Final stop on the Provençal roadtrip: Uzès, an extremely charming town of about 8,000, more or less straight north of Nîmes. It was born as a Roman settlement, where the Eure springs are the source of the Alzon River. The springs also fed the Roman-built aqueduct taking water to Nîmes, of which the Pont du Gard is the most breathtaking section. Check out my post about the Pont du Gard.Read more
The last village of the roadtrip was Ménerbes, which became famous thanks to Peter Mayle’s books–A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, etc. I remember enjoying the books when they came out, but later feeling more ambivalent. He is the anti-Pagnol, rolling his eyes at the paysans‘ lack of sophistication, whereas Pagnol let the villagers have the last laugh, with common sense triumphing over book smarts.Read more
The Provence roadtrip I mentioned earlier started in Avignon. Just a short visit, en route farther east. The weather was cold, gray and very windy, which gave all those crenellated stone walls a slightly menacing feel. It also meant there weren’t hordes of people in the streets.Read more
A few weeks ago, I went to a delightful jazz concert at a winery in the countryside outside of Carcassonne. I’ve been to concerts there before, since we first moved here. This concert was by the Marc Deschamps trio, who embodied 1950s cool cats of jazz and who played a mix of beloved standards and lesser-known pieces by such pillars of jazz as Dave Brubeck. As lovely as the music was, the concert room, as always, was the star of the show.Read more
Christmas in Colmar
If Strasbourg is the capital of Christmas, then Colmar is … the Vatican? I’m not sure about the best analogy, but Colmar is intensely Christmasy in December, even more so than Strasbourg.Read more
The ancient hearts of French towns hold surprises on their narrow, rarely straight streets. Among all these pretty, old towns, Pézenas, in the Hérault department in southern France, is exceptionally lovely.Read more
The Big Unboxing
It’s been a while. This blog has always focused on the good life in France, and not about my life, which is pretty boring, and, of late, hit by unhappy changes. But I finally got out and did something very French–I went to an antique fair.Read more
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.Read more
We’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.
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.A 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.There 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.As 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.I 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?
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.
“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.”The 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.”
It also said that, in the 1890 outbreak, stress around the pandemic caused a 25% increase in suicides in Paris.The 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.
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?
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. So 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.The 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.It 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.
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?
How are you holding up?