On Strike

IMG_0561Yesterday was unusually quiet here in France profonde. Almost no traffic. Most people stayed home if they could. We slept in late. This impromptu vacation day was thanks to the national strike against pension reform.

I wanted to have a light, happy post today after last week’s Debbie Downer rant. But yesterday’s strike, which is continuing today, is inescapable. Even if you don’t live here, you probably want to retire one day, so read on.

The French system is pretty generous, but demographics–folks live longer and have fewer babies–mean that while there were five workers for every retiree in 1960, today there are three. While pensioners and those close to becoming one argue that they paid for their retirement, the system is like many others, including Social Security in the U.S.–those working now pay for those retired now. It isn’t an account like a 401(k) where you put in your money and you have it later.IMG_0559The problems with 401(k)s are that (1) most people don’t save enough, (2) those who do save don’t invest the money wisely, being either too risky or too conservative and (3) if the market drops when you want to retire, you might not be able to afford it. As with any investment, you could lose everything.

A broader system offers better protection for the average Jacques. Also, because it’s run by the government, workers don’t have to worry about their employer going belly-up and their retirement disappearing in a poof of smoke with it. Remember Enron? A few greedy guys made some sour deals and cooked the books, bringing down the company. More than 9,000 employees had retirement plans based on Enron stock, which became worthless.IMG_0572 The problem in France lies in the details, as is often the case. There’s retirement for a special few, and then retirement for everybody else. President Emmanuel Macron wants to get rid of the 42 régimes speciaux, which cover only 3.4% of the working population. Most French think the exceptions should be abolished–most of them don’t benefit. Probably many of those with an exception think the other 41 régimes are unworthy, but don’t even THINK about touching theirs. And some fear a domino effect–if one exception is eliminated, then the others will eventually go as well.

I have a friend who retired in her 40s. Seriously. She was a secretary for a notaire, or notary. In France, notaries are inescapable, necessary for formalities for property purchases, wills, etc.–more like lawyers than like a notary public in the U.S. The notaries created a special retirement regime in 1937, before the general one, and their exceptions got grandfathered in. Granted, they pay in a lot more than regular workers do. In general they retire if they are 55 and contributed for 25 years, but there’s an exception to the exception, which my friend enjoyed: If you worked 15 years for a notary and you have three kids, you can retire at any age you want.

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Look closely–there’s a cross.

Ballerinas at the Opéra de Paris (but not ballerinas elsewhere!), can retire from age 40 to 60, having paid in for 10 to 15 years (there are subcategories to this subcategory). Extra credit for having kids. It’s true that being a ballerina is physically taxing, poorly paid and not something that translates to other professions. If you have an injury and can’t continue, your options could be limited.

We know somebody who was a train conductor (as in ticket taker, not driver). Yes, decades ago, working on a train was dirty and dangerous. But today they are electric and automated. He says, “When I was hired, I signed a contract with the terms that I would retire when I was 60. They have to honor that.” I pointed out that when he joined the railroad, life expectancy was 73. Now it’s 83. The contract was based on calculations for the lower life expectancy, even if that wasn’t stated explicitly. Was he willing to live (or die) up to his side of the bargain? He sputtered and admitted that people living longer in retirement would require more money, but that should come from somebody else, not him. Younger people should pay more. IMG_0568Not so easy. Youth unemployment is high–almost 21%–for a bunch of reasons. One is that workers enjoy some protections from being fired, so employers try to make do without hiring rather than get stuck with a bad apple. That also is changing, with protections being chipped away–sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The bane of gig jobs is creeping in, like kudzu or some other invasive species. But changes to worker protections did help lower unemployment overall to 8.5% from double digits a few years ago.

People say, well, older workers should retire and make way for younger ones who need jobs. But this is bad for the economy. The French call retirement “les grandes vacances”–the big vacation–but it’s really more akin to unemployment: It’s taking money from working people and giving it to non-working people. The more people who work, the more the economy hums, and the more jobs there are. In the case of Japan, where 30% of working-age women don’t work, every one percentage point increase in work participation by women would boost the economy by half a percentage point. It makes sense–you turn to services to make life easier, maybe ordering takeout or going out, having the house cleaned and laundry done, looking good by having haircuts more often. It doesn’t have to be all about consumption of stuff.IMG_0563Raising the retirement age is inevitable–retirement initially was based on an age that most people wouldn’t reach. So yes, you would work until you died. The idea wasn’t for a big vacation but to prevent the elderly, no longer able to earn a living, from becoming destitute.

In effect, broad-based pensions are demographic Ponzi schemes that worked until the baby bust. This is not an argument for more babies–far from it, the global population is big enough–nor is it an argument against government pensions. It’s an argument that nothing is set in stone, and that programs have to adjust. It isn’t sustainable to have people work for 30 years and be retired for 40. Even a 40-40 split doesn’t work. Retirement has to be shorter. Retiring later beats dying earlier.IMG_0571Working longer is easier said than done. I know so many people who have been laid off (not in France, though), even as their employers advertise job openings. I suspect my friends have been culled because they’re too expensive. They are all extremely sharp and diligent, so it isn’t because of their productivity. Their employers are profitable and hiring. Employers increasingly look at workers as disposable, even in sectors that need “knowledge” workers. With job applications now almost entirely online, it’s hard to cut through the algorithmic filters, even if you don’t fill in your graduation dates or if you drop off a decade or two from your résumé. If they want 5-7 years of experience for a “senior” job, then you’ll be spit out if you have pared down your experience to 10 years. Older people (anybody over 50) are considered slow, lacking innovation and tech-savvy.

It all means the problem is thornier than just changing the age, and look at what that step provoked. 800,000 protesters across France yesterday. I really love the way the French take to the streets to show what they believe in–Je Suis Charlie, Nous Toutes, the environment. On the other hand, I often disagree with their causes. The Gilets Jaunes originally were mad about a pollution tax. And with the pension strike now, it’s about people saying “I want mine even it it costs you.” Every French person under age 50 who isn’t part of the 3.4% enjoying special status should be out in the streets protesting in favor of change. They’re the ones getting stuck with the bill.

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Photos of the church at Rustiques, built in the era when you worked until you died.

What Lies Inside

P1020608How many times do you walk past doors, wondering what lies inside?

Sometimes they’re ajar, allowing a peek to interior worlds.

Sometimes, even ajar, we keep walking.

Mostly I do just that–keep walking, preoccupied with my own life. These are the stories about the times I stopped to think.

The first one for me was in Africa. I was young and only newly out of my protected bubble, where such problems were hidden from view. There was a burger joint in the capital that we would frequent, Hoggers, where cassette tapes (it was long ago) of an LA pop radio station played, complete with traffic and weather reports. It was like stepping into America. I stepped out one day, belly full, and came face to face with a man, nearly naked, who was eating trash from the pile–not even a bin, but an open pile–in the alley.

My heart broke. What happened to put him there? His eyes, desperate, confused, sad, haunt me decades later.

In my village in Africa, there was a crazy man. He would come after me mercilessly. He would follow me around, yelling at me in a mix of Swahili and English. He was crazy but he was completely bilingual. “Hey! Mzungu! You! White woman!” His legs looked like they had been broken and never set, so the tibiae were completely crooked. The rags he wore were filthy. He had only a few teeth, although he wasn’t much older than me (and this was very long ago). I was terrified of him. Nobody ever stepped in as he walked behind me, haranguing me. But I think everybody kept an eye on him. Yelling at me was one thing; after all, he was crazy. I was the outsider, the easy target. When I wasn’t around, he did it to somebody else. I am sure I would have been protected if he had tried to hurt me, which he never did. There was a careful equilibrium. In the absence of mental health care, he was given food and a margin of error for strange behavior. Sometimes I think it was a kinder system than in the West.P1070566A couple of years later. At a high school class reunion, somebody thought it would be funny to pick up Ron, the once-blond football player who looked a lot like Sean Penn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He had fallen into the rabbit hole of drugs, eventually scaring his mother to the point that he was kicked out and lived on the streets, collecting cans. I didn’t approve of his lifestyle choices but I didn’t think it was at all funny to haul him in for ridicule.

Later, but still many years ago, in New York. I was reading the paper and having a coffee at an outside table at the now-defunct Café Borgia II in Soho. I sensed somebody was standing by me, so I looked up, expecting to see the waitress. Instead there was a disheveled homeless man, and I had committed the cardinal error of making eye contact. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!!” he exclaimed.

I decided that earnest incompetence was my best recourse. “Sifahamu,” I said with a big smile and my hands turned up in the universal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ symbol for I don’t know, which is what I had said. I correctly wagered that he didn’t speak Swahili.

“You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he repeated, more slowly and loudly and enunciating every syllable, as one does with foreigners who don’t speak your language. “Sifahamu. Pole sana,” I told him. So sorry.

“Deutschland über alles!” he told me, and walked off, shaking his head as if he had rarely encountered such stupidity before.P1060259More recently, I was walking around the Saturday market, filling my colorfully striped caddy with healthy produce, and I noticed a man whose age and big beard reminded me of a relative back in the U.S. who for years self-medicated his psychological problems with unhelpful results. He was small, both in stature and build, and his winter coat seemed three sizes too big. He walked with his arms kind of hugging himself, as if to make himself even smaller, and to not touch anything. He looked a little too intensely at the food on display.

It took a minute for all this to register. It dawned on me that this man, who looked so much like my fragile loved one, was probably homeless. I looked for him, but he was gone. I toured the market, frantically trying to find him, but without luck. A few weeks later, I saw him again, in the same pathetic posture. I tapped his arm and looked him in the eye and handed him a €5 note. His eyes widened. He searched my face–is this a joke?–then immediately looked at the ground. “Merci,” he said. “Bonne journée,” I told him.

When I got to my car, I cried buckets.P1020590A couple of weeks ago, I was driving down one of the boulevards with my kid. It was cold and windy. A homeless man with a big dog was seated on a bench in front of the courthouse. At the corner, waiting for the light, was a different man, tall, very thin, wearing a big red-striped knit cap and a neatly belted green trench coat. He had a small backpack over one shoulder and one of those big reusable grocery bags in his other hand. He looked lost.

“Was he….?” I said. “I think so,” my kid answered. “We should go back,” I said. “What about the one with the dog?” Kid answered. I am afraid of dogs. I will cross the street to avoid one, even if it’s on a leash. I will go around the block if it isn’t. “They have dogs for company, because nobody talks to them….anyway, you can’t save everybody,” Kid said.

Last Saturday, I was walking back to my car after the market and there was the same man, on the same corner. As he passed me, I touched his arm and said, “Excusez-moi,” handing him €5. A paltry sum, I know, but at the moment we are counting every centime as digital disruption decimates my business. Still, we live in a house and have enough to eat.

I had taken him in as he approached: he had on a polar fleece jacket, zipped up high under the trench coat. It was smartly belted again, but I could see it was old and worn. His shopping bag held some strange articles–I spotted one of those plastic drainers for dishes to drip–but very neatly arranged. Everything about him indicated a huge effort, but one that was failing catastrophically.

I looked him in the eye as he started to talk. What came out of his mouth was pure gibberish. He clearly struggled to speak. What had happened to him? Something in his brain short-circuited? And perhaps he didn’t have family to get him the help that France generously provides but that, all the same, requires a fair amount of bureaucracy, this being France? I would never know because conversation was impossible.

He went on for quite a while, and I looked at him and listened, thinking it was probably rare for him to be acknowledged as a member of the human race. Finally, I excused myself. I thought of pointing to my watch, but the juxtaposition of his state and my FitBit seemed too much. I have a watch that tracks my steps because otherwise I sit too much and eat too much. And I was standing in front of a man with no place to sit or to sleep, who doesn’t know what he will eat. I just bid him good day, and crossed the street as the light changed.P1060155Some years ago, my kid announced in franglais, “We are really pourri-gâté”–literally spoiled rotten. Yes, we are. In the 1980s, there was a trend about bootstrapping and responsibility, and it seems to be back, bigger and meaner, ignoring that some people never had bootstraps to begin with; for others, the bootstraps disintegrated for reasons that might or might not be their own fault.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and, while we didn’t do a dinner, gratitude was on my mind. I am grateful for my family–not just my nuclear family but the whole extended clan of cousins and my close friends I count as family. I am grateful for good health. I am grateful for such a full belly that I have to make an effort to exercise. I am grateful I won the birth lottery. I am grateful to live in France, where even though there are homeless, the system seems kinder.

There are many problems in the world, and you might prioritize something else. But on Black Friday, before you click to buy something you or your gift recipient don’t really need, see whether you can also do something for someone in need.

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It is with dripping irony that doors illustrate a post about people who have none.

It Can’t Possibly Be November

IMG_4120Yesterday I crossed paths with the cutest fairy–I was horrified later to realize she was a fairy, having incorrectly called her a butterfly–with irridescent rainbow wings and matching skirt. Even her face had been painted with colorful swirls. She came up to my knees, which is not much at all.

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The stones in this wall looked a bit like teeth in a Halloween skull.

We were crossing the street, the fairy clinging to the hand of her mother. The sun was shining, despite the storm clouds. Just as the light changed, the skies opened in a kind of localized ice-bucket challenge. I was soaked to the skin before I had made it across the two lanes. Preoccupied with dodging the drops, I didn’t see how the fairy fared.stream in autumnIMG_4133 2P1060202That was about the extent of Halloween for us. We don’t get trick or treaters, especially since our kid is too big for such things. What I do see all over is Christmas. No! It’s still warm out! Until the rain arrived, even a light sweater was too much during the day. Of course, the rain is welcome; it’s what turns the countryside a brilliant green in winter. IMG_4134IMG_4129IMG_4123The vineyards are only starting to change color, not yet reaching their vivid peak. Flowers are blooming, especially wildflowers in the garrigue. As I made my way through a wooded area on my walk/run route, I heard a very loud buzzing. It sounded like what some poor idiot hears right before they stumble on the decaying body of a murder victim in a horror film. So it was with great relief that I realized the buzzing was bees, working a flowering vine that had taken over a dead tree. I put a short clip on Instagram. Unfortunately, I can’t electronically share the lovely perfume of the flowers.IMG_4127IMG_413002.NOVEMBER 11 - 05My new route takes me along the edge of the garrigue, that magical wilderness that smells of pine and herbs. I wear an orange cap I bought in the hunting aisle at the sporting goods store and fluorescent pink windbreaker to let hunters know I’m not a boar (maybe a bore, and at times a pig, especially around chocolate, but never, ever a boar). It only later occurred to me that the more dangerous encounter might be with an actual boar. I decided to sing to ward them off. It’s the perfect place–not a soul.

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Guess who!
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A stone wall in the middle of nowhere.
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The vegetation in the foreground is mostly wild thyme.

Sadly, that is changing. I see fields where vineyards have been pulled out, marked off for new housing construction. The centers of villages and towns empty out as people want freestanding houses with yards, encroaching on nature and transforming the landscape in ways that will be hard to turn back. The newcomers do not appreciate chance encounters with wild boars, either.

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An even bigger wall in the middle of nowhere, on the border between the wild of the garrigue and the last field.

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You can see how enormous the wall is here, where it’s falling down. Three or four feet wide. Undoubtedly built by hand, very long ago.

Today is a holiday–All Saint’s Day–and I’m contemplating how to spend it. Probably raking up the golden leaves, which fall faster than I can pick them up. Gardening is a Sisyphean task.IMG_4137IMG_4124IMG_411402.NOVEMBER 11 - 04What are you up to? Ready for winter? Or is it already winter where you live?05.FEBRUARY 12 - 49P1060011

 

Genius Meal Planner

IMG_2947Since we’ve doubled down on being vegetarian, meal planning has been a challenge. Vegetarian meals aren’t just the same as traditional meals minus the meat. They’re a completely different animal (non-animal?).

Instead of grabbing a package of meat, a vegetable and potato and voilà, dinner, things are more complicated. Plus, we make an effort to get complete proteins, even though it’s possible to have some of the amino acids at lunch and the complement at dinner (beans plus rice, for example).

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The Carnivore’s idea of dinner: traditional Alsatian choucroute. This is for one. At the top: miso noodle soup made by the kid.

Our kid has become quite the foodie, doing a lot of cooking and learning techniques from  the Internet, especially from Bon Appétit, whose employees now feel like old friends.

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Pickled red onions, an idea from Bon Appétit, now a staple in our fridge. Such snappy flavor! 

A few weeks ago, local teens were treated to a kind of low-budget TED Talk about food waste, hosted by the company that does municipal solid waste removal, Covaldem. A repeat of the talk in the evening was aimed at adults, with a no-waste tasting afterward. The theater was full.

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Enough.

They even gave away a little booklet of “anti-gaspi” (anti-gaspillage = no waste) recipes by local chefs. For example, autumn vegetable soup with croutons, a velouté (thick soup) of potimarron (a kind of small, sweet pumpkin) with a “tartine” made with the potimarron skin, nuts, and grilled potimarron seeds. The idea was to either use everything, or to transform leftovers.

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The Carnivore’s idea of anti-gaspi. He gets major points for presentation. Something to keep in mind.

The talk pointed out that 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year worldwide, which accounts for a third of food produced. It went through expiration dates (many of which are n’importe quoi–whatever–except for meat and fish), and pointed out ways that supermarkets have been pushed to reduce waste, such as by having a display for discounted food that’s about to expire, or for “ugly” vegetables and fruit, also discounted. They also said restaurants are being encouraged to let diners take home what’s left of their meals, not in “doggie bags” but in “gourmet bags.”

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For tomatoes, especially, the uglier the better.

The talk also pointed out that meal planning can reduce waste. A few days later, a friend told me about an app for meal planning and it’s everything I wanted. It’s called Jow, and it seems to be available only in France. That’s because it links to several chains of supermarkets to make your shopping list, which you can then order online. The app is free, so they must make their money by getting a commission from the supermarkets.

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Rice and squash patties. Not bad, but didn’t hold shape.

I prefer to buy my produce at the market, so I haven’t made any purchases through the app. Curiously, even though the app is French and I never made any language selection, some of the recipes turn up in English. Or partly in English and partly in French. It’s fine with me–it’s how we roll in our house.

First you choose your supermarket (you can put anything, just to continue. A Walter Mitty moment where you can pick your dream French town). Then how many people you’re cooking for and how many are children. Then what you eat: everything/vegetarian/vegan/no pork/no gluten/no dairy.

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More elaborate: gaspacho; zucchini noodles, polenta with pesto, mushroom tofu, red pepper hummus, salad (this kind is called mâche), sprouts.

Next it asks what you have in your kitchen: oven, microwave, stovetop, fryer, blender (and what kind), automatic cooker (Thermomix or other brand–they’re listed). Then you put in how many meals you want to plan: 2? 5? 7?

Et boum! (Not a typo–that’s the French spelling.) Meal ideas, mostly one-dish, with recipes and compiled shopping list. The recipes change each week. Doing it just now, Jow suggested onion quiche with chèvre and honey, shakshuka, eggplant curry, pear and gorgonzola pizza, and sweet potato gratin with chestnuts. If you don’t like something, you click on the remplacer button and it suggests something else.

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Lunch regular: winter vegetable salad. Often involving beets.

Click on the red shopping cart to get your shopping list. There, you can eliminate items that you already have in your pantry or add other things you need, like breakfast foods or dish soap. The entire list for the five menus above come to €49.40 at Leclerc.

I made the eggplant curry, but I had only a tiny eggplant, so I added other vegetables (mushrooms and spinach stems….yes stems. You can get bags of baby spinach at the store but at the market it’s much bigger, sometimes with the roots still attached). Last week there was a quiche with roasted butternut squash and red onion; I substituted leeks and zucchini. I also made the risotto with red peppers.

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The risotto with red and yellow peppers, and roussilous mushrooms sautéed in butter with parsley.

Other suggestions under vegetarian: onion tart tatin; Tunisian lablabi; roasted camembert; crunchy tofu with quinoa and broccoli; roasted tomatoes with feta; chèvre and spinach tourte; eggplant parmesan; lentil and avocado salad; salad with dried apricots and spice bread; beet, chèvre and nut quiche; zucchini crumble; pasta with muchrooms; gnocchi with spinach and gorgonzola; polenta with roasted tomatoes. And you can click on more recipes. There are other buttons to try: favorites, new, exotic, autumn, express, desserts, healthy, veggie, gluten-free.

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The mushrooms cooking. They are heaven. A local specialty, from the Black Mountains.

It’s easy to eliminate things you don’t want. The recipes are quick and easy and they give an idea of reasonable portion sizes. Some, like the tarts and quiches, are for four–you can’t really make a quiche for two–so we have leftovers for lunch. I realize that while I eat very healthy–everything homemade, heavy on vegetables–I eat too much. Portion control is the very French way of dieting. My Fitbit tells me that even with running I barely pass 2,000 calories in a day, far less on the days I don’t run, then something has to give. FitBit’s calculations are based on averages for age, height and weight. At some point recently, I seem to have passed into a new category, because for the same number of steps in a day it was telling me I was burning significantly fewer calories. Wake-up call! How middle-age spread happens.

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A favorite here: zucchni fritters with fresh salsa.

Years ago, I tried to do the same thing as Jow, but using a spreadsheet, not with all the wonders of app technology. It was an utter failure–clumsy, bulky, hard to change, hard to organize. I am sure there are other apps out there, ones that connect to your local supermarket. But if you want some meal planning help with French flavor, check out Jow.

This isn’t sponsored. I just really like Jow. If you have similar apps that you like, please mention them in the comments so readers in your country can find out about them.

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No recipe needed.

 

Urban Jungle

IMG_3491When 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. IMG_3489We 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.IMG_3465In 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.

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It doesn’t take much. And is that the door to Tom and Jerry’s place?

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. IMG_3495And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.IMG_3497IMG_3492IMG_3490

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Something about this resembles Cousin It from the Addams Family.

Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.IMG_3488IMG_3486Some were colorful, very dramatic.IMG_3500IMG_3510IMG_3485You 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.IMG_3501Everywhere 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.IMG_3517IMG_3504Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. IMG_3473IMG_3471Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.

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Do you see the balcony with what seems to be a bamboo forest?

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.

What’s not to love about that?IMG_3493

 

 

Sweet Friends

IMG_0765We 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.

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As I don’t show photos of my friends here, you are treated to a gallery of French pâtisserie shots.

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.

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Even the frozen stuff at the supermarket is amazing. “Chocolate-raspberry obsession.” Yup.

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.IMG_0763That’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.

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‘Le Petit Zeste”

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.

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Another supermarket freezer treat: Sublime with berries and almond milk.

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.

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Thanks to the Boulangerie Papineau and the master pâtissier Rémi Touja, both just steps from our AirBnBs in Carcassonne, for these works of art.

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.

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How about that mega-macaron on the right?

“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.

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I want to bellyflop into this.

If you want to know the names of some of these, click here.

Moral Unequivalence

IMG_3275I’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.

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Small road, deep ditch. Not even a tire’s width of flat grass, then a ditch (called a fossé in French) that could easily eat a car.

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.

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“A” is for awful. Actually A means apprentice, a scarlet letter affixed to cars during a driver’s first year of having a license, so other drivers know stupidity lies ahead.

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.

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More of the same. Ditches on both sides.
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Not much space at all to pull over…
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A tiny bit more on the other side of the road.

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.”

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Even worse: I hesitated to WALK over this. No way in a car. Not even in my half-size car.
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Check the drop! This passes for a “bridge.” Happily, it connects nowhere with nowhere.

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?

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Parking lot lines are for other people. (Red car in center)

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.

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And this guy…construction blocked the road, and what’s usually parking was for exiting this service road. Except that this jerk parked so that nobody could squeeze by. What was he thinking? He was thinking, “I got a great parking spot.”

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.

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A pretty view, to reset after this rant.

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.

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Grape harvesters hard at work…it’s still the season.

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!”?

French Style Fails

IMG_3020Not 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.

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That’s a turret on that house, which was probably built in the last decade or two. No comment about the metal work on the gate.

Worst of all, we have McMansions. There is a wonderful blog, McMansion Hell, which dissects all that is wrong about the genre.

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Prison or home?

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.

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How many finials are too many?

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.

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House on steroids. The definition of “butt-ugly.” Not from these parts but farther north, where, on a walk, all I could think of was, OMG everything here is H.I.D.E.O.U.S.

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?

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House on…antidepressants?  Is there anything kind one can say? I fear there is not. And WTF is on the ventilation grate?

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.

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Where no man has gone before.

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.

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Nightmare.

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.

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The strip in the middle is the wall of the “new” city, built in the 1300s. The buildings that cuddle up to it on either side were built much (and on the right much, much) later.

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.

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Case in point: there was a big opening here at one time. Somebody closed it up, probably for good reason. But there’s still a door, with a cool arch above, and a window with adorable hearts in the shutters.

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.

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Not built in a day. The gray-roofed towers are more modern by a long shot, but date to the 13th century; the red-roofed tower is Roman, far older.

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.

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Sprouting like mushrooms. Or cancer.

I love it all the same.

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But I don’t love this house. Windows? Why no windows?

Surely you have McMansion horror stories to share. Unload them!

Working for a Living

IMG_3113It’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.

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Random pictures from here and there, just to break things up.

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.P1060663 2 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.P1060683I 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.IMG_5089 2Funny, 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.IMG_3111I 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.

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These details were created by human hands.

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.IMG_3104Then 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.IMG_3117Sure, 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?

Bonus: A little retro Huey Lewis and the News with Workin’ for a Livin’. Circa 1982.IMG_3108

 

End of Summer

IMG_3595The 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

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Croissants on the balcony of our AirBnB in Carcassonne.

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.

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Winegrowers use tiny tractors to move between the rows of vines. I love that this museum piece is a Lamborghini. It used to be driven by an ancient winegrower who was bent over in half but who worked his vineyards daily.

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.IMG_3640IMG_3612One 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.

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Early evening.
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45 minutes later.

A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.

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Why do you need a windshield wiper on a window that you can’t see through?
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Ha ha–connerie is stupidity/nonsense/silly antics, so it says “general stupidity.” It originally was “maçonnerie general” or general masonry.
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At a wine and food tasting: Occitan relaxation and naps. Occitan is the old language and adjective for this region, where Languedoc comes from–oc is how people in these parts said yes.

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. IMG_1881If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…IMG_3499