Urban Jungle

IMG_3491When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. IMG_3489We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.IMG_3465In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.

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It doesn’t take much. And is that the door to Tom and Jerry’s place?

The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. IMG_3495And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.IMG_3497IMG_3492IMG_3490

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Something about this resembles Cousin It from the Addams Family.

Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.IMG_3488IMG_3486Some were colorful, very dramatic.IMG_3500IMG_3510IMG_3485You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.IMG_3501Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.IMG_3517IMG_3504Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. IMG_3473IMG_3471Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.

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Do you see the balcony with what seems to be a bamboo forest?

I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.

What’s not to love about that?IMG_3493

 

 

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Sweet Friends

IMG_0765We had a reunion last weekend. Two sets of neighbors who had moved away came for a visit, spurring a long, chatty lunch with the entire gang. We dined en terrasse, where it was borderline hot. The day before had been incredibly windy–my laundry was ripped off the line and scattered across the yard. But on the appointed day, there wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze. The sun shone. The birds joined the jazz playing. It was perfect.

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As I don’t show photos of my friends here, you are treated to a gallery of French pâtisserie shots.

It wasn’t last minute but not with great advance warning either, so the food was simple. One neighbor brought nuts and charcuterie for the apéritif; another brought cheeses and apple pies (three! homemade!) for dessert; we supplied barbecued ribs and non-meat options–spanakopita, hummus, Patricia Wells’s red peppers with cumin. One of the returning neighbors has been vegetarian since before it was fashionable the last time, as well as a yoga teacher since well before the Beatles discovered yoga. My role model.

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Even the frozen stuff at the supermarket is amazing. “Chocolate-raspberry obsession.” Yup.

Everybody was thrilled to be reunited. Truly tickled pink. We’re several years older now, and it’s these gaps in gatherings that make everybody look back and realize that OMG Time Has Passed. My role model remarked on how much our palm trees had grown since she moved away. She kindly didn’t mention how many wrinkles I had acquired. But back when the palm trees were shorter than me, my face was smoother.IMG_0763That’s the least of it. So many medical issues, all around. They seem to give everyone an urgency that life is short and precious.

There is also, for me at least, a hard-won intimacy that comes only with the passage of time and true affection, though I always think I should do more. The others, for example, helped dig each other out after the historic flood that hit before we arrived. They did each other’s laundry. They had each other’s back. Muffin deliveries can’t measure up to that.

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‘Le Petit Zeste”

Yet, little by little, it happens. I’ve learned which ones got pregnant before their weddings and other little tidbits that are water under the bridge and no longer anything that would raise an eyebrow but not usually common knowledge either. These stories amuse me to no end and make me love my friends more than ever.

In town, there’s a group of friends I call the Fashionable Glasses Group. They are in their 70s, all meticulously dressed, and all with very not-ordinary eyeglasses. They meet at the same café every Saturday morning at the market. One time I was sitting at a table next to them, and more and more of their friends came and asked to take the empty chairs at my table. Eventually I suggested they also use the table for their coffees, and somehow I finagled my way into their conversation, which was brilliant.

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Another supermarket freezer treat: Sublime with berries and almond milk.

Recently, I once again was seated next to the Fashionable Glasses Group. A guy in the same demographic came up and started chatting, then sat down. Eventually his wife, as immaculately dressed as he (in coordinating colors with him–post on that coming up) arrived, flicking her hands sharply with the south-of-France gesture that means “extreme/lots/you wouldn’t believe it,” and saying she was held up because, as she walked down the street, she just kept running into people! I couldn’t help myself. I eavesdropped. I did more that that. I took notes.

The gentleman then explained that he likes to go to the forest. He described preparing his thermos of coffee. He rhapsodized about the whispering pines, the piercing stars at night, the song of the cigales, or cicadas, in summer.

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Thanks to the Boulangerie Papineau and the master pâtissier Rémi Touja, both just steps from our AirBnBs in Carcassonne, for these works of art.

One time, a cigale drowned in his pool. “She wanted to save it,” he said, gesturing at his wife. “What could I do? Mouth-to-mouth?”

“It didn’t move. The poor thing was dead. My sister gets crazy from the song of the cigales. You know, it can drive you mad.”

At this, the Fashionable Glasses Group nodded in agreement and interjected their own tales of having been driven over the edge by the incessant ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of these insects. There also was a tangential discussion of how big they get, which I thought resembled some fishermen’s stories.

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How about that mega-macaron on the right?

“So I wrapped up the dead cigale and put it in an envelope to send to my sister as a joke,” he continued. “A few days later, I went to put the envelope in the mailbox. Just then, it started vibrating! It was alive! I opened the envelope and the cigale flew away! So I didn’t get to play a joke on my sister.”

When you see a group of classy, bourgeoise French friends sitting at a café and talking animatedly, now you know: this is the kind of stuff they are discussing.

I love it.

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I want to bellyflop into this.

If you want to know the names of some of these, click here.

Moral Unequivalence

IMG_3275I’ve been in quite the grouchy mood, one would think, from my recent posts. When it rains, it pours.

A banal mishap this summer rocked my world, and I feel like I’m living in some kind of Groundhog’s Day of repeats of it, if not personally then existentially.

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Small road, deep ditch. Not even a tire’s width of flat grass, then a ditch (called a fossé in French) that could easily eat a car.

One day I was driving on a back road between two villages. It was unusually busy–undoubtedly people dropping off their kids in one village for a big event and then heading home; in fact I was on my way to the event. I know the road well and would pull over and wait on the spots that were a few inches wider. These roads are barely big enough for two small cars to pass, and forget about an SUV. So over and over, I eased my car onto the grass, all the while aware that the shoulders are not even a foot wide. One day, on a different but also narrow road, I passed a car that was upside down, having been too polite and pulled over too far. A man with his 8-year-old-ish son stood bewildered on the tarmac’s edge as a tow truck winched the car out.

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“A” is for awful. Actually A means apprentice, a scarlet letter affixed to cars during a driver’s first year of having a license, so other drivers know stupidity lies ahead.

Then a beat-up Clio came barreling toward me. The driver had a cigarette in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. She didn’t make the slightest effort to move to the right. I had two wheels on the grass and didn’t dare go farther.

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More of the same. Ditches on both sides.
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Not much space at all to pull over…
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A tiny bit more on the other side of the road.

Bang! She tore off my side mirror. That made her pull over (on the wrong side of the road). She came up to me: “It’s your fault!” she yelled. She had a convoluted theory that the car that was going faster would suffer less damage and thus be shown to be at fault; since her mirror was gone she was the victim. I pointed out that I was barely moving and that my side mirror was missing as well. I asked for her insurance information.

“There’s no point,” she said. “The code de la route says that when two cars cross each other, any accident is 50-50 each driver’s fault.”

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Even worse: I hesitated to WALK over this. No way in a car. Not even in my half-size car.
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Check the drop! This passes for a “bridge.” Happily, it connects nowhere with nowhere.

And it’s true. It doesn’t matter that she was driving like a lunatic, didn’t slow down and didn’t make the slightest effort to move to the side. And with that, she hopped into her car and took off again. I have a strong suspicion that, having a Renault Clio, one of the most common models around here, she will simply take a mirror off another Clio in a parking lot and her problem will be solved without spending money. I got a new mirror online for about €30. So it was a small thing but it really irked me.

Do you find yourself in situations where you’re minding your own business, being respectful, obeying the rules, and then some ogre/idiot barrels along and sets you back, and, on top of it all, blames you? And the rules don’t support you at all?

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Parking lot lines are for other people. (Red car in center)

I remember a friend’s child who was getting picked on at school. The main bully was the teacher’s pet. The teacher refused to believe his pet could be mean. The child had to speak up, he told her parents. On the playground, when the mean girl acted against my friend’s daughter and she asked the teacher for help, the teacher said the kids needed to work things out among themselves. The mean girl took that as a green light to keep up the bullying. More importantly, the other kids also saw it as the teacher acquiescing to the mean girl, giving her even more power.

These days, among adults, bullying is more subtle, and among the hoi polloi, committed via cars. It’s about taking up two parking places, or the gutless wonders who “ICE” electric vehicle charging spots (ICE means internal combustion engine; “ICEing” means parking in the charging spots to inconvenience people with electric cars). Or who park in handicapped spots–the lowest of the low.

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And this guy…construction blocked the road, and what’s usually parking was for exiting this service road. Except that this jerk parked so that nobody could squeeze by. What was he thinking? He was thinking, “I got a great parking spot.”

Those are just examples of being discourteous. There are bigger, more serious crimes that are committed, and the response is, the other side is also to blame. But often–usually–the other side’s real or imagined offenses are nowhere near the same scale. The idea of both sides being at fault magnifies small faults and lets real offenders get off.

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A pretty view, to reset after this rant.

After my experience on the road, I went to the gendarmerie. It was another Catch-22. He informed me that since the wicked woman stopped, she didn’t flee from an accident. I pointed out that had she not stopped, I wouldn’t have been able to get her license plate number, considering the speed she was driving at. The law says that even though I pulled over and she didn’t, we share the blame equally. But I could file a report anyway, to give my side, the gendarme consoled me. Who knows–if she does this regularly (and I somehow don’t think that she usually drives with great care) then it will be in her file. Most of all, it was cathartic. I felt like I had done something, however small, against somebody who flouts the rules.

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Grape harvesters hard at work…it’s still the season.

Are you a rule follower? A rule flouter? What do you think of people who commit terrible acts and then say, “the other guy isn’t perfect, look at him!”?

Opinions on Furniture

IMG_6346I just read the most horrific article. I’m still a bit in the vapors over it. It seems that antiques are among the things millennials are killing.

Realtors are digitally redecorating homes to replace antiques with spare modern furniture and white walls, according to “When the Antiques Have to Go,” in the New York Times. The “after” in the article just looks C.H.E.A.P. to me. The article says that as lifestyles have gotten increasingly informal, antiques are out of the question. But have you ever sat on those horrible modern plastic chairs? I get a backache just looking at them. And who wants their legs to stick to the seat? In the realm of informal dining, I cite McDonalds; even their seats are now more comfortable than those fashionable molded plastic seats. What qualifies as informal? Something you can hose down? Or something where you don’t need to dress for dinner like the Crawleys at Downton Abbey?

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I like to think about the generations of babies who crawled around our apartment and who came upon these guys on the pedestal of the dining table.
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In what way is a boar “formal”? I think it’s not boring.
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The matching buffet à deux corps. We bought some of the furniture with the apartment. This is a revival of Henri II, with the mix of machined spirals and hand carving, from the late 1800s.

Of course, there are antiques and antiques. It seems that vintage, especially anything from the 1950s and 1960s, in that midcentury modern sweet spot, is still hot. Anything older is not. OK, it could be difficult to use a computer on a roll-top desk. Not the right ergonomics. Beds are wider and longer (but can be adjusted! We did it!). Carved details require dusting. But so do smooth surfaces….so what gives?

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Solution #1: attach a headboard to a queen-size bed.
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Solution #2: extend the frame to accommodate a queen-size mattress. It’s possible when you’re dealing with wood.

The thing I really don’t understand are the faux-tiques. The Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware/Ethan Allen/Birch Lane etc. ilk–even Ikea has some of it–that looks vaguely traditional but is new. Now, knock-offs have been around for quite some time. In the late 1800s, the style of Henri II, which goes back to the 1500s, had a revival in France, as new wood-working machines could easily create the signature spiral rails on chairs and buffets, but the rest of the carving was still done by hand. Either the traditional look is passé or it isn’t. Why pay so much for something new that looks old? Though it doesn’t. The pieces are too perfect, like Real Housewives. Inauthentic.

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More Henri II. I just love all the faces.

IMG_3336English antique furniture values have fallen 40% in 10 years. The prices of 18th and 19th century antiques have tanked. In these parts, that’s not even very old. I was talking to an antique dealer who showed me a buffet from the 16th century. “I can’t get €200 for it,” he lamented. “Soon shops like this will be completely gone, and so will the furniture, the history. The new generation doesn’t care.”

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Piano detail. Unless it’s from a renowned maker, a piano is nearly worthless now.

The truly fancy stuff aside, judging from the listings on Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French version of craigslist, folks have little interest in incorporating family heirlooms in their décor. They just want to get rid of them. Antiques dealers can pick up inventory for cheap, but if there are no buyers? There are still antique lovers out there. The entire town of Pézenas is one big antique market, even when the twice-yearly antiques fair isn’t going on.IMG_3327 2Here are my arguments to millennials for why they should give antiques, or older second hand, a second look:

The price. A quick perusal of leboncoin brings up a set in solid oak for €200, including a six-door buffet, a table and six chairs. Granted, it isn’t an antique, but neither is anything at Pottery Barn. In fact, all the better that it’s just a quasi-antique: you can paint it white. Or red. Anyway–not formal. The cheapest table at Ikea is €129, made of metal that they say can be recycled, so that’s an improvement over particle board. The Ingatorp wood particle board table (with a traditional look…go figure) is €299. The Ingolf chairs that usually go with it are €60 a pop. And the Havsta buffet is €910. Ikea is great for some things, and I respect that they deliver good design for low (low-ish) prices and make an effort to be environmentally responsible. But consumption is consumption.

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I see this style of mirror in Maisons du Monde (a French chain similar to Pottery Barn), but because this one is old, the mirror has beveled edges, too expensive to do for most mirrors today. Yet this one was cheaper than a new store-bought mirror. With a coat of black paint, it is perfect in the black-and-white bathroom.

The environment. In the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle, giving something a new life beats sending it to recycling, which, is in turmoil as the system is overwhelmed with stuff to recycle without demand for the materials that are produced. That’s mostly for paper and plastic, and I’m not sure where a particle board table would enter the stream, but I’m not too hopeful. Sure, millennials are giving new life to MCM pieces, but as authentic stuff has gotten more expensive, you see cheap knockoffs everywhere. Knockoffs don’t count as reusing!!! They are new even if they look old.

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Dishes, too! And why not a silver tray? The table is “new”–I bought it in Lamu, Kenya; it’s hand-carved (I met the carpenter) from real wood.

Your home environment. The resins used to make particle board emit formaldehyde and other lovely volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. Something that’s solid wood (and decades if not centuries old) is not going to off-gas.

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All old. Each piece the result of an adventure, especially that chandelier.

Personality. I will scream if I see another interior with Eames Vitra chairs (or knockoffs thereof, but either way they are plastic), a fiddle-leaf fig, shiplap, a repurposed pallet and a Beni Ourain rug (probably also a knockoff and made of polyester that will disintegrate into plastic microbeads). If some “influencer” declared something cool and then you copied it, are you cool or pathetic? With antiques, you can get a one-of-a-kind design. Even if all your friends become antiques nuts, you are not going to end up with the same stuff by a long shot. That goes for accessories and tchotchkes, too. Why buy some mass-produced thing to style your bookshelf? What kind of statement is that making, really? Some second-hand stuff was mass-produced, but you won’t find it everywhere anymore. And lots of really old furniture was made by hand. Marquetry is like painting with wood. It’s art. If you don’t like the old stuff, then support a living artist, perhaps someone you know.

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Better in white, with a new seat cover.

If you don’t like brown, paint it. This would not be a good idea for an 18th century marquetry desk. But if it’s great-grandma’s dresser or a second-hand wardrobe that you plan to repurpose, then go right ahead. And you can personalize it. Or stain it darker or strip it bare, two looks I see on Restoration Hardware’s site. Antiques, or old brown furniture, doesn’t have to be precious.

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A simple wardrobe, and very practical. Two drawers…
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…and the Carnivore cleverly rearranged the interior to have both shelves and hanging space.

When I was young, I had romantic ideas about antiques, along with lace curtains and chandeliers. Moving to a few continents meant paring down, giving back (to stay in the family) and, often buying new on arrival in my new country. It’s true it takes a while to get into shopping for older stuff. There’s a learning curve to discern a gem from a pebble (but sometimes a pebble is what you need). It requires patience–one might not want to look for months for just the right bed frame when it’s so tantalizingly easy to click online and get it delivered to your door. But, my dears, it’s worth it! Hold out! You won’t regret it!

And now, tell me your antique thoughts.

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There would be a lot to digitally hide in this room. The only thing that’s new in this photo is the watercolor of la Cité of Carcassonne (on the left), done by a friend of a friend; even the other oils are old, found in a closet.

 

 

On the Town

P1090973Toulouse is such a pretty city. I went with some friends on Saturday, and we had such fun.IMG_3880It was the Journées de Patrimoine (Heritage Days), but my friends weren’t too interested in history, alas. That didn’t stop me from snapping photos right and left. P1090975P1090974On l’Allée Jules Guesde, a vegan festival was in full swing, and we were disappointed that we had already eaten. IMG_3873IMG_3867IMG_3876IMG_3877IMG_3872Besides history and food, there was music, with brass bands playing at various squares. I loved the all-woman group, playing a cover by Madonna.IMG_3892In the main square, Place du Capitole, a Basque festival was going on, with a band, dancers in traditional dress, giants that we later saw parading around, and lots of stands where you could taste and buy the regional specialties.IMG_3909IMG_3904We were strolling down the main pedestrian shopping street, rue Saint-Rome, when the Gilets Jaunes approached from the direction of the Capitole. To avoid them, we turned down a side street and discovered some cute shops we usually would have missed by sticking to the main shopping streets. Then we headed toward rue Alsace-Lorraine, but the Gilets Jaunes had turned and were coming down that street. So we zipped a couple of streets down to cross ahead of them and managed to get to Place Saint-Georges, for gelato and tranquility.

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Place Saint-Georges between crowds.

It was lovely. The ice cream was amazing, and we were entertained by a group of swing dancers. I was itching to join them. P1090976We meandered on, popping into the Lush store. A very young salesclerk unlocked the door for customers and then locked it again. We could hear the Gilets Jaunes drums and chants, but figured they were on the bigger street. No–they poured past, chanting but not breaking anything. More or less respectful. Non-protesters managed to swim upstream on the sidewalks on either side. We just watched from inside the store. Finally they were gone and we left. Looking back down the street, it was a fog of tear gas at Place Saint-Georges. No more swing dancing, or gelato.P1090979 Soon they were retreating down the same street, pushed out of the square. Parents hustled their kids along to stay out of the GJs’ way. I heard a very small child, maybe four or five years old, on a trottinette, remarking to his mother that there was tear gas. I can tell you I was pretty old before I had any idea about tear gas. All the same, it shows that people have stopped paying attention and just continue to carry on, despite the protests.IMG_3895P1090969On a separate note, we recently got to meet Janelle of the Distant Francophile blog, and her husband, Scott. They manage to be utterly chic and adorable at the same time. And a real love story. Janelle mixes travel tips, wardrobe advice and recipes, all with fantastic photos. I was tickled that they chose to stay in one of our AirBnBs and that we got to know them better. If you’re a francophile, then definitely check out Janelle’s blog and Instagram.

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The Distant Francophiles in the south of France, chez nous.

 

 

French Style Fails

IMG_3020Not everything is exquisite good taste over here in the land of butter and croissants. We have soul-less subdivisions with idiotic names and no trees. We have strip malls and mall-malls (though definitely inferior….watching “Stranger Things” made me nostalgic for the mall as social center; though our centre-villes are better than most downtowns). Instead of velvet Elvises, there are velvet Johnny Hallydays.

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That’s a turret on that house, which was probably built in the last decade or two. No comment about the metal work on the gate.

Worst of all, we have McMansions. There is a wonderful blog, McMansion Hell, which dissects all that is wrong about the genre.

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Prison or home?

Tear-downs are a new phenomenon. Many a gorgeous château is the result of hundreds of years of additions and renovations. The mixed styles create an endearing eccentricity about these rambling stone heaps with willy-nilly towers. It is quite a different thing to start with a blank slate and do a wide-ranging pastiche all at once. It’s the architectural equivalent of canned laughter, silicone boobs, Viagra. Fake, fake fake.

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How many finials are too many?

I also have to say that I have seen more than my share of hideous interior décor. These people clearly are not reading the plentiful blogs about French style. In fact, they have rejected French style for something amorphously modern, but not TOO modern, for goodness sake. Instead, it’s a bastard of modern (aka 1970s/1980s) with the contemporaneous interpretation of traditional. The result is furniture that is both ugly and uncomfortable, a simultaneous assault to the eyes and to the spine.

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House on steroids. The definition of “butt-ugly.” Not from these parts but farther north, where, on a walk, all I could think of was, OMG everything here is H.I.D.E.O.U.S.

Take, for example, the home of a couple we know. Her: extremely short hair because it’s less work; had Groucho Marx eyebrows until her daughter’s wedding when they were plucked and she is thank goodness keeping up with that; explained, the first time we met almost 20 years ago, that they had “just” stripped the wallpaper (and neither new wallpaper nor paint was ever put up). She’s all about efficiency not aesthetics, function over form. Him: cocky; retired from a sinecure but likes to brag about his business acumen, which consists of inheriting money from his father-in-law; always on the lookout for a fight (of the fist variety, not the sharp words kind); brags about having finagled great deals, through under-the-table clever negotiations, but always pays way too much. Sound like anybody you can think of?

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House on…antidepressants?  Is there anything kind one can say? I fear there is not. And WTF is on the ventilation grate?

They bought a house for retirement that was twice as big as the house they had raised a family in. It’s in a subdivision outside of town, where one must take a car to get anything. Not a single shop. It’s near where a big forest fire ravaged the pines last month. Where houses don’t belong.

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Where no man has gone before.

This house, which was a “great” bargain, has some peculiarities. There’s a three-centimeter (2-inch) step just after you enter, swinging in a half-circle along with the front door. That’s because the builders miscalculated the interior floor. (First tip that this is a bad house!!!!) The steps to the second floor have risers that are about 30 centimeters (12 inches). I found it hard to climb them, and I’m pretty fit. Yet, even though I’m very short, I had to duck not to hit my head going up/down because the stairwell was too small.

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Nightmare.

But hey, the house is HUGE.

They also bought it furnished, so I can blame multiple people for bad taste–the couple for thinking it was just fine and the original owners for having committed such furniture felonies in the first place. In the living area (open plan kitchen/dining/living), there’s a sofa and matching love seat, both with legs so high none of us could sit back and also have our feet on the floor. In pleather.

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The strip in the middle is the wall of the “new” city, built in the 1300s. The buildings that cuddle up to it on either side were built much (and on the right much, much) later.

The dining table has a similar design, with those big-based chairs/seats that you can’t scoot in once you sit and that are also too high to touch the floor. Maybe the original owners were giants? The current owners aren’t–he’s moderate height and she is even shorter than I am.

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Case in point: there was a big opening here at one time. Somebody closed it up, probably for good reason. But there’s still a door, with a cool arch above, and a window with adorable hearts in the shutters.

This is just one example, because I sometimes think everybody here has bought furniture from the same place. You can get antiques practically for free, and yet people go to big-box stores in a “zoning commercial” (how do I even describe that….it’s a part of town that’s full of strip malls and big-box stores….pure hell) and they choose the absolutely ugliest options available. I love antiques but I also love modern–le Corbusier, lots of Ligne Roset. It isn’t to judge modern vs. antiques. I guess the stuff I see is a downscale version. But why? Ikea does a good job of modern for cheap. Heck, I am a total cheapskate. But that’s why I love antiques. Plus the quality. You can’t beat it–solid wood, hand craftsmanship, no off-gassing.

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Not built in a day. The gray-roofed towers are more modern by a long shot, but date to the 13th century; the red-roofed tower is Roman, far older.

Anyway, I would not photograph examples of bad taste in people’s homes even though they don’t read the blog. And this post is more about homes as buildings, rather than their interior design. Usually I show you places that are achingly beautiful, worthy of being on postcards or calendars. Yes, there is much to celebrate in French taste, but not everybody has gotten the memo.

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Sprouting like mushrooms. Or cancer.

I love it all the same.

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But I don’t love this house. Windows? Why no windows?

Surely you have McMansion horror stories to share. Unload them!

Working for a Living

IMG_3113It’s said that the French work to live, while Americans live to work. I would like to work forever, though with reasonable hours, French-style. It wouldn’t just be for the money, though that’s a necessary factor, but also for the intellectual stimulation and social contact with people.

A bunch of things collided to make me think lately about the nature of work. I was talking to someone who mentioned lousy jobs–the ones with repetitive tasks, possibly dangerous or at least likely to involve occasional injuries, with inflexible or odd or constantly changing hours, few or no benefits, no hope for advancement. One employee is nearly indistinguishable from the next and so they can be fired and a new one hired without angst.

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Random pictures from here and there, just to break things up.

Many of these jobs are being automated. Maybe they should be–there’s nothing inherently satisfying about them other than the paychecks they bring, and why have people doing dangerous tasks instead of machines? But what about the people who do them now? Especially those who are doing fairly dangerous jobs and earning good salaries as a result? They are not going to shift to a lab to look for a cure for cancer. And it isn’t because they aren’t able to make this switch to the vaunted knowledge economy that they should be written off.

One of my early jobs, when I was in high school, was automated and I was laid off. I worked at a bank, doing data entry. Back then, when you made a charge with your credit card, the clerk would set it into a little cradle and, RRRPPPP RRRPPP, imprint the card number into the three carbon copies of the receipt (the legacy of which is the raised numbers on your cards still today). My colleagues and I had four-inch-thick stacks of the bank copy of these receipts. We would type in the card number and amount as fast as our left hands could flip to the next receipt. There were little red lights on the keyboard to alert us to errors (each pile was entered by two different people and they had to match perfectly). Our keystrokes were timed to monitor our efficiency.P1060663 2 Occasionally, the headsets we wore would beep and we would stop to authorize a charge. Back in the day, if a charge was rather large, the retailer would call a human at the bank for authorization. We had a little box of microfiches that were updated regularly, and would slip it into a projector to look up the card number to see whether the person was paying their credit card on time or whether they were over the limit (refused) or the card was stolen. I had one stolen card, and it was very exciting. I had to tell the clerk to keep the customer in the store while calling the police and to cut the card in half.P1060683I was the youngest person working there, and it was a great job for a 17-year-old. I worked four hours a night after school Monday to Thursday and eight hours on Sundays, where I got time and a half.  I made $4.75 an hour (when the minimum wage was $2.30) and more on Sunday. I had Friday night and Saturday night off. Incredible.

But I couldn’t figure out the life plan of the adults I worked with. On the one hand, it was a good job, but I didn’t see anybody promoted in the years I worked there. There was nothing about data entry that led to bigger and better skills. And I don’t think my co-workers were concerned about moving up. They had a nice, clean office job that they did well and they didn’t need to think about when they left for the day. They worked to live.IMG_5089 2Funny, but in high school my counselor thought I should stick with the bank job–steady, at ridiculously high pay. She said I could get hired on graduation as a secretary because I could type. I said I wanted to HAVE a secretary, not be one. (That got me in trouble with my mother.) I had good grades, great test scores, but we were in a tough neighborhood. People like me were supposed to become worker bees not bosses.

I went to college anyway, with a full scholarship, though it didn’t cover books and such. So I worked full-time and went to school more than full-time because I finished in three years. Of course now I regret it–I don’t have any friends from college–I ran out of my classes to catch the bus to work. I missed out on the college experience. Lesson: living to work can be empty.IMG_3111I see Felicity Huffman going to jail for all of two weeks for buying her kid into college and I wonder whose place her kid took. Do you remember/know of the invasion of Grenada? A supposedly communist coup led to the U.S. invasion, citing the need to protect the Americans going to medical school there. Turns out, Grenada had a booming diploma factory for Americans who didn’t qualify for med school in the U.S., but the family couldn’t bear the thought of Junior not being a doctor and shipped him off to Grenada. 

I don’t know anybody who would rather see a doctor whose family bought his degree rather than the poor but brilliant kid who worked his way through. While it’s clear that kids brought up in stable households with decent incomes have better outcomes in school, at least in France the schools are pretty consistent and university is open and without tuition to anybody who has the test scores (there are costs, like housing, but they’re a couple thousand a year).

In some ways, today’s economy is like the one of many decades ago. My grandma got milk delivered by the milkman in a little truck. Today, people get deliveries from Amazon or Deliveroo or one of the others. The big difference with the past is that milkman earned a middle-class living for his family and stay-at-home wife, as they almost all were then. Delivery drivers now have to work incredibly long hours, or supplement with other gigs, and they still only scrape by. The app business model depends on not paying living wages.

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These details were created by human hands.

Check out the documentary “American Factory.” Fantastic. You see these people doing kind of routine jobs but proud to do them and do them right. They are working to live but while they’re on the clock, they are all-in. But when the factory, which had been closed, is bought by a Chinese company, the new management doesn’t see it that way; they see the American workers as slow and lazy and unwilling to put in hours the way their Chinese employees do. 

There’s a new podcast based on the tapes Studs Terkel made of the interviews he did for “Working,” his seminal look at people and their work in the 1970s. The podcast went to the interviewees to see where they are now. Fascinating. There was the telephone operator talking about how boring and machine-like her work was–work now long done by computers, just like my bank job. There were the generations of car mechanics and the great pride they had in diagnosing problems. Some people aren’t made for desk jobs.IMG_3104Then there’s teaching. It used to be a good, middle-class job. In France, it still is, thanks to the panoply of benefits the government provides to people at the bottom of the income scale. Income redistribution. Socialism. I don’t receive these benefits and I pay plenty in taxes to finance them. But I love it. I think it’s the right thing to do.

I hear a lot about how incredibly innovative the U.S. is, but what I see are a lot of little software programs–apps–that don’t advance much. Most of them make doing something or another a little bit easier. Is that innovation? They feel like the specialized kitchen gadgets that, yes, peel garlic faster, get the pit out of your avocado, slice and dice more surely than someone without knife skills, but I suspect 99% of such gadgets sit in drawers, untouched.IMG_3117Sure, Google changed search (but I use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you), Amazon changed/demolished retail, Apple put computers in our pockets (Nokia was working on that, too, but too late). Even before AirBnB, I booked holiday homes, though the app is much easier. Is “easier” enough to qualify as innovation? Not sure. Uber made it easier to hail a ride, but by exploiting drivers, who brought their own cars–no capital expenditure on fleets necessary for Uber, no contributions for pensions or health care or all those other things that human workers have traditionally required. I’ve never used Uber and never will. Same with Facebook. I’m far from a Luddite, but I’m picky about what I put on my phone and which businesses get my custom. My kitchen drawers are almost devoid of gadgets. It’s a lifestyle.

This is a very grognon post, but I really care about people who work hard and don’t make ends meet, and it seems to be the case for more and more people. What about you? Do you live to work or work to live? What do you think about gig jobs? In light of your opinion, do you use apps? What should we do about jobs eliminated by automation?

Bonus: A little retro Huey Lewis and the News with Workin’ for a Livin’. Circa 1982.IMG_3108

 

French Summer Fashion Summary

IMG_3562Before the weather changes too much–and it’s very summery here today–here are the street style photos I’ve gathered over the past two months.

Some “trends” include white dresses, like the one above. Though a printed sheath dress like her friend’s, with flat sandals, is very popular as well. And note the two girls on the left with their short skirts, tucked-in tees and white tennis shoes–another look among the younger set.

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Flowing. Cotton tote bags are de rigueur, as much if not more than straw bags.
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With a print–floral or abstract (and more tote bages!).

Metallic accents are everywhere. In the top photo, the woman in white has metallic accents on her bag and sandals. The dress below has gold leaves all over it. I saw so many women in versions of this dress, some long, some very short, some, like this one, short in front and long in back. There was a woman at the market in a long, Greek goddess version of it, and she walked as regally as the dress deserved (and disappeared into the crowd before I got my phone out).

 

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Metallic sandals.

The woman was so crisp on a hot day. Slick chignon. somewhat structured straw bag, perfectly pressed dress and ramrod posture. She brings me to another trend: crisp and tailored.

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With two more trends: white pants and metallic shoes. And as soon as the temperatures drop below 85 F, bring out the scarf.
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Looking dressy in jeans. Great haircut.
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That jacket, with the collar popped! More great hair. And how about the snakeskin boots.
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Airy but structured. 
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Something you see often here: young men in starched shirts. This one is rocking the fanny pack as bandolier.
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Maybe crisp, for athleisure (black and white!), but what grabbed my eye was the way he is wearing his fanny pack as a neck bag. Daring.

While we’re on people doing their own thing, here are a few more. I admire their confidence.IMG_3239

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Sorry for the blur, but I was trying to catch up. Red gingham shirt and RED GINGHAM UMBRELLA!!! You go, guy!
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A vest/duster with Modigliani’s portrait of his lover, Jeanne Hébuterne. But it isn’t simply a print–it isn’t exactly the painting. I’m betting the wearer did a tribute. Unique. Too cool.
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Zebra with snakeskin. I love it. Also, that she wears driving gloves to steer her walker. It can’t be easy for her to walk, but here she is, navigating the market crowd, and with tons of class. Inspirational.

Color is another trend, especially red.IMG_3001

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I just can’t get on board with the visible bra. Her dress is so cute with that crisscross detail, and the peekaboo back is messed up by the bra closure.
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And metallic sandals!
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Bandana, pants, shoes in red, and cotton tote bag in a small red print that looks like a pale red from a distance. 

IMG_3005Which brings us to white pants. If the fabric is lightweight cotton or linen, they are worn loose.IMG_3582IMG_2987And if they’re denim they can be more form-fitting.IMG_3011While not a trend, per se, these women managed to look cool despite the heat. Loose dresses rule!IMG_2990IMG_3213Which looks appeal to you? Are you wearing similar styles?

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Gorgeous hair, striped shirt, but above all, that BIKE.

End of Summer

IMG_3595The nights have been crisper, wonderful for sleeping. But it’s only today that it finally feels like fall. Some much-needed rain started during the night and is supposed to continue, gently and steadily, all day. I imagine the plants in the garden straightening up, as if they’re doing the sun salutation in yoga, raising their anthropomorphic faces to the sky and greeting the raindrops

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Croissants on the balcony of our AirBnB in Carcassonne.

The wine harvest has started, but it seems subdued compared to past years. Vast stretches of vineyards have been plowed under to become fields of wheat, sunflowers and other crops. Usually the mornings at this time of year would be heralded not by the neighboring rooster but by the growl of the big vendange machines, that look like monsters from a horror film.

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Winegrowers use tiny tractors to move between the rows of vines. I love that this museum piece is a Lamborghini. It used to be driven by an ancient winegrower who was bent over in half but who worked his vineyards daily.

Another reason we’re happy for the rain is that there have been a few fires. Every year, there are fires, but these seemed especially worrisome. One brought in 12 firefighting planes. I had only ever seen two flying over, en route between the fire and Lac de Saint-Ferréol, where they refill with water.IMG_3640IMG_3612One fire grew significantly between the time I first saw the smoke and when I was heading home later. I pulled over at a rare wide spot on the road. Other cars joined me. Everybody took pictures with our phones and ended up chatting for quite a while. It’s crazy how you can connect with people sometimes.

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Early evening.
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45 minutes later.

A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.

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Why do you need a windshield wiper on a window that you can’t see through?
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Ha ha–connerie is stupidity/nonsense/silly antics, so it says “general stupidity.” It originally was “maçonnerie general” or general masonry.
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At a wine and food tasting: Occitan relaxation and naps. Occitan is the old language and adjective for this region, where Languedoc comes from–oc is how people in these parts said yes.

The foods at the market are changing. Soon the peaches and nectarines will turn mealy and we’ll have to give up on them. But happily there are already apples. Still lots of tomatoes and I have been given orders to make sauce. IMG_1881If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…IMG_3499

More Minerve

IMG_3337As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.IMG_3395The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve.IMG_3373 What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.

Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?

Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.IMG_3387IMG_3359IMG_3357The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.IMG_3363

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The very porous local limestone.

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You can see the waves that water left in the sand.

Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.

I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.IMG_3364Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.

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It looks too low to walk through, eh?
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Mais non! It’s plenty high.
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View from the other side.

But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.

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This is called the Poterne Sud, the southern gate to the town.

And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. IMG_3378We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.IMG_3380IMG_3342IMG_3350IMG_3352

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This was ridden by a man as old as the scooter.

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