Before/After: Bathroom

WC 2Our vacation rental apartments are a collection of used-to-bes. The bathroom in the courtyard apartment (which we’ve named L’ancienne Tannerie, because the courtyard used to be a tannery) used to be a laundry room.

Sink must go 1
It must weigh a ton

One of the earlier demolition moves was to extract that gigantic concrete sink. We kept the niche in the wall. That corner now is the shower, with two shower heads. I tried both and can’t pick a favorite.shower with nicheThe door in the before shots leads to a circular staircase in another building on the courtyard. We sealed it off, and smoothed out the curve, because that deep corner gathered scary things.

buanderie
Before.
towels
After.

I had a hard time getting decent photos. This room is crazy bright, even with a glaze over the windows. The inside of the window frame is black. The Carnivore, our painter and the other workers lamented such a bad decision, but I got the last laugh because it looks great.

toward 3rd door
Before.
looking in door
Same view, after. No more door. The sauna is directly behind me. I love a towel warmer.

This room got the black and white cabochon floor that I had wanted for the big kitchen. The walls have metro tiles, which are beveled subway tiles, like in the Paris Metro. I had asked at the tile store about “subway” tiles and was told crisply that surely I was looking for “metro” tiles. Ahem.

The bathroom is next to the sauna. Of course.

sink and mirror and light
I love the Venetian mirror.

On the other side of the sauna, but reached by a different door, is the powder room, in its original place but with a different door (it used to be reached via the closet for the furnace and hot water heater. Yes, that had to change).Toilette 1The former doorway’s arch became home to the sink, with the toilet now across from it (next to where the sink originally was). The floor has the same tile as the wall. I was nervous that it would be too much, but the floorspace is small and it looks nicely seamless.

WC2 from door
After.

While we have been obsessed with finding antiques for the apartments, here it feels so clean that everything is brand spanking new. Well, except for the Venetian mirrors. And the little marble-topped cupboard for toiletries in the bathroom. New and old.

The apartments are available for rent on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie here and the front apartment here.

When French Hunters Gather

P1070714All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.

On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.

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Boars on the left, deer on the right.

Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. P1070692“Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.”  (That’s good.)

“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)

“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)

“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)

Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.

P1070693
Here you can better see how a regular dipper was welded onto a long handle.
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The homemade rotisserie motor, electric powered, thanks to a very long extension cord.
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Boar.
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Boar juice.

The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.

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Bring your own silverware, plates, glasses and napkins. Rings optional. This was a classy bunch. Opinel pocket knives, EXTREMELY sharp.
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Unsurprisingly, in a region of winegrowers, some prefer to come with their own, although a very good wine was included with the dinner.
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The pitcher is of the house wine. The small glass with a spoon holds salad dressing.

The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.

P1070700
Some greenery under the gizzards and foie gras.

Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.P1070701The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.P1070705The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.

P1070708
Look at the size of that bone! They were all collected for the hunters’ dogs, which waited outside.

The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.

P1070710
Deer.

Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.

P1070713
In all that deer meat, just a small bone. Guess whose plate?

This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.

P1070715
This was shared among about 8 people.

P1070717There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.

Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.

As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.P1070695

 

The Hills Are Alive

P1070457Not the Alps. The Pyrénées. Not the highest peaks, but magnificent nonetheless.

We were on the treasure hunt that is de Ferme en Ferme (Farm to Farm), covering some of the same ground as last year. We carefully examined the map in order to hit our favorites (À la Petite Ferme for hard sausage, Campserdou for raw milk) but also to check out some new ones. P1070468The thing about the mountains is that already it takes a while to get there, and then it takes forever to go from one place to another. Plus, the day of de Ferme en Ferme, narrow mountain roads that rarely see a vehicle suddenly have hundreds of cars.

P1070471
Quillan.
P1070472
You can make out Limoux in the distance; Quillan is just to the right. Carcassonne is beyond Limoux.

But rather than dwell again on hangry people wondering when they are going to eat, we will enjoy the views.

P1070476
There’s still snow higher up.

P1070491I couldn’t get over the vivid contrasts in greens, depending on which kinds of trees dominated a part of the forest. And those forests are dense and dark.

I wish I could also share the sweet smells of pine, grass, earth. And the sounds of so many birds. And the cacophony of crickets. It’s been forever since I’ve heard crickets. P1070455We crossed a high plateau and had to turn at the town of Espezel. I looked it up and the population was 209 in 2008; it was 407 in 1962. Says a lot about opportunities in the middle of nowhere. A man, wearing a big black beret without the slightest trace of irony, was about to enter a cute little bar/restaurant. Espezel might be losing residents but it’s gaining visitors who come for hiking. We pulled up quickly to ask the man for directions. They get lax about signs in the middle of nowhere.P1070469The man told us the way to the road we wanted–not a sign anywhere–and we were on our way. However, my co-pilot kept panicking at all the signs that said the col–mountain pass–was blocked. Still snow? Don’t worry, I said, Ferme en Ferme wouldn’t send hundreds of people on a blocked road.

I was right that the road wasn’t blocked. But I was wrong about the road. The instructions got us to the T-intersection as we had requested, but then instead of turning left, we turned right (again, not well marked). I thought we were on our way to Galinagues, and the map showed some impressive zigzags. But in fact, we were winding up the Rebenty river to Fajolle, where one could visit a fishery (not the Carnivore’s cup of tea).

I don’t regret the detour a bit. First of all, get a load of this: P1070480Even better, was the view going down:

 

P1070490And along the way:

P1070489
Babbling brook: check. Actually, this is the Rebenty river. Crystal clear.
P1070486
Cuteness: check. How’s this for a public library?
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Drinkable water: check. It’s rare to see a fountain like this that says the water IS potable.
P1070484
Laid-back vibe: check. This is IN THE ROAD. Clearly they don’t see many cars around here.

The village of Fajolle counts 14 residents, most of whom seemed to be out for a hike together, with the loners preferring to fish from the road. No sidewalks, shoulders, rails. Just a low curb. Back in the day (1793), Fajolle had 365 people. Imagine. They probably didn’t get out much, if ever. And in winter, they were really stuck. There are six-foot poles that mark the roadside for when it snows. Skiing is not far away.

P1070494
Marsa, in the Rebenty valley.

We did make it to Galinagues. We bought a bunch of goat cheese of different ages (and therefore harder or creamier). Leaving, we were counseled to follow the valley of the Rebenty back to Quillan. It was lovely. Truly a corner of France to explore again.

Provençal Soupe au Pistou

P1070514Seasonal produce is a moving target in spring. At first, there’s little difference with winter, except for the asparagus. But then other treats start to appear: fava, peas.

The weather is unstable, too. It can be warm enough for a dip in the pool in March, but the heat kicks on during the Ice Saints in May. P1070537Those rainy days are perfect for soup, especially a soup that celebrates the lively new flavors of the season: soupe au pistou. It was on a dark and chilly day that I decided we needed soup, one that used the big bunch of basil I’d bought–the first of the season.

There is no “recipe” for pistou. There are a few key ingredients that make it pistou and not, say, minestrone or bouillabaise or bisque. Any pistou soup needs pistou–a mix of basil, olive oil and garlic, like pesto without the nuts. And beans. And pasta. After that, you can add what’s in season at that moment. Because pistou soup is garden soup.P1070502I recently heard an excellent interview with the cookbook author Julia Turshen, who says she “never, ever follows recipes.” Her new book, “Small Victories,” aims to get people more at ease with cooking from scratch and reassuring them that they don’t have to follow recipes to the letter.

So here is one recipe for soupe au pistou. You can add/subtract depending on your tastes and what you find at the market.

Soupe au Pistou

First the pistou: 

A huge bunch of basil—imagine the leaves pressed into balls the size of each fist.

1 clove of garlic (I often imitate Guy Fieri and up the amount, but when I used two it got complaints for being too strong)

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

The soup (all the vegetables are diced into bite size):

1 onion (but if you have leftover greens of leeks, this is a good place to use them)

2-3 carrots

2 tomatoes (we used canned because it’s too early for garden tomatoes)

A large can of white beans (the cans here are 400 g, or 14 oz.)

1-2 zucchini

1 cup peas (frozen are OK)

1 cup green beans (frozen are OK—it’s what I used. Lazy, I didn’t cut them up and regretted it)

1/2 cup elbow macaroni, called coquillettes

salt and pepper

olive oil for cooking

Also worth considering: 

turnips

parsnips

cocos (broad, flat beans very popular here)

potatoes

fresh fava beans

snow peas

thyme or herbes de Provence

Possible changes/substitutions:

You can start with dried beans, of course. We tend not to plan far enough ahead and are grateful for cans.

You can use a mix of beans—white, red, striped, whatever.

You can leave out the pasta; the beans are hearty enough

In a Dutch oven, sauté the onion/leek in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot. Throw in the other vegetables, the beans (if you are using dried beans, cook them ahead), then add enough water to cover everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. You can make it ahead to this point and heat it up later. Remember to stir in the pasta so it has long enough to cook, but not so long that it disintegrates; check the cooking time on the package.

While the soup simmers, make the pistou. Traditionalists use a mortar and pestle to turn it into a pungent green slurry. I tried that, chopping the leaves down first, but mine was too minuscule; I tried a bigger bowl but that wasn’t better. I transferred it all to a blender, which wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t have a food processor; that might have worked. But who cares? The basil and garlic were reduced enough to make a kind of paste anyway.      P1070510On the side, I sliced a baguette and topped it with grated Parmesan (fresh–not the powder in a can!). Two minutes under the broiler, and voilà. It probably seemed balanced because we had left out the pasta. Pasta + beans + bread seems like overkill. But to each his own.P1070516

Béziers in the South of France

P1070594After a full morning of antiquing recently at the grand déballage in Pézenas, we needed sustenance. It was well past noon when we left, and the Carnivore was even more peckish than me, and starting to panic. Remember, the French eat at prescribed times. If you hesitate, you lose.

One restaurant after another in Pézenas had set up special outdoor grills and other equipment to feed a crowd, and crowds were waiting to be fed. This does not bode well for good food at a good price. We headed out–it was the Carnivore’s idea, after he rejected my suggestion of a slice of pizza from a food truck, where a long line waited.

P1070609
A door in Béziers. This is how we felt before lunch.

So we drove away from Pézenas. Soon we were in the middle of countryside, not a resto for miles. The Carnivore became agitated. The clock was ticking on the French lunch time. Soon we would be out of luck.

“Go to Béziers,” I commanded, figuring it was a fairly big town, simultaneously close enough to arrive in time and far enough from the antiquing throngs, plus on our way home. “Where exactly?” he asked testily, clearly fearful of a wild goose chase that would end with no goose, or duck or anything else to eat. “I don’t know,” I snapped back, hangry. “Centre ville.

P1070597This was on May 7, election day in France. The day that Macron and LePen faced off. And Béziers has a far-right mayor.

We wound our way to centre ville–downtown, and looked for a parking spot. Even with the elections, we figured a Sunday wouldn’t be difficult for parking. But 99.99% of downtown Béziers is torn up, with no parking anywhere. (Don’t even suggest one of the many underground parking garages; one must pay for those, and the French–and Belgians, ahem, our driver–would rather risk being towed from a quasi-illegal spot than to shell out €2 for a legit one). We went farther and farther. We passed a pretty square where lucky people were eating lunch.

Lunch! Hurry!

P1070595
The doors! The garland! And another garland above the French doors to the balcony above!

We went down, down, down a steep street, each descent in altitude also descending in gentrification. The square up above was chic, with every building pristinely restored. On the same street, far lower, several shops were open, catering to a clientele for whom Sunday is just another weekday. A barber ran an electric razor over a man’s skull like a lawnmower on a big back yard. A couple of impeccably clean butcher shops with shining white floors made the Carnivore want to pick up some lamb and merguez to take home. “It would taste a lot better than what you get at leClerc,” he said.

He squeezed the Peugeot into a tiny spot on a 45-degree incline, with two centimeters of space in front and behind the car. If you don’t want to pay, you had better be expert at parallel parking.

At a café on the corner, tables outside were filled exclusively with men. It was a big day for them, as France decided whether to shut the door on–or worse, kick out–their community. In Béziers, those issues run hotter than in some other places (the mayor has said there are too many kebab shops in the city center, among other things).

P1070599We hiked up the hill to that pretty square. Lunch was still on. We secured a table under the pink parasols at le Millefeuille on rue de la Rotisserie (yes, Rotisserie Street) on Place Gabriel Péri. We sat next to a table of Poles. Some Brits were on the other side. Tourist season is under way.

P1070601
The building on the right is the city hall.

A small blonde boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, went by, unaccompanied except by his fluffly little dog on a leash. An old lady with a cane tapped toward the mairie, or city hall, across the street, presumably to cast her ballot. A car swung into one of the rare parking spots the instant it was freed, and a bourgeois couple of pensioners, both in suits, hers with a skirt and chunky heels, emerged and walked hand in hand down a side street, her bag swinging carefree on its long strap. Several women with veils and long robes passed, each alone, pushing strollers. For all its famous déliquanceBéziers felt like a pretty safe, laid-back place. Unless one is threatened by diversity itself.

Our food was excellent. The Carnivore went for the menu at €12,90: an entrée (starter) of a charcuterie plate, which included not only a lot of hard sausages but also a nice salad and some fresh pleurote mushrooms, grilled zucchini and sweet red pepper; then he had an entrecôte steak with potatoes and more salad, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with whipped cream. Very correct. That price usually gets you a starter plus main dish or main dish plus dessert. To get all three, and so well-garnished, was unusual. I didn’t want any of the menu options (steak, duck or one other thing that I forget because it didn’t tempt me), so I ordered steak tartare (€13.90). It came with all the special ingredients arrayed like a painter’s palette, so I could include what I wanted (which was everything). And home-made fries. I also consumed the Carnivore’s unwanted salad, surprise. A very lovely lunch, at a very reasonable price. Plus charming service and a beautiful place to sit.

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No point in showing the Carnivore’s big but boring steak.

We walked around a little before heading back to the car. A young woman was sketching a building on the square; it was beautiful. As I photographed it, she told us not to miss the lions on another building nearby.

I took pictures of several other places–lots of pretty Belle Epoche architecture in Béziers–and was surveying my next target when an older man asked whether we needed directions. He was tall, wearing a white shirt buttoned all the way up but without a tie, a V-neck cardigan over that, and a suit. He was in his 70s–maybe older but in good shape–and had bushy eyebrows and a nice smile. He held a large notebook or folder in the crook of his arm. We explained that no, we weren’t lost, just appreciating the sights.

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Detail of the building the young woman was sketching. More work than drawing International Style architecture.
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One of the lions.

He talked with us as I snapped photos. As we moved on, he came along, still chattering, about how long he’d lived there, the weather, the architecture. He seemed lonely, in need of company. I wondered, is he hanging around to talk because he doesn’t want to go home? What is his life like? At his age, is he a widower with nobody to go home to? Or a care-giver, perhaps of a wife who no longer can provide company? I thought about the movie “Amour.” I wanted to invite him to dinner, but Carcassonne is a good 45 minutes from Béziers, kind of far for a meal.

We eventually parted ways as he stayed on the big street, Avenue Alphonse Mas, and we branched off on the narrow canyons of ruelles, or tiny streets, that wove away at crazy angles.

Eventually, we returned to the avenue, and there he was, standing on a corner, talking on his phone. We smiled at him and took pictures. When he had finished his call, he came over to us again. “Are you interested in buying property?” he asked. I said that I was always “interested” but not “able” in a budgetary sense. I’m fully guilty of divulging in real-estate porn.

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For sale. 100 fireplaces. No, I didn’t ask the price.

“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s too bad. I know some good ones.” He pointed up at the building next to us. “This one. Two buildings. There were two sisters; each had one. One sister died–she was 88–and the other sister was going to sell and move. Then she died, too. She was 92. She counted all the fireplaces, and there were more than 100! There are at least 21 apartments. The buildings start up there”–he pointed halfway up the block on the avenue–“to over there”–he pointed down the intersecting side street. I wondered about “au moins 21 appartements”–so maybe there are 22? Maybe some could be combined or split? Why say 21 and not 20? Too many questions. I just nodded and said I could only dream of being able to renovate such a place. Which is true.

P1070607Off the avenue, the buildings were very different, in various states of decay. It could be pretty in that Italian way, or it could just be urban decay. Right now, it was on the fine line between the two.

Our elderly friend took off down a different street. We descended toward the car. A number of people were enjoying the sunny weather on their balconies. A man smoked beneath a gorgeous, gorgeous bas-relief garland of flowers, leaning on an amazing Art Nouveau railing. A couple played with a toddler. A woman hung laundry. They were from three cultures. Why not, I thought. All enjoy the same sun.

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I love all the balcony railings. It could be beautiful.

Béziers has a bloody history. In 1209, it was the first stop of the Abigensian Crusade, when the ironically named Pope Innocent III decided to eradicate the Cathars. It’s thought there were about 200 Cathar parfaits, or holy people, living among the 15,000-20,000 Catholic residents. Supposedly one of the crusaders asked how to know which inhabitants were Catholic or Cathar. The commander, the Abbot of Cîteaux, said “Kill them all–God will know his own.” And they did. Upon hearing the news, the crusaders’ subsequent targets, including Carcassonne, fell without a fight.

P1070615The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire burned down during the siege. A few years later, work began on a new edifice on the same site, which today rises high on a hill above the Orb river, dominating the town.

P1070613Driving out of town, my heart warmed further for Béziers. A family was holding a gathering in the cool shade of a grange/garage, several long tables covered with white cloths under the arched doors open to the street, children ricocheting everywhere. At a bus stop, two elderly men sat on the far ends of a bench but leaned their skull caps toward each other as they conversed animatedly. Pretty details embellished even humble, downtrodden buildings.

More photos on my Instagram!

 

 

Antique Mania in Pézenas

champagneSunday was the grand déballage–the big unwrapping, a term used in connection with antiques–in Pézenas.

Pézenas is a beautiful town in the hills of the Herault department, a bit beyond Béziers. We have been numerous times to visit its bounty of 50-some antique shops. Many are open on Sunday and offer a rare something to do for those of us who don’t have the usual obligations with extended family on that day. Twice a year, Pézenas holds a big brocante faire, with about 150 antiques dealers, who set up stalls along about a mile around the ring of the historic old city center.

shop cafe
Vintage shop in front, café-restaurant in back.
courtyard shop 2
A gate leads to a lush courtyard serving several shops, including this one and the one below.

courtyard shop 1It was a lot of fun, on many levels. We had specific things in mind to buy and tried to ignore everything else, no matter how enticing. (It is very hard to stop looking at furniture when you’ve been hunting for so long, but now there’s no more room!) Still, we couldn’t help but be distracted by pretty or quirky things from time to time.

pharma tool
A tool used by pharmacists to seal caps on bottles.
lettuce baskets
Lettuce baskets, which I recognized thanks to Corey Amaro’s blog.
sharpener
A sharpening tool with its wooden holder that would hang on a wall.
bed
Detail of a bed frame.

The top photo shows a crystal egg, called a cave à champagne. A glass or mirrored tray inside holds the champagne flutes around a hole for the bottle, which descends into ice below. The whole thing looks like it requires nerves of steel and no partaking of the champagne by the server to ensure a steady hand. We saw several, including in dark blue. Très cher.

pipe

fountainWe heard English (of both the British and North American varieties), Spanish, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian, as well as plenty of French–with different regional accents.

phones

scalesWe didn’t find what we wanted and came away with just a framed picture. However, we completely enjoyed browsing. There were many objects, and many collections of such objects, that we rarely see at the vide-greniers, which are often the first stop on an antique’s journey to a second life.

jesusangels

shower
Plumbing with panache.

That’s what makes antiques a challenge and so satisfying–you can’t just walk into someplace or order online and get just what you want, the first try. You have to look and look, and wait and keep looking some more. You have to play a long game. Here, where vines take six years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine but then produce for 40 or 70 years, the long game is in the DNA. Rushing to buy almost-good-enough is throwing money away. Patience and persistence make the find all the sweeter.

cellist
Along the route, all kinds of music, from jazz to classical.

 

Before/After: Bedroom in l’ancienne Tannerie

Bed afterThis is a difficult room to photograph. It used to be a den, with four doors. Now it’s a bedroom, with two doors.

It looks out at the interior stairway, with a light well. That makes it a bit dark, which  usually is a good thing for a bedroom. It also is very quiet and stays exceptionally cool in summer–nice when there’s no air conditioning (the historic preservation authorities frown on air conditioning units sullying the exteriors of buildings).

Toward doors before
Before, with doors galore.

I liked the old wallpaper, but it was in bad shape, and anyway rewiring made lots of holes in the walls. The floor was covered with vinyl, and we had no idea what we would find underneath.

Bureau actuel sol
Before: mustard vinyl. You can see the transition to the kitchen in the top left.
removing vinyl
The joy of ripping it out. Actually the joy was when it was done, certainly not during.

First, the floor: we ripped up the vinyl and found tomettes. But in what condition? We didn’t know until all the glue and gunk had been removed by our tomette expert. The verdict: the middle of the room was a ruin, but the tomettes around the perimeters were OK.

uncovered tomettes
What we found. Good or bad news?

However, we had the same situation in the kitchen. We decided to save the kitchen by cannibalizing the bedroom: all the serviceable bedroom tomettes were used to replace broken ones in the kitchen. Not a single one to spare.

We favored the kitchen, with its big, beautiful fireplace, over this room, which, as the Bâtiments de France architect put it was “without historical significance,” lacking boiseries, a fireplace or other embellishments. A quiet room, sleepy for sleeping.

Bed after shows floor
New floors that work nicely with the carpet.

I dreamed of putting in herringbone parquet, but that was far beyond our budget. Instead, we found long tiles that look like a plank wood floor. The weathered design has a blue/gray tinge that goes perfectly with the blue silk oriental carpets we had chosen.

niche before
Velour curtains: gone. Scary wiring: replaced. Niche: still there.

The niche was preserved, in all its lopsided glory (including the slanting base, which limits what can go in it). A very odd brass and copper urn took the place of honor.

Niche in progress
WHY lopsided?
vase
It’s as if ancient Greeks had created a mash-up of Jules Verne’s submarine and a golf trophy.

The doors in the corner led to the other apartment: on the left, to the bedroom and on the right to the entry. They have been closed off with sound insulation and drywall. Some books and knickknacks adorn the shelves, but we wanted to leave empty space for guests to stash their bags or set out their things without creating clutter.

Another door, used by us only, goes to the closet with the furnace and water heater. And the fourth door leads to the big kitchen.

wardrobe
That door on the left leads to the kitchen.

You might recognize the Art Deco bed and matching wardrobe from the blue-flowered bedroom that now is the salon of this apartment (husband points out that a living room combines sitting and dining areas; a salon is for sitting only). We enlarged the bed frame to queen size, topped by a bio (organic) mattress from a local maker in Mazamet.

toward niche before
The windows before.
window during
During: freshly painted.

The windows have interior shutters, and I made a single curtain (it opens to one side because of the niche) with white-on-white damask fabric. Everything is as white as can be.

Toward niche corner after
After.

We are still hunting for art for the walls. Some things must not be rushed.

 

French Ear Worms

21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 457The inescapable French Party Playlist. These beloved oldies are played at every wedding reception, every dance after communal dinners, every karaoke night, every campsite, every gym class.

Once planted in your brain, they encrust themselves, popping up with the rhythm of anything that randomly happens during the day, any quotidien turn of phrase that’s been woven into their lyrics. Because that’s what kind of songs they are. If many are from the disco era, well, just remember that “discotèque” is a French word.

This is not to say these songs are bad, even though I personally dislike most of them, finding them too corny, too syrupy, too….whatever. A separate post will wax lyrical about some great French songs. There are plenty of idiotic disco and saccharine songs in every language (“Disco Duck” or “Muskrat Love” anybody?) These songs aren’t even “bad.” They are more along the lines of “Knock Three Times,” “Sugar, Sugar,” “Mack the Knife” or “Shake Your Booty”–songs that were real hits, but long ago. They’re the auditory equivalent of an old Polaroid, the colors faded, the fashions so strange. Did people dress like that? Did people listen to this?

If you ever are at a gathering and these anachronistic tunes blare out and the crowd goes nuts, now you will know why. These songs don’t dredge up warm memories for you and me. They are not in our répertoire of party tunes. They’re like a secret handshake, a password to get into the French club, and we’re not in on it (yet! you will be if you listen to them!). They’ve been copied and covered and parodied and used in films, TV shows, advertisements. We have no context, no past with them. We hear them as one-offs, as corny old songs that make crowds wild. We wonder what is going on. Especially when people born a couple of decades after these songs were hits shamelessly, loudly sing along to lyrics we can’t quite make out.

In French, a hit song is called a “tube.” These songs were tubes long ago. They have easy lyrics, which often involve “la la la la la la, la-la-la-la.” It’s good news for you if you want to join in the karaoke. Otherwise, just join the conga line. (Click on the titles to go to the YouTube video of each tube.)

Nuit de Folie by Debut de Soirée (the group’s name means Start of the Evening, and the title is Crazy Night). It topped the French charts for two months in the summer of 1988. Key lyrics: “Et tu chantes chantes chantes ce refrain qui te plait/ Et tu tapes tapes tapes c’est ta façon d’aimer.” Translation: And you sing, sing, sing this refrain that you like/and you hit, hit, hit, it’s your way to show love. ?!?!?!

Macumba by Jean-Pierre Mader. For a song that never got higher than the French No. 3 in 1984, and that for only a week, Macumba has surprising staying power, perhaps because the beat is just right for doing sit-ups. I get a stomach ache every time I hear it. Key lyrics: “Oh Macumba, Macumba, Elle danse tous les soirs/ Pour des marins largués/ Qui cherchent la bagarre, Oh Macumba.” The sorry tale of an illegal immigrant trying to make ends meet by working in the bars of a port: she dances every night/ for left-behind sailors/who are looking for a fight. I’m not 100% sure about my translation because larguer can also mean unleashed, abandoned, dumped (romantically).

Born to Be Alive by Patrick Hernandez. According to Wikipedia: It became a “worldwide smash hit” in 1979 and reached No. 1 on the U.S. Disco chart. Did you ever hear of it? Me either, until I moved to France. It was first conceived as a hard rock song! Key lyrics (it’s in English): “You see we’re born, born, born to be alive (born to be alive)/ You see we’re born, born, born to be alive (born to be alive).”

Les Lacs du Connemara by Michel Sardou. This 1981 throbbing cri du coeur about Scotland in iambic meter is Sardou’s greatest hit. Always on the playlist for late in a soirée bien arrosée, it lends itself to full-throated belting. It’s a favorite at parties of university students. Key lyrics: “Terre brulée au vent/des landes de pierre/autour des lacs/c’est pour les vivants/un peu d’enfer/le Connemara”: Land burned by the wind/lands of stones/for the living it’s/a bit of hell/the Connemara. Franco-schadenfreude for the Scots?

Les Champs Elysée by Joe Dassin. Another seeming flash in the pan with staying power: It spent two weeks at No. 1 in France in 1969. The song has a typically lilting French melody of the era, even though it originally was written in English by some British musicians (and titled “Waterloo Road,” which makes it even more ironic—the French don’t wax nostalgic about Waterloo). Dassin got the last laugh because his version lives on as an ode to the famous Parisian street. It seems like just the kind of simple, sweet tune to accompany a little soft-shoe routine. Key lyrics: Aux Champs-Elysées/ Aux Champs-Elysées/ Au soleil, sous la pluie,/ A midi ou à minuit/ Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées. Translation: The Champs-Elysées/ the Champs-Elysées/ in the sun, in the rain/ at noon or at midnight/ there’s everything you want at the Champs-Elysées.

In a similar vein, Pour un Flirt Avec Toi (For a flirt with you…I’d do anything) by Michel Delpech has the same kind of nostalgic melody, with even easier lyrics: la la la la la la la-la-la la la ….” Can’t beat that!

Gray-haired party boy Patrick Sébastien one-ups Delpech with La Fiesta, whose lyrics include not only “la la la la” but also “fou fou fou” (crazy crazy crazy) and “dingue dingue dingue” (crazy crazy crazy). Total party stuff! You’re also likely to run into his Ah Si Tu Pouvais Fermer ta Gueule (“Ah, If You Could Shut Up,” but it’s the impolite way to say shut up, so use with care), aimed at politicians, among other suggestions. Sébastien specializes in the snarky singalong genre.

01.AUGUST OMAHA OCTOBRE 11 - 016
And then everybody gets up to dance and sing along.

Other notables:

Johnny Hallyday started off as an Elvis impersonator, then outlived his muse. He beats another much-married septugenarian by one wife—he has had four (and married and divorced one of them twice). He didn’t limit himself to Elvis. His hits include “Viens Danser le Twist” (set to the Chubby Checker tune), “Le Pénitencier” (set to “The House of the Rising Sun”) and “Da Dou Ron Ron” (set to the Crystals tune). He still has an enthusiastic, increasingly geriatric fan base. Hallyday, along with Eddy Mitchell and Jacques Dutronc, known collectively as  “les Vieilles Canailles” (the Old Rascals–a French version of the Rat Pack) will wind up their concert tour at this year’s Festival of Carcassonne, appearing July 5.

Michel Polnareff has become a meme thanks to his curly platinum shag hairdo and big white-framed glasses, rather than for his songs. He wrote the soundtrack for “Lipstick,” which starred Margaux Hemingway. You should know his photo from his peak if you want to understand sight gags in advertisements.

Corde à Sauter by Moussier Tombola. This one is from 2011–not an oldie! His smile is infectious, as is his energy. You will want to jump rope right along with him. The song is played at 1,000 decibels at all those indoor kid centers where children climb walls and go down inflated slides. Learn the choreography! More fun than the Macarena.

Even though Patrick Sébastien makes me queasy with his slighty sleazy, snickering jokes, he does have a party song that I find funny, maybe because it pokes fun at the entire party-song genre:

Les Sardines

Pour faire une chanson facile, facile, (to make a song easy, easy)
Faut d’abord des paroles débiles, débiles, (You must first make the lyrics stupid, stupid)
Une petite mélodie qui te prend bien la tête, (a little melody that gets in your head)
Et une chorégraphie pour bien faire la fête, (and a choreography that’s good for partying)
Dans celle là, on se rassemble, à 5, ou 6, ou 7 (in that, we get together, 5, or 6 or 7 of us)
Et on se colle tous ensemble, en chantant à tue tête. (and we stick all together and sing our heads off)
Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite,* (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can)
Chantent les sardines, chantent les sardines, (sing the sardines, sing the sardines)
Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite, (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can)
Chantent les sardines entre l’huile et les aromates. (sing the sardines between the oil and the herbs)
Bien sûr, que c’est vraiment facile, facile, (of course, it’s truly easy, easy)
C’est même complètement débile, débile, (it’s even completely stupid, stupid)
C’est pas fait pour penser, c’est fait pour faire la fête, (it’s not made for thinking, it’s made for partying)
C’est fait pour se toucher, se frotter les arêtes, ** (It’s made for touching, for rubbing the bones)
Alors on se rassemble, à 5, ou 6, ou 7, (and so we get together, 5, or 6 or 7 of us)
Et puis on saute ensemble en chantant à tue tête, (and then we jump together and sing our heads off)
Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite, (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can)
Chantent les sardines, chantent les sardines, (sing the sardines, sing the sardines)
Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite, (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can)
Chantent les sardines entre l’huile et les aromates. (sing the sardines between the oil and the herbs)
Et puis,… pour respirer un p’tit peu, on s’écarte en se tenant la main, (and then…to breathe a little bit, we spread apart and hold hands)
Et puis, … pour être encore plus heureux, (and then… to be even happier)
On fait là, là, là, en chantant mon refrain ! (we go la, la, la, singing my refrain)
Là, là, et les mains en l’air, là, là ! (la, la and hands in the air, la la)
Là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, ……..

Any to add?

*This is a pun: a boite is a box or a tin can, but it also is a night club.
**another pun, you figure it out; prepubescent humor.

 

Faces of France

tlsOne of the nicest things about this blog is that it has reopened my eyes. I have gotten used to living in the south of France; it has been good to look around me with fresh eyes as I think about stories to tell.

And I see eyes looking back.

balcony
Venus? The entire grand house this lady rules, facing Square Gambetta, is decorated with seashell motifs.

The Bastide, or the “new” town (having been built in 1260, vs. la Cité, which is far older), is truffled with these decorations. I suspect that back in the day of la Cité, only the aristocracy and church had the means for anything beyond the slimmest basics of life. Styles and tastes change, but also, by the time of la Bastide, trade was booming and Carcassonne was a center for textiles, wine and cereals. The buildings show it, with flourishes and sometimes elaborate decorations.

And faces.

museum
Was he the architect? There is so much to decipher here. How many people walk by without looking up?
carca
On the same building. I see a globe, a telescope, books, what else? Clues and explanations welcome in the comments!

Who were they? Did real people sit as models? Or were they sculpted from paintings, books, memories?

college
Above the entrance to a junior high school. How would you like to greet him every morning before class? At least he seems fairly benevolent. Despite the facial hair.

Some are in unlikely places, more modest embellishments than the grand busts atop grand buildings.

verdun
He’s only about 18 inches tall. I feel his pain.
red door lady
A tiny lady above a red door.
railing
They don’t make railings like they used to.
jesus
A niche above a nondescript door on a nondescript house.
white face
Carved in wood, somehow surviving the elements, above the doors to a grange or barn near la Cimetière Saint-Michel (with great views of la Cité).

Toulouse also has many wonderful faces hiding in plain sight. The series below live on the back side of the Capitole, home to the city hall and municipal theater.

Capitole 3
Cosette, is that you? She gives me a chill–what was her story?
Capitole 4
I love his hat! Panache. The word means plume, but has the connotation of flamboyance.
Capitole 2
This one, by contrast, seems to have a bat atop his helmet. Look at how his mouth is a little lopsided, as if he’s mulling over a question or biting the inside of his cheek.
Capitole 1
He seems to know more than he’s telling.
Capitole 5
The most haunting of all, to me. Why were her eyes closed? So vulnerable.

Which do you like best?

 

 

An Immigrant in France

two yellowWhat is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Time and expectations.

When I first moved to Europe, my employers told me that they would appreciate if I would stay at least two years to make it worth all the expense. I thought, “TWO YEARS? Can I do that?”

one yellow
I took these photos last November. They seemed so appropriate for this topic. Putting down roots.

I had lived for just over two years in Africa, without electricity or running water. I figured that Europe was a cakewalk by comparision. Surely I could make it two years.

I decided to cram in as much of the Continent as I could. I found an apartment that met all my criteria: Grand French doors, fireplaces, moldings, impossibly high ceilings, good location, cheap. It not only had moldings but also mold; it was a dump, really, with unreliable heat and scary wiring. I didn’t care. I worked 12 hours a day and then left every weekend. By not spending my pennies on rent, I was able to see a lot of Europe.

scattered yellowThis is where I thank the Schengen Treaty and its 26 members. There were just seven when I moved to Europe. The idea that I could run around even seven countries without border controls was amazing! If you don’t remember all this, watch the very funny “Rien à Declarer” (“Nothing to Declare”) with the utterly insane Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgian) and Dany Boon (French) about how well that went.

Feels like yesterday.

Anyway.

dividedI married a Belgian. Two years turned into six. But I always figured I would go back. And we did, for a year. Then we moved back to Europe, this time to France.

Thanks to Schengen, my husband has the right to live in France, the way a Californian can live in New York, almost. Because I’m married to him, I get to come, too. Our kid has dual nationality (but honestly is a citizen of the world).

What does it mean to adopt a new country? I think it means respecting the local laws, certainly, and also customs, though I don’t think one needs to jettison one’s origins. I make cupcakes and hamburgers and barbecued ribs and lots of Mexican food. I listen to NPR podcasts and read the New York Times. I speak English to my husband and kid; husband speaks to me in French; kid speaks to me in English and to papa in French, which makes for some interesting dinner conversations. (If I dare react to a comment our kid made in French, I will be told, in English, “I wasn’t talking to YOU.” Of course I am in awe and envious of this ability to snap effortlessly and mostly flawlessly from one language to another.)

cookies with warning note
How it rolls in our house.

That said, the looks I get when I speak to my kid in English in public are not the same as for mothers who speak other languages. Once in a while I get a frown, but most often, mothers I don’t even know will sidle up and ask whether I give English lessons (I don’t). Mothers speaking in Arabic get only the frowns.

Why is that? I suspect it’s an assumption of want vs. need. I am in France because I want to be, not because I have to be here. It’s a nice place, I’m a lifelong francophile, and so why not. It’s an expat mindset. This, compared with people who are in France not because they are in love with the country but because they are NOT in love with their own, for economic, political or whatever reasons.

While I pass for French until I open my mouth, others get judged from afar. I am ashamed to say, I’ve done it myself. There was one mother at after-school pickup who wore a headscarf. Being a feminist, I winced every time I saw her. On the one hand, I think we all should be able to wear whatever we want. No body-shaming. But headscarves aren’t about fashion; they are saying half the population is a threat or a nuisance that should be hidden.

from aboveHowever, some friends were interested in a house for sale which happened to be next door to the veiled woman’s house, and so I approached her to get information about it. She was lovely. Charming and smart, though she hadn’t been able to continue her studies. She worked. She basically took care of her mother, who though fairly young didn’t speak French and didn’t drive and needed her daughter to manage every aspect of her life. Her two kids were well-behaved. Her husband had a business.

I’ve been told a number of times, both in France and in Belgium, that I’m a “good” immigrant–legally documented, working, tax-paying, law-abiding. This woman and her family also were “good” immigrants in every one of those ways. Yet, she told me, I was the first person ever to speak to her in our village. I was ashamed that I had let her veil stop me from being friendly. I still see veils as means of oppression, but I make an effort to love the person–or at least smile in the case of strangers–while hating the veil.red amid yellowAt my gym class yesterday, one woman had voted for LePen in Sunday’s run-off; ironically she herself had lived all over the world, untroubled that she should maintain her French identity and customs in other countries but unhappy to be back in France and confronted with people doing the same.

The others all favored Macron, tepidly; their enthusiasm was limited to opposing Le Pen (sound familiar?). They talked about their conflicted feelings about France’s future, about absolutely wanting to preserve the social safety net while wondering whether it hadn’t gotten too generous. Where to draw the line? In a way, Sunday’s election was about 11 different choices of lines to be drawn. Though the challenges are far more complex than a simple line can resolve.

One woman, who works for a social-services agency, described a case she’s dealing with: an elderly couple who just arrived from Azerbaijan. They don’t speak a word of French and both need extensive medical care. That someone from Azerbaijan would prefer to have heart surgery in France isn’t surprising. What is shocking, however, is that they qualify as indigent and don’t have to pay a cent.

red with yellowObviously, that can’t go on. But will it swing as far as Le Pen wants? We’ll find out May 7.

Although this topic is inextricably and unavoidably part of life in France, especially right now, we will turn back toward lighter things on Friday.