On a recent trip to Montpellier, the street art really wowed me. I’ve previously posted about the pretty garlands strung across the narrow medieval streets. They were still there, along with others that I found amusing.Coming out of the underground carpark, I headed down the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle and, though I’ve been there before, only noticed for the first time the playground that looked as if it had been designed by Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t find who designed it, but I did learn that it was installed in 2008 and the structures, including delightfully unsafe climbing (see French attitudes about safety here), are supposed to be related to music.The city encourages the street art. I love it. Little surprises, like small gifts or serendipitous wonders, that prompt a smile. I think they enhance, rather than detract, from the old buildings of the historic center.
The art isn’t just painting. There are tiles all over, too. FYI, a hot-air balloon is called unemontgolfière in French, after the Montgolfier brothers who invented them.There’s plenty of old art, too.Still looking down, there were designs painted on the sidewalks or streets related to whatever business was there. I walked past several before finally taking photos of these bars, across the street from each other.
Something about street art warms my heart and makes me feel surrounded by gentle souls. It’s whimsical, not aggressive. I suppose too much could become twee. But in the midst of these buildings and streets so heavy with history, a little whimsy is a welcome jolt of modernity, livening up the old without tearing it down. It’s democratic, free for all, no ticket required.Is street art a thing where you live?
Quite unrelated: I made my blette (Swiss chard) recipe even easier. For a long time, I made the recipe I’d found in a magazine: little packets, which are very pretty for guests. Then I tweaked the recipe, adding a can of white beans, for protein, to make the packets into a vegetarian meal. Then, to get rid of the tedious process of folding up the packets, I did the same recipe but as a kind of blette lasagne, layering the leaves with the stuffing. Finally, I just chopped up the chard and mixed it with the stuffing. The result is below. A horror for the Carnivore, who likes each ingredient to be separate and whose lowest critique of a dish is “mish-mash.” But I love one-dish meals, and now this one is even easier. Same recipe–just cut up the greens and sauté them with the stems and onions until they’re soft.
Marseille 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.I 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.
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.It 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.
Marseille 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.
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.
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.
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.
Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.
Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.This 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.
One 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.
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.I 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!”For 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.This 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.Another shot of the crèche at the top. Again, check out that altar!
There are other quaint Christmas touches around.
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.
When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.
The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.
Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.Some were colorful, very dramatic.You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.
Little French villages are special in a general way, with their beautiful stone houses and flowers and fountains, and they each have something unique, too. Recently, one of the little villages around here put on the most astonishing performance. Young mixed with old and creativity flowed in a way that almost brought tears to my eyes.
It was a moving performance in all senses of the term. Yes, there were emotional moments, but the scenes were scattered around the village, and the spectators walked from one to another. It started at the football (soccer) field. A couple of children kicked a ball, then a flood of kids invaded the field, all while music played on loudspeakers. Then referees–adults–ran in and kicked the ball just to each other as the kids surged from one to another of the refs. A loud boom send the players all to the ground. Sirens started, and some guys dressed in white ran onto the field with a stretcher. They loaded up one of the refs, who seemed to have a ball under his shirt. Then the kids all ran off and the audience moved on…not having the slightest clue.
We climbed one of those passageways you find in old villages, made by and for pedestrians centuries ago. Dancers writhed against the walls. Then we came out at a space where a grange or garage or house had been torn down, leaving a gap like a lost tooth in the otherwise complete row of attached stone houses. It was set up like an operating room.The ref was on the table. The surgeon shouted orders. “Pump!” And the ambulanciers loudly worked a bicycle foot pump. “Pump! Pump! Pump!” the surgeon shouted, and the guys, the surgeon and the nurse all jumped up and down. “Knife!” the surgeon yelled. The nurse grabbed two–a butcher cleaver and machete, holding them in the air. “That one!” the surgeon yelled, pointing at the machete. It got more and more hysterical. Finally they delivered the ball, which was tossed to a waiting soccer kid, who led us to the next scene.In the middle of a street, a bunch of residents, wearing long work cloaks that blue-collar workers used to wear here (one of my kid’s teachers, an older guy, would don a cloak while teaching). They were in a huddle and scooted up and down and back and forth along the street as small children ran to a wall and picked off messages that were tacked there, handing the messages to people in the audience.
We migrated up the street, where a big pot of artificial flowers was in front of a house. A very tiny, very ancient lady stood in the doorway, laughing that so many people were behaving so strangely in this little village. Children came and plucked the flowers, handing some to her and some to the audience. Across the street, somebody’s legs dangled and kicked out of an upper-story window. As we climbed the narrow street, sweet notes of a cello slipped out of an acoustically lovely old stone garage, played by a very handsome young man, maybe late teens or early 20s. Everybody held their breath as he let the music float out to embrace us. It was magical.Around the corner, some people wearing rain coats and hats were seated in a line of chairs, reading the newspaper, as if they were on a train. They took turns reading random headlines out loud, like some kind of Dada poetry slam.
Adding to the train impression was a big white sheet stretched across the street (which was only barely wide enough for a person to lie down in cross-wise). Some bright lights blared at us from behind the sheet, almost like a train coming through a tunnel. We advanced to the sheet, and then music started. Dancers were behind the sheet, casting shadows on it. It got silly and funny and was all improvised. We moved to a village square, where some older residents and young girls playing cards around a big table. They were clearly cheating, getting more and more outrageous. The girls crawled under the table and walked on top of it, throwing cards. All this was to music. Finally the cards got more maniacally tossed in the air, a boom rang out and we were off to the next thing.
The nurse and surgeon were back, this time with an improvised tale that was completely nonsensical, with lots of double-entendres and puns that would be way too complicated to explain in translation. Between the slapstick and the coy jokes, young and old were cracking up. Under the trees in a cool spot by the park, a young woman perched on a stool. She exuded calm and poise. She had two instruments, a large drum filled with pebbles, and a finger harp. She asked us to close our eyes, and she took us to the sea. She spoke about the beauty of the sea, the importance of the sea, while the waves swirled audibly around us. She added a few notes from the harp, which seemed to me to be in my ears what the sun does when it glints off the water. Again, everyone held their breath. Mesmerized.
In the park, a final scene brought all the cast, starting with dancers who scampered among the trees. An adult in a rabbit costume walked a tightrope stretched between two trees. Every talent had a place! The football players arrived, and finally everybody took a bow. Two food trucks were in the park, and tables were set up for the shared moment to continue.
Have you ever seen such a thing? I was so impressed by the wide variety of people who participated and the many talents of such a little village. If anything, it was a bit like Dr. Seuss’s Whoville, and after this special night, the village’s heart got even bigger.
I don’t have the kind of WordPress account to allow for videos, so I’ll try to put some clips on Instagram. A couple of the acts I have only videos of–the cellist and the wave-maker.
The number of adorable villages in the south of France is nearly infinite. Each is unique, boasting something special–a château or some historic artifact, a location that offers spectacular views, a quirky market–yet they are all, if not alike, then from the same family, with narrow streets that wind between ancient stone houses, built as needs arose, without planning but with a great sense of purpose, many generations ago. They were built to stand for generations, too, and despite the lack of advanced engineering or equipment, they have indeed survived.Saissac is all of those things. Château: check. Sweeping views: check. Streets too narrow (and vertical) for cars: check. Stone houses that aren’t quite plumb: check. I wanted to take some recent visitors to a ruined Cathar castle, but one that didn’t entail a long, vertiginous hike. And so we went to Saissac, which offers gentler access. Just west of Carcassonne, Saissac is in beginnings of the Black Mountains, enough above the plain that sprawls between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées that you can take in vast vistas. At one time, the castle towered over the village, but after a few ransackings the castle was ruined and the village moved up. That means you get to trundle gently down to this castle, doable even in sandals, not too far for little ones with short legs or elder ones with tired knees, doable with strollers and possibly wheelchairs, though inside there are still ancient bits that require climbing and jumping. The principle of “if you get hurt it’s your own fault” applies here.
The Saissac castle was started around 900 BCE, and it was mentioned in a document in 960 in which the bishop of Toulouse gave the castle to the count of Carcassonne. It got passed around various noble families until the Revolution; it was already in ruins by then and its condition just got worse. In 1864, some bounty hunters dynamited the keep, which didn’t help matters. The village bought the castle in 1994 and started renovations, more to keep what was left from crumbling than to put anything back together.The bounty hunters weren’t wrong in their choice of target, even if they came up empty–in 1979, a treasure of 2,000 deniers, or coins, was found during some repairs. The coins dated to 1250-1270 and are on display in the castle. They’re behind glass, and my photos of them didn’t turn out. You’ll have to see for yourself!
We clambered around the ruins like wannabe Indiana Joneses, looking at details to imagine what it must have been like. Traces. A doorway, filled in. Holes peering to other rooms or cavities or something mysterious. The angled ghost of a staircase. One lower-level room had been set up to look like a medieval kitchen.These castles were never just one thing. At times, they were fortresses against invaders. They often were safe havens against the marauders that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages. At other times, they were elegant residences, and the owners added on rooms or wings. Jean de Bernuy was one of them. He bought the château in 1518 and added a living area with large windows, a couple of fireplaces and a staircase–it was the Renaissance, after all. De Bernuy was an immigrant success story: he came from Burgos, Spain, and made his fortune in the pastel business. He was so loaded that he stood security for the ransom of King Francis I, who was held hostage in Pavia in 1525. Pastel came from woad, and would be ground up and pressed into balls to use as blue dye. The balls were called coques and gave the region the name Pays de Cocagne, which means land of milk and honey. Even Carcassonne had a big textile industry, and this region just to the west made fortunes from the blue dye, especially between 1460 and 1560, when indigo from the Americas started to show up. Globalization.
Saissac’s church also was interesting. It seems to date to 1290, after the crusade against the Cathars (1209). The Cathars and Catholics had lived side by side until the crusade, so maybe the surviving villagers wanted to show allegiance to the church after the Cathars had been exterminated. By 1568, there were other troubles–the Wars of Religion. The church was burned, the priests massacred and the village pillaged by the Huguenots. Only the castle resisted the attack. The village and church were pillaged again in 1591 by the Antoine Scipion, the duc de Joyeuse, brother of Anne (who was a male and whose name is the brand of blanquette de Limoux–the family had a castle nearby, in Couiza). Scipion had become military leader of the Catholic extremists. Why did he attack the church, if he was after the Huguenots, and why did he do to the village the same damage the Huguenots had done? Maybe the people of little Saissac were too live-and-let-live liberal for his tastes? He was known for his brutality, for having the injured executed at Montastruc, and for killing without regard to age or sex.
Things in Saissac eventually got better, and more additions were built onto the church in the following years until the Revolution–the church was closed in 1794, only to reopen in 1795. The back-and-forth could give a person whiplash. Somehow I suspect that the folks of Saissac, which today borders on 1,000 inhabitants, just wanted to live their lives in peace and quiet, tending their fields and animals and focusing on getting enough to eat. I’m sure everybody in Saissac has enough to eat these days, but overall in the world, very little has changed. The worries and crises haven’t evolved much.The village itself is cuteness personified. We passed some residents of a certain age who were outside on the sidewalk/street/their personal patio, seeking a little fresh air and breeze in the shade. We greeted them as we passed, and they seemed resigned to having outsiders traipsing through and cutting into their conversation (which was about when melons would be ripe…). There was only one other family at the château when we were there. It was a delicious luxury having the place practically to ourselves, but I imagine a lot more people come through in the summer, perhaps shooting photos of the quaint locals trying to get cool in the shade. When I lived in New York. I don’t think I ever managed to get a coffee at an outdoor table without having my photo taken by somebody, and I am not, and was not then, a beauty. I was just local color. At least then, the cameras used film and I didn’t have to worry about my mug being on the Internet. Call me old-fashioned. With facial-recognition technology, I have no intention of making it easier for anybody to find me using my face.I live in one of these little villages, not quite as vertiginous as Saissac, but similar insofar as it has little streets that even my itsy-bitsy Aygo can’t squeeze through. Even Google’s Street View car can’t negotiate them. They were built for wheelbarrows. The more a place is authentic, the less it’s practical. There’s another village that I absolutely must show you soon if I can organize myself to get back there; it’s just far enough that every time I think about it I also think, nah. On the one hand it’s paradise–no cars at all. It’s insanely beautiful but WTF for bringing home anything heavy? Actually, it’s so beautiful that it’s mostly gîtes and AirBnBs and B&Bs. The quaint locals might not be locals at all. Who wants to haul groceries from a car park half a mile away (come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a grocery store there). When you’re on vacation in an unspeakably cute village with lovely, delicious restaurants that have jaw-dropping views, then you don’t buy groceries, you eat out and walk home along the stone paths, not having to worry about cars, though you might have to worry a tiny bit about not getting lost, since little villages are crazy mazes but hey, they’re little. You can’t stay lost for long.
It looks as if it were a castle designed by Disney for a princess. But Carcassonne isn’t a castle. It’s a fortified city (la Cité) with a castle inside it. I’ve been to the castle many times, and recently went back with visitors. I really don’t get tired of it–there are so many details. La Cité became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.The castle is a museum and you have to buy a ticket to get in. Only fair–I can barely keep up with maintenance of my house; I can’t imagine what this joint must require. The oldest parts date to 2,500 years ago. Ouf! Talk about built to last.
You enter through a barbican. The castle was the last defense within the well-defended city. The city itself had a drawbridge and walls–eventually a double ring of walls, which is unique–with many barbicans. A barbican is a brilliant piece of design–a half circle, it allows the residents 180 degrees of range of attack toward the outside. If, horrors, the attackers overwhelm the residents, the residents retreat farther inside and the attackers find themselves in the half-circle of the barbican–which has transformed from defense to trap, because there’s always a spot just a little beyond the barbican from which the residents can shoot at those in its confines, like fish in a barrel.
So if attackers made it over the first drawbridge they would be stuck in the sets of double doors that would drop down to trap invaders between, with a trap door above so the residents could pour boiling water, boiling oil, stones or whatever down on them. The trapped invaders would be left to die of their injuries/starve to death or, if the invaders seemed not worth the wait, the outer door could be opened so they could flee.If the attackers breached this defense, they could run up the narrow lanes of la Cité. The residents would have already absconded for the castle, the final refuge. It has a barbican–a big one, separated from the castle proper by a drawbridge over a dry moat. Why a dry moat, you ask? Well, Carcassonne is on top of a hill, so it isn’t like there would be water in the moat. (Except during the filming of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” with Kevin Costner.) But the structure was useful anyway because it slowed down the attackers and kept them corralled where it was easy to shoot at them.
There’s another set of double drop-down doors and then you’re in the Courtyard of Honor. Time to forget about invasions and to think more about court life.
The museum shows a wonderful short film about how Eugène Viollet le Duc restored la Cité, starting in 1844, saving it from almost being torn down. How he looked for traces of what was before–where there was a window, supports for a ceiling, etc. In other words, what you see today is a restoration of what was left centuries later but not quite as it was in its heyday in the early 13th century.
What do you think of historic restorations? I think it’s important to preserve the past, but you can’t bring it back. And so I like la Cité. It takes me to another time, another perspective.
Do you go to the tourist attractions in your town? In France, the entire country is a tourist attraction. La Cité is very popular, and in the summer, in the afternoon, it is crowded and hot and unpleasant with daytrippers who come over from the Mediterranean beaches for a few begrudging hours of culture. But even in summer, in the mornings and evenings, it’s not crowded and is so interesting. And off-season you can practically have the place to yourself, to let your imagination run wild. I love going to la Cité. After all these years, I still make discoveries.
The little details grab me more as time goes by. Long ago when I lived in New York, I had a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would pop in once or twice a week. When you go that often, you don’t feel obliged to see everything. I spent one visit just looking at the Grecian urns–a room full of them–marveling at the stories painted on them. I also was impressed by how few people stopped to look at them, instead just passing through to more “important” things.
The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.
Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.
What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. The other cool thing about visiting the museum is you have access to the ramparts, which offer amazing views over the “new” (1260) city and the countryside, down to the Pyrénées, if you’re lucky.
While it’s great to see Carcassonne off-season, the summer has advantages despite–or thanks to–the crowds. Tonight, I’m going to see a dance performance in the Cour d’Honneur–talk about a setting! It’s part of the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and more, some awfully expensive but other events free. And in August, it’s all things medieval, with jousting tournaments between the walls.
How do you feel about speaking a foreign language, even if it’s just a few words? Do you dive in and learn a few phrases? Or do you cross your fingers and hope that somebody will speak English? There are just too many languages that don’t resemble each other at all; it’s impossible to learn everything or even several, but a few phrases can engender a lot of goodwill.
Sometimes you have to get creative. When I first went to China, the country had two currencies, one for locals and one for foreigners. Well, actually, foreigners got “foreign exchange certificates,” which looked like money even if officially they weren’t. They had engravings of famous sights. So when I wanted to know whether I was going the right direction to the Temple of Heaven, I stopped someone on the street and showed them a note with the Temple of Heaven on it, pointing at the picture and then at the street, with eyebrows rising as a question. The guy was fascinated by the strange bank note, which he had never seen before. He was with a friend was so nervous he was practically wrenching the friend’s hand off his arm. Then he carefully and laboriously said: “Do. You. Speak. English?” Bingo! I had run into the one guy who could communicate with me, because in the 1980s, your average Chinese on the street didn’t speak other languages. I was jumping for joy–yes! I speak English! And he twisted and pulled his friend’s hand, took a deep breath and blurted out: “GO FORWARD!”
The facts have been lost in the fog of passing years, but I think my francophilia dates to reading Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans, about the audacious redhead and her adventures in Paris. I was simultaneously sad for her–boarding school! with nuns! and apendicitis!–and insanely jealous–PARIS!!!
I made do with posters of Paris on my walls until I finally got to go to the City of Light in person. I had four years of high school French, which I thought made me pretty darn good. Memories of my first trip to Paris also another thing mostly obscured by the fog of passing years, but I am sure of one thing, which is that I didn’t speak (or hear) as well as I thought.Years later, I took adult French classes at the New School in New York. One teacher was actually French and had us do the weirdest exercises–she would dictate a paragraph from a book, and we’d have to write it down, punctuation and all. You could end up with a negative score, once she marked off for spelling and accents, not to mention having misheard a completely wrong word (and she was insistent on grading us, even though it was a non-credit adult course). Only much later, when my own kid was in school in France, did I learn that this was a regular thing in French education: la dictée.She also tried mightily to improve our pronunciation. We used a book, Exercises in French Phonics, but I was still so focused on the difficult vowel combinations (euil!!! that one took forever to learn) and when final consonants or entire endings were silent (-ent on the end of third-person plural verbs in present tense: how do you not say THREE LETTERS???) and the whole nasal vowel thing that I didn’t pay much attention to the sounds I didn’t even register as different.Oliver Gee at the Earful Tower had a great podcast about fear of speaking French, and he confesses that he had only recently realized that tu and vous didn’t rhyme (tu is the singular form of you while vous is the plural form as well as the singular in formal situations). That was certainly my case back then. I went on a hiking trip in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières, in which I was the only non-French person. One of the other hikers said, “so for you it’s an adventure trip AND a language course.” In the evenings, we would play games, often cards. One day I suggested charades. They had no idea about charades, which surprised me, because I thought it was a French word. Anyway, I taught them how to play. When I did “sounds like,” they failed again and again to get my clue. Finally I explained the clue, and they hooted with laughter because it was that u/ou mistake–to them the clue didn’t sound like the desired word at all–the equivalent of thinking pool and pole sound alike. I could not get my mouth to produce u like the French, and I did not hear the difference.But that was the least of my humiliations. There was the time when I told a taxi driver to take me to the North Station for the train. His head whipped around so fast it was like in cartoons. And then I realized I had pronounced it guerre du Nord instead of Gare du Nord–I had asked to be taken to the Northern War. The driver very kindly didn’t rub my nose in the mistake.In fact, the French have a very charming way of correcting your mistakes. They won’t outright correct you–instead they will say what you should have said. If I stupidly say I want un livre de cerises–to ask for a pound of cherries (and people do say livre/pound for 500 grams), the vendor will sweetly say, “D’accord! Une livre de cerises.” Un livre–masculine–is a book. Une livre–feminine–is a pound. Or at the bakery, a request for a pain au chocolat will be met with “voilà, une chocolatine,” the name chocolate-filled croissants are called in the southern half of France.My other New School teachers were Americans and much more pragmatic. One gave us lists of phrases to memorize. When one of the students moans, she barked, “Only when these phrases roll off your tongue naturally can you even start to advance to conversations. I will not have dilletantes in my class!” (This was said to a class of mostly retirees who just wanted to brush up their French before going on vacation.)The other teacher offered hacks. The most common verb infinitive ends with -er; when speaking to an individual formally or to a group you use vous, and the conjugation of -er verbs with vous ends with -ez, which sounds just like -er: both sound like A. She encouraged us to be formal and address everybody as vous, and we wouldn’t have to sweat the verb conjugation. It was a good hack until I made friends and had to learn the conjugations with tu.My French is much, much better these days, although I still make mistakes, especially with the gender of nouns. And I cannot get rid of my accent. I think of my grandmother, who left Europe to move to the U.S. when she was about seven and whose accent was still perceptible nine decades years later. And then there are people like Jodie Foster–when watching one of her movies on TV I was struck that her dubbed voice sounded uncannily like her real voice–rare with dubbing. So I sat through the credits and saw that, yes, she dubbed herself. With a perfect accent.People judge when you have an accent. Some people think it’s amazing that you speak another language, and you get credit for being smart, often more credit than you deserve. An accent can sound exotic or seductive.Other people think you must be stupid. I got that, too. It’s one thing to communicate basic facts; it’s a long slog before you are able to crack a joke or express nuance in another language. I remember being at a meeting of the parent-teacher association and one of the other parents making a derisive remark about me as if I wouldn’t understand what he had said. It made me think of other people who are émigrés/immigrants, trying to fit into their new lives, being judged on criterion that don’t accurately measure who they are. I have the benefit of looking like any other French woman walking down the street; it’s only when I open my mouth that people know I’m not from here. For others, that judgment happens before any interaction even begins, because their skin color or their dress sets them out as different. It must be exhausting. Living abroad gives me more compassion to those who are strangers in a strange land, just trying to live their lives. I think the negative reactions come from a fear of the unknown, of being left out. I always spoke to my kid in English, and my husband always spoke in French, with the result that our kid is bilingual without trying. My husband told me I should speak only in French to our kid in public places, but I thought it was silly to switch languages just so other people would be able to eavesdrop more easily, and to hear what? “Put on your coat”/”Quit dawdling”/”What’s for dinner?” Nobody should be deprived of such scintillating stuff. At the same time, other parents would ask me to teach their kids English; I doubt many Arabic-speaking parents were solicited for language lessons.I learn new things in French every day. It’s a great adventure. Each discovery is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fits with other pieces, sometimes in surprising ways, and gives me a better picture of the people, the culture, the history. There is no shame in mistakes; the only people who don’t make mistakes are those who never try anything.
OK, 926 years. Old. The previous post focused on the gardens at the Abbaye de Fontfroide in the south of France. This time, we’re going inside.
The abbey is founded in 1093. By 1145 it joins the Cistercian order, which itself starts at the Citeaux Abbey in Burgundy in 1098. Lots of monastic orders start in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was a turbulent time (when wasn’t it?) and people were searching for answers. Western Christian monasteries are based on the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived from 480 to 547, give or take. He didn’t become a saint until 1964 (two of his miracles involved avoiding being poisoned which makes me think of SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci describing a saint and saying two of the miracles were card tricks), but we’ll cut Benedict some slack because he was upset about the excesses of his time. Was it like the ’80s (not to mention Gordon Gekko…who was the villain! Not the hero!!!) the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2008 or was it–gasp–even worse?
The monks, about 80 of them plus 250 brother converts (except around 1438, when the Black Death cut their number to around 20…can you imagine?), are committed to hard physical labor, silence and poverty. The vow of poverty is one reason why, despite the huge size of Fontfroide, the decoration is austere, though you can pick out that later parts have faces, etc., though nothing as naughty as Saint-Hilaire. Even the columns in the cloister show only plants, not faces as you would see elsewhere.You would think that the vow of poverty and dedication to hard work would make Fontfroide’s monks find common cause with the Cathars, but in fact the crusade against the Cathars is set off by the assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk who is the papal legate, sent to negotiate with the Cathars. Even before the actual battles begin, the Cistercians fight to stamp out the Cathar beliefs, though how they do this, stuck in a remote abbey and under a vow of silence, is unclear. I guess the lay brothers could talk, being the ones to leave the abbey walls to work, but they are lay–not all-in on the religion, though in that time everybody is all-in on the religion, like it or not. It dictates every aspect of everybody’s lives down to the smallest detail, no matter who you are, like in Iran today. After the Cathar crusade, Fontfroide rises in prominence, thanks to Jacques Fournier, head abbot in 1311 (succeeding his uncle…nothing like a little nepotism). Fournier is named bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and is part of the Inquisition court trying Cathar holdouts (the crusade was in 1209, so they’re exacting revenge more than a century later!). He is then named bishop of Mirepoix, then is promoted to cardinal in 1327 and is elected pope in 1334. This happens during the Great Schism, or the Avignon papacy, from 1309 to 1376, when seven consecutive popes live in France, not Rome. In fact, it’s Fournier, as Pope Benedict XII, who builds the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and he is buried in the Avignon cathedral. Things go downhill from there. More of the monks are nobles appointed to sinecures by the king and not very interested in monastic life. In fact, the so-called commendatory abbots suck up all the money of the abbey–and it covered 30,000 hectares between Béziers and Spain, versus 4,000 hectares today–to the extent that the real monks are probably in greater poverty than even they had signed up for. There are only seven monks left by 1594. About the same time, the non-religious monk-nobles build the fancier additions to the abbey, like the Court of Honor, built between the 16th and 17th centuries. They eat meat and chocolate (!!! a treat from newly discovered North America!) and play billiards. Can it be any worse? Sure it can–the church is one of the targets of the French Revolution in 1789, and the cushy noble-in-a-castle-that-pretends-to-be-an-abbey gig ends. The abbey is turned over to the Hospices of Narbonne in 1791. In 1833 the abbey is sold to the Saint-Aubin family, who want Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (the guy who restored la Cité of Carcassonne and Notre-Dame de Paris) to take it on. But it doesn’t work out.
By 1901, the last monks leave the abbey. It sits empty until 1908, when Gustave and Madeleine Fayet buy it at auction and start renovations. Gustave is a painter from a family of artists, and later adapts paintings into carpets, which are a big hit. Apparently, he also is an architect, industrialist, banker and winemaker. But to make money, it helps to already have money. Above all, he inherits an immense fortune from three generations of running barges on the Canal du Midi and transporting eau de vie–which better explain how he could afford such a project. He is so loaded that he buys another abbey as a gift for a female poet, because, hey, why not! Before buying Fontfroide, he flits around Europe and Algeria buying up art from the likes of Gauguin and Odilon Redon. In fact, he sells two Gauguins to a Russian collector in order to pay for the Fontfroide renovations in 1908, then in 1910 sells seven (!!!) works by Cézanne to fund more renovations. Meanwhile, he hosts musicians and artists, including Redon, who does a little decorating of the library while at the abbey. I found an article that called Fayet a cultural elitist, and it was meant as a compliment. So French.
Gustave Fayet died in 1925 in Carcassonne, and his wife, Madeleine died in 1971. The Fontfroide abbey is still operated today by descendants of Gustave and Madeleine.
Fontfroide isn’t related to the Cloisters that are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That said, the museum’s four cloisters were acquired from the general vicinity of Fontfroide–the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa not far to the south, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert just to the north, Bonnefont and Trie-en-Bigorre near Toulouse to the west. Those were bought by U.S. art dealer George Grey Barnard between 1934 and 1939, well after Fontfroide was in the Fayets’ hands.Fontfroide has two sets of interesting stained-glass windows. When Fayet bought the place, all the windows were destroyed. Traditionally, they would have been just grisaille, or gray, in keeping with the ascetic décor. In 1920, Fayet hired his buddy Réné Billa, alias Richard Burgsthal, to assemble collages from fragments of church windows in northern and eastern France that were destroyed in World War I. Very touching.In the church and, especially its Chappelle des Morts (Chapel of Death), which overlooked the cemetery and was built during the plague, the windows are audacious, full of vibrant colors. In the church, they depict moments from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In the Chapel of Death, Father Kim en Joong in 2009 created contemporary abstract windows with deep reds and blues that make the dark space even more meditative. Sorry, but my photos didn’t turn out. (I have others!)
The central courtyard, or Louis XIV courtyard, is the site of workshops, from the forge to the joinery and bakery. There’s an underground cistern that provides very cold water–Fontfroide means cold spring. So much to see. Big stuff and small details.Check out this drone video, which gives an idea of just how alone the abbey is in its setting.
What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.
With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria).
The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.
The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.
The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.
There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers. The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.
The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!