When walking around French cities, don’t forget to look up. Somebody might be looking down at you.
Oh, the things they’ve seen!
This one is wearing a lion skin. Look at that paw on the right.
And the next window seems similarly dressed, with the paws tied in front. Are those weapons on the left? Even then, women were smooth-faced, while men could have wrinkles.
This one seems happier, and with flowers, not animal skins. I also like the shutters, with that shade of almost-blue faded gray.
Sometimes you have to look way up.
This lady seems to be studiously ignoring the antics of the buffoons on either side of her.
There will be building after building with no more decoration than the character of their stones and bricks, which, truth be told, is mighty fine in itself. But then a building will have something–or someone–at every window.
Gorgeous railings, eh? They’re called garde-fous, which literally translates to crazy guards.
The one above was a consulate, hence the barbed wire.
The very francophile blog Hello Lovely has a feature on our AirBnB rental apartment, la Suite Barbès. Michele, Hello Lovely’s author, has given us a royal spread. I hope you’ll stop by her blog to check it out….and it’s one to subscribe to if you like a steady diet of beautiful interiors. Michele offers up a daily moment of zen with the calm, collected spaces she features. And her positive attitude and warm personality come through her writing. It’s a read I look forward to every day.
In the bedroom of la Suite Barbès.
The direct link to la Suite Barbès on AirBnB is here. And our other apartment, l’Ancienne Tannerie, on the same floor, decorated in the same style, is here. They both have four stars from the tourism ministry!
Yeah, everybody does 5k races, and everybody even does them throwing colored powder at the runners. But not everybody does them around a medieval fortress.We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
On Saturday, the young, healthy and energetic citizens of the city gathered along the Aude river for “Color My Run.” It’s in English because that’s cool, authentic. The symbol is a castle because … France.I know these color runs have been a thing for quite a while, but we are in France profonde–deepest France–and it was a first here. Put together by a group of students (more cheers for young people!), with proceeds going to Secours Populaire, or People’s Relief.
It was all organized in usual French fashion, which is to say, extremely organized, except that, in European fashion (I won’t pin it solely on the French, since a number of other nationalities do it, too), the lines were more amoebas than lines, but at least they moved quickly. The young organizers scanned participants’ tickets (you had to sign up online–of course) with their phones (of course. Does anybody use phones to call? I don’t think so, but they do everything else). It helps that Carcassonne is small and not very cut-throat. People are still registering at the starting time? Well, we’ll wait until everybody is ready. Plenty of time! Relax!
I tell you, life here is good. Even people running a race have all the time in the world.We were not on top of the fashion situation, because lots of runners came decked out in crazy outfits.
One group of young ladies even dyed their hair, half green, half red. That’s dedication.
The runners took off along the Quai Bellevue–it does have a pretty view–then crossed the 14th century Pont Vieux, or old bridge, which is entirely pedestrian.
I thought the route was going to be an easy loop along one side of the river–semi-wild, very pretty parkland because it’s in a flood zone–and then on the other–more parks, all flat. However, just after the bridge, the route included a quad-melting climb to the walls of la Cité.
There’s a new art installation, called Eccentric Concentric, by Felice Varini, with 15 yellow circles on the ramparts. I am no art critic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but to me it looks like either the symbol for wifi or the symbol on the highways to warn that there’s a radar ahead.As long as it’s temporary.
When I lived in New York, first I was downtown and constantly marveled at the high-rises and bright lights. I’d go to the top of the World Trade Center just because it was nearby and always a thrill. Later, I lived in Brooklyn and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go home, always gazing in wonder at the view out the back window, even after years of it. Now, it’s la Cité that makes me pinch myself. How is it possible that such a place existed? An even bigger question: How is it possible it still is intact today?
To do something as universal and ordinary as running, while in the shadow of such a place, well, I never can believe it’s real, even after so many years.The thing is, all the stuff around it is so pretty but la Cité is so awesome you don’t even notice the rest. Like the pretty little dam on the river with a little footbridge.At the end of the run, which was noncompetitive, there was an afternoon rave with the cutest DJ brothers. They clearly took their work very seriously, and made playing music look as complex as any scene from the command deck of a space ship that’s under attack, yet they seemed to enjoy it at the same time. The post-run crowd relaxed by jumping madly (after a run!) and had good, clean fun, as you can see below.
And if anybody now has an earworm of Chicago crooning “Color My World,” bringing back a flood of prom and homecoming memories, well, maybe next time you will run, too?
What do the French do on a long weekend? They go to the countryside! Easter Monday is a national holiday, because although the Revolution established France as a diligently secular country, folks weren’t so foolish as to relinquish days off.
Easter bunnies? On sale at the market.
Not a bad view.
On a back road that rivaled any pot-holed, rutted safari track, cars with not-local plates passed nonstop under a brilliant spring sun. More cars were parked under trees, their passengers scattered in the brush–a taste of wilderness without having to walk too far.
It’s obvious, right?
They were after asparagus, mostly. The thing to eat on Easter Monday is an omelette, preferably with asparagus, preferably wild asparagus. You need better eyesight than mine to spot it–fine green stems against more green. “It’s not the same green!” my friends explain. But I have gone asparagus-ing and even when it was right in front of my face I didn’t see it. However, I got plenty scratched up. Now I get my wild asparagus at the market or from generous friends.
Look closer! That’s an asparagus plant. No delectables on this one…somebody had already passed.
People of all ages were tramping through the brush–the touffes, or tufts, are called la mattein local Occitan lexicon. Somehow, la matte sums up the state of the inpenetrable tangle. That didn’t stop people from trying. I saw a dad coaching a little girl, who was wiggling like a commando through a little opening to get to asparagus gold.
It takes a long time to get even a handful.
There are other wild things along the way, and I’m not talking about parents. The flowers! Wild orchids:
A very decorative plant whose name I was told but forgot, and whose fruit grows not off the stem but off the leaf:
This little flower is called un petit souci–a little worry. I wonder whether a bunch of petits soucis becomes a big worry.
People here say all the time, “Petit enfant, petits soucis. Grand enfant, grands soucis”–small children, small worries. Big children, big worries.
Sigh. Happily ours is sans souci at the moment. Knock on wood.
Speaking of big, the pinecone on the left was bigger than my fist. It also was very sticky with sap, so it didn’t come home with me.
While we swoon over the views again, let’s discuss the title of this post. It’s from a podcast by Esther Perel, who is a revelation. Her podcast records her therapy sessions with couples. Wow. Even if you aren’t dealing with the issues discussed, you can’t help but learn. Learn to listen. Learn to get past what people say and understand what they mean.In an episode titled “Leaving Shame Behind,” Perel counseled a couple dealing with the aftermath of crises–a brain tumor, a car crash and the husband having a near-fatal heart attack that left him mostly disabled for a long time. The wife had to do everything–what Perel called “overfunctioning.” Isn’t that just the perfect word? Are you overfunctioning?
She said many wise things, but one that really hit me was: “Apology is not weak. The one who apologizes first is the stronger one.”
In the dead of the past winter, we spent the day in Toulouse. It’s such a lovely city, one that punches above its weight in sophistication. I suppose travelers might think of Carcassonne as a daytrip from Toulouse, but I prefer to think of Toulouse as a daytrip from Carcassonne.My favorite thing to do in any city is flâner–to walk aimlessly. I don’t need to shop, though I enjoy faire du lèche-vitrine (literally, licking windws, but it means do window-shopping). And of course some time en terrace at a café to people-watch.
The pre-Christmas outdoor dining scene.
The architecture is a bit different from Carcassonne. Grander, for sure, in such a big city. But there’s also the use of red bricks, which give Toulouse its nickname of La Ville Rose, which was adopted as a tourism slogan more than a century ago, after the author Stendahl wrote insultingly of his visit. Over the years that we’ve lived in the region, Toulouse has cleaned up nicely. More streets in the center are limited to pedestrians, new tram lines have been built and parking is nigh impossible. Bikes are everywhere. Hipster boutiques and restaurants are filled with young French women who look beautiful despite bedhead and young men with bushy Brooklyn beards. The brick walls are authentic.
An optician. Of course.
I never get enough of the narrow, crooked streets.
You have to look up.
You have to look down.
So many grand entrances, to let in carriages.
Sometimes you get to peek inside.
Have you been to Toulouse? I have more Toulousain treats in store.
Trying to explain what is “new” and “old” in France to somebody from the Americas is challenging. In a place where the first buildings still standing went up in 485 CE, something from 1663 is relatively new.
I never liked history because of having to memorize dates. It’s very strange, because I’m good with numbers and am likelier to remember somebody’s phone number or zip code than their name. I guess we also had to memorize a lot of names. Not enough emphasis on the stories!
I finally have a few key points under my belt, such as July 14, 1789: Bastille Day. These things never happen on a whim. The kindling is laid for years, and then when the fire is sparked, it takes off ferociously.
The houses above were built in the period when things had been getting better to the extent that people lived longer and populations swelled. France had the biggest population in Europe. For a while it was boom times, then prices for food rose sharply.
This 1790 house was built in the early days of the revolution, not far from the 1780 house. Had the unrest reached this far into France profonde? To get here, you have to pass the mountainous Massif Central, until the band of plain where these houses lie. Beyond here, you hit mountains, where sheep outnumber people, and then Spain.
I constantly marvel and am thankful that these houses, with their not-square corners and not-plumb walls and not-level floors, have been inhabited and tended to, rather than torn down for something modern.
In the little streets, time stands still.
Despite the simple tools of the time, curves (the intentional ones!) grace the architecture.
Concrete and glass can be beautiful, but after a while, so many pure lines feel bland. Give me a nice stone wall that has seen some things.
Arched door, arched back.
I mentioned just last week, on the first day of spring, that the trees had a green haze that hinted at leaves, which I predicted would burst out all at once. Well, the switch flipped. The photos below are from almost the same spot. The one on the left was from a couple of weeks ago with the first buds, and the one on the right was taken yesterday.
Spring fever is contagious. My kid occasionally often forgets to be a sullen teen, for example, yesterday, exclaiming at breakfast that the birds were singing. Indeed, a whole chorus of birds chirped and twittered in the background of a belted-out aria from Merle, our resident blackbird. Un merle is French for blackbird, and I think it’s a good name for such a singer. He often sits on the peak of our house and serenades us as we dine en terrace in the evenings, something we can finally do again.
It seems impossible to ignore the sad events that came to my beloved town.
They are uncharacteristic. As I have remarked before, this is a small, sleepy town where young children and old ladies walk around on their own with no problems. It’s not as gentrified and Disneyfied as the villages of Provence that attract droves of tourists and where real estate is now out of reach for people with modest salaries, like teachers. Carcassonne, and the region around it, remains modestly rooted in the past.On Friday, I was in Trèbes. Not in the supermarket, though we shop there often. But I was in the crowd on the corner, as close as the gendarmes would allow. Many of the people gathered were immigrants. The older people were livid that a young delinquent was bringing unflattering attention to their community. They had businesses. They loved France.Later, I was near the low-income housing project where the attacker lived. It was built in the 1950s for workers of the Salsigne gold mine, who were a mixed lot of nationalities. Keep in mind that while France suffered in World War II, other countries were much poorer in the postwar years. Working in a gold mine, despite the risks, was a path to a better life. Even for locals–several of our older friends worked at the mine, which is in the mountains about 10 miles north of Carcassonne. When it closed in 2004, it was a mixed blessing, as often is the case–it was good to end the environmental disaster, but the loss of jobs was devastating. The neighborhood was named after Frédéric Ozanam, a founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Its mundanity feels a world away from the historic Cité.
The neighborhood was quiet and tidy. Not a speck of litter on the ground. No graffiti. It was clearly very modest. It’s the worst neighborhood in town, but worst is relative. A boy and a girl, about 8 or 10 years old, played basketball on a nice court, unsupervised. A knot of maybe 20 young men hugged each other. We talked for about 15 minutes. I could see their minds churning–how to process the news, how to react, which side to take. They were emotional but mostly respectful. I read that their tempers got away from them later, when journalists arrived en masse.A block from the young men, an old woman was pushing her walker down the center of the street–easier than navigating up and down curbs and around light poles. This spoke volumes. She must live there, since she was on foot, heading toward the main street, where there are some shops. She felt safe about going out alone. She even felt confident that any car that might come along would brake and wait for her to get onto the sidewalk. At the corner, she was one door away from where the military jogger was shot that same morning.
The next day, Saturday, was sad. The brave gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame, died of his injuries. It seemed as if the skies opened to cry for him. The market went on, life went on, though more hushed than usual. I still saw little old ladies out for their groceries, walking alone. Because one wrong man cannot undo us all.
I prepared this post last week. Today, we are in shock. Crazies again. In a little, old-fashioned supermarket. In a town where little old ladies walk around with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other. The picture of safe.
I will certainly have something to say about it later. I am glad I gave blood again this morning.
Back to the previously scheduled post:
Our local bakery is awful. Shocking, but true. For years, we went to a bakery in the next village, tucked away on a barely one-way street (I say “barely” because it was practically a tunnel, lined by houses that were erected when traffic was exclusively on foot, whose walls are well-scraped by passing vehicles). The oven was wood-fired, and the baker’s wife would wear big mitts to bring out hot pain de campagne. The baker was crowded with people waiting to buy it—you snooze, you lose. While waiting (in a huddle, never in a line), they discussed the weather, and their forecasts were 100% accurate. This is not surprising in a crowd of winegrowers and other farmers and gardeners. Stooped pensioners showed up wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. In winter, the heat from the oven and the people would steam the windows on the bakery, and, when I got my lumpy loaf, holding it with my sleeves because it was still too hot to handle, it would steam up the windows of my car.
Sometimes the Carnivore and I would eat the entire loaf while it was still hot enough to melt the butter, which we applied copiously. But our beloved bakers got tired of the early mornings six days a week and sold the bakery. The young guy who bought the place had his own ideas about things, and the bread wasn’t as good. He went out of business after two years.We tried other bakeries, but the problem with village bakeries is that you show up early, yet are informed that the hunters have passed by even earlier and have bought everything but a couple of éclairs, which aren’t very good for sandwiches. Or that the baker had a party the night before and is running late and so come back in an hour.Good French bread is a revelation, but disappointing bread is practically criminal.
Though most of my friends are cook-at-home-from-scratch experts, they don’t make bread. Restaurants might pride themselves on their elaborate patisseries for dessert, but they won’t make their own bread. For bread, one goes to the boulangerie. Every day.
I had noticed this French habit long before I heard of the four banal—the banal oven, which probably played a role.
What does the word “banal” have to do with ovens? Or “banalities”? Did you know these words are related to bread?According to the French Federation of Baking Enterprises, around 50 B.C., the Romans introduced (unleavened) bread to France, having adopted it from the Greeks.
Keep in mind that people cooked over a fire, and it isn’t all that easy to translate into an oven. I did it when I lived in Africa: I made an “oven” out of a very large covered pot that I lined with pebbles, and into which I placed a smaller pot that held the bread. Necessity is the mother of invention. It was delicious, BTW. Some people put ovens into the walls near the kitchen fireplace. Except that all these fires, including candles and lamps for light, meant that houses were burning down rather frequently. With houses sandwiched against each other, one person’s faulty chimney could quickly destroy an entire village. I saw a communal oven, with loaves waiting their turn, in Timbuktu, where not only is it safer to have a communal oven, but you wouldn’t want any extra heat in the kitchen, and wood is so scarce that it makes sense not to use fuel for individual ovens.So the seigneurs—lords—started building separate ovens for bread, and charging the locals to use them; meanwhile they banned home ovens.
Un ban in French originally meant a public proclamation—for example les bans de mariage, the official pronouncement of a wedding engagement. As official proclamations tended to come from the lords of the château, and as lords tended to proclaim what locals could NOT do more than what was permitted, the word “ban” assumed more of its current connotation of “forbid.”Imagine you’re living in your medieval village, you’ve made your bread, you’ve marked it with a B (seriously, everybody had to mark their bread to keep the loaves from being mixed up) and now you have to schlep over to the lord’s oven—le four banal—to throw it in the oven (for a fee). Plus, you had to bring a log to add to the fire. You might have to wait your turn. Other villagers will be there, waiting for their bread to come out. Of course, you all chat—about the weather (some things never change) and little things that happened. You see each other all the time and there’s little news to share nor is there time for delving into intellectual discussions. And thus, the word “banal” acquires its connotation of that which is idle, trivial, common or boring. Le four banal is where banalités—banalities—or fees for use of the oven (usually in kind, not in money) are exchanged. And so you have the very bad pun of my title. I am not the only one to riff on glutton/gluten. And pain is not pain but bread, and rhymes not with rain but with hand, if you left off the nd. Kind of. Listen here. (My best title pun, if I may say so, was this one.)Keep in mind that until quite recently, all bread was whole-wheat bread and quite healthy. It wasn’t even salted until the 18th century, when the tax was lifted on on salt, which is related to the word salary, but that’s another monopoly and another story.
The job of baker originally started as le tamisier—the one who makes or sells sifters. Around 1200, King Philippe Auguste let the tamisiers build their own ovens, and around 1250—close to the same time the “new” city of Carcassonne was built—Saint-Louis ended the seigneurs’ rights to oven fees in cities, but these ovens continued for a few more centuries out in the countryside. The bakers joined together to control the supply of flour and bread, and it was forbidden to bake one’s bread at home.According to the FEB, it was in 1665 that a Parisian baker added some beer yeast into a light bread, making it taste better and producing a lighter bread. This was very controversial, and the medical faculty in Paris and the government itself came out against using beer yeast. However, taste won the day, because consumers demanded yeasty bread, and the ban was lifted in 1670.Around the same time, in the 17th century, bread in a long form started to appear in Paris: le baguette, which literally means “little stick.” Baguette also refers to chopsticks, an orchestra director’s baton, and, in the case of la baguette magique, a magic wand. This symbol of France didn’t take off outside the cities until the 20th century, according to the Center for Research and Study of Bakery and Its Companions. Maybe that’s why the lumpy roundish loaf is called pain de campagne.Very important advice: when you order a baguette in France, be sure to ask for “baguette tradition,” with a slight sour-dough taste and a chewy interior beneath a golden, bumpy crust. Do not save a couple of centimes by getting the plain old baguette, with a uniform crust and inside that resembles the foam in a mattress and that will be as hard as a rock in a couple of hours.
According to the Balladur Decree of 1993 (another decree! another bread ban!), the pain de tradition français may contain only these ingredients: wheat flour, potable water, salt and yeast, although it also can have small amounts of flour of broad beans, soybeans or wheat malt. It means that all the goodness of a baguette depends on the quality of the flour and the expertise of the baker.
The patron saint of bakers is Saint Honoré, whose feast day is May 16 (saints’ feast days are announced on TV daily with the weather report). Mark your calendar and celebrate accordingly.
It seems as if spring has been giving us a slow tease for a month already. Finally, it’s official.
There’s always a line…until they sell out, which is fast.
To me, it’s officially spring when the asparagus stands appear at the market. That was a few weeks ago. Asparagus trucked in from Spain doesn’t count. I like it picked no longer than the day before. The thing about living in France is that you get full license to be a snob about food. It comes with the carte de séjour.The wild almond trees are the first to flower. A group of women from the village used to go for walks through the vineyards from early June to mid-July–when the evenings stay light until quite late. They would point out plants on the side of the road, and somebody always had a jam they made from it, or a way to cook it, and inevitably there was a recipe to make an alcoholic beverage, whether sweet, savory, bitter, you name it. Booze was definitely the biggest category. With my eyes opened to the cornucopia just sitting out there, I picked up some almonds. I got them home, and cracked them open and tasted one. Disgusting. Strongly like marzipan but way more bitter. I went online to read about whether they had to be toasted or treated to improve the taste, and discovered that they are extremely poisonous! They’re full of cyanide! It only takes 10 or so to make you deathly ill. Though I can’t imagine anybody being able to eat 10. Blech. Anyway, it taught me the dangers of wild foraging.The buds and burgeons on bare branches start to open into actual foliage, creating a vaguely green scrim around the roadside bushes. One of these days, as if a switch were flipped, everything will be filled out.The vineyards take longer to reawake. The vignerons are laboring to trim the vines before their sap begins to flow again. Painstaking. Back-breaking. Wish them good health when you sip your next glass.The Pyrénées are still covered with snow, and up to 50 cm (20 inches) was forecast for today! Yesterday was T-shirt weather, but by 4 p.m., the storm rolled in and sent the temperatures dropping. Today feels like winter, not spring, though we didn’t get snow. Higher up, though, they did. The ski slopes are only an hour or two away by car/bus, and the local ski club has outings until the end of March.
I never tire of this view.Interesting things show up.
What is this spiky plant with red flower?
The flora here includes many plants that never lose their leaves, keeping the countryside surprisingly green even in winter. All these photos were taken in the past two weeks.And, of course, the dreamy clouds.
Living in France has changed my cooking and eating habits. Sure, the French have amazing packaged, ready-to-eat foods lining the aisles of the hypermarchés. And somebody is buying all that stuff–according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the French in 2010 (latest figures) spent 53 minutes a day preparing meals, vs. 71 minutes a day in 1986, while le snacking (seriously, they used that term) increased almost 11% between 2014 and 2015.
Our kid has remarked on the predominance of ready-made dishes at friends’ homes. Admittedly, it’s challenging to whip up a meal from scratch in under half an hour. Challenging but not impossible. It requires planning, and if your bandwidth is taken up by things like work, then maybe home cooking is a thought too much.
On the other hand, cooking from scratch doesn’t always take that much more time than using prepared packages. Cakes and moelleux au chocolat (aka brownies) are a prime example. And cooking from scratch is cheaper and healthier.Years ago, I took a guided hiking tour in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières. I was the only non-French person. Our equipment and food traveled separately from us, on donkey-back, with tents set up and meals ready when we’d arrive at the next campsite. We sat cross-legged in a circle on the ground, and the cook would serve up the first course, always soup. We’d pass the bowls around until everyone had one, then would taste. One day I was at the far end, and got my bowl of soup first. I did what I’d seen the others do each day: I drew in a long breath over my bowl, then reflected aloud, “Quelles épices?”(which spices), which drew much laughter. The composition of every dish was the launching point of every dinnertime conversation, branching out from minute analysis of the spices to the ingredients and methods of preparation, and sometimes spinning into arguments about which region of France had the best butter or whether one region’s salt was superior to another’s. I had never heard so much intense discussion and debate about food. Every. Single. Day.
I loved it.
Our kid has absorbed this French obsession about food and is a talented and opinionated cook, declaring the other day, “When I have my own place, I’ll know I’ve succeeded if nothing I buy has labels.” Think about it–vegetables from farmers; cheese from cheesemongers or cheesemakers; bread from the baker; meat from the butcher, trimmed before your eyes; fish with the head still on from the fishmonger (OK, I will skip that one. I can’t eat anything that looks at me). We already mostly eat that way, except the fancy cheese is a special treat, not a regular habit. Even milk can come without packaging.
Much of our produce comes from local farmers, but we do buy some imports–oranges, pineapples, off-season vegetables….I just read that the U.S. imports 53% of fresh fruit and 31% of fresh vegetables. The figures for France are similar: 40% of fruits and vegetables are imported, notably produce that doesn’t grow here, such as bananas and avocados. However, the French article notes that domestic production has dropped. I do wonder about that, with all the housing developments and shopping centers taking over prime farmland. Once paved over, it will produce food no more.