A few weeks ago, I went to a delightful jazz concert at a winery in the countryside outside of Carcassonne. I’ve been to concerts there before, since we first moved here. This concert was by the Marc Deschamps trio, who embodied 1950s cool cats of jazz and who played a mix of beloved standards and lesser-known pieces by such pillars of jazz as Dave Brubeck. As lovely as the music was, the concert room, as always, was the star of the show.

I was running late from a meeting for a volunteer gig (more on that later, after I see how it goes), and hurried to pick up some new friends in a residential neighborhood that I had somehow managed not to have been through before. Carcassonne is a small city, and I thought I had explored all its nooks and crannies in the course of ferrying the kid to school and after-school activities and birthday parties in labyrinth lotissements (housing developments). My friends, D. and B., don’t have a car, so not only was I able to introduce them to the gorgeousness of Domaine Saint-Jacques d’Albas, but I also drove them. I think I freaked out B. a little, because, running late, I drove on the fast side, down the narrow, curvy roads in the middle of nothing but vineyards, as wineries tend to be. I know the road well, but it was dark and D. and B. had no idea where I was taking them, poor things.

The concert room. Intimate, wonderful acoustics. This photo is from a couple of summers ago.

The winery owner poured us each a glass and we took our seats. The concert started oddly early, which, it turned out, was so that it would be over in time for audience members to race home and watch the France-England match of the World Cup. In fact, the roads on the drive home were unusually devoid of traffic for a Saturday night.

There’s a beautiful piano and a huge window overlooking vineyards and the garrigue. This is from a 2006 concert, because I failed to take pictures at the latest one.

I don’t like to divulge too much about other people, but I am in awe of D. and B., who moved here from the U.S. a few years ago, just because they wanted to. I know a few other people like that–the friend I went to Pézenas with, and Paulita and her husband. When I arrived in Europe through my job, I was completely coddled. Moving expenses were paid, the H.R. department took care of all our paperwork, the company even had our taxes done for us. Then I came to France, but with a European husband who was a native French speaker, and he handled all the bureaucracy. I don’t know how people without this help manage the mountain of paperwork that comes with an international move. Even if they speak the language impeccably.

Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, a few days ago.

It isn’t just governmental bureaucracy, either. Banks are picky because of anti-money-laundering laws. Even renting is complicated. I had rented in Brussels (helped again by the H.R. department), but since then I owned my homes. When the kid left the nest and needed to rent an apartment, we had to assemble a dossier locataire, or renter’s dossier, which was a big headache. At least all of our documents were French (tax returns, bank statements). How do people manage when they first arrive from another country?

Another side of Place Carnot. This kind of sums up why I live here. Dining en terrace in December.

Some things I have learned about French officialdom: Have photocopies made of everything in advance, because they will want to see the original and keep the copy. Get the checklist of the required documents from the well-organized government website (the French government does an excellent job with online information), and then put them in a folder, in that exact order. I remember going to get my 10-year carte de séjour renewed, and the Carnivore had prepared the paperwork–a folder over an inch thick. The woman at the préfecture leafed through it, each original with its photocopy, all in order. She shook her head in amazement as she closed the folder and said, “it’s the first time I’ve ever seen an application like that. Thank you.”

View toward the Black Mountains from La Cité. December.

I am still waiting to hear about my application to become a French citizen. Covid was a serious spanner in works that were already clogged by Brits fleeing Brexit. I recently got a request for additional documents, so somebody seems to be still working on my case. My official translator assured me that I will get it. “Everybody does, eventually,” he said.

Menu at one of the Christmas market chalets in Carcassonne. Fries; fried fish; cassoulet; snails; camembert; plate of cold cuts; cheese plate; half-cooked foie gras; soup of the moment.

I am typing this with my window open because it’s too hot in my office, even though the radiators are shut off. The sky is a clear blue, and magpies are flitting noisily around the bare tree in the courtyard. It’s 15 Celsius (60 Fahrenheit) out. We’ve had an extended warm spell, which is wreaking havoc on the ski resorts just to the south. It has not felt at all like Christmas but like spring. Carcassonne has been inundated since early December with tourists from Spain, which is nice–the streets are full of people, a big change after two years of Covid. The mairie went all out on decorations, and the little chalets of the Christmas market are bustling with people happy to party outside, especially since it only dips down to around 10 Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) at night. But without that nip to the air, it just doesn’t seem right.

Another chalet, offering raclette. Racler is to scrape (or squeegee). The cheese is under a heating element and when it gets melted and bubbly, you tilt the cheese (like the one on the right) and scrape off the melted part, to eat with cold cuts or potatoes. See this post for details.

The kid and I went to the Christmas eve service at St. Vincent. The place was packed, and the priest commented several times on how rare it was to see so many people (like, hint, hint, where are you the rest of the year). The organists were fantastic, but there was no choir, so the singing was disappointing, more so since it was the only reason we had come. (I once went to the midnight service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, where the choir included people whose regular jobs were as opera or Broadway singers, and they were amazing.) One carol was sung in Occitan (the program had the French translation). In Europe, you can usually count on churches for great acoustics and aesthetics, because they were the big patrons of art as they had the money. The gigantic candelabras were electrified but still pretty. Before they were turned on, I had wondered about the safety/prudence of so many candles. It’s pretty much impossible to park in the center of town, so before and after the service, there were many groups of people, in their best clothes, walking down the street, as they probably have since the church was built in the late 1200s.

The pedestrian shopping street is packed.

Earlier in December, I participated in the torchlit march from la Cité to the Bastide of Carcassonne. Again, very crowded, but everybody in such a happy mood. You could buy a flammable torch (or a multicolored plastic LED version for kids), with proceeds going to the telethon for muscular dystrophy. There were a lot of people dressed in medieval costumes–namely of the crusaders. Later, I read a post on a local history blog questioning the choice of costumes–in Carcassonne the Cathars are the heroes and the Catholic church is the corrupt institution that sent crusaders to massacre the locals. “Hélas, telle qu’elle, cette cavalcade insulte la mémoire des Cathares”–alas, as it is, this procession insults the memory of the Cathars. All the same, it was very pretty, a river of lights bobbing and flickering down the hill and over the old bridge to Square Gambetta, which was decked out with giant Christmas tree balls, some of them transparent, with mechanized animals and winter wonderlands inside worthy of Macy’s or Galeries Lafayette’s Christmas windows.

Going over the old bridge.

Best Christmas sweater: “Dear Santa, I can explain.”

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16 thoughts on “Fragments

  1. It’s crazy weather this year – too warm for this time of year, but great for visitors (and heating bills)!!
    French bureaucracy can drive you crazy, but once you have the hang of how to get the civil servants to help you, things can work really well. I’m sure you’ll have your French nationality before too long!
    Bon bout d’an !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful photos. You’re right about the bureaucracy. I think part of the hassle is that we’re not French, so the bureaucrats feel duty-bound to find something wrong. I have been fortunate to have actual French people run interference for me, when necessary. They do know what is expected, which helps, and having them in the meeting, making the call for me, etc., is a shot across the bow. It keeps the bullies at bay.

    One thing I love here is the abundance of civic life. The concerts, associations, public events — it’s all lovely, especially as so many people in France live alone. It would be difficult for me to move back to the States.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, I think the French grow up learning to make dossiers, so it isn’t as big a deal. Also, pre-Covid, when you went into the préfecture and had to wait an hour and a half despite having an appointment, we watched people sheepishly come out, stand in the very long line for the photocopier, finally make their copies, and go back into the official’s little office. Sometimes the same person would come out for copies three or four times. No wonder it took so long. Imagine the joy of going through a case where it’s actually done right.
      I just read your latest blog post. Your garden looks amazing and I can’t wait to see the photos come spring.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As an American having spent almost two years in Canada, I know exactly the immigration issues your friends face. My husband did a graduate program in Toronto, and we were hoping to get Permanent Resident status afterward. (Like a green card in the US.) It is overwhelmingly obscure to figure out how to apply, which path has the most chance of success for your situation, navigating the website – which takes you in circles trying to find all the info. It is the least straightforward process, even for someone reading all the forms in their native language! We had a hard enough time figuring out if official documents meant this or that, I can’t imagine deciphering it all if your native language was Cantonese or Hindi. It was also crazy expensive, and we opted not to hire an immigration lawyer. (We did speak to three different ones, all who gave conflicting advice. Border guards too, told us “rules” that conflicted with each other, the lawyers, and our experience.)

    And Canada is a country that openly welcomes immigrants.

    We know a few people who have tried to immigrate to the US. It’s harder, and more expensive. You don’t always know if you are doing the right thing, and even if you are, they might tell you “no” for no apparent reason. So you have to leave, come back, spend thousands to try again. Or your application might be in limbo for over a decade and you may not leave the country before it’s decided (no matter that you have elderly relatives in your native country whom you might like to visit, or god forbid, make funeral preparations.) It’s luck of the draw, and it favors the rich.

    For anyone that thinks “Why don’t people just immigrate the right way?” I’ll be honest: If YOU weren’t born in the States, you probably couldn’t immigrate here either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right–all countries make it hard, and it takes enormous perseverance–and often money–to jump through the hoops. I think a lot of people here dream about making the leap, and all I can say is, find a job that will send you, because that’s the easiest route!

      Like

  4. I’m one of those people who had/has to deal with the bureaucracy. I arrived in October 2015, and had many lucky breaks: got a bank account on my spring visit 2015; found a rental owned by an English/American couple, and we just agreed with a handshake (and some wine), and had a driver’s license from Pennsylvania which I exchanged for a French one. The biggest hurtle was the renewal of my titre de sejour – difficult each time in Perigueux (I was turned away twice on the first renewal and once on the second), but much easier (and the staff nicer) in Agen after I moved to the Lot-et-Garonne. I got my ten year last year and couldn’t be happier. The lessons I learned are “have your papers in order” and don’t let the bureaucracy get you down – persist!

    I’ve likely mentioned it before, but I really enjoy your posts and photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Your story shows why expats and immigrants often stick with their communities, who don’t require things like rental dossiers.
      I forgot about the driver’s license–I also simply exchanged mine, but that favor isn’t extended to all countries.

      Like

  5. Your post (and photos ❤️), brought back such good memories of staying at la Suite Barbés in 2019. Carcassone is a fabulous place to visit at Christmastime! You and your husband were the best hosts ever. We’ll never forget you taking us for a drive outside town. Enjoy that balmy weather. And, best wishes for a fabulous 2023.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Happy New Year, dear ToF! It sounds like you’ve been doing some lovely things, and how nice to have made some new friends. Your beautiful Carcassonne is still only images on your pages, but I hope one day that might change, for it does look and sound so enticing. And in spite of winter not living up to its promise, I’m glad for you that it hasn’t been fierce, for it mayn’t have been as fun to do stuff.

    I was surprised to read you’re not a French citizen yet – I had just presumed. Like the slow food movement, good things evidently take time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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