Looking Good in Bad Weather

IMG_4694Good riddance, Gloria. Spain and southern France were pummeled earlier this week by Tempête Gloria, which flooded a bunch of places, including Carcassonne, where the Aude river ran into the streets despite having a large floodplain where vineyards, vegetable farms and parks are adapted for soaking up surplus water.

We didn’t get out much, because il tombait des cordes (literally, it was raining ropes–imagine rain falling so hard it seems like ropes–but more akin to raining cats and dogs). Now the sun is out again and it’s in the mid-50s F. As you can see from the photos, even bad weather here is pretty mild, except when we get three months of rain in two days, and even then it wasn’t cold.

I’m seeing lots of young women wearing black tights or semi-opaque nylons with white athletic shoes and skirts, like in the top photo. Sometimes the skirts are short, sometimes long like the one above. I don’t follow sneaker trends but hers seem unusually spiky. Also, the guy next to her has some very colorful Nikes.IMG_4575Winter white is another trend. The young woman’s white skirt, this woman’s white pants. Do you wear a sweater as a scarf? It gives her a nice color accent, and, hey, if it turns out to be colder than she thought she can put on the sweater for an extra layer. Practical!IMG_4771A white coat. Her boots were interesting but my toes hurt just looking at those heels. IMG_4213Another white coat, with white boots. And a scarf. Always a scarf. IMG_4577Even on men. Hanging insouciantly.IMG_4768You also can coordinate your white coat with your white dog. However big it looks, in reality it was bigger. HUGE.IMG_4364Red is even more popular as a coat color. Note that the top of her bag is red. This coat had a lovely swing to it as she walked, thanks to the pleats in the back.IMG_4254All-in for red.IMG_4255She looked so good–straight posture, good haircut, shiny shoes, cleverly tied scarf, that red coat. IMG_4256Also red accents, on the right, or all blue, on the left. The audacity of a red artificial flower in her hair–I love it. I want to sit and have coffee with her and hear all about her life, because I bet it’s interesting. Not easy to see, but she’s wearing a long red pencil skirt with flat red boots.IMG_4766A monochrome look also is popular. This woman paired gray glen plaid pants with gray high-tops and a gray coat.IMG_4776A different neutral–camel. Her bag was in the same Burberry-esque tartan as her scarf. For all I know, they’re both real Burberry; I didn’t ask to check the lablels. Boots and coat both camel. It all went with her hair, something I noticed with lots of women, especially redheads. French women pay attention to which colors work for them and they make the most of it.IMG_4777She was just one of the redheads I noticed wearing coppery colors. There were several others whose photos didn’t turn out. Once you notice one, you see so many! What impresses me is that this shade is hard to match, and it isn’t always on trend, so you can’t just walk into a store and expect to find what you want in that shade. They must collect and curate constantly, making sure what they choose will last several seasons.IMG_4695This is quite a different shade of red, and it matches her coat exactly. She gets points for confidence.IMG_4770Another example of flamboyance, with an oversize hat and a furry coat. You don’t wear that to blend in. She also looked like she would be interesting.

How do you cope with winter? Do you hunker down in black and wait for it to be over, or do you have a fantastic, fun coat that makes you happy every time you put it on? I’ll cop to being boring in black–black sweater dress with black leggings, black boots, black bag, and either a brown or dark gray coat, depending on the weather. I have fewer and fewer clothes as time goes on, and wearing forgettable clothes makes them seem less monotonous. Are you also a minimalist or, like some of the examples here, more flamboyant?

A Day in Marseille

IMG_4662Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.IMG_4599IMG_4601I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.

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Note the traffic. Big improvement.

Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.IMG_4602It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.

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New next to old everywhere…

IMG_4630IMG_4620IMG_4629Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.

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Dr. Max Ginger Healthy for a very satisfying and tasty lunch. Mostly vegetarian but not only.

I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete. IMG_4648IMG_4646

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I don’t know whether I would feel comfortable in that cantilevered building. 

The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people. IMG_4649

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I’ll take that spot.
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Note the chaises longues at the base of the wall in the garden.
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Oh, the views. And from the top of the fort, too.

Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.

The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.IMG_4635IMG_4627IMG_4638

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What looks kind of like a slide on the right is  passerelle over the highway below.

IMG_4640IMG_4622Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.

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People leaving Mucem put their admission stickers on anything. 

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Note the creative planters on the left.

IMG_4661Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.IMG_4664IMG_4665IMG_4666IMG_4613IMG_4618IMG_4607This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer. IMG_4603

 

 

 

Planned Obsolescence

P1090941Our previous washing machine was more than two decades old when it gave up the ghost. We replaced it with a relatively high-end eco-friendly high-tech Samsung model just over three years ago. Better to pay more for a name brand and to buy the larger, fancier model, which should hold up better over the long run, we reasoned. But the machine is already kaput, just a couple of months after the warranty expired. Planned obsolescence?

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Expensive for something that’s disposable.

We called a technician, who said it was probably the electronic card, which is not fixable. We could buy a new card, but it would cost as much as a new machine. He said the manufacturer coated the card in resin so that repairmen can’t, say, fix a loose connection—you have to replace the entire card. These machines are computers these days, the technician said. You can’t just open them up and fix what’s broken. You have to replace the whole thing.

I am doubly disgusted because it’s the vaunted environmentally friendly model. I call BS.

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This kind of window, tall and skinny, is a meurtrière, or (female) murderer.

Yesterday afternoon, I encountered some protesters waving banners. Mostly I saw the imposing vans of the CRS, the most serious unit of law enforcement, which were parked in front of the préfecture, a preferred spot for those venting their anger at government. The protesters were outnumbered by shoppers (the biannual soldes–sales–just started) and were overwhelmingly older. A sea of gray hair. A few chants, some whistles blown. Mostly a party. Later, the cafés were full of protesters having an early apéro, in high spirits. 

The protests are over a change to the French retirement system. I mentioned before that there are a bunch of special categories that allow people to retire much earlier. President Macron wants to eliminate them. He also wants to make a system of points, because unlike in the past, future workers are likely to change jobs numerous times and points would not only make calculating retirement more uniform across different types of work but also would make it easier to get credit for all time worked.

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Photos are not welcomed by protestors nor by police, so you are getting photos of old stuff–la Cité–since we’re talking about old stuff.

I sympathize with this. I have had 16 jobs at 14 employers (twice I was laid off and then hired back when something opened up; in once case my original job was automated out of existence). I’ve spent the last 15-ish years running my own business; before that I spent 11 years at the same employer. Prior to that, four years at one job. Before that, a couple of years at most at each place, mostly part time, two or three jobs at once. It was a preview of what many workers do today, piecing together a living from a collage of part-time jobs. I’ll get a pension only from the place I worked for 11 years. Sure, I contributed to U.S. Social Security at those other jobs, and that will help, if it still exists when I retire. And I’ll get something for my 15 years of contributions to the French system, though at the moment it stands at a grand total of €2,000….per year. At all those early jobs, either I didn’t qualify for the retirement programs because I was part-time or I didn’t stay long enough to be “vested,” under the pre-401(k) programs.P1090928So the point system would help all those people who similarly are changing jobs or working part-time and not getting credit toward retirement. But all those who had special exemptions would lose them, and no VIP ever wants to give up his right to cut to the front of the line.

There’s another angle, which I’ve only started to hear addressed in the news. The other part of pension reform requires people to work longer. The official age now is 62, with a bunch of exceptions. This age will go up progressively over time, until, for those born in 1965, it will be 64. There are more details, but that’s what the strikes are about and things keep changing, so we’ll not wade into the weeds just yet.P1090921“Âge pivot,” “régle d’or,” “bonus-malus” and points aside, the bigger issue is that it’s all fine and dandy to say that if we live longer we need to work longer…but work where? Just try to find a job after age 45. And it gets worse with age. Job postings for “senior” positions ask for advanced degrees and five to seven years of experience. Senior after five years? It seems to be code for “older workers need not apply.” Especially when nearly all job applications start with an online form. Plenty of older candidates just drop off earlier experience, but if you’ve spent a decade at a job, how do you shorten it to that five-to-seven-year window? Meanwhile, employers can simply filter for only candidates with the correct number of years of experience. That isn’t age discriminiation, is it? Nothing was said about age. It’s just an unbiased algorithm. (I hope you hear the sarcasm dripping here.)P1090747Increasingly, friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic are confiding their worries about whether they’ll be able to stay employed until they can reach retirement age. I certainly know many, many talented, hard-working people who have been laid off in recent years, in their mid-50s. These are mostly in the U.S., and the U.S. comes up often in conversations with French friends as the nightmare scenario—the older people working in Amazon warehouses because they don’t have a pension and can’t get a job anywhere else. Or the greeters at Wal-Mart. 

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That says 1673. Retirement was not an issue then.

Now there’s more talk about how to keep French workers trained or retrained, even after age 50. Clearly there will have to be a mind shift. Older workers might not be on top of the latest technology because after you’ve switched and upgraded and switched and upgraded, at a certain point you just want the damn stuff to work and not require new ways to get to the same old stuff. Older people are slower, younger ones complain, and studies show that may be the case, but they tend to have better strategies that allow them to outperform their faster and younger co-workers. Overall, productivity and reliability are more consistent in older workers.P1090912Separately, I almost literally ran into a lady yesterday while I was out jogging. She informed me she is 89 years old (immediately–it was “Bonjour! I’m 89!”). Just adorable. Tiny. Walking nice and straight. We chatted a while and I told her she was my role model–being healthy and active for a whole life. My 30-day challenge is going along bumpily. I still haven’t dared a cartwheel, and I meditated but once, but otherwise I am more or less sticking with it. Some days are better than others. I never manage to do all the things. Not yet anyway. BTW, two people gave me very similar advice about meditation: just lie still and breathe. Let the mind shut down. It will get easier over time. My first (and best) yoga teacher used to have us do this, in the “corpse” position, without all the New Age blah blah. Just quiet. It was very soothing and afterward I felt at first disoriented, being so incredibly relaxed, but then reinvigorated.

Please do share your thoughts about planned obsolescence of appliances and humans, as well as your stories about progress on your own New Year’s resolutions.P1090744

New Year, New Life

IMG_5464We are going to do all the challenges. New Year is the moment for resolutions, but we’re taking a shorter horizon, hoping it’s long enough to establish good habits and break bad ones, and thus become resolutions. A 30-day challenge of all the things.

While doing Pilates with some friends this week, one asked the group, “what decision did you make for 2020?” I liked that framing. Somehow, by overuse, “resolution” has come to mean “good intention” rather than “firm decision.” I am in control of my life, and I am deciding to do a few things differently.

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Sautéed leeks, with white beans and a splash of white wine. My Christmas meal, served with…
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Squash and mushroom risotto. And steamed broccoli. Colorful, nutritious, delicious. We are well into a plant-based diet.

My BFF and I decided to make a list together of all the challenges we wanted to accomplish. You’ll note that they are to-do’s rather than don’ts, except for snacking. Doing the challenge together gives us some accountability. Plus, this post is a public declaration–more accountability! Here’s the list:

  • 10,000 steps a day minimum (according to my FitBit, my daily average is around 8,000)

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    Less coffee, no sweets.
  • Eliminate added sugar (already we both mostly cook all meals from scratch, but we both have a sweet tooth and tend to crack for desserts and chocolate. Also: no wine, which is basically sugar.)
  • Intermittent fasting, which is basically to say eat dinner earlier and no snacking after. 
  • No snacking (this is hard for me, working from home and tending to graze all day).
  • Wake up 30 minutes earlier.
  • Use that bonus morning time to journal (my friend) or exercise. For most of my life, I worked out as soon as I got up. I had a routine, with situps, weights for my arms, stationary bike while reading the newspaper (it took around 45 minutes, with 30 on the bike). I even did it while pregnant, up to a week before giving birth to my kid. Yet I let it drop when my kid started taking the bus to school and got up super early. Plus the stationary bike broke. And I got an iPad and started reading the paper while curled up on the sofa. A snowball of lethargy.

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    Goals.
  • Daily stretching. Another thing I used to do that fell by the wayside. My friend is into dance, and so stretching is important for her.
  • Abs and strength training. Thanks to Pilates, my BFF and I have abs of steel, but mine are under a Michelin Man layer of insulation, AKA fat. I want to get rid of it and also improve strength. In the days when I worked out, my exercises with weights were intended to give me arms strong enough to pick up heavy things without ruining my back. Time to work on that again. 
  • Write every day. My friend wants to journal; I want to write a book.
  • Meditate. This makes both my friend and me uncomfortable. We are not much for spiritual stuff, and neither of us is religious. One reason I prefer Pilates over yoga is I don’t like the meditation part of yoga. But every evidence shows it’s good for us. Must find a way to do it. I actually took a meditation class many moons ago (“find beauty and harmony in your life”). It didn’t stick. Will try again. Just 10 minutes.
  • Run every other day. My friend and I hope to do a 10K this year.

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    My beautiful, car-free jogging trail.
  • Read books every day. Another thing I did faithfully for years was read books before bed. Then I got an iPad and switched to reading news before bed, as if I hadn’t been reading news all day long. There’s always something else to be informed about, even though it’s usually incremental. And then I worry about the dismal future of the world all night.
  • Improve sleep. During the holidays, I’ve been sleeping too much and I spend too much time in bed. This is as bad as not enough sleep. More exercise should help. No wine should help (high glycemic foods before bed can perturb sleep). Eating earlier should help. Reading before bed should help. And I plan to be stricter about bedtime and wakeup time.

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    My to-read list. I just finished the top one, Celestial Bodies. Very interesting and sad. Not shown, but on order from the library (more library books!): Chanson Douce by Leïla Slimani, which I will read in the original French. I tend to be too lazy to read in French and I like to devour books (I read Celestial Bodies in three sittings), so having to slow down for French is frustrating. This must improve!
  • Drink more water (but not right before bed; see sleep). Some years ago, I quit drinking soda, so now I consume coffee (too much), wine and water. But probably not enough water during the day. 6-8 glasses, for sure.
  • Do a cartwheel. I was proud that at age 50 I could do a cartwheel. But now, somehow, my legs don’t quite get up there. Is it the legs? Weak arms? Weak back? Whatever, I want to do it again before I turn 60. My friend, who is younger, wants to do a handstand and walkover. I once could do those, too, but a walkover is decidedly out of the question.

The cartwheel aside (that will take more than a month), the list consists of things to do on a daily basis, starting now. We are going to try to stick to this list for a month. Usually with these 30-day challenges, people pick one thing to focus on. But so many of these are interrelated. Better diet will help sleep, as will exercise. Getting up early will help exercise and/or writing. Etc. It seems that one way to stick to the goals is to aim for all of them so they reinforce each other.Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 10.19.06 AMMy friend follows a YouTuber who does challenges and who crosses off the days of a calendar each time he accomplishes his goal. One blank day isn’t a failure, not even a couple of blanks in a week, but he vows not to have two consecutive blank days. That sounds reasonable. I know a couple of people who vow to diet or quit smoking and as soon as they crack, they give up on the effort entirely. Perfection or nothing. Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m not about perfection. I agree with the adage, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” I’m all about “better” not necessarily “perfect.”

I’ll give you updates about how it’s going and in a month we’ll assess the results.

What are your decisions for 2020? Do you have a bucket list instead? Tips for succeeding at any of these?

Wishing all of you the very best for 2020, surtout la santé!

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À votre santé! Adieu to wine, at least for a month. And this is such a good one. Sniff!

 

Dreaming of a White Christmas

IMG_0232It’s a dark, gray day. It looks as if it could snow, but that’s out of the question. The temperature is 12 C (53 F). This is considerably cooler than a couple of days ago. Crazy. The plain between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées is a patchwork of plowed brown fields or sculptural bare vineyards, mixed with a vivid emerald of all the things happy for the season’s rain so they can grow. (Actually, in the time it took me to write this, the clouds dissipated and the sun is shining brightly.)IMG_4379

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The snow-capped Pyrénées. The stripe of silver-leafed trees in the center of the photo is an olive grove.

IMG_4370IMG_4376The mood in town feels upbeat. Stores are bustling. The sidewalks are packed with people out shopping or going to the Christmas markets, which emphasize food and drink for adults and rides for children. I haven’t looked up close at the skating rink, entoured with Christmas trees flocked with fake snow. I remember one time that I accompanied my kid’s class, despite not knowing how to skate myself, and a big part of the rink was slush because it was so warm and sunny.IMG_0311IMG_0305IMG_0304The rocade, or ring road around town, is backed up with traffic going to the centres commerciaux, or shopping malls. Last year, the Gilets Jaunes went after shops, both in town centers and at malls. This year, the strikers are focused on government buildings and public transportation, and shoppers are more or less left in peace. It certainly has been years–since 2008–since I’ve seen so much activity.IMG_0231It’s invigorating, but I also like to step away to the relative calm of la Cité. It can be packed in summer, but at this time of year, it’s quiet and haunting. Like having my own personal fortress. IMG_0319IMG_0320IMG_0229IMG_0321My kid is disappointed with the mildness of winter here, longing for a good snow. I remember our family’s big old station wagon, and all four of us kids would be in the back seat, huddling together under an old blanket (the “car blanket”) and waiting for the heat blasting the windshield to finally reach us. The windows would resemble submarine portholes, small rounds scratched into the ice that had encased the vehicle in the time it took us to pay our weekly visit to grandma. la cite winter from audeI don’t know whether my kid’s longing is for snow, or for having siblings to snuggle with in a cold car, or for having grandmas to visit weekly if not more. Even though I did what I could to create an ideal childhood for my kid, some things just aren’t possible to provide.IMG_0308I also feel some twinges of jealousy. There’s a particularly beautiful shop in Carcassonne, la Ferme, which sells all kinds of good things to eat and drink as well as cooking and dining gear. It’s a step back in time, packed to the gills, and I want every single thing in there. I eavesdropped on shoppers, debating whether to get this or that for grandpa, for auntie. There are many great things about being an expat, but being far from extended family is the hardest.IMG_0313How about you? Are you shopping? Done? What are your Christmas plans? I so enjoy reading your comments. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you in real life, and every single time my biggest disappointment is that you live too far away to get together–to a person, everyone has felt immediately like a long-time friend. I treasure that. Thank you.

 

Crushing on Crèches

IMG_0462One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Away in a Manger,” which makes me think of a crèche, with all the innocence of a five-year-old looking at a bunch of dolls. I grew up with the James Ramsey Murray version and remember vaguely being outraged when I learned there was a different (and to me wrong!) version by William Kirkpatrick, which happened to be older. But I didn’t know that. What you encounter first is what you think is normal and right.

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This entire village was enormous.

The santons of Provence are famous, but there are so many other variations on the crèche, which is a French word. It dates to the beginning of the 12th century and meant a manger (which literally in French is pronounced mahn-JAY and means “to eat,” but if you want to do apples-to-apples meaning-wise, the French version is mangeoire (mahn-ZHWAR), or long feeding trough for animals). It didn’t take on a religious connotation until 1223, according to the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales–the etymology police.IMG_4447I have a bunch of photos from over the years and wanted to share them. It’s why I took them in the first place. “Somebody else needs to see this!”IMG_0460For example this crèche scene has life-size figures made of straw by a Polish farmer. The biggest figures are 1.80 meters tall (5’9″). The figures are based on an iron base, to which is woven balls of straw. The explanation sign said the straw symbolizes that Jesus was born in a stable, poor among the poor.IMG_4443This has nothing to do with the crèche, but where I grew up there were no crenellated castle walls with towers on any altars. Oh, France. Kids here who see such walls (big ones, for real) on a daily basis must not even notice small reproductions in a dark corner of a church. Nothing special.IMG_4446Another shot of the crèche at the top. Again, check out that altar!

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If you add a string of LED lights to a tableau of clay figurines and moss, is it multimedia?

There are other quaint Christmas touches around.

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Of COURSE Christmas balls were made into bunches of grapes.
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An effort was made but the result is underwhelming. Who can’t relate?
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I love the cacti under the LED reindeer. Also, notice the hanging squid.

How is your Christmas season going? Is your shopping done? We are going ultra light this year. For the tree, too. Just the blue balls and white lights, and actually it’s very pretty. Sometimes less is more.

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A crèche/Santa mashup, with art by local kids.

 

On Strike

IMG_0561Yesterday was unusually quiet here in France profonde. Almost no traffic. Most people stayed home if they could. We slept in late. This impromptu vacation day was thanks to the national strike against pension reform.

I wanted to have a light, happy post today after last week’s Debbie Downer rant. But yesterday’s strike, which is continuing today, is inescapable. Even if you don’t live here, you probably want to retire one day, so read on.

The French system is pretty generous, but demographics–folks live longer and have fewer babies–mean that while there were five workers for every retiree in 1960, today there are three. While pensioners and those close to becoming one argue that they paid for their retirement, the system is like many others, including Social Security in the U.S.–those working now pay for those retired now. It isn’t an account like a 401(k) where you put in your money and you have it later.IMG_0559The problems with 401(k)s are that (1) most people don’t save enough, (2) those who do save don’t invest the money wisely, being either too risky or too conservative and (3) if the market drops when you want to retire, you might not be able to afford it. As with any investment, you could lose everything.

A broader system offers better protection for the average Jacques. Also, because it’s run by the government, workers don’t have to worry about their employer going belly-up and their retirement disappearing in a poof of smoke with it. Remember Enron? A few greedy guys made some sour deals and cooked the books, bringing down the company. More than 9,000 employees had retirement plans based on Enron stock, which became worthless.IMG_0572 The problem in France lies in the details, as is often the case. There’s retirement for a special few, and then retirement for everybody else. President Emmanuel Macron wants to get rid of the 42 régimes speciaux, which cover only 3.4% of the working population. Most French think the exceptions should be abolished–most of them don’t benefit. Probably many of those with an exception think the other 41 régimes are unworthy, but don’t even THINK about touching theirs. And some fear a domino effect–if one exception is eliminated, then the others will eventually go as well.

I have a friend who retired in her 40s. Seriously. She was a secretary for a notaire, or notary. In France, notaries are inescapable, necessary for formalities for property purchases, wills, etc.–more like lawyers than like a notary public in the U.S. The notaries created a special retirement regime in 1937, before the general one, and their exceptions got grandfathered in. Granted, they pay in a lot more than regular workers do. In general they retire if they are 55 and contributed for 25 years, but there’s an exception to the exception, which my friend enjoyed: If you worked 15 years for a notary and you have three kids, you can retire at any age you want.

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Look closely–there’s a cross.

Ballerinas at the Opéra de Paris (but not ballerinas elsewhere!), can retire from age 40 to 60, having paid in for 10 to 15 years (there are subcategories to this subcategory). Extra credit for having kids. It’s true that being a ballerina is physically taxing, poorly paid and not something that translates to other professions. If you have an injury and can’t continue, your options could be limited.

We know somebody who was a train conductor (as in ticket taker, not driver). Yes, decades ago, working on a train was dirty and dangerous. But today they are electric and automated. He says, “When I was hired, I signed a contract with the terms that I would retire when I was 60. They have to honor that.” I pointed out that when he joined the railroad, life expectancy was 73. Now it’s 83. The contract was based on calculations for the lower life expectancy, even if that wasn’t stated explicitly. Was he willing to live (or die) up to his side of the bargain? He sputtered and admitted that people living longer in retirement would require more money, but that should come from somebody else, not him. Younger people should pay more. IMG_0568Not so easy. Youth unemployment is high–almost 21%–for a bunch of reasons. One is that workers enjoy some protections from being fired, so employers try to make do without hiring rather than get stuck with a bad apple. That also is changing, with protections being chipped away–sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The bane of gig jobs is creeping in, like kudzu or some other invasive species. But changes to worker protections did help lower unemployment overall to 8.5% from double digits a few years ago.

People say, well, older workers should retire and make way for younger ones who need jobs. But this is bad for the economy. The French call retirement “les grandes vacances”–the big vacation–but it’s really more akin to unemployment: It’s taking money from working people and giving it to non-working people. The more people who work, the more the economy hums, and the more jobs there are. In the case of Japan, where 30% of working-age women don’t work, every one percentage point increase in work participation by women would boost the economy by half a percentage point. It makes sense–you turn to services to make life easier, maybe ordering takeout or going out, having the house cleaned and laundry done, looking good by having haircuts more often. It doesn’t have to be all about consumption of stuff.IMG_0563Raising the retirement age is inevitable–retirement initially was based on an age that most people wouldn’t reach. So yes, you would work until you died. The idea wasn’t for a big vacation but to prevent the elderly, no longer able to earn a living, from becoming destitute.

In effect, broad-based pensions are demographic Ponzi schemes that worked until the baby bust. This is not an argument for more babies–far from it, the global population is big enough–nor is it an argument against government pensions. It’s an argument that nothing is set in stone, and that programs have to adjust. It isn’t sustainable to have people work for 30 years and be retired for 40. Even a 40-40 split doesn’t work. Retirement has to be shorter. Retiring later beats dying earlier.IMG_0571Working longer is easier said than done. I know so many people who have been laid off (not in France, though), even as their employers advertise job openings. I suspect my friends have been culled because they’re too expensive. They are all extremely sharp and diligent, so it isn’t because of their productivity. Their employers are profitable and hiring. Employers increasingly look at workers as disposable, even in sectors that need “knowledge” workers. With job applications now almost entirely online, it’s hard to cut through the algorithmic filters, even if you don’t fill in your graduation dates or if you drop off a decade or two from your résumé. If they want 5-7 years of experience for a “senior” job, then you’ll be spit out if you have pared down your experience to 10 years. Older people (anybody over 50) are considered slow, lacking innovation and tech-savvy.

It all means the problem is thornier than just changing the age, and look at what that step provoked. 800,000 protesters across France yesterday. I really love the way the French take to the streets to show what they believe in–Je Suis Charlie, Nous Toutes, the environment. On the other hand, I often disagree with their causes. The Gilets Jaunes originally were mad about a pollution tax. And with the pension strike now, it’s about people saying “I want mine even it it costs you.” Every French person under age 50 who isn’t part of the 3.4% enjoying special status should be out in the streets protesting in favor of change. They’re the ones getting stuck with the bill.

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Photos of the church at Rustiques, built in the era when you worked until you died.

What Lies Inside

P1020608How many times do you walk past doors, wondering what lies inside?

Sometimes they’re ajar, allowing a peek to interior worlds.

Sometimes, even ajar, we keep walking.

Mostly I do just that–keep walking, preoccupied with my own life. These are the stories about the times I stopped to think.

The first one for me was in Africa. I was young and only newly out of my protected bubble, where such problems were hidden from view. There was a burger joint in the capital that we would frequent, Hoggers, where cassette tapes (it was long ago) of an LA pop radio station played, complete with traffic and weather reports. It was like stepping into America. I stepped out one day, belly full, and came face to face with a man, nearly naked, who was eating trash from the pile–not even a bin, but an open pile–in the alley.

My heart broke. What happened to put him there? His eyes, desperate, confused, sad, haunt me decades later.

In my village in Africa, there was a crazy man. He would come after me mercilessly. He would follow me around, yelling at me in a mix of Swahili and English. He was crazy but he was completely bilingual. “Hey! Mzungu! You! White woman!” His legs looked like they had been broken and never set, so the tibiae were completely crooked. The rags he wore were filthy. He had only a few teeth, although he wasn’t much older than me (and this was very long ago). I was terrified of him. Nobody ever stepped in as he walked behind me, haranguing me. But I think everybody kept an eye on him. Yelling at me was one thing; after all, he was crazy. I was the outsider, the easy target. When I wasn’t around, he did it to somebody else. I am sure I would have been protected if he had tried to hurt me, which he never did. There was a careful equilibrium. In the absence of mental health care, he was given food and a margin of error for strange behavior. Sometimes I think it was a kinder system than in the West.P1070566A couple of years later. At a high school class reunion, somebody thought it would be funny to pick up Ron, the once-blond football player who looked a lot like Sean Penn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He had fallen into the rabbit hole of drugs, eventually scaring his mother to the point that he was kicked out and lived on the streets, collecting cans. I didn’t approve of his lifestyle choices but I didn’t think it was at all funny to haul him in for ridicule.

Later, but still many years ago, in New York. I was reading the paper and having a coffee at an outside table at the now-defunct Café Borgia II in Soho. I sensed somebody was standing by me, so I looked up, expecting to see the waitress. Instead there was a disheveled homeless man, and I had committed the cardinal error of making eye contact. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!!” he exclaimed.

I decided that earnest incompetence was my best recourse. “Sifahamu,” I said with a big smile and my hands turned up in the universal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ symbol for I don’t know, which is what I had said. I correctly wagered that he didn’t speak Swahili.

“You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he repeated, more slowly and loudly and enunciating every syllable, as one does with foreigners who don’t speak your language. “Sifahamu. Pole sana,” I told him. So sorry.

“Deutschland über alles!” he told me, and walked off, shaking his head as if he had rarely encountered such stupidity before.P1060259More recently, I was walking around the Saturday market, filling my colorfully striped caddy with healthy produce, and I noticed a man whose age and big beard reminded me of a relative back in the U.S. who for years self-medicated his psychological problems with unhelpful results. He was small, both in stature and build, and his winter coat seemed three sizes too big. He walked with his arms kind of hugging himself, as if to make himself even smaller, and to not touch anything. He looked a little too intensely at the food on display.

It took a minute for all this to register. It dawned on me that this man, who looked so much like my fragile loved one, was probably homeless. I looked for him, but he was gone. I toured the market, frantically trying to find him, but without luck. A few weeks later, I saw him again, in the same pathetic posture. I tapped his arm and looked him in the eye and handed him a €5 note. His eyes widened. He searched my face–is this a joke?–then immediately looked at the ground. “Merci,” he said. “Bonne journée,” I told him.

When I got to my car, I cried buckets.P1020590A couple of weeks ago, I was driving down one of the boulevards with my kid. It was cold and windy. A homeless man with a big dog was seated on a bench in front of the courthouse. At the corner, waiting for the light, was a different man, tall, very thin, wearing a big red-striped knit cap and a neatly belted green trench coat. He had a small backpack over one shoulder and one of those big reusable grocery bags in his other hand. He looked lost.

“Was he….?” I said. “I think so,” my kid answered. “We should go back,” I said. “What about the one with the dog?” Kid answered. I am afraid of dogs. I will cross the street to avoid one, even if it’s on a leash. I will go around the block if it isn’t. “They have dogs for company, because nobody talks to them….anyway, you can’t save everybody,” Kid said.

Last Saturday, I was walking back to my car after the market and there was the same man, on the same corner. As he passed me, I touched his arm and said, “Excusez-moi,” handing him €5. A paltry sum, I know, but at the moment we are counting every centime as digital disruption decimates my business. Still, we live in a house and have enough to eat.

I had taken him in as he approached: he had on a polar fleece jacket, zipped up high under the trench coat. It was smartly belted again, but I could see it was old and worn. His shopping bag held some strange articles–I spotted one of those plastic drainers for dishes to drip–but very neatly arranged. Everything about him indicated a huge effort, but one that was failing catastrophically.

I looked him in the eye as he started to talk. What came out of his mouth was pure gibberish. He clearly struggled to speak. What had happened to him? Something in his brain short-circuited? And perhaps he didn’t have family to get him the help that France generously provides but that, all the same, requires a fair amount of bureaucracy, this being France? I would never know because conversation was impossible.

He went on for quite a while, and I looked at him and listened, thinking it was probably rare for him to be acknowledged as a member of the human race. Finally, I excused myself. I thought of pointing to my watch, but the juxtaposition of his state and my FitBit seemed too much. I have a watch that tracks my steps because otherwise I sit too much and eat too much. And I was standing in front of a man with no place to sit or to sleep, who doesn’t know what he will eat. I just bid him good day, and crossed the street as the light changed.P1060155Some years ago, my kid announced in franglais, “We are really pourri-gâté”–literally spoiled rotten. Yes, we are. In the 1980s, there was a trend about bootstrapping and responsibility, and it seems to be back, bigger and meaner, ignoring that some people never had bootstraps to begin with; for others, the bootstraps disintegrated for reasons that might or might not be their own fault.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and, while we didn’t do a dinner, gratitude was on my mind. I am grateful for my family–not just my nuclear family but the whole extended clan of cousins and my close friends I count as family. I am grateful for good health. I am grateful for such a full belly that I have to make an effort to exercise. I am grateful I won the birth lottery. I am grateful to live in France, where even though there are homeless, the system seems kinder.

There are many problems in the world, and you might prioritize something else. But on Black Friday, before you click to buy something you or your gift recipient don’t really need, see whether you can also do something for someone in need.

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It is with dripping irony that doors illustrate a post about people who have none.

Travel Tips: Keep Your Valuables Safe

P1080787One sunny Friday afternoon in Barcelona, I was blithely walking down a busy street toward my hotel, pulling my roller carry-on suitcase, with my Furla tote sitting on top of it. A guy came out of nowhere, grabbed the bag and ran. Except I never let go. That meant he dragged me down the street. Despite my screaming bloody murder, the many people on the street just watched and did nothing.

I was not going to give up. My suitcase was nothing–it contained very replaceable clothes for a weekend. But my bag? It had my passport, my driver’s license, my credit cards. No way was I about to spend my weekend in Barcelona trying to get a new passport.

The guy finally let go, I got up, my bag intact (bravo, Furla!), and went back to my suitcase. I learned a valuable lesson: do not carry your valuables where somebody can snatch them.Half-timbered houseI’ve traveled around the world, and even hitchhiked in Africa, without incident except this. (Well, there was another time, also in Barcelona. We drove relatives to the airport there, which required two cars. Heading back home, I was alone, following my husband and kid in the other car. At an intersection, a big van rear-ended me. I honked at my husband, who didn’t notice, it turned out, because he was enjoying a chance to drive without me and had turned up godawful Euro-pop oldies on the car stereo. Anyway, I knew the scam–a woman driving alone in a car with French plates was a perfect target. The van driver would get out and while I was distracted talking to him, his accomplice would take my bag out of the car. This has happened to friends. So I ran the light, which by then had changed, and caught up with my husband’s car, too bad about any crumpled bumper on a 10-year-old Polo.)Sunflower fieldHere are a few tips to keep your travels uneventful.

Before You Leave

Make two copies of your passport. Give one to a relative or friend at home. Put the other in your suitcase and leave it at your hotel/AirBnB. If your passport is stolen, you can get a replacement more quickly. If you lose everything, including your bag (why I say to put the copy in your suitcase, because you aren’t going to put your passport there), you can call your  relative/friend to fax or email the other copy. Do this also with your itinerary.

Have at least two cards: a credit card and a debit card. Your credit card is for purchases. Most credit cards come with protections in case of theft; debit cards don’t. Make sure you know your PIN, because in Europe, points of sale use chip readers. Your debit card is to withdraw cash at an ATM. Do not use a credit card to get cash! It will cost you a fortune in interest and fees! Have your card numbers someplace (with your passport copy) in case you have to call and report a stolen card.

Know your ATM limit and what the fees are for using your card abroad.IMG_1018When you make reservations, find about about the security deposit. For vacation rentals, some platforms deduct the security deposit in advance and reimburse you after your stay. This gives them the opportunity to make money on those funds that are in suspense. Fine, as a business model. But if you are changing apartments every three days over a two-week trip, and each one has a €500 security deposit, you could be near your credit limit and have far less available to spend than you might have realized. FYI: AirBnB doesn’t debit your account for the security deposit unless the host reports a problem within a certain amount of time after you’ve left.

Tell your bank where you will be traveling. I had been living in Brussels for a while and going to Paris on weekends pretty regularly when, late one night in Paris, my card didn’t work. I called my bank (I knew the number by heart–that’s another thing, either know the phone number or have it in your phone contacts, but memorizing is better–what if your phone is stolen?) and learned that they had detected unusual activity–that my card was being used in Paris. After answering all the security questions, they were satisfied it was me and took the hold off my card.la cite vineyards 1Check your phone plan, especially for data. You need data for things like ride-hailing apps or GPS. You don’t want a nasty surprise when you get home. Check out this article. This article is a little old, but gives you a broad sample. Rick Steves also has advice, though his stuff on Carcassonne is so off-base I am not sure how much to trust it; maybe he’s better on tech.

While Traveling

Take out your passport only at airports and when checking into hotels. The rest of the time, leave it in your hotel safe or your AirBnB. It’s unlikely hotel staff would steal a passport–the ramifications would be severe, since electronic door keys show who entered a room and when. On the street, though, plenty of people would love to get hold of your passport. Don’t carry yours around. You don’t need it to go to a museum.

If you aren’t driving, don’t carry your driver’s license. Again, think of the hassle to replace it. Bring another ID. At a hotel, they will use your passport. What else do you need ID for? Maybe with your credit card, but it’s unlikely. Some countries (including France) require individuals to carry ID when in public. In any case, it’s smart to have something on you that says who you are in case you’re in an accident and can’t speak. roman tower from belowDon’t bring other stuff–Social Security card, insurance card, etc. Make a copy of your insurance info and give it to your friend at home and put another copy with your passport copy. If you end up in a hospital, you might have to turn in paperwork to your insurer, but unlike the U.S., in France they will treat you first and worry about payment later. If you want to bring your insurance card, fine, but leave it with your passport at the hotel. Don’t walk around with it.

As I said earlier, credit cards tend to come with theft protections, but not debit cards. Even though I said to be sure to know your PINs, the problem is that many U.S banks don’t connect with the European system. This has two possible results: your card won’t work at all at some points of sale (this could be awkward if you’re out of gas or at a péage/tollbooth) or it will work but not ask for a PIN. That means that if your card is stolen, somebody can use it freely without inputting the PIN. Free money! From your account! Sometimes the receipt will ask for a signature, but salespeople don’t always bother to get you to sign, which is not reassuring either.IMG_0389Leave your debit card where you’re staying and take it out only to go to the ATM to withdraw cash. (See above–if they get your debit card and it doesn’t ask for a PIN, they can drain your account.) Use your credit card or cash for spending. Don’t carry all your cash on you. Just carry what you need for the day, with a little cushion stashed in a different place (pocket? shoe?). Leave the rest of your cash where you’re staying.

Other people have written about different bags and belts and other things for carrying your valuables safely. Never underestimate the creativity of thieves. I was in a crowded Brussels restaurant with a big table of friends. The chairs of one table touched the chairs of the next, with barely enough room for the diners sitting on them to breathe. Certainly, there was zero space to squeeze between the diners. A friend, sitting next to the wall, three friends next to her and four across, had her bag on the floor between her feet. It was stolen. Somebody had to have squirmed on the floor between diners’ legs to get to it. Somebody else I know was in a crowded bus in Nairobi, his billfold in the buttoned front pocket on his shirt. It was stolen. Another friend, a native Parisian, had her phone stolen from her bag on the Métro. I know of many backpacks and bags and back pockets whose bottoms were slashed, their contents falling out without the people being aware. BTW, if this does happen to you, check the trash cans nearby; often the thieves will take the cash and throw away the billfold. Finding yours could save you a lot of hassle.cite panorama rightMy experience with the purse snatcher was unusual. Most crime in Europe is sneaky and not violent. Somebody will distract you, often in a very pitiful way, like asking you to sign  a petition for some worthy cause like deaf people or handicapped people, and they will appear to be deaf or handicapped and you will feel like a heartless creep for not simply signing your name. After going through this a couple of times, you give in. Then you turn around and discover your billfold has been slipped out of the banana bag you had been–and still are–squeezing under your arm, without you feeling a thing.

I don’t want to scare anybody; these tips also hold true for domestic travel. European and French crime rates are low. I live here feeling very safe. I forget to lock the doors; no problem. I rarely lock my car. Once, the Carnivore took out a big duffel bag out of the trunk of his car in the center of Carcassonne, and drove away, forgetting it was on the sidewalk. He came home (a 30-minute drive), realized his mistake and rushed back. It was still there, intact. Frail old ladies walk around with their handbags dangling. Little kids skip down the street toting baguettes and cartons of milk they had been sent to buy. I see people taking foolish risks, too, like leaving their phone or even a laptop (!!!) on the table at a café terrace while they went inside to use the bathroom. Yes, everybody around had the same instinct, to guard over it. But yikes. Chateau of la citeIl ne faut pas tenter le diable–don’t tempt fate.

Travel tips and secure bag recommendations welcome in the comments.

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Photos of Carcassonne and the vicinity.

Knock, Knock

P1080866So retro, so unconnected. A piece of metal to spare one’s knuckles when summoning residents from within. They sometimes are as simple as a ring or bar of metal, but often, in usual French fashion, door knockers are elaborately decorated, sometimes as fantastical figures. They are made to last multiple generations. I love them.

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A simple ring that’s not so simple, with an elegant twist.
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And the simple bar version, but with a nicely scrolled attachment. Never miss an opportunity to add a little something!

Door knockers were the subject of conversation recently, and I decided it was time to post my collection, which is getting out of hand. The conversation was with a reader, who was visiting the region with her husband. These IRL (in real life) meetings are a surprising but gratifying aspect of writing this blog. The conversation turned on which model to choose, how to carry home something so heavy, and oohs and ahhs over various examples we spotted on doors as we wandered about Minerve.

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Not a knocker but an old-fashioned doorbell. You pull the ring, attached to a (non-electrical) wire that yanks a bell inside. The kind of bell that clangs. Do you really want a doorbell connected to your phone instead of one of these?

Take the angel at the top. What work went into it! The chubby face, the interesting sleeves, the patterned torso.IMG_2644And how about this beauty? I think I stared at it for 20 minutes. There are three faces, not counting the creature itself. Is this from a story, a fairy tale? Who created it? Who lived there and decided “THIS is what I need on my door!” Was it a commissioned piece? Was it one of several choices presented to the homeowner? Where do I get one of these?IMG_0457Lions are a classic. None of the lions I’ve encountered (remember I lived in Africa!) would be inclined to hold a ring in its mouth. Did you know there were lions in Europe? As late as the 4th century AD, in part of Greece. I wonder how the makers of these knockers came to visualize lions.

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Closeup. He’s a bit distressed, no?
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The whole door is wonderful. That peephole! You’d have to bend over to see through.

Then we have a combination lion and ouroboros, the Egyptian symbol found on King Tut’s tomb and later associated with alchemists and gnostics, though other mythologies also included the self-eating serpent.

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Another distressed lion.
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Amid no lack of embellishment. More is more.

Fish are another theme for knockers. They look great. I’m not one to go knocking on strangers’ doors, so I am not sure how they feel in the hand. I’m a bit put off by those faces. Do you agree?IMG_1135fish knockerIMG_1134The swan is a bit more elegant, don’t you think?P1070408Or this gentleman, with his pageboy coiffure and Bolton-esque moustache, gazing to the heavens in…what? exasperation? Disgust that somebody did a bad patch on the door above his head? Or, worse, that somebody scratched the door?IMG_2034The one my friend desires is the classic woman’s hand holding a small ball. The hand is supposed to signify welcome, and the ring symbolizes the theory that a vein runs from that finger to the heart, signifying love. What I love is that the cuff is elaborately detailed and that the fingers are delicately perched on the ball. Note that the base also is decorated behind the hand. Never miss an opportunity to add a design.

After all, more is more!IMG_2328IMG_2676P1090129P1060485Tell me which is your favorite. For great detail about the history of knockers, or heurtoirs, check out this post (in French but you’ll still get a lot out of the photos) on Paris Myope.