Planned Obsolescence

P1090941Our previous washing machine was more than two decades old when it gave up the ghost. We replaced it with a relatively high-end eco-friendly high-tech Samsung model just over three years ago. Better to pay more for a name brand and to buy the larger, fancier model, which should hold up better over the long run, we reasoned. But the machine is already kaput, just a couple of months after the warranty expired. Planned obsolescence?

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Expensive for something that’s disposable.

We called a technician, who said it was probably the electronic card, which is not fixable. We could buy a new card, but it would cost as much as a new machine. He said the manufacturer coated the card in resin so that repairmen can’t, say, fix a loose connection—you have to replace the entire card. These machines are computers these days, the technician said. You can’t just open them up and fix what’s broken. You have to replace the whole thing.

I am doubly disgusted because it’s the vaunted environmentally friendly model. I call BS.

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This kind of window, tall and skinny, is a meurtrière, or (female) murderer.

Yesterday afternoon, I encountered some protesters waving banners. Mostly I saw the imposing vans of the CRS, the most serious unit of law enforcement, which were parked in front of the préfecture, a preferred spot for those venting their anger at government. The protesters were outnumbered by shoppers (the biannual soldes–sales–just started) and were overwhelmingly older. A sea of gray hair. A few chants, some whistles blown. Mostly a party. Later, the cafés were full of protesters having an early apéro, in high spirits. 

The protests are over a change to the French retirement system. I mentioned before that there are a bunch of special categories that allow people to retire much earlier. President Macron wants to eliminate them. He also wants to make a system of points, because unlike in the past, future workers are likely to change jobs numerous times and points would not only make calculating retirement more uniform across different types of work but also would make it easier to get credit for all time worked.

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Photos are not welcomed by protestors nor by police, so you are getting photos of old stuff–la Cité–since we’re talking about old stuff.

I sympathize with this. I have had 16 jobs at 14 employers (twice I was laid off and then hired back when something opened up; in once case my original job was automated out of existence). I’ve spent the last 15-ish years running my own business; before that I spent 11 years at the same employer. Prior to that, four years at one job. Before that, a couple of years at most at each place, mostly part time, two or three jobs at once. It was a preview of what many workers do today, piecing together a living from a collage of part-time jobs. I’ll get a pension only from the place I worked for 11 years. Sure, I contributed to U.S. Social Security at those other jobs, and that will help, if it still exists when I retire. And I’ll get something for my 15 years of contributions to the French system, though at the moment it stands at a grand total of €2,000….per year. At all those early jobs, either I didn’t qualify for the retirement programs because I was part-time or I didn’t stay long enough to be “vested,” under the pre-401(k) programs.P1090928So the point system would help all those people who similarly are changing jobs or working part-time and not getting credit toward retirement. But all those who had special exemptions would lose them, and no VIP ever wants to give up his right to cut to the front of the line.

There’s another angle, which I’ve only started to hear addressed in the news. The other part of pension reform requires people to work longer. The official age now is 62, with a bunch of exceptions. This age will go up progressively over time, until, for those born in 1965, it will be 64. There are more details, but that’s what the strikes are about and things keep changing, so we’ll not wade into the weeds just yet.P1090921“Âge pivot,” “régle d’or,” “bonus-malus” and points aside, the bigger issue is that it’s all fine and dandy to say that if we live longer we need to work longer…but work where? Just try to find a job after age 45. And it gets worse with age. Job postings for “senior” positions ask for advanced degrees and five to seven years of experience. Senior after five years? It seems to be code for “older workers need not apply.” Especially when nearly all job applications start with an online form. Plenty of older candidates just drop off earlier experience, but if you’ve spent a decade at a job, how do you shorten it to that five-to-seven-year window? Meanwhile, employers can simply filter for only candidates with the correct number of years of experience. That isn’t age discriminiation, is it? Nothing was said about age. It’s just an unbiased algorithm. (I hope you hear the sarcasm dripping here.)P1090747Increasingly, friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic are confiding their worries about whether they’ll be able to stay employed until they can reach retirement age. I certainly know many, many talented, hard-working people who have been laid off in recent years, in their mid-50s. These are mostly in the U.S., and the U.S. comes up often in conversations with French friends as the nightmare scenario—the older people working in Amazon warehouses because they don’t have a pension and can’t get a job anywhere else. Or the greeters at Wal-Mart. 

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That says 1673. Retirement was not an issue then.

Now there’s more talk about how to keep French workers trained or retrained, even after age 50. Clearly there will have to be a mind shift. Older workers might not be on top of the latest technology because after you’ve switched and upgraded and switched and upgraded, at a certain point you just want the damn stuff to work and not require new ways to get to the same old stuff. Older people are slower, younger ones complain, and studies show that may be the case, but they tend to have better strategies that allow them to outperform their faster and younger co-workers. Overall, productivity and reliability are more consistent in older workers.P1090912Separately, I almost literally ran into a lady yesterday while I was out jogging. She informed me she is 89 years old (immediately–it was “Bonjour! I’m 89!”). Just adorable. Tiny. Walking nice and straight. We chatted a while and I told her she was my role model–being healthy and active for a whole life. My 30-day challenge is going along bumpily. I still haven’t dared a cartwheel, and I meditated but once, but otherwise I am more or less sticking with it. Some days are better than others. I never manage to do all the things. Not yet anyway. BTW, two people gave me very similar advice about meditation: just lie still and breathe. Let the mind shut down. It will get easier over time. My first (and best) yoga teacher used to have us do this, in the “corpse” position, without all the New Age blah blah. Just quiet. It was very soothing and afterward I felt at first disoriented, being so incredibly relaxed, but then reinvigorated.

Please do share your thoughts about planned obsolescence of appliances and humans, as well as your stories about progress on your own New Year’s resolutions.P1090744

New Year, New Life

IMG_5464We are going to do all the challenges. New Year is the moment for resolutions, but we’re taking a shorter horizon, hoping it’s long enough to establish good habits and break bad ones, and thus become resolutions. A 30-day challenge of all the things.

While doing Pilates with some friends this week, one asked the group, “what decision did you make for 2020?” I liked that framing. Somehow, by overuse, “resolution” has come to mean “good intention” rather than “firm decision.” I am in control of my life, and I am deciding to do a few things differently.

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Sautéed leeks, with white beans and a splash of white wine. My Christmas meal, served with…
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Squash and mushroom risotto. And steamed broccoli. Colorful, nutritious, delicious. We are well into a plant-based diet.

My BFF and I decided to make a list together of all the challenges we wanted to accomplish. You’ll note that they are to-do’s rather than don’ts, except for snacking. Doing the challenge together gives us some accountability. Plus, this post is a public declaration–more accountability! Here’s the list:

  • 10,000 steps a day minimum (according to my FitBit, my daily average is around 8,000)

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    Less coffee, no sweets.
  • Eliminate added sugar (already we both mostly cook all meals from scratch, but we both have a sweet tooth and tend to crack for desserts and chocolate. Also: no wine, which is basically sugar.)
  • Intermittent fasting, which is basically to say eat dinner earlier and no snacking after. 
  • No snacking (this is hard for me, working from home and tending to graze all day).
  • Wake up 30 minutes earlier.
  • Use that bonus morning time to journal (my friend) or exercise. For most of my life, I worked out as soon as I got up. I had a routine, with situps, weights for my arms, stationary bike while reading the newspaper (it took around 45 minutes, with 30 on the bike). I even did it while pregnant, up to a week before giving birth to my kid. Yet I let it drop when my kid started taking the bus to school and got up super early. Plus the stationary bike broke. And I got an iPad and started reading the paper while curled up on the sofa. A snowball of lethargy.

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    Goals.
  • Daily stretching. Another thing I used to do that fell by the wayside. My friend is into dance, and so stretching is important for her.
  • Abs and strength training. Thanks to Pilates, my BFF and I have abs of steel, but mine are under a Michelin Man layer of insulation, AKA fat. I want to get rid of it and also improve strength. In the days when I worked out, my exercises with weights were intended to give me arms strong enough to pick up heavy things without ruining my back. Time to work on that again. 
  • Write every day. My friend wants to journal; I want to write a book.
  • Meditate. This makes both my friend and me uncomfortable. We are not much for spiritual stuff, and neither of us is religious. One reason I prefer Pilates over yoga is I don’t like the meditation part of yoga. But every evidence shows it’s good for us. Must find a way to do it. I actually took a meditation class many moons ago (“find beauty and harmony in your life”). It didn’t stick. Will try again. Just 10 minutes.
  • Run every other day. My friend and I hope to do a 10K this year.

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    My beautiful, car-free jogging trail.
  • Read books every day. Another thing I did faithfully for years was read books before bed. Then I got an iPad and switched to reading news before bed, as if I hadn’t been reading news all day long. There’s always something else to be informed about, even though it’s usually incremental. And then I worry about the dismal future of the world all night.
  • Improve sleep. During the holidays, I’ve been sleeping too much and I spend too much time in bed. This is as bad as not enough sleep. More exercise should help. No wine should help (high glycemic foods before bed can perturb sleep). Eating earlier should help. Reading before bed should help. And I plan to be stricter about bedtime and wakeup time.

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    My to-read list. I just finished the top one, Celestial Bodies. Very interesting and sad. Not shown, but on order from the library (more library books!): Chanson Douce by Leïla Slimani, which I will read in the original French. I tend to be too lazy to read in French and I like to devour books (I read Celestial Bodies in three sittings), so having to slow down for French is frustrating. This must improve!
  • Drink more water (but not right before bed; see sleep). Some years ago, I quit drinking soda, so now I consume coffee (too much), wine and water. But probably not enough water during the day. 6-8 glasses, for sure.
  • Do a cartwheel. I was proud that at age 50 I could do a cartwheel. But now, somehow, my legs don’t quite get up there. Is it the legs? Weak arms? Weak back? Whatever, I want to do it again before I turn 60. My friend, who is younger, wants to do a handstand and walkover. I once could do those, too, but a walkover is decidedly out of the question.

The cartwheel aside (that will take more than a month), the list consists of things to do on a daily basis, starting now. We are going to try to stick to this list for a month. Usually with these 30-day challenges, people pick one thing to focus on. But so many of these are interrelated. Better diet will help sleep, as will exercise. Getting up early will help exercise and/or writing. Etc. It seems that one way to stick to the goals is to aim for all of them so they reinforce each other.Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 10.19.06 AMMy friend follows a YouTuber who does challenges and who crosses off the days of a calendar each time he accomplishes his goal. One blank day isn’t a failure, not even a couple of blanks in a week, but he vows not to have two consecutive blank days. That sounds reasonable. I know a couple of people who vow to diet or quit smoking and as soon as they crack, they give up on the effort entirely. Perfection or nothing. Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m not about perfection. I agree with the adage, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” I’m all about “better” not necessarily “perfect.”

I’ll give you updates about how it’s going and in a month we’ll assess the results.

What are your decisions for 2020? Do you have a bucket list instead? Tips for succeeding at any of these?

Wishing all of you the very best for 2020, surtout la santé!

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À votre santé! Adieu to wine, at least for a month. And this is such a good one. Sniff!

 

Dreaming of a White Christmas

IMG_0232It’s a dark, gray day. It looks as if it could snow, but that’s out of the question. The temperature is 12 C (53 F). This is considerably cooler than a couple of days ago. Crazy. The plain between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées is a patchwork of plowed brown fields or sculptural bare vineyards, mixed with a vivid emerald of all the things happy for the season’s rain so they can grow. (Actually, in the time it took me to write this, the clouds dissipated and the sun is shining brightly.)IMG_4379

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The snow-capped Pyrénées. The stripe of silver-leafed trees in the center of the photo is an olive grove.

IMG_4370IMG_4376The mood in town feels upbeat. Stores are bustling. The sidewalks are packed with people out shopping or going to the Christmas markets, which emphasize food and drink for adults and rides for children. I haven’t looked up close at the skating rink, entoured with Christmas trees flocked with fake snow. I remember one time that I accompanied my kid’s class, despite not knowing how to skate myself, and a big part of the rink was slush because it was so warm and sunny.IMG_0311IMG_0305IMG_0304The rocade, or ring road around town, is backed up with traffic going to the centres commerciaux, or shopping malls. Last year, the Gilets Jaunes went after shops, both in town centers and at malls. This year, the strikers are focused on government buildings and public transportation, and shoppers are more or less left in peace. It certainly has been years–since 2008–since I’ve seen so much activity.IMG_0231It’s invigorating, but I also like to step away to the relative calm of la Cité. It can be packed in summer, but at this time of year, it’s quiet and haunting. Like having my own personal fortress. IMG_0319IMG_0320IMG_0229IMG_0321My kid is disappointed with the mildness of winter here, longing for a good snow. I remember our family’s big old station wagon, and all four of us kids would be in the back seat, huddling together under an old blanket (the “car blanket”) and waiting for the heat blasting the windshield to finally reach us. The windows would resemble submarine portholes, small rounds scratched into the ice that had encased the vehicle in the time it took us to pay our weekly visit to grandma. la cite winter from audeI don’t know whether my kid’s longing is for snow, or for having siblings to snuggle with in a cold car, or for having grandmas to visit weekly if not more. Even though I did what I could to create an ideal childhood for my kid, some things just aren’t possible to provide.IMG_0308I also feel some twinges of jealousy. There’s a particularly beautiful shop in Carcassonne, la Ferme, which sells all kinds of good things to eat and drink as well as cooking and dining gear. It’s a step back in time, packed to the gills, and I want every single thing in there. I eavesdropped on shoppers, debating whether to get this or that for grandpa, for auntie. There are many great things about being an expat, but being far from extended family is the hardest.IMG_0313How about you? Are you shopping? Done? What are your Christmas plans? I so enjoy reading your comments. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you in real life, and every single time my biggest disappointment is that you live too far away to get together–to a person, everyone has felt immediately like a long-time friend. I treasure that. Thank you.

 

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!”?