I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.
They are lying to you.
The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.
What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.
Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.
Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.
And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.
Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.
—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.
Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.
—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.
—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms in fall or asparagus in spring in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.
You can tell the value system by what professions do work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.
I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.
At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.
The Citroën 2CV–pronounced deux chevaux, or two horse, after the engine–is the model that most screams “French.” While Detroit was churning out land yachts in the postwar years, Citroën came up with the modest 2CV as an economy model in 1948. They were in production for 40 years. Is that classic or what?
Citroën, are you listening? Bring it back, but electric!
The 2CV might be barebones and simple, for easy maintenance and low gas consumption, it has tons of style.
That curved top, that rolls back for a sunroof! It was designed so people could transport big items, letting them stick out vertically. Practicality plus style–so French. Those round headlights, with visors like eyelids!Those voluptuous fenders and fender skirts!I think my favorites, besides all red, are the two-tone paint jobs that accentuate the curves.If Citroën gets the good sense to bring it back, I hope they don’t do like the VW Beetle and the Mini Cooper and make it too big and blown out, like somebody puffed out by steroids. Keep it small and simple. With flair.If you want to see the 2CV in all its cinematic glory, here are a few films:
Brigitte Bardot drives one very badly in “La Bride sur le Cou” (The Bridle on the Neck–it’s an expression that means doing whatever one wants).In “Eat, Pray, Love,” Julia Roberts’ friends drop her off in Rome in a two-tone 2CV.
In “Red 2,” Mary-Louise Parker drives, with John Malkovich nervously riding shotgun, in a car chase in Paris against a Porsche.
To show how poor the madly-in-love couple (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson) is in “Indecent Proposal,” they drive an old 2CV.
There are some great moves in this old French movie, “Le Tracassin.” I have witnessed the drive-on-the-sidewalk move in Paris.
Desire to Inspire, one of my favorite blogs, featured our apartments! We are so excited to be part of such a collection of gorgeous interiors and exteriors. Desire to Inspire lives up to its name. All the pretty things. A cornucopia of eye candy. Beautiful homes and work spaces from around the world.They even did two posts. They chose our best photos, of course, so click over to see them. The back apartment, aka L’ancienne Tannerie on Airbnb, is here. The front apartment, aka La Suite Barbès on Airbnb, is here.
Here are some other shots, professionally done by Paul Catoir, who runs Clic Clac photography in Charleroi, Belgium.
We’ll start with L’ancienne Tannerie.
Yes, we ate the delicious pastries after the photo session.
On to my favorite room, the kitchen.
We ate all that stuff, too. Yes, before the pastries.
Every single renter has been crazy about the bathroom. Again, more shots on Desire to Inspire.
The bedroom is exceptionally quiet and stays cool in the summer, thanks to all those two-foot-thick stone walls.
There’s also a small bedroom with a twin bed. It’s much cuter in person.
Now let’s cross the landing to la Suite Barbès.
The shot above is from the entry-slash-kitchen.
The space above the kitchen is the “harnais,” which was used back in the day to store horse harnesses. Now it’s furniture limbo.
The bedroom is gigantic–35 square meters, or 376 square feet. You can see the before and after here.
And in the bathroom, another huge shower:
Check out Desire to Inspire on Instagram, too. We’re also on Instagram (although I’m mostly a weekend poster).
We have just gotten started renting out the apartments, and all the visitors have been so nice. It has turned out to be really fun to welcome people from around the world, and to give them a place to stay that is unmistakably French.
Is there no end to the prettiness? Let’s wander through the overwhelming charms of Bize-Minervois, a village of about a thousand people in the Aude department of the south of France.
People tasting coffee (we don’t just have wine here; there’s locally roasted coffee!) in the courtyard of the former royal fabric factory, today home to gîtes.
The excuse for checking out Bize (which delightfully sounds like la bise, or the French custom of greeting by kissing on each cheek, though some do more than two–going up to three or four kisses, and starting on left or right depending on how far north) was “Tastes en Minervois,” a mix of gastronomy and wine, with some art and music thrown in for spice.The areas around the wine-tastings had plenty of people, but otherwise, the tiny village mostly let one see its true colors. (We were badly organized and arrived after the food had been served.)
For example, beautiful doors.
This one makes me think of the huge lengths of fabric of the village’s past as a textile center.
The windows weren’t so shabby either.
There was cuteness and postcard-picturesqueness at every turn.
The town nestles, warily, next to the Cesse river, which usually is tiny but which, as you can see by its bed, can get a little crazy.
That reminds me of a riddle: what can run but never walks, what has a mouth but never talks, what has a bed but does not sleep, what has a head but never weeps?
The town of Bize went all-out decorating. There were numerous spots to kick back and taste wine or food. The one above had “furniture” made from tires. And the décor was street signs. I thought the sign, affaissement was hilarious–it sounds like afessement, which isn’t a word but if it were it would mean to lay your butt down (fesse is buttock); affaissement is what happens when a pile of something like sand or rocks kind of slumps down. And slumping down seems to be the same outcome as afessement. I ran it by some native French speakers, who thought it was pretty funny, but the Carnivore informed me that it was completely wrong because the French don’t go for puns like that. I’m not so sure.
Mandatory pallet furniture.
But as lively as the festivities were, the best parts of Bize were the tiny lanes, the quirky old buildings, the clearly sleepy ambiance.
No fear of traffic. But what happens if the fridge goes out and you need a new one delivered?
That wasn’t all. On the way I kept pulling over to bark at my photographer/offspring to take pictures of various beautiful things. Even though all the villages around here have similar levels of cuteness, it’s foreign enough to me despite all the years of living here that I go ga-ga over it every time. Tant mieux.
Mailhac, on the way to Bize. You see? Where does it stop, all this picturesqueness?
A château wouldn’t be a château without some towers and turrets. Once I started looking, I found them everywhere, and not just on châteaux.
Turrets are little towers that start on an upper floor, usually tacked onto a corner. Towers go all the way to the ground. Turrets offered a good vantage point for archers defending their castle.
Today turrets are just charming, except on McMansions (I saw a great example–which is to say it was abominable–in a subdivision in Béziers, but my shots didn’t turn out). Yes, there are McMansions in France. Even subdivisions, which are called lotissements.
It’s quite popular among McMansions here to stick a tower, for the master bedroom and bath, in the middle of an otherwise banal suburban house.
Happily, there are plenty of real châteaux all over the place, as well as more modest buildings that have odd towers tacked on. Why are those OK while the ones on McMansions are tacky? Maybe it’s snobbism, but it seems like the McMansions are just trying too hard to be special, and failing miserably. Kind of like wearing a sequined T-shirt with sweatpants–the sequins aren’t enough to make it dressy. And with clothes or houses, outer appearances can be good or bad but it’s what’s inside that really counts.
It still takes my breath away to go down some ordinary street here in Carcassonne and catch a glimpse of la Cité:
Among the delights found in the long-forgotten closet was a well-worn cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine” (The New Cookbook), by Blanche Caramel. That is the best pen name ever.
The book is barely held together with tape. Its pages harbor many hand-written recipes and others clipped from newspapers. Written in 1927, my copy dates to 1933. So it was conceived in the post-WWI boom years, but my copy was printed after the Great Depression had entrapped France. I think the clippings spanned many years.
One of the clippings is titled “Conseils et petits secrets” and subtitled “Quelques petites économies” (Some small ways to save), signed by “Le Grillon du Foyer” (The Cricket on the Hearth, like the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens).
The suggestion is to save the peels of oranges and mandarines to prepare “delicious liqueurs” by soaking them in 90-degree alcohol. And dried peels can be added to the fire to make a “gay and sparkling flame.” And if your mayonnaise has turned, don’t throw it out but add a spoon of very fine flower and work in the paste to get rid of lumps.
In the forward, Blanche (or should I call her Mme. Caramel?) says, “Dishes are welcomed by stomachs that are also well disposed; if the service is calm, friendly remarks can be exchanged completely naturally, chasing away the worries of the day and making the meal an hour of intellectual relaxation and of physical well-being. Each person will leave the table rested, comforted, with more courage and optimism for returning to his tasks.”There is a chapter titled “L’utilisation des Restes” (“Using Up Leftovers”), in which cooks are counseled to not have them to begin with by cooking only what’s needed.Another section, “Ce Qu’il Faut Manger” (“What you should eat”), surprisingly begins with grains. However, it says not to confuse pain de campagne (“country bread,” or a kind of rough, sour-dough-like loaf) with le pain complet (whole-grain bread), “which is found at certain specialists and which suits only men who face a considerable physical expenditure, such as the blacksmith or the ditch digger, not sedentary employees.”Under “Mangeons des Fruits” (“Let’s Eat Fruit”), Blanche says, “The simplest remedies are often the best and the most effective. We have on hand natural products, the good and beautiful fruits ripened in the sun, which can replace with advantages many medicines that are very expensive and that sometimes have bad side-effects.” People can tolerate up to two kilos (4.4 pounds) of fruits, though with heavier fruits like bananas and apples, one kilo (2.2 pounds) is enough.
Blanche offers advice about coming up with menus. A very luxurious dinner would comprise one or two soups; one or two relevés de potage (a light course, such as a timbale, a soufflé, fish, eggs); two entrées (starters/appetizers, such as ham, sautéed chicken, or meats in ragoûts, accompanied by mashed potatoes or another purée); a roast (“la pièce de la résistance du repas,” Blanche says); a cold dish (she suggests pâté, lobster or aspic); a salad (served with the roast and made with mayonnaise); vegetables (served after the roast); entremets (a tart, cake or ice cream); dessert, which would be cheese, fruit or small cakes.
I wonder when cheese came to move forward, before the sweets.Even more perplexing is how they managed to eat so much. I guess a roast wasn’t so outrageous if it had to feed a big family. In her books, “Long Ago in France” and “As They Were,” the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher reminisces about living in Dijon in 1929. She and her husband lived at a boarding house, where Madame and her cook turned out elaborate meals every day for the family and their tenants. Maybe meals were more like the tasting menus at El Bulli.
Blanche offers menus for special occasions, from Christmas and New Year’s to Easter to First Communions. There are “rich” menus and “simple” menus. For example, in the simple category: Lunch: Oysters; oeufs sur le plat à la crème (eggs sunny-side up with cream); salt-marsh lamb chops and matchstick potatoes; cold chicken with mayonnaise; refreshing fruits. Dinner: Potage Saint-Germain (split-pea soup); homard financière (lobster in a truffle and Madeira wine sauce); tarragon chicken; foie gras with port; Saint-Honoré (a dessert of cream puffs); Roblochon cheese; fruits.That’s simple. Sure.
The book ends with a chapter on the Calendrier Gastronomique, or the gastronomic calendar. For June, Blanche advises that meat from the butcher (beef, lamb–red meat) is less tasty and should be replaced by chicken, duckling and young turkey. Légumes de plein terre (leaf vegetables, but also broccoli, leeks, asparagus, radishes) are plentiful. Red fruits also are abundant: cherries, strawberries, raspberries, melons, with apricots appearing at the end of the month. I think Blanche must have lived in the north, because we are a good month ahead of this schedule.I intend to try out recipes from the book and its bounty of clippings and scribblings and present them to you. Look for the tag #blanchecaramel.
There’s a divide between France and the U.S., and it has to do with how people take care of their clothes.
Let’s start with washing. Front-load washers have gained popularity in the U.S., but they have long been typical in Europe. They are easier on your clothes than top-load agitators, which really tear them up. However, washing times are longer. Mine has a 15-minute freshen-up cycle, but the shortest real wash cycle takes over an hour and the longest is three hours. That’s in part because the machines heat the water themselves, rather than take it from a hot-water heater.
The models sold here are getting bigger, but they are still a lot smaller than in the U.S. Our old washer held a maximum of four kilos–just under nine pounds. Our new one has a maximum capacity of twice that. According to Consumer Reports, capacities in the U.S. are as high as 28 pounds. (French vocabulary lesson: a laundry room is unebuanderie, a laundromat is une laverie and the old-fashioned outdoor laundries are lavoirs. Dry cleaning is nettoyage à sec, and the place that does it is un pressing or une teinturerie.)
Another difference is drying. Plenty of people don’t even have electric dryers. I put towels in the dryer to keep them soft and fluffy but try to hang everything else outside–again, it’s better for your clothes, better for the environment and it’s free. Sheets definitely go outside. It makes them smell so good!
Related to that: walking around in the mornings, you see windows open, even in the dead of winter, and duvets hanging over the window sills to air out for at least 15 minutes. Bedrooms tend to be minimally heated (and back in the day weren’t heated at all), and we don’t have bitter temperatures, so it isn’t very wasteful.
One reason my friends cite for avoiding dryers, besides making clothes last longer, is the cost of electricity. Looking at my bill, we pay between 6.38 centimes and 10.43 centimes (about 7 cents to 11 cents) per kWh before tax (which is 20%). The tariff varies by time of day, with heures creuses, or off-peak, discounted. I set the timers on the washing machine and dishwasher to run during off peak. Surprisingly, residential rates in the U.S. are higher–an average of 12.90 cents per kWh.
One reason many Americans I know do use dryers: to avoid ironing. Some don’t even own an iron or ironing board. When we briefly lived in the U.S., the Carnivore was delighted to discover a setting on our apartment’s dryer called “fluff,” which he adorably pronounced “floof” the first time. He was so excited about how things came out with only minor wrinkles.
By contrast, Europeans tend to be not just wrinkle-free but to have knife-edge creases. Even jeans get ironed. The Carnivore is very talented with a steam iron (see the ads below). Personally, I hate to iron but have been doing a lot of it lately, pressing the sheets for our rental apartments. We want them to be impeccable.
While I iron my own clothes, I don’t do my kid’s. Some of the local mothers would iron their children’s clothes even for toddlers–who wear things for about two minutes before getting dirty. An extremely scientific survey of my gym class showed most spend two to three hours a week ironing.
Ironing isn’t limited to France. I remember being impressed by the teen boys in Rome, perched on their Vespas, wearing immaculate white shirts with crisply creased sleeves. Nothing slovenly about them.
When I lived in Brussels, my apartment faced a lovely row of hidden gardens, “Rear Window” style. In a window across the way, a woman (housekeeper, I think), would iron for hours, including the tiniest flouncy baby dresses. And sheets and sheets and sheets.
Another time, I was at the big department store El Corte Inglès in Barcelona. The household appliance department was animated by many demonstrations. There was a woman carving candles. All kinds of shoppers, including families, watched her work. Some of the candles sported the typical curls, while others represented couples in a sexual act. This was something I never saw in the U.S.
And there was a guy ironing. This was no simple steam iron but what the French call a centre de repassage–an ironing center. A big water tank was fixed to the base of the ironing board “so you can iron all day!” my friend marveled. A dozen people–men and women–watched the demo intently.
Do you hang laundry outside? Do you iron? Do you pamper your clothing?
Our vacation rental apartments are a collection of used-to-bes. The bathroom in the courtyard apartment (which we’ve named L’ancienne Tannerie, because the courtyard used to be a tannery) used to be a laundry room.
One of the earlier demolition moves was to extract that gigantic concrete sink. We kept the niche in the wall. That corner now is the shower, with two shower heads. I tried both and can’t pick a favorite.The door in the before shots leads to a circular staircase in another building on the courtyard. We sealed it off, and smoothed out the curve, because that deep corner gathered scary things.
I had a hard time getting decent photos. This room is crazy bright, even with a glaze over the windows. The inside of the window frame is black. The Carnivore, our painter and the other workers lamented such a bad decision, but I got the last laugh because it looks great.
This room got the black and white cabochon floor that I had wanted for the big kitchen. The walls have metro tiles, which are beveled subway tiles, like in the Paris Metro. I had asked at the tile store about “subway” tiles and was told crisply that surely I was looking for “metro” tiles. Ahem.
On the other side of the sauna, but reached by a different door, is the powder room, in its original place but with a different door (it used to be reached via the closet for the furnace and hot water heater. Yes, that had to change).The former doorway’s arch became home to the sink, with the toilet now across from it (next to where the sink originally was). The floor has the same tile as the wall. I was nervous that it would be too much, but the floorspace is small and it looks nicely seamless.
While we have been obsessed with finding antiques for the apartments, here it feels so clean that everything is brand spanking new. Well, except for the Venetian mirrors. And the little marble-topped cupboard for toiletries in the bathroom. New and old.
The apartments are available for rent on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie here and the front apartment here.
After a full morning of antiquing recently at the grand déballage in Pézenas, we needed sustenance. It was well past noon when we left, and the Carnivore was even more peckish than me, and starting to panic. Remember, the French eat at prescribed times. If you hesitate, you lose.
One restaurant after another in Pézenas had set up special outdoor grills and other equipment to feed a crowd, and crowds were waiting to be fed. This does not bode well for good food at a good price. We headed out–it was the Carnivore’s idea, after he rejected my suggestion of a slice of pizza from a food truck, where a long line waited.
So we drove away from Pézenas. Soon we were in the middle of countryside, not a resto for miles. The Carnivore became agitated. The clock was ticking on the French lunch time. Soon we would be out of luck.
“Go to Béziers,” I commanded, figuring it was a fairly big town, simultaneously close enough to arrive in time and far enough from the antiquing throngs, plus on our way home. “Where exactly?” he asked testily, clearly fearful of a wild goose chase that would end with no goose, or duck or anything else to eat. “I don’t know,” I snapped back, hangry. “Centre ville.”
This was on May 7, election day in France. The day that Macron and LePen faced off. And Béziers has a far-right mayor.
We wound our way to centre ville–downtown, and looked for a parking spot. Even with the elections, we figured a Sunday wouldn’t be difficult for parking. But 99.99% of downtown Béziers is torn up, with no parking anywhere. (Don’t even suggest one of the many underground parking garages; one must pay for those, and the French–and Belgians, ahem, our driver–would rather risk being towed from a quasi-illegal spot than to shell out €2 for a legit one). We went farther and farther. We passed a pretty square where lucky people were eating lunch.
We went down, down, down a steep street, each descent in altitude also descending in gentrification. The square up above was chic, with every building pristinely restored. On the same street, far lower, several shops were open, catering to a clientele for whom Sunday is just another weekday. A barber ran an electric razor over a man’s skull like a lawnmower on a big back yard. A couple of impeccably clean butcher shops with shining white floors made the Carnivore want to pick up some lamb and merguez to take home. “It would taste a lot better than what you get at leClerc,” he said.
He squeezed the Peugeot into a tiny spot on a 45-degree incline, with two centimeters of space in front and behind the car. If you don’t want to pay, you had better be expert at parallel parking.
At a café on the corner, tables outside were filled exclusively with men. It was a big day for them, as France decided whether to shut the door on–or worse, kick out–their community. In Béziers, those issues run hotter than in some other places (the mayor has said there are too many kebab shops in the city center, among other things).
We hiked up the hill to that pretty square. Lunch was still on. We secured a table under the pink parasols at le Millefeuille on rue de la Rotisserie (yes, Rotisserie Street) on Place Gabriel Péri. We sat next to a table of Poles. Some Brits were on the other side. Tourist season is under way.
A small blonde boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, went by, unaccompanied except by his fluffly little dog on a leash. An old lady with a cane tapped toward the mairie, or city hall, across the street, presumably to cast her ballot. A car swung into one of the rare parking spots the instant it was freed, and a bourgeois couple of pensioners, both in suits, hers with a skirt and chunky heels, emerged and walked hand in hand down a side street, her bag swinging carefree on its long strap. Several women with veils and long robes passed, each alone, pushing strollers. For all its famous déliquance, Béziers felt like a pretty safe, laid-back place. Unless one is threatened by diversity itself.
Our food was excellent. The Carnivore went for the menu at €12,90: an entrée (starter) of a charcuterie plate, which included not only a lot of hard sausages but also a nice salad and some fresh pleurote mushrooms, grilled zucchini and sweet red pepper; then he had an entrecôte steak with potatoes and more salad, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with whipped cream. Very correct. That price usually gets you a starter plus main dish or main dish plus dessert. To get all three, and so well-garnished, was unusual. I didn’t want any of the menu options (steak, duck or one other thing that I forget because it didn’t tempt me), so I ordered steak tartare (€13.90). It came with all the special ingredients arrayed like a painter’s palette, so I could include what I wanted (which was everything). And home-made fries. I also consumed the Carnivore’s unwanted salad, surprise. A very lovely lunch, at a very reasonable price. Plus charming service and a beautiful place to sit.
We walked around a little before heading back to the car. A young woman was sketching a building on the square; it was beautiful. As I photographed it, she told us not to miss the lions on another building nearby.
I took pictures of several other places–lots of pretty Belle Epoche architecture in Béziers–and was surveying my next target when an older man asked whether we needed directions. He was tall, wearing a white shirt buttoned all the way up but without a tie, a V-neck cardigan over that, and a suit. He was in his 70s–maybe older but in good shape–and had bushy eyebrows and a nice smile. He held a large notebook or folder in the crook of his arm. We explained that no, we weren’t lost, just appreciating the sights.
He talked with us as I snapped photos. As we moved on, he came along, still chattering, about how long he’d lived there, the weather, the architecture. He seemed lonely, in need of company. I wondered, is he hanging around to talk because he doesn’t want to go home? What is his life like? At his age, is he a widower with nobody to go home to? Or a care-giver, perhaps of a wife who no longer can provide company? I thought about the movie “Amour.” I wanted to invite him to dinner, but Carcassonne is a good 45 minutes from Béziers, kind of far for a meal.
We eventually parted ways as he stayed on the big street, Avenue Alphonse Mas, and we branched off on the narrow canyons of ruelles, or tiny streets, that wove away at crazy angles.
Eventually, we returned to the avenue, and there he was, standing on a corner, talking on his phone. We smiled at him and took pictures. When he had finished his call, he came over to us again. “Are you interested in buying property?” he asked. I said that I was always “interested” but not “able” in a budgetary sense. I’m fully guilty of divulging in real-estate porn.
“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s too bad. I know some good ones.” He pointed up at the building next to us. “This one. Two buildings. There were two sisters; each had one. One sister died–she was 88–and the other sister was going to sell and move. Then she died, too. She was 92. She counted all the fireplaces, and there were more than 100! There are at least 21 apartments. The buildings start up there”–he pointed halfway up the block on the avenue–“to over there”–he pointed down the intersecting side street. I wondered about “au moins 21 appartements”–so maybe there are 22? Maybe some could be combined or split? Why say 21 and not 20? Too many questions. I just nodded and said I could only dream of being able to renovate such a place. Which is true.
Off the avenue, the buildings were very different, in various states of decay. It could be pretty in that Italian way, or it could just be urban decay. Right now, it was on the fine line between the two.
Our elderly friend took off down a different street. We descended toward the car. A number of people were enjoying the sunny weather on their balconies. A man smoked beneath a gorgeous, gorgeous bas-relief garland of flowers, leaning on an amazing Art Nouveau railing. A couple played with a toddler. A woman hung laundry. They were from three cultures. Why not, I thought. All enjoy the same sun.
Béziers has a bloody history. In 1209, it was the first stop of the Abigensian Crusade, when the ironically named Pope Innocent III decided to eradicate the Cathars. It’s thought there were about 200 Cathar parfaits, or holy people, living among the 15,000-20,000 Catholic residents. Supposedly one of the crusaders asked how to know which inhabitants were Catholic or Cathar. The commander, the Abbot of Cîteaux, said “Kill them all–God will know his own.” And they did. Upon hearing the news, the crusaders’ subsequent targets, including Carcassonne, fell without a fight.
The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire burned down during the siege. A few years later, work began on a new edifice on the same site, which today rises high on a hill above the Orb river, dominating the town.
Driving out of town, my heart warmed further for Béziers. A family was holding a gathering in the cool shade of a grange/garage, several long tables covered with white cloths under the arched doors open to the street, children ricocheting everywhere. At a bus stop, two elderly men sat on the far ends of a bench but leaned their skull caps toward each other as they conversed animatedly. Pretty details embellished even humble, downtrodden buildings.
Sunday was the grand déballage–the big unwrapping, a term used in connection with antiques–in Pézenas.
Pézenas is a beautiful town in the hills of the Herault department, a bit beyond Béziers. We have been numerous times to visit its bounty of 50-some antique shops. Many are open on Sunday and offer a rare something to do for those of us who don’t have the usual obligations with extended family on that day. Twice a year, Pézenas holds a big brocante faire, with about 150 antiques dealers, who set up stalls along about a mile around the ring of the historic old city center.
It was a lot of fun, on many levels. We had specific things in mind to buy and tried to ignore everything else, no matter how enticing. (It is very hard to stop looking at furniture when you’ve been hunting for so long, but now there’s no more room!) Still, we couldn’t help but be distracted by pretty or quirky things from time to time.
The top photo shows a crystal egg, called a cave à champagne. A glass or mirrored tray inside holds the champagne flutes around a hole for the bottle, which descends into ice below. The whole thing looks like it requires nerves of steel and no partaking of the champagne by the server to ensure a steady hand. We saw several, including in dark blue. Très cher.
We heard English (of both the British and North American varieties), Spanish, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian, as well as plenty of French–with different regional accents.
We didn’t find what we wanted and came away with just a framed picture. However, we completely enjoyed browsing. There were many objects, and many collections of such objects, that we rarely see at the vide-greniers, which are often the first stop on an antique’s journey to a second life.
That’s what makes antiques a challenge and so satisfying–you can’t just walk into someplace or order online and get just what you want, the first try. You have to look and look, and wait and keep looking some more. You have to play a long game. Here, where vines take six years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine but then produce for 40 or 70 years, the long game is in the DNA. Rushing to buy almost-good-enough is throwing money away. Patience and persistence make the find all the sweeter.