Unmistakably French

P1020091I am still collecting French fashion photos, especially couples and men. So many chic people out and about! But today is crazy busy so I’m going to share my penchant for all the fancy carved details that let you know you’re in France.P1060854P1070102IMG_3076

Because the railings are too beautiful not to show.

P1030324P1080847P1070070IMG_0016What are your favorite decorations? Faces? Lions? Really old dates? Coats of arms?


kilimanjaroThe group “By Invitation Only” has chosen Unity for today’s theme. I had planned to write about a few of the many successes of the European Union, but something came up that struck near to my heart. So bear with me.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeWhen my kid was in preschool, the extraordinary teacher, Mme. L., decided to structure the year as a trip around the world. All the lessons—learning the alphabet, colors, counting—would relate to different countries. Some parents thought it was too much for four-year-olds to learn geography and concepts about other cultures when they should be getting drilled on writing S and E in the correct direction. Maybe even learning how to add. But Mme. L. persisted.

The children made “passports.” They “visited” China, India, Mexico, Senegal and the U.S., and they also talked about other countries. They learned songs, were read stories and ate food from those countries. They learned phrases in other languages. They made musical instruments and miniature houses of the countries’ style.

Scan 8
Real huts, in the foreground.

One day my kid came home with red clay all over. “We made huts today,” my kid explained, going on to describe how the clay walls kept the interiors cool in the warm climate. (BTW, a teacher friend informed me that young kids should always come home from school dirty, as it shows they did things and didn’t just sit like zombies at a desk.)

Mme. L. opened the world to these kids right at the moment when they were curious and not yet inculcated with negative stereotypes. Our village isn’t exactly diverse. Carcassonne is a little better, but it’s a sleepy town with no industry and limited economic opportunities.

One day, I was at a shopping center with my kid when a black man wearing a colorful, beautifully embellished robe walked by. My kid was curious: Which country do you think he’s from? Do you think he likes the weather? The food? Do you think he misses his country?

I was most struck by the fact that my kid’s reaction was not fear or rejection of someone different but interest. Also that my kid knew, at age four, that Africa was a continent with many countries, and that in those countries live individuals who might eat different food or live in different kinds of houses, but who are basically the same as us.

Another time, my kid, surveying the bounty of toys on the bedroom floor, declared gravely, “I am spoiled rotten. Some kids don’t even have one toy.”

Not everybody is lucky enough to have had a preschool teacher like Mme. L.

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Jacaranda trees in bloom in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
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Downtown Nairobi is much fancier than in this “archive” shot.

The title of this post is “Umoja,” which is “unity” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya and of Tanzania.

I have not been to all 54 countries in Africa, but I have visited five and lived in one. They were all beautiful, but beyond the natural beauty what I loved most was the beauty of the people, the culture. How many people have gone on safari and swooned over the animals while shunning the people?

I landed in Kenya in October 1985, as the drought that ravaged Ethiopia was still going strong. That was the famine that killed a million people and that inspired Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World,” which you can listen to here, and the lyrics are here. It’s time to read them again.

I saw many things in Kenya. Lions so close I could hear them crack the bones of the wildebeest they were feeding on. Giraffes grazing with cows. Majestic mountains (the top photo is of the Kibo peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in Tanzania, right on the border). Exotic flowers. Scan 18Scan 16I saw incredibly hard-working people, many of whom did back-breaking labor for all 12 hours of sunlight. I saw very devout Christians who didn’t just attend church every Sunday in their best clothes but who walked the walk, taking care of each other though they themselves had so little. I saw very devout Muslims unloading sacks of cement at the port in hot and sticky Lamu, sweating profusely but not drinking a drop because it was Ramadan. I saw a culture where children were revered. Where education was paramount, worth every sacrifice.

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My house. I had the right half. It was nice. Except for the bats. And the fist-size spiders.
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The view from my porch. I wish you could also smell it. Delicious.

I also saw starving children, especially in the north, their empty stomachs distended, their hair orange from malnutrition, their energy too sapped to swat away flies from their faces. I saw their parents, in no better shape, working desperately to save them.

Once, when leaving “Hoggers,” a hamburger joint in Nairobi so devoted to America that it played tapes of a U.S. radio station, complete with the D.J.’s banter and weather and traffic reports between songs, I saw a young man, barely clothed, filthy, ravaging through the trash in the alley outside Hoggers, and stuffing jettisoned food into his mouth. That image will never leave me.

On a trip back many years later, taking the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I was booked into a sleeping car with two other women, both Kenyans. They were businesswomen; we were all about the same age, and we drank Tusker beer and talked about life. At that time, I was just visiting from New York; their lives and mine differed only in the details; the vast majority of our experiences were the same to an extent that startled me. Life is life. Around the world.

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Editor, holding her baby daughter, in front of her house. Her husband is in white. Notice how neatly pressed his suit is–washed by hand and ironed with a coal iron. That’s her mother in the blue sweater. Notice the flower planted in front. The dirt is swept clean. 

Every trip, I visited a former student. Her Christian name was Editor, which her mother, who didn’t speak English, had thought was pretty. Editor was always my favorite. Not my best student, but hard-working and honest and ambitious. She had a coffee and tea farm not far from where she’d grown up. Married, with two kids. She named her daughter after me.

Editor introduced me to her “big sister,” who wasn’t a blood relative at all but a mentor. In an area with no banks, women formed savings clubs, pooling their money and giving the pool to one member. The member would repay it and the pool would go to the next member. Often they would use it to buy a cow, which was not just a kind of savings account but which provided milk that could be consumed and sold, and each year would produce a calf, which also could be sold. Dividends, basically. New women would be brought in, sponsored by established members who were on the hook for their recruits’ repayment. As a result, the older women kept close tabs on their mentorees, helping them work through difficulties.

The “sister” also had two kids. She had a farm, as everybody did or tried to, because growing your own food means you won’t go hungry, whatever else may happen. She also had a job, and so did her husband, so they not only had a car but their house was made of bricks and had electricity and a TV. I lived for two years without electricity and I can attest that having it or not doesn’t make one a good or bad person, but it most certainly makes a person more efficient. The same with running water.

Over dinner, we talked and talked, and I kept thinking that they would have fit right in with my friends in my Midwestern hometown.

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Some of my students in front of a classroom.

My school had about 450 kids. No electricity. No running water—they had to go to a stream at the foot of the hill to get it by the bucket (not easy because it wasn’t very deep). No glass in the windows. About 40 kids per class. Three kids sitting on two chairs at one desk with one book (yes, the poor middle kid had to straddle two chairs, but had the best view of the book). You could hear a pin drop in class–they were there to learn. It was a boarding school. They got up at 6, dressed into their uniforms, cleaned the classrooms (sweeping, then mopping not with mops but with buckets of water wiped up with big rags, on their hands and knees), studied, had breakfast (always a millet/sorghum porridge called uji). Then class. Lunch and dinner were always githeri, a maize-and-bean soup with vegetables, served with ugali (polenta).  they got a little meat stew with potatoes or more ugali at lunch on Sundays. They had a little free time after school, spent doing sports or clubs like drama, and then studied again after dinner. There was one kerosene pressure lamp per classroom, and they arrayed their desks for a sliver of light.

I loved them. Even the naughty ones. Especially the good ones. They had many questions about the U.S. They thought it was hilarious that I would go jogging, bizarre that my hair was smooth and my feet soft and that it was crazy that there were people who did so little physical work and who had so much to eat that they had to exercise or they would be fat.

I had a bottle of fresh milk delivered every morning, still warm from the cow, with cream at the top. I had to use it all each day because I didn’t have a refrigerator (that electricity thing again). One day, next to my milk were a pair of flipflops I’d thrown away when the thong ripped a hole in the sole, so they wouldn’t stay on any more. They had been repaired, by hand, by the young man who delivered my milk. Such good flipflops shouldn’t be tossed because of such a small problem.

We’re spoiled rotten.

We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have such abundance that we are choking the planet with our waste. We are terrible stewards but we have the arrogance to tell everyone what to do.

With a little humility, we can see that we’re all in this life game together.

We are the world.

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My little neighbor, Muriithi, who would sit in front of my door until I opened it to get my milk, then would leap up to dance and sing my name. His life is worth as much as anyone’s.

You can find the other contributions to “By Invitation Only” at Daily Plate of Crazy. Please read them all–very different approaches to the same topic.

Purple Day

Path 2 flowersToday’s post isn’t about France. It’s about something that doesn’t know borders or nationalities. And the photos? I chose paths, a little wild, hard to negotiate, unclear where they lead, though hopefully to a better place.

March 26 is Purple Day, an international day for epilepsy awareness. One in 26 people will have epilepsy, and most of the time the cause is unknown.

My mom died of epilepsy. We don’t know exactly when it might have started, but probably, as for 33% of seniors who develop epilepsy, came after a mini-stroke or strokes. When she started having seizures, we didn’t even know that’s what it was, so it took a while before she got on anti-seizure medication. Even then, she went to a neurologist who couldn’t say for sure that she was having seizures. She had no memory of seizures. She didn’t have dementia, either; she avidly surfed the Internet (she even said it that way) to do genealogy research.

arch and path

She even had a seizure when I was right next to her, and I didn’t know it. The day after my dad’s funeral, I slept by my mom, spooning and giving her the cuddles I’d withheld in my quest for independence. Children are so hard to their parents. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood that parents’ babies will be their babies no matter how old they become.

In the finality of the funeral, she must have felt so alone and adrift. So I held my mom as if she were my baby. I eventually rolled over to sleep on my back and when I awoke in the morning, she was snoring away, so I let her sleep. But when a few hours later she was still sawing logs and we needed to go, I wasn’t able to rouse her.

Path 3 woodsEven then, it seemed like a seizure, but it wasn’t for sure. There’s no blood test or scan that can say definitively. The intensive care doctor said the only way to be sure was to see it happen. Indeed, my mom had another seizure in the ICU, and the doctor was there to film it. It lasted 13 minutes and still haunts me; I saw her have others, too. There’s nothing you can do during a seizure. The doctor told me not to even touch my mom during the seizure.

Lest this all sound misleading, I was barely around for my parents, living as I do across the Atlantic. My siblings, however, were devoted to them and checked on them nonstop. The real heroes.

Path 4 treesIronically, two years earlier, during a trip home to see my parents, who were still fairly independent and living in their house, I was listening to NPR on the car radio and heard a man talk about living with his wife’s epilepsy. It was so wrenching that I pulled into a parking lot to give it my full attention. The show is The Moth, available as a podcast, and the particular episode was titled “Me & Her & It,” by Peter Aguero.

For Purple Day, check out how you can make a difference on the Epilepsy Foundation’s site. And give your parents lots of cuddles while you can.

Path 1


All About France

This is an experiment: I see these blog “linkups” and am rather clueless as to how they work. I do use them to explore and often find good stuff. So here’s a go at joining in.


The very fun and informative blog Oui in France has set this off. Oui in France is the place to read about quirks of French language and culture, with lots of helpful advice, like this post about making your French sound more natural.

Have Some Decorum gives a hilarious, if sometimes prickly take on things. The writer, Ellie O’Connell, just moved back to the U.S., and I’m wondering what she will be up to next. She has ceaseless ideas and energy, all the more amazing because of her fight with ALS. One of my favorite posts from her is about how she pretends, when she visits chateaux, that she’s being shown the place not by a tour guide but by a real estate agent and that she intends to buy.

At the other end of the spectrum is Lost in Arles, which isn’t prickly at all but lyrical and magical, accompanied by equally dreamy photography, like this one.

Chocolate and Zucchini is an excellent French food blog, written in English by a Parisian chef. If you would like to learn to cook French food, this is a great place to start. Maybe with this feta and herb quick bread?

David Lebovitz is another Parisian chef, though he’s an American and includes, between recipes, the same kind of wry observations about French life that I enjoy so much. This post about the Marché d’Aligre in Paris is pure poetry.

Being a newbie, I don’t know the protocol here, so I copied the rules:

And here are some “rules”:

This is a link-up or linky – however you want to call it – so please SHARE THE LOVE. View, comment on and share fellow bloggers links, at least two but ideally as many as possible, don’t just link-dump (persistent offenders will be removed). Remember to come back a few days later to see who linked up after you.

Old and new posts welcome. Please limit your posts to 2 per link-up. Save the rest for future months!

Please add the All About France badge to the side bar of your blog and/or the post itself and a link back to either this page or the link-up. This helps to promote everyone’s hard work. Posts without these will be removed.

I feel like I’m turning in homework and waiting to be graded. Let’s hope I pass! Any great blogs you want to share?

Tour de France update

The Tour de France will depart from Carcassonne on July 13 at 11:30, from Allées and Place Général de Gaulle. This is just outside la Bastide, at the end of the pedestrian street.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 11.45.58 AM

Or if this is easier to picture:

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 11.47.34 AM

You can see the list of towns and times here. Based on the fact that the tour doesn’t pass through Trébes, I suppose it will go around Place Gambetta and then hook up to la Route Minervois, along the canal, before heading past Pont Rouge and then the D620. But maybe it’ll go up Avenue du Général Leclerc, then take the D6113/rocade est to Pont Rouge and so on. Such details are still evasive. Sigh.

Thanks to midihideaways for the tip about the route!

One thing is sure: we are very well-placed for cycle swag.


Luck of the draw

091.Lotto school salle polyvalente
As exciting as it looks. It demonstrates the universality of the human experience, I think.

Among the usually hand-lettered signs you’ll see on the roadsides in France are those announcing a loto.

These aren’t the same as the lottery, although that also is called a loto (pronounced low-toe). The same word is used for a version of bingo, which involves numbers only.

There’s all the usual bingo paraphernalia, such as special chips and a magnetic wand that will pick them up with a swipe. Because you know how annoying it is to sweep up your chips.

There are different levels, with prizes to match. A simple win has a smaller prize than, say, a full card, or carton plein. 

When you win, you throw your arm in the air and yell “quine!” (pronounced keen), because a single line has five numbers. You yell it for a carton plein as well.

There are three things that are very different from bingo nights in the U.S. I’m speaking about school lotos because that’s what I’ve been involved with.

First, it starts very late. The elementary school loto began at 8:45 p.m., which was 45 minutes after my kid’s bedtime. A dispensation was granted, but really, I was surprised that an event for kids started so late (it’s scheduled for after supper) and lasted until nearly midnight.

Second, the refreshments. In France, the refreshment stand is called a buvette, which is related to the word for drink (boire, past tense bu). Here are some of the things served:

loto crepes
There were at least three different cooking contraptions for our night-before crêpe production, including this camper-crêpe set-up. Several bottles of bubbly were consumed.

Crêpes (sugar or Nutella), made in advance by parents and warmed up on order, which come fast and furious during the 15-minute break.

Cakes, especially quatre-quarts, like pound cake.

Tartes, especially with beautifully arranged apple slices or pear/chocolate.

Coffee, soft drinks, beer.

The third difference is the prizes. There are gift certificates and donations from area businesses and Christmas presents being regifted to the school effort, but overall the prizes are heavy on gastronomy. For example:

Wine, hams, other large chunks of meat, hard sausages, foie gras, patés, geese, chickens, ducks (with heads and feet). And wine.

A few years ago, our kid struck it big. Check out this haul:

loto haul
Five bottles of wine, a canette with head still on, a pork roast, a gift basket full of beauty stuff, a bunch of gift certificates, including to Les Fermiers Occitan (a food boutique)