Tarte au Citron with Blackberries

IMG_6386Late summer brings two wonderful treats: figs and wild blackberries. Both grow in profusion along roadsides and among the brush on the edges of fields and vineyards. One day I realized my hourlong walk had taken almost twice as long because I kept stopping to pick goodies. mures 3P1080453Picking blackberries is a zen task. Despite the thorns, I enjoy it. The berries are like glistening gems, plump with juice. Usually some birds venture near but not too near, enjoying the biggest berries that are high beyond my reach. The air smells sweet from the dried pines all around and is sweetened further by the overripe fruit that has fallen and is returning to earth.mures 7mures 6Even sweeter are the blackberries. They have no tang to them at all, the way raspberries do. Just straight sweetness. Almost too much. That’s why I like to pair them with a nice, tart lemon tart.

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Seen at a vide grenier

mures 1Tarte au citron is one of those classic French bistro offerings and couldn’t be easier to make. Sure, you can put meringue on top, but if you have wild blackberries, the colors contrast as perfectly as the flavors. I think other very sweet, not too drippy fruits would work, too, like blueberries. Maybe even figs, though I haven’t tried that. Be daring. The worst that can happen is that you won’t do that combination again. But I bet you will make tarte au citron again and again.IMG_6409Of course, you can always use a premade pie crust. If you have a choice, most tarte au citron recipes recommend pâte brisée, a shortcrust dough, rather than pâte feuillétée, which is the flaky kind…unless you’re crazy about flaky piecrust, in which case, you should do as you like. Far be it from me to look down on somebody’s crust preferences.

I made a nutty crust that was not too sweet. IMG_63591/2 cup (57 g) chopped nuts (walnuts, pinenuts, almonds–whatever you have. Not peanuts, though)

1 3/4 cup (220 g) flour

12 tablespoons (170 g) of butter, softened but not melted

1/2 cup (57 g) powdered sugar

1 egg

Grind the nuts finely (I used almond powder left over from macarons).

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My pastry board, a gift from a great uncle who was a carpenter, made for me when I was born. Now that is a special baby present. The marble rolling pin also was a gift, from my best friend’s mom. It has traveled.

Beat the butter and powdered sugar until fluffy. Add the egg. When it’s integrated, add the flour, and don’t go crazy about getting it completely mixed in. Then stir in the nuts, just enough that you can gather the dough away from the bowl. Divide it in half. Wrap each half (I flatten them so they are easier to roll out later) in plastic film. One half can go in the freezer for another day. The other one needs to chill for an hour or two.IMG_6378When it’s ready, preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Roll out the dough, set it in a 9 1/2-inch pie pan, and cover it with parchment paper, then with pie weights. Back for 20 minutes, then remove the pie weights and paper and bake for five more minutes so the bottom gets dry and a little brown. Let it cool.

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Before baking. A spoon makes a nice design.

For the custard:

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I forgot to include the cornstarch in the photo.

4 eggs

3/4 cup (170 g) granulated sugar

2-3 lemons

1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream (I was out this time, and as it was a Sunday and nothing was open, I substituted coconut milk, which worked great)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 cups blackberries (about the size of a liter of ice cream, which is the container I used when picking)

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).

IMG_6363Grate the lemons. Then squeeze the juice. You should get about 2/3 cup, maybe a bit shy (about 150 ml).

In a small bowl, add the cornstarch. Then work in the lemon juice, little by little, so the cornstarch dissolves without lumps.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar, then the lemon juice, grated peel and cream. Pour into the piecrust.

Turn the oven down to 325 F (160 C). Bake for about 25 minutes (check before), until the custard has set (shake it a little to see whether it jiggles).

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The divot was a lemon pip that I had missed earlier.

Let it cool a bit, then press the blackberries into the custard. IMG_6392

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Mirepoix, in the South of France

IMG_1701Mirepoix can conjure up two very different things. A mirepoix is a mix of diced carrots, celery and onions that serves as a base for a number of dishes.  And the charming, medieval town of Mirepoix, about a 45-minute, very beautiful drive south of Carcassonne.IMG_4172IMG_4170Mondays are the day to see Mirepoix–market day. This is convenient, since so many towns, Carcassonne included, have markets on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. If you were busy on Saturday, you can catch up in Mirepoix on Monday. (Just forget about shopping anywhere on Sundays.) Mirepoix has another market day on Thursdays, but Monday is the one to see.

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Quite a difference from winter!

The heart of Mirepoix is its central square, lined with half-timbered houses with arcades that offer shade or shelter, depending on the season. It once was a fortified town, the halfway point between Carcassonne and Foix. It sprang up in the 10th century and became a holdout for the Cathars, which led to its being captured during the last crusade (the real one, the Albigensian Crusade) in 1209 just after Carcassonne. The town was wiped out again in 1289, when a terrible flood destroyed it. The locals rebuilt, but on the other side of the river. The area once was in a forest; today a big oak at the entry to the town, classified as a historic monument in 1945, is all that’s left–the other trees went into those half-timbered houses.

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The fortifications.

Mirepoix also has some great antique shops and brocantes.

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Sign of summer.

In the summer, it draws throngs–of course. Nobody makes a trip to see a mediocre town. But in winter, you can have the place to yourself.IMG_4173

 

Piñata Cake

IMG_0289There are different ways to impress guests. You can serve the most refined and perfectly prepared dishes. Or, if you’re entertaining 8-year-olds, you can make a piñata cake. Cake AND candy! Two great tastes that taste great together. A guaranteed hit that will first make jaws drop and then mouths open.

I established a reputation in my little village here in the deepest, most lost depths of France profonde as somebody who made very strange gâteaux, but they were mostly good.

There was the carrot cake, at one of our earliest gatherings. A July 4 cookout, and we invited everybody we knew at the time. I had made a bunch of desserts, including a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, sheet-cake format, decorated with strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag.

I was about to cut it, but a friend said, “Oh, wait, I have to show everybody first!” As she carried it around, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I said carrot, she just about dropped the thing. Her face was the picture of shock. And horror. But, being incredibly gracious, she recovered, and turned the conversation to the frosting. Answering that it was made with cheese didn’t help the situation.

The other desserts got eaten in short order, but the carrot cake sat untouched until finally one guest, who hadn’t paid attention to this exchange, took a piece. The others watched warily, and when his face lit up with pleasure, they all had to try this strange carrot cake with cheese on top. It disappeared in minutes.

Just FYI, these days a very branché (literally “plugged in”–hip) café in Carcassonne serves not only carrot cake but also cheesecake and many kinds of cupcakes. And is always crowded.

However, to my knowledge, at least in these parts, to get hold of a piñata cake, you have to DIY or see me. And I am about to spill my secrets.IMG_0279Now, a piñata made of papier mâche (pronounced pap-ee-ay mash, not paper mashay) is extremely uncommon around here. There is no going to Wal-Mart or Target, where you can get a wide selection of Mexican piñatas made in China. In fact, in deepest France, piñatas were quite unknown, even though Dora l’Exploratrice was a hit in a certain demographic on TV.

I made a piñata for the class, and was very proud of myself. It was the image of a popular cartoon character. I was completely unprepared for the reaction: horror. I had brought a tee-ball bat that a dear American uncle had given my kid, wanting my child to have all the benefits of American heritage, even while living in France. However, this uncle was quite aware that my husband is gifted at hitting balls with his feet or his head but not with his hands and that I am a complete and utter ZERO when it comes to anything round. Just forget it. I can’t throw and I can’t catch. (I can’t run or swim or …. well, you get the picture. Not coach material.)

So the piñata full candy and crayons and erasers (hey, not TOO much sugar!) was suspended from a stately plane tree in the school courtyard, but the kids were utterly horrified at the idea of beating a beloved visage into oblivion.

I should have known better. A few years earlier, I had done a Winnie the Pooh theme for a birthday cake and was very proud of my artistry…until it came time to cut the cake, and the children bawled like mad because I had desecrated Winnie. No, dear reader, if you have to cut it, make it something banal.

Of course, and I really should have seen this coming, with the piñata, it was Lord of the Flies. As soon as one child slugged it, then the others tasted blood and were all in.

Things went somewhat better with the cake. However, I warn you that while the first slice or two is utterly impressive, after that the architecture of the thing falls apart and you have a cake/frosting/candy mess. But by then the little devils are so hyped up they don’t even notice.

IMG_0286Piñata Cake

OK so here we can get into the whole French-vs.-U.S. (or wherever) supermarket supplies. You cannot find confetti cake mix in France. Forget it. In fact, they don’t sell cake mix at all. You can find a mix for flan, for macarons, for fondant (or moelleux–NOT THE SAME) au chocolat, but not for cake/gâteau. That’s because cake mix is a huge rip-off, and the French, being skin-flints in the most admirable way, refuse to buy it. Flour, sugar, leavening, salt…for crying out loud! Plus they have to add a bunch of chemical preservatives (OK, if you’re prudish avert your eyes, because “preservatives” in French means condoms (like for birth control, not like the French town) and the stuff that adds shelf life is called “conservateurs.”) It takes all of one minute to actually measure the dry ingredients, and even with a mix you have to add all the liquid ones.

So back to the recipe. You make a yellow (or white) cake. Chocolate would hide the confetti aspect.

2.5 cups white flour

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

1 cup butter

2 cups granulated sugar

4-5 eggs, separated (4 if big; 5 if not)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup milk

1 cup sprinkles (or more!)

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 C).

Sift the dry ingredients.

Beat the butter until it gets white and fluffy. Add the sugar, then the egg yolks and vanilla.

Beat the whites until they’re stiff.

Mix the butter into the dry ingredients. Stir in about a third of the milk, then another third, and another.

When the batter is well-mixed, carefully integrate the egg whites, stirring in ONE DIRECTION. This is the same advice as for Mousse au Chocolat and Baba au Rhum. Consistency. At the last minute, add the all-important sprinkles.

You need two identical Pyrex bowls, about 6.5 inches (17 cms) in diameter. Butter them and pour in the batter. Bake for about 20 minutes (but check after 15!).

Let it cool. Before you turn out the two halves, scoop out the insides of the cakes. Make sure you have at least 2 inches (5 cms) of cake all the way around, or else it will collapse.

Make the frosting. I just did classic buttercream–equal parts butter and powdered sugar, with a dash of vanilla. Later, I added food coloring.

I used something like M&Ms, which at that time you couldn’t find in France but now they’re everywhere. Nothing too soft or sugary or else it will dissolve with the humidity of the cake. In fact, let the cake get completely cool before assembling. Don’t make more than a day in advance.IMG_0275Put the bottom half of the piñata cake on the serving dish. Then pour the candy into the hollowed-out hole in the bottom half of the cake, carefully creating a talus hill above. Without disturbing the candy, apply some frosting around the flat lip of the bottom half of the cake. Delicately set the top half of the cake on it.

Frost the whole thing. As you can see, I’ve done this more than once. The smooth frosting was much easier than the little stars.

The last bit of advice: Don’t stress about it. Years later, my kid remembers only that I made birthday cakes from scratch (spatula licking was involved), vs. other kids whose parents picked up something random at the supermarket. It really is the thought that counts.

 

Bella Ciao

P1080529As I write this, a Euro-electro cover of the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” is blasting into my window from a boisterous gathering. Sound travels easily in the countryside.

If you don’t know this song, listen here (not the techno version).tree and rocksYears and years ago, an eternity really, when my kid was a little round sausage of yumminess and naïvété, the (first grade?) class learned the song “Bella Ciao” for the year-end show. They always learned something that would bring great applause from all the grandparents in the audience, and there was something adorable about these little tykes belting out hits from half a century earlier.

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Once again, random photos. This time from a search for a brocante where the Carnivore and I got lost in the countryside.

Thus I’ve known Bella Ciao for a while. Obviously it was an Italian song, so I didn’t understand the lyrics (unlike another song my kid learned in school even earlier: “Si Tu Vas à Rio”–“If you go to Rio….don’t forget to go up yonder, to a little village, hidden under wild flowers, on the side of a hill….” a song about reminiscences and good old times, which is kind of hilarious coming out of the mouths of four-year-olds).P1050713Several years later, my kid was studying World War II, and “Bella Ciao” came up again in the context of families deciding whether to weather the terrible fascist political climate or to flee, to become refugees. The song’s origins were the women of the Po river valley who weeded the rice paddies and who suffered terribly. (How did a song about suffering women manage to be sung by so many men?) (Italian and English lyrics here)P1020416Later (although one article said the partisans came first, in 1919, and the rice weeders came after World War II), it was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem, and then as a pro-communist song. These kinds of liaisons are difficult, because you can be very anti-fascist and also downright cold to communism–the original idea might have been nice but in reality communism was a huge con job and an economic and social failure. Yet, in binary, black-and-white situations, you don’t get to be anti-communist AND anti-fascist, because those get lumped as one and the same. So either you have to choose to be anti-fascist and just ignore the communist part or you shrug and walk away from everything altogether. In some parts of southern France, communists haven’t gotten the memo about its demise. There also are plenty of refugees or descendants thereof from Franco’s Spain, so there’s a strong anti-fascist streak as well (a Spanish cover of the song was censored in Spain in 1969…Franco died in 1975, for those of you who don’t remember Chevy Chase on SNL’s Weekend Update). “Bella Ciao” became the hymn of labor strikes in the 1960s and then crossed the Atlantic in service of the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which, you might recall, ended badly, thanks to the CIA.

P1050710“Bella Ciao” has been in my head lately because it was a theme of the hugely popular Spanish series (picked up on Netflix) “La Casa del Papel”–“Money Heist” in English. What an interesting series! I didn’t see all of it, but it was fascinating, with the corrupt victims, the good-hearted villains, the messed-up police….nothing rote, everything complicated. AlloCiné compared it to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but it was free of smugness and made you question everything. Maybe it was an intellectual “Ocean’s Eleven.” It also was devoid of fashion, yet had such indelible looks. The red jumpsuits! The Salvador Dali masks!chateau rooftopsIn looking around for who in the world did the electro version I was hearing, I discovered that “Bella Ciao” is in a renaissance as it were, thanks to “La Casa del Papel,” which made it hip again.  French-Congolese rapper Maître Gims did a version with lots of la, la, la (which translates as la, la, la, whether Italian to French or French to English). French DJ Jean Roch (I do NOT approve of that silky green jacket. Nor of the backup dancers) and American electro house musician Steve Aoki also did it. And French-Spanish singer Manu Chao, though he was before the current craze. In fact, his family fled Franco’s Spain, which is how he was born in France.P1070751Have you heard Bella Ciao before?P1080530

 

Play it again, Sam

IMG_4634Casablanca is such a contrast between modernity and history, between rich and poor, between beauty and ugliness. It’s an assault on the senses, yet it feels mostly benign, not menacing.

14.Vue balcon
The view from our AirBnB. In the very center, greenery is scarce, but the city lives up to its name: white house.

Earlier I posted about our visit and about the restaurants we went to. This time, we’re just going to tool around town, observing life, how it’s the same yet different.

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Just beyond the warren of streets in the center, palm-lined boulevards carry lots of cars.
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I love the reflection of the palms on the glass façade and the plants on the terrace near the roof. It could be any southern city, right?
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More integrated greenery. Note the grill at the top–for cutting the sun.
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Cacti on this roof. The overhangs are so smart–the windows stay shaded from direct sunlight.
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Note the open windows on the blue-green glass building. I kept looking at Casablanca’s weather during the summer. Highs around 79, thanks to cooling sea breezes. Very pleasant. No need for A/C.

One foggy morning we went to the huge Mosque Hassan II, the fifth largest in the world. Walking back, we sought out some other sights.

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Closed for renovations.

The Casablanca Cathedral, also shown in the top photo, is an Art Deco gem. It opened in 1930. It’s no longer a church but is used for cultural events. I’m a sucker for Art Deco.

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The lacy cutouts reflect the local architectural styles. It doesn’t look out of place at all.

Casablanca has a shiny new tram, which was decked out in honor of the national World Cup team. The tram was clean, quick, comfortable and cheap (about 70 cents a ride).58.Tram équipe du MarocI’m so conflicted over trams and metros. On the one hand, they tend to be viewed as better than buses, and in Casablanca the buses were rickety and packed to the gills. However, they require a huge investment, and they’re stuck in place, whereas buses use existing streets that serve other vehicles and it’s easy to change bus routes.

The Casablanca tramway has two lines. The second line is 17 kilometers (10 miles), cost €262 million and serves nine districts with a total population of over 1 million people. While it’s a lower-carbon alternative to the fume-belching buses, I think you could buy a lot of new, even electric, buses for €262 million.

51.Petit taxi
Red for local rides.
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Lots of taxis!

Taxis are another way to get around, and amazingly cheap. The petits taxis are red and are for trips within the city only. If you want to go farther, say to the airport, you need a grand taxi. These are usually white. Either way, you get a white-knuckle ride.

26.Parking cyclomoteurs
Two-wheel parking lot.
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We saw lots of these three-wheeled delivery vehicles. This one had to be pushed over the bump to cross the tram line–it couldn’t quite make it with the engine alone!
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Delicious pineapple.

There also were some donkey carts and human-pulled carts, like the pineapple vendor above. Can you imagine a life of pushing your pineapples, probably quite far, because Casablanca is relatively expensive and you probably would have to live on the edges of the city. You navigate your precious cargo to a spot in the center of the city, where passersby have jobs that allow them the luxury of spending a few dirhams on a whim, like for a wedge of juicy pineapple. If you don’t sell, your pineapples will rot. You have no cushion, no salary. Just income from what you manage to sell, trying to survive another day. Nobody grows up thinking, “boy, I hope I can sell pineapples by the slice one day. What a life that would be!” No, it’s what you do when all else fails.

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The Grand Theatre of Casablanca, aka CasArts.

Down the street but a world away, the Grand Theatre of Casablanca is taking shape. Designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, the theater is supposed to resemble a medina, with fluid lines, and many alleyway-like entries that will provide natural ventilation, shade and places for people to relax. The entrance will double as an outdoor soundstage.

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The theater is directly across from the fountain that dominates Square Mohammed V.

I really couldn’t get over the palm trees. And the bougainvillea.40.Palmiers1P1100386

18.Bananiers
Bananas too.

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56.Bière casablanca
Even palms on the beer!!!
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This house was like a lot of “inner” Casablanca–undoubtedly beautiful at one time, but no longer kept up.

I still have more photos to share of this fascinating place.34.Plage4

 

 

 

 

 

Life in a French Village

P1100281Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.P1100276Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.P1100274Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.P1100265

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The beating industrial heart of Trausse….wine, of course.

In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public. P1100270

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Note there are TWO chairs sitting in the street. The better to see you with, my dear.

P1100258There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.

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The Tour de Trencavel dates to the 12th century. It was a watchtower on the periphery of Carcassonne. The Trencavels pretty much ruled the region back then.
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Only in a village like Trausse is this not extraordinary but just normal.
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The church, like the tower, keeps the Christmas lights up all year because it’s nuts to climb up there to put them up, take them down, put them up, take them down.

Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.

People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.P1100242

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Do you see the loudspeaker on the right? That’s for public announcements, like the fishmonger’s truck has arrived, or a vide grenier is scheduled, or so-and-so has died.

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Note the doorbell.

Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!

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Do you see the scowling face in the middle, saying “turn off the tap!”

P1100273Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home. P1100278

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Even the mudscraper is cute. Notice the different materials–stones, concrete, red bricks.
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Faded, but it says “Bike Exit”–often garage doors have “sortie véhicule” to indicate that you’ll be in trouble if you park in front. I found this to be charmingly cheeky.

There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.P1100267

 

French Fashion Sightings

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Some random examples of women I think looked great here in the deepest depths of the south of France. I don’t look for fancy brands nor for naturally beautiful humans, especially those who are young and thin and who would look great no matter what they wore. I like normal folks who have some flair, even when their choices are extremely simple.P1070842Dresses are on trend. I have seen so many women wearing dresses like the one above, especially when it was really hot in summer. This dress has it all–sleeves for sun protection, loose fit that isn’t too hot….I’ve seen variations on it in all white but also in blue and white stripes.IMG_8982Colors, too. I love how this woman has a matching shopping caddy. And red toenails!

And the women below chose green…notice that the green skirt matches not just the espadrilles but also the green of the straps of her shopping bag. Coincidence? I doubt it.P1100596IMG_8755The woman above was far from young but her hair was just a perfect shade of red, and of course she looked great in green. It was a hot evening, and her dress also is nice and loose without being a bag.IMG_8754Another really cute dress. More stripes below. She isn’t young but is put together and classy.P1070843The one below IS young, but she stood out as being even more chic than the others at a brocante. And appropriately dressed for lots of walking.P1070588 2A pair of friends with extreme lengths and very different proportions–one with a long, billowy top over billowy pants and the other with a cropped jacket and slim jeans. P1070105A gutsy haircut. Part shaved and part purple. WHY NOT!!!! You go, girl!P1100422And a closeup of the shirt at the top. Did you notice the zebras?P1070395Do you dress up to go out?

Citizens of the World

P1080791We don’t get to pick where we’re born. Some of us get lucky but mistakenly think their random chance is skill. Recently events brought home just how lucky we are.

We have some friends, a couple who are both teachers with two kids, one the same age as mine. Four years ago, they went off on an adventure–moving to the Republic of Congo (this is the Congo whose capital is Brazzaville, not the bigger neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which used to be called Zaire). They lived in the oil center of Pointe-Noire and liked it very much.

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Random sunrise/sunset shots

When their contract was up, they weren’t ready to move back to France and got a new teaching gig in Bamako, the capital of Mali. This was very different; Mali is at war with Tuareg separatists in the north as well as Islamist terrorists. There’s a ceasefire with the separatists, but our friends aren’t allowed to leave the capital. Their children go to school and come straight home. They can’t go anywhere else–no shopping, no movies, no parks, no sports clubs.

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Pyrénées at dusk. How many refugees crossed them to escape Franco and settle here?

It’s really sad; I visited Mali in 1999 (solo–it was before I met the Carnivore) and loved it. I went to Ségou, Djenné (home of the world’s largest mosque built from mud, a true marvel), Mopti (a city of 114,000 that I’d never heard of but loved), the Dogon country (home to animists who live in houses built into the sides of cliffs) and, of course, Timbuktu, which was as spectacular as its name suggests. In two weeks, I saw more of Mali than my friends, who have lived there for a year.P1080958The friends were back this summer to visit friends and family and we caught up. I drove the wife to say hi to some mutual friends. The conversations were interesting–everybody knew somebody who had worked in this country or that country. I also have many friends who think nothing of living in another country, usually sent for work. Even me–France is the fourth country I’ve lived in. We are citizens of the world. Not only can we pick up and move almost anywhere we want, but we actually get welcomed by other countries.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is not the case for everybody. Some people want to move because they’re ambitious and seek a better life somewhere else. Other people don’t want to move but are forced to by war or other problems.IMG_4331Our kid did a photography class recently. It started last year, after I decreed that the summer would not be whiled away on YouTube and Snapchat. This was met with a very negative reaction. “I won’t know anybody!” But I unleashed my inner drill sergeant, and my kid went to photography class. And loved it. And made a bunch of friends–many of the others in the class were refugees from Chechnya.P1080793This year, my kid eagerly signed up for summer photography, hoping to see the guys from Chechnya. However, they weren’t in the class. Other refugees, though, were. Two from Guinea (under military dictatorship) and two from Mali. Yup. While French people go to Mali for work, Malians flee to France for peace. It must blow these kids’ minds to be handed cameras that cost more than their families probably earned in a year.sunset 4My kid said one of the boys would sit in a fetal position and cry at lunch. I learned they were all unaccompanied. They are housed in small groups around Carcassonne, and looked after by counselors. The government covers their expenses. Let me say, I find this an excellent use of the taxes I pay and I am more than happy to pay it.sunset 3I cannot imagine what they must have gone through to travel to France. Alone. You must be desperate to send your child off to a strange land alone. But they’re boys, and the alternative is to risk seeing them kidnapped into an armed group or drafted into the army to fight. War either way. They chose life. At great risk, but everything about life comes at great risk in those countries, where they did not ask to be born.P1080788My grandmother’s family left her home country when World War I started. I had heard stories about how they were on the wrong side of the political fence, and my great-uncle was about to reach the age to have to fight. Instead, they fled to the U.S., and my great-uncle fought in the U.S. Army. It wasn’t a question of fighting or not, but of fighting for what.sunset 2The photography class is built around a changing theme of  historical heritage. This year, it was about the influx of Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s regime. The class went around town to interview people who had fled Franco’s Spain. Imagine these refugee boys meeting others who also had been refugees. I wonder what was going on in their heads. The elderly people spoke of how it was hard to move to a new land, that they missed Spain, but that eventually they became integrated. I hope that these boys can look out to the day when they, too, will be integrated in the fabric of French life. If I can integrate, why not them?

 

 

Wine to Go

IMG_5681If you visit France, of course you want to take home one of its most famous specialities: wine. Whether for yourself or a gift, you can get some amazing wines in France from wineries that are too small to export, or, even if they do export, that aren’t easy to find.

How do you make sure your treasures get home safely? We have used this method for more than 15 years and have never had a broken bottle. It’s easy and nearly free.

You need one cardboard wine box for every two bottles; scissors or a box cutter; duct tape or some other strong tape. (BTW, I read once that it’s smart to pack a small roll of electrical tape in your carry-on for emergencies. It saved me once when my suitcase appeared on the carousel completely open, with all three latches broken. Of course this wasn’t in any way the airline’s fault. Anyway, the tape let me get the suitcase shut enough to get out of the airport.)

IMG_5686First, cut the box so it opens flat.

Roll the bottle and cut where it goes all the way around.

Wrap tape around the middle.

Bend the bottom like wrapping a present and tape well.

Squeeze the top–the cardboard will pleat around the narrower bottle neck. Tape well.

IMG_5700Tape the whole thing like crazy. It goes through the X-ray machines just fine, and we’ve never had them questioned or opened.IMG_5701Sometimes for good measure we first wrap the bottle in bubble wrap and then do the cardboard. And sometimes we then put the wrapped bottle into a plastic bag so that if, heaven forbid, it breaks, it won’t seep out all over your clothes. At least not as much.

This method has worked well for us, though. Even when we’ve dropped our luggage. Even when we’ve dropped the wrapped bottles.IMG_6307FYI, the wines shown here are beyond excellent, from small wineries that do export. We featured la Tour Boisée earlier; le Château Villerambert Julien also is fantastic. Both are from the Minervois A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée–the official guarantee it comes from a certain region and meets strict standards). Minervois is just northeast of Carcassonne. Look for it!

Australia in France

kangaroosIt’s hard to believe, but there are French people who dream of traveling far away. Yet, many French families just have the budget for a modest vacation in a sunny corner of their homeland. The places they go and the things they do offer some great tips for all travelers, but especially those with families.ostrich closeupFor those who would love to go to Australia but can’t afford flights, the Australian Park near Carcassonne beckons. It’s also great for families. It’s also a popular place for local kids to hold birthday parties, not to mention school trips.white kangarooIt’s like a small zoo, which is good. My hometown in the U.S. has a world-class zoo, which has grown and grown since I was a preteen earning spending money raking leaves there in the fall (it’s quite interesting to rake leaves while being watched intently by elephants). But it’s so huge that it’s impossible to see everything, and the weight of all those other animals presses one to keep moving rather than spending the time to observe (and anyway, so many animals sleep during the day that there isn’t much to watch).kangaroo 1Visits at Le Parc Australien take place in small guided groups, so you get to go into the animal enclosures, including one with 150 parrots that you can feed. There are other birds, including ostriches and emus, and other animals, including wallabies and dromedaries. There’s even a nursery with babies. Even though the park is small and the variety of animals is limited, a visit can take the better part of a day because you don’t just look and move on but can interact.kidThere are other activities, such as playing a didgeridoo, throwing a boomerang, playing aboriginal games or panning for “gold.”

The park was created in 2001 by a biologist, who was the first to raise ostriches in France. All the animals were born in captivity in Europe, because Australia stopped exports of animals in 1964 to protect its species.

The park is about three minutes from la Cité, just past the suburb of Montrédon and near the Lac de la Cavayère. The hours change by season; check the site.ostrichesIt is funny to see what other cultures find to be exotic. There is one cupcake shop in town, and it has turned into a roaring success with, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively local clientele. I make a mean cupcake, so I’m not about to shell out €3 for one, though I wouldn’t hesitate for one of those perfect strawberry tartelettes that are standard in French bakeries. A few years ago, hamburger joints appeared everywhere. Then bagels (not everywhere; just two bagel restaurants in the centre ville). Now it’s Mexican restaurants, whose menus are heavy on hamburgers and lacking in enchiladas.  birdsMy kid’s kindergarten class visited the Australian Park, and in second or third grade they went to a zoo in Toulouse. There’s also a kind of safari park at Sigean on the coast that we visited. The landscape at Sigean actually reminds me a little of Africa. While I feel kind of sorry for the animals in zoos, especially having seen them in the wild in various places around the world, they are important in making a connection with kids, so they don’t view nature and animals as abstractions on TV or in books. The Australian Park is especially nice, because of the petting areas. A real hands-on experience.kissing kangaroos