The Merry Month of Frimaire

Change is constant; if you think we’re in turbulent times now, then you haven’t paid attention to what’s gone down before. One day you say “thee” and “ye” and the next it’s “you”–for singular and plural alike! How would anybody communicate amid such confusion!

It has just come to my attention that for 14 years between 1792 and 1805, France changed its calendar from the gregorian calendar to the republican calendar, aka the French revolutionary calendar. Here are the months: vendémiaire, brumaire, frimaire, nivôse, pluviôse, ventôse, germinal, floréal, prairial, messidor, thermidor and fructidor. Napoléon Bonaparte was proclaimed emperor on the 28th of floréal of year XII.

From just a couple of weeks ago, in brumaire, at Place Carnot, the heart of Carcassonne.

Vendémiaire was the first month of the year, starting with the autumn equinox around Sept. 22, and referring to the vendange, or wine harvest–so appropriate to kick off a French calendar that way! When I first moved here, the weekly gym class in the village (as much social hour as workout, which was fine, too) didn’t start until after the vendange, a practice that continued well after the uprooting of vast expanses of vineyards in a European Union effort to reduce the “glut” of wine and shore up prices. Within just a few years, only one member of the gym class was still actually harvesting grapes. But we stuck to our own version of vendémiaire anyway.

A machine à vendanger–very big, very loud, with scary teeth.

Upheaval seems to be a theme at the moment, judging from some recent podcasts. I listen to them while I’m doing exceedingly unpleasant tasks that I undertake only because to ignore them would be even worse than the experience of doing them (exercise and housework). I like current events/news, culture, history and economics, and it’s amazing how those topics can overlap.

My running route: century-old platanes, which are babies compared with the stone wall.

“The Allusionist” (about words) presented the the introduction of zero, which completely blew people’s minds when Leonardo Bonacci, aka Fibonacci, introduced the Hindu-Arabic concept to Europe in 1202. I now peg all history according to that of Carcassonne, which in 1202 was a rocking town, full of Catholics and Cathars living peacefully side by side, a good seven years before the last crusade was launched to eliminate the Cathars. More on that later.

0? or is it 8? Either way, you can still tie up your horse here.

Zero was invented in India and came to Europe via the Arabs, who gave us algebra and calculus. That much I knew, but I didn’t realize it was so recent! Well, the Mayans had a zero, but the Europeans didn’t find out about that until much later, and we know that nothing existed until a European found it (example: the Western Hemisphere). And in “The Year 1000” (see below), I learned that Europeans considered the abacus to be black magic at first.

Interesting sculpture in the riverbed. The river has gotten much higher lately, after some big rains.

I also enjoy “The History of English” not only for learning the origins of some common sayings but there’s a ton of overlap with French. Bilingual bonus! I got onto some older episodes, about a time when some people made plurals–in English–by adding -ru or -en instead of -s. Most people were illiterate, so think how slowly the changes would have spread–you hear something said a new way and you think, “what a nut case.” Then you hear it again and you think “huh! I guess that’s cool now.” But in between, there was no way to, say, google it or look it up in a book to see whether what you heard was a mistake or something to adopt. In fact, remember when you used “google” as a verb for the first time? TikTok and Instagram and YouTube are accelerating these language changes further, as with something “be like,” a structure I cannot imagine uttering, any more than saying “the interwebs.” Fuddy-duddy? Absolutely. And I judge people who mistake its/it’s or your/you’re.

The medieval times saw new technologies, too, especially around textiles, and new jobs for those who operated the new machines. There was a time when clothing was so laborious to make, people had only a single set of clothes. Then it became easier and cheaper, with new materials made with new machines, until today Europeans (bad but there are worse offenders) toss out 11 kilos (24 pounds) of clothing per person each year, the EU says.

This brings us to another podcast, “Planet Money,” on the Luddites–who were mad about new, labor-saving (or job-killing, depending on your point of view) machinery in the textile industry and who would break into factories to smash it.

And so here we are, wringing hands about people announcing their pronouns and about having to shift to new technology like renewable energy and electric vehicles. I listened to a French newscast, “C’est Dans l’Air,” on angst about iel (sounds kind of like yell or ee-yell), which is a combination of il (he) and elle (she), intended for situations where the one’s gender either isn’t binary or shouldn’t be relevant to the conversation. Even the New York Times had an article about it, which noted that it was a big deal mostly among older people while the younger generation thinks it’s logical/about time. The more you learn about history, the more it’s clear that change is going to happen and lots of people aren’t going to like it.

The shutters and door could use some change in the form of fresh paint, but isn’t that little sprig cute?

What are you reading? I’ve had a bad run in the literary department. Two recent books on my nightstand are acclaimed, but I don’t like either one. “Un Aller Simple,” by Didier van Cauwelaert, won the Prix Goncourt, but I find it abominable. The premise is a young delinquent who is adopted as an infant by Roma in Marseille after a car theft goes bad and kills his French parents. Because he was orphaned as a pre-verbal baby, nobody knows his real name. So they call him after the car model, Ami 6, which over time gets mistaken for Aziz, so he is assumed to be Arab. As a young adult, he gets swept up in a crackdown on illegal immigrants and shipped off to Morocco. So far, it’s dreadful, but maybe it’s just that clichés about gangs and the hood have gotten stale since the book came out in 1994. Which doesn’t seem long ago at all, and yet, how many attitudes have changed since then!

Great door in Toulouse.

Another book is “Tender Is the Night,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, master of the unlikeable central character. I loved “The Great Gatsby” and read it more than once, even though Gatsby and Daisy and Tom and even Nick are spoiled and selfish. I even listened to it, read by the staff of aforementioned “Planet Money” as their way of celebrating this ode to capitalism when its copyright ran out and it entered the public domain (they do a fantastic job, too!). And I loved the movie. Why was “Tender” such a chore? You know when you pick up a book published in 1934, the way you knew when you walked into a bar pre-smoking bans, that it’s going to have a certain stench. Fitzgerald uses a subplot with the murder of an innocent Black man as nothing more than a plot device to cause a mentally fragile white character to relapse (although she had an episode shortly before the murder without any clear trigger, so why the gratuitously racist catalyst?), and then we’re off to flashbacks about how the central couple met. The murder itself remains a loose thread, too unimportant to tie up. Even the European setting backfires because the characters are also expats behaving badly, not just to each other but toward entire cultures. ARGH.

Planters with grape vines as a terrace divider.

But the worst book, by far, was “Labyrinth,” by Kate Mosse, a sometimes-resident of Carcassonne, where this monstrosity is set. If you like clichés, a predictable plot, silly magical-religious powers, and easily identifiable good guys and bad guys (the villain is a well-toned, well-dressed, icy blonde with a penchant for younger men; the heroine is kind of a mess, too trusting yet strong-willed), then this is for you. If I had to compare this book to a food, it would be Cheetohs–artificial flavor, no nutritional (or in the book’s case, intellectual) value, terrible color (for the book that color would be a putrid purple for the prose). I don’t think it went through an editor–we’re told three times in two pages that the villain has “sculptural shoulders.” Many murders happen (why? to raise the stakes of how evil the bad guys are?) but nobody seems to be investigating the body count. It time-travels between the present and the moment of the Albigensian Crusade in 1209, and tiens, tiens, the contemporary names align with their medieval counterparts! Get it? So Pelletier and Tanner are paired up, for example. How clever!

Rue du Verdun…most of the buildings look like this, with the exception of a couple of Art Deco structures–hardly modern, certainly not glass.

I also was annoyed by the geographic errors. If you’re going to name real-life streets, at least do it right. Rue du Verdun runs east-west, not north-south, and there isn’t a single modern glass building on it.

I had been meaning to read “Labyrinth” for years because it’s set in my adopted hometown, but just never got around to it. Now I regret it–I can’t get those hours of my life back (luckily, despite being depressingly long, it’s a fast read because it isn’t slowed down by substance). It was a hit, too–it came out at the same time as “The Da Vinci Code,” and is very similar, but not nearly as well-written. (Ouch.) It even was turned into a miniseries. Mosse has written a bunch of other books, including turning “Labyrinth” into a trilogy. My head hurts just thinking of it. They were bestsellers. So are Cheetohs.

Just around the corner from the previous photo.

As a cleanser, I read “The Year 1000,” by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. Really interesting. It’s been on my shelf for a long time–it came out in 1999–and the Y2K references haven’t aged well. But the historical stuff is downright fascinating. Right now, I’m deep in some well-written office politics in the guise of international intrigue: “Our Kind of Traitor,” by John Le Carré. He leans hard into the trope of the incredibly beautiful woman who is with a brilliant but unattractive man, but he’s such a great wordsmith that it’s worth it anyway. It was only when he died about a year ago, that I realized I’d never read any of his work. I’ve enjoyed a couple of his books now.

The ceiling in the movie theater, le Colisée.
And there’s a balcony!

On the watching front, I saw “The French Dispatch,” which was a lot of fun. It’s full of Easter eggs–probably worth a second viewing to catch more. I was nervous about going to the theater, but the audience numbered under a dozen, and all respected the mask mandate. I also went to “Carmen” for a really great live performance.

Dressed for “Carmen.”

Sorry for the long absence. I’ll try to come back soon with some French Christmas cheer and some French street style. Share with us what you’re reading, watching, cooking…recommendations are always welcome!

Cheese soufflé, so good. Recipe here.

Hello Again

I sit in in the glorious gloom of a summer thunderstorm. Minutes ago, the skies and the church around the corner competed loudly for which could produce the loudest peals. The church won, working through the four plus ten chimes of the hour, then moving on to 23 (!!!) uninterrupted minutes of random ringing, interspersed with some very pretty hymns (I recognized one but couldn’t recall the title; another was Bach’s “Ode to Joy”), then some more raucous ringing. Thunder clapped and rumbled, but the bells dominated.

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People Who Need People

It is heartbreaking to see what the pandemic is doing to French culture. Yes, the deaths and long-term suffering are far more important than complaints about culture. I hope the changes don’t take hold, either. It seems the major method of transmission is in family/friends settings, and so life has largely returned to normal with the exception that we have a 6 p.m. curfew in order to rule out get-togethers after work. Restaurants and bars are closed, and I see more and more of them dropping their flimsy lifelines of lunch takeout and “for sale” or “for rent” signs appearing in their windows. I think the survivors will be mobbed when they are allowed to reopen. It’s all everybody wants to do–go out, have a meal or drinks with friends. We crave company.

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Steps to Sophistication

I started this post a while ago, after I saw “Emily in Paris,” the social-media-drenched, Gen-Z version of “Sex in the City,” transported across the Atlantic. It’s a confection as substantial as a Ladurée macaron and equally delicious. The City of Light even outshines the series’ gorgeous star, Lilly Collins.

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Interesting Times

As the curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” We are indeed in interesting times. France started another lockdown on Oct. 30. We aren’t supposed to go out except for essentials–work, exercise, appointments, groceries. Basically it means life goes on except for fun. This was brilliantly captured in a German public service announcement (scroll to the one with subtitles–you shouldn’t miss “lazy as racoons”!). The main hiccup is that we have to fill out a form, un attestation, swearing on our honor that we’re really going to work/the doctor/the supermarket/on a run or risk a €135 fine.

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Tik Tok Together

If you have a pulse, you probably haven’t escaped Tik Tok. For all my deep suspicions about lack of privacy and tracking on the Internet and applications, there’s a lot to love about Tik Tok. Maybe because of its algorithms of showing you more of what you like, I haven’t been led into its dark underbelly. But from what I’ve seen (been shown, if I am being honest–I don’t have the app myself), Tik Tok has to be doing some good.

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Emily in Paris

Have you seen “Emily in Paris”? It’s fun, but oh-la-la! the exaggerations!

The story is about a young social media whiz sent at the last minute to fill in for a French-speaking senior colleague. Our heroine, Emily, is neither senior nor able to speak French. She doesn’t even have experience in the same sector as the Paris office she’s sent to. But she bubbles over about how she’s going to teach them. No wonder they aren’t happy with her.

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