Tomorrow, April 1, may be April Fool’s to you, but in France, it’s the day for the Poisson d’Avril–April Fish Day.
April Fish Day is just one of the tweaks one must learn on moving to France. Among the others: la petite souris (the little mouse), not the tooth fairy, brings a small present, not a coin, for a lost tooth. My kid was honestly horrified at the idea of a mouse running around the house, and preferred to stick with the fairy tale. Another benefit of being bi-national: the mousy fairy brought not only a shiny €2 coin (I know, cheapskate. The average in the U.S. is about double that) but also a present of a book, which had to be wrapped or it wasn’t a present.
In addition, the Easter bunny doesn’t bring Easter eggs; instead that’s the job of the church bells. According to the Catholic Church in France, edited by the Conference of French Bishops (how’s THAT for a source!), between Holy Thursday and Easter, the church bells would fall silent, and when children would ask why, the grown-ups would explain that the bells had gone to Rome. Logical. The pope would bless them before sending them back, and they would bring goodies for the kids. The goodies part certainly helped kids overlook the holes in this lame tale.
The Easter bunny turns out to be German, not that it’s any more logical to have a rabbit hauling eggs.
You can find plenty of chocolate Eastern bunnies in France, because when it comes to chocolate, the French take a big tent approach: the more the merrier.
April Fish Day goes back to the 1500s, when King Charles IX shifted New Year’s Day to Jan. 1, from April 1. The whole calendar thing seemed to be fluid for a long time. In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar created the Julian calendar with 12 months and 365 days, but it started March 1 with spring. Logical.
In 532, the Catholic Church moved the start of the year to Jan. 1, so the new year would begin in the first month following Christmas Day, which had been set as Dec. 25. However (and this is what happens when everybody decides what to do locally), in some places they insisted on starting the year on Easter, in others on Christmas.
The story is that either people who were upset with Jan. 1 gave fish (as a New Year’s gift–presents in those days tended to be comestibles) on April 1 as a middle finger to the king’s edict, OR that it was the pro-Jan. 1 folks who gave fish to the anti-change April Firsters to tease them.
Why fish? Maybe because the zodiac sign March is Pisces–fish? Maybe it has to do with the Christian symbol of a fish? Maybe because some wise guy invented a meme and it went viral?
Around 1900, April 1 was the day to declare one’s love by sending a fish-shaped card. At the same time, chocolate fish became fashionable (see French attitude toward chocolate above). The little fish- and shell-shaped chocolates are called friture (fried foods) appear in shops around April 1 until Easter.
While there is a joke line called Poisson d’Avril (go ahead and laugh at their translation of Darth Vader as Dark Vador), mostly the joke consists of surreptitiously sticking a paper fish on somebody’s back. Our kid used to get SO excited coloring and cutting out fish of various sizes and sticking them on papa’s back. The Carnivore, unsurprisingly, considers fish a waste of time on the plate, but he played along with the gag excellently, expressing immense astonishment when he would find a fish on his back, regardless of how indelicately it had been taped there. Of course he had to make the discovery in order for other audaciously attached fish to follow.
I was sure I had saved some of those fish, but all I found in the art folder was the one here, which interestingly folds out. It was a lot of fun to look through the years of creativity. Funny how when they’re really little, any scribble is so amazing.
I am not sure I approve, but the French kid’s TV channel, Gulli, has a list of jokes to play on parents. I’ll take the fish.
One of those serendipitous moments happened recently as I wiped down a new old sofa and otherwise puttered in the apartment that overlooks the courtyard.
In order to not lose my mind–actually to lose myself inside my mind–while doing uninteresting or unpleasant tasks, I listen to podcasts. No amount of mindfulness is going to make me all zen about mopping the floor or sorting laundry or running (or sewing!). I want to get the job done with minimal pain, and the best analgesic is one that makes me think about something else, the more esoteric, the better. Sometimes I do not want to focus on what I am doing. At all.
The first to entertain me was Lauren Bastide, with the most wonderful, we’re-there-in-the-room conversation with Amandine Gay (“La Poudre“). I was riveted by pieces about the new movie “Tower” and the decline of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (both on “Fresh Air,” which has the greatest interviewer ever, Terry Gross). I discovered Lady Lamb (thanks to “On Point”). People talked about medical mysteries (TED Radio Hour). But then I had no more podcasts left in my feed.
So I switched to the NPR One app, which is like a slot machine for podcasts, except that you never lose. They themselves call it Pandora for public radio–more PG-rated than a slot machine. First I got the founders of Kate Spade talking about how they got started (on “How I Built This“)–a logical progression because both Ted Radio Hour and How I Built This are hosted by Guy Raz, who has the most unbelievable name ever. Then the app decided I needed to hear a show I was unfamiliar with, called “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” WTF? HOW DID THEY KNOW????
I was mostly an A+ student, but I have no idea how I pulled it off in history (my only non-A’s were in gym class–C. “She never makes trouble” was the only nice thing the gym teacher found to say about me, year after year. Yes, I saw my old report cards not long ago). Those dates…they just wouldn’t adhere to my brain cells, even though I am a math lover and have no trouble memorizing zip codes and country dialing codes. However, it didn’t work with history. And it’s too bad, because I have come to love history, though I still don’t remember the dates. I treat dates in history the way I treat recipes–approximations are good enough. Freudian analysis would probably figure it out, but that would take too much time and effort. And anyway, all I really care about are the stories.
The history podcast was about another momentous women’s march–on Versailles! And there I was, on my knees, rubbing an ammonia solution into a Louis XVI sofa to strip it of all traces of its very charming former owner. Louis XVI! The one getting marched on in that very podcast!
An aside here to discuss the fine lady who was getting rid of her sofa. She was suffering from back pain and was going for an operation any day now, though that didn’t stop her from grabbing the coffee table and rolling up the carpet in front of the sofa–the Carnivore and I were going nuts trying to stop her but she was as quick as butter on a hot skillet. She stood about to my shoulder, which, considering I’m short, is nothing. I bet she didn’t weigh 40 kilos. A wisp of a woman.
As the Carnivore manipulated our neighbor’s camionette (a kind of enclosed pickup that’s very common in France) into her driveway, I chatted with Madame about life. The conversation quickly turned to death. She explained that she was keeping one of the armchairs that matched the sofa because it had been her mother’s, who had lived with her before dying. She then segued to her husband, who died suddenly, in his sleep, not long ago (which might have been a few years, I wasn’t sure). Trying to comfort her, I told her that my parents had died recently, relatively quickly, and in light of what I’d seen, I think the quicker the better. I am not alone in this. When I was leaving my post as a teacher in Africa, my students collected messages for me, and one sweet student wished me “a happy family, a happy life and a quick death!”
Madame grasped my arm and said, “Chut!” (Shush!) But then she went on anyway, and we talked about how a slow death does prepare the survivors for the idea that the loved one would be no longer, while a quick death is probably nicer for the person dying but a shock for the family.
This lady was selling some things in her finely furnished (“j’étais décoratrice!”) little house in order to move in with or near to her daughter, who had married an Italian and had followed him to Milan (she contorted her small, thin face at this, as if she had bitten into a spoiled fruit). First an operation on her back in France, then a new life in Italy. I felt sorry for her, abandoning all the stuff that reminded her of happier times–for some people, stuff is an end unto itself, a way to achieve some kind of status, but for others it is a totem of people or memories of happy times, and, though I knew her but for less than an hour, I think that, even if years ago she was in the former category, she now was in the latter). Plus, the weather in Milan is pretty crappy, compared with Aude.
Back to the furniture. The sofa is, obviously, a reproduction of Louis XVI. He’s better known as the husband of Marie Antoinette. I say “obviously” because it’s a sofa-bed, a technology that came somewhat later than the late 1700s. Madame said she bought it in Revel, which is a hub for marquetry and fine furniture making. Considering how heavy it is, I believe her.
Louis XVI came after 15 other Louis (Louises?), the first of whom appeared in 814 A.D. The first Louis had a tough act to follow: Charlemagne. There were LOTS of other kings before the first Louis (who was known as both “the pious” AND “the debonaire”!!!!! How did he manage that?), but they had names like Chilperic and Childeric and Chlothar and Dagobert. (You should know that in some places–like Belgium–a dagobert is not unlike a Dagwood sandwich, giving the mitraillet a run for the money.)
The later Louis (Louises?) became known for their interior décors. We won’t spend time on the earliest ones. Louis II, aka “the stutterer”!! Too bad he didn’t see “The King’s Speech.” There also were Louis the Fat (they really weren’t politically correct in those times) and Louis the Young and Louis the Lion and St. Louis (the IX–9th–who built the “new” town of Carcassonne around 1260). Then Louis X, aka the Quarreler; Louis XI, aka “the prudent, the cunning, the universal spider.” Sorry, but that one is The Best!!! Being Prudent, Cunning AND a Universal Spider? OMG. What a MAN! Or was he a superhero? But that was from 1461-1483. They don’t make them like they used to. Or maybe they do, except for the prudent part, and we are like flies stuck in a trap.
Louis XII was the “father of the people,” followed by a number of other-named monarchs, including Henri II, whose style was much-copied later.
Louis XIII (13th), aka “the Just,” was in the first half of the 1600s. We know that our apartments existed in 1624, though they might have been there earlier. (I will try to get to the bottom of this one day.) His style is known for lots of twists (torsades) and straight lines, which seems like a contradiction, eh?
Louis XIV was known as Louis the Great or the Sun King. Hard to beat that (though his great-grandson, Louis XV–“the Beloved”–seems to have). Fourteen ruled from 1643-1715 and built Versailles. Think glam.
And then we get to Louis XVI (we’re up to 16 here–seize in French, pronounced “says”), the “restorer of French liberty,” who ruled from 1774 to 1792. Note those dates! What happened just two years after 1774? Hmmm! An era of foment all over the place.
Having read “A Tale of Two Cities” (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sidney Carton: “It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Did you, too, have to memorize that in high school?) and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”), I had an impression of the French Revolution as having been a bloody affair directed by perhaps well-meaning but vicious people like Madame Lafarge, Javert, Rousseau and Robespierre and that the revolution was at full swing from the moment the people stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, until the day Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette lost their heads on the guillotine in 1792. But in fact, the revolution started earlier and the king hung on for several years. Talks happened, spiced up by marches, including by nasty women.
Among the problems at the time, as “What You Missed in History Class” explains for us, were bad harvests, government deficits, over-taxation and illiquidity. It boiled down to the masses starving.
You must listen to the podcast to get all the details, but basically, people were fed up with not being fed. Call it a minimum wage issue. The podcasters express doubts that Louis XVI was actually evil incarnate or even just callous but instead suspect that he was way over his head and incompetent. In any case, a revolution was born.
Despite all that bad blood, Louis XVI’s style remains much-coveted today. OK, coveted among people who think that IKEA is great if you are 20 years old and on a small budget but then you should buy furniture that will last more than three years, and that proves it by having lasted already more than 100. Coveted by people who do not want to sit on backless benches at dinner. Who do not think that plastic chairs, even Eames, are chic or comfortable.
But how to keep your Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis straight? (And Louis is pronounced like Louie, not Lewis.) First of all, FirstDibs has a great explainer of the different Louis (Louises?). If you are just starting out, start here. Another great resource is the Metropolitan Museum of Art with essays on French chairs and 18th century French furniture more generally.
As the Louvre explains (and they should know), you have Louis XIV and the Regency from 1660-1725, then Rococo from 1725-1755, then classicism and the reign of Louis XVI from 1755-1790.
When I lived in Brussels and Paris was much closer than from where I am now in the deepest corner of rural France (which actually used to be Spain), I always partook of Les Journées de Patrimoine, in which many buildings of historical significance are opened to the public. Sometimes they are museums that drop their usual ticket charges, but the best are government or private buildings that otherwise are strictly off-limits. Once, I toured the Banc de France–like the Federal Reserve, especially because I visited before the euro–and was in a group of very well-dressed, impeccably coiffed, middle-aged Parisians. The kind of people known as bourgeois, or if younger as BCBG—bon chic, bon genre. I saw a couple, in nearly matching tweed suits (her in a skirt, him in trousers whose crease up until that moment had been razor-sharp), on their hands and knees looking at the underbelly of an antique gilded demi-lune console. It’s true there were amazing antiques in every direction, with computers and papers plonked on top.
The Carnivore is very sensitive about Louis (Louises?), and is partial to No. 16. He searched high and low for a toilet-paper holder that was in the style of Louis XVI. Even though according to this, toilet paper didn’t get cheap enough for the masses until much later. Far more impressive is the history given by ToiletPaperWorld, which mingles Stephen Crane, money and defecation. “French royalty used lace.” No wonder there was a revolution! (The delicacy of the terms the sites uses is an impressive exercise in euphemisms.)
I have seen references around the Internet to “Louis chairs,” to which I think, WHICH Louis? This alone should qualify me for French citizenship. But which Louis matters only if you’re paying top euro for what’s supposed to be the real thing, in which case, you had better know better. For everything else, “Louis” means something sorta French-antique-looking, probably Louis XVI.
All the same, I have seen how the French teach their young to know their Louis (Louises?). From the time our kid was in the equivalent of second grade, the whole memorize-your-kings thing started. Which is probably why, on a different tour during les Journées de Patrimoine, the docent told us the story of a beautifully painted stucco ceiling in the Marais of Paris, and several of the tour-goers objected vociferously to the dates and kings cited. I was dumbstruck to be in the middle of a heated argument about something that had happened 400 years earlier. At the same time, I was full of admiration, because I absolutely cannot remember such dates.
As for serendipity, what is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language (in French, it’s “happy luck,” not nearly as fun a word as serendipity), algorithms and artificial intelligence are snatching it away from us. Serendipity is opening a newspaper and happening to spy something interesting and relevant. Serendipity is walking into a shop and finding just what you need on sale. Serendipity is running into a friend you haven’t seen in ages someplace unexpected (I once bumped into an old dance buddy from NY in the line for the opera in Rome). Now our news is filtered based on what we like, we shop online for things that are pushed to us, and we know where everybody we’ve ever met is at any moment.
Some of my greatest “aha” moments have been when I have read or listened to things that on the surface didn’t interest me in the least. But they were in publications or on programs that I knew did good work, so I gave them my time. And I was rarely disappointed. I never would have sought out “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” But it came to me, with a story that touched exactly on what I was doing.
The Pont du Gard is everything and more. Although it isn’t a bridge (pont) at all, but an aqueduct built by the Romans to carry water to the city of Nîmes from a spring near Uzès.
The Romans turned something practical into a work of art that has lasted for nearly 2,000 years, even if long ago it stopped channeling water in the 6th century. In fact, it had an afterlife as a tollgate in the Middle Ages, and from the 1700s until it became a museum, it was a road bridge.
The pont has three levels of arches–making it the highest Roman structure–across 360 meters (almost 1,200 feet), to cross the Gardon River. The pont is part of an aqueduct system that’s 50 kilometers (31 miles) long and is so perfectly calculated that water flows only thanks to gravity the entire way, even though it descends only 12 meters over its entire length. How do you say “hydraulic engineer” in Latin?
The entire system took 10 to 15 years to build, and the pont itself took less than five (and there are 19 other, smaller bridges). History doesn’t tell us whether there were cost overruns, but it seems there weren’t many delays, especially for something so huge built by hand. How do you say “project manager” in Latin?
Nîmes at the time was a booming city, and the local spring wasn’t able to keep up with its fast-growing population. The Romans were picky about where they got their water–they liked to go to the source (pun intended), in this case the spring, or group of springs connected to an underground aquifer, called the Fountain of Eure, near Uzès. That they went so far and actually thought it would be a good idea to carry the water all the way to Nîmes is pretty amazing. How do you say “geological engineer” in Latin?
The setting is gorgeous. Driving through rolling hills, you get to the gorge carved into the soft sandstone hills by the river. The Pont du Gard is even more amazing for having withstood 19 centuries of fast and furious rain-swelled river without damage.
When we visited, last fall, the river was low and slow, with quite a few bathers.
Thick forest covers the hills. You can hike up to a belvedere, or lookout, above the pont. The path is steep and rough–natural–and not suitable for strollers or canes. However, the parking lots are reasonably near the entrance (there’s one on each bank of the river) and the lanes to the bridge are smooth and mostly flat; there’s a wide walkway alongside the bridge, too. Lots of bikes were there (good and bad–too many expected the throngs of pedestrians to jump out of their way).
Above, some awesomely old olive trees. Below, the plaque says: “This aqueduct built by the Romans to conduct to Nîmes the waters of the Fontaine of Eure repared by the states of Languedoc in 1702 was consolidated and restored in 1855 by the orders of the Emperor Napoleon III and by the care of the minister of state”…then the name of the architects, which I can’t quite make out except of Ch. Laisne.
And of course, graffiti is nothing new:
When the euro notes were designed, the idea was to use images of architectural elements common across Europe without copying any single structure. The idea was unity and common culture, beyond historical personalities or past conflicts. But the back of the €5 note looks suspiciously familiar.
The Pont du Gard is about a two-hour drive from Carcassonne.
Last week was the Chandeleur, or Candelmas, yet another pagan tradition co-opted by religion. While the U.S. has Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, the French celebrate that day by making food. Of course. Specifically crêpes.
The reason for crêpes is either that they are round like the sun and Feb. 2 is when the days start getting noticeably longer, or that they are round like coins. If you can flip your crêpe (some say it must be the first one–which is always the hardest–some say any of them but you have to be holding a coin in the other hand), you will be prosperous for the year.
I had planned to post this last week, but I was too busy stuffing my mouth with the first sugar I’ve eaten since Christmas. The Carnivore is the Crêpe Master and he doesn’t flip them, so too bad for us. His mother’s recipe is at the bottom.
Spring does, however, seem to be tapping its foot and pushing winter a bit from behind to get it to step out of the way already or at least move faster. (Do you also hate it when the person behind you in line keeps bumping you or touching you, as if you are holding up the line, when, in fact, there are other people ahead of you? Do they think that they can perhaps annoy you so much that you just leave and let them move up one spot in the queue? Answer: NO. Or perhaps they think that nobody else is feeling the pain of standing in line the way they are?)
Anyway, spring. I looked at temperatures this year vs. last, and January was colder, probably because of that cold spell a few weeks ago. But still, I photographed these irises in bloom on Jan. 30. Irises in January???
And this camellia bush is ready to bust out. I shot it last year in April here.
I keep seeing flowers everywhere, and not just the primroses, cyclamens, pansies and decorative cabbages that towns and villages and homeowners plant for winter. (I do love living in a place where one plants flowers for winter.) The wild almonds are starting to flower.
When we bought our house 15 years ago, every field was a vineyard, as far as the eye could see. It seemed like a good idea–vines send roots deep into the ground and resist the summer droughts, and those roots help hold the soil when the rain beats down in torrents.
The vines are many decades old, and it’s easy to think it’s always been like this. But I was reading about life years ago, when most of the population worked the land and grew their own food. It was inefficient, and hunger was a big driver of the French Revolution. Farmers grew a bit of everything–some vineyards, yes, but also wheat, oats, flax, olives, barley and hay. It was far from being a monoculture. As farms got bigger and needed fewer workers, they specialized in one thing or another.
Today, under a program to reduce the quantity of wine produced in order to shore up prices, many vineyards have been uprooted and turned over to other crops, like wheat, sunflowers, beans, sorghum and rape. Since the end of January, some have started to peep above the soil and turn everything green, even as the trees remain bare.
Do you see signs of spring yet?
The Carnivore’s Mother’s Crêpes
750 grams flour (6 cups)
1 liter whole milk (4 1/4 cups)
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
a pinch of salt
butter for cooking
Beat the eggs, milk and oil until well mixed. Add the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. It should be runny, not like pancake batter.
Melt a pat of butter in a shallow skillet. Pour about half a cup of batter into the skillet and rotate to spread the batter evenly. Keep a close eye and turn when it’s brown–with a spatula or, if you’re daring, flip. Cook the other side just enough so it isn’t sticky.
If you want to be a gourmande, sprinkle with sugar right away and keep your stack covered so they stay hot.
Melt another pat of butter before pouring in the next round of batter.
Best eaten warm, but they will keep, covered, for several days. If you haven’t consumed them all before. This recipe serves a crowd (30 crêpes? Something like that).
The apartment is arranged as enfilade rooms, designed for a continuous line of sight as well as for cross ventilation.
The previous chandelier is now in the bedroom. We found a bigger, more sparkly one:
It really does have va-va-voom.
As is my wont, I changed the furniture around about eight times. I think I like it with the daybed parallel with the wall, rather than in the center of the room (as in the first photo). What do you think?
If you’d like to rent it for your vacation in Carcassonne, contact me here at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com. It will be up on the holiday rental sites very shortly.
It isn’t easy to find curtains that are four meters long (13 feet). Lined, traditionally pleated (no grommets or tabs for hanging). Made of elegant fabric. Custom is too costly; the only option was DIY.
I HATE to sew.
It’s right up there with gardening. Something I can do but would rather not. I just had an old filling replaced; I was happier getting my tooth drilled than I was trying to line up meter upon meter of slippery satin and taffeta.
It used to be nearly obligatory for girls to learn to sew. Proof: In the “Ramona” books by Beverly Cleary, Ramona’s mom is always making the kids’ clothes. In the 1970s, my mom made many of my clothes, and she taught me, with grandmas and aunts offering additional tutoring. I made clothes. Some rockin’ elephant-leg corduroy bell bottoms. With a zipper and everything.
But I refused to take home economics in high school, despite heavy pressure by my adviser. I was more interested in economics than in home economics. And still am.
So, curtains. I can at least sew a more-or-less-straight line, and that’s about as much as one needs to know for curtains.
Comptoir des Tisseurs, at 25, rue de la République, in the center of Carcassonne, has beautiful fabric and excellent advice. Turns out the address has been home to fabric-makers for generations. Fabric from France is a practical souvenir–take some home for pillow shams. Unbreakable, not too heavy, something to remind you every day of your trip. Perfect souvenir!
The living room of the front apartment got satin in a dark gray like the walls. The curtains had to be slim enough not to cover the beautiful boiserie and mirror on the wall between the windows.
The bedroom got taffeta of the same color. Made in France. I bought all that was left–the maker had gone out of business. I wanted these curtains to be fuller, plus I wanted heavier, black-out lining because it’s a bedroom and the shutters don’t cover the top squares of the windows (called impostes, they are fixed; the shutters cover only the parts of the windows that open).
To make the curtains as big as possible with the available fabric, I took a page from the informative window treatments post by Cote de Texas and did like the photo she shows by Suzanne Kasler, putting a contrasting band at the bottom: bordeaux taffeta from the same company.
The transition between the two required a woven ribbon, the search for which entailed visits to all of Carcassonne’s merceries, or notions shops. Let me tell you, they are hopping. Apparently some people like to sew.
DesignSponge provided clear instructions. How hard is it to sew a rectangle? (Answer: Very hard, if the rectangle is ginormous.)
The lining was the worst part. Just the bedroom required 22 meters (about 22 yards) of lining. Even when we managed to fold it in half (and it took all three of us to wrestle it to the ground), it was longer than our “great” room, going up the steps and into the library.
It was HEAVY–10 kilos (22 pounds) for the lining and six kilos (13 pounds) for the taffeta. So each panel weighs four kilos. Yanking all that through the sewing machine gave my left arm a workout. I’m surprised I don’t have a Popeye bicep.
What I do have is fingertips with more holes than a diabetic’s, and deep cuts from pulling thread.
And I screwed up.
Pleating tape is different here than in the DesignSponge example. It has two cords; you knot them on one side and pull on the other, then knot it. The system is similar to making ruffles.
Well, I sewed the tape on inside-out. I spotted this at the apartment, having already made the pleats. I had executed this stupidity on two panels. The four-kilo bedroom panels. Of course.
I had to take them home, undo the knots without losing the cords and retie them with most of the pleats eased out, rip off the tape, carefully push all the remaining pleats to one side so some tape was flat for sewing, sew the tape back on correctly up to the pleats, push them all to the sewn side and stitch the rest. Did you get that? Me either.
The curtains were so heavy we couldn’t open and shut them, even using a broomstick, which was far too short. The blackout lining worked very well–the room was plunged in darkness with the curtains hanging straight.
Next improvisation: find tiebacks. The effect wasn’t what I had in mind, with a straight band, but I think it is pretty anyway.
New upholstery (more sewing!) coming for the chairs, which are in good shape, just not what we want. Pale gray velvet with tone-on-tone paisley.
Another sewing adventure: a new cushion on the daybed. It’s a weird size, because everything in those days was handmade, including the mattress and box springs (francophiles can read a little about this in M.F.K. Fisher’s book “Long Ago in France” or here).
Of course, it wasn’t just a rectangle. That would be too straightforward. It has notches in the four corners. Just to ensure my hair goes gray. Like the walls.
One day, I will DIY lime the wood so it’s kind of white; the room has more dark wood than I want. Although the apartment is ready to rent, it may never be “done.” I suspect we will always find things to add, get tired of others, changes here and there. We have barely started on art for the walls. In the meantime, the daybed will make a good spot for watching TV or reading a book.
Three more sets of curtains still to go for the courtyard apartment.
Don’t look for the defects; their massive numbers will overwhelm you. I don’t sew as well as, say, an 8-year-old in Bangladesh. This is something I thought about a lot while sitting at my sewing machine. There are so many people–mostly women, too many too young–for whom sewing occupies much of their waking day, in a room not as nice as mine, with few breaks, no benefits, and paltry pay. They are glad for the employment, I know, and their exports have hugely reduced extreme poverty. But it does seem we and they should be able to have jobs and reasonably priced goods without having to resort to work forces that are barely a step above slave labor.
More updates about the renovation coming soon. If you’re interested in renting, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com!
We just got back from seeing the Carnivore’s family in Belgium for the holidays. A white-knuckle drive through a whiteout segued into fog and finally the southern sun. I must admit that we had good weather during our stay until it was time to hit the road. But the northern sun was as satisfying as watered-down coffee. Didn’t even need sunglasses.
So we’re going to revel in some fair-weather shots from our trip to Provence last fall. Saint-Rémy de Provence has a marvel of Roman ruins just south of town. The archeological site of Glanum wasn’t discovered until about a 100 years ago, leaving it buried for 17 centuries.
Glanum was first inhabited by Gauls around the 7th or 6th century B.C. The Greeks arrived in the 2nd and 1st century B.C. and started building. The Romans colonized it next, around 63 B.C. It fell into ruin around 260 A.D. after the Alemannic invasions of Germanic people, and the inhabitants moved to present-day Saint-Rémy.
For an archaeology nut/wannabe, it’s paradise. We were the first to arrive on a Sunday morning and had the place to ourselves for over an hour. The best way to pretend to be Indiana Jones.
The main street is perched over drains the length of Glanum. The slight slope ensures good drainage.
Gutters handle run-off from houses and public buildings as well.
And there were interesting drains. Those Romans had plumbing nailed.
What must the market have been like? Probably not much different from those today–stalls, maybe some produce spread on the ground. It was majestically outlined by Doric columns. Nice touch. You can see one of the columns below. It’s the one on the far left. I was more taken with the “house with antae,” which is in the center of the photo.
The antae are the columns with Corinthian capitals. The rooms of the house surrounded an enclosed courtyard with a pool. I approve.
All those stones, covered with lichen. What was life like then? Pretty tough, don’t you think? In spite of the plumbing.
So many carvings. Of people and places long gone. Did their monuments to themselves make them happy?
Twin Corinthian temples were “dedicated to the cult of the Emperor’s family,” according to the site’s brochure. An exquisite decoration, like a butterfly’s wing, is on top of one, which was partially rebuilt to give us an idea of what it was like.
The photo below shows one of the wine-smoking rooms. Who knew? Smoking helped preserve the wine. Pre-bottle-and-cork technology.
I always think, when I’m in a museum or a place like this, that there’s such an abundance of fabulous stuff, and everybody is so busy gawking at the headline items like the temple above, that they practically walk past wonders like those below:
If this were in my garden, it would be admired every single day, not passed by on the way to something more impressive. Here it’s another rock in a rock pile. Injustice, really.
Outside of Glanum, just across the road (where cars and bikes come screaming down the hill and don’t stop for the crosswalk–beware!), are two more Roman wonders, called “les Antiques.”
Above, the Mausoleum, or Cenotaph of the Julii, from 30-20 B.C. It’s unusual for having a rectangular base with a round top. The base is elaborately carved.
Right next to it is the Triumphal Arch, showing Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls. Way to rub salt in the wound, eh?
Also, right next to Glanum is Saint-Paul de Mausole, the psychiatric hospital where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year. We didn’t have time to visit on this trip. Gotta go back!
The châteaux of Lastours are among the Cathar castles the closest to Carcassonne. The site consists of four ruined châteaux, perched on hills in the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains.
Looking at the steep, rocky terrain, you wonder how they picked this spot to live. Life must have been rough, with good views. The Orbiel river runs at the bottom of the valley, providing an occasional flat and fertile spot for gardens.
The visit starts in a former textile factory, with a great archaeological exhibition—the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age.
The climb winds around the hill, which makes it longer but safer than trying to go straight up. Still, it’s challenging. Not handicapped accessible or stroller accessible or even out-of-shape accessible.
But the vistas are fabulous. On a clear day, you can see all the way across the Aude plain to the Pyrénnées. Lastours has only one road, which just goes further into the mountains and thus isn’t heavily traveled. As you climb, you don’t hear cars but birds and the wind whistling through the low brush. You also pass through a mostly open cave, which tends to be unbelievably exciting for kids.
The four castles that make up Lastours (which is Occitan for “the towers”) are perched close together on a ridge, so once you’ve climbed, you’re good.
My fireman brother was fascinated (not in a good way) by the spotlight wiring, bundled haphazardly and running right across the trail for everybody to step on, and the guardrails (as in, lack thereof).
Those who can’t hike can get a bird’s eye view from an even higher spot on a hill across the valley, where a belevedere is set up with benches for an evening sound and light show. Entry is included in your châteaux ticket, or reduced if you just hit the belvedere.For a village of under 200 people, Lastours punches above its weight gastronomically. Le Puits du Trésor has a Michelin star, thanks to Jean-Marc Boyer, who is a real sweetie besides being a great chef. The restaurant is situated in the same factory as the entry to the châteaux and is open for lunch and dinner. Boyer also has a less-expensive bistro, Auberge du Diable au Thym (Thyme Devil’s Inn) next to the restaurant, with a terrace next to the fast and clear Orbiel.
A five-minute walk away, still next to the river, there’s a little bakery with homemade ice cream and tables in a little garden. And at least one shop sells local products, meaning local FOOD products.
You can’t get out of Lastours without eating, I’m telling you.
You need a car to get to Lastours. Maybe a Tour de France biker would take on the steep road (no shoulders, no guardrails). Anyway, follow the signs for parking. Do not think you’ll find something closer. You’ll end up driving through town and then you’ll have to keep going until you find a spot wide enough to turn around. The town is vertical, with the road at the bottom next to the river, and there isn’t room for a sidewalk let alone parking, aside from the little parking lot.
During the renovation, we stashed a bunch of furniture in the attic. Our kid immediately noted the previous presence of other kids there. I had paid no attention to the scratchings on the walls, but yes, there were many hieroglyphics.
“It’s kind of scary up here, but it could have been a cool place to play,” our kid noted.
Yeah, kind of scary. Starting with the break-your-neck steps/ladder to get up there.
But there are several skylights, and the floor is mostly tiled with terra cotta tomettes. This place would be a luxury apartment in Paris.
Back to the kids.
How many generations played under the eaves?
Did they know each other? Not as kids simultaneously, but through the generations….kids turn into parents, then into grandparents.I wonder what other marks they made on the world. What marks are we leaving? And you?
If you ever are in France in mid-September, be sure to take advantage of les Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. Museums offer free entry, but even better are the government and private buildings that open their doors for these days only.
I used to go regularly in Paris, and found it’s good to go with a guide to get the backstory on the history of the place, with amazing details pointed out. It’s also fun to hear the French argue over the dates of various kings–as an American, I cannot imagine having to learn the names and dates for rulers going back to 486. My school spent about a week on everything up to 1776, then the rest of the year it was all pioneers all the time, until a week or two before summer break, when we caught up to World Wars I and II. I longed to know about kings and pharoahs, but all we got was covered wagons, year after year.
On one visit, I saw gorgeously painted ceilings, I think it was at the Hôtel de Marle, in the Marais. The Hôtel de la Marine houses the boudoir of Marie-Antoinette, overlooking Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine was situated during the Revolution. The building was turned into a museum in 2014, so now you can visit any time.
And there was the home of Marie Touchet, the mistress of King Charles IV, whose house in the Marais doesn’t face a street; you have to enter through another building’s courtyard, which is private. But it opens for the Journées du Patrimoine.
It was hilarious to see very prim, perfectly dressed Parisiens get down on their hands and knees to examine the underside of the antiques in the Banque de France. One gentleman even thought to bring a flashlight. No better way to educate oneself!
This year, we went to a château in a small village near Carcassonne where there also was a food and craft fair (yes, all fairs in France include food and wine). The château hosts large meetings of the Conseil Général, or the department’s council. Apologies for the photo quality–the lighting wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t possible to set up a tripod.
The first two floors have been restored, but the top floor and attic haven’t. I don’t think anybody went through without dreaming of how it could be fixed up into a gorgeous hotel. In fact, I overheard one couple discussing as much.
Have you visited during the Journées du Patrimoine? What was your favorite discovery?