Hello Lovely!

Toward fireplaceOur AirBnB, l’Ancienne Tannerie, is featured on Hello Lovely, where Michele provides a steady stream of inspiration, mostly for interiors but also gifts and fashion. Despite many challenges in life, she maintains an optimistic, gentle attitude that is a treasure to find online.

Speaking of l’Ancienne Tannerie, I have been trying out different furniture arrangements. The kitchen and bedrooms are set–the kitchen table can only go in the middle of the huge room; the bed is where you can walk around it.

From entry toward TV chairs straight
Chairs straight or angled?

From entry toward TV chairs angledBut the living room….it’s huge, but smaller than in our other apartment, la Suite Barbès, across the landing. The living room in l’Ancienne Tannerie has a gorgeous fireplace and an enormous chandelier. It overlooks the interior courtyard. It has a huge window so it’s always bright, yet it stays cool in summer because it faces north (the two-foot-thick stone walls also help insulate).

The sofa is a Louis XVI reproduction that folds out into a double bed. The coffee table is hand-carved and was brought back in my luggage from Lamu, Kenya. All the upholstery is like new, plus the colors are uncanny–the green stripe on the sofa matches the green in the carpet; the peach of the chairs is exactly the same as the tomette tile floor though it show in  photos because the velvet catches the light differently than the tiles do, and the same peach also is picked up in the carpet. And I really like that it’s all unique–nothing you will find anywhere else. Certainly not Ikea. When you are here, you know you are in France.

There’s nothing like crowdsourcing opinions! So tell me in the comments which arrangement you prefer. Suggestions welcome!

Arrangement #1: Sofa facing the fireplace. This is best for watching TV from the sofa. But who goes to the south of France to watch TV? It also gives a view of the courtyard from everywhere you sit.SONY DSC

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I hate that the stereo is on top of the piano, but we had to have one in order to get our Ministry of Tourism stars.

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Arrangement #2: Sofa facing window. The advantage of this one is that from the sofa one can see both the courtyard and the TV. It also creates a kind of corridor from the entrance to the kitchen, which seems good in principle, but which I didn’t really like in reality.From corner armchair verticalFrom TVPiano from fireplaceFrom kitchen door verticalFrom entry to TV horizontalFrom corner armchair

Toward kitchen straight
The “corridor” effect.
Straight from window
I tried to center the sofa, but then it was too close to the piano…

From entry to TVArrangement #3: Armchairs facing the window. This is where I have left things. It feels open and welcoming when you walk in. The disadvantage is that you don’t see the TV or out the window from the sofa. It also puts the sofa next to the matching armchair, which is in the corner because I wanted to separate them. What do you think?From corner armchair

From entry to TV chairs angled with molding
Chairs angled here. Same shot, chairs straight, below.

From entry toward TV chairs straightFrom kitchen with bit of chandelierFrom TV

From kitchen to entry straight
The “corridor” is more open with chairs here. Angled (here) or straight (below)?
From entry to kitchen chairs angled
Angled.

From entry to TV chairs straight less exposurefrom corner armchair 2From entry toward tv with chandelierFrom kitchenLet’s not forget the “before” photos:From entrytoward entryWhere armoire with faces now standstoward windowwhere TV now isWhere piano now isFor Easter, we were invited to the neighbors’ for an asparagus omelette. And this tiramisu for dessert:IMG_1621Was your Easter good? Easter Monday is a holiday here, and we spent it Marie Kondo-ing my closet. This suit got a thank-you and adieu because it doesn’t fit anymore. But look at the details! It was from a boutique in the Marais in Paris. La Bonne Renommée. Sadly, it has closed. I also had a kind of vest/bustier from the same shop, made completely of strips of fabric and ribbon. Gorgeous. May it find a happy new owner.

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Even the buttonhole shows the quality.

IMG_1649When you shop at little boutiques, you don’t see yourself coming and going.

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So Many Questions

IMG_2594One of my favorite French authors is Marcel Proust. There is something about la Belle Époque (1871-1914) that’s so romantic, even though clearly life for even a well-to-do woman back then would have been horribly restricted. No yearning for that! Just look at Collette’s heroines and Coco Chanel’s chafing against social strictures.P1060666But there’s the gorgeous wedding-cake architecture, the fantastic Art Nouveau designs (like the ads of Mucha and the Paris Métro entrances of Guimard), the heyday of writers in Paris. The impressionists–Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet, Degas…. And the music–Erik Satie, Gabriel Fauré (this one makes me cry; I sang it once at a singalong in NYC. Nerdy thrills), Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel.IMG_0349 2Proust captures the Belle Époque beautifully in his seven-volume chef d’oeuvre, “À la recherche du temps perdu”–“In Search of Lost Time” (previously known as “Remembrances of Things Past”). Even if you’ve never read Proust, you probably know about dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea, which brings back memories, and all these recollections make up the novel. I admit to a weakness for parenthetical phrases, but Proust turns every sentence into a matryoshka doll of phrases within phrases, filling nearly an entire page. I would skim back to see: What was the subject again? And the verb? It was the very best bedtime reading, whisking me away to another time and space, and the sentences so intensely complex that my brain would explode and I would sleep. It took me three years to read the whole thing, a bit over 2,000 pages. In English. I cannot even imagine tracking those sentences in the original French.IMG_1605The Proust Questionnaire wasn’t written by the man himself, but he was such a big fan of this parlor game/personality test, which he first did as a teen, that his name became associated with it. Vanity Fair magazine posed the questionnaire to a series of celebrities. The wonderful newsletter BrainPickings featured David Bowie’s answers to VF. There’s a short version of the questionnaire by Bernard Pivot, the host of a TV show, “Bouillon de Culture,” an intellectual/literary prime-time talk show that ran for 20 years. So French.IMG_1604Many years ago, some friends and I held a salon. We all worked together, but our spouses didn’t. To keep our twice-a-month dinner parties from turning into work gripe sessions that would bore half (if not all) the table silly, we would pick a topic and a leader. We’d all read up on the (usually controversial) topic, and the leader would moderate the discussion and yank us back if it veered into boring tangents about work. It wasn’t as pretentious as it might sound. Just fun for a bunch of nerds.P1090124The Proust Questionnaire, even small bits of it, could serve as a similar device, a way to move past chatter and into deeper exploration of what matters. Research isn’t necessary, but introspection is. Here it is. Feel free, in the comments, to answer some of the questions.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

2. What is your greatest fear?

3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?

5. Which living person do you most admire?

6. What is your greatest extravagance?

7. What is your current state of mind?

8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

9. On what occasion do you lie?

10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?

11. Which living person do you most despise?

12. What is the quality you most like in a man?

13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?

14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?

16. When and where were you happiest?

17. Which talent would you most like to have?

18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?

20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

21. Where would you most like to live?

22. What is your most treasured possession?

23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

24. What is your favorite occupation?

25. What is your most marked characteristic?

26. What do you most value in your friends?

27. Who are your favorite writers?

28. Who is your hero of fiction?

29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?

30. Who are your heroes in real life?

31. What are your favorite names?

32. What is it that you most dislike?

33. What is your greatest regret?

34. How would you like to die?

35. What is your motto?P1060662 2And if you want to wallow in Belle Époque beauty just before it’s crushed by war, check out the 1999 movie, “Le Temps Retrouvé” (Time Regained), in which Marcello Mazzarella plays the narrator/Proust; Catherine Deneuve plays the main character, Odette; Emmanuelle Béart plays Odette’s daughter, Gilberte (and OMG they look SO MUCH like mother and daughter! The eyes! The eyebrows!); Deneuve’s real daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, plays the narrator’s crush, Albertine; and John Malkovich plays the eccentric Baron de Charlus, aka “Mémé” (Granny!!!!).IMG_2596

Notre Dame

DSC_0643Last night, a little before 7 p.m., my kid rushed in and turned on the TV. “Notre-Dame is on fire!”

Sadly, the kid doesn’t really remember having visited Notre-Dame. Paris is a faraway universe from here in la France profonde. When will it be possible to again enter that huge, dark space that was designed to invoke awe and make one keenly aware of one’s place in the the world, which is that we are very, very small and insignificant. Specks of dust.

Many, many years ago, I was wandering around Paris on Christmas Eve. I crossed Île de la Cité, the original Lutèce where Paris was founded, and thought, hey, why not see whether there’s midnight Mass at Notre-Dame?

Yes, there was. It is very interesting to attend a religious service in another language. I spoke French but not nearly as well as now. As an ex-Catholic, I have had the Mass drilled into my brain. And it’s exactly the same in French, the same rhythms, the same pauses, the same rises and falls and intonations. DSC_0667It also was a special way to appreciate Notre-Dame, serving its original purpose and not for tourism. There was no line to get in. It was before 9/11, so there was no security check. Nobody was taking photos. They were singing Christmas carols.

When I went to Africa for the Peace Corps, I took with me three posters of Paris that had hung in my Midwestern apartment. One was of the back side of Notre-Dame, with its curved wall that houses ambulatory chapels, the flying buttresses, the lacy stonework, the delicate spire that is no more. I hung the posters on the corrugated iron sheets that made up my house.

The Square Jean-XXIII, from where my poster photo was taken against a pink sky, is a surprisingly quiet haven. Most tourists don’t think to walk all the way around the place, I guess. DSC_0659Last night, the TV showed the familiar shot of the back of Notre-Dame, but the roof was red, the spire broken off.

The roof beams were made from single oak trees–1,300 of them. Hewn by hand. Hauled in by carriages. Raised by human force. Built to last. They survived 850 years. The first stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexandre III. Work continued into the 14th century.

The design was made to awe, but facts like those also are awe-inspiring. They put our lives into perspective. What will we contribute that will survive and be treasured 850 years from now?

To read about the history of Notre-Dame, check out the cathedral’s own website. And here is a video of the jaw-dropping light show. If you have time, this is a special Mass. Oh, the acoustics! And if, like somebody I know, you like Gregorian chant, here is an amateur snippet from inside Notre Dame with some shots of the stained glass windows.DSC_0678

Unpacking Packing

IMG_1474After a light post about provincial French street style, the pace changes. As fun as it is to watch views climb, I am not writing this  I cannot get another topic out of my head. It chases me in my dreams. It haunts my days. When, the other day, it jumped out at me from a podcast I was listening to, I decided I needed to face it head on. To unpack the thoughts.P1090767I am making a bed, with podcasts to keep my mind off the mundanity of the task at hand. Mindfulness is fine, but I would rather not be mindful of housework. Like exercise, it is not something I enjoy in the moment, but I do appreciate the benefits afterward. Perhaps I should lean in, and learn to appreciate the nuances of good hospital corners on a sheet, but I’d rather go through the motions while my mind is focused on current affairs or something like that. One of the good things about the Internet is that I can listen to anything anytime anywhere. IMG_1467While my podcast lineup leans heavily toward business, I also appreciate good wordsmiths, and The Moth has some of the best. I just had a good cry along with Anthony Griffith, who talked about how his mother was his hero. Now, I listen as Kate Tellers describes her mother’s decline from cancer. It’s clear how this story will end, and I brace myself. It will be a different cry from mom-as-hero. P1090844She talks about how the hospice has given them a booklet about the changes one’s body goes through as it closes up shop. And then she says she goes into the bedroom to find her mother up, saying she has to pack.

I fall to my knees. Kate Tellers gently tells her mom that she doesn’t need to pack for where she’s going. P1090805A couple of months before my dad died, he became loquacious. He never had any sign of dementia, but his stories became increasingly strange. He said he had bought a fishing resort (we checked–not true). He said he’d just talked to some relatives..who were dead. One day when I entered his room, and he informed me that the state patrol had been there to interview him about a murder. He didn’t know anything, he assured me, but as it happened down the road from his hunting cabin, they came to check. I thought he was nuts. Of course, the state patrol hadn’t been there. He mentioned a name, and I googled it. A guy with a similar name indeed had lived near the hunting cabin and was now living in prison–for murdering his wife.IMG_1471And then, he was all worked up about packing his bags. “Dad’s gotta get outta here, sweetie,” he told me. He always referred to himself in third person, as if “Dad” were a character he was playing, not quite the same as himself. Dad was stoic, tough, worked two jobs, shouldered the burdens for the family. He himself was shy and, I suspect, a little disappointed with his life, which turned out to be more full of setbacks than seemed fair for somebody who worked so hard and did everything everybody expected of him. IMG_5957I thought, at first, he was talking about getting out of the rehab facility, which was just a temporary measure until a hospice place opened up. He had been to that facility after surgery about a year earlier and hated it, though he clearly had come to change his mind and truly loved the staff. P1090765I mentioned it to one of them. Yes, he told me, your father keeps talking about packing his bags. It’s common among people who are about to die. The hallucinations were common as well. P1090845Kate Teller’s mother died soon after wanting to pack. My dad hung on for another two months. I was at his side when he died. My siblings had been taking turns spending the night in the armchair next to his bed. One day they called me: come now. I flew in immediately. On the second night, I took a turn in the armchair. I sometimes suspect my dad had been holding on not to disappoint my siblings. Always stoic.IMG_1469Listening to the end of the podcast, I sit on the floor and sob. It’s been several years since my parents died, my mom just three weeks after my dad, yet not a day goes by that I don’t miss them. I am glad I got to be at their sides and to tell them I loved them. They were generous in telling us they loved us, too. My dad would always say, “I love you more!” with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

I wipe my eyes and text my kid: I love you.

My kid texts back: I love you more!

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Photos of spring from around here. The circle of life.

Fashion Sightings in the South of France

IMG_0783Before the weather changes too much, I want to share the street-style photos I’ve been collecting. Usually I am doing something else–I’m no Bill Cunningham, who spent hours at the corner of 57th and Fifth, snapping fashionable Manhattanites on their way to work and inventing street-style photography. So my hands are full, my phone in my bag, and I have to fish it out, open the camera (a feat in itself with bifocals) and try to catch up with my prey, often while pulling a shopping caddy and navigating market throngs.

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This tumeric color is everywhere. It has more orange than mustard.

So it takes me a while to get a collection of photos. These have been collected since January, which accounts for the climatic range.

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Her cape was a gorgeous blue and swung so elegantly when she walked. I liked that it had a hood.

What catches my eye are people with flair. Or personality. It’s a high bar here, because nearly everybody dresses up to go to the market or to go shopping in town. Carcassonne is far from France’s fashion epicenter, yet I appreciate that people make an effort. I’m not interested in fashionistas wearing the latest off the runway. Or young models or those who could be, who look good no matter what they put on. I like seeing real people with style.

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Great haircuts everywhere. Styles that move–not perfect blowouts. I saw her again on Saturday–I recognized her bag first–and she had on a similar outfit, pants with a blazer, this time with leather patches on the elbows. 

My visiting cousin remarked on it–the contrast with farmers markets in a big U.S. city, where everybody looks like they just took a break from weeding the tomatoes to pop by the market and sell or buy some produce. It’s beyond casual to the borderline of grungy. My cousin was surprised to see a vegetable vendor here with perfectly manicured, painted nails.

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Between downpours. Her raincoat was beautiful, with unusual gathers all over. Do you see how her gloves match her shopping trolley? And her scarf goes with the roses. She is carrying a slim cross-body bag. Also, note the people giving the “bise” in the background. And the guy with his beautiful straw basket. 

This lady seemed to part the crowds as she walked through the market. She had perfect posture and walked with purpose. I asked to take her photo and she agreed, saying that often happens. We chatted a while and she told me her age–78!!!!! I have seen her since at the market, recognizing her sans chapeau thanks to her shopping caddy. She is always striding like Shelley Hack in the Charlie perfume ads (speaking of which, OMG somebody has a blog just about that!). I was with a friend once when I saw her–too far to catch up. She had a great haircut (of course) and was wearing jeans with boots and a fur vest.  My friend sniffed and said something about another 40-something woman trying to look like she’s 30. I informed her that this woman was nearly double that age. That changed everything. Goals.IMG_1414I don’t know how old this lady is, but her hair also was impeccable. And despite walking with a cane, she had rod-ram-straight posture. Also, you can’t really see it, but she was wearing a cleverly tied scarf.

Note the couple on the left in the same photo, with matching sweaters. I should do a post on couples’ style. I very often see couples with coordinating outfits. Do they plan it, or does one see the other putting on, say, a mustard-colored sweater and then decide, hey, I’ll wear my mustard-colored jeans, to cite an example I spied on Saturday.

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This is from a few months ago. I saw them again on Saturday and they were both in red, head to toe.

IMG_1415So much to note here. Cute straw bag. Both have sharp haircuts. Both wearing scarves–cotton for spring–and hers matches his shirt. She has on patterned tights. IMG_1011That leads me to another tangent: tights. Especially now that the weather is mild, but bare legs would be too much, colorful and/or patterned tights are everywhere.

 

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Mustard tights, mustard sweater and a black-and-mustard scarf.
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Not tights but leather (pleather?) leggings with lace cut-outs at the knees. And she had two different-colored socks.

Let’s go back to my favorite demographic: the older women who will not be invisible. Women get either ogled or ignored when they’re young, and then just ignored. I love seeing the ones who make staff spring to attention to serve them. It doesn’t depend on beauty or being tall or thin. It does seem to depend on walking into everyplace as if you owned it, like the woman below.IMG_1278This lady was so straight, considering she had a walker. She wore leather gloves, and when she sat down for a coffee on the terrace near me, I saw her perfectly manicured nails matched her hat. A friend of hers walked by and greeted her with the bise. Both wore dangling earrings.

This woman has my admiration for going to the market on a bike! While wearing a skirt! Note that in the photo on the right, her coat and bag match. And on the day on the right, it was raining. I want to get to know her.

 

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Pop of color. 

 

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Goth student? The skirt was very frilly. Not my thing, but she was clearly all-in. You go, girl!

Some colors are clearly trending. Red is big. Red with black. Red with gray. Red with red.

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Her coat, which I suspect is from Spanish brand Desigual, very popular here, has red accents, and her skirt has a red and an orange stripe.
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Red coat, red boots, red scarf, red bag. And, you can’t see it, but bold red lip.

Olive, sage, hedge green, whatever you want to call it, is big. I saw three women–and three men (not with the women)–in three days completely dressed in olive.

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Olive shirt, jeans and jacket with mustard scarf, bag and shoes.

And camel is still going strong, a good color to bridge winter to spring to summer.IMG_1416Did any of these strike your fancy? Are you seeing similar trends?

Itinerary in Action

IMG_1438So much to do, so little time. My cousin came to visit recently. Just a short side trip to say hi during a work trip on this side of the Atlantic. We wanted to put on a good show.

L arrived late Wednesday afternoon. We strolled through la Cité of Carcassonne while waiting to pick up the kid from sports practice nearby. We skipped the museum, but stopped to admire the rope marks dug into the lip of the big well, and the stone steps to the Basilique Saint Nazaire et Saint Celse, which slope from the wear of 800 years of the faithful’s steps. Little details like that make time real, for me at least.

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That’s the basilique’s steeple.

We came home to a dinner of coq au vin that I had prepared in advance. Dinner was all about catching up, though. L was a pure joy. The difference in our ages meant I was out of the house—out of the country—by the time L was starting school. We barely know each other. But we know the same people, the same houses, the same neighborhoods. Stories about our shared grandmother were more vivid because when L talked about Grandma’s kitchen, I could picture every detail–the green linoleum table that was her only counter space for her incessant and abundant cooking, the pies cooling in the pantry, the celadon bowl of salt (she measured with her fingers, always).

 

The next day was a little crazy. I let our kid stay home from school. Good grades, rarely absent, why not. First we did a tour of our little village, then L asked what the garrigue is. So we set off past the vineyards to get a taste—a whiff—of the tangle of brush and pines and wild herbs that make the garrigue special.We had asparagus omelettes for lunch, then headed to Caunes-Minervois to see a really pretty village. We went into the abbey and down to the 8th century crypt. Since it was a gorgeous day, we moved on to Lastours, about a 12-minute drive away. There, we were perhaps overambitious. The lady at the reception told us it would take at least two hours to go up and come back. I was thinking, oh, the castles are right above us—it’s no problem. I had been there when our kid was small and got tired and had to be carried. I had taken my mother-in-law, who was not a walker. I had been there with a former colleague in his late 70s. No sweat. barrage-lakeWe were there for an hour and 52 minutes—I can see it on my Fitbit. We didn’t stop. It’s up and up and up, then down and up and up and up. As I’ve noted before, no guard rails. At least we were alone and didn’t have to share the narrow trail.

And yes, we were alone. It is utterly glorious to have four medieval ruins to oneself, to look out over the rugged mountains and on over the plain until you see the other mountains, the Pyrénées, snowcapped on the horizon. The mountain air is sweet and clear. Only occasionally the rumble of a car on the winding road far below reminds us of which century we’re in.683.Lastours10Having descended, which entailed a surprising amount of climbing, we were surprised to discover the exit roped off, a sign pointing to a gate. It was unlocked and put us directly on the single road, a two-way thoroughfare with room for one car most of the time and no shoulders. In fact, it was at the bottom of a cliff on one side and a river on the other.

On our way down we had spied a group of hikers and now we caught up to them. They were a tough lot. All retirees. Considering how tired we were from our hike, we were impressed. The hikers spread out like a flock of cats all over the road. A car came and had to slow to a crawl as the retired hikers stayed planted in the middle of the tarmac, giving it no heed. Finally the car came to a wide spot and maneuvered around them, but not quite enough for one hiker.

“Attention aux mémés!” she yelled. “Look out for the grannies!”661.Lastours3 We got home in time for a short nap and shower before going to our favorite restaurant, le Clos des Framboisiers. I promise to go interview the chef sometime. The food was as wonderful as always, the service impeccable as always, the parking lot full of 11 license plates (locals), except for one car, as always. L was astounded. The menu is fixed price—€32 per person—and includes an apéritif (on this visit it was sangria), appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert.

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L’s first steak tartare, a starter.
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Followed by fish.
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The Carnivore had meat. Duh.
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Strawberry soup.
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Chocolate ganache. The little meringue was lavender-flavored.

IMG_1431On Friday, we took it easy. (The day before we covered 10 miles, or 24,635 steps and 135 floors, according to Fitbit.) First, we went to Montolieu, to poke around some bookstores and admire the views, no climbing or hiking involved.

Then we returned to Carcassonne. We went to les halles to buy a cassoulet from a butcher for dinner. It’s a great deal. They have different sizes, depending on how many people you’re serving, and it comes out to about €7 per person. It comes in the cassole, the earthenware pot that gives the dish its name. You pay a €7 deposit for the cassole that you get back when you return the dish, or you can keep it (and €7 is a very reasonable price). It was all ready to pop into the oven—for an hour, at 220 C (425 F).  The Carnivore prepared foie gras as a starter.P1100769We also looked in a few shops, checking out la Ferme in particular for food-related souvenirs. That store is heaven. Food downstairs; kitchen and dining accessories upstairs. The store itself is beautiful.

We had lunch en terrace at Place Carnot. Simple, but good. Then we checked out the French beauty supplies at the Grande Pharmacie de la Gare. The staff there are very helpful in explaining and finding just the right thing. 

L wanted to see a supermarket, so we went to SuperU in Trèbes, which is just a supermarket and not a hypermarket (they don’t sell refrigerators or TVs or baby car seats). I agree that a supermarket reveals a lot about local culture. Milk and eggs in the same aisle, not refrigerated! An entire aisle, on both sides, of yogurt! Octopus in the fresh fish section! IMG_4419On Saturday, we of course went to the market. We also stopped for cheese at Bousquet; I should have given more thought in advance to my order because just looking around is overwhelming—I want some of everything. Cheese and some good baguettes from the Papineau boulangerie across the street, plus some charcuterie, would be our lunch. And fresh strawberries. 

After lunch we went back to la Cité to take in the museum in the château (la Cité is a fortified city with a château inside it). We braved the wind to walk the ramparts.IMG_1442

 

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Wavy glass!

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The detail on a knight’s sarcophagus…
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A close-up of the hinge on the boot/leg covering. I love details like that!

Then we cooked. I dragooned L into making cheese soufflé. Our kid made strawberry-mushroom risotto. I made a mustard-crusted pork roast and leeks. And we had pineapple-mascarpone parfait for dessert, which L also assisted in. 

And that was it. A full trip, I think. Not many photos of the visit–we enjoyed the moment. Thanks to L for coming and bringing such wonderful conversation. We miss you!IMG_1450

Open Admissions

IMG_1483One of the many things I love about France is the educational system. Reading about the college admissions scandal in the U.S. makes my blood boil, and I am all the more grateful to be in a completely different university universe. A sane one.

The university journey begins in high school, or lycée. France has just enacted an educational reform, changing the requirements for those who will graduate in 2021. But basically there are two streams: for those who plan to go to university and those who don’t. 

Those who don’t want to go to university (and I keep using the word university because collège in French is middle school, for 6th to 9th grades) have to take some basic classes for a good educational foundation—history, French, philosophy (ahem), physical education, math, civics and two—yes, TWO—foreign languages (the double foreign language requirement starts in 6th grade).IMG_1479Then they can take specialized classes to learn a trade, such as farming, many aspects of food service, transportation, sales, environmental work, etc. The students spend part of their days actually working as apprentices (a word that comes from apprendre—to learn) and are well-qualified when they graduate. This is considered a great outcome because such careers, even being a waiter, are honest and necessary work that earn a living wage. There is no shame in not going to university. These kids have several options, all of them with acronyms like STMG, ST2S, STHR, STI2D, STD2A, etc. One must be fluent in acronym when in France.

Those who want to go to university are split further into two streams: liberal arts and science types. The idea, again, is to prepare the students for the next step. Those who want to become engineers would have a strong foundation in sciences, for example. 

At the end of high school, the students must pass the baccalauréat, a gigantic written and oral test. You can finish high school and flunk the bac, but the bac is seen as a seal of approval, and students may take it again in an effort to pass. The bac is necessary for getting into university.IMG_1481There are three kind of higher education: universitiés, Grandes écoles, and specialized schools. Degrees are called licence (for a bachelor’s), master and doctorat. The Grandes écoles are considered the cream of the crop, very hard to get into, but in the sense of requiring great scores, and usually two years of rigorous preparatory courses. Universities, like France’s hospitals, are rather bare-bones compared to the U.S., lacking amenities like fancy gyms with climbing walls, water parks!!!!, movie theaters, etc. Just plain classrooms, with lots of students. The specialized schools are for things like commerce or management, such as the famous INSEAD. The universities tend not to rank very high globally because of faculty research citations, which punish papers that aren’t in English, and because of high student/faculty ratios.

Every French student who passed the bac gets into university. The test is given at the same time across the entire country, no private testing centers allowed. To get into scientific fields, you have to have passed the science bac, but otherwise it’s pretty open.IMG_5382Here’s how much it costs per year for French/EU students (international students are a different story):

For licence (bachelor’s) studies: €170, but poor families can get a reduction to €113.

Master: €243, reduced to €159.

Doctorat: €380, reduced to €253.

Ingénieur (engineer): €601

They also have to pay a student social security contribution of €90, which is waived for poor students. This is getting a new name but the amount stays the same.

Meal tickets are €3.25 a meal.IMG_1485Dorms are where French families face the big expense. There aren’t nearly enough dorm rooms, so students must find private lodging, something that has gotten squeezed by AirBnB, which offers landlords so much more money than students paying €400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment that’s empty during the summer.

Official dorm rooms range from 96 square feet with just a sink—bathrooms and kitchens are in common areas—to 150 square feet with a private shower, sink, fridge and microwave but shared toilets and kitchen; to studios up to 215 square feet with shower, toilet, sink, small kitchen and fridge. All furnished. They cost €200 to €500 a month.

So a year of university costs around €4,000 for room, €2,000 for board and a couple hundred for actual school fees.

The private schools, such as business schools, have low student/teacher ratios and cost much more. Tuition at the very respected HEC business school in Paris costs €15,100 a year for an MBA.IMG_1486Before you think that it’s a cakewalk to get a degree in France, students have to pass a gantlet of tests in order to continue. There is no way to finish if you skip class and just party. In fact, part of the reform of the bac stems from the fact that only 61% of students finish their degrees. Students aiming to become doctors may be filtered out in tests and have to choose a different career, perhaps still in medicine. Because it’s so rigorous, companies search for people who have gone to university for a year or two, even if they didn’t finish. You can see employment ads for BAC + 2, which means a bac plus two years of further education.

You can’t change your major between vastly different domains—something that’s possible in the U.S. 

Another difference with the U.S. is the sports aspect. As in, it doesn’t exist. No school teams, not in high school, not in university. It’s a place for studying. If you want to play sports, you join a club, which would be made up of kids from many different schools, and you would play against other clubs. No school spirit day. No crosstown rivalries. No Final Four (what sport is that anyway? Don’t tell me because I don’t care; I know of its existence only because I just saw a headline about it in the New York Times). IMG_1479No jocks, no cheerleaders. Also almost no fraternities or sororities. No corporate donors. Just taxes put to work.

You would think that in the U.S., with tuition such an incredible burden, kids would study their butts off. Certainly many do, but U.S. universities seem to be above all vast party machines. In France, the financial pressure is off and the kids are often living independently for the first time, so like young people everywhere they test their wings a bit; the bars around campuses are famously lively. But the constant testing is such that it’s up or out, and so French students pretty much keep their noses to the grindstone.

Feel free to talk smack below about the college admission scammers. As someone who got a perfect ACT in math and was in the top 1% nationally overall, I am disgusted by this group and hope the kids get kicked out and replaced with worthy students and the parents sent to prison. My own high school counselor pushed me to become a secretary, because with my good grades I would be hired immediately. She told me that I should forget about going to university on the East Coast, which was my dream, because my family couldn’t afford the plane fare, which was true. I informed her that I would become a boss, not a secretary, and indeed I did—and I had a secretary, who was a man. So much for Miss Norton’s stereotypes. I worked full-time in college (and finished in three years) because even though I had a full scholarship to a local state school, the fees and books still cost more than my parents could afford. I had zero fun, but I got a degree debt-free. I don’t think it would be possible to pull off today.IMG_5380I don’t know about you but I would rather drive over bridges designed by people who became engineers because they were smart and passionate about engineering, and be tended by doctors who are smart and passionate about caring for people, and so on, rather than by less-qualified, less-interested people who got into college because of legacy admissions or because their parents paid off the schools, in legal (well, legal is yet to be determined) or illegal ways. Remember the invasion of Grenada, to save the med students who were studying there because they weren’t able to get into med schools in the U.S.? When I was in the U.S. and saw on the list of in-network doctors some who had degrees from Grenada, I was horrified. Luckily, now I live in a place where all the doctors are in the network and I can pick whomever I want, assured that they are the crème de la crème. And my smart, ambitious kid will be able to continue studies without drowning in debt.

OK, have at it! I love your comments. Readers from other countries, tell us how your system works.IMG_1482

Spring Cleaning

P1070307It’s time to clean up this old ruin.

The stretch of fine weather and the impending arrival of a houseguest motivated me to do some spring cleaning. Especially cleaning the windows, which my French friends do once a week but which I do quite a bit less. We have So Many Windows. And it’s such a Sisyphean task. You clean them, it rains and they get spots. Clear blue skies are forecast for another week, so I went for it. I have the song “Aquarius” by The Fifth Dimension in my head–the refrain “bear the sunshine” was in a Windex commercial many decades ago. (Check out the link to the music video! Peace and Love!)P1070660I had the brilliant idea to treat some wood with beeswax, but it wouldn’t come out of the bottle. It is very stupid to bottle beeswax because it isn’t very runny (which reminds me of another commercial from childhood, for Heinz ketchup to the tune of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation”). I ran the bottle under hot water, then got completely spattered with wax when I opened it. Someone, not me, thought it was funny. The remaining beeswax was poured into a wide-mouth jar, which is how it should have been sold to begin with.P1060959It’s nice to spiff up one’s stuff from time to time. Some people are all about replacing with new, but I have fidelity to my things. On Sunday, our kid made focaccia in the kitchen, chatting with me as I sat at the table with the sewing machine and dispensed with a pile of mending. So many ripped seams. Simple to fix; just takes the time to get out the machine, thread the needle (increasingly difficult), do it. My mom darned socks and patched our clothes. Mending and sewing seem very last-century, but there are zillions of videos of young women repairing and adjusting thrift-store finds. One of them inspired me to tailor some pants that I had found a little too saggy. I suspect I will wear them more now (plus I dyed them “tulip red” so they’re like new).P1070662The Carnivore and I dragged all the patio furniture out of the garden shed and cleaned it. I pulled weeds and he trimmed the oleander–it already had flower buds and I hope it will hurry up and made new ones. Pale pink and deep “féria” magenta, they make a colorful wall around us. There are still many weeds, more than grass. Another Sisyphean task. P1060957I dream of downsizing, so that the portion of my life devoted to maintenance shrinks and the portion devoted to enjoying life can expand. Some people take their enjoyment from maintenance itself, which seems like mental judo–using the opponent’s own weight against him. Don’t fight head on, but direct the energy to your advantage. I respect that, but I’d still like more time for museums.P1070736Do you do spring cleaning, or are you a clean-all-the-time type? Any tips to share?

 

Spring in My Step

IMG_1378Printemps, or spring, started here about a month ago, but now it’s official. What a joy to have that thin dawn light on waking, instead of inky darkness that makes one want to roll over and curl up. The birds are singing their lungs out, the sky is turning brilliant hues before the sun makes its formal appearance over the horizon. It’s energizing. It’s easy to get out of bed.IMG_1259The vignerons, or winegrowers, are hustling to prune the vines before they bud out. We barely got any frost, let alone a hard freeze or snow, this winter. Frost is a threat until les saints glace–the ice saints–in early May. The afternoons are wonderfully warm, but it’s plain cold before dawn. Spring in the south of France is long and slow, in no rush for those baked days of summer. It tempts and taunts, with surprisingly balmy days followed by a wash of cold gray. We’ve had a good four weeks of almost-uninterrupted blue skies, and even the big, heavy clouds didn’t deliver. The garden is parched, the soil hard. I actually want rain.IMG_1379I’ve been reading about the floods in the Midwest. So awful, and so soon after the last floods. I know how they feel, at least kind of. We were isolated, with no roads, no telephone or Internet, for several days following flash floods last fall. Our house and most of the village escaped damage, but 15 people died nearby and many homes, businesses and farms were devastated. Too much rain, too fast. It happens more and more.

IMG_1244
This little stream was a raging river back in October.

IMG_1257On these nice days, I’m trying to get out for walks. I was really into it for a while, then lapsed. I think it happened when I overdid the running and my knees started to hurt and make strange noises. I took a rest and the rest took over. In fact, that happened just before the flood, which washed away my jogging path, so even when my knee was better, I had an excuse not to go out. I am picky about where I run–I avoid cars and, above all, dogs. IMG_1267IMG_1396IMG_1364The park path is being completely redone, full of earth-movers at the moment, so I’ve been setting off on country lanes. I appreciate getting to a spot where you don’t hear anything but nature. The wind in the pines, the birds singing. In summer, the cicadas thrumming. IMG_1243IMG_1380

IMG_1253
Promise!

IMG_1251IMG_1366I have a Fitbit that tracks my steps. I really like the no-delusions-of-grandeur factual accounting of what I’m doing. If I spend a day at my desk, I can’t dismiss it with embellished ideas about having walked around the house enough to count for something. Because it doesn’t. Fitbit takes your age, height and weight and calculates how many calories you’ve burned, based on the number of steps and heart rate. My average is just shy of the recommended minimum of 10,000 steps, burning an average of 1,980 calories. That is awful! No wonder it gets hard to maintain a steady weight, and even worse to lose weight, as you age.IMG_1266

IMG_1255
Like stars in the sky.

IMG_1260 Yesterday we brought out all the patio furniture and worked in the yard. I continued my Sisyphean fight against weeds. Soon I will plant the bee and butterfly garden. Something low maintenance–one and done. Native plants that won’t need to be watered.

IMG_1375
Can’t resist repeating my IG pun: WALLFLOWERS!!!! My friend B would have loved it.

IMG_1376Spring cleaning inside may occur soon. Not exactly Marie Kondo, though definitely purging some joyless junk. A moratorium on acquisitions of anything but comestibles. Just don’t need it. I want to shake off winter and stuff and just breathe.IMG_1370

886C3681-C1AB-43ED-9AC1-30E557B291C9
I know I showed some of these ladies recently, but I can’t help thinking of them every time I see these flowering bushes.

IMG_1367Another aimless post, as weightier topics swirl in my mind. Like a snow globe. When they settle, I will set them out. Do you do the same? What are your spring rituals?

 

Under Marble Cliffs

falaiseWhen my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).

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Gulp.

falaise 3I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. falaise 2Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.

climbing lines
Do you see the climbing lines?

Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.

marble
Marble just lying around.
fountain
A spring.

Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.

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The old entrance; now the entrance is on the side to the right.
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Do you see three little chapels for the stations of the cross?
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Le Souc

There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.

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The former rectory.

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