Midwinter Madness

P1090535The south of France is anything but a hardship post. As winters go, they’re the green pistes, compared with the black ones elsewhere. In fact, spring started sprouting more than a week ago. (The mimosas are exploding, as in the top photo.)P1090325The days are getting longer and milder. The air smells doux, in all the French senses of the word: sweet, soft, mild, gentle… It’s intoxicating, making you want to fill your lungs again and again. It’s been mild enough that we can open the windows and let the perfume in the house (in addition to the daily airing that all good French people perform every morning, kind of the opposite of hygge). Snow is an hour away, if we want it, in abundance.P1090521P1090520

The bees are buzzing, the butterlies are fluttering. The weeds are invading.P1090461P1090463

The majestic plane trees are still bare. They look like tortured sculptures, though the trunks of some remind me of the trunks of elephants. P1090530P1090532P1090542

The trees in the woods don’t yet have leaves, but greenery persists throughout winter here.P1090502P1090526The river is robust, neither threatening nor dry. P1090551P1090509The baby grass is so tender. I just wanted to stay and stroke it (I did partake for a few minutes, but resisted the urge to take off my shoes and feel it between my toes, too).P1090501P1090565Secret worlds come to life.

Welcome, spring.P1090517

Please check out Daily Plate of Crazy, who also has musings today on midwinter madness.

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The Definition of Insanity

P1090464“I’ll be late,” the text said.

I was annoyed. Certainly this was an excuse to avoid chores. “Why?” I texted back, knowing full well that phones aren’t allowed in school.

No answer.

An hour later, my phone rang. I was even more annoyed. Almost nobody has my number, so when it rings, it’s either a telemarketer or a misdial.

It was school. There had been an accident. Please go to the emergency room.

We were led to a flourescent-lit room already crowded with other parents. Nobody knew anything. The panic, the angst, while waiting was terrible.

I brought my baby home a few hours later. Nothing serious; an abundance of caution. (No hospital bill, either, thank you socialized medicine.)

I thought about that day when I heard the familiar news of a school shooting. In America–where else. I can barely type for the tears, imagining those kids, those parents, desperate for another day together.

Are people not yet sick of their children being mowed down? Is that liberty?P1090498The definition of insanity  is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

 

Burn 650 Calories in 10 Minutes

P1080866And maybe save a life. While lying down.

Give blood.

Many, many people donate blood, yet there’s still a need. I knew this, but there was always a reason why it wasn’t convenient to participate during the local blood drives. Finally my kid challenged me to do it and wanted to watch. No peer pressure is as intense as kid pressure on a parent to bring out our better angels.

logoSo we went one morning after shopping at the market. Several volunteers dressed as big drops of blood were pleading with people at the market to walk down the block to the room where an efficient army of workers was taking donations from a surprisingly robust crowd of volunteers.

I flunked the test, though. I had run that morning (no exercise too soon before or after) and had only coffee for breakfast. I went back after a big lunch. It went smoothly, and afterward we sat at a long table of very French food: cheese, hard sausage, brioche and some industrial baked goods (Breton cookies and palmiers). Lots of juice and water. I had some cheese and brioche and palmiers and drank a lot and figured I was good to go.

We got about a block when my head started to spin. It had been decades since I’d last donated blood. My kid guided me to a bench on the street, and I felt better after a minute. But we hadn’t gone half a block when I got dizzy again. We were in front of a café and I quickly put myself onto a chair on the sidewalk. But I started to slide right off it and couldn’t stop. My kid was trying to get me up. People stared. My kid informed me that people thought I was drunk. Lovely! Some nice ladies went into the café and came out with water and sugar, and I managed to drink it, and eventually perked up enough to get around the corner to our AirBnB apartments, which were empty that weekend. I lay down and waited for my husband to come. No driving home. I would get my car later.

Now I am in the database, and two months later I got a call from the Établissement Français du Sang (French Blood Establishment) asking for more. I learned that I could take an appointment at their offices at the hospital, with no waiting and parking right in front of the door. I got my husband to drive me just in case, but I was fine.

It was even quicker, and I thought gosh, I should do this more often–well, whenever they call. The other donors clearly were regulars.

Although I was tired the rest of the day, I have to admit I felt like a million bucks the day after. I looked up information about giving blood and found out it burns 650 calories, on average, which was a sweet bonus. Especially because you need to eat something decent beforehand (the second time I had a nice protein-rich breakfast of eggs) and will eat something afterward. I do miss those American doughnuts.

EFS_Header_Merci_2017Donating blood regularly also reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease, which makes up for the lack of doughnuts.

You can donate blood every eight weeks, which comes to about six times a year. You give about a liter, or a pint, of blood per donation, which can help up to three people. You also can donate plasma and platelets, which involve a longer process and which can be donated more frequently.

My dad received blood transfusions. He would complain that his “counts were down,” and that he “needed a pint,” as if he had some kind of dipstick and it was akin to glug-glugging in a can of blood like oil into a car. I can’t bring him back, but I can help somebody else.

So can you.

 

 

Eccentrics

IMG_4379One of the first things I noticed when we moved to our little village in very rural southern France: the elderly residents would go to the bakery for their daily baguette while wearing bedroom slippers. Always plaid flannel ones. How charmingly eccentric, I thought.
But far and away the weirdest tale in the village concerns the pornographer parents.
At the time our kid was small—maybe two years old—there was quite a group of mothers who would show up at the park for about an hour before lunch and again after the afternoon nap. A very young woman came one day with her child—new to the village—and we welcomed them into the group.

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A hive of activity.

She was a little odd, but we attributed it to her age. We were all older—I was a late starter, another had teenagers and then decided to have one more baby, two others also had teens and were foster parents to toddlers. The new arrival didn’t work, and her husband was a security guard, she said. They were from Bordeaux. She wore her hair tied up, no makeup, baggy clothes.
One day, we were at the park when her husband came by, panicked. Where were they? Were any strangers around? They might have been kidnapped! Calm down, they just left, we told him, wondering why he was acting so strangely.

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Traffic.

We had playdates and birthday parties in addition to our park outings. The new mother gave a birthday party for her kid, and we all showed up. The house was indistinguishable from everybody else’s, with a kitchen opening to a dining area, with a Winnie-the-Pooh playhouse, and then to the living room. A high shelf ran all the way around the living room and held all kinds of movie cameras. They collected them, she said.
P1060892About a month later, one of the moms came to the park with big news. The young mother was a porn star, along with her husband. Another mom and her husband had been to the Salon de l’érotisme in Toulouse and had recognized them—they lived a couple of houses apart and hadn’t known until then.
WTF?!?!?!
I looked up the porn star’s site. There was a photo of her in a French maid outfit, leaning over the kitchen sink that I recognized, and I realized the photo must have been shot from next to the Winnie-the-Pooh house. There also was a film shot in the park!

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Sexy, no?

The foster mothers were livid that the young woman hadn’t told them about her real occupation. They could have lost their jobs or faced a lot of headaches.
Two things made me furious: The porn site had lots of photos of their child—not sexual ones but it was still creepy, with captions like “if you love me, send presents to my little girl.” The other thing that made me mad was that the address for sending stuff was in the village. They didn’t even bother to get a post office box in town. No wonder the husband was worried about kidnappers.
I felt really bad for their daughter. She was very nervous and didn’t talk much. On school outings, she wouldn’t eat. She would hide her food and pretend she ate it. I remember putting her hair into a ponytail for her—it was very long but so terribly thin.
The parents divorced; he was abusive and the porn star often had bruises. They moved away—I don’t know where to—after a few years.
P1080570Not to end on such a low note, I’ll go even lower with the tale of another resident.
There’s an older guy, very tall and and thin and gaunt, and with a stiff gait. He must have looked older than his age at first, because almost 15 years later he still looks the same, and I’d still guess him to be about 70. He was one of the regulars we would greet on our way to school in the mornings. I always thought, “Aw, he’s going to tend graves at the cemetery, how touching,” because the only things in that direction are the cemetery, some vineyards and the garrigue. He didn’t carry tools for pruning vines or fixing wires, so the cemetery was the logical destination.
I recently learned that he doesn’t go to the cemetery but to the woods to do his business! Even in bad weather! Does the man not have indoor plumbing? Another villager surprised him in the act one day. And chewed him out. But it didn’t have any effect on him—he still heads for the woods every morning. Now when I pass him, I wince. And I stay away from the woods!
No wonder he has such a weird walk.

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Not the well-fertilized woods, but close.

Share your tales of local color.

Holiday Spirit

P1060368Between batches of savory curry madeleines (better not frozen), I am pounding out this post. IMG_4477The process of cooking is taking longer than I expected because of mechanical difficulties. I have one madeleine mold, which I bought 20 years ago when I was living in Brussels and spending weekends in Paris and figuring that I’d be back in the U.S. in a year and wouldn’t it be cute to have something so quintessentially French? And then I more or less stayed and had easy access to excellent madeleines and I focused instead on making things I couldn’t get here–Mexican food–and never made madeleines until a couple of weeks ago.

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Held upside down!

I don’t see a point in buying another madeleine mold; as good as these curry-cheese madeleines are, I don’t expect to make them all the time, much less a double batch.

And since the madeleines stick ever so slightly, I have to wash the mold between batches. (I tried oil, butter, butter and flour, but the madeleines still cling to the supposedly nonstick mold.)IMG_4481It takes forever!

Do you ever have crises like that?

I don’t consider it a huge crisis. I wanted everything to be done today, and I still think it’s possible.

Meanwhile, some local color. The Carcassonne Christmas market officially opens tomorrow, though it has been set up for a while.

Here are some photos from last year.

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The market as night falls.
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Bûche de Noël–Christmas logs of sponge cake and buttercream frosting.
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A manger. In a tent in a parking lot, but you make do.
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Woodworking demonstration.
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Honey demonstration. Artisans rule.
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Honey products–beeswax candles, spice cake.
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Pretty lights. The blue drops seem like water falling.
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The village Charlie Brown tree…better lit than during the day.

Complete rundown of the party, recipes, photos and how-to coming Tuesday!!! Promise!

Fête de la Lumière

P1090214The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.

Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.

The Festival of Lights is more of a Scandinavian tradition than a French one, but Lyon does la Fête des Lumières in a big way.

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Store-bought pie crust, covered with spaghetti sauce, ham and cheese, then rolled up and cut (OK if they’re loose–the pastry will expand) and baked at 360 F (180 C).

For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.

We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.

We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.

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No recipe needed: store-bought pie crust cut into triangles and rolled up with Boursin cheese and smoked salmon, sprinkled with mustard seeds and baked.

Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.

Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.

Other requirements for the food:

—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.

—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.

—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.

—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.

—Must be easy on the budget.

—Must be in season.

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Zucchini-cheese chips. Grated zucchini mixed with grated cheese. Put little piles on a cookie sheet and back at 350 F (180 C). 

The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:

Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.

Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.

Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.

Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.

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Cheesy madeleines (also in the top photo). Aren’t they pretty!

I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!

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I’ve had this cookbook since 1989 and you can see it has gotten plenty of use.

I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.

Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!

Christmas Prep

hotel in la cite 2Signs of Christmas in Carcassonne have been sprouting faster than mushrooms after a rain. Lights have been strung on the pedestrian shopping street.

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That’s supposed to be a kind of lit-up snowball.

More lights went up on the central square, Place Carnot. The fountain of Neptune was swathed with fake snow, because on the day of the photo temps were in the low 60s Fahrenheit. No snow in these parts. It’s supposed to get cold next week, which is just as well for the big ice rink that will take up much of the square.

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I found it funny that the guys putting up the “snow” were dressed in white.
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Huge piles of lights…imagine trying to untangle them. Did you know they get recycled? The plastic is stripped off and made into soles for slippers.

The chalets for the Christmas market were installed. The market runs from Dec. 6 to Jan. 7 this year. It’s lively all day but best at night, when the lights are on. P1090125In general, the folks around here stick to low-key decorations. I’ve seen more people put up lights, but not as much as in the U.S.P1060354hotel in la cite

rue trivalle gutter
Notice the creature at the end of the gutter.
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This is the most elaborate house I’ve seen around here, in a photo from last year.
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The spiral going up is a palm tree. I love that a palm tree is decorated for Christmas.

There are some interesting interpretations of Christmas trees.

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What won’t people do with pallets?

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gourd ornaments
Decorations from a squash/pumpkin vendor at the market.

Another sign of the season: the arrival of Graisse de Noël (Christmas fat), which is a cross between Cantal cheese and butter. OMG it is fantastic.

graisse de noel
See it at the top?

The municipal workers also have been busy removing the frost-sensitive flowers and replacing them with hardier varieties like pansies, cyclamen and chrysanthemums. Having grown up with snow, I am enchanted by the idea of planting winter flowers.

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Out with the old…
P1090132
In with the new.

We hope to get a tree this weekend, if they’re available. We are throwing a big holiday party (more on that coming soon…menu and recipes), so the decorations will rise beyond the usual.

Have you decorated yet? Real tree or fake? Less is more or more is more?

Connections, by Invitation Only

IMG_4957 copyStarting a new life in a new place is fraught, but doing it in a different language and culture adds a layer of complexity.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe expat bibliography is stuffed with tales of misunderstandings and scams suffered by poor newbies ignorant of the wily ways of the French contractor and the Kafkaesque requirements of the French bureaucracy.

We experienced none of that. Everybody was very professional. But at the beginning, with the Carnivore gone at work all day and me at home with a new baby, no car, no job and no friends, the transition was shockingly hard. Happily, very quickly, many people reached out, making connections with us and connecting us with the community, much to our surprise and delight.

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Why so many rainbows? Even when it rains, there’s sun.

One of the first was our neighbor’s father, who did not quite approve of foreigners next door. However, he gave us the name of a trustworthy local, J-C, who would keep tabs on the place when we were gone.

When we moved in for good, J-C was our guide. He told us where to find a doctor. Which led to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist looked at my address, said she lived in the same village, and that I should check out the gym classes at the community center.

The gym classes became my go-to for all kinds of information. The relative advantages of the various supermarkets in town. How to sign up a kid for preschool. Where to take baby-swimming lessons. What all those French acronyms mean. Any time I needed to know something, I would ask at gym class. I exercised my vocabulary as well as my muscles during the Wednesday night sessions. (For the most accurate weather report, eavesdrop on the line at the bakery.)P1070029The park was another touchstone. It must have been a magical time, because now when I run around the park, I no longer see mothers with little ones on the manicured lawn. I was lucky to have a nice clique of three other mothers as insistent as I was that kids need to go outside unless it’s pouring rain. They had kids the same age as mine, and our four were sometimes joined by various others who were more relaxed about the park-television ratio. Even on wintry days, we would go, huddling against the wind as the well-bundled little ones (emmitoufler is the adorable French word that means “to wrap up in warm clothes”) intently picked up rocks or leaves or chestnuts from one place and dropped them someplace else, while similarly well-bundled little old ladies perched like delicate brown birds on a bench against a sheltered, sun-warmed south wall, watching the spectacle. Who needs cat videos when you have live toddler performances?P1060482When I had surgery on my foot and was laid up for a month, these mothers came by every day to visit me. Every day. They also did the school runs, while another handled swim lessons.

That is when I knew it. I was loved. The roots were sinking in.

Have you ever planted seedlings from a nursery and then later pulled them out, the roots still in a tight ball? Meanwhile, other plants are nearly impossible to get out, having sent their roots wide and deep. 21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 432A difference with humans, though, is that we can have roots in many places at once. Mine are now spread across countries and continents.

I don’t like to think of having lost touch with old friends; there’s no repudiation of the time spent with them, and it’s only normal that we all devote most of our energies to those in our presence. Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, yet that’s sometimes on a superficial level of headlines about what’s eating up our time. 278.RainbowsOn the other hand, I regaled my mom with her faraway grandchild’s antics via email, and she would write back as soon as she read it several time zones later. My mom even babysat from almost 5,000 miles away. She and the kid would get on Skype, and talk. They would draw pictures and hold them up to the camera to show each other. I would be shooed away during these sessions, with a curt, “We are TALKING!” And talk they did. I couldn’t always hear the exact words, but they came in a steady stream, punctuated by plenty of laughter.

My dad preferred snail mail. I would get a thick envelope from time to time, every bit of every page filled with his distinctive writing, which got shakier and shakier. The topics were stream of conscious—certainly his mind worked faster than his hand, and by the time he had scratched out a sentence, he was already paragraphs beyond. He always signed off with “I love you and always will.” Always.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen my siblings or old friends, on the rare times when the stars align so we can get on the phone despite the transatlantic scheduling challenges, we pick up as if we’d last seen each other just a few days ago. The details don’t matter. I love them deeply, fiercely, and that’s all that it takes to keep the connection.IMG_3627 2This post is part of the group “By Invitation Only,” which this month is discussing connections. For other points of view, please visit Daily Plate of Crazy, where you can find not only D.A. Wolf’s sensory take but also links to other By Invitation Only participants. And tell me about the connections that are important to you.

Night Owl

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When the time changes in autumn, the shift to earlier darkness always casts familiar landscapes into unfamiliar shadows. On the one hand, it feels suddenly subdued–no kids out playing. On the other hand, it feels unusually busy–what are all these people doing out so late? Even though it isn’t late at all.

As the emboldened night envelopes us, lights come on, making the outside seem even darker. Peeks of glowing interiors, through windows not yet curtained or shuttered, reveal tableaus of dinner tables set, cooks toiling, televisions strobing colors across living rooms. The homes look intimate and cozy, even those of the elderly residents who favor fluorescent lighting in their kitchens. Dinner smells dance through the streets. Colder nights demand dishes cooked long and slow. Comfort food. Soups, not salads.

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We light these candles most evenings in winter. We also have candlelit dinners nearly every night. Little rituals to mark the seasons.

Carcassonne attracts visitors all year because the weather is mild even in winter. But the streets definitely are much quieter off season. It’s like looking at someone you know when they are lost in thought. Their features are familiar, but you cannot reach the churnings inside. They can seem like a different person than the one you know from conversations.

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Place de Lattre de Tassigny, around the corner from our apartments. Like an outdoor living room.

Place Carnot, the central square, is like an old, chatty friend, and usually I visit on Saturday mornings for the market, when it’s in its bubbliest mood. I have rarely missed a Saturday market. Even when it’s pouring rain, I’ll go for the excuse of wearing my multicolored polka-dot rubber boots and getting out my multicolored striped umbrella (for someone who wears black most of the time, so much color is exceptional). The square bustles with people at a very civilized level all day, every day, and it turns into an outright party on Saturday mornings. A civilized garden party, not a frat party, with lots of kissing on both cheeks and café crèmes that segue into chardonnays. But as with any good party, more people attend than there are seats available, and even the stateliest Carcassonnais will dive for a table that frees up.36.Carca by night6So to be at Place Carnot very late, or very early, feels almost like intruding. The café tables and chairs are stacked and wrapped in tarps. There isn’t a sound but my own footsteps. The square is mine alone.33.Carca by night3It makes me think of other hushed moments. Snow does that. It slows everything down and muffles all sounds. Boots crunch on the snow, making that satisfying chewing sound. But cars get quiet, as if they’re driving over woolen blankets. There was something so cozy about being in the family station wagon, under a blanket in the back seat with my siblings. Warm but cold. The air so chill it made one’s nostrils pucker and cheeks prickle. But under the blanket, cocooned in a coat over sweaters over shirts over thermals, hands making fists to keep poor thumbs warm inside mittens inside pockets, we were toasty enough to fall asleep before traveling many blocks. I wonder whether my parents knew how safe and happy they made our childhood. P1090058For some reason this makes me think of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song:

You, who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so, become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye

Teach your children well
Their father’s hell did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

And you (Can you hear?) of tender years (And do you care?)
Can’t know the fears (And can you see?) that your elders grew by (We must be free)
And so, please help (To teach your children) them with your youth (What you believe in)
They seek the truth (Make a world) before they can die (That we can live in)

Teach your parents well
Their children’s hell will slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you will cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

For my mom, whom I miss every day.IMG_1486

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A magical, shining castle competing with the stars.

‘Appy ‘Alloween

P1090042Halloween–or as they say, ‘Alloween–has taken off in France. (I get teased about my accent, so turnabout is fair play.) The supermarkets have stands dedicated to candy, makeup and decorations.

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Typical.

The village holds a costume contest, and a high proportion of the residents participate in handing out treats, which are almost always not individually wrapped!!! I freaked out the first time, but I soon knew almost everybody. In fact, our kid chose a big container of not individually wrapped candies (licorice and fake fruit flavors) for us to distribute. I wanted to get mini Snickers, figuring that if there were leftovers, they might as well be something good. But my kid informed me that on Halloween, kids want candy, and chocolate isn’t candy, it’s chocolate and is for Christmas. Somehow it seems very French to elevate chocolate above mere candy status.

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A perfect haunted house, in a deep, dark forest, too. (It was for sale. Probably still is.)
05.FEBRUARY 12 - 63
Lots of potential, but surely this is a place where things go bump in the night.

The French haven’t yet adopted yards full of inflatables, probably because front yards aren’t a thing here. Either you have a townhouse whose front door opens right onto the sidewalk or you have a “villa” (which includes quite modest free-standing houses) with a garden behind the privacy of a wall or at least a fence. None of those golf-course-like lawns stretching unimpeded between house and curb, unused except for holiday decorations.

In France, Halloween costumes are strictly scary. Save your astronaut and princess outfits for Carnivale on Mardi Gras. Our village is so small that it doesn’t take long for the kids to circulate in large groups. They bang on everybody’s doors, lights on or not. One time, before a house that was shuttered up tight, one of the parents hollered “Papi!” (Grandpa!) and a little old guy opened up and released a sweet into each proffered bag. The whole porch light signal doesn’t work the same way without porches.

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Scary grave straight from central casting. Not decoration!

After pillaging the village of sugar, the ghoulish kiddies traipse through the community center to have their loot weighed and costumes judged. Our kid won the costume contest one year (headless–it really turned heads), then raised the ante the next year with a zippered face, which was even more horrifying. We waited for the costume winners to be announced, but nothing happened. Then we realized the other kids had left. The lights got turned down, the music got turned up, and we were confronted with the horror of the village’s singles population, and soon-to-be singles population (I recognized a few too many married parents of the kid’s schoolmates, not with their spouses), checking each other out, and not for best costume. Most were already tipsy and you could see that Nov. 1 was going to be a day of regrets for more than a few of them. The kid was crushed the zipper face hadn’t won, but somewhat consoled that it appeared there were no prizes at all that year.

Since the kid got too old to trick-or-treat and is too young for the singles-and-swingers dance, Halloween means a trip to the haunted house, followed by a small party at home with scary movies. The haunted house operates year-round in la Cité of Carcassonne, run by the same people who have the “museum” of torture.Remparts à la Cité de CarcassonneLa Cité is definitely a good set for a scary movie. Gargoyles aplenty. Stern stone walls. Today promises to be bright and sunny, with not a cloud in the bluest sky, but when gray clouds hover low and the wind howls, you can imagine it as a haunt for ghosts.IMG_2149IMG_2148IMG_2139IMG_2118IMG_1918While the gang goes through the haunted house, I plan to visit the cemetery just outside the walls. I have gone to cemeteries in a number of towns in France, and something about them is so interesting. Again, no vast expanses of green lawns. They are real cities of the dead, with incredible chapels and tombs, a few engraved words conveying stories of the residents’ lives.

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Priez pour lui–pray for him.
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Spanish surnames…reminders of refugees from past war.

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Born March 21, 1799. That just amazes me.
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Only the ceramic flowers remain. Is the family gone, or did they move?

P1090040Our village cemetery draws a parade of people every day. Mostly they’re the little old ladies wobbling along to tend loved ones’ graves and say prayers. For the past two weeks, though, the cemetery has been a hive of activity, with cars parked along the perimeter as families tidy up and bring in big pots of flowers ahead of the real holiday, Nov. 1, All Saints Day–Toussaint. Chrysanthemums are the favorite, to the extent that putting them in your garden is just not done. I got a gentle reprimand when I put a pot of mums by our front door. Too bad–they’re such pretty flowers.P1090052In Paris, the Père Lachaise cemetery draws visitors because of the famous people (Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison) buried there. I went there on a Christmas Day years ago–it was one of the few things open on Christmas. And there were lots of people! The delightful podcast The Earful Tower had a segment about Jim Morrison’s grave. Another interesting one is the Montmartre cemetery. But even small cemeteries in small places are fascinating. They’re really proof that they are more for the living than for the dead.

And below, some random bits:

Re: Friday’s post about hunters and boars: here are some prints I came upon in a vineyard:

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Deep! An indication of the weight of wild pigs.

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Tomatoes are still going strong in some gardens (photo taken two days ago): P1090006

And this was such a pretty scene, with the white horse and colorful vineyards:P1080995