Connections, by Invitation Only

IMG_4957 copyStarting a new life in a new place is fraught, but doing it in a different language and culture adds a layer of complexity.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe expat bibliography is stuffed with tales of misunderstandings and scams suffered by poor newbies ignorant of the wily ways of the French contractor and the Kafkaesque requirements of the French bureaucracy.

We experienced none of that. Everybody was very professional. But at the beginning, with the Carnivore gone at work all day and me at home with a new baby, no car, no job and no friends, the transition was shockingly hard. Happily, very quickly, many people reached out, making connections with us and connecting us with the community, much to our surprise and delight.

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Why so many rainbows? Even when it rains, there’s sun.

One of the first was our neighbor’s father, who did not quite approve of foreigners next door. However, he gave us the name of a trustworthy local, J-C, who would keep tabs on the place when we were gone.

When we moved in for good, J-C was our guide. He told us where to find a doctor. Which led to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist looked at my address, said she lived in the same village, and that I should check out the gym classes at the community center.

The gym classes became my go-to for all kinds of information. The relative advantages of the various supermarkets in town. How to sign up a kid for preschool. Where to take baby-swimming lessons. What all those French acronyms mean. Any time I needed to know something, I would ask at gym class. I exercised my vocabulary as well as my muscles during the Wednesday night sessions. (For the most accurate weather report, eavesdrop on the line at the bakery.)P1070029The park was another touchstone. It must have been a magical time, because now when I run around the park, I no longer see mothers with little ones on the manicured lawn. I was lucky to have a nice clique of three other mothers as insistent as I was that kids need to go outside unless it’s pouring rain. They had kids the same age as mine, and our four were sometimes joined by various others who were more relaxed about the park-television ratio. Even on wintry days, we would go, huddling against the wind as the well-bundled little ones (emmitoufler is the adorable French word that means “to wrap up in warm clothes”) intently picked up rocks or leaves or chestnuts from one place and dropped them someplace else, while similarly well-bundled little old ladies perched like delicate brown birds on a bench against a sheltered, sun-warmed south wall, watching the spectacle. Who needs cat videos when you have live toddler performances?P1060482When I had surgery on my foot and was laid up for a month, these mothers came by every day to visit me. Every day. They also did the school runs, while another handled swim lessons.

That is when I knew it. I was loved. The roots were sinking in.

Have you ever planted seedlings from a nursery and then later pulled them out, the roots still in a tight ball? Meanwhile, other plants are nearly impossible to get out, having sent their roots wide and deep. 21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 432A difference with humans, though, is that we can have roots in many places at once. Mine are now spread across countries and continents.

I don’t like to think of having lost touch with old friends; there’s no repudiation of the time spent with them, and it’s only normal that we all devote most of our energies to those in our presence. Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, yet that’s sometimes on a superficial level of headlines about what’s eating up our time. 278.RainbowsOn the other hand, I regaled my mom with her faraway grandchild’s antics via email, and she would write back as soon as she read it several time zones later. My mom even babysat from almost 5,000 miles away. She and the kid would get on Skype, and talk. They would draw pictures and hold them up to the camera to show each other. I would be shooed away during these sessions, with a curt, “We are TALKING!” And talk they did. I couldn’t always hear the exact words, but they came in a steady stream, punctuated by plenty of laughter.

My dad preferred snail mail. I would get a thick envelope from time to time, every bit of every page filled with his distinctive writing, which got shakier and shakier. The topics were stream of conscious—certainly his mind worked faster than his hand, and by the time he had scratched out a sentence, he was already paragraphs beyond. He always signed off with “I love you and always will.” Always.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen my siblings or old friends, on the rare times when the stars align so we can get on the phone despite the transatlantic scheduling challenges, we pick up as if we’d last seen each other just a few days ago. The details don’t matter. I love them deeply, fiercely, and that’s all that it takes to keep the connection.IMG_3627 2This post is part of the group “By Invitation Only,” which this month is discussing connections. For other points of view, please visit Daily Plate of Crazy, where you can find not only D.A. Wolf’s sensory take but also links to other By Invitation Only participants. And tell me about the connections that are important to you.

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Night Owl

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When the time changes in autumn, the shift to earlier darkness always casts familiar landscapes into unfamiliar shadows. On the one hand, it feels suddenly subdued–no kids out playing. On the other hand, it feels unusually busy–what are all these people doing out so late? Even though it isn’t late at all.

As the emboldened night envelopes us, lights come on, making the outside seem even darker. Peeks of glowing interiors, through windows not yet curtained or shuttered, reveal tableaus of dinner tables set, cooks toiling, televisions strobing colors across living rooms. The homes look intimate and cozy, even those of the elderly residents who favor fluorescent lighting in their kitchens. Dinner smells dance through the streets. Colder nights demand dishes cooked long and slow. Comfort food. Soups, not salads.

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We light these candles most evenings in winter. We also have candlelit dinners nearly every night. Little rituals to mark the seasons.

Carcassonne attracts visitors all year because the weather is mild even in winter. But the streets definitely are much quieter off season. It’s like looking at someone you know when they are lost in thought. Their features are familiar, but you cannot reach the churnings inside. They can seem like a different person than the one you know from conversations.

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Place de Lattre de Tassigny, around the corner from our apartments. Like an outdoor living room.

Place Carnot, the central square, is like an old, chatty friend, and usually I visit on Saturday mornings for the market, when it’s in its bubbliest mood. I have rarely missed a Saturday market. Even when it’s pouring rain, I’ll go for the excuse of wearing my multicolored polka-dot rubber boots and getting out my multicolored striped umbrella (for someone who wears black most of the time, so much color is exceptional). The square bustles with people at a very civilized level all day, every day, and it turns into an outright party on Saturday mornings. A civilized garden party, not a frat party, with lots of kissing on both cheeks and café crèmes that segue into chardonnays. But as with any good party, more people attend than there are seats available, and even the stateliest Carcassonnais will dive for a table that frees up.36.Carca by night6So to be at Place Carnot very late, or very early, feels almost like intruding. The café tables and chairs are stacked and wrapped in tarps. There isn’t a sound but my own footsteps. The square is mine alone.33.Carca by night3It makes me think of other hushed moments. Snow does that. It slows everything down and muffles all sounds. Boots crunch on the snow, making that satisfying chewing sound. But cars get quiet, as if they’re driving over woolen blankets. There was something so cozy about being in the family station wagon, under a blanket in the back seat with my siblings. Warm but cold. The air so chill it made one’s nostrils pucker and cheeks prickle. But under the blanket, cocooned in a coat over sweaters over shirts over thermals, hands making fists to keep poor thumbs warm inside mittens inside pockets, we were toasty enough to fall asleep before traveling many blocks. I wonder whether my parents knew how safe and happy they made our childhood. P1090058For some reason this makes me think of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song:

You, who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so, become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye

Teach your children well
Their father’s hell did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

And you (Can you hear?) of tender years (And do you care?)
Can’t know the fears (And can you see?) that your elders grew by (We must be free)
And so, please help (To teach your children) them with your youth (What you believe in)
They seek the truth (Make a world) before they can die (That we can live in)

Teach your parents well
Their children’s hell will slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you will cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

For my mom, whom I miss every day.IMG_1486

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A magical, shining castle competing with the stars.

‘Appy ‘Alloween

P1090042Halloween–or as they say, ‘Alloween–has taken off in France. (I get teased about my accent, so turnabout is fair play.) The supermarkets have stands dedicated to candy, makeup and decorations.

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Typical.

The village holds a costume contest, and a high proportion of the residents participate in handing out treats, which are almost always not individually wrapped!!! I freaked out the first time, but I soon knew almost everybody. In fact, our kid chose a big container of not individually wrapped candies (licorice and fake fruit flavors) for us to distribute. I wanted to get mini Snickers, figuring that if there were leftovers, they might as well be something good. But my kid informed me that on Halloween, kids want candy, and chocolate isn’t candy, it’s chocolate and is for Christmas. Somehow it seems very French to elevate chocolate above mere candy status.

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A perfect haunted house, in a deep, dark forest, too. (It was for sale. Probably still is.)
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Lots of potential, but surely this is a place where things go bump in the night.

The French haven’t yet adopted yards full of inflatables, probably because front yards aren’t a thing here. Either you have a townhouse whose front door opens right onto the sidewalk or you have a “villa” (which includes quite modest free-standing houses) with a garden behind the privacy of a wall or at least a fence. None of those golf-course-like lawns stretching unimpeded between house and curb, unused except for holiday decorations.

In France, Halloween costumes are strictly scary. Save your astronaut and princess outfits for Carnivale on Mardi Gras. Our village is so small that it doesn’t take long for the kids to circulate in large groups. They bang on everybody’s doors, lights on or not. One time, before a house that was shuttered up tight, one of the parents hollered “Papi!” (Grandpa!) and a little old guy opened up and released a sweet into each proffered bag. The whole porch light signal doesn’t work the same way without porches.

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Scary grave straight from central casting. Not decoration!

After pillaging the village of sugar, the ghoulish kiddies traipse through the community center to have their loot weighed and costumes judged. Our kid won the costume contest one year (headless–it really turned heads), then raised the ante the next year with a zippered face, which was even more horrifying. We waited for the costume winners to be announced, but nothing happened. Then we realized the other kids had left. The lights got turned down, the music got turned up, and we were confronted with the horror of the village’s singles population, and soon-to-be singles population (I recognized a few too many married parents of the kid’s schoolmates, not with their spouses), checking each other out, and not for best costume. Most were already tipsy and you could see that Nov. 1 was going to be a day of regrets for more than a few of them. The kid was crushed the zipper face hadn’t won, but somewhat consoled that it appeared there were no prizes at all that year.

Since the kid got too old to trick-or-treat and is too young for the singles-and-swingers dance, Halloween means a trip to the haunted house, followed by a small party at home with scary movies. The haunted house operates year-round in la Cité of Carcassonne, run by the same people who have the “museum” of torture.Remparts à la Cité de CarcassonneLa Cité is definitely a good set for a scary movie. Gargoyles aplenty. Stern stone walls. Today promises to be bright and sunny, with not a cloud in the bluest sky, but when gray clouds hover low and the wind howls, you can imagine it as a haunt for ghosts.IMG_2149IMG_2148IMG_2139IMG_2118IMG_1918While the gang goes through the haunted house, I plan to visit the cemetery just outside the walls. I have gone to cemeteries in a number of towns in France, and something about them is so interesting. Again, no vast expanses of green lawns. They are real cities of the dead, with incredible chapels and tombs, a few engraved words conveying stories of the residents’ lives.

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Priez pour lui–pray for him.
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Spanish surnames…reminders of refugees from past war.

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Born March 21, 1799. That just amazes me.
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Only the ceramic flowers remain. Is the family gone, or did they move?

P1090040Our village cemetery draws a parade of people every day. Mostly they’re the little old ladies wobbling along to tend loved ones’ graves and say prayers. For the past two weeks, though, the cemetery has been a hive of activity, with cars parked along the perimeter as families tidy up and bring in big pots of flowers ahead of the real holiday, Nov. 1, All Saints Day–Toussaint. Chrysanthemums are the favorite, to the extent that putting them in your garden is just not done. I got a gentle reprimand when I put a pot of mums by our front door. Too bad–they’re such pretty flowers.P1090052In Paris, the Père Lachaise cemetery draws visitors because of the famous people (Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison) buried there. I went there on a Christmas Day years ago–it was one of the few things open on Christmas. And there were lots of people! The delightful podcast The Earful Tower had a segment about Jim Morrison’s grave. Another interesting one is the Montmartre cemetery. But even small cemeteries in small places are fascinating. They’re really proof that they are more for the living than for the dead.

And below, some random bits:

Re: Friday’s post about hunters and boars: here are some prints I came upon in a vineyard:

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Deep! An indication of the weight of wild pigs.

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Tomatoes are still going strong in some gardens (photo taken two days ago): P1090006

And this was such a pretty scene, with the white horse and colorful vineyards:P1080995

Heigh Ho, the Derry-oh

P1050776Gunshots cracked the Saturday predawn silence. It happened again on Sunday. I heard more that evening, as we ate on the terrace, our cone of lamplight surrounded by still-balmy darkness.

The hunting season began Sept. 10 in the forests, but not until Oct. 8 in the vineyards because the grape harvest was still under way.

With still-warm nights, we sleep with a window open, and so many sounds come in along with the sweet autumn air.

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Beware Traps Danger. Hunting reserve.

Crickets. Where were they in the summer? Maybe it was too hot and dry. Now they chirp loudly in the first hours of darkness. When we first moved here, the nearby river was full of frogs that screamed all night. They didn’t croak; they shrieked like little girls in a haunted house. It was a somewhat stressful addition to the natural soundtrack, but now that the frogs are gone I miss them. Too hot? Too dry? Too polluted? No idea why they disappeared.

 

During the night, there are some birds that break out in exquisite arias. Soloists. Other birds blast a sharp warning during their nightly hunts; being a city person, I don’t know bird calls, but they don’t sound like the “who-who” of owls, which we also hear from time to time. The roosters I recognize, at least.

At around 5 a.m. every morning, a scooter sputters toward the village. In my mind’s eye, I follow its route up and down the hills, getting louder, crossing a bridge, rolling through the stop to turn onto a main road and head into town. The minimum age for driving is 18, but one can drive a scooter from age 14. It seems so dangerous—scooters have small engines and barely make it up steep hills, which is also where cars can’t pass safely. The way this one coughs, it’s just as well it isn’t making the journey during rush hour. The driver must be some teenage apprentice heading to a very early shift…at a bakery, maybe? I send out kind thoughts for a safe trip and a good day.

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A camionette. Not the rickety one full of dogs, but you get the picture.

Even earlier, well before the first inkling of morning, a rickety old camionette—a kind of enclosed pickup favored by vignerons—rattles by with what sounds like a pack of dogs barking in the back. I used to think it was an old guy in the village who had an old camionette and about a dozen beagles. But some years ago the beagles disappeared and the house has been closed up tight, its garden overgrown, so I fear the old man died. I don’t believe in ghosts and the rickety camionette with barking dogs is quite real, so clearly it’s somebody else, most likely off for a morning hunt.

A few days ago, I climbed one of the dry rock retaining walls along my walking route in order to get a better vantage point to take a picture of a vineyard whose leaves were a brilliant orange. As I went up, I realized I would have to find a different way down. So I walked along through the wild brush, looking for a better way down. It was easy—there were clear paths crisscrossing all over, with the tall grass matted down flat. Then I got a look at a bare spot and realized the paths had been made by sangliers—boars. The prints sank deeply into the soft ground. How was the ground there soft, anyway? Our garden is dry and hard from so many days of sunshine. Maybe all the vegetation held in the moisture from the last rain.

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Was it worth the climb? Not quite high enough, methinks.

I wondered about the boars piecing together a life in the scattered morsels of brush and stretches of garrigue between the vineyards. Houses gobble up more and more land, hopscotching farther out, like an infestation of fungus or weeds or a dread skin condition. Trees and brush are torn out, vineyards ripped up, replaced by either lotissements of identical sorry cottages or hideous Mediterranean mcmansions (post on abominable French architecture coming up). When the ancient villages were created, everybody lived close together, within fortified walls, for safety. Crime was rampant back then, with marauding gangs on the few roads. Now crime is rare, and the dangers of walking in the countryside in the dark are limited to getting hit by a car or coming nose to nose with a wild pig.

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An abandoned vineyard, with food for wild pigs.

The French also have a hunting song for children. Here’s a charmingly simple video of it, because the hand motions are key. The lyrics:

In his house, a big deer

Looked out the window

A rabbit came to him

And knocked on the door.

“Deer, deer open up for me

Or the hunter will kill me!”

“Rabbit, rabbit, come in and come

Shake my hand.”

 

Sign of Something

P1050358Living in another country, in another language, makes one stop sometimes to consider things locals just take for granted. Weird, funny, pretty or poetic. Signs are a favorite.P1080464 2

Take, for example, a sign warning that of a submersible bridge. Between us, what is the point of a bridge that goes under water? Also, I just love all the exclamation point signs. They’re a cross between OMG and WTF. The road equivalent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”IMG_4601

On Tuesdays, we get a thick stack of ads from the supermarkets and elsewhere in the mailbox. Plenty of folks would rather not get this stuff, and, like New Yorkers who put “no menus” stickers, the French put “pas de pub”–no ads–stickers on their mailboxes. This one says, “no ads, have pity!” Again, I picture “The Scream.”P1070723

“Access reserved except those having the right.” Well, DUH. That is a sure-fire way to make me want to go check it out.633.Acces parking pietons

“Access parking pedestrians” or, in French you could read it as “access to pedestrian parking,” because adjectives (here, piétons would be serving as one) follow nouns (parking, because they say parking and not parking lot). It conjures up an image of a bunch of pedestrians, their walking shoes laced up, pacing in individual parking spaces.

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This one has been up for at least a decade on a road into Carcassonne. “Warning: hen nests forming,” which is a way to say potholes are developing. However, several months ago, the city repaved this stretch so it’s now as smooth as a baby’s bottom, starting from this sign on into town. The sign remains, because, I guess, new potholes will be developing as soon as the fresh asphalt went down. Or else there are chickens lurking around that I haven’t spotted.

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I have featured this one before, on my post about driving in France. But it still makes me laugh every time I drive past and still makes me think of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure.” I only just realized Tim Burton directed that movie. No wonder it’s so great. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 51

As if anybody would miss a village up here on the top of the mountain. Unless you blink. And the village, Labastide-Esparbairenque, only has a center. It has more letters in its name than inhabitants in its village. Just kidding. The population is 83. Its name is a synonym for Timbuktu for Carcassonnais who want to say a place is at the end of the earth.IMG_4629

“No two-wheelers (bikes, scooters, motorcycles) allowed. No dogs allowed. No fires allowed.” And someone added “No idiots allowed. Forbidden to be a pig.”P1030175

This one is in a similar spirit (no stupidity allowed), but more polite. A boulodrôme is the place to play boules or pétanque. “Reserved for pétanque players holding a national license. The company and the municipality refuse any responsibility for all accidents provoked by unlicensed players. Spectators are asked to not cross the games. Thank you for your civility.” IMG_3169

Somehow it makes sense that the wine cooperative is on Avenue of the Bunch of Grapes. But the cemetery? BTW, if you see wine from Siran, buy it; it’s good.

Now a couple that deserve the exclamation point sign.P1030246

“Warning. Drivers beware. In case of a storm, you are asked to urgently evacuate your vehicle. The commune (the town) cannot in any case take responsibility.” It’s at a parking lot in Banyuls, on the coast. Makes sense–if the area risks flooding, it can’t be built on. And if the weather is nasty, people aren’t likely to go to the beach, so the extra parking probably wouldn’t be needed.P1050147

“Danger Bulls.” Running loose in the streets before the féria of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.P1070069

We’ll end with some pretty ones. I love the old road signs.IMG_4462P1080819

Wouldn’t you want to live on Little Fountain Street?IMG_4388

A blast from the past: public baths and showers, in Bize-Minervois. Until the 1970s, some houses in the ancient village centers didn’t have plumbing. Residents had to go to a bathhouse, which may have operated only once a week (to economize on keeping water and the building itself warm). P1020922

One of the faux road signs sold at tourist shops. Apéritif Place. With pictures of a glass of jaune (pastis), peanuts, olives and a glass of p’tit ponch–a little punch–rum with lime.

À votre santé!

Mood Swings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAutumn can be such an endearing time of year. Outdoor activities no longer soak a person in sweat just at the thought. Chilly nights with cuddling under blankets. The return to routine early-to-bed-early-to-rise after summer’s excesses. The smells of earth and leaves and the first fires lit in fireplaces. P1080925The colors changing on the trees, across the vineyards. Short-term art, as if Christo teamed with Rothko for a grand-scale work of intense color.P1080905The leaves here turn color, especially on the grape vines, which can take on riotous shades of red and orange and gold. Mostly in unison, by varietal, except for the stray syrah that wandered into a crowd of cabernet.P1080915P1080918The trees’ leaves also change color before falling. But many of the hills are covered with pines that stay green. They aren’t the Christmas tree shapes but pins parasols–umbrella pines–that have branchless trunks giving way to rounded, clumpy tops that look like the clouds drawn by kindergartners. The spiky broom plants stay green, and laurel keeps its leaves. With rain, the grass grows back. Winter is a relatively green season here.stream in autumnP1080920Sometimes the stars are shining brightly when I wake, but by the time the Kid gets out the door a gray film has descended, thickening by the minute.

Minutes later, a text from a teen on a bus: “Go look outside. It’s magic.”IMG_4974IMG_4979IMG_4977Fog turns the Kodachrome-colored fall into a shades-of-gray enigma. I venture out. It’s so thick I can barely see my hand before my face. The familiar road is suddenly mysterious. It could go anywhere like this, to places unknown. I almost hesitate to even keep walking, as if I might end up in a parallel world and be unable to get home.IMG_4982As the sun begins to rise, the fog, too, starts to lift.IMG_4973Not uniformly, but leaving behind remnants. Clouds on the ground, here and there.IMG_5015IMG_5017IMG_5005IMG_5001IMG_4989IMG_4993When the sun climbs triumphant above the hills, the colors return to their saturated selves. IMG_5011A metaphor for my autumn moods. P1080899Longing/loving. Inside/outside. Retrospective/energized. Thinking a lot about loved ones who died, but busy on behalf of those living. Bittersweet.

It kind of reminds me of the Carl Sandburg poem, “Arithmetic.” Yes, my favorite poem is about math.

Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and
   you can look out of the window and see the blue sky — or the
   answer is wrong and you have to start all over and try again
   and see how it comes out this time.P1080933Except the autumn funk isn’t so much about not getting the answer right as about wishing the goods things–the good people–could last forever. This time is good. Let’s just stay like this forever.

Doesn’t work that way. The leaves will fall from the branches. New ones will replace them later.P1080935My cousin asked whether the leaves change color here. I meant to answer, and then never got around to it. Because I didn’t want to just say “yes, they do.” Here it is, with my apologies for being late.P1000667

 

 

 

 

Danger in Any Language

IMG_4446If you do something stupid, it’s your problem. The French are big on personal responsibility when it comes to safety.

I was walking along a path around a nearby manmade lake, Lac de la Cavayère. A lovely place, set amid rugged hills of pine forest, with beaches and water sports clustered at one end so the other end remains quiet and wild. And I came across the sign below. Careful: Hold children by the hand.IMG_4444In order to get all the way around, the path had to traverse the dam that created the lake. It was plenty wide—about five feet—with as much grass sloping off on either side. It looked as if the lake side was filled in so if one fell, it was into shallow water, at least at first. But on the other side, there was an almost sheer drop to the valley below. No rails. Just a sign.

This is typical. In France, there exist things that are dangerous, and they either are so obvious that you should just act appropriately, or, in the rare cases of nanny state rearing its head, are noted with signs. In the U.S., the least danger would have to be remedied lest somebody do what they clearly shouldn’t and sue anyway. In France, danger is accepted as a natural part of the world, and it’s on you to deal with it.P1060263In the U.S., for example, I was surprised to see seat belts in grocery shopping carts and on horses of a carousel. No such thing in France. In fact, parents are asked to keep off the carousel, except to hold very small kids. If your kids can climb onto the horses, they can ride around the carousel on their own.

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Three of the four castles at Lastours. Note the electrical wire strung across the hills in the lower left.

The hike to Lastours, a spectacular group of four medieval Cathar châteaux, is on a rugged footpath that winds around a mountain. There are a couple of spots with railings, mostly in wider places where people are apt to stop for a photo and where they can pass each other. Rocks poke out of the ground and pose tripping hazards. A fall could send a person tumbling quite far through the brush.

Watch your step.

The castles are lit at night for a sound and light show. It isn’t easy to wire lighting on a rocky mountain. The wiring, in fact, just snakes up, crossing the path here and there. Code? What code?

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Never mind the ponies; everybody is watching the people dangling from the trees.

We went to a gastronomic fair recently. Tastings of artisanal foods and wine. Boring for kids. So there were pony rides for the little ones and zip lines through the trees for the big ones. Of course.

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Five at once!

Tree climbing and zip lines are popular here. At the lake mentioned above, there’s an outfit called Accrobranche (accrocher means to hook onto, and branche is branch) where folks of all ages can zip through the trees. There’s even a line across the lake. You get measured if you’re a kid (the courses you can take depend on height for hooking the safety line), pay, get your equipment and five minutes of training, then  zip away. There isn’t any “we aren’t liable for your stupidity” contract. It IS completely safe, as long as you follow the directions.

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This means, “Look out!”

How many times did my jaw drop when my kid came home with news of a school outing. When I was in school, we visited the art museum. Once we went to a local macaroni factory. We did not go spelunking. Nor did we do rock climbing. Nor swimming in the sea. Nor skiing.

Rock climbing
Just another day in second grade.

That reminds me of when our kid was about four. We went to a ski resort for sledding. It rarely snows in Carcassonne, and even then it isn’t deep and doesn’t last long enough for sledding. But the Pyrénées are a short drive away. Near the café and the beginner piste, there was a designated spot for sledding. It had a gentle slope that flattened out to a broad plateau to ensure the sleds would slow and then stop on their own. The plateau dropped off to the end of a bustling ski piste, with no barriers between them.

05.FEBRUARY 12 - 05
No photos of the runaway sled on the ski slope, but here’s a shot of the only time it snowed enough here for the kids to sled.

Our kid had a wonderful time. We got a workout. Our kid sledded down and we waited at the bottom to haul the kid-heavy sled back up for another round. But our kid was too little and too inexperienced to understand steering. Instead of slowing to a stop on the plateau where we stood, the sled veered to one side, went off the plateau and down the steep slope, picking up speed and crossing the busy ski piste, luckily not hitting anybody. We tried to run after our screaming kid, but the packed snow was slick—bad for running in boots, while making the sled even faster. Our kid was caught in a snow fence, just barely, but enough to get knocked off the sled, terrified but unhurt. The sled went under the net and flew on down to the bottom of the mountain, stopped by a tree. It took the Carnivore half an hour to go down to get it. That was the end of sledding for a while. All of us were pretty shaken.

This was many years ago. I suspect our kid wasn’t the first to inadvertently steer off the sledding area and into the piste. Years later, our kid took ski lessons, and we’ve returned to this resort for practice. The sledding area is still just there in the open.

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More kids in trees.

With such a laissez-faire attitude about danger, it’s surprising that every person, young or old, who signs up for sports has to have a certificat médical from a doctor, attesting that one can do physical activity. Even yoga. Even ballroom dancing. Even adults—if you join a gym, you need a certificat médical, with a new one every year. From what I’ve seen, the people who go to the gym aren’t the ones whose fitness needs to be certified.

Call it the French paradox.

Strange Sightings

P1070266Have you ever lost your pants? Or a sock? Or a sweater? I am not talking about in wayward airbound baggage, nor in the laundry, but, say on a path in the woods, or a country road?

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Sock. Can’t blame the dryer.

Me either.

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More disturbing: underwear. I didn’t touch it!

Yet, I constantly come across articles of clothing that do not appear to have been tossed away on purpose. Is this some secret French fetish?

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A DIFFERENT pair of pants, far from the pair at the top of the post.

What were the owners of these items thinking?

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Remains of a sweater (striped).

Maybe it’s best not to know.

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I thought this was a tea towel, but then spied buttons. A top?

These pieces were seen over a couple of weeks over a five-ish kilometer radius, each item alone.

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Why?
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How do they change the channel now?

Not just clothes, either. Can somebody tell me why one would take a TV remote on a small road through vineyards, and then leave it there?

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Not clothing but still WTF: a paint can? bucket? Not on any road or path.

Speculation about the stories behind these items is encouraged in the comments.

Angels in Our Midst

P1080563Today’s post isn’t about France. It’s about angels. Down-to-earth, in-the-flesh angels.

The French novelist Proust famously had his madeleine, a cookie that, when dipped in tea, brought back memories for his protagonist. Taste and smell are such powerful triggers for memories. But music also can transport us to another place and time.P1080538The death of Glen Campbell last week, and the snippets of songs played along with the news and tributes, took me on a memory rollercoaster. Songs like “Wichita Lineman,” “Gentle on my Mind” and “Galveston” had me back in the house where I grew up, happily playing with my siblings and not having many cares beyond whether it really was my turn to do dishes.

But the songs also take me to the hospice where my father spent his last months.

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The photos in this post were taken at Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne, which dates to the 13th century.

It actually was just a nursing home, and the hospice part related to the kind of care my dad received. But it was a very special place. It was staffed by angels, who, however well paid, were not paid well enough, considering the bodily fluids and solids that they cleaned up, over and over, gently and efficiently. Angels who never lost their patience with the many disoriented residents in the throes of age-related dementia. Angels who, I fear, receive less than a warm welcome outside the nursing home, because they come from a veritable United Nations of farflung homelands. When the wider public sees see them, do they realize they are encountering angels—heroes? Do they realize these angels are making America great? Or do they just see dark skin and hear an accent?

The home was the opposite of an institution. It looked like the other white-siding-and-round-stone supersized “farmhouses” in the suburbs, with a big porch overlooking an impeccable lawn on a cul-de-sac. You’d need a keen eye and experience pushing wheelchairs to notice that the front door was extra wide, that the sidewalks and curb cuts were extra smooth and that there were no steps anywhere. P1080560After entering the code in the vestibule, one arrived in a “great room” that looked a lot like a set for a morning talk show. A large stone fireplace dominated the center, with a clutch of armchairs (some with electric lift assist) facing a big-screen TV on one side, and a few dining tables on the other side. And open to it all was a big kitchen, where somebody was always cooking.

Two of the cooks were Dixie and Donna, both with white hair and irrepressible smiles. They greeted everybody who arrived, often with hugs, and seemed to truly enjoy cooking. They were clever about finding ways to turn familiar flavors into forms the residents could chew or swallow (often involving heavy cream; people in a nursing home don’t count calories any more). They told me that it was important for people to enjoy their food, even if it looked like mush. I tasted some purée, and it was delicious.P1080553They also baked. The entire building smelled like cake and cookies 24/7. It was on purpose—to make it feel like home and not like “a home,” as in “a nursing home.” The baked goods were out for anybody—residents or visitors. A little sugar therapy.

While Dixie and Donna bustled in the kitchen, like a pair of comedic cooking show hostesses exchanging witty repartee, the greatest easy listening hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s played on a tape recorder on the counter. Yes, cassette tapes.P1080550Glen Campbell was a staple, along with Neil Diamond and Andy Williams. (I always had a crush on Andy Williams. That Christmas special!)

Dixie and Donna weren’t unusual there—the entire staff was caring. Loving, even. When my dad first moved in there, the “elder aide,” Sylvester, came into his room to welcome him. Sylvester was built like a professional football player, with a million-watt smile and boundless cheer. His infectious laugh would ring through the cottage. He took my dad’s hand and told him that in his native Cameroon elders are revered and that he was honored to have a career taking care of elders. He called my dad Mr. John and my mom Mrs. John—a charming mix of honorifics and family-style familiarity.  My dad loved Sylvester. P1080543My dad also loved Koko, a nurse at the rehab facility where he was discharged after the hospital and while waiting for a place to open at the nursing home cottages. Koko’s family was from Togo, though he had grown up in the U.S.

He treated my dad with as much tenderness as one would give a newborn baby. I have never seen anyone as gentle. He was a big, strong guy, too, and could single-handedly move my dad without causing him too much discomfort, whereas the young nurses, while adorable and cheerful, had a hard time shifting my 200+-pound father, even when there were two of them.P1080552Koko also was an extraordinarily conscientious worker, or at least the best-organized. I would sit with my dad for 5-6 hours at a time, even all night, when I was in town (lest anybody think that was special, please know that my siblings were there all the time, all year, for years, whereas I would just fly in for a couple of weeks; they were real heroes). I knew his orders were to be moved every three hours, because he had a very large bedsore. Sometimes it took a long time for anybody to come. But Koko always came in right on time, as if he had set a timer.

When it was time for my dad to move to hospice, he held Koko’s hand and thanked him, and asked him to consider transferring to the hospice with him.P1080559He loved Kelly, the hospice nurse. I think my dad was something of a treat for the staff. So many of the nursing home residents—and even the residents at the assisted living residents where he and my mom had been for about a year—were losing or had completely lost their mental faculties. But my dad was sharp as a tack. He loved to joke. He paid attention to the news. As my dad’s condition worsened, Kelly would do her paperwork in his room, to keep him company.

I can’t name all the heroes who treated my parents with love, care and dignity. There were so many, from the specialist doctors (some from countries on travel ban lists) to the housekeepers who spoke little English but who managed to coddle my parents despite the language gap.P1080567Glen Campbell is just one of many triggers lately that bring back those months. I’m a podcast junkie and keep stumbling on podcasts about the elderly, dying and related cheerful subjects. On the Fresh Air podcast, Terry Gross (world’s best interviewer) talked to the author of a book about palliative care. I am not so sure about palliative care. When my dad was in the hospital, the palliative doctor pushed hard for all treatment to end. My dad didn’t want treatment to end. He had great confidence in modern medicine, and figured something would give him some more time. When people talk about quality of life, I am leery. Who is to say which life has quality and which doesn’t? Most of us don’t want extreme measures to prolong life in the end stages of a terminal illness, especially if we’re suffering every minute. But if the person isn’t suffering? My dad was told he needed a feeding tube, and he was OK with that. The palliative doctor strenuously argued against it. It gave him a few more months, during which I think he came to grips with the situation. I also think he truly enjoyed every minute of every visit by family, and every conversation and joke with staff. Isn’t that quality of life?

There was an interesting podcast (on Reply All) about the design of nursing homes, including some like the one where my dad was in hospice. There also was a concept called a “Minka,” which is like a little cottage you’d put in your yard, so your aging parent could be nearby and cared for by family. I think it’s a great idea, but at some point, people need 24-hour care and things like medical cranes. It’s an awful lot to put on family (who might not be so young themselves) both physically and emotionally.P1080558On Point had a report about the fight over the right to sue nursing homes. It seems that one of the main roles of government is to protect the weak. But that seems to be flipped on its head daily. Not everybody is lucky enough to be in a facility like the one my dad was in.

When my parents needed to move out of their house and into assisted living, one of the main worries was “how are they/we going to pay for this.” Different facilities required different minimums—24 to 36 months—for paying privately, before applying for Medicaid. Medicaid is available only if you’ve exhausted your own money (as it should be). I wonder what will become of nursing home residents if Medicaid is cut. Will families face a choice of taking care of grandma or paying for their kid’s college education? In some ancient cultures, the elderly were banished to the wilderness when they became a burden and would have to wait alone to be attacked and killed by animals. Are we going forward or back?

The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Hubert HumphreyP1080561

Village Life

P1060934The French countryside is studded with little gems of villages, often boldly at the crest of a hill, from where its church steeple and, likely, a fortress tower, bristles above the horizon. Others are nestled in valleys, nearly invisible until you get close.

In this part of the south of France, les anciens--the people of old–used the building materials at hand–namely large stones pulled from the fields. The stones provide great insulation and are surely one of the reasons people here continue to resist air conditioning. IMG_2694The roofs are covered with red terre cuite tiles, laid in overlapping waves, which usually (not always) are heavy enough to resist the high winds that tear through. Some are cemented down for good measure. Imagine the weight.

The buildings predate any zoning or urban planning. People added on here and there over generations, resulting in a crazy quilt of red roofs.P1060954The church is at the center of the village, its steeple often topped with a rooster, the Gallic coq.  The rooster was a religious symbol in medieval times and during the Revolution became a symbol of France. P1060933Many of the villages are so small they don’t have any baker or grocery store. The sole businesses are wineries, or the odd artisan like plumbers or electricians who work out of their homes. Some don’t even have a school. Parents drive their kids to school in bigger villages nearby on their way to work in town. Only the elderly are left in the villages during the day. P1070421Bigger villages have a grocery, a baker, a café, even a butcher and tabac, or smoke shop, which once were vital for such items as bus tokens, cards for making calls on public phones, stamps and other essentials that no longer are essential. Elderly villagers shuffle out for their daily baguettes while wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. The bakery is also the place to get the most accurate weather forecast.P1060913The tiniest villages are served by itinerant vendors, who stop for a few hours a few days a week and provide a place for locals to not only buy necessities like fresh produce but also catch up on gossip. In one village, I passed a fishmonger truck, surrounded by a clutch of little old ladies in animated conversation.

The older residents perch on the benches under the ubiquitous platanes–plane trees. The ones who use canes cross their hands limply atop the handle, a little like Psy dancing in “Gangnam Style.”IMG_2690When my kid was in the last year or two of primary school in the village, I was informed that it was dishonorable to be escorted by one’s mother. Already, it was dishonorable to walk to school. Even kids who lived a couple of blocks away were driven by mothers who then drove straight back home. To be walked to the door by a parent was the worst.

So I bowed to this declaration of independence, and watched my kid disappear around the neighbor’s hedge. I felt pretty confident about safety in the maze of medieval lanes too small for cars, and completely confident that my kid would dutifully go straight to school. But I’m a worrywart, so I would slip out and do my best spy impersonation, tailing my kid while staying just out of sight. There was a spot along the former ramparts, where the street (more like a passage that would be a tight fit for a Smart car) stretched straight for the final block to school. I would crouch behind a parked car and watch until my kid was swallowed by the playground.P1070748This was endlessly amusing to the bench full of little old guys. Every day, they would be perched there, like so many swallows on an electric line. Sometimes, my kid would decide to run, and I would round the corner for my final vantage point and see nothing. My little birds would tip their caps and nod that my kid had passed as expected.

The little old ladies flock in the afternoons at the park, on a bench that in summer is shaded by an enormous magnolia tree and in winter is protected by a south-facing wall warmed by the sun. They bring knitting, and their fingers fly as fast as their tongues. But the main entertainment is the children. The lawn under the tree is a favorite place for mothers and nannies to get their very small charges outside while they enjoy some precious moments of adult conversation. The path’s gravel has been scooped, carried and dumped a few feet away by countless toddlers. Far more amusing than cat videos.P1070654The little old ladies and little old men used to go for walks, all together, around the vineyards. A pack of them would set off every afternoon–early morning in summer, of course. There was a high point where one could get a glimpse into our yard, and I would find them straining to see in. Foreigners in the village must have been so fascinating. I hope we lived up to expectations.

Over the years, the group dwindled in number. They probably had been together their entire lives. Many were related, varying degrees of cousins, otherwise by marriage. They now are too old to hike around the vineyards. They stay in the village. Several have died. Time marches on even when we no longer can.P1060955When someone dies in the village, a few strains of the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem Mass crackle over the public loudspeakers, and the mayor’s secretary announces the funeral services. Everybody stops what they’re doing, to hear whose name is announced, if they don’t already know.

Most of the time, though, the loudspeakers announce happier things, accompanied by happier music, usually Europop hits from the ’80s. The pizza truck will be at the square from 6 p.m. on. The football club is organizing a dinner; sign up at the bakery. The school is holding a loto. The secretary gives every announcement all the extra syllables and richly rolled R’s of the regional accent.

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An old wine press. Of course.

Today is a holiday, and the village is hushed beyond even Sunday standards. Although we have two more weeks of summer, August 15 signals the apex beyond which is a downward slide toward la rentrée–the re-entry, aka back to school, back to work, back to normal life.P1070739