When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.
The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.
Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.Some were colorful, very dramatic.You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.
We had a reunion last weekend. Two sets of neighbors who had moved away came for a visit, spurring a long, chatty lunch with the entire gang. We dined en terrasse, where it was borderline hot. The day before had been incredibly windy–my laundry was ripped off the line and scattered across the yard. But on the appointed day, there wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze. The sun shone. The birds joined the jazz playing. It was perfect.
It wasn’t last minute but not with great advance warning either, so the food was simple. One neighbor brought nuts and charcuterie for the apéritif; another brought cheeses and apple pies (three! homemade!) for dessert; we supplied barbecued ribs and non-meat options–spanakopita, hummus, Patricia Wells’s red peppers with cumin. One of the returning neighbors has been vegetarian since before it was fashionable the last time, as well as a yoga teacher since well before the Beatles discovered yoga. My role model.
Everybody was thrilled to be reunited. Truly tickled pink. We’re several years older now, and it’s these gaps in gatherings that make everybody look back and realize that OMG Time Has Passed. My role model remarked on how much our palm trees had grown since she moved away. She kindly didn’t mention how many wrinkles I had acquired. But back when the palm trees were shorter than me, my face was smoother.That’s the least of it. So many medical issues, all around. They seem to give everyone an urgency that life is short and precious.
There is also, for me at least, a hard-won intimacy that comes only with the passage of time and true affection, though I always think I should do more. The others, for example, helped dig each other out after the historic flood that hit before we arrived. They did each other’s laundry. They had each other’s back. Muffin deliveries can’t measure up to that.
Yet, little by little, it happens. I’ve learned which ones got pregnant before their weddings and other little tidbits that are water under the bridge and no longer anything that would raise an eyebrow but not usually common knowledge either. These stories amuse me to no end and make me love my friends more than ever.
In town, there’s a group of friends I call the Fashionable Glasses Group. They are in their 70s, all meticulously dressed, and all with very not-ordinary eyeglasses. They meet at the same café every Saturday morning at the market. One time I was sitting at a table next to them, and more and more of their friends came and asked to take the empty chairs at my table. Eventually I suggested they also use the table for their coffees, and somehow I finagled my way into their conversation, which was brilliant.
Recently, I once again was seated next to the Fashionable Glasses Group. A guy in the same demographic came up and started chatting, then sat down. Eventually his wife, as immaculately dressed as he (in coordinating colors with him–post on that coming up) arrived, flicking her hands sharply with the south-of-France gesture that means “extreme/lots/you wouldn’t believe it,” and saying she was held up because, as she walked down the street, she just kept running into people! I couldn’t help myself. I eavesdropped. I did more that that. I took notes.
The gentleman then explained that he likes to go to the forest. He described preparing his thermos of coffee. He rhapsodized about the whispering pines, the piercing stars at night, the song of the cigales, or cicadas, in summer.
One time, a cigale drowned in his pool. “She wanted to save it,” he said, gesturing at his wife. “What could I do? Mouth-to-mouth?”
“It didn’t move. The poor thing was dead. My sister gets crazy from the song of the cigales. You know, it can drive you mad.”
At this, the Fashionable Glasses Group nodded in agreement and interjected their own tales of having been driven over the edge by the incessant ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of these insects. There also was a tangential discussion of how big they get, which I thought resembled some fishermen’s stories.
“So I wrapped up the dead cigale and put it in an envelope to send to my sister as a joke,” he continued. “A few days later, I went to put the envelope in the mailbox. Just then, it started vibrating! It was alive! I opened the envelope and the cigale flew away! So I didn’t get to play a joke on my sister.”
When you see a group of classy, bourgeoise French friends sitting at a café and talking animatedly, now you know: this is the kind of stuff they are discussing.
I love it.
If you want to know the names of some of these, click here.
I’ve been in quite the grouchy mood, one would think, from my recent posts. When it rains, it pours.
A banal mishap this summer rocked my world, and I feel like I’m living in some kind of Groundhog’s Day of repeats of it, if not personally then existentially.
One day I was driving on a back road between two villages. It was unusually busy–undoubtedly people dropping off their kids in one village for a big event and then heading home; in fact I was on my way to the event. I know the road well and would pull over and wait on the spots that were a few inches wider. These roads are barely big enough for two small cars to pass, and forget about an SUV. So over and over, I eased my car onto the grass, all the while aware that the shoulders are not even a foot wide. One day, on a different but also narrow road, I passed a car that was upside down, having been too polite and pulled over too far. A man with his 8-year-old-ish son stood bewildered on the tarmac’s edge as a tow truck winched the car out.
Then a beat-up Clio came barreling toward me. The driver had a cigarette in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. She didn’t make the slightest effort to move to the right. I had two wheels on the grass and didn’t dare go farther.
Bang! She tore off my side mirror. That made her pull over (on the wrong side of the road). She came up to me: “It’s your fault!” she yelled. She had a convoluted theory that the car that was going faster would suffer less damage and thus be shown to be at fault; since her mirror was gone she was the victim. I pointed out that I was barely moving and that my side mirror was missing as well. I asked for her insurance information.
“There’s no point,” she said. “The code de la route says that when two cars cross each other, any accident is 50-50 each driver’s fault.”
And it’s true. It doesn’t matter that she was driving like a lunatic, didn’t slow down and didn’t make the slightest effort to move to the side. And with that, she hopped into her car and took off again. I have a strong suspicion that, having a Renault Clio, one of the most common models around here, she will simply take a mirror off another Clio in a parking lot and her problem will be solved without spending money. I got a new mirror online for about €30. So it was a small thing but it really irked me.
Do you find yourself in situations where you’re minding your own business, being respectful, obeying the rules, and then some ogre/idiot barrels along and sets you back, and, on top of it all, blames you? And the rules don’t support you at all?
I remember a friend’s child who was getting picked on at school. The main bully was the teacher’s pet. The teacher refused to believe his pet could be mean. The child had to speak up, he told her parents. On the playground, when the mean girl acted against my friend’s daughter and she asked the teacher for help, the teacher said the kids needed to work things out among themselves. The mean girl took that as a green light to keep up the bullying. More importantly, the other kids also saw it as the teacher acquiescing to the mean girl, giving her even more power.
These days, among adults, bullying is more subtle, and among the hoi polloi, committed via cars. It’s about taking up two parking places, or the gutless wonders who “ICE” electric vehicle charging spots (ICE means internal combustion engine; “ICEing” means parking in the charging spots to inconvenience people with electric cars). Or who park in handicapped spots–the lowest of the low.
Those are just examples of being discourteous. There are bigger, more serious crimes that are committed, and the response is, the other side is also to blame. But often–usually–the other side’s real or imagined offenses are nowhere near the same scale. The idea of both sides being at fault magnifies small faults and lets real offenders get off.
After my experience on the road, I went to the gendarmerie. It was another Catch-22. He informed me that since the wicked woman stopped, she didn’t flee from an accident. I pointed out that had she not stopped, I wouldn’t have been able to get her license plate number, considering the speed she was driving at. The law says that even though I pulled over and she didn’t, we share the blame equally. But I could file a report anyway, to give my side, the gendarme consoled me. Who knows–if she does this regularly (and I somehow don’t think that she usually drives with great care) then it will be in her file. Most of all, it was cathartic. I felt like I had done something, however small, against somebody who flouts the rules.
Are you a rule follower? A rule flouter? What do you think of people who commit terrible acts and then say, “the other guy isn’t perfect, look at him!”?
Not everything is exquisite good taste over here in the land of butter and croissants. We have soul-less subdivisions with idiotic names and no trees. We have strip malls and mall-malls (though definitely inferior….watching “Stranger Things” made me nostalgic for the mall as social center; though our centre-villes are better than most downtowns). Instead of velvet Elvises, there are velvet Johnny Hallydays.
Worst of all, we have McMansions. There is a wonderful blog, McMansion Hell, which dissects all that is wrong about the genre.
Tear-downs are a new phenomenon. Many a gorgeous château is the result of hundreds of years of additions and renovations. The mixed styles create an endearing eccentricity about these rambling stone heaps with willy-nilly towers. It is quite a different thing to start with a blank slate and do a wide-ranging pastiche all at once. It’s the architectural equivalent of canned laughter, silicone boobs, Viagra. Fake, fake fake.
I also have to say that I have seen more than my share of hideous interior décor. These people clearly are not reading the plentiful blogs about French style. In fact, they have rejected French style for something amorphously modern, but not TOO modern, for goodness sake. Instead, it’s a bastard of modern (aka 1970s/1980s) with the contemporaneous interpretation of traditional. The result is furniture that is both ugly and uncomfortable, a simultaneous assault to the eyes and to the spine.
Take, for example, the home of a couple we know. Her: extremely short hair because it’s less work; had Groucho Marx eyebrows until her daughter’s wedding when they were plucked and she is thank goodness keeping up with that; explained, the first time we met almost 20 years ago, that they had “just” stripped the wallpaper (and neither new wallpaper nor paint was ever put up). She’s all about efficiency not aesthetics, function over form. Him: cocky; retired from a sinecure but likes to brag about his business acumen, which consists of inheriting money from his father-in-law; always on the lookout for a fight (of the fist variety, not the sharp words kind); brags about having finagled great deals, through under-the-table clever negotiations, but always pays way too much. Sound like anybody you can think of?
They bought a house for retirement that was twice as big as the house they had raised a family in. It’s in a subdivision outside of town, where one must take a car to get anything. Not a single shop. It’s near where a big forest fire ravaged the pines last month. Where houses don’t belong.
This house, which was a “great” bargain, has some peculiarities. There’s a three-centimeter (2-inch) step just after you enter, swinging in a half-circle along with the front door. That’s because the builders miscalculated the interior floor. (First tip that this is a bad house!!!!) The steps to the second floor have risers that are about 30 centimeters (12 inches). I found it hard to climb them, and I’m pretty fit. Yet, even though I’m very short, I had to duck not to hit my head going up/down because the stairwell was too small.
But hey, the house is HUGE.
They also bought it furnished, so I can blame multiple people for bad taste–the couple for thinking it was just fine and the original owners for having committed such furniture felonies in the first place. In the living area (open plan kitchen/dining/living), there’s a sofa and matching love seat, both with legs so high none of us could sit back and also have our feet on the floor. In pleather.
The dining table has a similar design, with those big-based chairs/seats that you can’t scoot in once you sit and that are also too high to touch the floor. Maybe the original owners were giants? The current owners aren’t–he’s moderate height and she is even shorter than I am.
This is just one example, because I sometimes think everybody here has bought furniture from the same place. You can get antiques practically for free, and yet people go to big-box stores in a “zoning commercial” (how do I even describe that….it’s a part of town that’s full of strip malls and big-box stores….pure hell) and they choose the absolutely ugliest options available. I love antiques but I also love modern–le Corbusier, lots of Ligne Roset. It isn’t to judge modern vs. antiques. I guess the stuff I see is a downscale version. But why? Ikea does a good job of modern for cheap. Heck, I am a total cheapskate. But that’s why I love antiques. Plus the quality. You can’t beat it–solid wood, hand craftsmanship, no off-gassing.
Anyway, I would not photograph examples of bad taste in people’s homes even though they don’t read the blog. And this post is more about homes as buildings, rather than their interior design. Usually I show you places that are achingly beautiful, worthy of being on postcards or calendars. Yes, there is much to celebrate in French taste, but not everybody has gotten the memo.
I love it all the same.
Surely you have McMansion horror stories to share. Unload them!
It’s said that the French work to live, while Americans live to work. I would like to work forever, though with reasonable hours, French-style. It wouldn’t just be for the money, though that’s a necessary factor, but also for the intellectual stimulation and social contact with people.
A bunch of things collided to make me think lately about the nature of work. I was talking to someone who mentioned lousy jobs–the ones with repetitive tasks, possibly dangerous or at least likely to involve occasional injuries, with inflexible or odd or constantly changing hours, few or no benefits, no hope for advancement. One employee is nearly indistinguishable from the next and so they can be fired and a new one hired without angst.
Many of these jobs are being automated. Maybe they should be–there’s nothing inherently satisfying about them other than the paychecks they bring, and why have people doing dangerous tasks instead of machines? But what about the people who do them now? Especially those who are doing fairly dangerous jobs and earning good salaries as a result? They are not going to shift to a lab to look for a cure for cancer. And it isn’t because they aren’t able to make this switch to the vaunted knowledge economy that they should be written off.
One of my early jobs, when I was in high school, was automated and I was laid off. I worked at a bank, doing data entry. Back then, when you made a charge with your credit card, the clerk would set it into a little cradle and, RRRPPPP RRRPPP, imprint the card number into the three carbon copies of the receipt (the legacy of which is the raised numbers on your cards still today). My colleagues and I had four-inch-thick stacks of the bank copy of these receipts. We would type in the card number and amount as fast as our left hands could flip to the next receipt. There were little red lights on the keyboard to alert us to errors (each pile was entered by two different people and they had to match perfectly). Our keystrokes were timed to monitor our efficiency. Occasionally, the headsets we wore would beep and we would stop to authorize a charge. Back in the day, if a charge was rather large, the retailer would call a human at the bank for authorization. We had a little box of microfiches that were updated regularly, and would slip it into a projector to look up the card number to see whether the person was paying their credit card on time or whether they were over the limit (refused) or the card was stolen. I had one stolen card, and it was very exciting. I had to tell the clerk to keep the customer in the store while calling the police and to cut the card in half.I was the youngest person working there, and it was a great job for a 17-year-old. I worked four hours a night after school Monday to Thursday and eight hours on Sundays, where I got time and a half. I made $4.75 an hour (when the minimum wage was $2.30) and more on Sunday. I had Friday night and Saturday night off. Incredible.
But I couldn’t figure out the life plan of the adults I worked with. On the one hand, it was a good job, but I didn’t see anybody promoted in the years I worked there. There was nothing about data entry that led to bigger and better skills. And I don’t think my co-workers were concerned about moving up. They had a nice, clean office job that they did well and they didn’t need to think about when they left for the day. They worked to live.Funny, but in high school my counselor thought I should stick with the bank job–steady, at ridiculously high pay. She said I could get hired on graduation as a secretary because I could type. I said I wanted to HAVE a secretary, not be one. (That got me in trouble with my mother.) I had good grades, great test scores, but we were in a tough neighborhood. People like me were supposed to become worker bees not bosses.
I went to college anyway, with a full scholarship, though it didn’t cover books and such. So I worked full-time and went to school more than full-time because I finished in three years. Of course now I regret it–I don’t have any friends from college–I ran out of my classes to catch the bus to work. I missed out on the college experience. Lesson: living to work can be empty.I see Felicity Huffman going to jail for all of two weeks for buying her kid into college and I wonder whose place her kid took. Do you remember/know of the invasion of Grenada? A supposedly communist coup led to the U.S. invasion, citing the need to protect the Americans going to medical school there. Turns out, Grenada had a booming diploma factory for Americans who didn’t qualify for med school in the U.S., but the family couldn’t bear the thought of Junior not being a doctor and shipped him off to Grenada.
I don’t know anybody who would rather see a doctor whose family bought his degree rather than the poor but brilliant kid who worked his way through. While it’s clear that kids brought up in stable households with decent incomes have better outcomes in school, at least in France the schools are pretty consistent and university is open and without tuition to anybody who has the test scores (there are costs, like housing, but they’re a couple thousand a year).
In some ways, today’s economy is like the one of many decades ago. My grandma got milk delivered by the milkman in a little truck. Today, people get deliveries from Amazon or Deliveroo or one of the others. The big difference with the past is that milkman earned a middle-class living for his family and stay-at-home wife, as they almost all were then. Delivery drivers now have to work incredibly long hours, or supplement with other gigs, and they still only scrape by. The app business model depends on not paying living wages.
Check out the documentary “American Factory.” Fantastic. You see these people doing kind of routine jobs but proud to do them and do them right. They are working to live but while they’re on the clock, they are all-in. But when the factory, which had been closed, is bought by a Chinese company, the new management doesn’t see it that way; they see the American workers as slow and lazy and unwilling to put in hours the way their Chinese employees do.
There’s a new podcast based on the tapes Studs Terkel made of the interviews he did for “Working,” his seminal look at people and their work in the 1970s. The podcast went to the interviewees to see where they are now. Fascinating. There was the telephone operator talking about how boring and machine-like her work was–work now long done by computers, just like my bank job. There were the generations of car mechanics and the great pride they had in diagnosing problems. Some people aren’t made for desk jobs.Then there’s teaching. It used to be a good, middle-class job. In France, it still is, thanks to the panoply of benefits the government provides to people at the bottom of the income scale. Income redistribution. Socialism. I don’t receive these benefits and I pay plenty in taxes to finance them. But I love it. I think it’s the right thing to do.
I hear a lot about how incredibly innovative the U.S. is, but what I see are a lot of little software programs–apps–that don’t advance much. Most of them make doing something or another a little bit easier. Is that innovation? They feel like the specialized kitchen gadgets that, yes, peel garlic faster, get the pit out of your avocado, slice and dice more surely than someone without knife skills, but I suspect 99% of such gadgets sit in drawers, untouched.Sure, Google changed search (but I use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you), Amazon changed/demolished retail, Apple put computers in our pockets (Nokia was working on that, too, but too late). Even before AirBnB, I booked holiday homes, though the app is much easier. Is “easier” enough to qualify as innovation? Not sure. Uber made it easier to hail a ride, but by exploiting drivers, who brought their own cars–no capital expenditure on fleets necessary for Uber, no contributions for pensions or health care or all those other things that human workers have traditionally required. I’ve never used Uber and never will. Same with Facebook. I’m far from a Luddite, but I’m picky about what I put on my phone and which businesses get my custom. My kitchen drawers are almost devoid of gadgets. It’s a lifestyle.
This is a very grognon post, but I really care about people who work hard and don’t make ends meet, and it seems to be the case for more and more people. What about you? Do you live to work or work to live? What do you think about gig jobs? In light of your opinion, do you use apps? What should we do about jobs eliminated by automation?
The nights have been crisper, wonderful for sleeping. But it’s only today that it finally feels like fall. Some much-needed rain started during the night and is supposed to continue, gently and steadily, all day. I imagine the plants in the garden straightening up, as if they’re doing the sun salutation in yoga, raising their anthropomorphic faces to the sky and greeting the raindrops
The wine harvest has started, but it seems subdued compared to past years. Vast stretches of vineyards have been plowed under to become fields of wheat, sunflowers and other crops. Usually the mornings at this time of year would be heralded not by the neighboring rooster but by the growl of the big vendange machines, that look like monsters from a horror film.
Another reason we’re happy for the rain is that there have been a few fires. Every year, there are fires, but these seemed especially worrisome. One brought in 12 firefighting planes. I had only ever seen two flying over, en route between the fire and Lac de Saint-Ferréol, where they refill with water.One fire grew significantly between the time I first saw the smoke and when I was heading home later. I pulled over at a rare wide spot on the road. Other cars joined me. Everybody took pictures with our phones and ended up chatting for quite a while. It’s crazy how you can connect with people sometimes.
A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.
The foods at the market are changing. Soon the peaches and nectarines will turn mealy and we’ll have to give up on them. But happily there are already apples. Still lots of tomatoes and I have been given orders to make sauce. If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…
In the south of France, people are laid back, things move slowly, we take the time to savor life, and that includes two hours (minimum) in the middle of the day for lunch and nap. It all seems idyllic, until it isn’t.
We woke up on Thursday morning with no Internet, no fixed phone service and no mobile phone service. Things were a bit like when la Cité of Carcassonne, pictured above, was built back in the Middle Ages.
It turns out that a telephone substation in another village caught on fire. This station serves 33 villages, including ours, across a surprisingly wide area. Who knows when it will be fixed. (1) It’s still August. You can’t do anything until after la rentrée (the re-entry) on Monday, Sept. 2. And even then, people are coming back from vacation and need a good week to get back into the routine. (2) The phone company, Orange, is unfamiliar with the concept of customer service. They seem to have watched Lily Tomlin’s phone operator skits as guides. I shouldn’t dump too much on Orange; I cannot think of any phone company in any city or country where I’ve lived (and the list is long) that had good service. (3) We’re in the south, and nothing moves quickly, even when it isn’t vacation. (4) The point that irks me the most is that it just affects some little villages, and thus isn’t important.
Sometimes–often–I hate living in the country. I love France, and I love living in France. But I regret not living in a city. I am 100% city mouse.
I remember one time we went to Barcelona for a weekend. We stood near the corner by El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store worth a post of its own one day, and looked at the wide street sloping down, completely full of people. I sighed with happiness; the Carnivore sighed with stress. Some of us cannot wait to jump into la foule (the crowd) and swim with the schools of humanity. I find my heart warming as I observe my fellow humans going about their business. Some are chic, some are eccentric. Children seem to be in a bubble of their own, never paying attention to where they’re going, quick to spot other children, or animals, or disgusting things on the sidewalk (they ARE closer, after all), while their parents struggle to herd them along. I wonder where everybody is going, what their lives are like. I want to chat with them all.
I was talking to somebody just recently about moving to France. I told her we moved here from New York and that it was hard. I cried and cried for months. Her eyes grew big, and she said something about culture shock. I assured her that I’m a lifelong francophile; the culture shock wasn’t about France, but about going from a major metropolis to a village a few hundred people.
The closest Carcassonne comes to bustling is la Cité on summer afternoons and the market in the central square on Saturday mornings. Even then, it’s a dialed-down version. There’s a certain convenience to life without crowds. Parking is easy. Lines for anything are rare. People are friendly.
I try to appreciate the good side. It’s essential for survival. The rolling hills of vineyards, giving way to the mountains, are exquisite. This blog has made me pay attention to all the beauty around me.
Thank you for reading. Who knows whether we will have Internet next week. Maybe I will commute to Carcassonne for a connection. We’ll see. Meanwhile, tell me, are you a city mouse or a country mouse?
Of the many things to love in France, one of the most delicious yet most mundane is the croissant. It is nothing short of miraculous that a mixture as simple as flour, butter, milk and yeast and not much else can turn into complex layers of flaky crispness and chewy softness.
I have many happy croissant memories. My grandmother made a kind of croissant, which she or one of her grandchildren dubbed “piggies.” The secret ingredient, not very French, was mashed potatoes. I haven’t made piggies or croissants because I am spoiled, with delicious ones far too easily obtained at nearly any bakery. Perhaps luckily, our local bakery had awful croissants. The baker, a heavy drinker who sometimes was so overwhelmed by hangovers that he burned the bread and everything else, also was a chain smoker of the ancien régime, not the one in which clergy and nobility lorded it over the peasants, but the one in which smokers had the right to light up wherever they pleased, whether that be on the Métro, in a movie theater, or in a restaurant, other people’s lung be damned. Certainly a sole proprietor slaving away alone in his atelier had the right to puff at will, even after the laws changed in 2006 to forbid smoking in public places. We took our business to a nonsmoking bakery.
The baker had his retirement lined up; he found a young couple to buy out the bakery. Lo and behold, just before the couple signed on the dotted line, a young entrepreneur in the village put up a big sign on the grange he was renovating: Bakery opening soon. This space on the main road had plenty of parking, unlike the smoker-baker, who managed to get the mairie (city hall) to draw a 15-minute parking space on the street–just one. And 15 minutes would not dissuade, say, parents parking there while dropping off or picking up their kids from the school across the street–parking is scarce in the heart of old villages.
The young couple realized they would be outgunned by this new bakery and backed out of the deal. Now the baker continues to work–the bulk of his retirement was going to be the sale of his bakery, which now is worthless–but people are coming out of the woodwork to frequent the new bakery, where the bread is not only smoke-free but also delicious, and so fresh it’s usually still warm or even hot.
That reminds me of another bakery we used to go to, in a nearby village. It was on a little street barely big enough for a car to pass. No traffic, whether by car or foot. Sleepy. But it had a following. It was always packed, a jumble of people with no discernible line, but make no mistake, everybody knew whose turn it was. There was a constant buzz of conversation, plenty of it gossip, but as I didn’t live in that village I didn’t know who they were talking about so vividly. But if the gossip was anything like the other main topic, the weather, watch out. Every weather forecast I overheard at the bakery was 100% accurate.
The bakery had a pain de campagne (country bread)–a very large, deformed lump that had just the right crust on the outside–a little crunchy but nothing that would break a tooth–with a chewy inside whose bubbles were nice and even. The baker’s wife would use oven mitts to hand them out, and I would have to juggle it in my hands, like a nervous football player fiddling with a ball on the sidelines, as I walked back to my car parked way down the street where it was wider. The car windows would steam up so much so fast I’d have a hard time driving the last few feet of the five-minute trip home. The Carnivore and I would eagerly cut into the bread, butter it, with the (totally unnecessary but delicious) butter melting immediately. Sometimes we ate the entire loaf in one sitting. It cost €2.
Back in those days, we’d treat ourselves to croissants on Sundays. All things in moderation, pain de campagne excepted. Our kid was a baby then, and thus an early riser. Soon our kid was talking and demanding to be allowed to hold the bag of croissants for the ride home. On setting out the croissants with our coffee, we were surprised to discover all the ends had been eaten off already. Then came a period of rejecting the ends and eating only the middles. How I miss those days. Every time I see a baby, their thighs with those rings of fat, like croissants rising, almost ready to be baked, I want to gobble them up. No wonder the old fairy tales involved old ladies eating children. I read somewhere that it’s this delight in children that helps us get through years of wiping their poopy butts.
Sadly, that bakery closed quite a few years ago. For a while, we held our noses and went to the village smoker-baker, especially because I passed it on the school drop-off/pickup walk. Then a bakery opened in Carcassonne that was very good, with baguettes traditionelles, the old-fashioned kind, with a thicker crust and chewier sour-dough-like insides that make the regular baguettes just not worth one’s time. But sadly, that baker died, and while the guy who took it over is still better than the smoker-baker, he can’t hold a candle to our new bakery.
The consensus among our friends is that the new bakery is good to the point of being bad. “We’re going to gain weight with croissants like these!” one moaned.
The opening act is the rooster, starting so far before dawn that the sky, while not black, is navy blue, a velvety background to the dazzling morning stars. Then comes Merle, who often perches on the neighbor’s television antenna. At this hour, he seems not so much to sing as to deliver either a monologue or newscast. Merle is a merle, a blackbird, and I’ve gotten to know him well over the past couple of years.
Merle is gregarious, even with our neighbor, whose big heart finds room for any stray and who currently has six or seven cats and twin bulldogs, named Hermione and Hubert. Merle also sings to the neighbor, who looks like Catherine Deneuve did 15 years ago, so I get a bit jealous, but she admitted she leaves him food. But so do I! With no cats to dodge!
Merle does spend a lot of time with me. He hops around in the grass, always about six feet away, while I hang laundry on the line. If I turn around or step toward him, he skitters into the bushes, as if I can’t see the fat black bird behind the leaves, especially since he makes a ruckus in the mulch. Merle, get your act together, or the cats will get you!
When we dine in the pergola, he comes to a branch just above it, violating his six-foot rule, serenading our dinner. At sunset, he perches on the peak of the roof and sings his lungs out. Sometimes it’s a complex aria, full of emotional highs and lows. Operatic. Sometimes it sounds more like speech.
I keep reading about how smart so many animals are. Elephants for sure. Dolphins. Octopus. I heard an interview with a scientist about how even plants may communicate. Just because we can’t decipher it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
While filling a watering can, I watched a procession of ants along a wall. Traffic was heavy in on direction, the ants staying in line as if on a highway whose stripes I couldn’t see. Occasional ants made the return trip, and they bumped heads with every single ant they passed. Obviously they were communicating something. Yes, scientists will throw pheromones at you, but I think reduces what they do to something biological and not intellectual.
The other day, my kid made naan. Best eaten hot, so we left cleanup for after dinner. Ants beat us to it. I was fascinated. Several ants cooperate to haul away a fleck of dough. They tugged one way, then one would go around to the other side to help there. Maybe they use pheromones, but they aren’t stupidly sniffing (actually they don’t smell; their antennas pick up the chemical) and following.
Imagine ants looking at a computer and saying, “Humans use this to communicate, but it’s all ones and zeroes. Can’t be very important.”
Scientists also think trees talk (a different one here). They not only communicate but share nutrients and water and protect their young. One interview I heard hypothesized that other living beings are on different time scales and different frequencies that we just can’t detect. A tree might live hundreds of years, and the communication might be so stretched out that we observe nothing. A fly lives months, and might be so fast that we detect nothing.
We are so human-centered that we don’t pay any attention to anything else. We tear up forests for agriculture, and tear up agriculture for houses and shopping centers. More and more and more consumption, most of which we don’t even consume; it goes through our hands momentarily before moving to a landfill.
And when ants or bees or other bugs bother us, we annihilate them with chemicals. My thinking on this has changed drastically in the past few years. Maybe I was late to the game. But it seems we have a long way to go.
The roosters that live in the shade of the woods along the riverside wake me long before dawn. They are joined by the caws of another bird, something big and wild. Do herons make noise? I don’t know a heron from an egret or anything else that’s big, with long legs and lives near water. But they are neighbors.
I slip through the darkness to the living room to open the windows and welcome in the cool night air. It’s in the mid-60s Fahrenheit, but it feels icy and delicious. When I put on my glasses, I can see the stars, so many stars. But since I glide through the house in the dark, glasses are of no use and I don’t bother with them. I know where the furniture is, where the window handles are, how many stairs and how big they are. The familiarity is comforting.My kid got a summer job, detassling corn, of all things. I grew up in the Midwest, and most people I know detassled corn in the summer. One of my siblings back home almost choked from laughing when told the news. In French it’s called castration, which is what it is, but somehow more brutal to say. The fields are a long drive away; my kid and several friends joined up to carpool, or co-voiturage. I drop my kid off at the meeting point, or take my turn driving over the rolling hills, as vineyards give way to vast fields of wheat, sunflowers and corn as we head west. There are few cars on the road at such an early hour. The kids are groggy and silent. I feel like we’re flying through paintings by Monet or Jules Breton.
The sun still hasn’t peeked above the horizon when I’m en route home, but it’s light, the world wrapped in a pale pastel veil. One morning, fog unfurled across low-lying fields, stretching luxuriantly like a cat.
The colors of the sky grow more vivid, all purples, oranges and yellows. Then the sun appears, nearly blinding me as I drive straight toward it, the road a ribbon unspooling across the patchwork of golds and greens. The whole world now is golden, the delicate paleness has vanished. Within minutes, the gold, too, is gone and the sun, alone in a deep blue sky, nary a cloud in sight, delivers its frank, sharp rays that divide the landscape into stark overexposure or inky shade. I am home before the sun has climbed high enough to hit the east side of the house. I quickly close the shutters to keep the interiors a cave-like cool. Even though the heat wave is past and we have perfect summer weather, we don’t have air conditioning and use old-fashioned methods to keep the house comfortable. My friend, Merle, serenades me. He boldly follows, keeping a two-arms’-length distance, never more nor less. Merle is the blackbird who lives here with his wife (merle is French for blackbird, and a good name for an excellent singer). He’ll get his own post when I manage to get a flattering photo of him. He comes close, but not close enough for my phone’s camera.Maybe it’s that Europe is so far north–Carcassonne is about 43 degrees north, like Yankton, South Dakota; Niagara Falls; Pocatello, Idaho; Vladivostok, Russia. Summer days are longer than what I grew up with, though not as crazy as in Belgium or even farther north, like Scandinavia. Appreciating the dawn requires getting up really early, made all the harder by the fact that it’s still light at 9:30 or 10 p.m. And those evenings are yummy, too, as the day’s warmth fades but not so much that the cicadas stop singing. Bats swoop back and forth, dining on insects, almost in time with the cicadas’ metronome.
Some friends came for dinner with the foster children they care for. Kindergarten and first grade, brother and sister. As night fell, we reclined on the chaises longues to look for shooting stars. The boy asked to hold my hand. Then he had a better idea. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable, he said, if he were on the same chaise as me? He snuggled into the crook of my arm. His sister, jealous, claimed the other side. We scanned the skies, but the boy was a little afraid of shooting stars. He told me about monsters. Did I believe in them? No, I told him, you don’t need to worry about monsters. He said sometimes he believed in them, sometimes not. I listened to his five-year-old ideas about the world and hoped he would remember this moment of magic, the stars dancing, the night birds in concert with the cicadas, the light blanket of a summer night’s warmth enveloping us.