The 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. This 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.) The 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.
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.
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.
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. Wishing you short lines and beaucoup de bonnes affaires!
What 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.
Leaving 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.
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.
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.She 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?”As 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?”
I 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.
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.
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.
Next up: the Tour de France has an arrival, a rest day and a departure from Carcassonne next weekend.
Coffee: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Mountains 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.Céret 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.
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.An 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.
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. In 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.Céret 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.
Late May is the ideal time to see red seas of poppies stretching across the French countryside. One of my earliest romanticized notions of France was Claude Monet’s painting, “Poppy Field in Argenteuil,” with a woman, hat on her head and parasol over her shoulder, wading through a poppy field with a child. He painted poppies in other places as well, including Giverny, where he had his lovely house and gardens.
It’s easy to play Monet around here. In fact, what’s hard is not driving off the road as I spy yet another spectacular red field. On the drive to the sports complex, there’s a big field on a plateau, and another below it are all red. As I continued my errands, I contemplated where I could pull off and how I could clamber over the drainage ditch and up the steep ledge to get to the view–which would have la Cité behind it! I made some stops in town, including for another field of poppies and la Cité, and then came back from a different direction. A hill that’s usually to my back was in front of me, and it was completely red. The flowers flowed down, like a floral Kilauea, across the road to the plateau I’d already seen. Amazing. But a very busy road, and no place to pull over and shoot photos. I certainly dismayed the drivers behind me as I slowed down to stare and gasp. (I will try to find a safe vantage point for shooting it!)
La Cité from the other side, with other poppies. This field is on the plateau, and the red hill is to the left, but hidden from this vantage point. I tried to climb around but couldn’t get to it.
A small traveling circus set up next to another poppy field. I’ve written about the circus before, but it was a different one. Shortly after this one arrived, I saw a large man at the top of a very, very high light pole. The poles have plugs for the Christmas decorations. While the municipal workers use a mechanical lift to get up there, circus folks just shimmy up like monkeys. Without a net.
During the circus’s stay, I marveled at the ability of some people to make noise for no reason. Mid-morning, a trumpet blared, not in the way of somebody practicing, even badly. It was in the manner of a child who comes upon a trumpet and decides to try it out, with the full force of his lungs. For a couple of hours. No discernible tune or rhythm. Even a child would get bored with just making noise, but this trumpeter didn’t. Day after day after day.
Along with the trumpet (which didn’t seem to be played during the shows–those had canned music), there was incessant hammering, clanking and banging throughout the day and night–normal when they put up and took down the tent, but the other times? Very mysterious. Also, neighing, braying, barking and whatever noise it is that camels make, because there were lots of them, munching on poppies, their humps slumped to the side, like melting ice cream cones just before they plop to the ground.From time to time, I heard a lion roar, and I thought, “it isn’t even show time. All the kids are in school (except for the two zillion children of the circus performers, who ran around screaming from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., except for when they were riding scooters. I don’t mind kids screaming, actually. They have a reckless exuberance that I admire, although not so much at 6 a.m. nor at 11 p.m.). Why are they playing that stupid fake lion tape now?” I even heard it during the night. It wasn’t until they were leaving that I realized it wasn’t a tape, but a poor, pathetic lion, probably as bored as the trumpeter.The morning the circus packed up to leave, at 6:02 a.m., I heard a guy shouting, “Allez, allez, allez!” (Go, go, go!) Then: “Oh! Tenez! PURÉE!!!” (Oh! Hold on! Mush!) I don’t know what went wrong, but I was impressed by his clearly rigorous inculcation in G-rated language, the circus being for children, after all. Even under under duress, rather than say putain–whore–a common swear word, especially in the south of France, where it is used almost like a comma, this distressed/dismayed guy spat out the polite version, purée. Some others are mince (skinny) or mercredi (Wednesday) instead of merde, and punaise (a thumbtack, which in turn is named after a stinkbug) which also replaces putain. So if somebody says Wednesday or thumbtack to you in a sentence where those words make no sense, now you know: they’re mad, not crazy.
I thought about the circus again this morning, when I woke up to the sound of birds singing. SO. MANY. BIRDS. And no trumpets or lions.
What do you get when you cross novelist Dan Brown with cheese? Rennes-le-Château!
Rennes-le-Château made an appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown’s thriller about a conspiracy and some very creative interpretations of history. Supposedly Jesus high-tailed it to France with Mary Magdalene, which is how the Holy Grail–or the cup he used at the Last Supper–ended up at a tiny church in a tiny village in the deepest depths of France profonde.
This just shows that we have stories for every stripe of crazy, from ufologists to people drawn to Rennes-le-Château, including to excavate for buried treasure. Which is strictly forbidden, and written all over the place.
Back in the 1890s, the village priest, Bérenger Saunière, seemed to be suddenly rolling in dough. He had the church fixed up, then built himself a domaine and a tower, la Tour Magdala, in 1901. By 1902, the bishop of Carcassonne, who had turned a blind eye to the priest’s spending, had died, and the new higher-ups demanded an accounting, which the priest didn’t want to do.
It isn’t clear whether the holy grail story was made up by Saunière or by a local hotelier looking for publicity. In any case, long before the advent of the Internet, the tale worked magic, because all kinds of illuminés turned up and haven’t stopped. For example, in 2011, some “researchers” claimed that Rennes-le-Château holds King Solomon’s gold and that the Visigoths brought the original menorah, used by Moses. Because that makes complete sense, right?
What is undeniable is that the hilltop village of 65 inhabitants (and THREE restaurants!!) is charming and has breathtaking views. We stopped on our way home from Bugarach, having loaded up on goat’s and sheep’s cheeses as part of de la Ferme en Ferme, or From Farm to Farm, circuit–something to check out if you’re in the region.
Rennes-le-Château is 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Carcassonne. There’s lots to see along the way! Cute villages, mountains, farms, ruins, cows and sheep and goats….
Bugarach, a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrénées, is at the end of the Earth in both senses of the term. Well, sort of.
It was supposed to be the only place to be saved when the world ended on Dec. 21, 2012 (or Dec. 12, 2012, depending on your source). According to certain interpretations of Mayan calculations, the planet Nibiru was to hit the Earth on that day, reversing the poles and making the Earth spin in the opposite direction. However, the extraterrestrials would either come out of their hiding spot in the caves and around the supposed underground lake of the mountain Bugarach, under whose shadow the village sits and whose name it carries, or they would swoop in from space and pick up folks smart enough to be there.
Bugarach (the mountain) is indeed unusual. First, it stands alone and looks pretty impressive with its bare pech (in Occitan; pic in French or peak), which at 1231 meters is the highest of the Corbières. Tectonic movement caused it to be “une montagne renversée”–an upside-down mountain, in which the bottom layers are older than the top layer. Supposedly this also causes the magnetic poles to be reversed there, which is why–presto chango–the mountain would be saved during the cataclysmic global pole reversal. The predictions were inflated by the Internet, drawing an international throng of ufologues (believers in UFOs, though the French term is OVNI–objet volant non-identifié–same thing), illuminés (crazies) and zozotériques (a local’s fancy word for zozos–more crazies). The little village of 200-ish people was flooded with folks who went to the mountain to conduct strange rituals in the nude and who collected the mountain’s supposedly magical rocks.
Bugarach was big news in late 2012, and I kept meaning to check out the hippy dippy village–it’s about an hour and a half south of Carcassonne, a beautiful drive. Since then, it has eased back into quiet isolation. It’s a good 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the next village, making it feel quite a bit like the end of the earth…even though the world didn’t end, whether due to the nonexistence of Nibiru, miscalculations by the Mayans, or what.
This week was the start of De la Ferme en Ferme–From Farm to Farm–and the May 1 circuit included a loop from Rennes-les-Bains to Rennes-le-Château, passing through Bugarach for some sheep’s cheese. The two Rennes aren’t next to each other at all; Rennes-le-Château gained some notoriety with “The Da Vinci Code,” because of a fake buried treasure a local priest cooked up, spawning conspiracy theories. Rennes-les-Bains is the site of some Roman baths, of which there are many in the area.
Bugarach’s history also goes back to the Romans, who had a mine nearby in the first century CE. Then the Visigoths turned up around the fifth century; a cemetery remains. During the Wars of Religion, Calvinists from the north sought refuge in what would have seemed to be a safe place at the end of the world, but, no, they were hunted down in several massacres between 1575 and 1577. In the 1700s, Bugarach became known for hatmaking (up until 1990, and Queen Elizabeth and François Mitterand supposedly wore Bugarach brand hats). By 1831 Bugarach had more than 1,000 inhabitants, three hat factories, five water mills and many other businesses. It held three fairs, which must have been good, because it would have been difficult for folks to get to. I imagine many residents back in the day never left the village. Today the road is smooth tarmac (but only wide enough for one car; if you meet another vehicle, one has to back up to where the shoulder is somewhat wider to let the other pass), but when it was just a dirt track, it would have taken a long time to travel those dozen miles to the next town.
Bugarach today is very cute, starting from the view from afar. Everything is little.
What was left of the château was restored and turned into a community hall and exposition space, in what I thought was a decent mix of ancient and modern–something that doesn’t always work.
The town also has two charging spots for plug-in electric vehicles, which seemed exceptionally forward thinking. And three restaurants plus a table d’hôte for a town of 200! It shows how Bugarach continues to pull in people who today come to hike and enjoy the countryside.
Yeah, everybody does 5k races, and everybody even does them throwing colored powder at the runners. But not everybody does them around a medieval fortress.We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
On Saturday, the young, healthy and energetic citizens of the city gathered along the Aude river for “Color My Run.” It’s in English because that’s cool, authentic. The symbol is a castle because … France.I know these color runs have been a thing for quite a while, but we are in France profonde–deepest France–and it was a first here. Put together by a group of students (more cheers for young people!), with proceeds going to Secours Populaire, or People’s Relief.
It was all organized in usual French fashion, which is to say, extremely organized, except that, in European fashion (I won’t pin it solely on the French, since a number of other nationalities do it, too), the lines were more amoebas than lines, but at least they moved quickly. The young organizers scanned participants’ tickets (you had to sign up online–of course) with their phones (of course. Does anybody use phones to call? I don’t think so, but they do everything else). It helps that Carcassonne is small and not very cut-throat. People are still registering at the starting time? Well, we’ll wait until everybody is ready. Plenty of time! Relax!
I tell you, life here is good. Even people running a race have all the time in the world.We were not on top of the fashion situation, because lots of runners came decked out in crazy outfits.
One group of young ladies even dyed their hair, half green, half red. That’s dedication.
The runners took off along the Quai Bellevue–it does have a pretty view–then crossed the 14th century Pont Vieux, or old bridge, which is entirely pedestrian.
I thought the route was going to be an easy loop along one side of the river–semi-wild, very pretty parkland because it’s in a flood zone–and then on the other–more parks, all flat. However, just after the bridge, the route included a quad-melting climb to the walls of la Cité.
There’s a new art installation, called Eccentric Concentric, by Felice Varini, with 15 yellow circles on the ramparts. I am no art critic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but to me it looks like either the symbol for wifi or the symbol on the highways to warn that there’s a radar ahead.As long as it’s temporary.
When I lived in New York, first I was downtown and constantly marveled at the high-rises and bright lights. I’d go to the top of the World Trade Center just because it was nearby and always a thrill. Later, I lived in Brooklyn and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go home, always gazing in wonder at the view out the back window, even after years of it. Now, it’s la Cité that makes me pinch myself. How is it possible that such a place existed? An even bigger question: How is it possible it still is intact today?
To do something as universal and ordinary as running, while in the shadow of such a place, well, I never can believe it’s real, even after so many years.The thing is, all the stuff around it is so pretty but la Cité is so awesome you don’t even notice the rest. Like the pretty little dam on the river with a little footbridge.At the end of the run, which was noncompetitive, there was an afternoon rave with the cutest DJ brothers. They clearly took their work very seriously, and made playing music look as complex as any scene from the command deck of a space ship that’s under attack, yet they seemed to enjoy it at the same time. The post-run crowd relaxed by jumping madly (after a run!) and had good, clean fun, as you can see below.
And if anybody now has an earworm of Chicago crooning “Color My World,” bringing back a flood of prom and homecoming memories, well, maybe next time you will run, too?
I prepared this post last week. Today, we are in shock. Crazies again. In a little, old-fashioned supermarket. In a town where little old ladies walk around with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other. The picture of safe.
I will certainly have something to say about it later. I am glad I gave blood again this morning.
Back to the previously scheduled post:
Our local bakery is awful. Shocking, but true. For years, we went to a bakery in the next village, tucked away on a barely one-way street (I say “barely” because it was practically a tunnel, lined by houses that were erected when traffic was exclusively on foot, whose walls are well-scraped by passing vehicles). The oven was wood-fired, and the baker’s wife would wear big mitts to bring out hot pain de campagne. The baker was crowded with people waiting to buy it—you snooze, you lose. While waiting (in a huddle, never in a line), they discussed the weather, and their forecasts were 100% accurate. This is not surprising in a crowd of winegrowers and other farmers and gardeners. Stooped pensioners showed up wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. In winter, the heat from the oven and the people would steam the windows on the bakery, and, when I got my lumpy loaf, holding it with my sleeves because it was still too hot to handle, it would steam up the windows of my car.
Sometimes the Carnivore and I would eat the entire loaf while it was still hot enough to melt the butter, which we applied copiously. But our beloved bakers got tired of the early mornings six days a week and sold the bakery. The young guy who bought the place had his own ideas about things, and the bread wasn’t as good. He went out of business after two years.We tried other bakeries, but the problem with village bakeries is that you show up early, yet are informed that the hunters have passed by even earlier and have bought everything but a couple of éclairs, which aren’t very good for sandwiches. Or that the baker had a party the night before and is running late and so come back in an hour.Good French bread is a revelation, but disappointing bread is practically criminal.
Though most of my friends are cook-at-home-from-scratch experts, they don’t make bread. Restaurants might pride themselves on their elaborate patisseries for dessert, but they won’t make their own bread. For bread, one goes to the boulangerie. Every day.
I had noticed this French habit long before I heard of the four banal—the banal oven, which probably played a role.
What does the word “banal” have to do with ovens? Or “banalities”? Did you know these words are related to bread?According to the French Federation of Baking Enterprises, around 50 B.C., the Romans introduced (unleavened) bread to France, having adopted it from the Greeks.
Keep in mind that people cooked over a fire, and it isn’t all that easy to translate into an oven. I did it when I lived in Africa: I made an “oven” out of a very large covered pot that I lined with pebbles, and into which I placed a smaller pot that held the bread. Necessity is the mother of invention. It was delicious, BTW. Some people put ovens into the walls near the kitchen fireplace. Except that all these fires, including candles and lamps for light, meant that houses were burning down rather frequently. With houses sandwiched against each other, one person’s faulty chimney could quickly destroy an entire village. I saw a communal oven, with loaves waiting their turn, in Timbuktu, where not only is it safer to have a communal oven, but you wouldn’t want any extra heat in the kitchen, and wood is so scarce that it makes sense not to use fuel for individual ovens.So the seigneurs—lords—started building separate ovens for bread, and charging the locals to use them; meanwhile they banned home ovens.
Un ban in French originally meant a public proclamation—for example les bans de mariage, the official pronouncement of a wedding engagement. As official proclamations tended to come from the lords of the château, and as lords tended to proclaim what locals could NOT do more than what was permitted, the word “ban” assumed more of its current connotation of “forbid.”Imagine you’re living in your medieval village, you’ve made your bread, you’ve marked it with a B (seriously, everybody had to mark their bread to keep the loaves from being mixed up) and now you have to schlep over to the lord’s oven—le four banal—to throw it in the oven (for a fee). Plus, you had to bring a log to add to the fire. You might have to wait your turn. Other villagers will be there, waiting for their bread to come out. Of course, you all chat—about the weather (some things never change) and little things that happened. You see each other all the time and there’s little news to share nor is there time for delving into intellectual discussions. And thus, the word “banal” acquires its connotation of that which is idle, trivial, common or boring. Le four banal is where banalités—banalities—or fees for use of the oven (usually in kind, not in money) are exchanged. And so you have the very bad pun of my title. I am not the only one to riff on glutton/gluten. And pain is not pain but bread, and rhymes not with rain but with hand, if you left off the nd. Kind of. Listen here. (My best title pun, if I may say so, was this one.)Keep in mind that until quite recently, all bread was whole-wheat bread and quite healthy. It wasn’t even salted until the 18th century, when the tax was lifted on on salt, which is related to the word salary, but that’s another monopoly and another story.
The job of baker originally started as le tamisier—the one who makes or sells sifters. Around 1200, King Philippe Auguste let the tamisiers build their own ovens, and around 1250—close to the same time the “new” city of Carcassonne was built—Saint-Louis ended the seigneurs’ rights to oven fees in cities, but these ovens continued for a few more centuries out in the countryside. The bakers joined together to control the supply of flour and bread, and it was forbidden to bake one’s bread at home.According to the FEB, it was in 1665 that a Parisian baker added some beer yeast into a light bread, making it taste better and producing a lighter bread. This was very controversial, and the medical faculty in Paris and the government itself came out against using beer yeast. However, taste won the day, because consumers demanded yeasty bread, and the ban was lifted in 1670.Around the same time, in the 17th century, bread in a long form started to appear in Paris: le baguette, which literally means “little stick.” Baguette also refers to chopsticks, an orchestra director’s baton, and, in the case of la baguette magique, a magic wand. This symbol of France didn’t take off outside the cities until the 20th century, according to the Center for Research and Study of Bakery and Its Companions. Maybe that’s why the lumpy roundish loaf is called pain de campagne.Very important advice: when you order a baguette in France, be sure to ask for “baguette tradition,” with a slight sour-dough taste and a chewy interior beneath a golden, bumpy crust. Do not save a couple of centimes by getting the plain old baguette, with a uniform crust and inside that resembles the foam in a mattress and that will be as hard as a rock in a couple of hours.
According to the Balladur Decree of 1993 (another decree! another bread ban!), the pain de tradition français may contain only these ingredients: wheat flour, potable water, salt and yeast, although it also can have small amounts of flour of broad beans, soybeans or wheat malt. It means that all the goodness of a baguette depends on the quality of the flour and the expertise of the baker.
The patron saint of bakers is Saint Honoré, whose feast day is May 16 (saints’ feast days are announced on TV daily with the weather report). Mark your calendar and celebrate accordingly.
Gigantic pickup trucks have sprouted like mushrooms on French roads. Until recently, the only pickups were some museum pieces–ancient Peugeots, their rust barely holding them together, usually slumped to one side, the way many of us end up late in life.
A Peugeot 404. Classic.
Considering that French streets are about four feet wide and parking spots are the size of a kitchen sink (and underground parking garages have ceilings so low you have to commando-crawl out of them), the new generation of pickups on steroids are more often found outside cities.
Check out this pickup description, on a car site: “the arrogance and exaggerated size of U.S. monsters…” And on the Parisien: “In the city, where its outsize build that isn’t always easy, attracts disapproving and inquisitive looks, proof that the big 4×4 still has the image of a polluter.” And on another car site: “If some consider them retrograde…” and later calls them “mastadons.”
The main reason for this sudden love of gashogs? Taxes! You didn’t think it was because they are practical (not) or beautiful (absolutely not)?
For some reason, France decided that big SUVs weren’t ecological and slapped an €8,000 malus (penalty) on them, causing sales to drop. And for some reason, France decided that pickups are utilitarian vehicles and so their pollution is OK, regardless of their emissions.
On top of that, they qualify for one of Europe’s favorite tax dodges: company cars. Companies not only don’t have to pay taxes on company cars but they also get to deduct 100% of the TVA (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée, or value-added tax–a special kind of sales tax, kind of, which is 20% on fuel) on diesel.
My car would fit in that wheel well.
During the summer, a traveling monster truck show passed through. In French, they’re called monster trucks, but monster sounds like mahn-STAIR. Stunt vehicles are cascaders. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯