All in the Family

IMG_1772Hardware stores are my happy place. They promise solutions to problems. Often know-how is required (where it all falls apart for me), but still, those neat shelves of fixes lower my blood pressure. Hardware stores set the world straight again.

One day a while back, I was happily strolling through a hardware store when for some reason I found myself actually listening to the piped-in radio. And tears started streaming down my face.

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Doors and windows of Toulouse, to accompany reflections about staying and leaving.

The song, “Je Vole,” was a hit in 1978, written and performed by French pop idol Michel Sardou. The song inspired a movie, “La Famille Bélier,” about a girl whose parents and brother are deaf. She is their indispensable translator. But she discovers she has a gift–an incredible voice–and her music teacher is encouraging her to go to a special school, far from her family.

Here are the lyrics. I’m crying just typing this. It gets me, as a mother and as a daughter.IMG_1790First in French:

Mes chers parents

Je pars

Je vous aime mais je pars 

Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant

Ce soir

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je vole

C’est jeudi il est 5 heures 5

J’ai bouclé une petite valise

Et je traverse doucement l’appartement endormi

J’ouvre la porte d’entrée

En retenant mon souffle

Et je marche sur la pointe des pieds

Comme les soirs

Où je rentrais après minuit

Pour ne pas qu’ils se réveillent

Hier soir à table

J’ai bien cru que ma mère

Se doutait de quelque chose

Elle m’a demandé si j’étais malade

Et pourquoi j’étais si pâle

J’ai dis que j’était très bien

Tout à fait clair

Je pense qu’elle a fait semblant de me croire

Et mon père a souri

En passant à côté de sa voiture

J’ai ressenti comme un drôle de coup

Je pensais que ce s’rait plus dur

Et plus grisant un peu

Comme une aventure

En moins déchirant

Oh surtout ne pas se retourner

S’éloigner un peu plus

Il y a la gare

Et après la gare

Il y a l’Atlantique

Et après l’Atlantique

C’est bizarre cette espèce de cage

Qui me bloque la poitrine

Ca m’empêche presque de respirer

Je me demande si tout à l’heure

Mes parents se douteront

Que je suis en train de pleurer

Oh surtout ne pas se retourner

Ni des yeux ni de la tête

Ne pas regarder derrière

Seulement voir ce que je me suis promis

Et pourquoi et où et comment

Il est 7 heures moins 5

Je me suis rendormi

Dans ce train qui s’éloigne un peu plus

Oh surtout ne plus se retourner

Jamais

Mes chers parents

Je pars

Je vous aime mais je pars 

Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant

Ce soir

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je vole

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je voleIMG_1735And in English:

My dear parents

I’m leaving

I love you but I’m leaving

You won’t have children anymore

tonight

I’m not fleeing but I’m flying

Understand well, I’m flying

Without smoke without alcohol

I fly, I fly.

It’s Thursday it’s five-o-five.

I’ve buckled a small suitcase

And I softly cross the sleepy apartment 

I open the front door

And hold my breath

And I walk on tiptoe

Like the nights

I came home after midnight

So they wouldn’t wake up.

Yesterday evening at dinner

I really thought my mother

Was suspecting something

She asked me if I was sick

And why I was so pale

I said that I was fine

It’s very clear

I think she pretended to believe me

And my father smiled.

Passing next to the car

I suddenly felt something strange

I thought that it would be harder

And more exhilarating a little

Like an adventure

At least less heart-breaking.

Oh, above all don’t turn back

Go a little farther

There’s the train station

And after the train station

There’s the Atlantic

And after the Atlantic

It’s bizarre, this kind of cage

That blocks my chest

That almost stops me from breathing

I wonder whether later 

My parents will suspect

That I’m crying

Oh above all don’t turn back

Neither eyes nor head

Don’t look back

Only see what I’ve promised myself

And why and where and how

It’s five to seven

I fell back to sleep

in this train that gets a little farther away

Oh above all don’t turn back

Never

My dear parents

I’m leaving

I love you but I’m leaving

You won’t have children anymore

tonight

I’m not fleeing but I’m flying

Understand well, I’m flying

Without smoke without alcohol

I fly, I fly.

If your eyes are still dry, you are a tough cookie.IMG_1787It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I truly appreciated my own parents. Especially my mother. She would do anything and everything for her children. And yet, I felt tethered to a leash. I was pushed to succeed, but in a very narrow sense, defined by traditional gender roles. Good grades in math were not appreciated–nobody would marry me, she warned.IMG_1780IMG_1781All the same, she wasn’t happy with traditional roles. She was an artist and completely uninterested in housekeeping or cooking. We her children stifled her, too. When she would sing with the radio, we would cover our ears and howl for her to stop. Leashes are attached at both ends.IMG_4324But I was rarely there for her. Flying the nest wasn’t enough–I felt the need to cross an ocean, too. I dreamed of seeing the world. I didn’t want to end up like my mom, my life a series of laundry loads and of getting supper on the table. And yet. If “Let It Go” is playing somewhere, and of course I sing/belt along, my kid gives me the same treatment I gave my mom. The circle of life.IMG_1766In a way, I was her translator. She was very shy, insecure, worried about being a problem. She joked that she was Edith in “All in the Family,” and my dad certainly did a good imitation of Archie Bunker. In a store, if she didn’t find what she wanted, she would slink out. If I said, let’s ask a clerk, she’d be horrified–“don’t bother those people! They’re busy!” But I would do it anyway, and almost always they would have exactly what she wanted. All she needed to do was ask. Or have me ask for her.IMG_1771I wish I had been easier on her, had held her hand more through situations that made her uncomfortable. How did she, such an introvert, manage teach me not to be afraid, which is not at all the same as being brave? If you’re brave, you’re aware of just how badly things can go but you feel compelled or obliged to do something anyway. If you’re not afraid, you’re confident everything will turn out fine. IMG_6034She’s the one who gave me my wings, so I could fly.

I don’t approve of Hallmark holidays, and every day should be mother’s day, something you realize most pointedly when you’ve lost yours. If your mom is still around, give her a big hug many big hugs or, if she’s far away, a phone call … and cherish every word.IMG_1792Here are links to the immortal Sardou singing his song, “Je Vole.” And here is the version by Louane, who played the daughter in the 2014 movie.IMG_1788

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Good Day, Sunshine

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 9.09.24 PMIt is with great honor and reddened cheeks that I learned I was nominated for a Sunshine Blogger Award by The Vintage Contessa. Who knew!

La Contessa herself is a star, in an allegorical solar sense. She radiates happiness even though she has had some health scares. She either knows or is bound to meet everybody interesting that you can imagine. She is modest but magnetic. SHE LIKES CAPITAL LETTERS.

And, she seems like a ton of fun.

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A few local sunrise/sunset shots seem appropriate.

Since her sunny disposition already has received attention, I must whittle down the list to three other bloggers. This is difficult, because I have far more than three. And so, I wrote them down and drew out of a hat. Just to be fair.

But first, questions were asked, and I will be asking some as well. La Contessa asked:

1. What is the ONE ITEM YOU CANNOT FIND IN FRANCE FOOD OR OTHERWISE THAT YOU MISS?

Girl Scout cookies. Thin Mints, especially. I would even go for the knock-offs: Grasshopper cookies. 

2. What was the ONE THING that TERRIFIED YOU THE MOST about MOVING ABROAD?

This is hard because I have lived in other countries before. The first time was with the Peace Corps in Africa, and I suppose I was terrified of big bugs and of getting sick. Later, I lived in Belgium. By the time I moved to France, it wasn’t very exotic. The biggest culture shock was urban to rural, not U.S. to France. I had always been a city dweller, except for my time in Africa. IMG_02243. Do YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST FRIEND YOU MADE in FRANCE? IF SO ARE YOU STILL FRIENDS? Tell us about the first encounter!

This is a hard one, because we first make acquaintances, and it’s through life that they become friends. The first good friend was at the park. I took my baby to crawl on the grass and there was this woman with a baby about the same age. Of course we noticed each other and started talking. That led to regular—daily, rain or shine—meetings at the park. She taught me so much. The baby she was with wasn’t her own but a foster child. She is a true saint who has taken in so many children. She’s somebody I never tire of talking with, her cassoulet is so good it brings me to tears and she never corrects my verb conjugations. As I said, a true saint.

4. What do YOU MISS MOST of YOUR HOMELAND?

Family. I was very close to my siblings, despite having lived overseas or very, very far away almost all of my adult life. We can talk all night. When we’re together, I am nearly doubled over the entire time with a stomach ache… from laughing. Sore cheeks and the whole thing. I love them so. 

The other thing I miss is Mexican food. IMG_7129Now the nominees:

Michele of Hello Lovely. The name says it all. Looking at her posts is a kind of zen meditation for me. Immediate de-stressing. Plus, the woman is prolific! She does all this with a smile and oodles of chic, despite having struggled with health issues. That’s sunshine.

D.A. of Daily Plate of Crazy. Again, an appropriate name. D.A. is a gifted writer whose essays are always relevant and thought-provoking. She also has a sunny demeanor besides also facing health challenges. She teaches by example.

Elizabeth of Pinecones and Acorns.  I can gain three kilos just reading her blog, which always features beautiful, delicious recipes. We share a love of France (actually, Michele and D.A. are committed francophiles as well) and of Egyptology. Life has thrown her some lemons, too, and she has made lemonade. Sunshine.IMG_7544I feel guilty sticking to three because there are quite a few others who bring sunshine to my days. The Internet can be a cesspool, but these people restore my faith in humanity. They bring me new ideas and make me smile.

On to the questions for the three (but everybody can answer, too!). Not the Proust questionnaire, though that’s a tempting choice for a roster of francophiles.

1. How or where do you find the joy in each day?

2. Tell us about a happy day of your life—not necessarily the happiest–those tend to be milestones like births and weddings–but just an ordinary day that you look back on as a time of carefree bliss?

3. What is your péché mignon—your guilty pleasure?

4. What piece of advice or wisdom can you share with us? It can be practical or profound.IMG_7545Rules for the Sunshine Award
1. Thank the person who nominated you and include a link back to their blog.

2. Answer the questions given by the person who nominated you.

3. Nominate other blogs and give questions for them to answer.

4. Notify your nominees through social media or by commenting on their blogs.

5. List the rules and display a Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post.

I hope readers will also enjoy these four writers, whose sunny dispositions come through in their work. And you’re all invited to answer the questions, too, and to name other favorite blogs.IMG_6354

 

Purging

IMG_1690I recently Marie Kondo-ed my wardrobe. (New life goal: have my name become a verb; this might be even better than having my name become a dessert or a cheese.) I haven’t read the book nor seen the show, but I had the assistance of a knowledgeable friend. In fact, a second opinion is invaluable when sorting one’s stuff. Perhaps MK herself suggests it.

I Marie Kondo-ed other parts of the house, too. Books. DVDs. Kitchen stuff. The discard pile grew. I made many trips to the déchetterie, or dump.

Next step was selling the good stuff: a vide-grenier. Individual garage or yard sales aren’t allowed here; one must go to a communal flea market. Usually the space is €1 or €2 per meter, with those proceeds going to the organizing group–usually a club or a school. Participants have to fill out a form, so as to separate the twice-a-year purgers from the every-weekend vendors that are supposed to pay tax. As all-day outdoor events, vide-greniers pause during winter, but the season is gearing up again. It was the first weekend with several–a good thing, because folks like to make a day of it, hitting several on a circuit.

The first time I did a vide-grenier, it was cut short–by noon the blazing sun had disappeared behind roiling black clouds, and everybody packed up fast as fat raindrops pelted down. I didn’t care–I had sold almost everything and had made nearly €500.

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Not crowded.

We loaded the cars the day before and got up at 5 in order to set up. Vide-greniers start early. I got in plenty of steps before sunrise.

Then we waited. A few people came by, but attendance was thin. We figured that selling for low prices was better than taking the stuff to the déchetterie. But even so, people haggled mercilessly. Some haggling is normal–you have something you bought for €30, used once and haven’t touched since. It seems like €15 would be reasonable, or even €10. We would start at €5 and end up at €2. If we were lucky. One guy wanted a DVD. Figuring I’d never get €2, I said €1. He insisted on 50 centimes. I accepted, half kicking myself. Then he pushed further: 40 centimes. I said, forget it. He threw the 50-centime piece at me.

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The other outfit (it has matching pants) from the same shop as the suit I showed the other day, la Bonne Renomée. Nobody even gave it a glance.
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Not fast fashion.

Other people looked carefully, then reassessed and put back a few things, as if to stay on budget. If they were polite, I gave them a crazy low price, then also handed them the things they wanted but had put back. Times are tough.

A little girl bought a stuffed animal. She was maybe four years old–she still had her front baby teeth. She had a little bag from which she primly pulled out a big polka-dot change purse. She examined her money and frowned. “I only have €2,” she told her father. The toy was €1. He explained that I would give her back €1, that €1 plus €1 makes €2. You could see it soaking into her four-year-old brain. It was too cute. She beamed and did a little jumping dance. I gave her a bonus of some colorful shoelaces, still in their package.

During one of the many lulls, I left my kid, aka The Closer, in charge and walked around. Everybody was selling the same things: Old clothes, old toys, old electronic gadgets of dubious reliability. I saw two dozen child car seats; no wonder nobody gave ours a glance. IMG_1689But it was the clothes that got me. Piles and piles and piles. I looked it up: clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, and we wear each item a third less than we did in 2000. People throw away–not including recycling–an average of 70 pounds of clothes and shoes per person each year.

We have bins around here to collect clothes and shoes. It’s sorted–decent stuff is resold at places like la Croix Rouge, damaged stuff is made into rags, and the dregs are ground up into insulation. It’s where our leftovers are headed.

We packed up at 5 p.m., having earned a whopping €45. I don’t know what kind of economic indicator it is–does it reflect a widespread fast-fashion hangover? Is it that even €2 is too much for some people to spend? Was it a one-off, a date when people had other things to do, and the vide-grenier season will boom later?

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She doesn’t look like a vampire.

Separately, this photo was too good not to share. The window says: “Frequent Stops/Blood Samples.” I bet nobody tailgates!

Unpacking Packing

IMG_1474After a light post about provincial French street style, the pace changes. As fun as it is to watch views climb, I am not writing this  I cannot get another topic out of my head. It chases me in my dreams. It haunts my days. When, the other day, it jumped out at me from a podcast I was listening to, I decided I needed to face it head on. To unpack the thoughts.P1090767I am making a bed, with podcasts to keep my mind off the mundanity of the task at hand. Mindfulness is fine, but I would rather not be mindful of housework. Like exercise, it is not something I enjoy in the moment, but I do appreciate the benefits afterward. Perhaps I should lean in, and learn to appreciate the nuances of good hospital corners on a sheet, but I’d rather go through the motions while my mind is focused on current affairs or something like that. One of the good things about the Internet is that I can listen to anything anytime anywhere. IMG_1467While my podcast lineup leans heavily toward business, I also appreciate good wordsmiths, and The Moth has some of the best. I just had a good cry along with Anthony Griffith, who talked about how his mother was his hero. Now, I listen as Kate Tellers describes her mother’s decline from cancer. It’s clear how this story will end, and I brace myself. It will be a different cry from mom-as-hero. P1090844She talks about how the hospice has given them a booklet about the changes one’s body goes through as it closes up shop. And then she says she goes into the bedroom to find her mother up, saying she has to pack.

I fall to my knees. Kate Tellers gently tells her mom that she doesn’t need to pack for where she’s going. P1090805A couple of months before my dad died, he became loquacious. He never had any sign of dementia, but his stories became increasingly strange. He said he had bought a fishing resort (we checked–not true). He said he’d just talked to some relatives..who were dead. One day when I entered his room, and he informed me that the state patrol had been there to interview him about a murder. He didn’t know anything, he assured me, but as it happened down the road from his hunting cabin, they came to check. I thought he was nuts. Of course, the state patrol hadn’t been there. He mentioned a name, and I googled it. A guy with a similar name indeed had lived near the hunting cabin and was now living in prison–for murdering his wife.IMG_1471And then, he was all worked up about packing his bags. “Dad’s gotta get outta here, sweetie,” he told me. He always referred to himself in third person, as if “Dad” were a character he was playing, not quite the same as himself. Dad was stoic, tough, worked two jobs, shouldered the burdens for the family. He himself was shy and, I suspect, a little disappointed with his life, which turned out to be more full of setbacks than seemed fair for somebody who worked so hard and did everything everybody expected of him. IMG_5957I thought, at first, he was talking about getting out of the rehab facility, which was just a temporary measure until a hospice place opened up. He had been to that facility after surgery about a year earlier and hated it, though he clearly had come to change his mind and truly loved the staff. P1090765I mentioned it to one of them. Yes, he told me, your father keeps talking about packing his bags. It’s common among people who are about to die. The hallucinations were common as well. P1090845Kate Teller’s mother died soon after wanting to pack. My dad hung on for another two months. I was at his side when he died. My siblings had been taking turns spending the night in the armchair next to his bed. One day they called me: come now. I flew in immediately. On the second night, I took a turn in the armchair. I sometimes suspect my dad had been holding on not to disappoint my siblings. Always stoic.IMG_1469Listening to the end of the podcast, I sit on the floor and sob. It’s been several years since my parents died, my mom just three weeks after my dad, yet not a day goes by that I don’t miss them. I am glad I got to be at their sides and to tell them I loved them. They were generous in telling us they loved us, too. My dad would always say, “I love you more!” with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

I wipe my eyes and text my kid: I love you.

My kid texts back: I love you more!

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Photos of spring from around here. The circle of life.

Itinerary in Action

IMG_1438So much to do, so little time. My cousin came to visit recently. Just a short side trip to say hi during a work trip on this side of the Atlantic. We wanted to put on a good show.

L arrived late Wednesday afternoon. We strolled through la Cité of Carcassonne while waiting to pick up the kid from sports practice nearby. We skipped the museum, but stopped to admire the rope marks dug into the lip of the big well, and the stone steps to the Basilique Saint Nazaire et Saint Celse, which slope from the wear of 800 years of the faithful’s steps. Little details like that make time real, for me at least.

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That’s the basilique’s steeple.

We came home to a dinner of coq au vin that I had prepared in advance. Dinner was all about catching up, though. L was a pure joy. The difference in our ages meant I was out of the house—out of the country—by the time L was starting school. We barely know each other. But we know the same people, the same houses, the same neighborhoods. Stories about our shared grandmother were more vivid because when L talked about Grandma’s kitchen, I could picture every detail–the green linoleum table that was her only counter space for her incessant and abundant cooking, the pies cooling in the pantry, the celadon bowl of salt (she measured with her fingers, always).

 

The next day was a little crazy. I let our kid stay home from school. Good grades, rarely absent, why not. First we did a tour of our little village, then L asked what the garrigue is. So we set off past the vineyards to get a taste—a whiff—of the tangle of brush and pines and wild herbs that make the garrigue special.We had asparagus omelettes for lunch, then headed to Caunes-Minervois to see a really pretty village. We went into the abbey and down to the 8th century crypt. Since it was a gorgeous day, we moved on to Lastours, about a 12-minute drive away. There, we were perhaps overambitious. The lady at the reception told us it would take at least two hours to go up and come back. I was thinking, oh, the castles are right above us—it’s no problem. I had been there when our kid was small and got tired and had to be carried. I had taken my mother-in-law, who was not a walker. I had been there with a former colleague in his late 70s. No sweat. barrage-lakeWe were there for an hour and 52 minutes—I can see it on my Fitbit. We didn’t stop. It’s up and up and up, then down and up and up and up. As I’ve noted before, no guard rails. At least we were alone and didn’t have to share the narrow trail.

And yes, we were alone. It is utterly glorious to have four medieval ruins to oneself, to look out over the rugged mountains and on over the plain until you see the other mountains, the Pyrénées, snowcapped on the horizon. The mountain air is sweet and clear. Only occasionally the rumble of a car on the winding road far below reminds us of which century we’re in.683.Lastours10Having descended, which entailed a surprising amount of climbing, we were surprised to discover the exit roped off, a sign pointing to a gate. It was unlocked and put us directly on the single road, a two-way thoroughfare with room for one car most of the time and no shoulders. In fact, it was at the bottom of a cliff on one side and a river on the other.

On our way down we had spied a group of hikers and now we caught up to them. They were a tough lot. All retirees. Considering how tired we were from our hike, we were impressed. The hikers spread out like a flock of cats all over the road. A car came and had to slow to a crawl as the retired hikers stayed planted in the middle of the tarmac, giving it no heed. Finally the car came to a wide spot and maneuvered around them, but not quite enough for one hiker.

“Attention aux mémés!” she yelled. “Look out for the grannies!”661.Lastours3 We got home in time for a short nap and shower before going to our favorite restaurant, le Clos des Framboisiers. I promise to go interview the chef sometime. The food was as wonderful as always, the service impeccable as always, the parking lot full of 11 license plates (locals), except for one car, as always. L was astounded. The menu is fixed price—€32 per person—and includes an apéritif (on this visit it was sangria), appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert.

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L’s first steak tartare, a starter.
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Followed by fish.
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The Carnivore had meat. Duh.
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Strawberry soup.
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Chocolate ganache. The little meringue was lavender-flavored.

IMG_1431On Friday, we took it easy. (The day before we covered 10 miles, or 24,635 steps and 135 floors, according to Fitbit.) First, we went to Montolieu, to poke around some bookstores and admire the views, no climbing or hiking involved.

Then we returned to Carcassonne. We went to les halles to buy a cassoulet from a butcher for dinner. It’s a great deal. They have different sizes, depending on how many people you’re serving, and it comes out to about €7 per person. It comes in the cassole, the earthenware pot that gives the dish its name. You pay a €7 deposit for the cassole that you get back when you return the dish, or you can keep it (and €7 is a very reasonable price). It was all ready to pop into the oven—for an hour, at 220 C (425 F).  The Carnivore prepared foie gras as a starter.P1100769We also looked in a few shops, checking out la Ferme in particular for food-related souvenirs. That store is heaven. Food downstairs; kitchen and dining accessories upstairs. The store itself is beautiful.

We had lunch en terrace at Place Carnot. Simple, but good. Then we checked out the French beauty supplies at the Grande Pharmacie de la Gare. The staff there are very helpful in explaining and finding just the right thing. 

L wanted to see a supermarket, so we went to SuperU in Trèbes, which is just a supermarket and not a hypermarket (they don’t sell refrigerators or TVs or baby car seats). I agree that a supermarket reveals a lot about local culture. Milk and eggs in the same aisle, not refrigerated! An entire aisle, on both sides, of yogurt! Octopus in the fresh fish section! IMG_4419On Saturday, we of course went to the market. We also stopped for cheese at Bousquet; I should have given more thought in advance to my order because just looking around is overwhelming—I want some of everything. Cheese and some good baguettes from the Papineau boulangerie across the street, plus some charcuterie, would be our lunch. And fresh strawberries. 

After lunch we went back to la Cité to take in the museum in the château (la Cité is a fortified city with a château inside it). We braved the wind to walk the ramparts.IMG_1442

 

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Wavy glass!

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The detail on a knight’s sarcophagus…
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A close-up of the hinge on the boot/leg covering. I love details like that!

Then we cooked. I dragooned L into making cheese soufflé. Our kid made strawberry-mushroom risotto. I made a mustard-crusted pork roast and leeks. And we had pineapple-mascarpone parfait for dessert, which L also assisted in. 

And that was it. A full trip, I think. Not many photos of the visit–we enjoyed the moment. Thanks to L for coming and bringing such wonderful conversation. We miss you!IMG_1450

Open Admissions

IMG_1483One of the many things I love about France is the educational system. Reading about the college admissions scandal in the U.S. makes my blood boil, and I am all the more grateful to be in a completely different university universe. A sane one.

The university journey begins in high school, or lycée. France has just enacted an educational reform, changing the requirements for those who will graduate in 2021. But basically there are two streams: for those who plan to go to university and those who don’t. 

Those who don’t want to go to university (and I keep using the word university because collège in French is middle school, for 6th to 9th grades) have to take some basic classes for a good educational foundation—history, French, philosophy (ahem), physical education, math, civics and two—yes, TWO—foreign languages (the double foreign language requirement starts in 6th grade).IMG_1479Then they can take specialized classes to learn a trade, such as farming, many aspects of food service, transportation, sales, environmental work, etc. The students spend part of their days actually working as apprentices (a word that comes from apprendre—to learn) and are well-qualified when they graduate. This is considered a great outcome because such careers, even being a waiter, are honest and necessary work that earn a living wage. There is no shame in not going to university. These kids have several options, all of them with acronyms like STMG, ST2S, STHR, STI2D, STD2A, etc. One must be fluent in acronym when in France.

Those who want to go to university are split further into two streams: liberal arts and science types. The idea, again, is to prepare the students for the next step. Those who want to become engineers would have a strong foundation in sciences, for example. 

At the end of high school, the students must pass the baccalauréat, a gigantic written and oral test. You can finish high school and flunk the bac, but the bac is seen as a seal of approval, and students may take it again in an effort to pass. The bac is necessary for getting into university.IMG_1481There are three kind of higher education: universitiés, Grandes écoles, and specialized schools. Degrees are called licence (for a bachelor’s), master and doctorat. The Grandes écoles are considered the cream of the crop, very hard to get into, but in the sense of requiring great scores, and usually two years of rigorous preparatory courses. Universities, like France’s hospitals, are rather bare-bones compared to the U.S., lacking amenities like fancy gyms with climbing walls, water parks!!!!, movie theaters, etc. Just plain classrooms, with lots of students. The specialized schools are for things like commerce or management, such as the famous INSEAD. The universities tend not to rank very high globally because of faculty research citations, which punish papers that aren’t in English, and because of high student/faculty ratios.

Every French student who passed the bac gets into university. The test is given at the same time across the entire country, no private testing centers allowed. To get into scientific fields, you have to have passed the science bac, but otherwise it’s pretty open.IMG_5382Here’s how much it costs per year for French/EU students (international students are a different story):

For licence (bachelor’s) studies: €170, but poor families can get a reduction to €113.

Master: €243, reduced to €159.

Doctorat: €380, reduced to €253.

Ingénieur (engineer): €601

They also have to pay a student social security contribution of €90, which is waived for poor students. This is getting a new name but the amount stays the same.

Meal tickets are €3.25 a meal.IMG_1485Dorms are where French families face the big expense. There aren’t nearly enough dorm rooms, so students must find private lodging, something that has gotten squeezed by AirBnB, which offers landlords so much more money than students paying €400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment that’s empty during the summer.

Official dorm rooms range from 96 square feet with just a sink—bathrooms and kitchens are in common areas—to 150 square feet with a private shower, sink, fridge and microwave but shared toilets and kitchen; to studios up to 215 square feet with shower, toilet, sink, small kitchen and fridge. All furnished. They cost €200 to €500 a month.

So a year of university costs around €4,000 for room, €2,000 for board and a couple hundred for actual school fees.

The private schools, such as business schools, have low student/teacher ratios and cost much more. Tuition at the very respected HEC business school in Paris costs €15,100 a year for an MBA.IMG_1486Before you think that it’s a cakewalk to get a degree in France, students have to pass a gantlet of tests in order to continue. There is no way to finish if you skip class and just party. In fact, part of the reform of the bac stems from the fact that only 61% of students finish their degrees. Students aiming to become doctors may be filtered out in tests and have to choose a different career, perhaps still in medicine. Because it’s so rigorous, companies search for people who have gone to university for a year or two, even if they didn’t finish. You can see employment ads for BAC + 2, which means a bac plus two years of further education.

You can’t change your major between vastly different domains—something that’s possible in the U.S. 

Another difference with the U.S. is the sports aspect. As in, it doesn’t exist. No school teams, not in high school, not in university. It’s a place for studying. If you want to play sports, you join a club, which would be made up of kids from many different schools, and you would play against other clubs. No school spirit day. No crosstown rivalries. No Final Four (what sport is that anyway? Don’t tell me because I don’t care; I know of its existence only because I just saw a headline about it in the New York Times). IMG_1479No jocks, no cheerleaders. Also almost no fraternities or sororities. No corporate donors. Just taxes put to work.

You would think that in the U.S., with tuition such an incredible burden, kids would study their butts off. Certainly many do, but U.S. universities seem to be above all vast party machines. In France, the financial pressure is off and the kids are often living independently for the first time, so like young people everywhere they test their wings a bit; the bars around campuses are famously lively. But the constant testing is such that it’s up or out, and so French students pretty much keep their noses to the grindstone.

Feel free to talk smack below about the college admission scammers. As someone who got a perfect ACT in math and was in the top 1% nationally overall, I am disgusted by this group and hope the kids get kicked out and replaced with worthy students and the parents sent to prison. My own high school counselor pushed me to become a secretary, because with my good grades I would be hired immediately. She told me that I should forget about going to university on the East Coast, which was my dream, because my family couldn’t afford the plane fare, which was true. I informed her that I would become a boss, not a secretary, and indeed I did—and I had a secretary, who was a man. So much for Miss Norton’s stereotypes. I worked full-time in college (and finished in three years) because even though I had a full scholarship to a local state school, the fees and books still cost more than my parents could afford. I had zero fun, but I got a degree debt-free. I don’t think it would be possible to pull off today.IMG_5380I don’t know about you but I would rather drive over bridges designed by people who became engineers because they were smart and passionate about engineering, and be tended by doctors who are smart and passionate about caring for people, and so on, rather than by less-qualified, less-interested people who got into college because of legacy admissions or because their parents paid off the schools, in legal (well, legal is yet to be determined) or illegal ways. Remember the invasion of Grenada, to save the med students who were studying there because they weren’t able to get into med schools in the U.S.? When I was in the U.S. and saw on the list of in-network doctors some who had degrees from Grenada, I was horrified. Luckily, now I live in a place where all the doctors are in the network and I can pick whomever I want, assured that they are the crème de la crème. And my smart, ambitious kid will be able to continue studies without drowning in debt.

OK, have at it! I love your comments. Readers from other countries, tell us how your system works.IMG_1482

Spring Cleaning

P1070307It’s time to clean up this old ruin.

The stretch of fine weather and the impending arrival of a houseguest motivated me to do some spring cleaning. Especially cleaning the windows, which my French friends do once a week but which I do quite a bit less. We have So Many Windows. And it’s such a Sisyphean task. You clean them, it rains and they get spots. Clear blue skies are forecast for another week, so I went for it. I have the song “Aquarius” by The Fifth Dimension in my head–the refrain “bear the sunshine” was in a Windex commercial many decades ago. (Check out the link to the music video! Peace and Love!)P1070660I had the brilliant idea to treat some wood with beeswax, but it wouldn’t come out of the bottle. It is very stupid to bottle beeswax because it isn’t very runny (which reminds me of another commercial from childhood, for Heinz ketchup to the tune of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation”). I ran the bottle under hot water, then got completely spattered with wax when I opened it. Someone, not me, thought it was funny. The remaining beeswax was poured into a wide-mouth jar, which is how it should have been sold to begin with.P1060959It’s nice to spiff up one’s stuff from time to time. Some people are all about replacing with new, but I have fidelity to my things. On Sunday, our kid made focaccia in the kitchen, chatting with me as I sat at the table with the sewing machine and dispensed with a pile of mending. So many ripped seams. Simple to fix; just takes the time to get out the machine, thread the needle (increasingly difficult), do it. My mom darned socks and patched our clothes. Mending and sewing seem very last-century, but there are zillions of videos of young women repairing and adjusting thrift-store finds. One of them inspired me to tailor some pants that I had found a little too saggy. I suspect I will wear them more now (plus I dyed them “tulip red” so they’re like new).P1070662The Carnivore and I dragged all the patio furniture out of the garden shed and cleaned it. I pulled weeds and he trimmed the oleander–it already had flower buds and I hope it will hurry up and made new ones. Pale pink and deep “féria” magenta, they make a colorful wall around us. There are still many weeds, more than grass. Another Sisyphean task. P1060957I dream of downsizing, so that the portion of my life devoted to maintenance shrinks and the portion devoted to enjoying life can expand. Some people take their enjoyment from maintenance itself, which seems like mental judo–using the opponent’s own weight against him. Don’t fight head on, but direct the energy to your advantage. I respect that, but I’d still like more time for museums.P1070736Do you do spring cleaning, or are you a clean-all-the-time type? Any tips to share?

 

Spring in My Step

IMG_1378Printemps, or spring, started here about a month ago, but now it’s official. What a joy to have that thin dawn light on waking, instead of inky darkness that makes one want to roll over and curl up. The birds are singing their lungs out, the sky is turning brilliant hues before the sun makes its formal appearance over the horizon. It’s energizing. It’s easy to get out of bed.IMG_1259The vignerons, or winegrowers, are hustling to prune the vines before they bud out. We barely got any frost, let alone a hard freeze or snow, this winter. Frost is a threat until les saints glace–the ice saints–in early May. The afternoons are wonderfully warm, but it’s plain cold before dawn. Spring in the south of France is long and slow, in no rush for those baked days of summer. It tempts and taunts, with surprisingly balmy days followed by a wash of cold gray. We’ve had a good four weeks of almost-uninterrupted blue skies, and even the big, heavy clouds didn’t deliver. The garden is parched, the soil hard. I actually want rain.IMG_1379I’ve been reading about the floods in the Midwest. So awful, and so soon after the last floods. I know how they feel, at least kind of. We were isolated, with no roads, no telephone or Internet, for several days following flash floods last fall. Our house and most of the village escaped damage, but 15 people died nearby and many homes, businesses and farms were devastated. Too much rain, too fast. It happens more and more.

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This little stream was a raging river back in October.

IMG_1257On these nice days, I’m trying to get out for walks. I was really into it for a while, then lapsed. I think it happened when I overdid the running and my knees started to hurt and make strange noises. I took a rest and the rest took over. In fact, that happened just before the flood, which washed away my jogging path, so even when my knee was better, I had an excuse not to go out. I am picky about where I run–I avoid cars and, above all, dogs. IMG_1267IMG_1396IMG_1364The park path is being completely redone, full of earth-movers at the moment, so I’ve been setting off on country lanes. I appreciate getting to a spot where you don’t hear anything but nature. The wind in the pines, the birds singing. In summer, the cicadas thrumming. IMG_1243IMG_1380

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Promise!

IMG_1251IMG_1366I have a Fitbit that tracks my steps. I really like the no-delusions-of-grandeur factual accounting of what I’m doing. If I spend a day at my desk, I can’t dismiss it with embellished ideas about having walked around the house enough to count for something. Because it doesn’t. Fitbit takes your age, height and weight and calculates how many calories you’ve burned, based on the number of steps and heart rate. My average is just shy of the recommended minimum of 10,000 steps, burning an average of 1,980 calories. That is awful! No wonder it gets hard to maintain a steady weight, and even worse to lose weight, as you age.IMG_1266

IMG_1255
Like stars in the sky.

IMG_1260 Yesterday we brought out all the patio furniture and worked in the yard. I continued my Sisyphean fight against weeds. Soon I will plant the bee and butterfly garden. Something low maintenance–one and done. Native plants that won’t need to be watered.

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Can’t resist repeating my IG pun: WALLFLOWERS!!!! My friend B would have loved it.

IMG_1376Spring cleaning inside may occur soon. Not exactly Marie Kondo, though definitely purging some joyless junk. A moratorium on acquisitions of anything but comestibles. Just don’t need it. I want to shake off winter and stuff and just breathe.IMG_1370

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I know I showed some of these ladies recently, but I can’t help thinking of them every time I see these flowering bushes.

IMG_1367Another aimless post, as weightier topics swirl in my mind. Like a snow globe. When they settle, I will set them out. Do you do the same? What are your spring rituals?

 

Under Marble Cliffs

falaiseWhen my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).

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Gulp.

falaise 3I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. falaise 2Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.

climbing lines
Do you see the climbing lines?

Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.

marble
Marble just lying around.
fountain
A spring.

Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.

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The old entrance; now the entrance is on the side to the right.
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Do you see three little chapels for the stations of the cross?
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Le Souc

There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.

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06.MARCH 12 - 07
The former rectory.

06.MARCH 12 - 02

 

Memories

IMG_0696How do you pay tribute to cherished people who die? People who were not just special to me, but were special, period. Any attempt to distill their essence comes out bland at best, distorted at worst, because there is too much to pack in. And, where to start?

IMG_0695
Life is fragile.

I met B 26 years ago. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the bearded Sean Connery and was famous for his temper. I was terrified of him. At some point early on, I was the emissary sent to ask him a question, and I braced myself for a rant. But I prefaced my errand by telling him something to the effect that I was already scared to death of him so he could take it easy on me, because I was still going to go crawl off and cry. The look on his face was utter confusion: you’re afraid of me??? IMG_0699Maybe because I was the new girl, from the sticks to boot, he turned into a protective teddy bear to me. Actually he softened toward everyone, seeming embarrassed that he had a reputation that he didn’t want. He was a fantastic mentor—exacting about pushing me to do better than my best, and precise about what I did right and wrong and how to fix it. IMG_0705I thought he was ancient. It was the white beard maybe. I remember teasing him about “turning 80”—if your age and work tenure added up to 80, then you could retire.

His knowledge was encyclopedic. He was interested in everything and had traveled widely. With him, it wasn’t six degrees of separation but one or two. He seemed to know everybody who was anybody.IMG_0714He liked to go to Chinatown. He would order because he spoke Cantonese and because in most situations he was in charge. He would examine the menu, ask the waiter questions in Cantonese, then ask his dinner companions questions in English, taking notes in Chinese on a napkin. You never knew what would arrive at the table, but it was always good. He introduced me to pea shoots.IMG_0931I forget the event, somebody’s birthday, and he chose a restaurant in an untouristy corner of Chinatown. He ordered for the whole party, of course, in advance. They brought out an entire fish the size of a child—it took a couple of waiters to carry it. Then, in front of us, one of them carved the fish and removed its skeleton, as if it were a magic trick. Magical things happened with B. The fish was sublime.IMG_0923I would visit him in New York after I moved to Europe. He let me stay at his place, listing the illustrious friends who had previously crashed on his sofa. It was quite comfortable, squeezed among the Asian antiques from his travels. We stayed up late and ate ice cream and watched “Sex and the City,” which, living in Brussels without a TV, I had never seen. Mostly we talked and talked. There was no subject B couldn’t talk intelligently about.

Before a trip to Hong Kong, he asked me and several other female colleagues whether we wanted pearl necklaces. Of course we did. He went to the pearl market, picked out each pearl himself, had them strung (correctly–with knots between each pearl) and fronted the money for quite a few necklaces; we paid him when he came back. I still have that necklace and wear it a lot. I think of B every time I put it on.IMG_0701He loved puns. Usually really bad ones, but sometimes they were perfect. I could no sooner tell you any of the puns than I could tell you which glass of water I’ve drunk was the best; many were good, almost none were actually bad, and some were pure joy.

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Wild rosemary in bloom.

I was going to say he was an expert in certain topics, but the truth is he knew a lot about everything. He especially enjoyed science and medicine, yet he was deeply informed about geopolitics and art and history. He could tell you stories about buildings as you walked past them in New York. He would walk home, and I would sometimes walk with him as far as the dance studio where I took classes. Walk and talk.IMG_1122The only thing was that sometimes he would tell what seemed like a tall tale, and it would be an elaborate setup for a pun. And other times it would be completely true, however unbelievable—you could look it up and see he got every detail right. He went on about some strange bee, I don’t remember the name but it was so silly it sounded like something a kid would have invented. “You’re making this up,” I told him. “What’s the joke?” “It’s true!” he protested. I checked in an encyclopedia, and there it was.

He was a stickler for the truth. In bees and in everything. It got him in trouble when he was young, a badge of honor he was proud of. I don’t know whether I would have been as courageous.  IMG_0932Almost the same time, another friend died, also of cancer. J also had a shock of white hair and an interest in everything. He also had lived around the world and spoke several languages. He had amazing stories to tell, but you had to pry them out of him. He never flaunted his sophistication.

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The next photos are from the road in front of J’s place. His and his wife’s spirits are still felt here.

He told of a nightclub in Khartoum that was the end of the road for cabaret acts and a stolen car (I don’t think it was his car but a friend’s) in Albania and the white-knuckle flight into Papua New Guinea’s airport. Like I said, he had seen the world. And then he and his wife chose to retire in our little village in the middle of nowhere, France. Decent weather, competent public administration (often incompatible with good weather, as they had learned on their travels) and the same time zone as their family, who were scattered around Europe. IMG_1129I would scan the crowd at the market, looking for J’s white hair, so easy to spot. Even now, when I see a head of white hair in the distance, I instinctively think it’s J. It was always good to get a coffee with him and his wife, who was one of my closest friends in our village.

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Moss? Lichen? So soft.

They were high school sweethearts. I am fascinated by couples who found each other so young and it actually worked out. They were well-suited, for sure: kind, intelligent, adventurous, patient, diplomatic. With a sense of humor.IMG_1132IMG_1133As befit someone who could pass for Santa, J pulled off a jolly chuckle well. But his sense of humor was less of the joke-telling variety and more of the absurd or situational variety. His house and a neighbor’s house were situated at a bit of a remove from the village. The mairie would change the sign for the entry to the village: sometimes it would include the two houses, sometimes it would exclude them. Back and forth. During one of the exclusionary phases, the two neighbors declared that their property, like Andorra, was a separate principality, and they were the co-princes. And they went on about it. Called each other prince. The principality this, the principality that. For years. Straight-faced, but wonderfully absurd. IMG_1127J and B would have gotten on wonderfully and it’s too bad they never met. But my life is immeasurably richer for having known them.

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The other principality, Andorra, is somewhere thataway.