The Merry Month of Frimaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great door in Toulouse.

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

Planters with grape vines as a terrace divider.

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

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

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

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

Just around the corner from the previous photo.

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

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

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

Dressed for “Carmen.”

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

Cheese soufflé, so good. Recipe here.

Monolithic

Driving around the French countryside, one often spots little signs pointing out local objects of pride. The ones for menhirs especially intrigued me, but I always was rushed, especially when passing a certain sign, and when I did have time, I wasn’t on that road–out of sight out of mind–I didn’t have a checklist of “when have 20 free minutes, go check out this stuff,” with menhir at the top of the list.

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Naïve

cat windowWe’re all naïve. All 7.8 billion of us. In more ways than one.

I saw the word used technically, to describe humans in the face of the new coronavirus. Because the virus is new, none of us had ever had it before, and so we are “naïve.” It’s the perfect word in other ways, too.

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Per usual, random photos I’ve recently taken on my exercise outings because I don’t have relevant coronavirus illustrations.

Like many people in February and early March, I thought it was a lot of hubbub about nothing. Cover your coughs, wash your hands, not that bad unless you’re old and sick with something else. Remembering SARS, which came with so many gloomy warnings, and which sounded so scary. It was deadlier than Covid-19. People caught it from the plumbing in their apartments. Way worse than being near somebody coughing–you can at least step away from such people, but to catch a deadly disease while sleeping in your own bed? SARS was under control fairly quickly, and no vaccine or treatment was ever found…. Thinking it would always be so efficient to control pandemics was naïve.2cvA microscopic string of RNA has changed everybody’s lives. Not just today, under various lockdowns, confinements, remote learning/working, etc. It is going to haunt us for a long time. Perhaps forever.bare branchThere will not be a switch that flips us back to Before, to some date in November 2019 or so (probably earlier), when the threat hadn’t yet crossed over into humans. When the world economy was humming. When the future looked, if not bright, then as a glass somewhat more full than empty.streamAs far as the future goes, we are still naïve, in the other sense of the word, of lacking experience or understanding. We don’t know for sure whether people who were infected will be immune for life, or whether it will be like colds (also caused by coronaviruses, different ones) that we get over and over. We don’t know the long-term effects. We don’t have a cure or even a treatment besides oxygen. We don’t have a vaccine.vines 3I wondered about the 1918-1919 influenza. I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, which I figured was both close enough to the event for the pandemic to still be remembered as a big deal and distant enough to have some perspective. Indeed, the entry covers almost two full pages. It mentions the previous influenza outbreak of 1890–which was only 39 years earlier itself; of course there were still people around who had lived through that. Interestingly, a decade after the “Spanish flu” pandemic, the cause was still in dispute–was it bacterial or viral?

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The name at the bottom, Marie-Cecile, lived from 1906-1918, and seems likely to have been an influenza victim–a young woman who died in 1918 probably wasn’t killed in battle.

Now experts say that influenza not only was viral but that it was a kind of H1N1 virus, like the kind that broke out in 2009. It hit in three waves: the first was relatively mild, the second very deadly, and the third was similar to the first.

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Now blooming. The corn poppy is a symbol of World War I. 

“Frequently the lungs became severaly affected and the patient passed into a state of anoxaemia recalling that due to exposure to the ‘pulmonary irritants’ of gas warfare.”blooms whiteThe 1890 outbreak, which also actually had three waves between 1889-1892, is described in detail as well:

“The invasion is sudden; the patients can generally tell the time when they developed the disease; e.g., acute pains in the back and loins came on quite suddenly while they were at work or walking in the street, or in the case of a medical student, while playing cards, rendering him unable to continue the game. A workman wheeling a barrow had to put it down and leave it; and an omnibus driver was unable to pull up his horses. This sudden onset is often accompanied by vertigo and nausea, and sometimes actual vomiting of bilious matter. There are pains in the limbs and general sense of aching all over; frontal headache of special severity; pains in the eyeballs, increased by the slightest movement of the eyes; shivering; general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits, many patients, both men and women, giving way to weeping; nervous restlessness; inability to sleep, and occasionally delirium. In some cases catarrhal symptoms develop, such as running at the eyes, which are sometimes infected on the second day; sneezing nd sore throat; and epistaxis, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, tonsilitis and spitting of bright blood from the pharynx may occur. There is a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night. There is often tenderness of the spleen, which is almost always found enlarged, and this persists after the acute symptoms have passed. The temperature is high at the onset of the disease. In the first twenty-four hours its range is from 100 F in mild cases to 105 F in severe cases.”

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1892…a link to the third wave of that pandemic?

It also said that, in the 1890 outbreak, stress around the pandemic caused a 25% increase in suicides in Paris.iris carrefourThe Covid-19 virus’s complete genome was sequenced and put online in mid-January. And yet there’s much we don’t know. It might seem as if experts are changing their minds, or that they don’t know what they’re doing, but in fact they are honing and updating information as it becomes available.

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Do you see the château?

France is supposed to gradually reopen as of May 11. It already is happening, though. I see more cars on the road. Businesses that had been closed have found an excuse to reopen. One change is that almost everybody is wearing a mask now, even while driving alone in their car. Maybe they don’t want to touch it?

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Clever.

I was going to our mairie, or town hall, to get recycling bags the other day, mask in hand, because usually I would see nobody out in the village. However, lots of people were out, going to the bakery, to the little grocery, for walks. I saw a friend sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house, and she was talking to a little old lady who was out for her constitutional. I’d met this lady many times, including on a run in winter where she responded to my bonjour with “bonjour, j’ai 89 ans” (hello, I’m 89 years old). My friend asked her whether she had a mask and she said no, she didn’t know where to get one in the village and had no way to go out of the village. How old are you, my friend asked. “Ninety,” she answered, adding, “in July,” which she pronounced as “juillette,” adding many rolls of the tongue in an especially heavy local accent. I handed her my homemade mask (I was still holding it–we were talking–shouting at top volume–from a distance of at least three meters from each other). She was thrilled. I can make more. My friend, a retired nurse, instructed her on cleaning of the mask. orchidSo I ran back home to get another mask and go back to the mairie. A sign on the door said it was closed and that if villagers needed anything they were to call. So I called. They told me to come and ring and they would hand the recycling bags through the window. “Oh, you’re outside now,” the secretary exclaimed. A window opened a crack and the roll of yellow bags emerged–not even a fingertip of the person inside was evident. I hollered merci as I grabbed the roll. The window shut the the instant the roll passed through.poppies 1The Saturday market reopened. It is far superior to shopping at the supermarket, as always for quality and price but also for hygiene. The central square is barricaded, with a single entrance and exit, and a table with sanitizer at each. And police, who were neither wearing masks nor social distancing as they shot the breeze. There were just a few vendors, but they included the family of vegetable farmers, the goat cheese guy (who rocked a gorgeous tie-dye mask), and the local apple grower. A ribbon separated shoppers from the produce. We waited in line, spaced by tape on the marble, and the vendors served us, so there was nobody else handling the produce. Almost everybody had a mask except for the oldest shoppers. I was among the youngest, so that tells you how skewed the demographic is at the market.vinesIt was very sad, though, to see all the cafés closed, their terrace tables stacked up under tarps. I wondered whether this was what it was like during the war, when people ventured out to stand in line to buy food. It was sad, too, to see the other shops, mostly for clothes and jewelry and such, closed but in a way that felt like “Sleeping Beauty”–as if they were about to fling open their doors but were frozen in mid-step.

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Look at all those chickens!

I wonder about life afterward. Will people be afraid to take the bus or métro, and flood the streets with individual cars? Or will they feel the same way and commute by bike? Will people be afraid of being cooped up in a small space and move to suburbs, eating up more and more of the precious farmland that needs to feed more and more people? Or cutting down the little wild nature that is left, so they can have their individual houses with yards that function like private parks, like buffers from neighbors, full of grass that needs watering and mowing and that they almost never spend time in? Or will people who are hearing birds for the first time realize that it’s important to preserve and even enlarge the space for nature?

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Tiny petals everywhere, like confetti.

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Confetti for our post-confinement party?

How are you holding up? vines 2

Up in the Air

IMG_5111What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.IMG_5092On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. IMG_5151The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.IMG_5129

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Lush February forest.

IMG_5117The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.

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Into the void.

The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.

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Looking down.

We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.

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Going back.

We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”

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Mazamet.

On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).

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La Voie Romaine.

To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.

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Stone walls of the former gardens.

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This seems to have been a protohistoric home, naturally protected from the wind and rain on the south side of the slope. But I’m not sure. The gardens also had little towers.

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On the wall of the circular structure. Looks like a donkey to me.

IMG_5124IMG_5142IMG_5138The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. IMG_5099IMG_5101IMG_5098IMG_5113The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.

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A little shrine at the start of the path.

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Interesting plastic bottle for holy water. What will they think of next?

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Another bustling shrine.

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Am haunted by the possible meaning of that doll.

I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.IMG_5130IMG_5131IMG_5132

 

 

Remembrance and Rhymes

IMG_4933This week was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I kept thinking back to my visit there years ago. It was haunting in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and that I haven’t been able to shake in the nearly two decades since.IMG_4936The entrance is famous. The railroad tracks, too, especially for anyone who has seen “Schindler’s List.” The familiarity of a place one has never been before is a punch in the stomach. I didn’t want it to feel familiar.IMG_4947I visited on a gorgeous spring day. Some friends and I made a weekend excursion to Krakow and, being serious intellectuals interested in history and culture, included a trip to Auschwitz. The train took us through the lush, rolling hills of the Polish countryside. As we walked the grounds, butterflies danced through the air and birds sang. I have read that when the camps were packed with people, there wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, much less wildflowers bobbing in the breeze. IMG_4940Did people hear the birds sing beyond the barbed wire? The movies seem to always be set in winter, almost black and white even when shot in color. But what of those balmy days when the wind carries the syrupy perfume of freshly cut grass? What a cruel juxtaposition, to see the stars above at night or feel the spring breeze or hear a bird sing and to know the universe is brimming with beauty, and yet they are trapped in a living hell. A living nightmare.IMG_4949Unfortunately, in the 75 years since the end of Auschwitz, genocide has not ended. It is always a delicate subject to bring up other cases, or other mistreatments. The point is not  to compare; each case is monstrous for those who suffered. But if we think genocide is wrong, then it is wrong no matter who the target is, and we should push back against creeping “otherization” that strips people of their humanity, that treats them as a block to be expelled without exceptions. Because one cruelty leads to another. History might not repeat itself but it rhymes.IMG_4945The National Public Radio show “Fresh Air” ran an interview with Laurence Rees, author of  the book “Auschwitz: A New History.” You can listen or read the transcript here. National Public Radio delivers uniformly excellent reporting. Support them if you can. Journalism–the real thing, with reporters who dig for facts–is what keeps us free.IMG_4941That top photo is one that haunts me most. It’s in the bathroom–it shows the long trough sink, and the squares are soap holders, with ridges so the soap doesn’t sit in water and melt. It sums up the insanity of Auschwitz: a place where soap was valued but human life wasn’t.IMG_4955I am not in a position of authority here. I am not Jewish and didn’t know about the Holocaust until high school when I read Anne Frank. On the other hand, the whole point is the universality of our humanity. Everybody should care. We all must remember.IMG_4934

A Day in Marseille

IMG_4662Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.IMG_4599IMG_4601I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.

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Note the traffic. Big improvement.

Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.IMG_4602It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.

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New next to old everywhere…

IMG_4630IMG_4620IMG_4629Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.

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Dr. Max Ginger Healthy for a very satisfying and tasty lunch. Mostly vegetarian but not only.

I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete. IMG_4648IMG_4646

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I don’t know whether I would feel comfortable in that cantilevered building. 

The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people. IMG_4649

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I’ll take that spot.

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Note the chaises longues at the base of the wall in the garden.

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Oh, the views. And from the top of the fort, too.

Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.

The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.IMG_4635IMG_4627IMG_4638

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What looks kind of like a slide on the right is  passerelle over the highway below.

IMG_4640IMG_4622Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.

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People leaving Mucem put their admission stickers on anything. 

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Note the creative planters on the left.

IMG_4661Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.IMG_4664IMG_4665IMG_4666IMG_4613IMG_4618IMG_4607This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer. IMG_4603

 

 

 

Opinions on Furniture

IMG_6346I just read the most horrific article. I’m still a bit in the vapors over it. It seems that antiques are among the things millennials are killing.

Realtors are digitally redecorating homes to replace antiques with spare modern furniture and white walls, according to “When the Antiques Have to Go,” in the New York Times. The “after” in the article just looks C.H.E.A.P. to me. The article says that as lifestyles have gotten increasingly informal, antiques are out of the question. But have you ever sat on those horrible modern plastic chairs? I get a backache just looking at them. And who wants their legs to stick to the seat? In the realm of informal dining, I cite McDonalds; even their seats are now more comfortable than those fashionable molded plastic seats. What qualifies as informal? Something you can hose down? Or something where you don’t need to dress for dinner like the Crawleys at Downton Abbey?

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I like to think about the generations of babies who crawled around our apartment and who came upon these guys on the pedestal of the dining table.

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In what way is a boar “formal”? I think it’s not boring.

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The matching buffet à deux corps. We bought some of the furniture with the apartment. This is a revival of Henri II, with the mix of machined spirals and hand carving, from the late 1800s.

Of course, there are antiques and antiques. It seems that vintage, especially anything from the 1950s and 1960s, in that midcentury modern sweet spot, is still hot. Anything older is not. OK, it could be difficult to use a computer on a roll-top desk. Not the right ergonomics. Beds are wider and longer (but can be adjusted! We did it!). Carved details require dusting. But so do smooth surfaces….so what gives?

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Solution #1: attach a headboard to a queen-size bed.

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Solution #2: extend the frame to accommodate a queen-size mattress. It’s possible when you’re dealing with wood.

The thing I really don’t understand are the faux-tiques. The Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware/Ethan Allen/Birch Lane etc. ilk–even Ikea has some of it–that looks vaguely traditional but is new. Now, knock-offs have been around for quite some time. In the late 1800s, the style of Henri II, which goes back to the 1500s, had a revival in France, as new wood-working machines could easily create the signature spiral rails on chairs and buffets, but the rest of the carving was still done by hand. Either the traditional look is passé or it isn’t. Why pay so much for something new that looks old? Though it doesn’t. The pieces are too perfect, like Real Housewives. Inauthentic.

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More Henri II. I just love all the faces.

IMG_3336English antique furniture values have fallen 40% in 10 years. The prices of 18th and 19th century antiques have tanked. In these parts, that’s not even very old. I was talking to an antique dealer who showed me a buffet from the 16th century. “I can’t get €200 for it,” he lamented. “Soon shops like this will be completely gone, and so will the furniture, the history. The new generation doesn’t care.”

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Piano detail. Unless it’s from a renowned maker, a piano is nearly worthless now.

The truly fancy stuff aside, judging from the listings on Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French version of craigslist, folks have little interest in incorporating family heirlooms in their décor. They just want to get rid of them. Antiques dealers can pick up inventory for cheap, but if there are no buyers? There are still antique lovers out there. The entire town of Pézenas is one big antique market, even when the twice-yearly antiques fair isn’t going on.IMG_3327 2Here are my arguments to millennials for why they should give antiques, or older second hand, a second look:

The price. A quick perusal of leboncoin brings up a set in solid oak for €200, including a six-door buffet, a table and six chairs. Granted, it isn’t an antique, but neither is anything at Pottery Barn. In fact, all the better that it’s just a quasi-antique: you can paint it white. Or red. Anyway–not formal. The cheapest table at Ikea is €129, made of metal that they say can be recycled, so that’s an improvement over particle board. The Ingatorp wood particle board table (with a traditional look…go figure) is €299. The Ingolf chairs that usually go with it are €60 a pop. And the Havsta buffet is €910. Ikea is great for some things, and I respect that they deliver good design for low (low-ish) prices and make an effort to be environmentally responsible. But consumption is consumption.

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I see this style of mirror in Maisons du Monde (a French chain similar to Pottery Barn), but because this one is old, the mirror has beveled edges, too expensive to do for most mirrors today. Yet this one was cheaper than a new store-bought mirror. With a coat of black paint, it is perfect in the black-and-white bathroom.

The environment. In the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle, giving something a new life beats sending it to recycling, which, is in turmoil as the system is overwhelmed with stuff to recycle without demand for the materials that are produced. That’s mostly for paper and plastic, and I’m not sure where a particle board table would enter the stream, but I’m not too hopeful. Sure, millennials are giving new life to MCM pieces, but as authentic stuff has gotten more expensive, you see cheap knockoffs everywhere. Knockoffs don’t count as reusing!!! They are new even if they look old.

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Dishes, too! And why not a silver tray? The table is “new”–I bought it in Lamu, Kenya; it’s hand-carved (I met the carpenter) from real wood.

Your home environment. The resins used to make particle board emit formaldehyde and other lovely volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. Something that’s solid wood (and decades if not centuries old) is not going to off-gas.

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All old. Each piece the result of an adventure, especially that chandelier.

Personality. I will scream if I see another interior with Eames Vitra chairs (or knockoffs thereof, but either way they are plastic), a fiddle-leaf fig, shiplap, a repurposed pallet and a Beni Ourain rug (probably also a knockoff and made of polyester that will disintegrate into plastic microbeads). If some “influencer” declared something cool and then you copied it, are you cool or pathetic? With antiques, you can get a one-of-a-kind design. Even if all your friends become antiques nuts, you are not going to end up with the same stuff by a long shot. That goes for accessories and tchotchkes, too. Why buy some mass-produced thing to style your bookshelf? What kind of statement is that making, really? Some second-hand stuff was mass-produced, but you won’t find it everywhere anymore. And lots of really old furniture was made by hand. Marquetry is like painting with wood. It’s art. If you don’t like the old stuff, then support a living artist, perhaps someone you know.

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Better in white, with a new seat cover.

If you don’t like brown, paint it. This would not be a good idea for an 18th century marquetry desk. But if it’s great-grandma’s dresser or a second-hand wardrobe that you plan to repurpose, then go right ahead. And you can personalize it. Or stain it darker or strip it bare, two looks I see on Restoration Hardware’s site. Antiques, or old brown furniture, doesn’t have to be precious.

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A simple wardrobe, and very practical. Two drawers…

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…and the Carnivore cleverly rearranged the interior to have both shelves and hanging space.

When I was young, I had romantic ideas about antiques, along with lace curtains and chandeliers. Moving to a few continents meant paring down, giving back (to stay in the family) and, often buying new on arrival in my new country. It’s true it takes a while to get into shopping for older stuff. There’s a learning curve to discern a gem from a pebble (but sometimes a pebble is what you need). It requires patience–one might not want to look for months for just the right bed frame when it’s so tantalizingly easy to click online and get it delivered to your door. But, my dears, it’s worth it! Hold out! You won’t regret it!

And now, tell me your antique thoughts.

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There would be a lot to digitally hide in this room. The only thing that’s new in this photo is the watercolor of la Cité of Carcassonne (on the left), done by a friend of a friend; even the other oils are old, found in a closet.

 

 

More Minerve

IMG_3337As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.IMG_3395The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve.IMG_3373 What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.

Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?

Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.IMG_3387IMG_3359IMG_3357The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.IMG_3363

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The very porous local limestone.

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You can see the waves that water left in the sand.

Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.

I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.IMG_3364Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.

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It looks too low to walk through, eh?

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Mais non! It’s plenty high.

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View from the other side.

But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.

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This is called the Poterne Sud, the southern gate to the town.

And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. IMG_3378We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.IMG_3380IMG_3342IMG_3350IMG_3352

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This was ridden by a man as old as the scooter.

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Utterly Adorable Minerve

IMG_3282There are cute French villages and then there are REALLY CUTE French villages. Minerve is in the superlative category. Officially so: it’s on the list of les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful French Villages). I know I just said I was a city girl, but I do love places like this.IMG_3330It has been a while since we’ve visited. Though it’s been on the to-do list for all of my recent visitors, we just never had the time for the 45-minute drive from Carcassonne. What a mistake. The drive is gorgeous. And the village…well, these photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in August. Peak tourist. Yet you can see for yourself that Minerve was quiet. A secret. Now you know. Share wisely.IMG_3328The town is built at the confluence of the Cesse and Brian rivers. About 50 million years ago, the entire area was the bottom of a warm-water sea, as evidenced by the fossils in the limestone. The rivers carved deep gorges, which form a comma-shaped peninsula, kind of. Natural fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age.

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Aerial view.

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The work of water.

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It reminds me of Gaudí’s Casa Milà, aka la Pedrera, in Barcelona.

The Romans came along, too. The town appeared officially in writing around 873. Old. Stuff like that just boggles my mind. Obviously places fell down and were built over, but probably some of the same stones were used. And today those houses are still there, and they have Internet.IMG_3331

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The side of one street.

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Right across from the preceding photo. Traffic is not a problem in Minerve.

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What IS a problem: wise guys tossing rocks into the gorges. People hike down there. It is “Forbidden to throw rocks.” Clearly an age-old challenge.

There’s a charming bookstore and lots of artists’ shops and studios and many places to eat and drink. There are about 130 residents, down considerably from the boom years of the mid-1800s, when there were about 400. It’s clearly not an easy place to live. Imagine hauling your groceries–or worse, a new piece of furniture–down these “streets.” But vacationers provide some animation. Just enough to keep the place alive, without overrunning it. IMG_3326IMG_3316The rivers lie far below, bone dry at this time of year, but prone to flashes of rage. At least the town is high and dry.IMG_3336

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Can you imagine having to replace the tiles on that roof on the right? With a plunge I don’t know how far down but many times more than the house itself.

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Imagine how that bridge was built, before mechanical aide.

The Candela is all that remains of the viscount’s castle, which was built at the end of the 13th century. There once was a drawbridge nearby. The castle was dismantled in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wonder why.IMG_3305IMG_3298IMG_3294The church was closed, but the exterior was fascinating.IMG_3320IMG_3319

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Anything goes. N’importe quoi.

I took so many photos, I’m going to do another post. Come back for more on Friday.

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La mairie, or town hall.

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Residents of Minerve are called Minervois, which is also the name of this wine region. Very good wine!

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Living Marble and Other Marvels

IMG_2401You can see so much art for free in France–in all of Europe. Just walk into a church, the bigger the better, and amazing works will be in front of your nose, usually without crowds and almost always in wonderful silence. Aside from the really major attractions, like Notre Dame de Paris before the fire, you can wander in without lines. Sometimes there’s even mood music.IMG_2398You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the work for its quality. Back in the day, the Catholic church was a major benefactor of the arts. Maybe benefactor isn’t the right word–it was a major consumer/commissioner/purchaser/collector. Churches are chockfull of sculptures and paintings, and the buildings themselves are wonders of design.IMG_2363 2IMG_2366 2This is part two of my day trip to Narbonne. (Part one is here.) We’re going to explore le Cathedrale de Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, which is part of the same cluster of buildings as the city hall/former archbishops’ palace.

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Jean de Seigneuret de Laborde (1607)

First, the name. Just and Pasteur were two Christian brothers who were martyred near Madrid around the year 304 (A.D., obviously) under the Diocletianic Persecution. The Roman Emperor Diocletian rescinded Christians’ rights and required them to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Just and Pasteur, 12 and 9 years old, refused. There are multiple versions of their grisly deaths.

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Note the panel on the bottom left. The tomb of S. Emi Guillaume Cardinal de Briçonnet, archbishop of Narbonne from 1507 to 1514.

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The red stripe is a keep-out ribbon.

Pope Clément IV (born Gui Foucois but known as Guy le Gros–Fat Guy) decided in 1268 to build a fancy new cathedral in Narbonne, where he had previously been archbishop. Emphasis on the word fancy. The cathedral was started in 1272 in a gothic style. Only the choir was finished, around 1330. Remember that the vicious crusade against the Cathar heretics ran through the area in 1209, from the sacking of Béziers just north of Narbonne, to the surrender of Carcassonne just to the west; Narbonne, between them, was the headquarters of the Catholic forces. The bishop of Narbonne had been fairly tolerant of the Cathars, which led to him being fired in 1211. The crusade was lucrative for the church, which grabbed the land of dispossessed lords who had been linked to the Cathars. This led to the construction of a bunch of churches in the region, including the cathedral.

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The choir. The organ is 23 meters (75 feet) tall, 12 meters (39 feet) wide and 14 meters (45 feet) above the ground. It was completed in 1741. The pews date to 1780.

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The cathedral viewed from the top of the donjon.

The cathedral and the archbishops’ palace were built like fortifications, perhaps because they abutted the city wall. In fact, finishing the cathedral would have possibly required tearing down part of the wall, which might have been a factor in it not getting finished. The other reasons it wasn’t completed were the plague and economic decline of the city.

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Big buttresses!

What they accomplished shows how ambitious the plans were. It’s still one of the tallest churches in France. But back to art.

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The tomb of Jean de Seigneuret de Laborde (1607). His gloves are in the top photo. He would have been around at the time our apartments were built. To think…

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Look at the details! The bow on his stocking. The lace of his skirt. The helmet. The folds of his boots.

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How a piece of marble became this just astounds me.

There are tapestries and paintings and frescoes.

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So, so old.

IMG_2369 2IMG_2380There’s a strong preoccupation with the afterlife. It was the cudgel raised over the the people, to keep them in line. Obey now or else you’ll be sorry later.

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Purgatory.

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Souls headed to hell (the part under the statue).

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Going to hell. You can make out commoners, bishops and kings. There was a new entrant today, in fact.

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Heaven.

In good gothic style, the exterior is studded with gargoyles, impressively expressive.IMG_2358IMG_2359IMG_2360IMG_2361IMG_2364IMG_2368 2The stained glass windows offer more tableaux. I failed to zoom in, happy to just appreciate the play of light and color.IMG_2395IMG_2370Almost every surface is decorated.IMG_2396IMG_2397Doors upon doors upon doors.IMG_2409 2The cathedral and its archbishops’ palace rise above the plain like some kind of shipwreck, or an island, even a mountain. Not discreet in the least. Bold, daring. Declaring “yeah, we’re here. What about it?”

Do you visit churches? What do you like inside?IMG_2410