Before/After: Pantry to Sauna

sauna-exteriorWe had dilemma with the pantry of our 17th century apartments. As in, what are we going to do with this space?

During. The tomettes had been covered with linoleum.

It was too big to ignore. But a vacation rental, especially one with plenty of kitchen cupboards, doesn’t need a pantry, called a cellier in French.

Before: a dark hole.

The municipal and national landmarks experts suggested making it a bathroom, because it was in the former service hallway that we’re allowed to change as we like. But the low ceiling and lack of a window would have been unpleasant as a bathroom.


So we put in a sauna.

Perfect for two.

Why not, right? It was just the right size. An ugly, awkward hole became a little spa. We tried it out on our most recent stay. It heats up in just a few minutes. There’s a timer so it automatically shuts off–a nice safety feature. We don’t want somebody passing out and getting cooked (you’re supposed to drink a lot of water before and after). The lights are cool blue. There are even speakers and a jack to plug in your phone for music (see the cord, below on the left?).

It’s right next to the bathroom, for a cold shower afterward. A before/after coming on that soon–we finally found the right light fixture.

Yum! Fungus Among Us

lacteres-ready-to-washLiving in France has overturned some of my long-held principles, including but not limited to a strong opposition to mushrooms.

market-de-parisGrowing up, mushrooms were those rubbery bits that came out of a can, often in a thick, white “cream” sauce. They squeaked when you bit them. Irredeemably revolting.

market-pleuroteI eventually made peace with raw mushrooms, and then opened up to others. (Chanterelles? YES. Truffles? Double YES.) The variety of mushrooms here is just amazing. According to the Société Mycologique de France, the country has 1,384 edible mushroom varieties out of about 16,000 species; 514 are toxic or deadly. The society has a semi-useful chart that matches the scientific name with the common French name.

market-2We play it safe and buy our mushrooms at the market. Our No. 1 favorite, shown in the top photo, are the lactaires, also known as roussillous or russulacées, or, more specifically, the lactaire délicieux. Yup. The Latin name is Lactarius deliciosus, so it’s official.


Mushrooms in the foreground … and what do we spy atop the crates just beyond? Why it’s a box of wine!

If you think the name sounds related to milk, you are right–they emit a milky substance when the cap or spores are broken. Since the name of the Milky Way in French is la voie lactée, somehow my mind puts these mushrooms amid the stars, which I find fitting, because they are heaven on a plate.


There are a couple of ways to cook lactaires: straight up in butter or in a persillade of chopped parsley, garlic and butter. Here’s how:


Step 1: Clean them. You might notice that the wild mushrooms pictured above have pine needles and grass and dirt on them. Wipe off the tops with a damp paper towel and gently brush the underneath. Be gentle! Set them out to dry.

Step 2: cut off the bottoms of the stems. You can chop up the rest of the steps to cook.

Team Just Butter. See the bits of stem? More goodness.

Step 3.: Make your persillade, if you’re going that route: Finely chop a small bunch of parsley and a couple of garlic cloves.

Team Persillade.

Step 4: Melt some butter (don’t be stingy) in a frying pan over medium heat. Prepare yourself for amazing fragrance. They smell a little like a white cake baking. They don’t taste sweet, but the flavor is delicate. Cook stem-side up. Don’t turn.


They’re done when they’re hot and have browned ever so slightly. We had them with pan-fried steak, roasted tomatoes (we still get garden tomatoes!) and little grenaille potatoes.

What you see in the pan above set us back about €4 (they were €13 per kilo, down from €14 the week before).

And now for a few beautiful, but not-for-humans, mushroom marvels:


The next one looked for all the world like a Thumbelina version of a chopped-down tree:

top view
Side view

This one was also very flat, but the top glowed translucent, like polished stone:


While these might not be comestible, it looked like somebody had been nibbling:



So many kinds…


A tiny, perfect globe.


Au Naturel in France

pyrennees-2No, I didn’t mean it THAT way (au naturel can mean nude). I meant, let’s wallow in the prettiness of the French countryside on a walk around the neighborhood.

This was taken at the same time and place as the top photo of the snow-capped Pyrénées, just aiming at a different direction.

We had a big storm a few days ago. Rain came down as if from a firehose. The river rose enough that I couldn’t cross it on the little blocks. In fact, the blocks caught branches knocked down by the storm.

This is called a passage à gué. Walk or drive through at your own risk. 
Check out the size of that stump!
The rapids really roar. You can hear them blocks away.

The wind howled for a couple of days. That’s when it’s nice to have shutters.

The table we keep out for winter dining (it often is nice enough to eat outside, especially at lunch) was overturned, but the potted cactus landed right-side-up.

The rain may have poured, but the village fountain has been shut off for winter.

It seems as if autumn has only just settled in, and now we’re getting ready for Christmas.






Snow appeared about a week ago on the Pyrénées. It’s nice that it’s near enough to visit but we don’t have to deal with the mess of slush and ice.

Same mountains, different shoot. The view from the local dump/recycling center. Seriously.

French Beauty Secret

4-productsThe wonders of the French parapharmacie are renowned. A parapharmacie specializes in health-related stuff like vitamins, oral hygiene products, skin care and costmetics. Lots of pharmacies also have parapharmacie sections, basically everything in front of the counter. Even cough syrup and aspirin are behind the counter.

As at the droguerieit’s assumed that customers should get advice when choosing even a non-prescription medication. Many times, I have asked for something simple–a decongestant, a wart remover–only to be grilled about what was wrong, why did I want this product, haven’t I tried this other one? Sometimes they just give me what I asked for, but sometimes they persuade me to try an alternative. I hate to admit it, but they tend to be right.

A trip to France should always include a stop at the parapharmacie. And among the many great products to check out, Avène stands out. It has its roots in the thermal station of the same name, a picturesque village of Avène in Herault, the departement right next to Aude.

The wonders of the local waters were discovered in 1736, when a marquis’s horse was cured of terrible itching after a few baths. In 1871, the waters were sent to Chicago to treat burn victims of the Great Fire. The company itself was formed in 1990 as a dermatological laboratory.

I had terribly itchy eyes a couple of months ago. I think I had rubbed sunscreen on my eyelids while wiping sweat during a run. The itching continued for days, so I saw my doctor, who told me to throw away all my products and use either Clinique or Avène. I’d always liked Clinique, but it’s pricey in France, so I checked out Avène.

The makeup line is called Couvrance.

I already had used several of its products, as I realized as I gathered them to photograph for this post. Every time they had been bought at the suggestion of a doctor (and not always the same one!).

I went to the Pharmacie de la Gare in Carcassonne, which is huge and which has the best prices on all kinds of products. The sales assistants suggested I try the “Tolerance” line, which has no preservatives. To keep it from going bad, there’s an airlock, kind of like on boxed wine.

No air goes in when the cream comes out.
The end of the cream tube
Side view, not squeezing….
Squeezing the tube, the pressure makes the tip pop out.

I’ve been using it for a couple of months and like it a lot. This isn’t sponsored–none of my posts are sponsored–it’s just an FYI if you’re looking for very natural, hypoallergenic cosmetics and skin care.

sunscreenThe sales assistants also suggested this sunblock, which is mineral-based. Great stuff–not greasy or ghostly white.

Carcassonne Curiosities

macaronsThis is likely to be a recurring theme, because I constantly spy odd little details that make me smile. Like the “51” pastis-flavored macarons from Pâtisserie Greg, who’s at the corner of the market near the Halles on Saturdays.

getting-milk-2I can walk past something hundreds of times, and then one day it jumps out at me: this wouldn’t be found in America. Sometimes it wouldn’t be found in Paris, even. Quirks, quoi.

getting-milkLike the raw milk fountain on Saturdays. I love that it’s BYOB. Raw milk is unpasteurized, FYI. Night and day as far as taste. Of course, pasteurization (invented in France!) cut deaths from germs that had contaminated milk. But that was in the 1800s, before refrigeration and vaccines were a thing. Healthy people can drink raw milk without fear.

At le (B): “Here everything is fresh and homemade and when there’s no more…we close.”

Le (B) sandwich shop boasts bagels; it’s new–and there’s another new bagel place on the same street a couple of blocks away. Carcassonne has discovered bagels! While it might be a little oasis of NYC in the south of France, some details are resolutely French. Like closing early when you’ve run out of fresh, homemade goods.

“Closed Mondays. Nothing left for today. Reopening tomorrow (Sunday the 9th) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thank you.”

Sometimes walking down the street, I nearly trip over these, because the sidewalk is barely two feet wide, and some places just a foot across, and I think, this would never happen in the U.S.:

To keep vehicles (first horse-drawn carts, then cars) from scraping the wall. The corner is pretty tight.

And actually, when I start to look down, I realize how incredible the foundations are. Huge stones, little fillers. Yikes.

Clearly christened by more than a few dogs

And then, there’s Place de Lattre de Tassigny, named after a World War I commander, just around the corner from our apartments. It used to be a parking lot, and now it’s an outdoor living room. I love it.


Which quirks do you find endearing in your home? In France?

Home Remedy

savonThe French pharmacy is legendary for its trove of affordable beauty treatments. The French droguerie may sound like a drugstore, but it’s a pharmacy for the home.

The advice is what makes it special. Sure, there are mom and pop hardware stores in the U.S. and elsewhere where the owners know every detail about every product they sell, and they are more than happy to take the time to teach you.

Baking soda…not to be found in the sugar/flour aisle.

But more and more, consumers go to gigantic retailers that sell everything for a few pennies less, and where the minimum-wage employees have zero training about what they’re selling. Yet for a few centimes more, the droguerie offers invaluable advice with your purchase.

Most of the stuff in the droguerie can’t be transported on a plane in your suitcase. A few products–savon de Marseille, pierre d’argent–are safe, though.

exteriorI went into a Carcassonne Caoutchouc, a droguerie in Carcassonne (caoutchouc means rubber) recently to find a solution (in more than one sense of the word) after a young visitor had an accident on our sofa. I spent half an hour going over various products with the vendor. Ammonia was good, and I was given detailed directions as to how to use it. An organic spray was new–expensive but made in France, in Toulouse. I bought both. The spray worked great, by the way.

sprayThey also sell …. everything. Hardware, though it isn’t a hardware store, called a quincaillerie–one of the most musical French words, in my opinion, all the more wonderful for its unglamorous meaning. Pots and pans. Oilcloth by the meter. Bead curtains to keep flies out of the house. Tools. Bug spray. Shopping caddies. A rainbow of dyes for clothes.

shelvesThe clothing dyes, as well as medicines, originally were the base of the drogueries’ trade.


It’s the sort of place you’re apt to pass by, especially if you’re a tourist. But inside, you just might find something more useful to take home than another souvenir T-shirt.


Fall in the South of France

red-vines-to-moulinSo often I have to pinch myself when I step outside and see such that yes, I am living in a postcard. Especially lately.

One of the great fall foliage spectacles happens as the vineyards of southern France change to patchworks of vivid reds, oranges and yellows. The colors depend on the grape varieties, so each plot is a defined hue in a patchwork. The rolling hills of vines in the south of France give New England’s trees some stiff competition.

red-yellow-sharpFall is one of the greenest seasons of the year here. The return of rain makes the grass grow again. Soon the plowed fields of winter wheat will be emerald seas. Many of the trees and shrubs keep their leaves all year, so it never feels quite as bare as in the north.

yellow-and-redDuring the height of summer’s heat and dry spell, it was rare to see butterflies, but now they are all over, mostly flitting in pairs, and catching the sunshine in a way that reminds me of July fireworks, spilling over and over across the sky. I suspect they left us for cooler climes during the summer and now are on their way south. Our winters are mild, but not mild enough for butterflies.

They clearly got the memo about fashionable fall colors.

ivy-house-frontEven the houses are dressed in saturated shades.



ivy-house-by-riverEverywhere I go, another breathtaking vista unfolds.


Sometimes the light is sharp and clear, the cloudless sky a hard blue, the Pyrénées–newly white–sharply etched across the horizon. But in the mornings and evenings, the light is golden, then increasingly red. Not so different from the leaves themselves.

hazy-patchwork-zoomFine days mean crisp nights. As fireplaces are lit again, the scent of burning wood perfumes the air. It contrasts with the wet, earthy compost smells as leaves and grass turn back into rich dirt.

south-from-lowSometimes the light reminds me of the paintings of Jules Breton.



There’s even beauty underfoot. All it takes is opening our eyes. The mix of colors is wonderful.



Chic in Carcassonne

shades-of-brownWith cooler weather, locals and visitors alike have amped up the fashion factor. It’s that time of year when people in T-shirts and jeans rub elbows with folks in fat scarves and fur coats.

These two were just too cute. Mother and daughter, I suspect. The coat on the left is black fur. I love the hat/hair of the one on the right. They walked arm in arm.

Carcassonne isn’t Paris, where you have a lot of people who look fabulous. There also are a lot of people who look awful. Because there are a lot of people. Same thing in New York or London or Barcelona.

À la reine Elizabeth? I thought she looked great.

Carcassonne is just a little city, and it’s rare to see anybody really dressed up. Maybe because so many people here are on vacation, we residents also feel like we’re playing hooky. But casual doesn’t mean sloppy.

At the Saturday post-market party in the street outside Café Saillan. Mustard seems to be the color of fall 2016. 

In any case, a recent stroll through la Cité found many stylish tourists. If you wonder what to wear on vacation in the fall, here are some great ideas.

Mustard leather jacket and Goyard bag with mustard accents. Cute pencil skirt with sensible boots for walking.
Aren’t they adorable, both in brown? 
I loved the blanket coat on the right, paired with leggings and short boots. The quilted red leather jacket was pretty nice, too. Note the BIG scarves.
Khaki and navy always works. And I adore her shoes. Actually I like both the spectators as well as the silvery oxfords.

Trying Times

windowWhat is strength? Is it making others bend to your will? Is it crushing anything that stands in your way? Is it bucking up to do what must be done? Is it moving forward despite the pain?

rainy-viewLife must go on. Today’s weather is appropriately gloomy, and as I took a walk to sort my thoughts, the raindrops offered cover for tears, not that anybody else ventured out.

Sums it up.
A hip-deep pile of manure. The question is: what was planted?

I decided to focus on what I’m grateful for here in France.

boxed-wineNo. 1: Really good, cheap boxed wine that isn’t  just grape juice with alcohol. #Priorities

mairieNo. 2: Liberty, equality, fraternity. And the existence of the European Union.

carte-vitaleNo. 3: Fantastic health care for everybody, including immigrants like myself. Yes, I pay taxes for it, but it’s a bargain.

maternelleNo. 4: Fantastic preschool for all kids from age 3. Yes, I pay taxes for it, and it’s totally worth it.

cathedralNo. 5: Amazing history and architecture at every turn, including la Cité of Carcassonne.

woodsNo. 6: Beautiful nature and the regulations to keep it that way.

stream-with-waterLucky 7: The river that’s flowing again. And the Paris Agreement that just passed a big hurdle.



villa-odetteIt’s a very busy period, yet I can’t help but stop and stare. Today, we take the time to appreciate.

The moon up there

I always loved fall–I was that nerd who couldn’t wait to go back to school. But now fall is associated with the loss of loved ones. Long lives well lived, but their absence leaves a hole that’s as raw as ever.

A door no more

At the same time, it’s a wake-up call. A reminder to appreciate every minute. Every hug. Every bite, and not just on Thanksgiving. Every leaf and stone.


Zooming in 
And out


I’m lucky and grateful to have such a wonderful family.