and ugly shoes. Here.

However, the uglier the shoe, the prettier the person, otherwise it backfires (which we also saw). That rules out ugly shoes for me.

Wool coats.

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Also: smooth hair. Neither straightened nor “beach waves” nor messy. Very pretty hair–like Ariana Grande’s but shorter.

Lots of camel, with men and women alike wearing a very simple, classic beltless model. Also bathrobe versions in gray and olive green.

Have you seen any of these trends where you live? Would you wear them?

Also: check out this great video from Oui in France of what goes on in a French bakery. Good thing we can’t smell it. I would eat all the bread.

French Doors

metal trivalleI realized I have three folders of door photos, and they are getting out of hand. Let’s meander through one folder, which ranges from Carcassonne to Montolieu to Caunes-Minervois to Cépie, which are all quaint little villages around Carcassonne.

The top photo is technically a gate. But so gorgeous! look at how the scrolls in the stone match the scrolls in the ironwork. And the bits of “lace” hanging from the gutter.green trivalleThis one might be a gate to an inner courtyard or just a garage door. Who knows! Good luck driving up over that curb.IMG_4732A hidden courtyard elsewhere in town that I spied before the huge doors closed automatically. I love how old French buildings keep so many secrets.P1080833Perfectly imperfect.la citeAnother gate. But the colors!red trivallecepie 1856P1070824 2Why do the women’s faces on doors and buildings usually look unhappy? The men usually look stern or fierce, but the women look like their patience is being tried.P1080849Note the fish knocker. And the date: 1746.gateP1080842P1080824I wonder whether the shutters and door started out the same shade and the shutters faded more because of more exposure to the sun, or whether the homeowners intentionally chose different shades.montolieu blueThe little pot! Notice how almost no threshhold is straight.P1080845montolieu grayP1070875P1080534P1080843This door doesn’t even come up to my shoulder, and I’m short. For a while, it led to an underground bar, called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the Hole in the Wall. It was gorgeous, with a high vaulted ceiling and stone walls and a deep well that they had artfully lit. It was no easy feat to crawl through the hole and then descend the steep stairs. Too bad it closed.P1080820Arches+ivy+old stones = French charm.

Which is your favorite?