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.

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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

 

Wild Fire

IMG_4340Last weekend, we had a picnic in the garrigue, that magical wild place of this part of southern France. It smells like wild thyme and dry pine, with some wild rosemary thrown in. It sings–the wind humming a soprano through the pines, to the beat of the cicadas.

I posted a couple of short videos on Instagram; I haven’t managed to upload them here, but there’s a link to IG at the bottom of the “About” page. We have lots of trees at home, and lots of cicadas, or cigales, but they can’t compare to the numbers–or decibels–in the garrigue.IMG_4353A few days after our picnic, the Carnivore informed me that the garrigue had been placed off limits because of the risk of fire. The garrigue isn’t one continuous place, but many, some connected, others mere islands where rocky soil has preserved the place for wilderness.

We have a wide choice of garrigues nearby. Some draw lots of people. We choose a spot that’s off a tiny road, which itself is off a back road. The entrance to the garrigue is really like an entrance. On one side, vineyards line up neatly. And on the other side of this “border,” woods and brush push up improbably through rugged rocks. We drove up a bit farther than usual, but without a high, four-wheel drive vehicle, it was impossible to go very far. The “road”–a pair of tracks, really–was too rough.

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“Road.”

Our preferred spot is at the crest of a hill, where the cooling breezes come through, and where the trees are tall and create a large oasis of shade, also cool. Our region avoided the worst of the “Lucifer” heat wave that hit farther east, but temperatures had climbed into the mid-90s, which we thought was quite hot enough thank you. The air had that hot-furnace feel that makes laundry dry in mere minutes on the line and tomato plants shrivel. Watering flowers has been banned for some time, and watering food plants is restricted to night hours.

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Picnic table. Simply sandwiches, nectarines, lots of water, a little wine.

Time to escape to the garrigue. However, the hill is big and the path is difficult–uneven slabs of rocks sprinkled with loose pebbles that are like walking on marbles–on an incline. Don’t go too fast. We hiked about 20 minutes to our spot. Along the way, I eyed dead pine trees with the uneasy knowledge that they were dangerous fuel if a fire were to break out. That strong wind, so welcome for cooling, would make a fire spread like….wildfire.IMG_4351Fires are a part of life around here. As in California, I guess. Or like tornados are in the Midwest of the U.S. About 10,000 people were evacuated two weeks ago from a huge fire near Bormes-les-Mimosas in the Var department in southeast France. And a terrible fire in Portugal killed 60 people, most of them trapped in their cars on a highway.P1050041So I look up anxiously every time I hear the buzz of the Canadair water bombers (the Canadair company disappeared in 1986 when it became part of Bombardier, but everybody around here calls the planes “Canadairs” the way Americans call paper tissues “Kleenex”). They fly in pairs, picking up water at the Bassin de Saint-Ferréol, a reservoir in the Black Mountains near Revel that was created to feed the Canal du Midi. The lower they pass above us, the closer the fire.P1050044P1080156I remember seeing the military planes streaking across the sky to and from the base near where I grew up, and being unsettled by the sonic booms that would follow. Those were the days of radiation signs above doors at school, the days of bomb drills and evil empires. My kid was quite upset one day toward the end of the last school year when they had a drill in case of an attack–barricade the doors, shut off phones. The world evolves, but not always for the better.

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Hotel view: La Cité and the Pyrénnées.

I visited a hotel in another garrigue. A lovely setting with magnificent views. On the edge of the property was what looked like a giant water balloon, about the size of the pool at the sporting complex–water for firefighters, should the need arise.

Rain in the summer is rare here, and welcome when it comes. In fact, today is cool and cloudy, and I’m energized to go running. But I won’t be accompanied by the song of the cigales, who fall silent when temperatures are too cool for their liking.

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Welcome change, as long as it’s short. The sun is expected to return this afternoon.

 

Back Roads in France

P1080442Voluptuous is the word for France in mid-summer. The vegetation spills generously, luxuriously, langorously over the countryside. It’s full of curves and twirls and flourishes. It smells good. It tastes good. P1080446I had something else ready to post today but changed my mind during my morning walk. This couldn’t wait. In fact, there are so many things to share, I will have to split them into a few posts. Come along; I’ll give you the pictures and play by play. If only I could also transmit the sounds and smells and flavors.

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Green figs, just as good as the purple kind.

I set out on a long walk before the sun rose to a point that makes physical exertion a bad idea. However, it took longer than planned because of repeated stops to pick fat, juicy blackberries and succulent figs growing wild. A generous breakfast. P1080455P1080434It’s a bit early for the fruit. Usually they hit their peak in mid-to-late August. Some of the figs are still small and hard, promises of sweet tomorrows.P1080437The grapes aren’t for picking. They aren’t growing wild, after all. I pass the vineyards of the ancient vigneron, who was bent in half but who kept working and who died about a year ago. His son now has all the work to do and is no spring chicken himself. He sells his wine to a cooperative, where quantity counts more than quality. Most of the small vineyards have switched methods, pruning back grape clusters to concentrate the flavor, favoring smaller but better production. The ancient vigneron’s son seems content to stick to the old ways. His vines sprawl and are laden with grapes.P1080435P1080458Even some wild cacti are bursting with fruit. The cacti seem to have migrated across the road from the garden of a retiree who cultivates many varieties of them. The ground here is clay and gets hard and hostile in the summer drought, but those plants that manage to take root also manage to thrive.P1080426P1080428Red seems to be the color of the moment. Red berries everywhere. Not always edible. At least not for humans. The birds enjoy them in their many varieties.P1080456

I stop to admire the solar farm. Do you see it?P1080463

I see it because I know where to look, and I only learned about it last summer; before I looked at that view and had no idea a solar farm was there. (Hint: it’s just left of the right electricity pole. It looks as if the hill is sloping to the left, but in fact, it’s straight and the gray part is solar panels.)P1080461

Can you see it now? It doesn’t mar the view as much as I had expected.P1080416

A tiny snake crosses my path. Much better than a big snake.P1080492

A field, once a vineyard but now fallow, is dotted with wildflowers.P1080460A mysterious gate to nowhere.P1080447

A lady filling a couple of bags with sand. For her houseplants, I suppose. It seems like a hard way to get sand. On the other hand, I admire it. Why drive 10 miles to town to buy a sand in sealed plastic bag when you can walk out and shovel up what you need for free?P1080495

The well-used barbecue of the boulodrome. Thursdays are pétanque night, and when the wind blows the right way at our house we hear the announcements of the winners, delivered with richly rolled R’s and an extra “ah” syllable at the end, typical of the regional accent. We also smell the sausages grilling. Every activity in France is accompanied by food. Even my gym class would eat gâteau du roi (king cake) and drink (alcoholic) cider around Jan. 6. Priorities: breaking bread beats burning calories.

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Red roofs and a green steeple.

Perhaps a picnic in the garrigue this weekend. How about you?

Purple, With a Red Hat

P1070396It can be stressful to land in a new place, all your possessions on your back, trying to figure out directions in a strange language. So I am not making fun of the strapping young things who parade about town, jaws slack in amazement and arms tight around their backpacks, which they wear in the front.

At the same time, to take measure of a place, look at the locals. In New York, I learned to keep my bag tucked tightly under my arm, with no loose strap that could be yanked away. I learned not to make eye contact. (Though once I did, by accident. It was years ago. I reading the paper and enjoying a coffee at a sidewalk table of a small café in New York’s Soho. I sensed somebody standing in front of me so I lowered the newspaper and looked up, expecting to see the waiter. Instead, I saw a disheveled man, probably crazy and homeless. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he exhorted. I was sunk–I had made eye contact and he had spoken directly to me. I flashed him a big, friendly smile and answered, “Si fahamu.”  He repeated his plea for Nadine, and I repeated, in Swahili, that I didn’t understand. He made a face that said, “this chick is crazy,” shrugged his shoulders, and sauntered off down the street.)

In Carcassonne, I see little kids, 7 or 8 years old, walking home from school unaccompanied. They aren’t everywhere, to be sure. Most kids get picked up by parents in cars, in the same horrible, car-choked scene you find in the U.S. Those who walk generally are accompanied by an adult. But I still see kids running around, including in the center of town, on errands (up the street and a few minutes later back down but carrying a baguette), riding skateboards or bikes. I like it. It feels alive and normal.

Did I let my own kid walk alone to school? Yes and no. My kid spared no words in French or English about the injustice of the forced march, PLUS from the EDGE of the village, whereas ALL THE OTHER KIDS got dropped off by their parents in CARS. We even would pass a woman (grandmother? nanny?) who would battle to get a squirmy little girl into the car for half a block. Yes. She drove half a block to school, and spent more time fighting to get the girl into the car than she did driving. Also, as I recall, it was far enough to go by car but not far enough to put the kid into a car seat with a seatbelt.

The walks to school required, at age 3, half an hour (for six blocks) in order to examine every rock, leaf and bug along the way, without stress and with time for maximum wonder. By fourth grade, the commute took three minutes, max. One day, my kid declared the end of our hand-in-hand promenades to and from school. The end of waiting by the exit with the other parents at noon and the end of the day. The declaration of independence. I was in a quandary. I wanted my kid to be independent, like the older boys who tore past us on their bikes and whom I regularly spied down in the river, fishing or exploring or whatever. Normal kids. I wanted that.

At the same time, I wanted to know without a doubt that my kid had entered the school. I couldn’t go back to work without 100% assurance. Knowing that the school probably would call after a while was no solace. In that time, where would my kid be? So, I did what any mother would do: espionage.

My kid would set off, meeting up with a pair from across the street, and off they would head to school, about six blocks away. I had insisted on a route that involved medieval streets too small for cars. Still, I waited until they had advanced down the main street, before stealing out, leaning into hedges to hide, peeking around corners. P1070393In our village, the little old ladies walk, and the little old men sit. Specifically, they sit under the plane trees in the center of the village, a vantage point that keeps them on top of what a large percentage of the population is up to. The people who live farther out, the newcomers in the lotissements, or subdivisions, are of no interest anyway.

I would glide up alongside a wall, where, crouching, I could peer unseen through the windows of parked cars all the way to the school. This was highly amusing to the old geezers, perched on a bench like so many swallows. They would nod and gesture and indicate that I could go home, that all was well. And I knew it was. Little villages are full of protectors.

In town, I see lots of little old ladies out for their commissions–their purchases of whatever they need to make the day’s meals. I deem them “old” if they use a cane or a walker; some who may have more years but who are still in good shape get categorized as just “older,” as in older than most of the folks around but not yet “old.” A teenager also is “older” than grade school kids. Everything is relative.

These little old ladies seem quite at ease, in sharp contrast with the young backpackers. They hold their canes in one hand while their boxy handbags dangle loosely from the other. I admire them for negotiating the curbs, the uneven sidewalks, the steps that are inevitable in a place that was designed in 1260. In my opinion, they always have right of way in the crush of human traffic of the market. From what I have observed, I am not alone in my thinking, although there are always some people who seem outraged to find that there are OTHER PEOPLE shopping at the market. As if!

I think of my mom, who from age 60 or so only left her house by car. Not that there were any shops in walking distance in her neighborhood. For that, Carcassonne is walkable like New York, but a lot cheaper, without the lines for everything and with much better weather.

When we were looking at properties to buy, I walked around one neighborhood in hopes of spotting details that would connect houses with places I had seen in real estate ads online. And it always was possible that I would stumble on a hand-written sign offering sale by owner. Plus, I never need much of an excuse to go walking around town.P1070386It was a sunny day, but in winter there were few people out. I spied a tiny woman working her way down the sidewalk using two canes. I figured she lived close by and probably knew everything about the quartier, so I sidled alongside her and started to chat.

She was charming. She had lived there all her life. She had fallen in her home and had just gotten out of rehab; she was out walking to get back in shape. She was 98. We ambled down the sidewalk and she told me about life. I didn’t get any real estate tips, but I had a wonderful time.

I wish I had listened more to the stories from my own mother, who died a couple of years ago at age 90. She sometimes would start to tell me about something, and I would get annoyed, because I had heard a lot of the stories many times before. Too late, I also realized she felt, tasted, smelled the memories as vividly as if they were yesterday. I was recently discussing something with my kid, and later, thinking about it and about my own experiences, I was back in the school gymnasium and could practically smell its special (hated) smell. Surely my mom wanted to connect me to such memories of her own, to share them, relive them but not alone. A Proustian journey, proffering a taste of the madeleine.

I think of my grandmothers. One was an enigma, stiff and proper. The other was completely the opposite–emotional, fierce, proud, unconditionally loving. But although I often prodded her to tell me about her childhood in Europe, she never talked about it much. Nor about anything else. What was it like to immigrate? What was school like? How did she meet my grandfather? (At a dance; he was a good dancer.) How did she, someone who loved loved loved children, have only two, and a decade apart? I suspect problems, miscarriages, maybe even illness, whether of a baby lost and never spoken of again, or herself. Although to my knowledge she was always as strong as an ox. When she was 85 and still living alone in her house, I spied big buckets of ice in her “back room”–a room with windows on two sides where she and her brood of grandchildren would sleep in summer, to get good cross-breezes, and where all those windows’ sills were lined with plants. She carried the buckets up a steep flight of stairs from the drainpipe where she caught rain or melting snow–what her flowers preferred. And one day, sitting at her kitchen table, she complained that it was going to rain because she hurt there, and she raised her leg as effortlessly as a ballerina, knee straight, as high as her head, and pointed to her ankle. I told her she had nothing to worry about. Until she was nearly 100 and rarely recognized us anymore, her hair was dyed black and she put rouge on her cheeks.

A few weeks ago, I stopped to photograph a handsomely renovated building just off the central square, Place Carnot. A passing woman looked at me, looked at the building, then stepped out of the brilliant sunshine to better admire the façade herself.P1070374“If you hadn’t been taking a picture, I wouldn’t have noticed,” she told me. “It’s beautiful.”

“Lots of buildings are getting new façades these days,” I answered, and pointed to a few other examples.

That led to nearly an hour of chatting on the street corner about everything under the sun.

I finally asked her how old she was.

“84, but that’s according to my birthday. Sometimes I feel like I’m 70; sometimes like I’m 90. Today, I feel 70,” she said.

I assured her that I had her pegged at 70. It was true. She was wearing a fluttery green top, very appropriate for the warm day, with dressy pants. Her jewelry quotient was typically française–neither too much nor too timid. She wore makeup, expertly applied, again neither too much nor timid. Her hair was dyed a slightly unnatural Lucille Ball red,  and was cut in layers, neither completely straight nor curly. Did she style it or set it? Maybe. That’s typically française–maybe they made an effort or maybe not. Basically she was an older version of Jeanne Damas. No cane, no walker.

Then, she pointed to her shoes. Cork-soled high-heeled platform sandals! I am far, far younger than 84 and do Pilates and run, and I would not dare to walk on the crooked, slippery sidewalks of Carcassonne in platform shoes. I would be in the emergency room so fast.

I wanted to give her a high five, but instead, I told her I wanted to be just like her and we hugged. She said, “Today, I felt like I was 90, but I told myself I needed to get out. I said to myself that if I didn’t make an effort, soon I wouldn’t be able to make an effort.”

She added: “Il faut lutter.” You have to fight.

This is what I love about where I live: little kids run out to buy baguettes, 84-year-olds strut their stuff in platform heels, and even older ones push their walkers, with their handbags swinging and they will be all right.P1070866The title refers to the poem by the British poet Jenny Joseph (born in 1932; I hope she is rocking some purple these days, but maybe she is just “older” and not yet “old”).

Warning

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!

Also, check out this wonderful book about people finding love late in life. In French, but an easy read. Written with great sensitivity: “Le Coeur n’as pas de rides” by Marina Rozenman. (This is not sponsored!)

 

Happy or Content?

P1080017Which do you aim for: contentment or happiness? No, they aren’t the same thing, even though happy is content in French. Happiness is bonheur, while contentment is contentement.

Contentment is the long-term satisfaction or deep fulfillment that comes from the cumulation of good times, good relationships. Happiness is the sugar high of buying something new, getting promoted, winning. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it doesn’t sustain.

So much of our lives are geared toward the attainment of happiness, probably because it’s more immediate and it feels darn good. But contentment is what counts.sunset 2Children are probably the best example of this. It seems they are a source of unending demands and pressures—starting with 4 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, evolving and expanding to learning to drive, then university expenses and so on. Petit enfant, petit soucis. Grand enfant, grand soucis. (Small child, small worries. Big child, big worries.) Research shows parents are less happy than people who are childless.

But children enrich our lives immeasurably. When this tiny person comes into the world, we think we have never loved anyone so much. And yet that love keeps growing and growing.sunset 5Of course being a parent isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I have nothing but respect for anybody who decides they don’t want to have kids. The conscious choice is so much better than those who have kids because they just happened or had them because of social pressure, and then they don’t take care of them.

We can get contentment in other ways—from other family ties, from work, from friends, from faith, from activities like gardening or sports. Contentment requires an effort over time, and that effort might be disagreeable but the results are worth it.sunset 3Happiness, by contrast, is a quick fix. Amazon Prime. Want it, get it. Now.

Not to knock that, but no amount of shopping or partying or whatever will fill an empty soul.

Life in France is particularly suited to prioritize contentment over happiness. Shops close in the evenings and on Sundays and holidays—no 24/7 here. Retail therapy takes a back seat to family time.chateau rooftopsBusinesses around here also tend to offer a two-hour lunch break. Meals, in fact, are sacred, a time for conversation and sharing. There is nothing I love more than having a dinner with friends, regardless what is on the table (though that is consistently amazing). At mealtimes, everything else stops.

The absence of air conditioning is another exercise in contentment over happiness. It can feel so good to walk out of the heat and into a cold room. But once you cool down, you need a sweater. Not in France. We slowly adapt to the heat, take the time to walk a little more slowly, choose the shade. And after a while, the high temps actually feel comfortable. Didn’t we wait all winter for these warm days? (It helps that we have cool nights and low humidity.) It’s easier to get out and enjoy the summer when your body is used to the heat.sunset 1Maybe I’m already getting old and crotchety, but I am losing my taste for thrills. The curtains in our apartments were a huge pain (in every sense of huge) to make, but I doubt I would admire them as much now if I had just ordered them online. The antique furnishings that were found from so many sources and brought back to life. It would have been easier to just buy reproductions, or to do the all-modern-in-an-old-building look that’s so popular. But the hard way is so much more satisfying and unique.pyrennees 2From my open window, I hear my friend Merle singing (merle is French for blackbird, so I call him that, though he is operatic and not very country at all), and the cigales thrumming. I smell the grass and the freshly cut wheat from a nearby field. Later I will read the latest installment of the novel my kid is writing and marvel at how these ideas came together and wonder where this vocabulary was picked up (in a good way—it isn’t naughty at all; instead, some of the turns of phrases are bowl me over with their artfulness). I will hang laundry to dry in the breeze and smell fresh in a way no fabric softener can replicate. I will make a pie crust for tonight’s quiche. I will do work that I love. These things give life sweetness and meaning. Nothing thrilling, but all deeply satisfying.sunset 4

Dr. Seuss in the South of France

P1070732The fields and roadsides here in the south of France are dappled with colorful spring wildflowers. Blazing poppies, of course. And voluptuous clouds of yellow broom plant–their French name, genêt, is so much prettier.

P1070877
The yellow in the middle is genêt.
P1070882
Can’t get enough poppies. Plus, can you see the Pyrenées in the upper left? The electric wires connect the big solar panel installation to the grid.

But if you look closely, you will see smaller spectacles of color and design audacity. They are easy to miss because they don’t have the massive presence of, say, the poppies. These wonders look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, flowering in Whoville or Sala-ma-Sond.

One of my favorites, which I don’t have a good shot of, are the purple Sputniks below:

The wonderful photographer Heather at Lost in Arles did a better job on them, as well as on the little white flowers, whose conical heads look surrounded by manes, like little cartoon lions. Or like sparklers.P1070756There are so many flowers on impossibly thin stems that look drawn by a fine pen, that spread out so far.P1070650

P1070638

P1070761These seemed worthy of Whoville lamp posts. Or fairy lanterns.P1070729Long, long stems with big shapes on the end are very Seussian:P1070652

P1070668P1070644

This one makes me think of Snuffleupagus, who isn’t from Seuss but Sesame Street. But still.P1070721Some scary plants, too.P1070733And some manmade help below. This one is more Barbapapa. Sometimes when I go running, I pass the owner of this place, standing at the end of the drive and waiting for a ride. One day, he was holding a big bottle of whiskey. In the morning. I teased him hard about that. “It’s a present!” he protested.P1070725Maybe I find these amazing because I always lived in a city, where flowers are carefully chosen. Spotting these weird wonders gives me huge joy. What gives you joy?P1070647

P1070771
A wonderfully red wild iris.

 

An Immigrant in France

two yellowWhat is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Time and expectations.

When I first moved to Europe, my employers told me that they would appreciate if I would stay at least two years to make it worth all the expense. I thought, “TWO YEARS? Can I do that?”

one yellow
I took these photos last November. They seemed so appropriate for this topic. Putting down roots.

I had lived for just over two years in Africa, without electricity or running water. I figured that Europe was a cakewalk by comparision. Surely I could make it two years.

I decided to cram in as much of the Continent as I could. I found an apartment that met all my criteria: Grand French doors, fireplaces, moldings, impossibly high ceilings, good location, cheap. It not only had moldings but also mold; it was a dump, really, with unreliable heat and scary wiring. I didn’t care. I worked 12 hours a day and then left every weekend. By not spending my pennies on rent, I was able to see a lot of Europe.

scattered yellowThis is where I thank the Schengen Treaty and its 26 members. There were just seven when I moved to Europe. The idea that I could run around even seven countries without border controls was amazing! If you don’t remember all this, watch the very funny “Rien à Declarer” (“Nothing to Declare”) with the utterly insane Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgian) and Dany Boon (French) about how well that went.

Feels like yesterday.

Anyway.

dividedI married a Belgian. Two years turned into six. But I always figured I would go back. And we did, for a year. Then we moved back to Europe, this time to France.

Thanks to Schengen, my husband has the right to live in France, the way a Californian can live in New York, almost. Because I’m married to him, I get to come, too. Our kid has dual nationality (but honestly is a citizen of the world).

What does it mean to adopt a new country? I think it means respecting the local laws, certainly, and also customs, though I don’t think one needs to jettison one’s origins. I make cupcakes and hamburgers and barbecued ribs and lots of Mexican food. I listen to NPR podcasts and read the New York Times. I speak English to my husband and kid; husband speaks to me in French; kid speaks to me in English and to papa in French, which makes for some interesting dinner conversations. (If I dare react to a comment our kid made in French, I will be told, in English, “I wasn’t talking to YOU.” Of course I am in awe and envious of this ability to snap effortlessly and mostly flawlessly from one language to another.)

cookies with warning note
How it rolls in our house.

That said, the looks I get when I speak to my kid in English in public are not the same as for mothers who speak other languages. Once in a while I get a frown, but most often, mothers I don’t even know will sidle up and ask whether I give English lessons (I don’t). Mothers speaking in Arabic get only the frowns.

Why is that? I suspect it’s an assumption of want vs. need. I am in France because I want to be, not because I have to be here. It’s a nice place, I’m a lifelong francophile, and so why not. It’s an expat mindset. This, compared with people who are in France not because they are in love with the country but because they are NOT in love with their own, for economic, political or whatever reasons.

While I pass for French until I open my mouth, others get judged from afar. I am ashamed to say, I’ve done it myself. There was one mother at after-school pickup who wore a headscarf. Being a feminist, I winced every time I saw her. On the one hand, I think we all should be able to wear whatever we want. No body-shaming. But headscarves aren’t about fashion; they are saying half the population is a threat or a nuisance that should be hidden.

from aboveHowever, some friends were interested in a house for sale which happened to be next door to the veiled woman’s house, and so I approached her to get information about it. She was lovely. Charming and smart, though she hadn’t been able to continue her studies. She worked. She basically took care of her mother, who though fairly young didn’t speak French and didn’t drive and needed her daughter to manage every aspect of her life. Her two kids were well-behaved. Her husband had a business.

I’ve been told a number of times, both in France and in Belgium, that I’m a “good” immigrant–legally documented, working, tax-paying, law-abiding. This woman and her family also were “good” immigrants in every one of those ways. Yet, she told me, I was the first person ever to speak to her in our village. I was ashamed that I had let her veil stop me from being friendly. I still see veils as means of oppression, but I make an effort to love the person–or at least smile in the case of strangers–while hating the veil.red amid yellowAt my gym class yesterday, one woman had voted for LePen in Sunday’s run-off; ironically she herself had lived all over the world, untroubled that she should maintain her French identity and customs in other countries but unhappy to be back in France and confronted with people doing the same.

The others all favored Macron, tepidly; their enthusiasm was limited to opposing Le Pen (sound familiar?). They talked about their conflicted feelings about France’s future, about absolutely wanting to preserve the social safety net while wondering whether it hadn’t gotten too generous. Where to draw the line? In a way, Sunday’s election was about 11 different choices of lines to be drawn. Though the challenges are far more complex than a simple line can resolve.

One woman, who works for a social-services agency, described a case she’s dealing with: an elderly couple who just arrived from Azerbaijan. They don’t speak a word of French and both need extensive medical care. That someone from Azerbaijan would prefer to have heart surgery in France isn’t surprising. What is shocking, however, is that they qualify as indigent and don’t have to pay a cent.

red with yellowObviously, that can’t go on. But will it swing as far as Le Pen wants? We’ll find out May 7.

Although this topic is inextricably and unavoidably part of life in France, especially right now, we will turn back toward lighter things on Friday.

 

Walk in the French Countryside

wisteria cepie 2The leaves are all out on the trees now, though some of the flowering trees are still dressed as if going to a ball. And the temperatures have been so warm that the poppies are multiplying before our eyes. Soon entire fields will be red.

wisteria cepie
Wisteria everywhere.

So here are some shots of spring before they are too outdated.

treehouse
A treehouse for watching birds.

The treehouse above is now completely hidden by leaves. It’s quite a setup. I’ve seen a ladder going up to it, but usually the ladder is gone. I’ve never seen a kid around it, and I think it was intended for birdwatching only. It belongs to an elderly (but spry) guy and has many “keep out” signs.

white horse
This was such a dreamy surprise between the trees.
orchard 2
An orchard that from the distance looks like a field of cotton candy.
garden bridges
That isn’t a moat, but…

The culverts along French country roads can be extremely deep. I suppose it’s to handle the runoff when it rains, because around here, a feeble sprinkle is rare–when it rains, it pours.

You can see the little garden sheds. Nothing flimsy about them. They are made of concrete blocks. That makes for a cool getaway in the summer.

garden bridge gate
Gated property.

I would never have the nerve to drive over one of these. Near my parents’ home was a bridge that had rails on the sides, but big openings showing the enormous brown river very far below. I felt sick every time we went over it and I would drive out of my way to a newer bridge with concrete sides that hid the river. Farther south, there is an even older bridge that’s only one lane wide over this major river and you feel as if you are flying instead of driving over the river. I do not find that exciting.

pyrenees
Ah, the Pyrénées.

The weather here has been remarkable. Cloudless days, full view of the mountains. No need for a sweater during the day. The saying is “en avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil; en mai fais ce qu’il te plaît” — in April, don’t take off even a thread, but in May do as you please.

faucet
I want one!

Isn’t this the coolest faucet? It was on a public fountain in a village. In a lot of places, such a beauty would have been stolen, but here it’s par for the course. I love these little touches. It could have been a plain faucet, but instead it’s a little piece of art.

bridge
See that sky? The trees are full of leaves now.

This little village, with the old Renault (a 3 or 4; not sure), is just so typical, with its line of plane trees and its red tile roofs. Not a soul stirring, either. A few cats and dogs too busy napping to even look up.

chateau
Surprise.

I love the way châteaux peek between trees in the countryside. You can drive along, and suddenly, hey, what’s that in that copse? Why it’s a château. I never get tired of finding them, and love when we venture beyond our usual routes so I can scour the horizon for châteaux.

Segways in TLS
For something completely different.

Finally, this one goes with nothing, but I found it so startling I just had to share it. Yes, châteaux are normal, but Segways are not. This troupe? flock? pack? of Segways zipped by on an otherwise pedestrian street in Toulouse when we were there back during the soldes. Are group Segway outings a thing elsewhere?