Relentlessly Beautiful France

P1070308Beauty can take so many forms. The voluptuous lusciousness of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting; her magnificently lined face photographed in her later years. The plump, kissable cheeks of a baby; the undulating starkness of the Sahara’s sands. The south of France has both extremes of beauty–the soft and the rugged. Right now, we’re in the soft season.P1070426P1070424P1070419Douceur in French means both softness and sweetness, which captures the spirit of spring in France. The air is perfect–as our kid remarked, it’s just right no matter what you’re wearing, whether a T-shirt or a sweater. It’s richly scented with newly cut grass and so, so many flowers blooming. We want to fill our lungs greedily with this nectar. Even though our winters are far from insufferable, we gorge on spring as if at a banquet after a famine.

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My crummy camera almost captured the gaudy pink sunrise on the snow-capped Pyrénées.
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I think that peak is Canigou, near the border with Spain…also near the Mediterranean.

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And, turning around, the Black Mountains.

The trees have mostly filled out with leaves, changing their shape from Giacometti sculptures to something more in the style of Botero. The platanes that were heavily pruned stay bare a while longer, with little tufts of green looking somewhat ridiculous on such big trunks. The vineyards are the same–pruned down to a single vine per stump, little leaves popping out in single file, catching the sun like emeralds.P1090884

The architecture and engineering of an anthill, bigger than my fist. How did they make such a perfectly round tower, with perfectly round entries?P1090893P1090894We take our time to savor the market, noting the appearance of each new player on the season’s stage. Bernard, the strawberry man, is back, attracting a line of customers, many of whom he greets by name, not having forgotten during the winter break. Promises of summer show up from Spain and Morocco in the form of melons and tomatoes. It’s so hard to wait, but we will hold out; flavor doesn’t travel well.P1070373The cafés are full…outside. The locals greet each other with kisses; the wide-eyed tourists take it all in, probably wondering (judging by the number of people toting both cameras and real estate brochures) whether maybe they, too, should move here for the sweet life.P1090907P1090900P1070405

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Overfunctional

1st strawberriesWhat do the French do on a long weekend? They go to the countryside! Easter Monday is a national holiday, because although the Revolution established France as a diligently secular country, folks weren’t so foolish as to relinquish days off.

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Easter bunnies? On sale at the market.
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Not a bad view.

On a back road that rivaled any pot-holed, rutted safari track, cars with not-local plates passed nonstop under a brilliant spring sun. More cars were parked under trees, their passengers scattered in the brush–a taste of wilderness without having to walk too far.

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It’s obvious, right?

They were after asparagus, mostly. The thing to eat on Easter Monday is an omelette, preferably with asparagus, preferably wild asparagus. You need better eyesight than mine to spot it–fine green stems against more green. “It’s not the same green!” my friends explain. But I have gone asparagus-ing and even when it was right in front of my face I didn’t see it. However, I got plenty scratched up. Now I get my wild asparagus at the market or from generous friends.

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Look closer! That’s an asparagus plant. No delectables on this one…somebody had already passed.

People of all ages were tramping through the brush–the touffes, or tufts, are called la matte in local Occitan lexicon. Somehow, la matte sums up the state of the inpenetrable tangle. That didn’t stop people from trying. I saw a dad coaching a little girl, who was wiggling like a commando through a little opening to get to asparagus gold.

It takes a long time to get even a handful.

There are other wild things along the way, and I’m not talking about parents. The flowers! Wild orchids:

Wild irises:

A very decorative plant whose name I was told but forgot, and whose fruit grows not off the stem but off the leaf:

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Can you see that the berry is attached to the leaf? The little star-shaped flower on the other leaf will turn into a berry.

This little flower is called un petit souci–a little worry. I wonder whether a bunch of petits soucis becomes a big worry.

People here say all the time, “Petit enfant, petits soucis. Grand enfant, grands soucis”–small children, small worries. Big children, big worries.

Sigh. Happily ours is sans souci at the moment. Knock on wood.

Speaking of big, the pinecone on the left was bigger than my fist. It also was very sticky with sap, so it didn’t come home with me.

While we swoon over the views again, let’s discuss the title of this post. It’s from a podcast by Esther Perel, who is a revelation. Her podcast records her therapy sessions with couples. Wow. Even if you aren’t dealing with the issues discussed, you can’t help but learn. Learn to listen. Learn to get past what people say and understand what they mean.P1090810P1090825In an episode titled “Leaving Shame Behind,” Perel counseled a couple dealing with the aftermath of crises–a brain tumor, a car crash and the husband having a near-fatal heart attack that left him mostly disabled for a long time. The wife had to do everything–what Perel called “overfunctioning.” Isn’t that just the perfect word? Are you overfunctioning?

P1090827P1090829She said many wise things, but one that really hit me was: “Apology is not weak. The one who apologizes first is the stronger one.”

 

Age Is Just a Number

P1080404Trying to explain what is “new” and “old” in France to somebody from the Americas is challenging. In a place where the first buildings still standing went up in 485 CE, something from 1663 is relatively new.P1060555

I never liked history because of having to memorize dates. It’s very strange, because I’m good with numbers and am likelier to remember somebody’s phone number or zip code than their name. I guess we also had to memorize a lot of names. Not enough emphasis on the stories!

I finally have a few key points under my belt, such as July 14, 1789: Bastille Day. These things never happen on a whim. The kindling is laid for years, and then when the fire is sparked, it takes off ferociously.

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The U.S. was one year old.

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The houses above were built in the period when things had been getting better to the extent that people lived longer and populations swelled. France had the biggest population in Europe. For a while it was boom times, then prices for food rose sharply.P1090682

This 1790 house was built in the early days of the revolution, not far from the 1780 house. Had the unrest reached this far into France profonde? To get here, you have to pass the mountainous Massif Central, until the band of plain where these houses lie. Beyond here, you hit mountains, where sheep outnumber people, and then Spain. P1090591

I constantly marvel and am thankful that these houses, with their not-square corners and not-plumb walls and not-level floors, have been inhabited and tended to, rather than torn down for something modern. P1090684

In the little streets, time stands still.P1090588P1090676P1090539

Despite the simple tools of the time, curves (the intentional ones!) grace the architecture.P1090548P1090546P1090544

Concrete and glass can be beautiful, but after a while, so many pure lines feel bland. Give me a nice stone wall that has seen some things.P1090545

Arched door, arched back.

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I mentioned just last week, on the first day of spring, that the trees had a green haze that hinted at leaves, which I predicted would burst out all at once. Well, the switch flipped. The photos below are from almost the same spot. The one on the left was from a couple of weeks ago with the first buds, and the one on the right was taken yesterday.

Spring fever is contagious. My kid occasionally  often forgets to be a sullen teen, for example, yesterday, exclaiming at breakfast that the birds were singing. Indeed, a whole chorus of birds chirped and twittered in the background of a belted-out aria from Merle, our resident blackbird. Un merle is French for blackbird, and I think it’s a good name for such a singer. He often sits on the peak of our house and serenades us as we dine en terrace in the evenings, something we can finally do again.

I hope your spring day is as beautiful as mine.P1090510

One Bad Apple

IMG_5518It seems impossible to ignore the sad events that came to my beloved town.

They are uncharacteristic. As I have remarked before, this is a small, sleepy town where young children and old ladies walk around on their own with no problems. It’s not as gentrified and Disneyfied as the villages of Provence that attract droves of tourists and where real estate is now out of reach for people with modest salaries, like teachers. Carcassonne, and the region around it, remains modestly rooted in the past.IMG_5824On Friday, I was in Trèbes. Not in the supermarket, though we shop there often. But I was in the crowd on the corner, as close as the gendarmes would allow. Many of the people gathered were immigrants. The older people were livid that a young delinquent was bringing unflattering attention to their community. They had businesses. They loved France.IMG_4637Later, I was near the low-income housing project where the attacker lived. It was built in the 1950s for workers of the Salsigne gold mine, who were a mixed lot of nationalities. Keep in mind that while France suffered in World War II, other countries were much poorer in the postwar years. Working in a gold mine, despite the risks, was a path to a better life. Even for locals–several of our older friends worked at the mine, which is in the mountains about 10 miles north of Carcassonne. When it closed in 2004, it was a mixed blessing, as often is the case–it was good to end the environmental disaster, but the loss of jobs was devastating. The neighborhood was named after Frédéric Ozanam, a founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Its mundanity feels a world away from the historic Cité.

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Where the locals came under attack in the crusade of 1209.

The neighborhood was quiet and tidy. Not a speck of litter on the ground. No graffiti. It was clearly very modest. It’s the worst neighborhood in town, but worst is relative. A boy and a girl, about 8 or 10 years old, played basketball on a nice court, unsupervised. A knot of maybe 20 young men hugged each other. We talked for about 15 minutes. I could see their minds churning–how to process the news, how to react, which side to take. They were emotional but mostly respectful. I read that their tempers got away from them later, when journalists arrived en masse.P1090734A block from the young men, an old woman was pushing her walker down the center of the street–easier than navigating up and down curbs and around light poles. This spoke volumes. She must live there, since she was on foot, heading toward the main street, where there are some shops. She felt safe about going out alone. She even felt confident that any car that might come along would brake and wait for her to get onto the sidewalk. At the corner, she was one door away from where the military jogger was shot that same morning.

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The people gathered are journalists interviewing a neighbor directly across from the shooting.

The next day, Saturday, was sad. The brave gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame, died of his injuries. It seemed as if the skies opened to cry for him. The market went on, life went on, though more hushed than usual. I still saw little old ladies out for their groceries, walking alone. Because one wrong man cannot undo us all.P1090738

 

Spring’s Eternal

P1090730It seems as if spring has been giving us a slow tease for a month already. Finally, it’s official.

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There’s always a line…until they sell out, which is fast.

To me, it’s officially spring when the asparagus stands appear at the market. That was a few weeks ago. Asparagus trucked in from Spain doesn’t count. I like it picked no longer than the day before. The thing about living in France is that you get full license to be a snob about food. It comes with the carte de séjour.P1090603The wild almond trees are the first to flower. A group of women from the village used to go for walks through the vineyards from early June to mid-July–when the evenings stay light until quite late. They would point out plants on the side of the road, and somebody always had a jam they made from it, or a way to cook it, and inevitably there was a recipe to make an alcoholic beverage, whether sweet, savory, bitter, you name it. Booze was definitely the biggest category. P1090719With my eyes opened to the cornucopia just sitting out there, I picked up some almonds. I got them home, and cracked them open and tasted one. Disgusting. Strongly like marzipan but way more bitter. I went online to read about whether they had to be toasted or treated to improve the taste, and discovered that they are extremely poisonous! They’re full of cyanide! It only takes 10 or so to make you deathly ill. Though I can’t imagine anybody being able to eat 10. Blech. Anyway, it taught me the dangers of wild foraging.P1090596P1090598The buds and burgeons on bare branches start to open into actual foliage, creating a vaguely green scrim around the roadside bushes. One of these days, as if a switch were flipped, everything will be filled out.P1090606The vineyards take longer to reawake. The vignerons are laboring to trim the vines before their sap begins to flow again. Painstaking. Back-breaking. Wish them good health when you sip your next glass.P1090726P1090724The Pyrénées are still covered with snow, and up to 50 cm (20 inches) was forecast for today! Yesterday was T-shirt weather, but by 4 p.m., the storm rolled in and sent the temperatures dropping. Today feels like winter, not spring, though we didn’t get snow. Higher up, though, they did. The ski slopes are only an hour or two away by car/bus, and the local ski club has outings until the end of March.

I never tire of this view.P1070276P1090670Interesting things show up.

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What is this spiky plant with  red flower?
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I didn’t have a heart attack only because I didn’t want to end up lying next to this (une coulevre, I think, but I wasn’t getting close enough to check–I zoomed for the photo).

The flora here includes many plants that never lose their leaves, keeping the countryside surprisingly green even in winter. All these photos were taken in the past two weeks.P1090689P1090594And, of course, the dreamy clouds.P1090728

 

 

How do you feather your nest?

P1080573Home. The word itself is soothing. All soft H, long O, humming M, even the silence of the E.

Houses are built but homes are made.

I have seen some pretty spartan living quarters, but they always included decoration, even if it was pages and pictures from old newspapers and magazines, wildflowers in a used tin can. Usually, there is something personal. A memento. A photo, a souvenir from a happy moment in the past, a relic of a loved one.P1080571Homes are gathered. Some might say collected or curated, but that involves an aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily include raw emotion. It’s why, to me, the best interiors are those that are layered by years of life experiences, not the latest trends clicked and ordered and delivered same day.

There is a magical quality to the minimalist and modern Roche Bobois aesthetic. Epuré– streamlined–is the term. One imagines that the resident of such pared-down perfection could have an entire wardrobe of white clothes and that they never would be wrinkled or stained, and no paper would ever arrive from officialdom to cause one to tear one’s hair out and spend several days trying to get the situation resolved. Because such houses have no place for papers that represent unresolved problems. All surfaces are void. All problems are null. It is a seductive proposition.P1080584But I don’t believe it for a minute. And while I like a modern space every now and then, the way I like vinegar–a bright, bracing contrast to more comforting, comfortable things–a little goes a long way. Too much, and all you get is sour emptiness. No heart. No past. No memories. No love.

I’m very sentimental. As I type this, I’m wearing a sweater that belonged to my mother, even though there’s a huge rip on the sleeve. I have other sweaters, but this one was hers.  It will have to be far more shredded before I part with it. (Fair warning to my husband.)P1080581Every piece of art in our house has a story. Sometimes the story is that I, or my husband, or both of us were someplace and the picture or carving captured that place, that moment, and we wanted to keep it with us forever. None of it is valuable in a collector’s monetary sense, but all of it is beloved–not so much the items themselves but the moments they represent and the people we were then. Sometimes the story comes from having been was passed down. Especially the photos. The exuberant smiles on my siblings’ then-young faces. What a mess we made our home, four forces of nature with far too much energy to be contained by the walls and roof of a mere house. The smallest thing can transport me there, across the ocean, across the decades, so much so that I am startled to find myself here, now, when I snap out of my reverie. I am not sad to be here. I want to go hug my kid and kiss my husband and jump for joy for being so lucky. That doesn’t negate the yearning to also throw an arm around the buzzcut boy in the photo. P1080586A home is feathered not only with things but with rituals and sounds and scents. My mother’s constant classical music. My dad’s snores from down the hall that let me know he was home safe from work. Roast beef on Sundays whose smell permeated the house when we came back from church. We have different rituals, but they still tie us to each other, like a shared safety net. As Rick says in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”

 

 

En Forme

P1090667For about a year and a half I’ve been wearing a wrist-based monitor and I love it. I work from home, and since our kid started going to school by bus in town and I no longer walk to and from school four times a day (coming home for a two-hour lunch…yes, it’s the south of France), I can easily get consumed by my screen and barely budge for hours.

My monitor tells me how many steps I’ve taken, how many calories I’ve burned, more or less, how many hours I’ve slept and how well, and my heart rate. For a while, I filled out the online form with everything I ate, but that was too tedious, so I just look at the total that I’ve burned. It is sometimes depressingly low.

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Fishing and walking along the Canal du Midi

My monitor is like a Mary Poppins on my wrist, seeing all and nudging me to be my better self.  I can see when I’ve been at my desk too long and whether I slouched through a run or whether I actually went all-out, based on the heart-rate stats. The overall effects are in the resting heart rate, which are comfortingly low. I am a type-A overachiever, and I love nothing better than to best myself.

I can see how I slept–not just how I thought I slept, but actually how many minutes I was tossing and turning and how much time was in the Alzheimer-fighting deep sleep zone. I can look back at factors like how late I ate, or whether I had wine with dinner, or how late my last coffee was, to try to tweak my sleep for the better, and to see how it turns out.

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Mountain biking through the vineyards

I realize that all of the numbers are broad generalities, because a wrist-based sensor isn’t the same as the precision of a laboratory. But it gives me an idea and keeps me from being overly optimistic. A reality check. A kick in the pants.

I am not into selling stuff, and so I haven’t mentioned the name of my monitor, but it’s one of the popular ones. The first one fell to pieces (and I was furious) but was still under guarantee so I have a newish one that seems to be of sturdier design. There are many options. A friend has a phone app that counts steps. Whatever works. Sometimes we need somebody/something to tell us, hey, do better! Other people who have tested multiple brands are better positioned to make a recommendation.P1090609Another interesting, and free, test is the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s World Fitness Level Calculator. It asks lots of questions (like maximum heart rate and resting heart rate) that are easier to answer with one of these wrist fitness monitors, but it also asks lots of lifestyle questions, like whether you’ve ever smoked, and your waist circumference. At the end, it gives you your fitness age. My fitness age is less than my chronological age, despite the fact that my best sport is reading (I have never successfully caught a ball). It’s probably because I do exercise pretty much every day, figuring that being able to run up steps and carry stuff and act like the much-younger parents of my kid’s friends is well worth a daily half-hour of misery. I also go to Pilates once a week, to add to the suffering, but that is so worth it for correcting back problems.

As for the French take on this stuff, almost all my French friends do some kind of exercise. One swims (outside!), even when I think it’s insanely cold. Another does Pilates and aquagym. Several go to the village exercise class, which I did for years. Some do yoga. Another does yoga and walks for an hour a day. I had always read that French women don’t work out or do anything that involves sweat, but pretty much everybody I know actually does work out in one way or another. A group of retired villagers goes for a walk around the vineyards every day–early in summer; midday in winter. Their ranks have dwindled over the years and is down to four feisty old ladies. They stop at the cemetery on their way home.

I even found some stats: 64% of French people over age 15 do some kind of sports at least once a week. The most common activity is walking for leisure, with 42% of people doing it. The sport most people do the most frequently is “utilitarian” walking–i.e., commuting on foot. It probably helps keep obesity levels to around 15.3% in France, compared with 38.2% in the car-centric U.S. Another source said 48% of the French walk or run.IMG_5802There are gyms and associations for every imaginable sport, from fencing to flamenco to football. Crazily, to join a gym or sport club, you have to go to the doctor for a medical certificate that says you’re healthy enough to do the sport. The city of Carcassonne just launched a program to get people in not-great health (people with chronic illness, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Parkinsons, hypertension, arthritis, or kidney or respiratory problems) to do sports in a supervised way–you get a prescription from your doctor and can go to a sports center for €50 per six months for locals. Which is quite a bargain. The sports include rowing, kayaking (in a pool), swimming, walking, nordic walking, climbing (indoors), archery, stretching, tennis, muscle-building, exercise, balance, yoga and cardio training.

If you can motivate yourself to exercise alone, you’ll save money–running doesn’t cost anything except for shoes. I was on the track team for one year in high school, at the behest of some friends, and came in last in every event I tried. I once ran a 10K and came in second-to-last, nosing out a guy twice my age. Despite my lack of aptitude, running appeals because it’s cheap, time-flexible and efficient. I’ve been doing high-intensity intervals–30 seconds of walking, 20 seconds of jogging and 10 seconds of sprinting. Last fall, during a sprint, I asked myself whether I was really at my max and tried to go faster. I ended up splat on the ground with two skinned knees. On the other hand, I can take stairs two at a time without getting winded, so it’s worth it.P1090690What do you do to stay in shape?

 

Midwinter Madness

P1090535The south of France is anything but a hardship post. As winters go, they’re the green pistes, compared with the black ones elsewhere. In fact, spring started sprouting more than a week ago. (The mimosas are exploding, as in the top photo.)P1090325The days are getting longer and milder. The air smells doux, in all the French senses of the word: sweet, soft, mild, gentle… It’s intoxicating, making you want to fill your lungs again and again. It’s been mild enough that we can open the windows and let the perfume in the house (in addition to the daily airing that all good French people perform every morning, kind of the opposite of hygge). Snow is an hour away, if we want it, in abundance.P1090521P1090520

The bees are buzzing, the butterlies are fluttering. The weeds are invading.P1090461P1090463

The majestic plane trees are still bare. They look like tortured sculptures, though the trunks of some remind me of the trunks of elephants. P1090530P1090532P1090542

The trees in the woods don’t yet have leaves, but greenery persists throughout winter here.P1090502P1090526The river is robust, neither threatening nor dry. P1090551P1090509The baby grass is so tender. I just wanted to stay and stroke it (I did partake for a few minutes, but resisted the urge to take off my shoes and feel it between my toes, too).P1090501P1090565Secret worlds come to life.

Welcome, spring.P1090517

Please check out Daily Plate of Crazy, who also has musings today on midwinter madness.

The Definition of Insanity

P1090464“I’ll be late,” the text said.

I was annoyed. Certainly this was an excuse to avoid chores. “Why?” I texted back, knowing full well that phones aren’t allowed in school.

No answer.

An hour later, my phone rang. I was even more annoyed. Almost nobody has my number, so when it rings, it’s either a telemarketer or a misdial.

It was school. There had been an accident. Please go to the emergency room.

We were led to a flourescent-lit room already crowded with other parents. Nobody knew anything. The panic, the angst, while waiting was terrible.

I brought my baby home a few hours later. Nothing serious; an abundance of caution. (No hospital bill, either, thank you socialized medicine.)

I thought about that day when I heard the familiar news of a school shooting. In America–where else. I can barely type for the tears, imagining those kids, those parents, desperate for another day together.

Are people not yet sick of their children being mowed down? Is that liberty?P1090498The definition of insanity  is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

 

Burn 650 Calories in 10 Minutes

P1080866And maybe save a life. While lying down.

Give blood.

Many, many people donate blood, yet there’s still a need. I knew this, but there was always a reason why it wasn’t convenient to participate during the local blood drives. Finally my kid challenged me to do it and wanted to watch. No peer pressure is as intense as kid pressure on a parent to bring out our better angels.

logoSo we went one morning after shopping at the market. Several volunteers dressed as big drops of blood were pleading with people at the market to walk down the block to the room where an efficient army of workers was taking donations from a surprisingly robust crowd of volunteers.

I flunked the test, though. I had run that morning (no exercise too soon before or after) and had only coffee for breakfast. I went back after a big lunch. It went smoothly, and afterward we sat at a long table of very French food: cheese, hard sausage, brioche and some industrial baked goods (Breton cookies and palmiers). Lots of juice and water. I had some cheese and brioche and palmiers and drank a lot and figured I was good to go.

We got about a block when my head started to spin. It had been decades since I’d last donated blood. My kid guided me to a bench on the street, and I felt better after a minute. But we hadn’t gone half a block when I got dizzy again. We were in front of a café and I quickly put myself onto a chair on the sidewalk. But I started to slide right off it and couldn’t stop. My kid was trying to get me up. People stared. My kid informed me that people thought I was drunk. Lovely! Some nice ladies went into the café and came out with water and sugar, and I managed to drink it, and eventually perked up enough to get around the corner to our AirBnB apartments, which were empty that weekend. I lay down and waited for my husband to come. No driving home. I would get my car later.

Now I am in the database, and two months later I got a call from the Établissement Français du Sang (French Blood Establishment) asking for more. I learned that I could take an appointment at their offices at the hospital, with no waiting and parking right in front of the door. I got my husband to drive me just in case, but I was fine.

It was even quicker, and I thought gosh, I should do this more often–well, whenever they call. The other donors clearly were regulars.

Although I was tired the rest of the day, I have to admit I felt like a million bucks the day after. I looked up information about giving blood and found out it burns 650 calories, on average, which was a sweet bonus. Especially because you need to eat something decent beforehand (the second time I had a nice protein-rich breakfast of eggs) and will eat something afterward. I do miss those American doughnuts.

EFS_Header_Merci_2017Donating blood regularly also reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease, which makes up for the lack of doughnuts.

You can donate blood every eight weeks, which comes to about six times a year. You give about a liter, or a pint, of blood per donation, which can help up to three people. You also can donate plasma and platelets, which involve a longer process and which can be donated more frequently.

My dad received blood transfusions. He would complain that his “counts were down,” and that he “needed a pint,” as if he had some kind of dipstick and it was akin to glug-glugging in a can of blood like oil into a car. I can’t bring him back, but I can help somebody else.

So can you.