Béziers in the South of France

P1070594After 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.

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A door in Béziers. This is how we felt before lunch.

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.

P1070597This 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.

Lunch! Hurry!

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The doors! The garland! And another garland above the French doors to the balcony above!

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).

P1070599We 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.

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The building on the right is the city hall.

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 déliquanceBéziers 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.

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No point in showing the Carnivore’s big but boring steak.

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.

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Detail of the building the young woman was sketching. More work than drawing International Style architecture.
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One of the lions.

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.

P1070610
For sale. 100 fireplaces. No, I didn’t ask the price.

“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.

P1070607Off 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.

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I love all the balcony railings. It could be beautiful.

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.

P1070615The 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.

P1070613Driving 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.

More photos on my Instagram!

 

 

Faces of France

tlsOne of the nicest things about this blog is that it has reopened my eyes. I have gotten used to living in the south of France; it has been good to look around me with fresh eyes as I think about stories to tell.

And I see eyes looking back.

balcony
Venus? The entire grand house this lady rules, facing Square Gambetta, is decorated with seashell motifs.

The Bastide, or the “new” town (having been built in 1260, vs. la Cité, which is far older), is truffled with these decorations. I suspect that back in the day of la Cité, only the aristocracy and church had the means for anything beyond the slimmest basics of life. Styles and tastes change, but also, by the time of la Bastide, trade was booming and Carcassonne was a center for textiles, wine and cereals. The buildings show it, with flourishes and sometimes elaborate decorations.

And faces.

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Was he the architect? There is so much to decipher here. How many people walk by without looking up?
carca
On the same building. I see a globe, a telescope, books, what else? Clues and explanations welcome in the comments!

Who were they? Did real people sit as models? Or were they sculpted from paintings, books, memories?

college
Above the entrance to a junior high school. How would you like to greet him every morning before class? At least he seems fairly benevolent. Despite the facial hair.

Some are in unlikely places, more modest embellishments than the grand busts atop grand buildings.

verdun
He’s only about 18 inches tall. I feel his pain.
red door lady
A tiny lady above a red door.
railing
They don’t make railings like they used to.
jesus
A niche above a nondescript door on a nondescript house.
white face
Carved in wood, somehow surviving the elements, above the doors to a grange or barn near la Cimetière Saint-Michel (with great views of la Cité).

Toulouse also has many wonderful faces hiding in plain sight. The series below live on the back side of the Capitole, home to the city hall and municipal theater.

Capitole 3
Cosette, is that you? She gives me a chill–what was her story?
Capitole 4
I love his hat! Panache. The word means plume, but has the connotation of flamboyance.
Capitole 2
This one, by contrast, seems to have a bat atop his helmet. Look at how his mouth is a little lopsided, as if he’s mulling over a question or biting the inside of his cheek.
Capitole 1
He seems to know more than he’s telling.
Capitole 5
The most haunting of all, to me. Why were her eyes closed? So vulnerable.

Which do you like best?

 

 

Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis

arm on sofaOne of those serendipitous moments happened recently as I wiped down a new old sofa and otherwise puttered in the apartment that overlooks the courtyard.

In order to not lose my mind–actually to lose myself inside my mind–while doing uninteresting or unpleasant tasks, I listen to podcasts. No amount of mindfulness is going to make me all zen about mopping the floor or sorting laundry or running (or sewing!). I want to get the job done with minimal pain, and the best analgesic is one that makes me think about something else, the more esoteric, the better. Sometimes I do not want to focus on what I am doing. At all.

canape top 2The first to entertain me was Lauren Bastide, with the most wonderful, we’re-there-in-the-room conversation with Amandine Gay (“La Poudre“).  I was riveted by pieces about the new movie “Tower” and the decline of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (both on “Fresh Air,” which has the greatest interviewer ever, Terry Gross). I discovered Lady Lamb (thanks to “On Point”). People talked about medical mysteries (TED Radio Hour). But then I had no more podcasts left in my feed.

So I switched to the NPR One app, which is like a slot machine for podcasts, except that you never lose. They themselves call it Pandora for public radio–more PG-rated than a slot machine. First I got the founders of Kate Spade talking about how they got started (on “How I Built This“)–a logical progression because both Ted Radio Hour and How I Built This are hosted by Guy Raz, who has the most unbelievable name ever. Then the app decided I needed to hear a show I was unfamiliar with, called “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” WTF? HOW DID THEY KNOW????

I was mostly an A+ student, but I have no idea how  I pulled it off in history (my only non-A’s were in gym class–C. “She never makes trouble” was the only nice thing the gym teacher found to say about me, year after year. Yes, I saw my old report cards not long ago). Those dates…they just wouldn’t adhere to my brain cells, even though I am a math lover and have no trouble memorizing zip codes and country dialing codes. foot on sofaHowever, it didn’t work with history. And it’s too bad, because I have come to love history, though I still don’t remember the dates. I treat dates in history the way I treat recipes–approximations are good enough. Freudian analysis would probably figure it out, but that would take too much time and effort. And anyway, all I really care about are the stories.

The history podcast was about another momentous women’s march–on Versailles! And there I was, on my knees, rubbing an ammonia solution into a Louis XVI sofa to strip it of all traces of its very charming former owner. Louis XVI! The one getting marched on in that very podcast!

Sofa sideAn aside here to discuss the fine lady who was getting rid of her sofa. She was suffering from back pain and was going for an operation any day now, though that didn’t stop her from grabbing the coffee table and rolling up the carpet in front of the sofa–the Carnivore and I were going nuts trying to stop her but she was as quick as butter on a hot skillet. She stood about to my shoulder, which, considering I’m short, is nothing. I bet she didn’t weigh 40 kilos. A wisp of a woman.

As the Carnivore manipulated our neighbor’s camionette (a kind of enclosed pickup that’s very common in France) into her driveway, I chatted with Madame about life. The conversation quickly turned to death. She explained that she was keeping one of the armchairs that matched the sofa because it had been her mother’s, who had lived with her before dying. She then segued to her husband, who died suddenly, in his sleep, not long ago (which might have been a few years, I wasn’t sure). Trying to comfort her, I told her that my parents had died recently, relatively quickly, and in light of what I’d seen, I think the quicker the better. I am not alone in this. When I was leaving my post as a teacher in Africa, my students collected messages for me, and one sweet student wished me “a happy family, a happy life and a quick death!”

sconceMadame grasped my arm and said, “Chut!” (Shush!) But then she went on anyway, and we talked about how a slow death does prepare the survivors for the idea that the loved one would be no longer, while a quick death is probably nicer for the person dying but a shock for the family.

This lady was selling some things in her finely furnished (“j’étais décoratrice!”) little house in order to move in with or near to her daughter, who had married an Italian and had followed him to Milan (she contorted her small, thin face at this, as if she had bitten into a spoiled fruit). First an operation on her back in France, then a new life in Italy. I felt sorry for her, abandoning all the stuff that reminded her of happier times–for some people, stuff is an end unto itself, a way to achieve some kind of status, but for others it is a totem of people or memories of happy times, and, though I knew her but for less than an hour, I think that, even if years ago she was in the former category, she now was in the latter). Plus, the weather in Milan is pretty crappy,  compared with Aude.

canape armBack to the furniture. The sofa is, obviously, a reproduction of Louis XVI. He’s better known as the husband of Marie Antoinette. I say “obviously” because it’s a sofa-bed, a technology that came somewhat later than the late 1700s. Madame said she bought it in Revel, which is a hub for marquetry and fine furniture making. Considering how heavy it is, I believe her.

Louis XVI came after 15 other Louis (Louises?), the first of whom appeared in 814 A.D. The first Louis had a tough act to follow: Charlemagne. There were LOTS of other kings before the first Louis (who was known as both “the pious” AND “the debonaire”!!!!! How did he manage that?), but they had names like Chilperic and Childeric and Chlothar and Dagobert. (You should know that in some places–like Belgium–a dagobert is not unlike a Dagwood sandwich, giving the mitraillet a run for the money.)

The later Louis (Louises?) became known for their interior décors. We won’t spend time on the earliest ones. Louis II, aka “the stutterer”!! Too bad he didn’t see “The King’s Speech.” There also were Louis the Fat (they really weren’t politically correct in those times) and Louis the Young and Louis the Lion and St. Louis (the IX–9th–who built the “new” town of Carcassonne around 1260).  Then Louis X, aka the Quarreler; Louis XI, aka “the prudent, the cunning, the universal spider.” Sorry, but that one is The Best!!! Being Prudent, Cunning AND a Universal Spider? OMG. What a MAN! Or was he a superhero? But that was from 1461-1483. They don’t make them like they used to. Or maybe they do, except for the prudent part, and we are like flies stuck in a trap.

Louis XII was the “father of the people,” followed by a number of other-named monarchs, including Henri II, whose style was much-copied later.

canape topLouis XIII (13th), aka “the Just,” was in the first half of the 1600s. We know that our apartments existed in 1624, though they might have been there earlier. (I will try to get to the bottom of this one day.) His style is known for lots of twists (torsades) and straight lines, which seems like a contradiction, eh?

Louis XIV was known as Louis the Great or the Sun King. Hard to beat that (though his great-grandson, Louis XV–“the Beloved”–seems to have). Fourteen ruled from 1643-1715 and built Versailles. Think glam.

And then we get to Louis XVI (we’re up to 16 here–seize in French, pronounced “says”), the “restorer of French liberty,” who ruled from 1774 to 1792. Note those dates! What happened just two years after 1774? Hmmm! An era of foment all over the place.

marquetry
Marquetry

Having read “A Tale of Two Cities” (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sidney Carton: “It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Did you, too, have to memorize that in high school?) and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”), I had an impression of the French Revolution as having been a bloody affair directed by perhaps well-meaning but vicious people like Madame Lafarge, JavertRousseau and Robespierre and that the revolution was at full swing from the moment the people stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, until the day Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette lost their heads on the guillotine in 1792. But in fact, the revolution started earlier and the king hung on for several years. Talks happened, spiced up by marches, including by nasty women.

Among the problems at the time, as “What You Missed in History Class” explains for us, were bad harvests, government deficits, over-taxation and illiquidity. It boiled down to the masses starving.

You must listen to the podcast to get all the details, but basically, people were fed up with not being fed. Call it a minimum wage issue. The podcasters express doubts that Louis XVI was actually evil incarnate or even just callous but instead suspect that he was way over his head and incompetent. In any case, a revolution was born.

Despite all that bad blood, Louis XVI’s style remains much-coveted today. OK, coveted among people who think that IKEA is great if you are 20 years old and on a small budget but then you should buy furniture that will last more than three years, and that proves it by having lasted already more than 100. Coveted by people who do not want to sit on backless benches at dinner. Who do not think that plastic chairs, even Eames, are chic or comfortable.

But how to keep your Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis straight? (And Louis is pronounced like Louie, not Lewis.) First of all, FirstDibs has a great explainer of the different Louis (Louises?). If you are just starting out, start here. Another great resource is the Metropolitan Museum of Art with essays on French chairs and 18th century French furniture more generally.

As the Louvre explains (and they should know), you have Louis XIV and the Regency from 1660-1725, then Rococo from 1725-1755, then classicism and the reign of Louis XVI from 1755-1790.

When I lived in Brussels and Paris was much closer than from where I am now in the deepest corner of rural France (which actually used to be Spain), I always partook of Les Journées de Patrimoine, in which many buildings of historical significance are opened to the public. Sometimes they are museums that drop their usual ticket charges, but the best are government or private buildings that otherwise are strictly off-limits. Once, I toured the Banc de France–like the Federal Reserve, especially because I visited before the euro–and was in a group of very well-dressed, impeccably coiffed, middle-aged Parisians. The kind of people known as bourgeois, or if younger as BCBGbon chic, bon genre. I saw a couple, in nearly matching tweed suits (her in a skirt, him in trousers whose crease up until that moment had been razor-sharp), on their hands and knees looking at the underbelly of an antique gilded demi-lune console. It’s true there were amazing antiques in every direction, with computers and papers plonked on top.

toilet paper holder
Fit for a throne

The Carnivore is very sensitive about Louis (Louises?), and is partial to No. 16. He searched high and low for a toilet-paper holder that was in the style of Louis XVI. Even though according to this, toilet paper didn’t get cheap enough for the masses until much later. Far more impressive is the history given by ToiletPaperWorld, which mingles Stephen Crane, money and defecation. “French royalty used lace.” No wonder there was a revolution! (The delicacy of the terms the sites uses is an impressive exercise in euphemisms.)

I have seen references around the Internet to “Louis chairs,” to which I think, WHICH Louis? This alone should qualify me for French citizenship. But which Louis matters only if you’re paying top euro for what’s supposed to be the real thing, in which case, you had better know better. For everything else, “Louis” means something sorta French-antique-looking, probably Louis XVI.

All the same, I have seen how the French teach their young to know their Louis (Louises?). From the time our kid was in the equivalent of second grade, the whole memorize-your-kings thing started. Which is probably why, on a different tour during les Journées de Patrimoine, the docent told us the story of a beautifully painted stucco ceiling in the Marais of Paris, and several of the tour-goers objected vociferously to the dates and kings cited. I was dumbstruck to be in the middle of a heated argument about something that had happened 400 years earlier. At the same time, I was full of admiration, because I absolutely cannot remember such dates.

As for serendipity, what is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language (in French, it’s “happy luck,” not nearly as fun a word as serendipity), algorithms and artificial intelligence are snatching it away from us. Serendipity is opening a newspaper and happening to spy something interesting and relevant. Serendipity is walking into a shop and finding just what you need on sale. Serendipity is running into a friend you haven’t seen in ages someplace unexpected (I once bumped into an old dance buddy from NY in the line for the opera in Rome). Now our news is filtered based on what we like, we shop online for things that are pushed to us, and we know where everybody we’ve ever met is at any moment.

Some of my greatest “aha” moments have been when I have read or listened to things that on the surface didn’t interest me in the least. But they were in publications or on programs that I knew did good work, so I gave them my time. And I was rarely disappointed. I never would have sought out “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” But it came to me, with a story that touched exactly on what I was doing.

Serendipity rules.

Written in Stone

crossAfter living here for so long, I forget which things I found different about France. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a francophile since my first Madeline book.

The culture shock has been urban vs. rural rather than Anglo-Saxon vs. French. We arrived from New York City to a village of 700 next to Carcassonne, which itself is no metropolis at 45,000 (not counting the 2 million tourists each year).

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything After living in the city that never sleeps. The stores open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 8:30 and close at 8 p.m. 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. In bigger cities, there are more options.

1663At 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, hardly anybody works late. They go home to their families.

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 or wild asparagus 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’ house for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait. And what is eating but an occasion to share a pleasure with friends and family?

1662I would like to say all this shows the French aren’t into mindless consumerism, but they have succumbed as much as anybody else. There are solderies selling the same cheap, cheaply made junk you find in the aisles of big-box stores elsewhere. The only difference is that homes here are smaller than in the U.S., which generally puts a cap on how much stuff can fit.

While I consider myself a city person, I have to admit there are some lovely qualities about French village life. There’s a softness to the people here. A niceness. Yes, I said it: French people are nice. Also a slowness, because why stress? There’s plenty of time. It’s definitely life in the slow lane.

Maybe I settled easily into my adopted country because its values appeal to me. Family first. Good public schools. Good health care for everybody. Clean environment. The system works pretty well and things are in pretty good shape. Competence and professionalism are rampant. When frustrations arise, they usually stem not from ineptness on the part of a bureaucrat or shopkeeper or customer service representative but from that person’s unbudging adherence to some set of rules that might make sense some or even most of the time but that allow for no exceptions. This becomes less surprising when you look at how French verbs are conjugated: there are general rules, and then not so much exceptions but ever-more-specific subsets of rules. No one-offs. The rules are written in stone.

RF
RF = République Française

This Gallic certitude, this ability–even penchant–to say non, is inextricable from the French savoir vivre, knowing how to live well. Some rules of French life:

  1. Everything should be made as beautiful as possible. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but aesthetics count, whether it’s how you dress or how you serve dinner or turning down the lights in the evening and lighting a candle for ambience.
  2. Take your time. The French won’t be rushed (maybe behind the wheel, but that’s a different story). Stop for a drink at a café with friends. Linger at dinner. Do your beauty routine.
  3. Smell the roses, literally. Use your senses to pull pleasure from every opportunity. The French are particularly strong in the taste department, but not limited to that.

museumOf course these things can be done anywhere. If you want to feel French this weekend, then put together a good meal of honest food–it doesn’t have to be fancy but it shouldn’t be heavily processed–and share it with some people you care about. Set a pretty table. Take your time to enjoy it all. Voilà!

 

 

 

Pont du Gard

pdg-closerThe Pont du Gard is everything and more. Although it isn’t a bridge (pont) at all, but an aqueduct built by the Romans to carry water to the city of Nîmes from a spring near Uzès.

from-above
View from the belvedere

The Romans turned something practical into a work of art that has lasted for nearly 2,000 years, even if long ago it stopped channeling water in the 6th century. In fact, it had an afterlife as a tollgate in the Middle Ages, and from the 1700s until it became a museum, it was a road bridge.

pdg-entire-width
The path toward the pont
img_3270
You can just make out the three rows of arches

The pont has three levels of arches–making it the highest Roman structure–across 360 meters (almost 1,200 feet), to cross the Gardon River. The pont is part of an aqueduct system that’s 50 kilometers (31 miles) long and is so perfectly calculated that water flows only thanks to gravity the entire way, even though it descends only 12 meters over its entire length. How do you say “hydraulic engineer” in Latin?

footholds
The stones sticking out served as ladders.
footholds-2
When this was built, there was no reassuring flat platform around. I would not have wanted to work on this project.

The entire system took 10 to 15 years to build, and the pont itself took less than five (and there are 19 other, smaller bridges). History doesn’t tell us whether there were cost overruns, but it seems there weren’t many delays, especially for something so huge built by hand. How do you say “project manager” in Latin?

archNîmes at the time was a booming city, and the local spring wasn’t able to keep up with its fast-growing population. The Romans were picky about where they got their water–they liked to go to the source (pun intended), in this case the spring, or group of springs connected to an underground aquifer, called the Fountain of Eure, near Uzès. That they went so far and actually thought it would be a good idea to carry the water all the way to Nîmes is pretty amazing. How do you say “geological engineer” in Latin?

river-long-viewThe setting is gorgeous. Driving through rolling hills, you get to the gorge carved into the soft sandstone hills by the river. The Pont du Gard is even more amazing for having withstood 19 centuries of fast and furious rain-swelled river without damage.

When we visited, last fall, the river was low and slow, with quite a few bathers.

river
The spot in the upper left is a swimmer.

Thick forest covers the hills. You can hike up to a belvedere, or lookout, above the pont. The path is steep and rough–natural–and not suitable for strollers or canes. However, the parking lots are reasonably near the entrance (there’s one on each bank of the river) and the lanes to the bridge are smooth and mostly flat; there’s a wide walkway alongside the bridge, too. Lots of bikes were there (good and bad–too many expected the throngs of pedestrians to jump out of their way).

forest

Above, some awesomely old olive trees. Below, the plaque says: “This aqueduct built by the Romans to conduct to Nîmes the waters of the Fontaine of Eure repared by the states of Languedoc in 1702 was consolidated and restored in 1855 by the orders of the Emperor Napoleon III and by the care of the minister of state”…then the name of the architects, which I can’t quite make out except of Ch. Laisne.

inscription

And of course, graffiti is nothing new:

graffiti-1843

When the euro notes were designed, the idea was to use images of architectural elements common across Europe without copying any single structure. The idea was unity and common culture, beyond historical personalities or past conflicts. But the back of the €5 note looks suspiciously familiar.

banknote5euroThe Pont du Gard is about a two-hour drive from Carcassonne.

Roman Ruins in France

glanum-looking-downWe just got back from seeing the Carnivore’s family in Belgium for the holidays. A white-knuckle drive through a whiteout segued into fog and finally the southern sun. I must admit that we had good weather during our stay until it was time to hit the road. But the northern sun was as satisfying as watered-down coffee.  Didn’t even need sunglasses.

So we’re going to revel in some fair-weather shots from our trip to Provence last fall. Saint-Rémy de Provence has a marvel of Roman ruins just south of town. The archeological site of Glanum wasn’t discovered until about a 100 years ago, leaving it buried for 17 centuries.

glanum-capitalGlanum was first inhabited by Gauls around the 7th or 6th century B.C.  The Greeks arrived in the 2nd and 1st century B.C.  and started building. The Romans colonized it next, around 63 B.C. It fell into ruin around 260 A.D. after the Alemannic invasions of Germanic people, and the inhabitants moved to present-day Saint-Rémy.

view-to-town-and-sea
View of Saint-Rémy from a belvedere, or view point, at Glanum.

For an archaeology nut/wannabe, it’s paradise. We were the first to arrive on a Sunday morning and had the place to ourselves for over an hour. The best way to pretend to be Indiana Jones.

glanum-walls-2The main street is perched over drains the length of Glanum. The slight slope ensures good drainage.

glanum-sidewalkGutters handle run-off from houses and public buildings as well.

glanum-gutterAnd there were interesting drains. Those Romans had plumbing nailed.

What must the market have been like? Probably not much different from those today–stalls, maybe some produce spread on the ground. It was majestically outlined by Doric columns. Nice touch. You can see one of the columns below. It’s the one on the far left.  I was more taken with the “house with antae,” which is in the center of the photo.

glanum-columnsThe antae are the columns with Corinthian capitals. The rooms of the house surrounded an enclosed courtyard with a pool. I approve.

glanum-columns-2All those stones, covered with lichen. What was life like then? Pretty tough, don’t you think? In spite of the plumbing.

glanum-walls

glanum-walls-2

 

glanum-upper-endSo many carvings. Of people and places long gone. Did their monuments to themselves make them happy?

glanum-writing

glanum-tombstones

glanum-three-columnsTwin Corinthian temples were “dedicated to the cult of the Emperor’s family,” according to the site’s brochure. An exquisite decoration, like a butterfly’s wing, is on top of one, which was partially rebuilt to give us an idea of what it was like.

glanum-temple

temple-looking-up

glanum-temple-topThe photo below shows one of the wine-smoking rooms. Who knew? Smoking helped preserve the wine. Pre-bottle-and-cork technology.

glanum-ovenI always think, when I’m in a museum or a place like this, that there’s such an abundance of fabulous stuff, and everybody is so busy gawking at the headline items like the temple above, that they practically walk past wonders like those below:

glanum-four-entablaturesIf this were in my garden, it would be admired every single day, not passed by on the way to something more impressive. Here it’s another rock in a rock pile. Injustice, really.

glanum-carved-designOutside of Glanum, just across the road (where cars and bikes come screaming down the hill and don’t stop for the crosswalk–beware!), are two more Roman wonders, called “les Antiques.”

towerAbove, the Mausoleum, or Cenotaph of the Julii, from 30-20 B.C. It’s unusual for having a rectangular base with a round top. The base is elaborately carved.

tower-bottomRight next to it is the Triumphal Arch, showing Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls. Way to rub salt in the wound, eh?

archAlso, right next to Glanum is Saint-Paul de Mausole, the psychiatric hospital where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year.  We didn’t have time to visit on this trip. Gotta go back!

 

Time Travel

bannerLook what we found in the attic at the apartments. A little trip to 1975!

front-page

The Independant is a regional paper that still operates. The top story is the boarding of a U.S. merchant ship by the Cambodians. The second lead is the acquisition of Compagnie International pour l’Informatique (aka CII–it means International Computing Co.) by Honeywell-Bull, a French-U.S. computer maker.

The first visit to France by Deng Xiaoping (spelled Teng Hsiao-Ping in French) got several stories, including an explanation by the Carcassonne committee of the French-Chinese Friendship Association.

china

The article begins: “First travel to France, since the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in ’49, by a leader of the Chinese government, the voyage of vice-premier minister Deng Xiaoping is an important event for reinforcing the friendship between the French and Chinese peoples.”

jackie-oThe front-page cartoon about Jackie O. remarrying came two days before the death of Aristotle Onassis at a Paris hospital. Tasteless, eh?

sterling
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Meanwhile, the pound sterling beat all its records of falling, with a devaluation of 24.9%, though the article doesn’t make clear from what starting point and besides it wasn’t a devaluation (when the government does it on purpose) but a depreciation (the markets drive the currency down).mini-carThe simple, direct cri de coeur “Pas pour mini-car!” refers to a law passed in 1975 allowing the voiture san permiscars without a license. Actually these ultra-small  two-seaters do have licenses; it’s the drivers who don’t. In fact, I showed a photo of one here. They can’t go faster than 45 kph, and the lack of a license requirement makes them popular with retirees who can’t see. Can’t get autonomous vehicles fast enough!

 

Lastours

683.Lastours10
View from the belvedere

The châteaux of Lastours are among the Cathar castles the closest to Carcassonne. The site consists of four ruined châteaux, perched on hills in the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains.

672.Lastours7Looking at the steep, rocky terrain, you wonder how they picked this spot to live. Life must have been rough, with good views. The Orbiel river runs at the bottom of the valley, providing an occasional flat and fertile spot for gardens.

The visit starts in a former textile factory, with a great archaeological exhibition—the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age.

661.Lastours3The climb winds around the hill, which makes it longer but safer than trying to go straight up. Still, it’s challenging. Not handicapped accessible or stroller accessible or even out-of-shape accessible.

657.Lastours1But the vistas are fabulous. On a clear day, you can see all the way across the Aude plain to the Pyrénnées. Lastours has only one road, which just goes further into the mountains and thus isn’t heavily traveled. As you climb, you don’t hear cars but birds and the wind whistling through the low brush. You also pass through a mostly open cave, which tends to be unbelievably exciting for kids.

671.Lastours6The four castles that make up Lastours (which is Occitan for “the towers”) are perched close together on a ridge, so once you’ve climbed, you’re good.

My fireman brother was fascinated (not in a good way) by the spotlight wiring, bundled haphazardly and running right across the trail for everybody to step on, and the guardrails (as in, lack thereof).

685.Lastours12Those who can’t hike can get a bird’s eye view from an even higher spot on a hill across the valley, where a belevedere is set up with benches for an evening sound and light show. Entry is included in your châteaux ticket, or reduced if you just hit the belvedere.684.Lastours11For a village of under 200 people, Lastours punches above its weight gastronomically. Le Puits du Trésor has a Michelin star, thanks to Jean-Marc Boyer, who is a real sweetie besides being a great chef. The restaurant is situated in the same factory as the entry to the châteaux and is open for lunch and dinner. Boyer also has a less-expensive bistro, Auberge du Diable au Thym (Thyme Devil’s Inn) next to the restaurant, with a terrace next to the fast and clear Orbiel.

A five-minute walk away, still next to the river, there’s a little bakery with homemade ice cream and tables in a little garden. And at least one shop sells local products, meaning local FOOD products.

You can’t get out of Lastours without eating, I’m telling you.

658.Lastours2You need a car to get to Lastours. Maybe a Tour de France biker would take on the steep road (no shoulders, no guardrails). Anyway, follow the signs for parking. Do not think you’ll find something closer. You’ll end up driving through town and then you’ll have to keep going until you find a spot wide enough to turn around. The town is vertical, with the road at the bottom next to the river, and there isn’t room for a sidewalk let alone parking, aside from the little parking lot.

The Writing Is on the Wall

1907During the renovation, we stashed a bunch of furniture in the attic. Our kid immediately noted the previous presence of other kids there. I had paid no attention to the scratchings on the walls, but yes, there were many hieroglyphics.

game“It’s kind of scary up here, but it could have been a cool place to play,” our kid noted.

stepsYeah, kind of scary. Starting with the break-your-neck steps/ladder to get up there.

door
A creepy dark room lies behind the little door.
under-eaves
Typical attic junk

But there are several skylights, and the floor is mostly tiled with terra cotta tomettes. This place would be a luxury apartment in Paris.

dark-doorway
A good set for a horror film. Yet note the sun shining on the wall, left.

Back to the kids.

julesHow many generations played under the eaves?

1925

1908

1984
1984 is next to the balloon with JPB CP.

Did they know each other? Not as kids simultaneously, but through the generations….kids turn into parents, then into grandparents.heartI wonder what other marks they made on the world. What marks are we leaving? And you?dramatic-light

Heritage Days

towerIf you ever are in France in mid-September, be sure to take advantage of les Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. Museums offer free entry, but even better are the government and private buildings that open their doors for these days only.

tan-salon-mirror
An upstairs salon….there were several.

I used to go regularly in Paris, and found it’s good to go with a guide to get the backstory on the history of the place, with amazing details pointed out. It’s also fun to hear the French argue over the dates of various kings–as an American, I cannot imagine having to learn the names and dates for rulers going back to 486. My school spent about a week on everything up to 1776, then the rest of the year it was all pioneers all the time, until a week or two before summer break, when we caught up to World Wars I and II. I longed to know about kings and pharoahs, but all we got was covered wagons, year after year.

skylight
The chandelier was enormous.

On one visit, I saw gorgeously painted ceilings, I think it was at the Hôtel de Marle, in the Marais. The Hôtel de la Marine houses the boudoir of Marie-Antoinette, overlooking Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine was situated during the Revolution. The building was turned into a museum in 2014, so now you can visit any time.

kitchen-fireplace
The old kitchen’s fireplace.

And there was the home of Marie Touchet, the mistress of King Charles IV, whose house in the Marais doesn’t face a street; you have to enter through another building’s courtyard, which is private. But it opens for the Journées du Patrimoine.

tan-salon
One of the salons upstairs, with a Murano glass chandelier.

It was hilarious to see very prim, perfectly dressed Parisiens get down on their hands and knees to examine the underside of the antiques in the Banque de France. One gentleman even thought to bring a flashlight. No better way to educate oneself!

door-knobThis year, we went to a château in a small village near Carcassonne where there also was a food and craft fair (yes, all fairs in France include food and wine). The château hosts large meetings of the Conseil Général, or the department’s council. Apologies for the photo quality–the lighting wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t possible to set up a tripod.

chandelier-looking-down
Set up for a meeting. That chandelier hasn’t been dusted in a while.
cave
The cave

The first two floors have been restored, but the top floor and attic haven’t. I don’t think anybody went through without dreaming of how it could be fixed up into a gorgeous hotel. In fact, I overheard one couple discussing as much.

old-wallpaper
Remnants of wallpaper on the top floor.
gold-chandelier
This was way too big for the room, IMHO. It would be so much better in our apartment. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind…

Have you visited during the Journées du Patrimoine? What was your favorite discovery?

red-salon-1
Another salon
wine
A display of the department’s products. The sign says: “Se l’alfabet era de vin, tot lo monde saupria legir!” which is Occitan for “If the alphabet were wine, everybody could read!”