Winter in France Profonde

img_0347The wind has been howling for what seems like weeks. The temperature has tumbled into the low single digits Celsius (mid-30s Fahrenheit). The gray sky is so low it seems to lie like an uncomfortable blanket on the rooftops.

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The Pyrénées.

Even though I have cabin fever I don’t venture out. I put on a coat, with the hood on, to open and close the shutters. The wind often tears them out of my hand and they clack hard against the house. Good thing it’s solid.img_0287I am fighting another kind of fever–the kind that accompanies achy joints and a throat made sore from sleeping with one’s mouth open because of congested sinuses. I’m not sick but I feel like I’ve been on the verge of it since forever. Low energy. The village exercise classes start up again this week after the holiday break, but I can’t go because we have a dinner invitation. I’m almost grateful for the excuse. Usually I would choose exercise over eating. This feeling, like a heavy blanket similar to those heavy gray clouds, weighs down. It stifles my brain.

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Again the Pyrénées on the horizon.

I look over the rolling hills of this “plain” where we live, and they are at once similar to the plains where I grew up, and yet so different. No snow, though we might get a few flakes (but tomatoes are still growing in the garden and one of the roses bush has a beautiful red blossom). The sky this morning looked like snow. The early light was wan orange, the color of the vitamin C tablets I’ve been sucking on. It wasn’t like a blazing sunrise; it was uniform, the same pale orange all over. Rather beautiful, actually. Almost like the woozy grayish yellow the sky turns before a tornado. This isn’t tornado territory nor season, though.

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Do you see the ribbon of white, mostly on the left and all the way at the edge of the right? Fog along the Aude river.

img_0345The plains here are green in winter and brown in summer. The winter wheat is pushing up. The weeds between the rows of grapevines are living it up. I see solitary winegrowers bent over the vines, pruning them. The line is stark between where they’ve pruned and the wild tangles yet to do. I don’t envy them. I don’t think it’s possible to wear enough layers to stay warm out there, unprotected from the wind. In some places, such grueling work is done by machines, but not here. Doing it by hand gives better quality. I am grateful for these people for whom quality still counts.p1050813One day between the holidays, when it was quite a bit warmer (over 10 C, or in the low 50s F), I took a walk. Checked on our sometimes unruly river. Checked on the village. There are always folks out walking. Some walk in groups, probably the same friends since they were toddlers. Little old ladies trek to the village cemetery, sometimes a couple of times a day. Over the years, I watch their hair go white as they stop trying to keep up with dye jobs, their little dogs slow down then disappear, canes appear. They sometimes stop me to tell me they’ve seen my kid out in the village and my, what a grownup now and I remember when….img_0466img_0472img_0471On a couple of weekends, I made detours on back roads to avoid the gilet jaune protests. I saw some pretty things, like the boat on the canal in the top photo. And these locks.img_0351I also walked around a few cute villages, but I have to gather some stories or history or something to go with the photos of them. Another day, when it was gray but not cold, I walked over to la Cité. It looks like a movie set in the winter–few people, the stones very medieval moody.

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Verdant for January, no? This is the moat of the castle inside la Cité. No water–it’s on a hilltop.

img_0328img_0330From Pont Vieux at the bottom of la Cité, you get another view of the Pyrénées. Can you spy the people strolling along the river? There’s parkland on both sides, with the prettiest paths that go really far.

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I was amused by the ducks and then…
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A bunch of pigeons flew over. 

I want to cook up another bunch of comforting chili, but I think we will have eggs tonight. The Carnivore bought a truffle at the market in Mousselens, and when you have a truffle, you eat it with every meal until it’s gone. It goes best with mild foods that don’t compete for your attention. It deserves the starring role. Eggs, risotto and potatoes all work well. More on that next time.

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There are bright days in between!

Are you avoiding cabin fever and fever fever? Are you a winter person or just hunkering down and enduring it?p1060504

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Best Wishes for 2019

IMG_2916Which doors will you open in 2019? Which ones will you close? Which of either will be by choice or driven by circumstances?IMG_0475January 1 is just another day, yet it’s a marker that we can choose to use. Even before calendars, humans marked the solstices and equinoxes. I am sure they made plans, too–“this season I’m going to find a new hunting ground” or “this time I’m going to plant more rice.” The first step in making a change is planning.IMG_2161Planning isn’t everything. A dear loved one used to make plans and lists, sometimes in great detail. But nothing ever happened. Tomorrow is another day, until our tomorrows run out. I think she was shackled by a fear of failure–if you dare to do something, it might not turn out, but if you just plan, it stays full of shiny potential.IMG_0650 2What are your goals for 2019? Where do you want to be? I love reading and hearing about what others do–it’s motivating, as if we’re all pulling, not so much together as at the same time.IMG_0477 2

My goals include going back to my favorite Pilates class even though it’s expensive because it did so much good for my back; improving my French, especially grammar, and, within that, especially verb conjugations, namely nailing conditionnel/imparfait, which are not at all the same thing but whose endings are devilishly identical (couldn’t they have come up with a different set of endings instead of reusing them?). Speaking of French, I found a new podcast that I really like: “Spla$h,” by a pair of French economics professors (in French), who do an excellent job of explaining some economic questions–not so much in a supply/demand/M2 way but in terms of “how did we end up with this situation?” For example, they did an excellent job of explaining the ire over tolls on the autoroutes and why those highways have tolls to begin with. IMG_0476 2I also want to write every day, not for the blog or for work, but just for myself. And to spend less time keeping up with the news, which only upsets me. On the other hand, I want to subscribe to another news publication (the New Yorker?) because I like getting news from multiple sources, and I want to support legitimate journalists. It isn’t a contradiction–I want to stop having a heart attack every time I get an email alert about some breaking news (in fact, maybe I should just unsubscribe from those), yet be well-informed about the news with context. chateau doorThe biggest change I made in 2018 was to be far more conscious of the environment. I always considered myself an environmentalist (one sibling called me a tree hugger), but I only started composting early last year. Before I heard this, I didn’t think about how nylon in clothing was going to last forever, except for the parts that break down into toxic microbeads of plastic and foul the soil or water. I did think about how bad meat is, yet I ate it regularly anyway; now I’m about 90% vegetarian. I want to continue to ramp it up, to consume more thoughtfully and to consume less overall.IMG_0479 2If you want some tips or motivation for achieving your goals, check out these excellent episodes from the podcast Hidden Brain: on habits and on resolutions and, from Freakonomics, on tricks to boost your willpower (like “temptation bundling”!!!).

Which doors are in store for you in 2019?P1100773

Party Prep

IMG_0311Christmas was just yesterday but I am so over it already. It was lovely and quiet and cozy, but even though our celebration was low-key, I feel like I’m coming off a sugar high from the saccharine consumerism everywhere. It permeates the air. It’s like second-hand smoke.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the decorations, the carols, the food. We joined the no-gift movement, so there was no pressure for shopping. We spent Christmas afternoon baking cookies. For Christmas dinner (on Christmas Eve), we ate favorite dishes–ris de veau  (veal sweetbread–the thalmus to be specific) in a mushroom cream sauce for the Carnivore and tofu turkey loaf with risotto for me and our kid. The Carnivore even flambéed his ris de veau. Cut no corners.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, we watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” AND the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Childrens’ shows were so classy in the 1960s, with jazz on the soundtracks. Even the Grinch song has a jazzy feel.

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A mocha bûche de noël…from a bakery. Very good!

We are gearing up for a little party on Friday with our neighbors–about 18 people, so too many for a sit-down dinner. Instead, we are hosting an apéritif dinatoire, or appetizer buffet, as we did last year for the Fête de la Lumière, which came and went earlier this month without us getting our act together.

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Count on a wine region to work the local specialty into holiday decorations.

In fact, today I must get the chicken wings in their marinade and make a few dishes. I can do the crudités and the ranch dressing while our kid decorates the cookies that we made yesterday. Thinking about buffets I have known and loved, I realize that while cheesy potatoes or green bean casserole are delicious, they aren’t in the French style. For one thing, it’s hard to eat with a knife and fork from a plate perched on your lap. So almost everything in our buffet is cold (except the wings and meatballs) and made in single servings that are easy to pick up and eat with one’s fingers.

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The reindeer lights just above the fake cacti made me smile.

The plates are dessert size, which is easier to hold with one hand. They’re real china, not plastic, and have gotten a lot of use in the 20 years I’ve had them. We noticed a happy side effect–the small plates mean people get up to serve themselves again from the buffet. And they often sit down in a different spot, which encourages mingling. Only the eldest member of our gang stayed in one seat for the entire evening; everybody else played a kind of musical chairs.

I’ll try to get some photos and will share recipes next week, because it’s unlikely I’ll post on Friday.

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The Carcassonne Christmas market and produce market hip by jowl on Saturday.

How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?

 

 

 

Christmas in Carcassonne

IMG_0238Signs of Christmas everywhere. Windows decorated, especially at the bakeries and chocolate shops. The shop above, Bimas, is renowned in Carcassonne, a veritable art gallery of cakes and chocolates. Eye candy for the mouth. P1060388The bûches de noël range from traditional to more modern, like the ones above. P1060329And graisse de noël–Christmas fat!–has appeared in the cheese shops. Graisse de noël is a cross between Cantal cheese and butter. Very rich, very good.IMG_0249IMG_0250Shops are decorated, mostly low-key, with wreaths and garlands, but some, like the florist above, are in full-on holiday mode.

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Minimalist, yet somehow cozy.
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The bane of crafty pallets has arrived.

The skating rink is trying to stay frozen as temperatures climb into the mid-teens Celsius (flirting with 60 Fahrenheit). The Christmas market and holiday amusement park fill with people in the evenings when the lights go on. Square Gambetta’s plane trees twinkle with lights. I like its tree.IMG_0242I was surprised to see flowers blooming in the square. Roses and whatever these plants are. The leaves look like bamboo, but what are those pink flowers?IMG_0247IMG_0245People tend to do low-key decorations on their homes, too. A few lights, some wreaths. An occasional Santa hanging from a window or balcony.IMG_0014Even little villages decorate. I like the variety of church steeples outlined in lights.

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You know you’re in France when there’s a château in the background.

IMG_0220Of course, la Cité needs no decoration. It was particularly moody on a foggy morning last week.IMG_0232The sunrises and sunsets lately have been stunning. This photo is as-is, no editing. Kind of like this post, which is a verbal potluck.IMG_0224Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you. May all your sunrises be beautiful and bright.

A Bridge Too Far

220.Viaduc de Millau2Gluttons for punishment, my kid and I headed to Montpellier on Sunday to visit a retailer not found in Carcassonne nor even in Toulouse. While shops in France usually are closed on Sundays, they open on the three or four Sundays before Christmas. Add to that the fact that only semi-trucks carrying refrigerated goods are allowed on the autoroutes, and Sunday seemed ideal.

From the start, things went wrong. I stopped to buy gas and put air in the tires before getting on the autoroute. The station had been flooded in October, and I hadn’t been back for a while, what with the roads out and detours. Turned out it was closed for renovations. No other gas stations before the autoroute, but, hey, no problem, the tank was almost full; my itsy bitsy car needs only about a half a tank to make the 300-kilometer roundtrip.

We would park at the shopping mall with said retailer, then take the tram to the city center, to avoid having to drive all over the place. I finally got a phone with a GPS, so I  didn’t need to write out the directions from Mappy. Such luxury.

We sang Christmas carols and admired the moody, haunting countryside on the way. It looked almost like shan shui paintings at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris. The light rain swathed a gray veil over the winter greenery. So different from summer’s parched brown palette, with its sharply defined shadows captured by Cézanne.

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Le Viaduc de Millau, the world’s tallest bridge, taller than the Eiffel Tower. It’s on the A75, which is toll-free except for crossing the bridge, which is about €10 for cars.

After we joined the A9 autoroute northbound, warning signs appeared: car on the side of the road. Then, A75 (a different autoroute) obligatory exit. I wasn’t sure what that meant. That the folks going on the A75, which starts around Béziers and heads to Paris, had to take a certain exit? We continued.

We came to realize that it meant the A9 was closed and all traffic was being detoured to the A75. No problem, I thought. We have a GPS!

We followed the other cars, winding around to the tollbooths. All but three were closed, so the lines were long. And they were swarming with gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. They made a big show of “guiding” cars through the piles of tires and pallets that were burning. The tarmac was a mess, having melted and been churned up by previous fires. Gendarmes stood, bouncing from one foot to another to keep warm in the drizzle, but not interfering. A huge tree in the center of the roundabout after the tollbooths was uprooted.

Why?

I’ve read unflattering comparisons between the gilets jaunes and the women’s march in Washington and Black Lives Matter protests. But the women’s march and BLM didn’t set things on fire or uproot trees. There might be bad actors attracted to any demonstration, ready for an excuse to wreak havoc. The folks at the autoroute exits didn’t seem like the casseurs who made a mess in Paris, even though it doesn’t seem like the casseurs were the ones who devastated the tollbooths. The yellow vests seemed intent on getting even with somebody, anybody, for attempts to wean them off their cars, which were parked on the side of the road and festooned with yellow–mostly SUVs. They made a big show of being gentil, kindly directing the traffic mess that they had created.

There’s an argument that the autoroutes were constructed with tax money, and so they should be free. The protesters don’t like that there’s a toll, and that it’s collected by a private company that maintains the autoroute (and also sends out vans to accident sites and cars that have broken down on the side of the road, etc.). For the most part, the autoroutes in France are as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and the speed limit is 130 kilometers an hour–80 mph. The argument is that the toll is higher than needed for maintenance, and anyway there shouldn’t be a toll at all. (For about 90 kilometers on Sunday, I paid €7.80; to cross France north-south costs about €60 in tolls.)

Of course, the militant drivers would not like it if the autoroutes were more crowded than they already are. Sometimes in summer, the A9, which hugs the Mediterranean coast from Spain up to Nîmes, before plunging into the center of France, is a long parking lot of cars from all over Europe, full of vacationers hoping to get to the beach before their cars overheat. Periodic suggestions for surge pricing further enrage people, though I’d be the first to drive at a weird time to have less traffic AND pay less. But having different prices is seen as undemocratic. The protesters have also destroyed roadside radars–every single one we passed was knocked down–because they ruin the fun of speeding.

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Millau, which we managed not to see. This is from a different day.

Our brilliant (not) GPS (actually we used two–Waze and Maps–with identical results) advised us to go on, then had us double back at the first roundabout. “We’ll probably get on in the other direction,” my kid surmised. Nope. Cars were getting off the autoroute, but roaring fires kept anybody from getting on in any direction.

We finally got away again. We ignored the GPS and followed the signs to Agde, planning to take back roads up to Montpellier. But eventually it wasn’t so clear where to go. We listened to the GPS. Bad idea. We turned this way and that and ended up on another divided highway (with no way to make a U-turn) when we passed the same Cactus Park we’d seen half an hour earlier. Indeed, soon we were back at the burning barricades of the roundabout from hell.

My kid informed the GPS yet again that the autoroute was blocked (feedback is how they know about problems) and we tried yet again to find a detour. We went through some charming little towns, but you get no photos because my kid said it wouldn’t be fair to show them in the rain when they must be even prettier in the sun.

We eventually did make it to Montpellier, 2.5 hours late. The mall was a bust. It was just like any mall you would find in the U.S. except it was open to the sky. This usually would be a plus, but we were there on one of the few days a year of rain. Just nine days before Christmas, a few people hurried by. There were no lines for the changing rooms.

We ditched the idea of taking the tram to the city center and decided to just get home. Looking over the routes suggested by the GPS, we chose the detour on the A75, which hooked up with the A9 at a point beyond the disastrous barricades we’d encountered earlier.

We soon were climbing through hills on the outskirts of Montpellier. Disconcertingly, the signs told us we were going toward Millau (not on our way) and Clermont-Ferrand, which is just about in the center of France and much more of a detour than we’d bargained for. My car started beeping that we were almost out of gas, but we didn’t see a single service station.

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 The view from the viaduct. Gorgeous, even in the rain.

The scenery was gorgeous, though, a different kind of rugged than what we were used to. And the church steeples were a different shape. It’s funny how you notice regional traits, like the way cousins might have the same nose.

My kid asked the GPS to take us to a gas station. That worked out well, and we got a pannetone as a gift (from Italian gas chain Agip).

The GPS led us back to the A9, with promises of Narbonne and home. This entry, too, had a long line of cars being filtered by yellow vests, and fires burning and destruction all around. A few minutes later, the skies opened and it poured as if to set sail to Noah’s ark. Good, I thought, that will send the yellow vests home. But on arrival at Carcassonne, they were huddled under the roof of the toll station, collecting the toll tickets, as if giving us a present for having destroyed the barriers and letting us pass for free. I handed mine over, but as I pulled away I yelled expletives at them, horrifying my kid. But it made me feel better.

 

Holiday Musings

IMG_0209One of the challenges of living in the south of France is that until two days ago, we’ve been in sweater weather, or even in shirt sleeves, and are shocked that it’s December already. We put up our Christmas tree, a mini edition that originally was for our kid’s room, back when that sort of thing was terribly exciting. It doesn’t have room for all the decorations we’ve accumulated. So we stuck to the sentimental ones only.

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I have two sets of crocheted snowflakes–one from each grandmother.

We lit all the candles, and our kid chose a Christmas playlist from Spotify. We were able to sing along to almost every song. I could name the singers of the old ones after just a few notes, whereas our kid knew the more current performers. (I didn’t know Beyoncé did Silent Night! I love it, of course, but Andy Williams is forever the king of Christmas to me.) This process of singing, unwrapping and hanging is one of my favorite moments of the year, more so than Christmas itself. We’re unwrapping dear old decorations, some of them a little worse for the wear, others handmade by loved ones no longer among us. It lacks the excitement of unwrapping a present–we already know what’s in each box, nestled in tissue paper. The friendly ghosts of Christmas past.

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Yes, that’s a Snoopy ornament. Am hoping to get our kid to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special. One is never too old for that!

IMG_0194Are you making Christmas cookies? I am on the fence. It’s a lot of work and a lot of high-fat, high-sugar temptation, but people around here don’t do Christmas cookies and seem genuinely thrilled to get a box of them. Plus it’s another excuse to put on Christmas carols and sing with my kid while we putter away. Cookie baking deserves musical accompaniment.IMG_0198IMG_0207Speaking of high-sugar temptations in pretty boxes, take a look at these Ladurée macarons from a friend. They tasted as sublime as they look. If you can’t get to Ladurée, you can make your own–it isn’t hard.

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Thank you, M.!
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The box itself is almost as pretty as what’s inside.

Meanwhile, Carcassonne’s Christmas market is full of people sharing aperitifs and oysters, or mulled wine and aligot, while energetic youth chase each other around the ice rink. Between high temperatures and rain, it’s hard to keep the ice frozen.

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Poor Neptune–the white statue–is bare-bottomed.

What is your favorite Christmas carol? Mine is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I just found the sheet music, which my mother had bought when the song came out, in 1944. Instead of records, she would buy the sheet music. I’m going to work on playing it.

Are you ready for the holidays? IMG_7584

Baby Meals in France

IMG_0005We recently enjoyed a visit from a Parisian friend and her 13-month-old, and the baby’s meals struck me as very French. Our own child was never so lucky. We moved here when our kid was three months old, and I pretty much relied on family and friends back in the U.S. for advice. When I started to make friends here, I realized that the whole baby thing was different, but this was many years ago and I had mostly forgotten about it.

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Left, risotto with small vegetables and rosemary. Right, risotto with mushrooms (chunky). Both for 12 months old. Both for night–see the stars?

The biggest difference is that French baby foods are marked by time of day. Protein is for midday and never in the evening. I vaguely recall French moms telling me this back in the day. I searched around a bit to see whether baby foods sold in, say, the U.S. were marked for evening or whether nutritional recommendations said anything about protein in the evening, but I found nothing (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). I considered calling up a pediatrician, but (1) they don’t have time and (2) there’s a broad range of advice out there. My friend, in fact, was horrified at what her friends feed their children of the same age–cereal in the formula to get the kid to sleep at night, sweets, etc. All I can say is that if there were only one way to raise a child, there wouldn’t be 7 billion people on the Earth today.

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For lunch. Notice also that the baby here is looking lively, whereas the one at the top is sleeping.

There are two arguments about protein at night: that too much protein is taxing on the kidneys, which are delicate at such a young age, and that protein is hard to digest and will disturb sleep. The latter argument also applies to adults, and in fact quite a few of my friends have supper (souper) of soup. And that’s it. They eat a big meal at noon, not at night. All the ones who do this are very trim and fit, by the way, even though they are retired.

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Seen at the supermarket: “My good night dinner.” Vegetable risotto (with smooth texture), left, and lasagne gratin with celery root (not the green stalks! “melting morsels” of the root).

Another thing is that French kids don’t drink milk. Babies get formula in bottles, but when they get bigger, they might have hot chocolate with milk for breakfast and that’s it. In France, McDonald’s Happy Meals don’t have milk among the drink choices, but it’s typical in the U.S., even in school lunches. French kids are expected to drink water (and yes, there exist French parents who give their kids juice and sugary sodas).

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For day: Pot au feu is a kind of soup with beef and vegetables, but the vegetables are whole or, if cut, left in large pieces, so they aren’t all mixed up.

And then there are the menus for babies. Get a load of these:

Navarin de petits légumes, agneau français–a kind of ragoût with lamb and “small vegetables”: carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and mushrooms. This was marked for lunch.

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Tenderness of little vegetables with rice. You can tell it’s for night by the stars and moon. Too cute. The note on the left side says “Suggestion for presentation,” which seems to be humor, since, of course, baby food is puréed.

Patate douce, chataigne, pintade fermière du Poitou–sweet potato, chestnuts and guinea hen from the Poitou department. Also for lunch.

Légumes verts, panais, boulghour–Green vegetables (peas, broccoli, carrots, zucchini, coriander), parsnips, bulgur. For evening.

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“My first vegetables…diversification offer.” Left: carrots, white carrots, parsnips, leeks; right: carrots, green beans, zucchini, pumpkin. For 4-6 months old. LEEKS!!!

Douceur de panais, carotte des Landes, polenta–sweetness of parsnips, carrots from the Landes department, polenta.

Other evening meals included broccoli, green beans and rice; and fondue of carrots, sweet corn and quinoa.

Seriously, when is the last time YOU ate parsnips?

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Applesauce with quince.

The snacks included apple with chestnuts; apple with quince; and mirabelle plums with apple. For the all-important quatre heure–four o’clock snack.

My very clever friend orders the Babybio meals online and has them delivered–smart move to not have to carry groceries in Paris. She even had some delivered here.

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At the left, “for exploring from 12 months,” “for savoring from 8 months,” “for getting started from 4/6 months,” “evening dishes” in purple, organic.

To refresh my memory, I strolled through the baby aisle at the supermarket. The shelves are marked by age AND there’s a separate section for evening meals.

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Top: summer vegetables with spaghetti; bottom: vegetables and Basque-style poultry.

All I can say, is these kids eat well. I wouldn’t mind Basque-style poultry with vegetables myself!

So: similar? different? surprising? not?

 

 

Shining Cité on a Hill

P1080806Even after so many years of living in Carcassonne, I still get tingles at the sight of la Cité. As I drive into town, my eyes scan the distance for its distinctive turrets. I know where to train my eye on my usual routes, but yesterday I ran an errand in a different direction, and, wanting to avoid les gilets jaunes, made a big detour.P1060641Les gilets jaunes, or the yellow vests, are the latest wave of protesters, so called because they wear the high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to have in their car. They are angry about a 10% increase in the tax on diesel. Previously, diesel had been significantly cheaper than unleaded gas. In addition, diesel cars get about 30% more mileage, and diesel engines need less maintenance and last longer. So even though diesel cars tend to cost a few thousand euros more than standard cars, they can be worth it if a person drives a lot.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 01At least that used to be the case, and it’s why there has been a proliferation of SUVs–called quatre-fois-quatres, or 4x4s–that are too big to negotiate turns on little village lanes or to fit in typical parking places. In the Bastide, the heart of today’s Carcassonne, they often hop onto the sidewalk, being wider than the streets.Empty street la cite 4Transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in France, and private citizens’ cars make up more than half of that. At one time, car makers promised they had found a way to make diesel clean, which led France and other European countries to push people to switch to diesel cars by making diesel cheaper than unleaded. But it turns out diesel still is dirty.

While I sympathize with idea that people feel squeezed and many have yet to feel an end to the 2008 global crisis, at the same time, hearing SUV drivers complain about a tax on diesel is like hearing smokers complain about a tax on cigarettes.P1060643To broadly generalize, the French like the idea of revolution, of protest. To the barricades! Stick it to the man! Friends fondly reminisce about 1968, even though most were too young to have been throwing pavers in the streets of Paris. When, some years ago, the education poobahs tried to cut a teaching position at our village school, which would have increased already-crowded class sizes, parents immediately organized a strike. Some had strike kits, the way a crafty mom might have a gift-wrapping station, all ready to pack up and carry to wherever it might be needed. Spray paint, poster board, old sheets… I joined them on the roadside–it was how things get done in France, I was told. Indeed, it worked, at least temporarily.P1080790Anyway, on my detour yesterday, I spotted the faraway turrets, ghostly in the rainy mist. As I neared, I came around a turn by the old hospital, where one has a particularly good view, and I gasped, as I always do.P1060644Back in la Cité’s heyday (before 1209), transportation was by foot–by horse if one was wealthy. France’s population is guestimated at around 17 million in the 14th century (an official census didn’t happen until much later, not to mention the issue of changing borders–check out this cool time-lapse video). Today the population is 67 million. Before 1884, when Edouard Delamere-Deboutteville of France built the first (?) gasoline-powered car, there were no automobiles; today France has 32 million passenger cars, and 30% of French households have two cars. When you live in a place where the “new” town dates to 1260 and local history stretches back more than 2,000 years, the change brought by cars in just over 100 years is shocking. And that’s just France–the same change is happening across the globe. Pollution knows no borders.Main drag of la cite emptyClearly the streets of la Cité were made for walking–at most, hand-pulled carts. La Cité’s unique double walls and 52 towers were built to resist attacks and were never breached. The only time Carcassonne fell was in the Albigensian crusade, when Pope Innocent III called for the extermination of the Cathars. Even then, after holding out for two weeks of siege, the inhabitants weren’t overrun but decided to surrender, having gotten news of the mass slaughter in Béziers. They fought the man, but the man won. In fact, the Inquisition followed.Remparts à la Cité de CarcassonneThe gilets jaunes vow to continue, and even ramp up, their protests. The president, Emmanuel Macron, vows to stay the course. Taxes here are high, yes. But of all the taxes to protest against, why the one on pollution? This protest leaves me ambivalent.

What are your thoughts?

Window on Europe

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

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

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

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

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

Fall Back in the South of France

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

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

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

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

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

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

yellow leaf road
The yellow-leaf road

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

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

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

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

river
The same stream that flooded a couple of weeks ago.

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