Scraping By With French Cheese

scraping-1What beats cheese?

bubbling-cheese
See it start to bubble?

Melted cheese. And it isn’t even fondue!

table-setWe don’t have a food processor but we do have a special apparatus for melting a giant half-wheel of cheese. This specialty, called a raclettedates to the Middle Ages, when shepherds set half of their round of cheese on a sone and turned the cut face toward the fire so it would get all bubbly and yummy. They would scrape off the melted part, and melt the next bit. They ate the melted cheese with bread, potatoes and dried meats.

scraping-3

scraping-2Today, we have a large heating coil, similar to a toaster, that beams down on the cheese. You can lower the heating element as the cheese grows smaller. The cheese itself can be pulled out and tilted, for easier scraping. Raclette comes from racler, to scrape.

cheese-in-wrappingMore common today are round appliances with little drawers (check this out: 117 choices here!). Supermarkets sell the particular cow’s milk cheese pre-sliced that’s just the right size. The heating element also heats the top, where you can cook little sausages, in what’s known as a pierrade. We also have a pierrade, but it’s a real slab of slate stone that you put a Sterno flame under, like back in the Stone Age. But that’s for another time. For one thing, it takes up most of the table. And so does the half-round of cheese. So chez nous, it’s raclette or pierrade, but not both.

We do the charcuterie.

charcuterieWe do the potatoes, going for little ones called grenailles (named after lead shot because of their size, about like a thumb). Managed to get a photo of a couple of leftovers.

grenailles
Grenailles aren’t new potatoes, but the little ones that grow between big, normal ones.

We do the bread. Duh. We also do a big green salad with a simple shallot vinaigrette.

cheesecakeFor dessert, we stayed with the cheese theme and had triple-chocolate cheesecake. Inspiration and recipe from French Country Cottage. However, we’d all eaten so much cheese, that the next time I will go for a lighter dessert. This one is perfect for a midafternoon snack, especially if dinner will be late, or a followup to a lighter meal.

A raclette has a nice rhythm to it, because you have pauses while waiting for the cheese to melt. The plates of cheese and all the trimmings are passed around and around, so it’s pretty convivial and relaxed.

The wine also contributes.

Years ago, the Carnivore belonged to a civic group whose winter fundraiser was a raclette. Imagine a banquet hall with a couple of these monster melters on each table of 20 or so. A very elegant, massive cheese-scraping dinner.

barrage-lakeSpeaking of convivial, the next day was gorgeous and just demanded a Sunday promenade. The entire village seemed to have the same idea. Everybody wanted to see what damage the river had done (not much–see below. Some neatly plowed gardens got a new layer of mud dumped on them. The jogging path through the woods is mostly gone. But honestly, those things belong in a flood plain, because they’re easily righted).

rocks-left-by-flood
This was not the path. It was full of brush before, and impassable.
jogging-path
This used to be the path; it went right through that wall of washed-up debris.

The most striking thing to me was the number of multigenerational groups out walking. Three generations strolling, time and again. There also were kids out alone, because we live in a time warp where kids play unsupervised, and elderly villagers, some alone and a few couples. Some parents with kids. But over and over I saw knots of five to seven people, from kids to grandparents, including aunts and uncles and cousins. And the kids included teens. How many teens do you know who go for a walk with their parents and grandparents?

The various groups would stop and chat as they crossed paths. Discussing how high the water had gotten. How it was nothing compared to ’99. Some reminiscing about the travails of that time. Then they continued on their ways.

I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, the one where my parents moved to later, where my siblings live, where friends live, and I cannot remember seeing as many people out for a walk (not a jog, solo or with a buddy, but a stroll), especially these multi-generational, extended family groups. It was like Halloween, but in broad daylight, without costumes or candy.

The French even have multiple terms for it. Se promener is to take a walk, either for exercise or distraction, while marcher is to walk (kind of the generic brand). Randonner is more hardcore, a hike. The loveliest is flâner, to walk without a goal, just for the pleasure of it.

At one garden, owned by an elderly couple, four cars were parked, taking up most of the road, but it didn’t matter because the river flows over the road there (passage à gue), and crossing wasn’t yet possible. Maybe 20 people were there, all ages, picking out stones deposited by the torrent. Clearly the extended family mobilized to help out. They weren’t grim about it. Everybody seemed to be having great fun.

barrage-waterfall
The barrage had water flowing over the entire width for a day or so, I’m told.

I felt such affection for these neighbors, who themselves have such affection and respect for each other. J’aime la France.

 

Before/After: The Bedroom

The bedroom of the front apartment underwent a major transformation. For one thing, it had been chopped into two bedrooms, and we turned it back into one. You can relive the demolition here.

Bedroom wall gone huge room
Notice how the little wall had gone right up around the moldings!

It wasn’t easy–all the debris had to be carried out bucket by bucket.

bed
After

We ended up with a space that’s 35 square meters–more than 375 square feet. For a bedroom. It’s almost a ballroom.

The historic preservation folks asked us to keep the jib door, but it’s sealed, with sound insulation and shelves on the other side. The door to the right used to lead to a hallway, which opened to the space with the furnace and hot-water heater, and the toilet was off of that. We closed it off and put a toilet in the hallway.

img_1573-copy
Before: a hall
wc-1-after
After: a powder room.

The view to the street shows how each former room had a window. Sorry about the backlight.

32-chambre-1-actuelle-vue-rue-copy
Before
br-toward-windows
After. The door on the left is the bathroom.

I’ve made pale gray slipcovers for the chairs. The fabric is lovely soft velvet with a tone-on-tone paisley pattern.

br-angle-to-door
That door goes to the living room.

The bigger space is more suited to the gorgeous fireplace.

fireplace-vertical

fireplace-boiserie
A closeup of the boiserie
fireplace-detail
Detail on the mantel
kneeler
The kneeler found a home

The bed is full of special details. For one thing, we went with a queen-size organic mattress made in Mazamet. So it is a bit bigger than the antique headboard.

bed-lights-on

bed-detail

The sconces were another antique find.

sconce-detail

Even the sheets are antique. What young bride-to-be embroidered them for her trousseau? And then put them away, because they are like new.

sheet-initials

sheet-detail

Whenever possible, we chose Made in France.

made-in-france

We look forward to welcoming visitors with an authentic French experience in an amazing setting.

Our apartments can be found on Abritel/Homeaway/VRBO: the front here and the back here or on AirBnb, with the front apartment here and the back here.

Pillows of Swiss Chard Bliss

final-productHere’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.

But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?

shopping
What I bought. The blettes are between the lettuce and the sweet potatoes.

This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?

 

blettes-washedBeing a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.

This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).

other-ingredientsSwiss Chard Pillows of Bliss

a bunch of Swiss chard

one onion, diced

one egg

20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)

a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère

a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.

1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)

salt and pepper

olive oil

chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!

Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.

stem-and-onion-cookingFirst, you chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.

blanching-blettesBlanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.

 

blanched-and-stretchedBeat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.

sauce

Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.

ready-for-ovenSet them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).

Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.

Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.

flooding-right
Our house is just to the right of this!
view-right-after
Same view two days later. And normally, this would be “oooh! the river is high!”

A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.

 

But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.

flooding-bridge
Even with the water level down now, this shot makes me woozy.
bridge-after
Two days later

We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.

 

Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.

view-to-park
To me, this is the worst shot. Beyond the trees is a big park that turned into a lake. Huge.
park-after
Same view two days later. The poor ducks who usually nest at the bend on the right must be refugees now.

Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.

 

Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.

 

Eating Seasonal Produce: Winter

radis-rougeLast week, the news was full of about how bad weather in Spain and Italy had hurt vegetable crops, sending prices skyrocketing.

cauliflower
Look at those beautiful caulifower.

I have to admit that I had picked up a few courgettes (zucchini) at the market and then dropped them as if stung by a bee when the vendor informed me the price was €7.50 a kilo. In summer, courgettes sell for €1 a kilo. My fault for wanting something out of season.

cauliflower-spiky
The Romanesco variety of cauliflower. Note the dirt! Good sign!

Because we live in an area where frost is rare and the ground doesn’t freeze in winter, fresh local produce is available year-round. But it means forgetting about zucchini and tomatoes.

maraicher
Always my first stop: Serge Claret, who farms near Montreal, a very pretty village west of Carcassonne.

At the Saturday market I gathered photos from my favorite maraîchers, or vendors, who also grow all their own produce. There’s plenty of variety, even in the dead of winter.

rutabaga-navet-dor
Rutabagas, top; “ball of gold” turnips, bottom.
navet
Regular turnips. Great in soup (or couscous!)

Take radishes. There are the red variety, like the first photo. But also black or blue.

What do you do with these giants? You can dice them up in a soup or slice or grate them to eat raw in a salad. Speaking of salad, there are many kinds of lettuce and such, including piles of single leaves of roquette (rocket or arugula), cresson (watercress), chicorée (chicory) frisée (curly endive) or escarole but not iceberg. No loss there.

laitue
Laitue. Don’t be surprised to find a slug or two inside, because it wasn’t doused with pesticides.
chene
Salade feuille de chêne–oak leaf lettuce.
mache
Mâche, or lamb’s lettuce.

I don’t count lettuce as a vegetable. It’s like a condiment, a nice thing to eat on the side, a crisp break between the main course and the cheese course, but you still need a vegetable, or you need to eat a truckload of lettuce. The Carnivore argues that a few tired* leaves of laitue are all you need, and that fish, poultry, eggs and dairy could possibly count as vegetables because they aren’t meat. Logical.

carrots-regular
Carrots. With or without the green tops.
carrots-yellow
Carrots of other colors.
panais
Panaïs or parsips, here in purple, but often white as well.

 

We even have kale in Carcassonne. Moving up in the world.

kale
Muriel Vayre has a truck farm along the Aude river, below la Cité. You can buy directly from her at the farm, as well.

Kale may be new and trendy in France, but cabbage comes in many varieties and is cheap.

chou-vert
These guys are ginormous.

Did you know that calling somebody a cabbage is a term of endearment? Mon chou and p’tit chou are like saying “honey.” (Don’t call anybody miel in French!) The teacher’s pet is the chouchou. And a petit bout de chou is a small child.

chou-rave
Chou rave, aka kohlrabi.
celeri-rabe
Celeri rave, or celeriac, is a favorite of school menus, grated as a salad similar to coleslaw with a mayo-style dressing called remoulade. These beasts serve a crowd.

topinambour

Topinambour, or sunchoke, can substitute for potatoes, and are prepared the same way.

betterave-roasted
Betteraves, or beets, are sold raw or roasted, like here, and also come in many colors.

Alain and Juliette Fumanel‘s stand is another favorite. M. Fumanel is known to all as “Fufu,” and usually is in highly amusing conversation with his many friends and clients. And Mme. Fumanel is always very elegant. I go directly to their farm near Pont Rouge in summer for tomatoes and the other vegetables I put in my tomato sauce.

fufu
“Fufu” is wearing the cap.

Check back on Friday for a special recipe using a purchase from the market: Swiss chard.

*Re “tired” lettuce: some people like to “fatigue” the salad by dressing it a few hours before the meal, so it isn’t as crisp. They actually do it on purpose.

Signs of Spring

pink-bloomsLast week was the Chandeleur, or Candelmas, yet another pagan tradition co-opted by religion. While the U.S. has Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, the French celebrate that day by making food. Of course. Specifically crêpes.

88-crepes
Many are missing because they were eaten as soon as the sugar got sprinkled on top.

The reason for crêpes is either that they are round like the sun and Feb. 2 is when the days start getting noticeably longer, or that they are round like coins. If you can flip your crêpe (some say it must be the first one–which is always the hardest–some say any of them but you have to be holding a coin in the other hand), you will be prosperous for the year.

I had planned to post this last week, but I was too busy stuffing my mouth with the first sugar I’ve eaten since Christmas. The Carnivore is the Crêpe Master and he doesn’t flip them, so too bad for us. His mother’s recipe is at the bottom.

Spring does, however, seem to be tapping its foot and pushing winter a bit from behind to get it to step out of the way already or at least move faster. (Do you also hate it when the person behind you in line keeps bumping you or touching you, as if you are holding up the line, when, in fact, there are other people ahead of you? Do they think that they can perhaps annoy you so much that you just leave and let them move up one spot in the queue? Answer: NO. Or perhaps they think that nobody else is feeling the pain of standing in line the way they are?)

Anyway, spring. I looked at temperatures this year vs. last, and January was colder, probably because of that cold spell a few weeks ago. But still, I photographed these irises in bloom on Jan. 30. Irises in January???

irises-1And this camellia bush is ready to bust out. I shot it last year in April here.

rhododendronI keep seeing flowers everywhere, and not just the primroses, cyclamens, pansies and decorative cabbages that towns and villages and homeowners plant for winter. (I do love living in a place where one plants flowers for winter.) The wild almonds are starting to flower.

When we bought our house 15 years ago, every field was a vineyard, as far as the eye could see. It seemed like a good idea–vines send roots deep into the ground and resist the summer droughts, and those roots help hold the soil when the rain beats down in torrents.

bare-trees-and-greenThe vines are many decades old, and it’s easy to think it’s always been like this. But I was reading about life years ago, when most of the population worked the land and grew their own food. It was inefficient, and hunger was a big driver of the French Revolution. Farmers grew a bit of everything–some vineyards, yes, but also wheat, oats, flax, olives, barley and hay. It was far from being a monoculture. As farms got bigger and needed fewer workers, they specialized in one thing or another.

fields-distanceToday, under a program to reduce the quantity of wine produced in order to shore up prices, many vineyards have been uprooted and turned over to other crops, like wheat, sunflowers, beans, sorghum and rape. Since the end of January, some have started to peep above the soil and turn everything green, even as the trees remain bare.

Do you see signs of spring yet?

field

The Carnivore’s Mother’s Crêpes

750 grams flour (6 cups)

1 liter whole milk (4 1/4 cups)

2 tablespoons white sugar

6 eggs

1 tablespoon olive oil

a pinch of salt

butter for cooking

Beat the eggs, milk and oil until well mixed. Add the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. It should be runny, not like pancake batter.

Melt a pat of butter in a shallow skillet. Pour about half a cup of batter into the skillet and rotate to spread the batter evenly. Keep a close eye and turn when it’s brown–with a spatula or, if you’re daring, flip. Cook the other side just enough so it isn’t sticky.

If you want to be a gourmande, sprinkle with sugar right away and keep your stack covered so they stay hot.

Melt another pat of butter before pouring in the next round of batter.

Best eaten warm, but they will keep, covered, for several days. If you haven’t consumed them all before. This recipe serves a crowd (30 crêpes? Something like that).

 

Charging Bulls

two-bullsThe south of France has a long tradition of bull fighting, with ferias taking place in several cities and villages from spring to fall.

Azille, a village of just over 1,000 inhabitants about 35 kilometers from Carcassonne, holds a feria around the May 1 holiday–this year it’s scheduled for April 30-May 1–with a second one planned for July 21-23.

07-april-12-55Some of the ferias turn into drunken bacchanals as evening arrives. The machismo and surplus of testosterone seems to bring out the worst in young men still high on having chased bulls in the morning. Arles, Bézier and Nîmes all hold huge ferias in their Roman arenas.

calmer-with-bullsBut Azille’s feria is more of a family affair, with lots of rides and games for small children. And the village is very pretty and worth a visit on its own.

07-april-12-57The big excitement, besides the bullfights themselves (and I can’t bring myself to see those), is the running of the bulls from one end of town over to the stadium where the bullfights are held.

smash-egg-game
A game that involves tossing a steel pétanque ball onto an egg (see it in the middle of the stump?). The prize is one of the bottles lined up on the sidelines.

The crowd mills between stands for food, drink and games, the smell of grilled meat wafting through the air. Singers and flamenco dancers entertain from a side stage.

surroundng-bullThe excitement builds as people are shooed from the main street to take cover behind large grills hooked together on either side. You don’t want to be too close to the grill, because the bars are wide enough for a horn to pass through. Anyway, most people have climbed up on the tables in order to see.

stray-bull
See them trying to hide in the doorway? The bull ran straight into that blue glass window moments later. Didn’t get inside, but the window was shattered.

A few foolhardy boys and men older boys remain inside the barred zone, waiting to prove their masculinity by pulling a bull’s tail.

kid-touching-bullA  band of riders on horseback wait for each bull to be released from a truck. The poor animal usually comes out rather dazed, a condition only exacerbated by the yelling crowds on either side. There’s only one place to go–down the big empty street, and so off it goes, pell-mell.

lots-of-horses
Coming back for the next one.

The horses are guided around the bull to keep it on track. The bull often turns tail, sending the young males fleeing for cover. It would be boring if the bulls simply trotted down to the stadium, right?

chasing-stray
Trying to make a getaway by heading back to the truck.

As each bull is delivered to the arena to await in ignorant bliss the corrida later that day, the horses head back for the next release. They really are the stars of the show, with their utter calm in the midst of chaos.

coming-toward-usLast fall, a court in Spain overturned a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region of Spain, just over the border from France. Anti-corrida petitions and graffiti spring up regularly in France, but the custom still holds.

 

Before/After: Kitchen

kitchen-straight-afterAnother reveal in the front apartment: the kitchen.

The apartment is really half of a gigantic apartment that was very impractical–it was a maze and each room could be accessed only by passing through another room. So one had to pass through bedrooms in order to get to the bathroom. Not great if the person in that bedroom wants to sleep.

We split the apartment into two still-large apartments (about 80 square meters or 860 square feet each). But that meant we had to create a kitchen for the front apartment. Our options were limited by historic preservation rules.

The only place to put it was in the entry. We removed a closet and closed off the door to the other apartment. We discovered that the flimsy 3-cm wall of the closet was supporting the “harnais” above. That required bringing in a beam to hold it up.

 

kitchen-straight-before
Before, taken from the same spot as the top photo. That far door is now closed off, the closet on the right is gone and a kitchen is in.

 

kitchen-after-wharnais
After…the door to the harnais, where horses’ harnesses once were kept, had been hidden by wallpaper.

The original tomettes had been covered with vinyl.

10-entree-1-sol-copy
The horror!
11-entree-1-sol-raccord-entre-lino-et-tomettes-dans-placard-copy
Unadulturated tomettes in the closet. Would they be like that under the vinyl? YES!

We loved this bookcase and decided to use it for open shelving to make it easier for renters to find what they need.

entry-bookcase
After
entry-bookcase-wall-before
Before
toward-salon-before
Before…toward the living room.
toward-salon-after
After

The kitchen is small but efficient. The two windows face the stairwell, which is lit by a skylight. To keep the space from feeling dark, we installed three sconces in the kitchen, in addition to the two in the enty and the overhead pendant light.

The apartment is now listed on AirBnB, HomeAway/Abritel and VBRO.

entry-straight-before
Before…facing the opposite direction (you can see the “hallway” next to the closet in the reflection of the mirror). Check out the locks! (The tall door had warped.)

 

entry-straight-after
After…a silk carpet on restored tomettes. The locks replaced by a three-point system and the door fixed.
entry-mirror
Lots of crystal pampilles on the new sconces.

Let Them Eat Cake

st-honore

The French really do win at lifestyle. One of the essentials of the good life in France is that they work to live, not live to work.

This is possible in no small part thanks to the minimum wage, or salaire mimimum interprofessionel de croissance, aka the SMIC (pronounced smeek. The French LOVE abbreviations.).

It is possible to live on the minimum wage here. Granted, it would be difficult in big cities where rents are high. But here in the rural south of France, it’s hard to find jobs that pay much more than the SMIC. And everybody I know is doing just fine anyway.

meery-3For 2017, the SMIC is €9.76 an hour or €1,480.27 a month (that comes to €17,763.24 a year, but I’m not sure whether it would be more because people generally are paid a 13th month of salary in order to be able to go on vacation). The workweek is 35 hours.

Looking at 2015 figures from the OECD that compare a bunch of countries using a constant exchange rate, France was at $10.90 an hour vs. $7.20 for the U.S.

The OECD also looks at how countries’ minimum wages compare to average wages of full-time workers. So 1 would mean that everybody earns minimum wage while the closer you get to zero the worse off minimum-wage earners are compared to everybody else. For France, folks earning the SMIC are at 0.62 of the median wage (which the OECD says is more accurate than the mean wage), while in the U.S., minimum wage earners are at 0.36 of the median wage.

In other words, there are rich and poor in France, but the poor are less miserable and the rich not as extravagantly wealthy as in the U.S. (If this post seems simplistic, it’s because it is a blog post, not a book. For the book, check out “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty.)

The way to measure this is called the Gini index, with zero being absolute inequality (a few rich have everything and everybody else is destitute) to 1 being absolute equality (no rich, no poor, everybody gets the same thing). Obviously neither extreme is good—one is pretty much slavery and the other gives no incentives. You want some incentives but nothing crazy. In Chile and Mexico, the indexes for 2014 (latest year) are 0.465 and 0.459, respectively. Both countries have rich elites and large poor populations.

The Gini index for France is 0.294. For the U.S., it’s 0.394. Switzerland is at 0.295, almost the same as France, which shows that low inequality doesn’t mean poverty for all. In fact, the poverty rate in France is 8%, in Switzerland is 8.6% and in the U.S. is 17.5%.

meery-2There are a lot of reasons why life in France is good. Socialized medicine is a major factor. Workers pay about 8% and employers kick in about 13% more–so folks with big salaries pay more than folks earning the SMIC; the rates aren’t set according to your health. You don’t lose your health insurance if you lose your job because coverage is universal. In addition, low-income families get help, with public preschool starting at age two (that’s a benefit for rich and poor families), benefits for children and subsidies for nannies/daycare.

France is a lot more like how the U.S. was in the 1950s (a period of low inequality), with white-collar and blue-collar workers living in the same neighborhood in similar (modest) homes. (The average new home size in France is 1,206 square feet, vs. 2,164 square feet in the U.S.)

This makes sense when you start looking at salaries in France for professions that pay more than the SMIC.

I was quite surprised when the manager of my bank branch divulged that she makes €1,800 a month—€21,600 a year. But that’s more than a first-year school teacher, at €1,616 a month (€19392 a year) before taxes (it rises to €3431—€41,172—after 30 years of service). Firemen make €2,311 a month (€27,732 a year) on average.

Nurses start out the same as teachers and max out at €47,710, while general practice doctors earned €72,500 to €83,120 a year in 2011. Among specialists, radiologists are the best paid, at €186,250 to €212,980 a year.

Are you choking on your coffee?

meery-4There are two big reasons for doctors’ low pay compared to U.S. doctors (an average of $223,175 a year for internal medicine): malpractice isn’t like in the U.S. and they have no giant loans to pay off from med school.

My doctor lives in a house a tad bigger than the French average, maybe 1800 square feet, on a street with teachers, nurses, bus drivers, plumbers, acccountants, electricians and lots of retail workers. She has a nicer car and goes on cooler vacations than other people I know around here–and she totally deserves it–but she doesn’t live in a luxe bubble.

When I moved here, my new acquaintances told me I would be able to find a job easily because of being bilingual. The supermarkets would be sure to snatch me up, they said, to help deal with tourists and British expats who don’t speak French. I thought, there is no way I am going to be a checkout clerk at a supermarket. I have a master’s degree.

After living among people who are retail clerks, restaurant workers and other professions, I see things differently. I still don’t want to work in a supermarket. But I had lived in a circle of intellectuals and Type A overachievers who work hard and succeed, yes, but who always got straight A’s. Now I know lots of people who work hard and who never in their lives got an A or even a B, no matter how hard they tried. Unlike in the U.S., they aren’t punished for it.

meery-5I have a friend here who was thrilled when she was hired at McDonald’s. To me, McDonald’s is a good job for high school students. Here, high school students don’t work, certainly not after school. Their job is school, and it’s a full-time job. And here, a job at McDonald’s might be harder than, say, selling dresses, but it’s still a decent job. My friend proudly showed up at school pick-up while wearing her uniform, so all the other parents could see where she worked. Contrast that with a U.S. chieftain of fast food—NOT McDonald’s, which raised its U.S. wages—who said he hires “the best of the worst.”

Let them eat cake.

meery-1Obviously we need incentives for people to do jobs that require training, higher education or a lot of stress. Making a mistake on the job has different ramifications and different stress for a doctor versus a janitor and they need to be paid accordingly. Nobody would spend years studying and then hours bent over a microscope to try to find a cure for cancer if they were going to make the same thing as if they had a job that required no education or dedication. There are jobs that aren’t about clocking in and then switching off when you clock out, and nobody would do them if they paid the SMIC.

But we still need people to wait tables, pick up garbage, clean houses, and sell us stuff in stores. If they do it all day every day, shouldn’t they be able to make a living? In France, they can.

These workers do their jobs, do them well (the professionalism of French waiters is legendary), and go home to their families. In France, they are able to pay their bills as long as they live comfortable but modest lives, which really is all they want. Because they work to live, they don’t live to work.

What matters to them is a good meal with family and friends. With dessert.

tarte-au-citron
This tarte and the Saint-Honoré at the top are from Noez bakery; all the others are from Meery Cake, two great places for desserts in Carcassonne.

Before/After: Living Room

salon-daybed-centerIt’s way better in person.

The first apartment is ready. The second one will be ready soon. The last i’s are being dotted and t’s crossed on the piles of paperwork.

The journey has been satisfying, especially when we see where we started. The before, below.

salon-before
Before

Wallpaper (flocked!) removed, wiring and plumbing completely redone, floors restored, windows replaced, furniture edited. Surprises along the way.

tomettes
400-year-old tomettes, paint removed.

Here’s another angle:

angle
Before
angle-before
After

Contrast the dining area:

dining-area
After
dining-area-before
Before

No longer cramped, it’s the perfect place for breakfast…

croissants

or dinner.

table-setNo pets allowed, but there are plenty of animals:

table-animals

p1060451The details are carefully preserved.

zoom-mirror-chimney

The elaborate mirrors echo…

mirror-and-boiserie-chimney-side
the boiseries above them…
street-mirror-boiseries
in the style of Versailles.
fireplace-detail
Fireplace detail
salon-table-bottom
More under-the-table fabulousness

The apartment is arranged as enfilade rooms, designed for a continuous line of sight as well as for cross ventilation.

en-filadeThe previous chandelier is now in the bedroom. We found a bigger, more sparkly one:

chandelier-and-street-side
It looks small up there but it’s a meter wide.

It really does have va-va-voom.

chandelierAs is my wont, I changed the furniture around about eight times. I think I like it with the daybed parallel with the wall, rather than in the center of the room (as in the first photo). What do you think?

salon-daybed-on-sideIf you’d like to rent it for your vacation in Carcassonne, contact me here at taste.france@yahoo.com or at booking.carcassonne@gmail.com. It will be up on the holiday rental sites very shortly.

Sew What?

zippersIt isn’t easy to find curtains that are four meters long (13 feet). Lined, traditionally pleated (no grommets or tabs for hanging). Made of elegant fabric. Custom is too costly; the only option was DIY.

I HATE to sew.

It’s right up there with gardening. Something I can do but would rather not. I just had an old filling replaced; I was happier getting my tooth drilled than I was trying to line up meter upon meter of slippery satin and taffeta.

It used to be nearly obligatory for girls to learn to sew. Proof: In the “Ramona” books by Beverly Cleary, Ramona’s mom is always making the kids’ clothes. In the 1970s, my mom made many of my clothes, and she taught me, with grandmas and aunts offering additional tutoring. I made clothes. Some rockin’ elephant-leg corduroy bell bottoms. With a zipper and everything.

But I refused to take home economics in high school, despite heavy pressure by my adviser. I was more interested in economics than in home economics. And still am.

p1060391
La bête noire. About 33% of sewing is pinning, 33% actually stitching on the machine and 33% ironing. Most despised task ever.

So, curtains. I can at least sew a more-or-less-straight line, and that’s about as much as one needs to know for curtains.

Comptoir des Tisseurs, at 25, rue de la République, in the center of Carcassonne, has beautiful fabric and excellent advice. Turns out the address has been home to fabric-makers for generations. Fabric from France is a practical souvenir–take some home for pillow shams. Unbreakable, not too heavy, something to remind you every day of your trip. Perfect souvenir!

The living room of the front apartment got satin in a dark gray like the walls. The curtains had to be slim enough not to cover the beautiful boiserie and mirror on the wall between the windows.

lr-curtains
The living room

The bedroom got taffeta of the same color. Made in France. I bought all that was left–the maker had gone out of business. I wanted these curtains to be fuller, plus I wanted heavier, black-out lining because it’s a bedroom and the shutters don’t cover the top squares of the windows (called impostes, they are fixed; the shutters cover only the parts of the windows that open).

To make the curtains as big as possible with the available fabric, I took a page from the informative window treatments post by Cote de Texas and did like the photo she shows by Suzanne Kasler, putting a contrasting band at the bottom: bordeaux taffeta from the same company.

The transition between the two required a woven ribbon, the search for which entailed visits to all of Carcassonne’s merceries, or notions shops. Let me tell you, they are hopping. Apparently some people like to sew.

DesignSponge provided clear instructions. How hard is it to sew a rectangle? (Answer: Very hard, if the rectangle is ginormous.)

pinning-on-floorThe lining was the worst part. Just the bedroom required 22 meters (about 22 yards) of lining. Even when we managed to fold it in half (and it took all three of us to wrestle it to the ground), it was longer than our “great” room, going up the steps and into the library.

New skin.jpg
Blood was shed but stanched.

It was HEAVY–10 kilos (22 pounds) for the lining and six kilos (13 pounds) for the taffeta. So each panel weighs four kilos. Yanking all that through the sewing machine gave my left arm a workout. I’m surprised I don’t have a Popeye bicep.

What I do have is fingertips with more holes than a diabetic’s, and deep cuts from pulling thread.

And I screwed up.

Pleating tape is different here than in the DesignSponge example. It has two cords; you knot them on one side and pull on the other, then knot it. The system is similar to making ruffles.

pull-thread
The brownish threads get pulled…
pull-thread-2
to make pleats…
pleats.jpg
that end up like this. DO NOT LOOK CLOSELY. You will see where I ripped out stitching.

Well, I sewed the tape on inside-out. I spotted this at the apartment, having already made the pleats. I had executed this stupidity on two panels. The four-kilo bedroom panels. Of course.

wrong side.jpg
WRONG!
right-side
Right side. The little squares of thread allow for the hook to slip through at the height you want–rings visible, partly visible or completely hidden.

I had to take them home, undo the knots without losing the cords and retie them with most of the pleats eased out, rip off the tape, carefully push all the remaining pleats to one side so some tape was flat for sewing, sew the tape back on correctly up to the pleats, push them all to the sewn side and stitch the rest. Did you get that? Me either.

curtains
The bands actually lined up. Miracles do happen.

The curtains were so heavy we couldn’t open and shut them, even using a broomstick, which was far too short. The blackout lining worked very well–the room was plunged in darkness with the curtains hanging straight. ties.jpg

 

Next improvisation: find tiebacks. The effect wasn’t what I had in mind, with a straight band, but I think it is pretty anyway.

 

curtains-tied

New upholstery (more sewing!) coming for the chairs, which are in good shape, just not what we want. Pale gray velvet with tone-on-tone paisley.

Another sewing adventure: a new cushion on the daybed. It’s a weird size, because everything in those days was handmade, including the mattress and box springs (francophiles can read a little about this in M.F.K. Fisher’s book “Long Ago in France” or here).

p1060373Of course, it wasn’t just a rectangle. That would be too straightforward. It has notches in the four corners. Just to ensure my hair goes gray. Like the walls.

daybedOne day, I will DIY lime the wood so it’s kind of white; the room has more dark wood than I want. Although the apartment is ready to rent, it may never be “done.” I suspect we will always find things to add, get tired of others, changes here and there. We have barely started on art for the walls. In the meantime, the daybed will make a good spot for watching TV or reading a book.

Three more sets of curtains still to go for the courtyard apartment.

puddle
Mega-puddles. Ponds, even. Because the floor isn’t level (after 400 years) and I’m not competent enough to hem for a slope.

Don’t look for the defects; their massive numbers will overwhelm you. I don’t sew as well as, say, an 8-year-old in Bangladesh. This is something I thought about a lot while sitting at my sewing machine. There are so many people–mostly women, too many too young–for whom sewing occupies much of their waking day, in a room not as nice as mine, with few breaks, no benefits, and paltry pay. They are glad for the employment, I know, and their exports have hugely reduced extreme poverty. But it does seem we and they should be able to have jobs and reasonably priced goods without having to resort to work forces that are barely a step above slave labor.

More updates about the renovation coming soon. If you’re interested in renting, let me know at taste.france@yahoo.com or booking.carcassonne@gmail.com!