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