It is so pretty here these days. Come along for a little virtual visit while we all wait for travel to get back to normal.Read more
Driving around the French countryside, one often spots little signs pointing out local objects of pride. The ones for menhirs especially intrigued me, but I always was rushed, especially when passing a certain sign, and when I did have time, I wasn’t on that road–out of sight out of mind–I didn’t have a checklist of “when have 20 free minutes, go check out this stuff,” with menhir at the top of the list.Read more
Have you seen “Emily in Paris”? It’s fun, but oh-la-la! the exaggerations!
The story is about a young social media whiz sent at the last minute to fill in for a French-speaking senior colleague. Our heroine, Emily, is neither senior nor able to speak French. She doesn’t even have experience in the same sector as the Paris office she’s sent to. But she bubbles over about how she’s going to teach them. No wonder they aren’t happy with her.Read more
On a recent trip to Montpellier, the street art really wowed me. I’ve previously posted about the pretty garlands strung across the narrow medieval streets. They were still there, along with others that I found amusing.Coming out of the underground carpark, I headed down the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle and, though I’ve been there before, only noticed for the first time the playground that looked as if it had been designed by Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t find who designed it, but I did learn that it was installed in 2008 and the structures, including delightfully unsafe climbing (see French attitudes about safety here), are supposed to be related to music.The city encourages the street art. I love it. Little surprises, like small gifts or serendipitous wonders, that prompt a smile. I think they enhance, rather than detract, from the old buildings of the historic center.
The art isn’t just painting. There are tiles all over, too. FYI, a hot-air balloon is called une montgolfière in French, after the Montgolfier brothers who invented them.There’s plenty of old art, too.Still looking down, there were designs painted on the sidewalks or streets related to whatever business was there. I walked past several before finally taking photos of these bars, across the street from each other.
Something about street art warms my heart and makes me feel surrounded by gentle souls. It’s whimsical, not aggressive. I suppose too much could become twee. But in the midst of these buildings and streets so heavy with history, a little whimsy is a welcome jolt of modernity, livening up the old without tearing it down. It’s democratic, free for all, no ticket required.Is street art a thing where you live?
Quite unrelated: I made my blette (Swiss chard) recipe even easier. For a long time, I made the recipe I’d found in a magazine: little packets, which are very pretty for guests. Then I tweaked the recipe, adding a can of white beans, for protein, to make the packets into a vegetarian meal. Then, to get rid of the tedious process of folding up the packets, I did the same recipe but as a kind of blette lasagne, layering the leaves with the stuffing. Finally, I just chopped up the chard and mixed it with the stuffing. The result is below. A horror for the Carnivore, who likes each ingredient to be separate and whose lowest critique of a dish is “mish-mash.” But I love one-dish meals, and now this one is even easier. Same recipe–just cut up the greens and sauté them with the stems and onions until they’re soft.
What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.
The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.
The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.
We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.
We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”
On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).
To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.
The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.
I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.
This week was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I kept thinking back to my visit there years ago. It was haunting in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and that I haven’t been able to shake in the nearly two decades since.The entrance is famous. The railroad tracks, too, especially for anyone who has seen “Schindler’s List.” The familiarity of a place one has never been before is a punch in the stomach. I didn’t want it to feel familiar.I visited on a gorgeous spring day. Some friends and I made a weekend excursion to Krakow and, being serious intellectuals interested in history and culture, included a trip to Auschwitz. The train took us through the lush, rolling hills of the Polish countryside. As we walked the grounds, butterflies danced through the air and birds sang. I have read that when the camps were packed with people, there wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, much less wildflowers bobbing in the breeze. Did people hear the birds sing beyond the barbed wire? The movies seem to always be set in winter, almost black and white even when shot in color. But what of those balmy days when the wind carries the syrupy perfume of freshly cut grass? What a cruel juxtaposition, to see the stars above at night or feel the spring breeze or hear a bird sing and to know the universe is brimming with beauty, and yet they are trapped in a living hell. A living nightmare.Unfortunately, in the 75 years since the end of Auschwitz, genocide has not ended. It is always a delicate subject to bring up other cases, or other mistreatments. The point is not to compare; each case is monstrous for those who suffered. But if we think genocide is wrong, then it is wrong no matter who the target is, and we should push back against creeping “otherization” that strips people of their humanity, that treats them as a block to be expelled without exceptions. Because one cruelty leads to another. History might not repeat itself but it rhymes.The National Public Radio show “Fresh Air” ran an interview with Laurence Rees, author of the book “Auschwitz: A New History.” You can listen or read the transcript here. National Public Radio delivers uniformly excellent reporting. Support them if you can. Journalism–the real thing, with reporters who dig for facts–is what keeps us free.That top photo is one that haunts me most. It’s in the bathroom–it shows the long trough sink, and the squares are soap holders, with ridges so the soap doesn’t sit in water and melt. It sums up the insanity of Auschwitz: a place where soap was valued but human life wasn’t.I am not in a position of authority here. I am not Jewish and didn’t know about the Holocaust until high school when I read Anne Frank. On the other hand, the whole point is the universality of our humanity. Everybody should care. We all must remember.
Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.
Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.
Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.
I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete.
The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people.
Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.
The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.
Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.
Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer.
One sunny Friday afternoon in Barcelona, I was blithely walking down a busy street toward my hotel, pulling my roller carry-on suitcase, with my Furla tote sitting on top of it. A guy came out of nowhere, grabbed the bag and ran. Except I never let go. That meant he dragged me down the street. Despite my screaming bloody murder, the many people on the street just watched and did nothing.
I was not going to give up. My suitcase was nothing–it contained very replaceable clothes for a weekend. But my bag? It had my passport, my driver’s license, my credit cards. No way was I about to spend my weekend in Barcelona trying to get a new passport.
The guy finally let go, I got up, my bag intact (bravo, Furla!), and went back to my suitcase. I learned a valuable lesson: do not carry your valuables where somebody can snatch them.I’ve traveled around the world, and even hitchhiked in Africa, without incident except this. (Well, there was another time, also in Barcelona. We drove relatives to the airport there, which required two cars. Heading back home, I was alone, following my husband and kid in the other car. At an intersection, a big van rear-ended me. I honked at my husband, who didn’t notice, it turned out, because he was enjoying a chance to drive without me and had turned up godawful Euro-pop oldies on the car stereo. Anyway, I knew the scam–a woman driving alone in a car with French plates was a perfect target. The van driver would get out and while I was distracted talking to him, his accomplice would take my bag out of the car. This has happened to friends. So I ran the light, which by then had changed, and caught up with my husband’s car, too bad about any crumpled bumper on a 10-year-old Polo.)Here are a few tips to keep your travels uneventful.
Before You Leave
Make two copies of your passport. Give one to a relative or friend at home. Put the other in your suitcase and leave it at your hotel/AirBnB. If your passport is stolen, you can get a replacement more quickly. If you lose everything, including your bag (why I say to put the copy in your suitcase, because you aren’t going to put your passport there), you can call your relative/friend to fax or email the other copy. Do this also with your itinerary.
Have at least two cards: a credit card and a debit card. Your credit card is for purchases. Most credit cards come with protections in case of theft; debit cards don’t. Make sure you know your PIN, because in Europe, points of sale use chip readers. Your debit card is to withdraw cash at an ATM. Do not use a credit card to get cash! It will cost you a fortune in interest and fees! Have your card numbers someplace (with your passport copy) in case you have to call and report a stolen card.
Know your ATM limit and what the fees are for using your card abroad.When you make reservations, find about about the security deposit. For vacation rentals, some platforms deduct the security deposit in advance and reimburse you after your stay. This gives them the opportunity to make money on those funds that are in suspense. Fine, as a business model. But if you are changing apartments every three days over a two-week trip, and each one has a €500 security deposit, you could be near your credit limit and have far less available to spend than you might have realized. FYI: AirBnB doesn’t debit your account for the security deposit unless the host reports a problem within a certain amount of time after you’ve left.
Tell your bank where you will be traveling. I had been living in Brussels for a while and going to Paris on weekends pretty regularly when, late one night in Paris, my card didn’t work. I called my bank (I knew the number by heart–that’s another thing, either know the phone number or have it in your phone contacts, but memorizing is better–what if your phone is stolen?) and learned that they had detected unusual activity–that my card was being used in Paris. After answering all the security questions, they were satisfied it was me and took the hold off my card.Check your phone plan, especially for data. You need data for things like ride-hailing apps or GPS. You don’t want a nasty surprise when you get home. Check out this article. This article is a little old, but gives you a broad sample. Rick Steves also has advice, though his stuff on Carcassonne is so off-base I am not sure how much to trust it; maybe he’s better on tech.
Take out your passport only at airports and when checking into hotels. The rest of the time, leave it in your hotel safe or your AirBnB. It’s unlikely hotel staff would steal a passport–the ramifications would be severe, since electronic door keys show who entered a room and when. On the street, though, plenty of people would love to get hold of your passport. Don’t carry yours around. You don’t need it to go to a museum.
If you aren’t driving, don’t carry your driver’s license. Again, think of the hassle to replace it. Bring another ID. At a hotel, they will use your passport. What else do you need ID for? Maybe with your credit card, but it’s unlikely. Some countries (including France) require individuals to carry ID when in public. In any case, it’s smart to have something on you that says who you are in case you’re in an accident and can’t speak. Don’t bring other stuff–Social Security card, insurance card, etc. Make a copy of your insurance info and give it to your friend at home and put another copy with your passport copy. If you end up in a hospital, you might have to turn in paperwork to your insurer, but unlike the U.S., in France they will treat you first and worry about payment later. If you want to bring your insurance card, fine, but leave it with your passport at the hotel. Don’t walk around with it.
As I said earlier, credit cards tend to come with theft protections, but not debit cards. Even though I said to be sure to know your PINs, the problem is that many U.S banks don’t connect with the European system. This has two possible results: your card won’t work at all at some points of sale (this could be awkward if you’re out of gas or at a péage/tollbooth) or it will work but not ask for a PIN. That means that if your card is stolen, somebody can use it freely without inputting the PIN. Free money! From your account! Sometimes the receipt will ask for a signature, but salespeople don’t always bother to get you to sign, which is not reassuring either.Leave your debit card where you’re staying and take it out only to go to the ATM to withdraw cash. (See above–if they get your debit card and it doesn’t ask for a PIN, they can drain your account.) Use your credit card or cash for spending. Don’t carry all your cash on you. Just carry what you need for the day, with a little cushion stashed in a different place (pocket? shoe?). Leave the rest of your cash where you’re staying.
Other people have written about different bags and belts and other things for carrying your valuables safely. Never underestimate the creativity of thieves. I was in a crowded Brussels restaurant with a big table of friends. The chairs of one table touched the chairs of the next, with barely enough room for the diners sitting on them to breathe. Certainly, there was zero space to squeeze between the diners. A friend, sitting next to the wall, three friends next to her and four across, had her bag on the floor between her feet. It was stolen. Somebody had to have squirmed on the floor between diners’ legs to get to it. Somebody else I know was in a crowded bus in Nairobi, his billfold in the buttoned front pocket on his shirt. It was stolen. Another friend, a native Parisian, had her phone stolen from her bag on the Métro. I know of many backpacks and bags and back pockets whose bottoms were slashed, their contents falling out without the people being aware. BTW, if this does happen to you, check the trash cans nearby; often the thieves will take the cash and throw away the billfold. Finding yours could save you a lot of hassle.My experience with the purse snatcher was unusual. Most crime in Europe is sneaky and not violent. Somebody will distract you, often in a very pitiful way, like asking you to sign a petition for some worthy cause like deaf people or handicapped people, and they will appear to be deaf or handicapped and you will feel like a heartless creep for not simply signing your name. After going through this a couple of times, you give in. Then you turn around and discover your billfold has been slipped out of the banana bag you had been–and still are–squeezing under your arm, without you feeling a thing.
I don’t want to scare anybody; these tips also hold true for domestic travel. European and French crime rates are low. I live here feeling very safe. I forget to lock the doors; no problem. I rarely lock my car. Once, the Carnivore took out a big duffel bag out of the trunk of his car in the center of Carcassonne, and drove away, forgetting it was on the sidewalk. He came home (a 30-minute drive), realized his mistake and rushed back. It was still there, intact. Frail old ladies walk around with their handbags dangling. Little kids skip down the street toting baguettes and cartons of milk they had been sent to buy. I see people taking foolish risks, too, like leaving their phone or even a laptop (!!!) on the table at a café terrace while they went inside to use the bathroom. Yes, everybody around had the same instinct, to guard over it. But yikes. Il ne faut pas tenter le diable–don’t tempt fate.
Travel tips and secure bag recommendations welcome in the comments.
When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.
The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.
Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.Some were colorful, very dramatic.You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.
What’s not to love about that?
Toulouse is such a pretty city. I went with some friends on Saturday, and we had such fun.It was the Journées de Patrimoine (Heritage Days), but my friends weren’t too interested in history, alas. That didn’t stop me from snapping photos right and left. On l’Allée Jules Guesde, a vegan festival was in full swing, and we were disappointed that we had already eaten. Besides history and food, there was music, with brass bands playing at various squares. I loved the all-woman group, playing a cover by Madonna.In the main square, Place du Capitole, a Basque festival was going on, with a band, dancers in traditional dress, giants that we later saw parading around, and lots of stands where you could taste and buy the regional specialties.We were strolling down the main pedestrian shopping street, rue Saint-Rome, when the Gilets Jaunes approached from the direction of the Capitole. To avoid them, we turned down a side street and discovered some cute shops we usually would have missed by sticking to the main shopping streets. Then we headed toward rue Alsace-Lorraine, but the Gilets Jaunes had turned and were coming down that street. So we zipped a couple of streets down to cross ahead of them and managed to get to Place Saint-Georges, for gelato and tranquility.
It was lovely. The ice cream was amazing, and we were entertained by a group of swing dancers. I was itching to join them. We meandered on, popping into the Lush store. A very young salesclerk unlocked the door for customers and then locked it again. We could hear the Gilets Jaunes drums and chants, but figured they were on the bigger street. No–they poured past, chanting but not breaking anything. More or less respectful. Non-protesters managed to swim upstream on the sidewalks on either side. We just watched from inside the store. Finally they were gone and we left. Looking back down the street, it was a fog of tear gas at Place Saint-Georges. No more swing dancing, or gelato. Soon they were retreating down the same street, pushed out of the square. Parents hustled their kids along to stay out of the GJs’ way. I heard a very small child, maybe four or five years old, on a trottinette, remarking to his mother that there was tear gas. I can tell you I was pretty old before I had any idea about tear gas. All the same, it shows that people have stopped paying attention and just continue to carry on, despite the protests.On a separate note, we recently got to meet Janelle of the Distant Francophile blog, and her husband, Scott. They manage to be utterly chic and adorable at the same time. And a real love story. Janelle mixes travel tips, wardrobe advice and recipes, all with fantastic photos. I was tickled that they chose to stay in one of our AirBnBs and that we got to know them better. If you’re a francophile, then definitely check out Janelle’s blog and Instagram.