Window on Europe

P1050851There’s a lot to love about Europe. Not just the food, the history, the culture, the architecture, the countrysides, the windows (with a few favorites chosen today to accompany the text). A big part of what makes life here so good is thanks to the European Union. Photos of pretty windows aside, this isn’t the usual light fare yet everything is relevant to most people’s lives–like protecting you against bank fees and phone companies. What’s not to like?IMG_5618A favorite pastime seems to be making fun of silly legislation passed by the European Parliament. But that is often unfair, and sometimes the supposed laws aren’t even for real (get your news from mainstream media!). Take, for example, the Great Olive Oil Affair. The EU wanted to make olive oil labels easier to read and to ban restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable containers … because restaurants were refilling with lower-quality oil. In fact, the olive-oil producing countries were in favor of the ban, yet it was cited as a reason to vote for Brexit, because the Leavers wanted the right to be cheated by restaurants. P1050993In fact, everybody but Emmanuel Macron loves to bash the EU. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit about  “what have the Romans ever done for us.”

Lest anybody think otherwise, I wrote most of this ages ago, and it’s absolutely not intended to troll the U.K. for Brexit. While we all whine about how things need to be better (and lord help us if we get self-satisfied and give up on improving!), we don’t appreciate enough how far we’ve come. Think of this as a pre-Thanksgiving post.P1060197Aside from the big things, like peace, and the ability to travel and trade easily, here are a few ways the EU has improved life:

—Probably the biggest thing has been the reduction of poverty and modernization of southern Europe. Spain, for example, wisely used its generous handouts from the EU to build top-notch infrastructure like high-speed trains. My taxes make Spain better? YES!!!IMG_5219—Since 2006, the EU has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed to fatten livestock. More than a decade later, the U.S. banned certain antibiotics for fattening livestock. While it isn’t 100% proven, some scientists theorize that the obesity epidemic is linked at least to some extent to people consuming so much meat that contains antibiotics. However, the bigger threat is from antibiotic resistance.P1050167—The EU eliminated mobile phone roaming fees within the EU with a “roam like at home” rule. So I can use my basic (yet with unlimited calls) plan of €2 a month even when I’m in another EU country and not get hit with surcharges.

–The “Universal Service Directive” (those EU bureaucrats kill it with sexy names for their laws, don’t you think?) lets you change mobile phone companies but keep your number–and they have one day to switch you over. It encourages competition by making it very easy to switch operators.

—It required the same bank fees for payments, transfers and ATMs within the EU as domestically. No surcharges if you use your bank card at a shop or ATM while traveling.IMG_5129The euro reined in prices. Inflation in France was 24% between 2001 and 2011, compared with 68% between 1981 and 1991. Regarding the years chosen: in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations for the euro. That led to 199, when a single currency in fact, but not name or physical currency, began, because the exchange rates among the first euro members were locked in. The actual euro coins and notes appeared Jan. 1, 2002. (If you click on the link, the headline reads: L’euro fait flamber les prix depuis dix ans? Que nenni! Which means: The euro made prices skyrocket over the past 10 years? Not at all!) And let’s not forget how nice it is to travel around Europe without changing money–that also saved money because each time people or businesses exchanged currencies, they paid a commission.IMG_2694—In particular, prices fell for electronics and home appliances, largely because of cheap imports. And those were possible in part because the EU set standards for member countries (except the U.K. and Ireland), which previously had slightly different plugs, the better to protect domestic producers. IMG_5078All in all, life in the EU is good. Life expectancy has soared to 81 years today from 69 in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from a high of 10 metric tons per capita to 6.7. Those regulations have improved air and water quality, and thus life in general. IMG_4593Things aren’t perfect here, and there are plenty of ways the system could get better. But overall, the EU is a great example of how the government is indeed the solution, not the problem.IMG_3499

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Big Words in French

P1090157Before we get started with today’s post, an exciting announcement: Francophile podcaster Oliver Gee of the Earful Tower and his wife, the lovely Lina, are in Carcassonne. The newlyweds are making a heart-shaped tour of France for their honeymoon. Look forward to an episode from Cathar country. Oliver not only does podcasts but has a blog and does videos about life and cool things to do in France. Check them all out!

Back to today’s rambling. When the French say something is a gros mot, they don’t mean it’s a big word. They mean it’s a swear word or a vulgar term. This is something I was taught not by any French class or tutor but by my kid, who, in preschool, suddenly learned to be an arbiter of what was and wasn’t appropriate talk for polite society.

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Keeping with my penchant for absolutely random photos when I don’t have something relevant, today you get doors of Toulouse.

This post is to save you from innocently saying the wrong thing. Or maybe you don’t care, and this post will give you more ammunition for swearing in French.P1090138Speaking of not caring, when somebody asks you, “do you want an apple or an orange?” and you think either is equally good, you say, “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter.” If your inflection is polite, it sounds perfectly nice—as in, “I’ll take the one that’s most convenient for you to give me.” P1090198In French, there are different ways to say it: 

Ça m’est égal: it’s the same to me. Most polite.

N’importe: not important (doesn’t matter). Also polite.

Je m’en fiche: I don’t care. Less polite. It means really that you don’t care, and no matter how sweetly you say it, you are implying that the question is below you.

Je m’en fou: I don’t care but in an impolite way. A kid would be in trouble for saying it at school.P1090193In my early days in Brussels, having picked up some phrases from the general public without any context or nuances, I once brightly told a shopkeeper “je m’en fou,” intending to convey, “do whatever is easiest for you; I’m good either way.” I got a raised eyebrow (but nothing more), and the shopkeeper undoubtedly took it as proof Americans are rude, when it was proof I was ignorant. It wasn’t until much later that I learned my faux pas.P1090182I know some English speakers who say merde as a polite alternative to saying shit, since it just sounds better. Well, the choice of polite French speakers is mince, which means skinny. As in, “Oh, mince, I spilled my wine.” Another alternative is mercredi, or Wednesday, pronounced meeeeerrrrrrrr-credi!P1090186Knowing about mince and mercredi, I was quite charmed when I first heard the Carnivore, quite annoyed at something, mutter “singe!”  How adorable, I thought, he says “monkey” when he’s mad. Later I learned that it was saint-dieu, not singe. Very gros mot.P1090178A favorite gros mot in the south of France is putain, which means prostitute. But it isn’t restricted to swearing; instead folks say it where some English-speakers might use the F-word, which is to say, as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb or just exclamation point (challenge: use putain as a preposition! as an article!). Extreme anger might be expressed with putain de merde. Watch this subtitled standup act by Patrick Bosso, who explains how to speak like a Marseillais (somebody from Marseille). It’s absolutely truffled with gros mots.P1090176Polite alternatives include purée (same word in English) and punaise, which are either bedbugs or thumbtacks, depending on the context. However, they only work as exclamations. Other polite exclamations: zut! flûte! 

Ça me fait chier and ça m’emmerde mean to annoy intensely, although literally both translate to “that makes me defecate.” Polite alternative: ça m’enerve, or that annoys me. Also ça m’agace, ça me gonfle (that blows me up) and oh, so many others.P1090174Americans sometimes say “shut up!” to mean “I don’t doubt you’re telling the truth but what you’re saying is shocking.” The archaic term (from the last century…you know, the 20th century) is “No way!”  Example: someone observes, “Beyoncé’s ex-drummer claims she does witchcraft,” and draws the response: “Shut up!”P1090164The French don’t do that. Ferme ta guele (sometimes just ta guele), or shut your mouth, but only animals have une guele; humans have une bouche. Very rude.

Tais-toi, or shut up, is neutral, though rather than command an adult (how well do you take being told “be quiet”?), it’s better to say chut, pronounced like “shoot,” which means  shush.

Casse-toi, barre-toi and va t’en all are ways to tell someone to “get lost,” though there are far more colorful choices. A milder alternative is laissez-moi tranquil, or leave me be. P1090159This just scratches the surface; the vocabulary of French gros mots is vast and rich. In fact, there are entire dictionaries dedicated to the topic, including “Dictionnaire des Gros Mots” by Marc Lemonier and “Gros Mots” by Gilles Guilleron.

Did you ever innocently utter a gros mot out of ignorance? A rite of passage for all learners of a new language…

Bella Ciao

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

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

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

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

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

 

Play it again, Sam

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

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

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

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

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

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Closed for renovations.

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

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

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

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

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Red for local rides.
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Lots of taxis!

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

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

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

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The Grand Theatre of Casablanca, aka CasArts.

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

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

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

18.Bananiers
Bananas too.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

French Floats

IMG_6214About two hours before the cyclists of the Tour de France pass by, there’s complete craziness on the route as the beloved caravane parades through, tossing goodies to bystanders.P1100568No homemade homecoming floats here. It’s all professional, promoting the official sponsors of the race. They are simultaneously slick, professional advertisements and laughingly absurd.P1100548Take, for example, the Gaulois chicken brand. Yes, chicken–the cigarettes are Gauloises, feminine. The first vehicle had a chicken on a bike. Yes, it’s the Tour de France, and it was all bicycles all the time. But I learned during a trip in Mali that really tough chicken is called poulet bicyclette–bicycle chicken–so hard to chew that it must have been raised riding a bike, which doesn’t seem like an image to promote. On the other hand, the number of spectators who have eaten tough chicken in Africa is probably low.P1100549They also had nuggets…”Crousty Chicken” is quite the franglais mashup. “Crusty” in French is croustillant.P1100551Gizzards (you KNOW you’re in France when gizzards are all over your salad, whether you asked for them or not)…P1100552And very tantalizing brochettes. They didn’t forget the bun (petit pain--little bread–when something sells like hotcakes here you say “c’est parti comme des petits pains”).IMG_6226It takes a certain nonchalance to drive such a beast, no?

I don’t remember what they were throwing to the crowd, but we didn’t score any. Keychains? Magnets? The top photo shows Vittel, and they handed out bottles of water (no throwing those!). Then a float came by with people spraying the crowd with mist. Years ago, people would dance and jump in the mist, arms in the air, but this time everybody hurried to protect their phones.P1100560This one is very Parisian, n’est-ce pas? The lamp post, the advertising kiosk….Krys is an optician chain.

The floats are an opportunity for people to live out their superstar fantasies. Parading past adulating crowds. Several floats were like Krys, with booming party music and somebody pretending to DJ, and usually some dancers. Never mind that the crowds want freebies and don’t care about you. A person can dream! IMG_6222P1100571Cochonou (cochon is pig; Cochonou is a brand of hard sausage), with its iconic red gingham on iconic Citroën 2CVs. It’s definitely the crowd favorite–they distribute little sachets of sausage. Where else, right?P1100539Juice…P1100535Mickey Mouse magazines…P1100562Madeleines….and they throw out little packets with two madeleines in each! P1100541P1100542This one cracked me up–the family biking and the mother and daughter are smiling but the dad is grimacing. Skoda is a brand of cars built in the Czech Republic, owned by Volkswagen.IMG_6227Candy is dandy…and of course that’s what they tossed out.IMG_6225IMG_6224Laundry soap…we scored a sample of that.

I noticed that the people on the floats were wearing harnesses that were attached to the vehicles. It was kind of odd to see the ones who were on bikes (not on the road but atop the floats, a common theme) or dancing tied to the float. The ones who were throwing stuff really leaned out, and I suppose the sponsors didn’t want falls, even though the floats go much more slowly than the racers, at least in towns.IMG_6217Promoting the movie Hotel Transylvania 3…IMG_6218IMG_6219FDJ is France de Jeux–the lottery operator. Notice the symbol is a four-leaf clover. IMG_6221McCain is a brand of French fries. Notice that they’re in a fryer basket–there’s even the handle on the back.IMG_6223Bic pens, native to France, are so iconic that many people don’t say stylo (pen) but instead say Bic, the way people refer to a photocopy as a Xerox or a paper tissue as a Kleenex.

Lots of fun, with lots of scrambling for prizes. If you want to see an old guy race a young kid, just throw a free refrigerator magnet in between them.

On Tuesday, I did a post about the actual cyclists. And if you missed them, you can see the posts from when the Tour came to Carcassonne two years ago: the caravane and the race itself.

Did you know about the Tour de France caravane?

 

 

 

 

 

Tour de France 2018

IMG_9007The Tour De France left from Carcassonne today, having arrived on Sunday. A big, big, big event for a small city. Two years ago, the tour had a departure from Carcassonne, but to have an arrival AND a departure AND a rest day is huge.

Of course, we had to see it. After all the preparations, the roads miraculously repaved just days earlier, the banners, the excess all around. Plus, we’ve seen the Tour de France a few times and know there are goodies. More on that on Friday. Just sayin’, if you ever plan to watch the Tour de France in person, get there at least two hours early and I hope you can catch.

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The (other) guy in a yellow shirt is waving a Romanian flag. What you don’t get to see is his wife, who also had a flag and who was wearing a Sponge Bob costume (not just a shirt, but a stiff thing that stood up as if it had a life of its own). I admire their devotion, but can somebody explain the Sponge Bob-bike connection?

This time, the riders came from Millau, passing the Pic du Nore, the highest point of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountains), which is the bottom part of the Massif Central (the highland region in the middle of southern France). I love that the Pic du Nore (the Northern Peak) is the southern most peak of the Black Mountains and the Massif Central. This tells you it was named not from the perspective of, say, Paris, but from a different perspective–from the plain that separates the Black Mountains from the Pyrénées, and from where the peak would be to the north. Like where Carcassonne is. BTW, the Pic du Nore is a first category mountain pass, with a 6% incline.

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Clearly these are not in order. There’s Geraint!

Geraint Thomas, 32, of Wales and Team Sky, wore the yellow jersey. That’s him in the top photo as well as several others here (thanks to the Carnivore who has a phone that actually takes photos while I use a 10-year-old point-and-shoot camera and my phone’s photos look like what I see when I don’t wear my glasses). The BBC has a story and interview with Froome and Thomas here. The BBC lost big points in my book by misspelling Carcassonne. If it were another outlet, I might shrug it off to kids these days. But the BBC? All hope is lost.

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And then a bunch come by. Why is that guy standing?

Today, the cyclists left from Place Général de Gaulle in the center of town, rounded the Bastide, at a couple of paces from our AirBnB apartments (!!!), and then headed toward Montréal (a different one! They’re everywhere, like Villeneuves! This Montréal is very small and pretty, with great views, an excellent day trip, though it wouldn’t take a day to see it all) and then to Fanjeaux (to complete your day trip), where the incline is so steep that when I drive there I have to use first gear, although I take the straight short cut that’s marked DO NOT ENTER, whereas the cyclists will do the switchbacks. It’s a fourth category hill with a 4.9% incline (unless you do the straight line. But I think somebody would notice). Fanjeaux, like Montréal (and la Cité of Carcassonne), is a hilltop village straight out of a medieval painting, designed for defense.

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And suddenly there are a zillion of them, riding frighteningly fast.

Some things I learned this time: Sometimes the riders take potty breaks in the roadside bushes, but sometimes they just let loose while they’re riding. Did you know that? Goodness. I didn’t! And I was shocked! I suppose they try to do it in the middle of nowhere (after all, each stage is four, five, six hours). But at least two helicopters were filming them, plus drones. I guess if you’re paid enough, you don’t care.

Possibly related or not: A friend tried very hard to offer a cold beer to a sweet gendarme who was standing on the sidelines, for hours, in the sun, with disobedient onlookers. But he declined! I was surprised.

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Does this not ooze V.I.P.? Note the fake tulip! I also appreciate the wheelchair ramp, having wheeled my parents (not as much as my siblings) and noticing the general lack of access in Europe.

Urination aside, the Tour de France is a class act. I poked my head into the VIP tent and snapped these awful shots before being chased away. I was impressed that even though it was a tent in a parking lot, the workers were busily wheeling in large potted plants, and every table had a fake yellow tulip (it isn’t the season for tulips–that’s why they’re fake. Not to mention the logistics–I imagine some poor roadie assigned to scrounge up so many yellow flowers at every stop along the route. Fake is the only solution). To me, it was SO FRENCH. Of course there are flowers on the tables. Of course there are potted plants. Of course there’s a carpet on the asphalt. And, knowing who catered, of course the food was amazing. (Actually, the food would probably be amazing anywhere on the Tour de France route. You have to make an effort to eat badly in France. It can happen, but it really has to be the result of a chain of miscalculations.)P1100522

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This is like a paparazzi shot of a plant.

The last time the Tour left from Carcassonne, and when you’re close to the departure, the cyclists are closely lumped together. This time, for the arrival, it was after the Pic du Nore did its triage and the first riders arrived 13 minutes before the peleton.

If you want to split your sides laughing about cycling, check out the movie “Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert,” with Benoît Poelevoorde, who is one of the funniest actors alive. It’s about a mediocre cyclist who dreams of the fame of Belgian multiple Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx (pronounced merks…he’s still revered today). Hilarious.

Do you watch the Tour de France? Do you bike?

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The first guys. No idea who they were.

Sales Season in France

IMG_5755The French soldes or sales come twice a year–in July and January. They’re the moment when retailers mark down old inventory to move it and make way for the nouvelles collections. Store-wide sales aren’t allowed outside the designated periods, though retailers can offer promos or promotions at will on a few items, kind of like loss leaders. P1100471This summer’s soldes started June 27–it’s always on a Wednesday, probably linked to the fact that school is in session only half the day on Wednesdays (and classes continue until the early days of July, so yes, it matters). They will be over August 7. For some reason, two departments (Alpes-Maritimes and Pyrénées-Orientales)  have soldes from July 4 to August 14.

Usually the soldes run for six weeks, but the government wants to shorten it to four, starting with the next winter soldes. (The winter soldes start the second Wednesday of January, unless that would be after Jan. 12, in which case they start on the first Wednesday.) IMG_5756The idea is that retailers get tired of having soldes for so long and that merchandise gets picked over quickly, leaving the dregs to lie about for too long. Shorter soldes would create more urgency.

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Third markdown…

Each week of the soldes, retailers cut prices further. They start off with a tease, with most stuff marked to 20% or 30% off, then up to 40% or 50%, and finally toward 70% and more.

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Fourth markdown.

I operate on the coup de coeur strategy for the soldes. If you really like something, it’s dangerous to wait for it to be marked down–your size or favorite color might be gone. If you have broad parameters, like “jeans,” or “shoes” then you might find something that tickles your fancy and doesn’t pinch your pocketbook. Some of the best deals are in small boutiques, which want to clear the racks for new items and which might not have a good system to get rid of remainders. The soldes also apply to other retailers, like electronics or appliances.

I did the soldes in Toulouse recently. Even though we brought water bottles, I started to feel overheated after a few hours of beating the pavement. We had waited out the first couple of weeks, not so much out of strategy than out of scheduling, but it was just as well, because by afternoon there were long lines for changing rooms.

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The main shopping drag in Carcassonne with its pretty parasols that cast such lovely, soft shade.

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The parasols of Carcassonne…the opposite of the Parapluies (umbrellas) of Cherbourg (culture tip: that’s the name of the 1964 movie that was Catherine Deneuve’s first big role).

I do have two coping strategies: Go early, as soon as the doors open. This applies to museums and other tourist sights, as well. Everybody says they’re going to get an early start, then they roll out the door around 10 or 11 and it’s almost lunch and so why not just wait until after eating. In fact, lunch time is the other strategy–it’s sacred in France, so if you go against the flow (when you want to get something done, otherwise, by all means, adopt the leisurely lunch!) you can avoid the crowds. P1100470Wishing you short lines and beaucoup de bonnes affaires!

Joie

P1080296What a weekend! Three days of happy events. July 13, a night of communal dinners and local fireworks–the villages know they can’t compete with the giant Bastille Day display above the Carcassonne citadel. Then July 14, the big deal. Plus it was a Saturday. The produce market unrecognizable–more tourists than tomatoes. Every café terrace packed. The party starts early and goes late.

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La Cité…it’s impressive any time but at night you can really imagine the 1200s.

P1080299Leaving the market, I was relieved to find my car still in its quasi-legal parking spot (much of the regular parking had been declared off-limits in preparation for the fireworks crowds that would start showing up). An older woman in a cheerful red dress with white polka dots approached, lugging a clearly heavy tote bag. “Is Avenue Antoine Marty far?” she asked. I pointed to it, a couple of blocks away. She peered into the distance.

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The lights in the foreground are people’s phones.

I told her to hop in, I would take her. She was thrilled. It quickly became evident that she knew very well where Avenue Antoine Marty was; the question seemed to be to determine whether I was fit to ask for a ride. I was glad to have passed the test. The municipal electric minibus that usually took her close to her home wasn’t running because the centre ville streets had been closed to traffic in view of the influx of visitors for the day’s events. I suspect she was trudging home, saw me, a not-young woman pulling a shopping caddy, getting into a car with local 11 license plates and she decided to take a chance. By 11 a.m. it already was hot and she didn’t exactly live nearby.

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Do you see la Cité glowing?

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Then engulfed in smoke.

She informed me she was 90. She was in fine form!! She had hefted her bag into the car before I had a chance to get out and do it. She wore a string of pearls and earrings and, I noticed, her sandals exposed her toes, twisted and deformed and undoubtedly very painful for walking long distances.IMG_5334She said 90 was no fun. She was born in Carcassonne and had lived there her whole life and always had lots of friends. But now, they were dying off, her coffee posse dwindling from 15-strong to five. “What are they thinking, dying like that?” she demanded, not rhetorically but in a clearly irritated way, like “why did you leave the lights on?”IMG_5476As she gave me directions, she told me about her life. Her daughter died of cancer a few years ago. “I died, too,” she said. “I am still here, but I stopped living when I lost her. It is not right to lose a child. What was she thinking, dying like that?”

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The “embrasement” or burning of la Cité. It never happened in real life, at least not here, but you can imagine the horror back in the day when fortified cities came under attack.

P1080302I dropped her off in front of her house and told her we had to have coffee the next time we crossed paths at the market. I don’t doubt I’ll see her again. I thought of something I’d recently read by the poet Donald Hall, who recently died at age 89: “However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.” I certainly hope my new friend in the red dress felt like the self who still lives inside.

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An ancien combattant let me photograph his medals. The horrors he must have witnessed to have so many. 

Later, our family joined the celebratory throngs in town, having dinner en terrasse at the central square (classic steak tartare, Thai steak tartare and a salade César at l’Artichaut). In the afternoon, a very good singer was belting out Aretha Franklin covers; at dinner time it was traditional bal musette, with people dancing around the fountain of Neptune as others ate at the many cafés.

As the sun set, we headed toward the river to watch the fireworks. I am constantly amazed by how polite the crowds are here. Even when the fireworks started, people stayed seated. No litter. Just laid-back, enjoying the moment.

 

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Some folks came early, with chairs, tables and food. And wine, Duh. This is a civilized crowd!
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Look at the masses on the bridge. That is too much crowd for me.
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Walking back to the Bastide, good moods all around.

And then, on Sunday, les Bleus delivered another World Cup championship. While my husband and kid watched (at home–no distractions), I puttered around the garden and listened, in stereo, to the collective cries of the villagers on the emotional rollercoaster–with air conditioning unheard-of here, everybody’s windows were open. Mostly cheers, but there were a couple of loud groans. Later, young people gathered on the main road to cheer at passing cars, but there was little traffic. The few cars that came by at least participated with plenty of honking.

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Smileys.

Next up: the Tour de France has an arrival, a rest day and a departure from Carcassonne next weekend.

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All photos (except the blurry ones, which are my fault) by our kid.

Le Jazz et le Java

IMG_3518Coffee: I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school French class, I learned that there was un express and there was un café au lait. However, things are much murkier.

Un express is an espresso, also known as a café court or a short coffee. This is in contrast to un café allongé, or an elongated coffee, which is stretched out with water and which also goes by the name café américain. It’s more like the filtered coffee you might make with a drip coffee maker, although in a café they don’t have drip machines and just add hot water to the espresso.

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Un café. With a sugar and a little piece of chocolate (that was hoovered up before I got a photo).

But you can also order “un espresso.” Or “un café,” because the default setting for coffee is espresso–small, strong, with a frothy foam, and a sugar or two on the side. It is considered correct to drink any time of the day, and at the end of meals, after dessert.

Coffee with milk is a different beast. For one thing, it’s breakfast. You will get a raised eyebrow but no objection if you order a milky coffee after a meal. Probably because it’s often a big bowl of frothy milk, with an espresso dropped in–it’s filling. And if you say, “un café au lait, s’il vous plaît,” they will nod and repeat, “un café crème,” or just “un crème.” (This is a little like how, around here, if you ask for un pain au chocolate they will nod and repeat, “une chocolatine” or “une choco,” which is the regionally preferred term, kind of like the pop/soda split in the U.S., but more heated because it’s about food and it’s in France. The debate even went to Parliament, and you can vote here.) Now, if you paid attention in high school French class, you know that crème is feminine–think la crème de la crème. But, I guess, since in this case it’s short for café, which is masculine, it gets to be masculine.

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Un crème.

I caught onto the café crème instead of café au lait thing quickly, but it took me a while to figure out the masculine/feminine part. This will make my husband laugh because I am terrible with genders in French, managing to get them wrong more than half the time, he says, noting that a random guess would come out right 50% of the time.

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Un café noisette. Much smaller than un crème.

Another term for confusion: un noisette (that masculine/feminine thing again!) is an espresso with a hazelnut-size dollop of milk. I have seen flavored coffees in some cities, but they are not common.

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A cappuccino. You have been warned.

Also, beware that if you order a cappuccino, you will not get a coffee with frothy milk but a coffee with whipped cream–practically dessert.

Speaking of which, un café gourmand is a coffee served with an assortment of mini pastries or desserts.

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A French press, bien sûr. I love it for cold-brewing iced coffee.

The title of this post is an hommage to the song, Le Jazz et le Java, by Claude Nougaro. Check it out here. A classic!

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Happy Bastille Day! Rooting for les Bleus in the World Cup final on Sunday. 

With a Cherry on Top

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMountains of cherries at the market these days. They are labeled by variety–Burlat, Montmorency, Bigarreau, coeur de pigeon (yes, pigeon’s heart), Napoleon, Van–and by origin–Spain, France, or, more specifically, surrounding villages like Caunes-Minervois. A lot of cherries, especially the early ones, come from Céret, south of Carcassonne. Actually, it’s also south of Perpignan, right near the border with Spain.cherries closeCéret has several claims to fame. Cherries, to be sure. It is in the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the neighboring department of Pyrénées-Orientales, in a little protected valley that has a very mild microclimate. Hence the early cherries, a crate of which is sent to the French president.

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Lots of arches!

It also was the capital of the Catalan county of Vallespir, back before this area became part of France in 1659. Even today, there’s a Spanish flavor to the region. Although official borders are delineated down to the centimeter, in reality, countries–cultures–overlap, and you pass from one to another not by hopping over a line but in a progression, like ombre colors, with the intensity deepening the farther you go. Especially here, where borders have moved so many times, and where people have moved even more.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn example of Céret’s Spanish–or, really, Catalan–heritage is its feria, with running of bulls and bullfights every July (11-15 this year). The modern feria was started in 1980, but records of the practice date to the 1500s, when the celebration was held in September for the feast of Saint Ferréol. Never heard of him? I know the name only by the reservoir that feeds the Canal du Midi. I looked him up and found this site, which warns, “Don’t mix up your Ferréols!” Who knew this could be a problem with such an uncommon name? Saint Ferréol was born in Vienne in the 3rd century. Though he doesn’t seem to have visited Céret, there’s a chapel dedicated to him just outside town, with crutches of the miraculously healed hanging on the walls.

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Narrow streets!!!

Céret is a small town of around 8,000 inhabitants, but it became an important center for Cubism. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved there in 1911. Soon their friends joined–Raoul Dufy, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Juan Gris, André Masson and others. The little town lost in the mountains became a refuge for Marc Chagall and several other artists fleeing the Nazis during World War II. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1950, Picasso and Henri Matisse helped establish the Museum of Modern Art in Céret. Besides those painters, the museum also has works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and many of the artists who have stayed in Céret over the years, like Chagall and Masson.124.Street in CeresCéret is another pleasant day trip from Carcassonne–about an hour and a half drive. It’s a little place, and even with a visit to the museum, you have time to include a stop at the beach.