Window on Europe

P1050851There’s a lot to love about Europe. Not just the food, the history, the culture, the architecture, the countrysides, the windows (with a few favorites chosen today to accompany the text). A big part of what makes life here so good is thanks to the European Union. Photos of pretty windows aside, this isn’t the usual light fare yet everything is relevant to most people’s lives–like protecting you against bank fees and phone companies. What’s not to like?IMG_5618A favorite pastime seems to be making fun of silly legislation passed by the European Parliament. But that is often unfair, and sometimes the supposed laws aren’t even for real (get your news from mainstream media!). Take, for example, the Great Olive Oil Affair. The EU wanted to make olive oil labels easier to read and to ban restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable containers … because restaurants were refilling with lower-quality oil. In fact, the olive-oil producing countries were in favor of the ban, yet it was cited as a reason to vote for Brexit, because the Leavers wanted the right to be cheated by restaurants. P1050993In fact, everybody but Emmanuel Macron loves to bash the EU. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit about  “what have the Romans ever done for us.”

Lest anybody think otherwise, I wrote most of this ages ago, and it’s absolutely not intended to troll the U.K. for Brexit. While we all whine about how things need to be better (and lord help us if we get self-satisfied and give up on improving!), we don’t appreciate enough how far we’ve come. Think of this as a pre-Thanksgiving post.P1060197Aside from the big things, like peace, and the ability to travel and trade easily, here are a few ways the EU has improved life:

—Probably the biggest thing has been the reduction of poverty and modernization of southern Europe. Spain, for example, wisely used its generous handouts from the EU to build top-notch infrastructure like high-speed trains. My taxes make Spain better? YES!!!IMG_5219—Since 2006, the EU has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed to fatten livestock. More than a decade later, the U.S. banned certain antibiotics for fattening livestock. While it isn’t 100% proven, some scientists theorize that the obesity epidemic is linked at least to some extent to people consuming so much meat that contains antibiotics. However, the bigger threat is from antibiotic resistance.P1050167—The EU eliminated mobile phone roaming fees within the EU with a “roam like at home” rule. So I can use my basic (yet with unlimited calls) plan of €2 a month even when I’m in another EU country and not get hit with surcharges.

–The “Universal Service Directive” (those EU bureaucrats kill it with sexy names for their laws, don’t you think?) lets you change mobile phone companies but keep your number–and they have one day to switch you over. It encourages competition by making it very easy to switch operators.

—It required the same bank fees for payments, transfers and ATMs within the EU as domestically. No surcharges if you use your bank card at a shop or ATM while traveling.IMG_5129The euro reined in prices. Inflation in France was 24% between 2001 and 2011, compared with 68% between 1981 and 1991. Regarding the years chosen: in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations for the euro. That led to 199, when a single currency in fact, but not name or physical currency, began, because the exchange rates among the first euro members were locked in. The actual euro coins and notes appeared Jan. 1, 2002. (If you click on the link, the headline reads: L’euro fait flamber les prix depuis dix ans? Que nenni! Which means: The euro made prices skyrocket over the past 10 years? Not at all!) And let’s not forget how nice it is to travel around Europe without changing money–that also saved money because each time people or businesses exchanged currencies, they paid a commission.IMG_2694—In particular, prices fell for electronics and home appliances, largely because of cheap imports. And those were possible in part because the EU set standards for member countries (except the U.K. and Ireland), which previously had slightly different plugs, the better to protect domestic producers. IMG_5078All in all, life in the EU is good. Life expectancy has soared to 81 years today from 69 in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from a high of 10 metric tons per capita to 6.7. Those regulations have improved air and water quality, and thus life in general. IMG_4593Things aren’t perfect here, and there are plenty of ways the system could get better. But overall, the EU is a great example of how the government is indeed the solution, not the problem.IMG_3499

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Fall Back in the South of France

gold against blue skyThis weekend, the U.S. and Canada switch back to standard time. Europe did it last weekend, “falling back” to gain an hour. The education ministry wisely times school vacations around the fall and spring time changes so kids have a chance to adjust. It’s harder in spring–getting up an hour earlier is misery.

The fact that North America and Europe don’t change time on the same dates further complicates things. In the fall, the difference between Central European Time and Eastern Time shrinks to five hours, instead of six, for one week. But in spring, that difference grows to seven hours instead of six for a week, which, at my former employer, we called “Hell Week.”winding pathNobody likes the early darkness of winter. In fact, a survey in the EU found 84% of people wanted to quit changing between daylight saving and standard time. The EU is considering staying on daylight saving time permanently with the next switch, in spring. That could be tricky for the U.K., which is supposed to leave the EU in March 2019.

In any case, all 28 EU members and the EU parliament would have to approve the change, which has yet to be formally proposed.

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What is this crazy Dr. Seuss plant with a striped stem and feathery greens?

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin came up with Daylight Saving Time, in order to shift schedules so people would have more active time with natural light. What good is all that sunshine at 4 a.m. when it could be better enjoyed at 8 p.m.? Daylight Saving Time is supposed to save energy by taking advantage of natural light, but I also read that the savings is exaggerated.

On the other hand, I think of places like Belgium, where a dim dawn breaks around 8:30 or 9 in December and is extinguished around 4:30 p.m., with penumbra in between. Keeping Daylight Saving Time year-round would mean sunrise close to 10 a.m. and sunset around 5:30 p.m. I would not want to be a kid in school in the dark for two hours. Or a teacher trying to get the attention of a room full of kids when outside the windows it looks like bedtime.

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The yellow-leaf road

When I lived in Africa, I was close enough to the Equator that sometimes water went down the drain in my sink clockwise and sometimes counter-clockwise. (It goes down clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.) I had no running water–well, I had to run with a bucket from either an outdoor spigot shared by a bunch of houses or from the stream at the bottom of the hill I lived on. But it was nice to have a sink anyway.

The sun rose almost precisely at 7 a.m. and set almost precisely at 7 p.m. In fact, 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. also were referred to as one o’clock, because it was the first hour of either daytime or nighttime. Very logical. However, when arranging a time to meet somebody, you always had to be sure you were talking about the same system or you would be six hours off.leaning treeOn the equinox, I excused myself from the class I was teaching to step outside and, indeed, in the blazing sunshine, my shadow was directly under me, almost like no shadow at all. On the solstices, the most the days’ length would change was about 15 minutes.

Sunrise and sunset were abrupt, too. At 6:45 p.m. you could be walking home in blazing sunshine and at 7:10 p.m. you would be in darkness so black you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I remember a trip back to my old home with a colleague. We had gone to see a mission that helped kids with polio. At least that’s what they did in the 1980s. The Polish nuns informed us, oh, my, polio is gone and that now they helped kids born crippled by birth defects (the kids were educated, taught trades and, every year, some Italian doctors would fly in to operate on those who would benefit from it). I tell you, the news made me cry. There IS progress in the world and vaccines DO work.line of treesAnyway, we had to walk 30-45 minutes back to the town, and then another 15 minutes to the hotel, which was at the edge of a private wildlife reserve WITH LIONS. I kept telling my friend to hurry up. She was sweating in the heat and telling me not to worry, that we had plenty of time. Eventually a pickup rumbled by on the dirt track. I wildly waved for it to stop, and they gave us a lift–we were in the back, which was full of sheep. They dropped us off in the town and we set off for the hotel, my friend clucking at me that it was still plenty light and I was panicking about nothing. We were about five minutes from the hotel when the sun set as starkly as a light switching off. We weren’t eaten, and that was the last of her questioning my warnings.

The nice part about early evenings is the excuse to get out candles. We had a few days of cold last week, and the air smelled of wood fires from fireplaces. The leaves are starting to change, though the tomato plants are still producing and we’re supposed to get balmy temperatures in the upper teens Celsius (upper 60s Fahrenheit) this weekend. T-shirt weather clashes with the first Christmas decorations being hung in Carcassonne and Christmas stuff in stores.

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The same stream that flooded a couple of weeks ago.

Do you like the switch from Daylight Saving Time? Are you eager for Christmas?

Back to Black

dyeHave you ever dyed anything to revive or change its color? I’ve done it a couple of times and am mostly pleased with the results.

The first time was last summer. We had gotten out the summer tables and chairs. The seat cushions are nice and thick, with a sturdy cotton cover. But the bright sun had faded their color to a ghost of the original deep blue. Rather than throw away and replace two dozen identical cushions (we often entertain a crowd in the summer), I tried dyeing them.

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Before.
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After. Control on the right: a new top.

It worked like a charm. The only hitch was that I didn’t find enough boxes of dye at one store, and the competing supermarket had the same brand but in a different size. Sigh. So they didn’t all get the same amount of dye. You can tell if you hold them side by side in the sun, otherwise the difference is negligible.

Emboldened by this, I decided to do all my black clothes that were no longer a rich noir. A number of items were in perfectly good shape–no pilling or stains or tears–but they just looked faded. My inner environmentalist cringed at tossing them, yet my inner fashionista felt they weren’t up to snuff.

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Before.
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After. It looks better than the photo would indicate because of the shine. It is hard to photograph black!

I followed the dye directions carefully. They called for washing the clothes on a long cotton cycle with hot water. Some planning is required–I made sure to have a couple of loads of dirty dark clothes to do afterward. It would be risky to run a load of whites after doing a black dye job.

The more clothes you put in a load, the less dye they get. I sorted them by how faded they were, and put the worst cases in the smallest load. I had three loads.

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Before. Bleach stains! Worn while cleaning.
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After. It’s the one on the left; the right is the control.

First you wash the clothes with the dye, then you do the long cycle again, with a little detergent, to take out excess dye. I did all the dye cycles, then all the rinse cycles.

Result: mostly good but not perfect. Everything came out noticeably blacker. A couple of bleach stains became almost imperceptible, but didn’t completely disappear. The cotton pieces were more faded than the synthetics to begin with, but the cotton absorbed the dye better.

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Before.
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After.

An article about throwaway fashion says Americans throw away 80 pounds of clothes per person per year, double the amount 20 years ago.

When our clothes are beyond hope, I cut them up into rags for cleaning. Eventually they will end up in a landfill, but after having had many lives. And they often replace paper towels.

I have to admit I hadn’t shopped for dye before, but I was surprised that when I was looking at the section in the supermarket, there were other shoppers doing the same. What are the chances of that? I guess it’s way more mainstream than I had imagined. After all, the drogueries had their origins in peddling textile dye. And the word for dry cleaner, teinturier, comes from the word teindre, or to dye, which makes me think it’s all part of just taking care of one’s clothes.

Have you dyed clothes? How did it go?

 

Too Little, Too Much

21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 239We have had a taste of the old days lately. No Internet, no telephone, only rarely mobile service. The first day or two the lights kept going out. But at least we had lights, and potable water. And we were above all grateful for what we didn’t have: water and mud in our house.

We have watched news reports of hurricane after hurricane hitting the U.S. What is strange is to have one hit us here, in the south of France, not even near the ocean, though not all that far from the Mediterranean.

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High
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Already lower.
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Same spot before the rain. The “river” went up to a duck’s knees.
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And the river bed was a place to play.

We were spared the worst of the winds. Tropical Storm Leslie marched over Portugal where it was the biggest to hit since 1842. It then very unusually skirted the south side of the Pyrénées over to the big, warm bathtub of the Mediterranean, where it picked up more moisture and veered north and inland. And then it cozied up to the south side of the Black Mountains and stayed put for a whole night, dumping the equivalent of six months of rain in a few hours.

It was clear that the storm was extraordinary. It can rain very hard here, even if not often. In fact, we had been suffering a drought, with a little rain in July, and almost none in August and September. The ground had been like concrete until a week earlier, when we got some rain and everybody was so happy. It’s a good thing it did rain then, softening up the ground, because otherwise the deluge that followed would have run off even harder.

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High.
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Lower.
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More typically, it’s way, way down there.

Even with the shutters closed, we could hear the river rumbling, like a nonstop fleet of trucks speeding by. It shook the house. The wind helped the rain finagle its way up under the roof tiles, so we had drips everywhere. That’s why, when our neighbors called around 5 a.m., we were up—we were placing buckets and plastic boxes and whatever we could find to catch the leaks. 

Our village was devastated by a flood in 1999, along with most of the villages in this region. Our neighbors’ house was nearly carried away by the river. “River” seems an exaggeration for what’s usually a 2-inch-deep trickle that dries up completely in some spots only to reappear a ways downstream. On Sunday night, it was a raging river, stretching far beyond its banks and tearing down everything in its way.

Our neighbors moved their cars to our yard, which is significantly higher, and then got their animals. Anybody who knows me knows that I will cross the street to avoid dogs, even ones fenced in yards or held on leashes. I prefer to have zero contact with any animals—live and let live, I wouldn’t hurt them but I don’t want to touch them or let them touch or sniff or lick me. So it was a big deal that a couple of dogs took up refuge in our glassed-in porch. Plus a cat in a cat carrier. It is proof of how much I love my neighbors.

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Not at all normal.

On Sunday night Monday morning, our neighbors waded through water almost to their knees as the river licked at their yard, trying once again to devour it all. The river was unrecognizable, stretching far beyond anything I had ever seen in 15 years. We arrived after the 1999 disaster, but as long as I have lived here everyone has had stories to tell. Weeks without plumbing or electricity. Everyone being sick of being dirty and cold. Mud everywhere. The army shoveling it out and distributing water. Neighbors helping neighbors.

By dawn, the rain was relenting a bit and our kid woke up, panicked about having missed the school bus, not noticing the highly unusual event of us having breakfast with the neighbors. School was canceled for three days. 

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The water had already receded a lot at this point.

In our village, it was like a snow day. A few very old houses right next to the river had their ground floors flooded, and some cars parked in front of them were smashed up by the current. The river rose so quickly, and during the night, that people who slept soundly (like our kid) had no idea what was happening, and if they did it was too dangerous to go move a car at that point. 

By dawn, the water had already barreled downstream to torment some other villages. The level was still high, the racket deafening, but it was far lower than hours before, and just kept dropping. Villagers came out to survey the damage, to be shocked at where the water went, to compare it to the high water of two years ago and the Big Flood of 1999. Everyone walked in the middle of the main street, because roads in and out were impassable and there was no traffic. We saw everybody, it seemed. I think I got (and gave) a record number of bises for an hour. 

Our kid lamented that it took a disaster to get people out to stroll about and greet each other. As the days went on and the roads remained closed, except for one circuitous and damanged route that quickly became clogged with cars, our doorbell rang regularly with various friends popping by to say hello. “I like when people come by like that,” our kid said.

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There are lots of uprooted trees.

P1100747Our kid has such a tender heart. We had organized a bunch of stuff for a vide grenier, and our kid went through everything, looking for clothes to donate. We loaded up the car and took it all to Trèbes, which was hit hard. 

The drive there was through utter devastation. It was mostly vineyards, so it will rebound. The harvest was over. The winegrowers will trim the vines and pull out the rubbish and replace the uprooted plants. But so much rubbish! Branches and entire trees, but also anything that was sitting in low-lying yards, or even that was put away in garden sheds that got washed way, their contents scattered far and wide. Much of the plain was still a lake of muddy water. It will recover.

Some won’t recover, though. At last count, 14 people died. Not a peaceful way to go. On our way to Trèbes, we saw piles of soggy personal effects, set out at the curb to be hauled away. We saw houses filled waist-deep with mud. The parking lot of the Trèbes arena is a mountain of debris.

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Just two weeks ago, it was completely dry.

The president, Emmanuel Macron, visited Monday. Our kid snorted in disgust at the news, but I said he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. If he comes, he will be criticized for using a tragedy for publicity, for wasting taxpayer money on the trip, which requires helicopters, bodyguards, teams of assistants. On the other hand, if he doesn’t come, he will be criticized for not caring, for not raising the tragedy high enough on the agenda; he also will risk hearing about the state of things filtered by ministers and assistants who perhaps have other priorities and agendas. 

Have you lived through a devastating storm? How long did it take for life to return to normal? 

Single Payer FAQs in France

P1100672I’ve been reading news about “Medicare for all.” For people outside the U.S., it’s a no-brainer. Of course everybody gets health care. Of course the cost isn’t based on how healthy you are. Of course it’s affordable. Of course you choose your doctor.

I can only really tell you about the French system, which, in nearly 15 years of experience, has been excellent.

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Helicopter landing at the hospital. Courage to whoever was inside.

Who qualifies?

All French residents get a Carte Vitale, a green chip card with your French social security number (kids under age 16 are on the card of one of their parents). The card itself doesn’t cost anything. Coverage is obligatory. If you are a tourist, however, you aren’t covered and have to pay out of pocket or get your insurance to pay. But the bill won’t be anything like what you’d confront in the U.S.

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Emergency room waiting area. Efficient. Carcassonne’s hospital is fairly new.

Who pays?

Everybody. The government insurance covers 77% of health expenses. A further 14% is covered by complementary insurance and almost 9% covered by individuals (co-pay, if you like, but not for everything; it’s mostly for glasses and dental work). The government funding comes from employer and employee payroll taxes (50%), income taxes (35%), taxes on tobacco, alcohol, the pharmaceutical industry and voluntary health insurance companies (13%) and state subsidies (2%).

I was talking to someone in the U.S. who was turned off by single payer, saying that he didn’t want to pay in for lazy people who don’t work. Of course, there are some freeloaders in France, but the cost of keeping them healthy is nothing compared to the taxes evaded by the rich using offshore shell companies. They are the real freeloaders. But psychologically, humans pick on those with less status than us and turn a blind eye to those with more.

Also in France, there’s a list of 30 health conditions that are 100% covered–hospitalization, treatment, doctor visits, medication, etc. These include diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, incapacitating stroke, cystic fibrosis, HIV, malignant cancer, etc.  A friend had a kidney transplant–something stressful enough, and at least she didn’t have to worry about the cost.

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Where emergency patients get wheeled in on gurneys for triage. Not fancy.

What is this complementary insurance?

Complementary insurance covers all or most of the fees not covered by the government program. It’s voluntary and paid individually. It’s private mutual insurance, meaning it’s nonprofit. Patients lose if profits win. The average in 2017 was €688 per person annually or about €57.33 a month.

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Patient room. The screens are for TV and Internet; you have to buy time.

How high are the taxes?

Employers pay 13% of salary for health care, maternity, disability and death insurance. Self-employed people making under €43,705 a year pay between 1.5% to 6.5%; over that you pay 6.5%.

In the U.S., the average worker contributions are $1,213 a year for a single person and $5,714 for a family. Worker premiums have gone up about 75% over the last 10 years, vs. about 48% for the employer share. About 80% of workers’ employers pay at least half the premium for both single and family coverage. The average cost of insurance for employers is $6,435, with a $6,000 deductible. (Excuse me, I just fainted at that deductible.)

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Other view of a room. The brown column is a closet.

How does it work?

If you’re sick, you call your doctor. Around here, we sometimes can get in the same day, sometimes not. If it’s urgent, one of the other doctors in the group will take us. We don’t have many emergencies, so we usually make appointments for a week or two in advance for routine checkups. Our long-time doctor moved away, so we shopped around for a new one, trying a few recommended by different friends before settling on someone we liked a lot. The idea of in-network or out-of-network doesn’t exist because there’s just one network. While people are free to shop for a doctor when thinking about switching, the French system does require picking a primary-care doctor to limit abuse, such as how much people can shop for somebody to write them a prescription they might not need.

If you have to go to the hospital, there are no surprise bills from out-of-network doctors you never met or who worked on you when you were unconscious. Some doctors can demand a surcharge, but it’s usually in the tens of euros.

How is it different from the U.S.?

Everything is less fancy. This might be in part because we are in the sticks and not in Paris, but I saw the same thing in Brussels. It’s all nice, but not luxe. One hospital in my hometown had a grand granite entry with a grand piano, carpeting in the halls, sofas and armchairs in the rooms. Here, the hospital is brand-new, heavy on the linoleum, only one hard plastic chair per patient room.

However, granite (or carpeted–EEEWWW) floors don’t make anybody better. All that matters is that the place can be kept clean and that it’s arranged in a functional manner.

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Vintage formica table in one room. Must have come from the old hospital. Or even the hospital before. Waste not.

The doctors’ offices are pretty simple, too. Always nice, but never fancy. One thing that I found unusual was that the office and examining table are in the same room. You go in, sit at the desk across from the doctor, then get undressed (no paper gowns), get examined, get dressed, your Carte Vitale is read, you pay your €25 and leave. No little exam rooms in a line where a nurse charges in for your vitals, then the doctor comes by for two minutes and disappears. I told one doctor about this, and how the little exam rooms would save a lot of the doctor’s time by not waiting for patients to undress/dress, and she was horrified. Especially with the elderly, she said, it’s important to observe how patients move as they’re dressing. She saw the U.S. system as penny-wise, pound-foolish.

French health care is of very high quality despite being lower cost. France has 3.2 doctors per 1,000 people, fewer than some European countries but more than the U.S., which has 2.5 per 1,000.  Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births dropped  to 8 in 2015 from 15 in 1990, whereas in the U.S. they rose to 14 from 12 in the same years. Check out this article about dying mothers. Life expectancy at birth is 82.4 in France, among the highest in the world, compared to 78.6 in the U.S. Infant mortality is 3.7 per 1,000 live births, vs. 5.9 in the U.S.

In addition, a number of preventive campaigns aim to keep costs down by catching problems early, including free mammograms every two years after age 50, as well as free tests for colorectal cancer.

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In the lobby, a piano. Not grand. Nor is the lobby.

Isn’t it weird having the government decide what’s covered?

Well, somebody has to do it, and it’s probably better that it’s decided by society at large rather than by your employer, non? Most people don’t realize that larger companies self-insure–in fact 60% of U.S. workers covered by their employers are literally covered by their employers through self insurance. It’s called captive insurance, and it’s a way of using the risk of employee health costs or death benefits (which would be low risk if you have healthy employees) as a hedge against other corporate risks. The company sets aside a pool of money as its own insurance. It contracts with an actual insurance company to administer claims. The employer can decide what to cover or not, although the Affordable Care Act set some standards on that.

That means employers have an interest in whether you’re healthy. A few years ago, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced to employees that he was cutting employees’ retirement benefits because of self-insurance payouts for two “distressed” babies.

With single payer like in France, employers help pay in, but risks are spread across the entire country. There are no questions about pre-existing conditions, because participation in the system is obligatory.

While there are certainly cases of people abusing the system (I know a couple who would go for a weeklong “cure” for “arthritis” every year at a spa), for the most part nobody gets surgery for the heck of it, nobody has chemotherapy just because they can get it for free. Health care is one of those things you want to not have to need. It shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford it, certainly not in developed countries.P1100679

The Sharing Tightrope

032.Entrance of La CiteI get Banksy. And Elena Ferrante. And Daft Punk. And George Sand.

When I started this blog, I wanted needed to write about my observations of French life, the things I had been chronicling in regular emails to my parents since moving here. I started the blog when they died, like so many long-married couples, within weeks of each other. I never intended to sell anything, and I still don’t, other than our AirBnB apartments in the center of town. Hence, I kept the spotlight on France. I don’t show myself or, especially, my family and friends. They might not mind one story or photo but they might mind another, and it’s a line I don’t want to cross. I want to share the humanity of our lives without destroying their privacy. They aren’t online influencers, nor am I. We’re just quiet people, leading quiet lives. To be an open book on the Internet, it’s best to remain an enigma. Unless one is a Kardashian.

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The château of la Cité (because la Cité is a city with a castle in it). No photos here of Oliver and Lina because I was in the moment with them, enjoying their company and not focusing on getting shots.

That said, I have met in person a number of readers who have passed through our beautiful region. It’s always a delight, because they are so enthusiastic about France. I am amazed at how so many people online are truly wonderful people. No, I must correct that: having traveled around the world and having lived in four countries, I can say unequivocally that the vast majority of people are truly wonderful people. It is not amazing at all that people who read about food, history, antiques and travel would be agreeable. 153.Basilique saint NazaireReaders have shared such funny and heartfelt stories of their own in the comments. They have generously offered advice. And support.

The past week, we have enjoyed the company of Oliver and Lina Gee of the Earful Tower podcast. They are even cuter in person than they sound on the air. I found their podcast from another wonderful blog, French Girl in Seattle. A virtuous circle of francophile references.560.La Cité1We watched them do a live video tour of la Cité, and I was impressed by the amount of research Oliver had done. They are brimming with curiosity and enthusiasm about France. I enjoy it much more than the folks who complain about French quirks, which often aren’t quirks at all. They are either individuals being individual or the storyteller is the one really at fault. When our plumber doesn’t completely tighten something, we see it as a quirk of our plumber (and the Carnivore just goes around tightening everything after the plumber is done) and not of French plumbers. I can’t speak to French red tape, because I haven’t encountered any. My carte de séjour was a breeze, so was the driver’s license, so was enrolling our kid in school. Everyone we have encountered in bureaucracy has been very professional and efficient, except one time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we first bought our house here, we opened a bank account at the post office and set up automatic payments for utilities, etc. We were still living in Belgium at the time. We came back to prepare plans for the renovation (all the contractors were very professional, by the way, no tales of woe to share there), and discovered we had no water. We contacted the water utility and learned it was shut off for lack of payment. We ended up at the post office, where we found out the clerk had a question about something and was afraid to call us long-distance and also claimed he didn’t know our address. If anybody knows addresses it’s the post office. Anyway, the money we had deposited was blocked during this saga, no bills had been paid and the post office (more precisely the clerk who took care of banking in the village post office) hadn’t informed us of anything. We promptly took our money to a different bank (which the post office claimed was impossible, they couldn’t possibly accommodate a withdrawal over €400, but they managed. Again, I don’t consider this a French thing but an inept clerk thing–he undoubtedly wanted to hide his screw-up from his supervisors).Stairs to tower of la citeAnyway, back to Oliver and Lina. I will write about each of them individually (Lina designs her own line of shoes!), but in the meantime, get yourself over to the Earful Tower or to iTunes or Stitcher or Spotify or however you get your podcasts and sign up. They usually are based in Paris, but since they got married this summer (so cute!) they are traveling on a little red scooter (so cute!) in a heart-shaped route around France (so cute!). Carcassonne is the bottom point of the heart, exactly on the line that divides France between east and west.alley in la citeThe Earful Tower is full of stories about French culture, history and language. I love it and usually listen to each episode twice, because they are packed with details.

Picking Wine

P1080475At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of grape harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. spilled-grapesWithin the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.P1080437

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.machine-caunesLots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.grapesLet me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).P1080704If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.P1080705Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.amid-vines-villalierBefore the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left).  Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.hand-picked-1

Tarte au Citron with Blackberries

IMG_6386Late summer brings two wonderful treats: figs and wild blackberries. Both grow in profusion along roadsides and among the brush on the edges of fields and vineyards. One day I realized my hourlong walk had taken almost twice as long because I kept stopping to pick goodies. mures 3P1080453Picking blackberries is a zen task. Despite the thorns, I enjoy it. The berries are like glistening gems, plump with juice. Usually some birds venture near but not too near, enjoying the biggest berries that are high beyond my reach. The air smells sweet from the dried pines all around and is sweetened further by the overripe fruit that has fallen and is returning to earth.mures 7mures 6Even sweeter are the blackberries. They have no tang to them at all, the way raspberries do. Just straight sweetness. Almost too much. That’s why I like to pair them with a nice, tart lemon tart.

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Seen at a vide grenier

mures 1Tarte au citron is one of those classic French bistro offerings and couldn’t be easier to make. Sure, you can put meringue on top, but if you have wild blackberries, the colors contrast as perfectly as the flavors. I think other very sweet, not too drippy fruits would work, too, like blueberries. Maybe even figs, though I haven’t tried that. Be daring. The worst that can happen is that you won’t do that combination again. But I bet you will make tarte au citron again and again.IMG_6409Of course, you can always use a premade pie crust. If you have a choice, most tarte au citron recipes recommend pâte brisée, a shortcrust dough, rather than pâte feuillétée, which is the flaky kind…unless you’re crazy about flaky piecrust, in which case, you should do as you like. Far be it from me to look down on somebody’s crust preferences.

I made a nutty crust that was not too sweet. IMG_63591/2 cup (57 g) chopped nuts (walnuts, pinenuts, almonds–whatever you have. Not peanuts, though)

1 3/4 cup (220 g) flour

12 tablespoons (170 g) of butter, softened but not melted

1/2 cup (57 g) powdered sugar

1 egg

Grind the nuts finely (I used almond powder left over from macarons).

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My pastry board, a gift from a great uncle who was a carpenter, made for me when I was born. Now that is a special baby present. The marble rolling pin also was a gift, from my best friend’s mom. It has traveled.

Beat the butter and powdered sugar until fluffy. Add the egg. When it’s integrated, add the flour, and don’t go crazy about getting it completely mixed in. Then stir in the nuts, just enough that you can gather the dough away from the bowl. Divide it in half. Wrap each half (I flatten them so they are easier to roll out later) in plastic film. One half can go in the freezer for another day. The other one needs to chill for an hour or two.IMG_6378When it’s ready, preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Roll out the dough, set it in a 9 1/2-inch pie pan, and cover it with parchment paper, then with pie weights. Back for 20 minutes, then remove the pie weights and paper and bake for five more minutes so the bottom gets dry and a little brown. Let it cool.

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Before baking. A spoon makes a nice design.

For the custard:

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I forgot to include the cornstarch in the photo.

4 eggs

3/4 cup (170 g) granulated sugar

2-3 lemons

1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream (I was out this time, and as it was a Sunday and nothing was open, I substituted coconut milk, which worked great)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 cups blackberries (about the size of a liter of ice cream, which is the container I used when picking)

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).

IMG_6363Grate the lemons. Then squeeze the juice. You should get about 2/3 cup, maybe a bit shy (about 150 ml).

In a small bowl, add the cornstarch. Then work in the lemon juice, little by little, so the cornstarch dissolves without lumps.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar, then the lemon juice, grated peel and cream. Pour into the piecrust.

Turn the oven down to 325 F (160 C). Bake for about 25 minutes (check before), until the custard has set (shake it a little to see whether it jiggles).

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The divot was a lemon pip that I had missed earlier.

Let it cool a bit, then press the blackberries into the custard. IMG_6392

Piñata Cake

IMG_0289There are different ways to impress guests. You can serve the most refined and perfectly prepared dishes. Or, if you’re entertaining 8-year-olds, you can make a piñata cake. Cake AND candy! Two great tastes that taste great together. A guaranteed hit that will first make jaws drop and then mouths open.

I established a reputation in my little village here in the deepest, most lost depths of France profonde as somebody who made very strange gâteaux, but they were mostly good.

There was the carrot cake, at one of our earliest gatherings. A July 4 cookout, and we invited everybody we knew at the time. I had made a bunch of desserts, including a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, sheet-cake format, decorated with strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag.

I was about to cut it, but a friend said, “Oh, wait, I have to show everybody first!” As she carried it around, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I said carrot, she just about dropped the thing. Her face was the picture of shock. And horror. But, being incredibly gracious, she recovered, and turned the conversation to the frosting. Answering that it was made with cheese didn’t help the situation.

The other desserts got eaten in short order, but the carrot cake sat untouched until finally one guest, who hadn’t paid attention to this exchange, took a piece. The others watched warily, and when his face lit up with pleasure, they all had to try this strange carrot cake with cheese on top. It disappeared in minutes.

Just FYI, these days a very branché (literally “plugged in”–hip) café in Carcassonne serves not only carrot cake but also cheesecake and many kinds of cupcakes. And is always crowded.

However, to my knowledge, at least in these parts, to get hold of a piñata cake, you have to DIY or see me. And I am about to spill my secrets.IMG_0279Now, a piñata made of papier mâche (pronounced pap-ee-ay mash, not paper mashay) is extremely uncommon around here. There is no going to Wal-Mart or Target, where you can get a wide selection of Mexican piñatas made in China. In fact, in deepest France, piñatas were quite unknown, even though Dora l’Exploratrice was a hit in a certain demographic on TV.

I made a piñata for the class, and was very proud of myself. It was the image of a popular cartoon character. I was completely unprepared for the reaction: horror. I had brought a tee-ball bat that a dear American uncle had given my kid, wanting my child to have all the benefits of American heritage, even while living in France. However, this uncle was quite aware that my husband is gifted at hitting balls with his feet or his head but not with his hands and that I am a complete and utter ZERO when it comes to anything round. Just forget it. I can’t throw and I can’t catch. (I can’t run or swim or …. well, you get the picture. Not coach material.)

So the piñata full candy and crayons and erasers (hey, not TOO much sugar!) was suspended from a stately plane tree in the school courtyard, but the kids were utterly horrified at the idea of beating a beloved visage into oblivion.

I should have known better. A few years earlier, I had done a Winnie the Pooh theme for a birthday cake and was very proud of my artistry…until it came time to cut the cake, and the children bawled like mad because I had desecrated Winnie. No, dear reader, if you have to cut it, make it something banal.

Of course, and I really should have seen this coming, with the piñata, it was Lord of the Flies. As soon as one child slugged it, then the others tasted blood and were all in.

Things went somewhat better with the cake. However, I warn you that while the first slice or two is utterly impressive, after that the architecture of the thing falls apart and you have a cake/frosting/candy mess. But by then the little devils are so hyped up they don’t even notice.

IMG_0286Piñata Cake

OK so here we can get into the whole French-vs.-U.S. (or wherever) supermarket supplies. You cannot find confetti cake mix in France. Forget it. In fact, they don’t sell cake mix at all. You can find a mix for flan, for macarons, for fondant (or moelleux–NOT THE SAME) au chocolat, but not for cake/gâteau. That’s because cake mix is a huge rip-off, and the French, being skin-flints in the most admirable way, refuse to buy it. Flour, sugar, leavening, salt…for crying out loud! Plus they have to add a bunch of chemical preservatives (OK, if you’re prudish avert your eyes, because “preservatives” in French means condoms (like for birth control, not like the French town) and the stuff that adds shelf life is called “conservateurs.”) It takes all of one minute to actually measure the dry ingredients, and even with a mix you have to add all the liquid ones.

So back to the recipe. You make a yellow (or white) cake. Chocolate would hide the confetti aspect.

2.5 cups white flour

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

1 cup butter

2 cups granulated sugar

4-5 eggs, separated (4 if big; 5 if not)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup milk

1 cup sprinkles (or more!)

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 C).

Sift the dry ingredients.

Beat the butter until it gets white and fluffy. Add the sugar, then the egg yolks and vanilla.

Beat the whites until they’re stiff.

Mix the butter into the dry ingredients. Stir in about a third of the milk, then another third, and another.

When the batter is well-mixed, carefully integrate the egg whites, stirring in ONE DIRECTION. This is the same advice as for Mousse au Chocolat and Baba au Rhum. Consistency. At the last minute, add the all-important sprinkles.

You need two identical Pyrex bowls, about 6.5 inches (17 cms) in diameter. Butter them and pour in the batter. Bake for about 20 minutes (but check after 15!).

Let it cool. Before you turn out the two halves, scoop out the insides of the cakes. Make sure you have at least 2 inches (5 cms) of cake all the way around, or else it will collapse.

Make the frosting. I just did classic buttercream–equal parts butter and powdered sugar, with a dash of vanilla. Later, I added food coloring.

I used something like M&Ms, which at that time you couldn’t find in France but now they’re everywhere. Nothing too soft or sugary or else it will dissolve with the humidity of the cake. In fact, let the cake get completely cool before assembling. Don’t make more than a day in advance.IMG_0275Put the bottom half of the piñata cake on the serving dish. Then pour the candy into the hollowed-out hole in the bottom half of the cake, carefully creating a talus hill above. Without disturbing the candy, apply some frosting around the flat lip of the bottom half of the cake. Delicately set the top half of the cake on it.

Frost the whole thing. As you can see, I’ve done this more than once. The smooth frosting was much easier than the little stars.

The last bit of advice: Don’t stress about it. Years later, my kid remembers only that I made birthday cakes from scratch (spatula licking was involved), vs. other kids whose parents picked up something random at the supermarket. It really is the thought that counts.

 

Life in a French Village

P1100281Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.P1100276Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.P1100274Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.P1100265

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The beating industrial heart of Trausse….wine, of course.

In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public. P1100270

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Note there are TWO chairs sitting in the street. The better to see you with, my dear.

P1100258There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.

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The Tour de Trencavel dates to the 12th century. It was a watchtower on the periphery of Carcassonne. The Trencavels pretty much ruled the region back then.
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Only in a village like Trausse is this not extraordinary but just normal.
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The church, like the tower, keeps the Christmas lights up all year because it’s nuts to climb up there to put them up, take them down, put them up, take them down.

Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.

People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.P1100242

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Do you see the loudspeaker on the right? That’s for public announcements, like the fishmonger’s truck has arrived, or a vide grenier is scheduled, or so-and-so has died.

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Note the doorbell.

Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!

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Do you see the scowling face in the middle, saying “turn off the tap!”

P1100273Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home. P1100278

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Even the mudscraper is cute. Notice the different materials–stones, concrete, red bricks.
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Faded, but it says “Bike Exit”–often garage doors have “sortie véhicule” to indicate that you’ll be in trouble if you park in front. I found this to be charmingly cheeky.

There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.P1100267