Strange Sightings

P1070266Have you ever lost your pants? Or a sock? Or a sweater? I am not talking about in wayward airbound baggage, nor in the laundry, but, say on a path in the woods, or a country road?

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Sock. Can’t blame the dryer.

Me either.

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More disturbing: underwear. I didn’t touch it!

Yet, I constantly come across articles of clothing that do not appear to have been tossed away on purpose. Is this some secret French fetish?

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A DIFFERENT pair of pants, far from the pair at the top of the post.

What were the owners of these items thinking?

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Remains of a sweater (striped).

Maybe it’s best not to know.

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I thought this was a tea towel, but then spied buttons. A top?

These pieces were seen over a couple of weeks over a five-ish kilometer radius, each item alone.

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Why?
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How do they change the channel now?

Not just clothes, either. Can somebody tell me why one would take a TV remote on a small road through vineyards, and then leave it there?

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Not clothing but still WTF: a paint can? bucket? Not on any road or path.

Speculation about the stories behind these items is encouraged in the comments.

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Desire to Inspire

SONY DSCDesire to Inspire, one of my favorite blogs, featured our apartments! We are so excited to be part of such a collection of gorgeous interiors and exteriors. Desire to Inspire lives up to its name. All the pretty things. A cornucopia of eye candy. Beautiful homes and work spaces from around the world.SONY DSCThey even did two posts. They chose our best photos, of course, so click over to see them. The back apartment, aka L’ancienne Tannerie on Airbnb, is here. The front apartment, aka La Suite Barbès on Airbnb, is here.

Here are some other shots, professionally done by Paul Catoir, who runs Clic Clac photography in Charleroi, Belgium.

We’ll start with L’ancienne Tannerie.

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Yes, we ate the delicious pastries after the photo session.
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The ceilings are so high it’s hard to include the chandeliers. And the crystal one in this room is so pretty. Desire to Inspire used a great shot with the chandelier, mirror and the moldings.

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Back apt living mantle
Mantle detail.

On to my favorite room, the kitchen.

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We ate all that stuff, too. Yes, before the pastries.

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Every single renter has been crazy about the bathroom. Again, more shots on Desire to Inspire.SONY DSC

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The sauna.

The bedroom is exceptionally quiet and stays cool in the summer, thanks to all those two-foot-thick stone walls.SONY DSC

There’s also a small bedroom with a twin bed. It’s much cuter in person.SONY DSCSONY DSC

Now let’s cross the landing to la Suite Barbès. SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

The shot above is from the entry-slash-kitchen.

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The space above the kitchen is the “harnais,” which was used back in the day to store horse harnesses. Now it’s furniture limbo.
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Opposite direction.

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The bedroom is gigantic–35 square meters, or 376 square feet. You can see the before and after here.SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

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I love that mirror in the bathroom. And that pedestal sink. And the tile. 

And in the bathroom, another huge shower:SONY DSC

Check out Desire to Inspire on Instagram, too. We’re also on Instagram (although I’m mostly a weekend poster).

We have just gotten started renting out the apartments, and all the visitors have been so nice. It has turned out to be really fun to welcome people from around the world, and to give them a place to stay that is unmistakably French.

And the real reason to visit Carcassonne:

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La Cité from Pont Vieux

Another Adorable French Village

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Is there no end to the prettiness? Let’s wander through the overwhelming charms of Bize-Minervois, a village of about a thousand people in the Aude department of the south of France.

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People tasting coffee (we don’t just have wine here; there’s locally roasted coffee!) in the courtyard of the former royal fabric factory, today home to gîtes.

The excuse for checking out Bize (which delightfully sounds like la bise, or the French custom of greeting by kissing on each cheek, though some do more than two–going up to three or four kisses, and starting on left or right depending on how far north) was “Tastes en Minervois,” a mix of gastronomy and wine, with some art and music thrown in for spice.IMG_4389The areas around the wine-tastings had plenty of people, but otherwise, the tiny village mostly let one see its true colors. (We were badly organized and arrived after the food had been served.)IMG_4609IMG_4395IMG_4604

For example, beautiful doors.

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This one makes me think of the huge lengths of fabric of the village’s past as a textile center.
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Fit for a Hobbit.

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A foulerie was a place for pressing textiles. The snake theme is thanks to the Carndinal de Bonzi, who was archbishop of nearby Narbonne in 1673 and who originally hailed from Milan (I know, you’re saying, oh, of course! The symbol of Milan-based Alfa Romeo cars is a snake eating a person).

The windows weren’t so shabby either.IMG_4593IMG_4576IMG_4658

There was cuteness and postcard-picturesqueness at every turn.IMG_4399IMG_4406IMG_4407IMG_4581IMG_4655

The town nestles, warily, next to the Cesse river, which usually is tiny but which, as you can see by its bed, can get a little crazy.IMG_4637

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Local swimming hole

That reminds me of a riddle: what can run but never walks, what has a mouth but never talks, what has a bed but does not sleep, what has a head but never weeps?

A river.IMG_4585

The town of Bize went all-out decorating. There were numerous spots to kick back and taste wine or food. The one above had “furniture” made from tires. And the décor was street signs. I thought the sign, affaissement was hilarious–it sounds like afessement, which isn’t a word but if it were it would mean to lay your butt down (fesse is buttock); affaissement is what happens when a pile of something like sand or rocks kind of slumps down. And slumping down seems to be the same outcome as afessement. I ran it by some native French speakers, who thought it was pretty funny, but the Carnivore informed me that it was completely wrong because the French don’t go for puns like that. I’m not so sure.

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Mandatory pallet furniture.

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But as lively as the festivities were, the best parts of Bize were the tiny lanes, the quirky old buildings, the clearly sleepy ambiance.

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No fear of traffic. But what happens if the fridge goes out and you need a new one delivered?

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Note the parking spot outlined in white (big enough for a Smart), and the yellow no-parking line…as if! I bet if a car is parked in that spot, it’s no easy thing to get around that curve. Anyway, a car? Here? Maybe every few days.

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The planters for the climbing vines!
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Undoubtedly a fine institution.

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That wasn’t all. On the way I kept pulling over to bark at my photographer/offspring to take pictures of various beautiful things. Even though all the villages around here have similar levels of cuteness, it’s foreign enough to me despite all the years of living here that I go ga-ga over it every time. Tant mieux.

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Mailhac, on the way to Bize. You see? Where does it stop, all this picturesqueness?

Little Treasures

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You could call it shopping the closet. We bought much of the furniture along with the apartments we renovated in Carcassonne. And in closets and cupboards there have been lovely finds.

The embroidered screen now stands in front of a fireplace. It’s really exquisite. I suppose it was handmade–everything was, even just a couple of generations ago.

The wooden bowl, below, is big and heavy and certainly hand-carved. So much of the furniture has a grape motif. Appropriate for the region!carved-bowl

And this funny dish, shaped like a shell, very light, and painted by hand. What would such a dish have been used for? P1080589There’s a souffler for a fireplace.souffler

And this delicate lamp.lamp

We also found lots of books, mostly old school books of several generations. School back in the day must have been awfully rigorous. The pages of the history book below are half-consumed by footnotes. Enough to make the biggest history buff’s eyes glaze over.P1080591

Which is probably what led to notes like the ones below.

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Not the initials of any members of the family as far as I know. The 4 probably refers to the grade, the equivalent of 8th grade in the U.S.
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Greek to me….doodles tucked in the book.

There were books for all ages. How about this one: P1080596

The title translates as “While Laughing: Reading Without Tears.” One would hope so! It’s from 1930 and does away with the “old analytical method” in favor of the new “global method.” As illustrated below:P1080597

I’m not sure it accomplished its goals. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute. And how confusing to have to learn letters as printed and in cursive at the same time as trying to figure out the code of what they say.

Another book has vocabulary for items I don’t even recognize. What ARE those clippers? P1080598

However, it gives some great pronunciation points. Here, you have a list showing which “o” sounds are alike. It’s similar to a book I had in a French class back in the day, “Exercises in French Phonics,” by Francis W. Nachtmann. Excellent book, although pronunciation can’t be learned by books alone. It helps to also have a native speaker around to say the words correctly and then to point out how one has failed miserably to repeat them.

We also found another trove of old newspapers. It seems madame (or monsieur? their kids would have been pretty young) was thrilled by the Apollo 11’s moon landing on July 24, 1969. The papers show the extent to which it was big news, even in France profonde.P1080603P1080602P1080601P1080607

Ted Kennedy’s woes also warranted saving for posterity.P1080606

I was intrigued by a note about the weather. Perpignan had a record high of 36.9 Celsius, which comes to 98.4 Fahrenheit, while Carcassonne was at 33.2 Celsius, or 91.8 Fahrenheit. The all-time record for Carcassonne was during the 2003 heat wave, with 41.9 Celsius, or 107.42. That is definitely hot, and shows that the records are getting higher. Usually the average high temperature in summer is 28.6 Celsius, or 83.5 Fahrenheit–very pleasant.P1080605The finds reminded me of the book “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable“A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable, which was based on the real story of a Parisian apartment that was left untouched for 70 years. Another book, in French, titled “Madeleine Project,” by Clara Beaudoux, is the true story of the author trying to figure out the life of the previous owner of the Parisian apartment she has bought–full of stuff.

We have found many small traces of the previous residents, some too personal too show. A torn bit of a photo. An electricity bill from 30 years ago. A Mary medal pinned to a mattress. I know the family endured tragedies, but I don’t know the details. In cleaning out a storage room, amid all manner of sports equipment, we found a wrapped present, itself wrapped up in sheets and stuffed into a box of clothes. I think it was too painful for them to go deal with, and too hard to let go. Even I was overwhelmed by emotion, their grief was so evident, despite decades of being shut away.

But I hope their trip to Nice was a happy one.

Wine Harvest

P1080694Today may be Sept. 1, but Monday is la rentrée–the great return to school, to work, to routine. For winemakers around this part of the south of France, the end of summer comes with le vendange, or grape harvest, and they are hard at it.P1080487At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. P1080474Within the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.

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This photo and the one just above were taken a while ago; these are all dark purple now.

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.

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Can you spot the lonely vigneron tending the wires? Obviously from earlier this year.

Lots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.

P1080704Let me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).

P1080705If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.

Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.

And so when things go badly, we see the long faces.

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Hit by frost.

Our winters are mild, and temperatures only occasionally drop below freezing at night. But this spring, frost struck low-lying areas a few times as late as April, devastating the vines just as the fruit was budding out.

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Big gaps.

A large field where some optimistic winegrower had planted new vines early in the spring turned into rows of shriveled dreams. Some plots that belonged to the ancient vigneron, who died about a year ago, were hit and tumbled into abandon. I suppose his son, no spring chicken himself, gave up on them.P1080476

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Lost cause.

Another plot nearby was completely dead and eventually torn up and plowed over. I met a worker pulling out the stakes that had held the wires for training the vines, and he said they would plant again later. Maybe.P1070939The piles of souches, or stumps,  look like heaps of bones, a cemetery of hope.P1080473The harvest this year is two weeks early because of the hot summer, but the output is expected to be 30% to 40% lower than last year. The wine is expected to be of excellent quality, however. So keep an eye out for Minervois 2017 (though in the meantime you would do well with 2016 and 2015 and 2014….)P1070946

Peppers in Paradise

P1080654Our kid has always eaten red peppers as if they were potato chips. Never refuse a kid who wants vegetables. (I guess potato chips are technically vegetables, but you know what I mean.)

While plain, raw peppers are crunchy and juicy and tasty, cooked peppers make for a colorful side dish. And this recipe, from Patricia Wells’ cookbook “Vegetable Harvest,” is a winner for entertaining because it can be made ahead and served hot or at room temperature. As Wells points out, leftovers are good as a sauce on pasta or polenta. They also freeze well, so don’t hesitate to make a lot.P1080653Red Peppers, Tomatoes, Onions, Cumin and Espelette Pepper, from “Vegetable Harvest” by Patricia Wells

2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds

4 red bell peppers (or a mix with yellow and orange–as long as they are the sweet kind)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (I used an enormous red onion, which is pretty)

1 teaspoon ground piment d’Espelette (substitutes: dried Anaheim chilies, ground mild chili pepper or paprika)

2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cubed but not peeled P1080648Toast the cumin in a small, dry skillet, shaking regularly because they can scorch quickly. About two minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.P1080649Cut the cleaned peppers quarters and then into 1/8-inch-thick slices. P1080652Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, piment d’Espelette and salt.  Cover and let it sweat over low heat for three to four minutes.

Add the peppers and tomatoes and cook, covered, over low heat until the peppers are soft and tender, about 30 minutes. I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I’ve reduced the tomatoes a little and cooked the peppers with the onions so they soften before adding the tomatoes toward the end. It makes the result a little less juicy/soupy.

By the way, I love, love, love this cookbook. I’ve made many of its recipes, and they are delicious but not difficult. And they all have a French flair.

 

Who Needs Whole Foods?

standWhy go to an air-conditioned supermarket when you can buy most of what you need from local producers under the shade of plane trees, and stop for a coffee or apéritif with friends at a café terrace afterward?

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Prunes are plums in French.

The Saturday morning market is the high point of my week. It’s a sensory cornucopia. It’s practical. It’s social. It’s the heart of la belle vie française. It’s part of the French savoir-vivre–knowing how to live. Because making your errands enjoyable, social moments of beauty and pleasure is the way to live the good life simply.beans

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Directly from the producer to the consumer, the sign says.

Many–not all–of the stands are local producers. That means the person who grew the food is standing there selling it to you. They increasingly are going bio, or organic, but it involves lots of paperwork that some don’t want to deal with. As a friend told me when I first arrived in Carcassonne, most of the people in the region are way too cheap to use a drop more fertilizer or pesticide than they absolutely have to and will go without whenever possible. So I don’t sweat the bio label and just stick to the locals.

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Garlic!

Although I might have a list of things I need, it’s short–along the lines of don’t forget garlic. Instead, the best way to shop the market is to listen to the market. It will tell you what’s in season.

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Earlier this summer, cherries. No more.
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Apricots arrive, overlapping with cherries and still around.
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Then come peaches and nectarines (white and yellow. We like the yellow ones). They’re still tasty and plentiful, therefore it’s still summer.

The other tip is to go early, which I often am guilty of not doing. You get the best choice, it’s less crowded, and it’s important not to hurry. Take the time to assess the produce, and also to assess the protocol of each stand. Some serve you and get riled if you touch anything. These usually have lines, and cutting will bring the wrath of the regulars down upon you. Others are a jostling jungle requiring you to reach between arms and torsos to get at the pile of produce and then to get the attention of the vendor to weigh it and to pay.

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Figs. So delicate. To avoid smashing them, just buy and shove directly into mouth.
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Figues longues d’août–long August figs

First, walk around the entire market. It’s the best way to gauge what is bountiful at the moment. The vendors usually align prices, but you might see that one has particularly good-looking beans, or another has a bumper crop of zucchini for a bargain.spices bagsspices cinnamonIf you say hello and smile, and if the stand isn’t too busy, the vendor will likely start up a conversation, or join in one if you initiate. That’s where magic happens, where you get a family recipe or a really good idea for dinner or a restaurant recommendation–sometimes from the vendor but sometimes from other market-goers picking out their produce next to you. And if the vendor likes you, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of parsley as a gift, or an extra onion, or some such.

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Goat versions of popular cheeses. Note the two-month-old tomme on the right; there are different ages, all marked.

Many stands offer samples–taste the melon, the ham, the hard sausage, the cheese. A good way to discover. It’s how I learned that ugly flat peaches are amazing.

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Charlottes. Because there are MANY kinds of strawberries, all different.
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Currants from M. Fraise
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And blueberries from Ariège

I have a rollerbag for my purchases; they’re just too heavy to carry in baskets, and the car is parked blocks away. I start at the strawberry stand, because sometimes they sell out before the market ends at noon. Being a regular has its advantages–Bernard, the vendor, will hold my strawberries for me while I do my other shopping.

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From Marseillette, a cute village near Carcassonne that had a big etang, or shallow lake. The water was drained in 1851 to reduce mosquitoes, and the land is particularly rich for farming rice and fruit.
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“Diablo” melons from Spain. I passed.

Next I try to buy the heavy stuff, like carrots and melons, that can withstand having the other produce piled on top. Then the fruit like nectarines and peaches, which are heavy but risk bruising. Then light but sturdy things like peppers or lettuce. Finally, the delicate items, with the tomatoes and then the strawberries on top. It means I ricochet around the market like a pinball, rather than circling it. Drives the Carnivore nuts.

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They taste like they’ve already been buttered.
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Still dirty. Good sign.
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Hard-to-find, ephemeral zucchini blooms.
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Sweet peas…earlier this summer.

The other thing to appreciate at the market is the variety. Half a dozen kinds of artichokes. And zucchini. And tomatoes. And eggplant. Sometimes it’s aesthetic, but often there are real taste differences, and the vendor will explain if you ask. White eggplant, I recently learned, is milder and less bitter than the dark purple kind. And don’t get me started on the differences among varieties of tomatoes. Or strawberries.peppers many kindspeppers hot

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Four kinds here, almost black, paler purple, striped and white! Plus another below.

eggplant japanesePrices at the French market tend to be lower than at the supermarket; the farmers’ markets I’ve been to in the U.S. have often been a lot more expensive than the local supermarkets. The market produce isn’t as uniform, and it might still sport dirt or bugs from the field, but to me those are qualities, not faults. They are proof that it was grown without a lot of chemical intervention.

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Potted and cut flowers
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Lavender and wheat bouquets
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Snails, 100 for €10, already starved for seven days in order to eliminate any toxins from their systems. Ready to cook, in other words.

When I first shopped at an outdoor market, in Africa, I learned to use my senses to pick produce. How does it feel? Firm? Soft? Unripely hard? How does it smell? The strawberry stand is smelled before it’s seen. As it should be. The best way to pick a pineapple (admittedly not grown locally) is to sniff it. I have no idea how to choose produce that’s wrapped–hidden–in plastic.

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Sun-dried tomatoes
confit hibiscus
Candied hibiscus
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Candied kumquats

Every town and many villages have markets, and the days will be posted someplace in town (for example, signs saying no parking on X days for market). They’re always in the morning; you snooze, you lose (OK, some tourist spots have night markets. But forget about afternoon). Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, has a small market on Tuesdays, a bigger one on Thursdays and the big blowout on Saturdays. It’s not just for fruits, vegetables, ham and cheese; there’s an indoor meat/cheese/fish market two blocks away, and a housewares/clothes market two blocks further. See you there.

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Ham…just as well it’s wrapped up. But tastings are available.
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Artisinal hard sausages

 

Charmingly Bookish Montolieu

IMG_4529Books, art, old buildings. In the south of France. The village of Montolieu, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Carcassonne, is intellectual AND adorable.IMG_4528Montolieu bills itself le village du livre (the village of books), with 17 bookstores for under 800 residents. Plus art galleries. Plus very cute cafés and restaurants. All nestled among tiny, car-free lanes and crooked stone houses. With jaw-dropping views.

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We arrived too late for lunch and too early for dinner… Note the lady sitting outside and reading at the end of the street.

Enough said. Let’s go for an afternoon stroll.P1080629

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For a little coolness, visit the basement. Everything for €2 (books).
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Local resident.

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A table in the middle of a street. Why not? Note the curtain on the door at the right (to keep out flies and mosquitos), and the clothesline along the wall. And the straightness of the walls, as witnessed by the rain spouts.

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Two-way street, barely big enough for one car.
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Public toilets, with poetry.

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A vending machine for organic vegetables. On the wall to the left of it is a pile of books. There were books sitting around everywhere.

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And finally, the views, over the Dure river. The village is in the Black Mountains, atop a hill that allowed for fortification (but was invaded by Vandals and Visigoths nonetheless). It was a stronghold of the Cathar religion, and later a center for textile manufacturing.

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Vertiginous terraced gardens overlooking….
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The Dure river.

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These folks also have a view. I wouldn’t want to have to fix those roofs.
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At the lookout point, a table with books for those who manage to take their eyes off the scenery.

I have lots more photos and will put some on Instagram, so check there, too. I’ll have to go back to visit the Manufacture Royale (royal factory, for textiles) and the book museum. A very worthy day trip from Carcassonne!P1080610

Angels in Our Midst

P1080563Today’s post isn’t about France. It’s about angels. Down-to-earth, in-the-flesh angels.

The French novelist Proust famously had his madeleine, a cookie that, when dipped in tea, brought back memories for his protagonist. Taste and smell are such powerful triggers for memories. But music also can transport us to another place and time.P1080538The death of Glen Campbell last week, and the snippets of songs played along with the news and tributes, took me on a memory rollercoaster. Songs like “Wichita Lineman,” “Gentle on my Mind” and “Galveston” had me back in the house where I grew up, happily playing with my siblings and not having many cares beyond whether it really was my turn to do dishes.

But the songs also take me to the hospice where my father spent his last months.

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The photos in this post were taken at Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne, which dates to the 13th century.

It actually was just a nursing home, and the hospice part related to the kind of care my dad received. But it was a very special place. It was staffed by angels, who, however well paid, were not paid well enough, considering the bodily fluids and solids that they cleaned up, over and over, gently and efficiently. Angels who never lost their patience with the many disoriented residents in the throes of age-related dementia. Angels who, I fear, receive less than a warm welcome outside the nursing home, because they come from a veritable United Nations of farflung homelands. When the wider public sees see them, do they realize they are encountering angels—heroes? Do they realize these angels are making America great? Or do they just see dark skin and hear an accent?

The home was the opposite of an institution. It looked like the other white-siding-and-round-stone supersized “farmhouses” in the suburbs, with a big porch overlooking an impeccable lawn on a cul-de-sac. You’d need a keen eye and experience pushing wheelchairs to notice that the front door was extra wide, that the sidewalks and curb cuts were extra smooth and that there were no steps anywhere. P1080560After entering the code in the vestibule, one arrived in a “great room” that looked a lot like a set for a morning talk show. A large stone fireplace dominated the center, with a clutch of armchairs (some with electric lift assist) facing a big-screen TV on one side, and a few dining tables on the other side. And open to it all was a big kitchen, where somebody was always cooking.

Two of the cooks were Dixie and Donna, both with white hair and irrepressible smiles. They greeted everybody who arrived, often with hugs, and seemed to truly enjoy cooking. They were clever about finding ways to turn familiar flavors into forms the residents could chew or swallow (often involving heavy cream; people in a nursing home don’t count calories any more). They told me that it was important for people to enjoy their food, even if it looked like mush. I tasted some purée, and it was delicious.P1080553They also baked. The entire building smelled like cake and cookies 24/7. It was on purpose—to make it feel like home and not like “a home,” as in “a nursing home.” The baked goods were out for anybody—residents or visitors. A little sugar therapy.

While Dixie and Donna bustled in the kitchen, like a pair of comedic cooking show hostesses exchanging witty repartee, the greatest easy listening hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s played on a tape recorder on the counter. Yes, cassette tapes.P1080550Glen Campbell was a staple, along with Neil Diamond and Andy Williams. (I always had a crush on Andy Williams. That Christmas special!)

Dixie and Donna weren’t unusual there—the entire staff was caring. Loving, even. When my dad first moved in there, the “elder aide,” Sylvester, came into his room to welcome him. Sylvester was built like a professional football player, with a million-watt smile and boundless cheer. His infectious laugh would ring through the cottage. He took my dad’s hand and told him that in his native Cameroon elders are revered and that he was honored to have a career taking care of elders. He called my dad Mr. John and my mom Mrs. John—a charming mix of honorifics and family-style familiarity.  My dad loved Sylvester. P1080543My dad also loved Koko, a nurse at the rehab facility where he was discharged after the hospital and while waiting for a place to open at the nursing home cottages. Koko’s family was from Togo, though he had grown up in the U.S.

He treated my dad with as much tenderness as one would give a newborn baby. I have never seen anyone as gentle. He was a big, strong guy, too, and could single-handedly move my dad without causing him too much discomfort, whereas the young nurses, while adorable and cheerful, had a hard time shifting my 200+-pound father, even when there were two of them.P1080552Koko also was an extraordinarily conscientious worker, or at least the best-organized. I would sit with my dad for 5-6 hours at a time, even all night, when I was in town (lest anybody think that was special, please know that my siblings were there all the time, all year, for years, whereas I would just fly in for a couple of weeks; they were real heroes). I knew his orders were to be moved every three hours, because he had a very large bedsore. Sometimes it took a long time for anybody to come. But Koko always came in right on time, as if he had set a timer.

When it was time for my dad to move to hospice, he held Koko’s hand and thanked him, and asked him to consider transferring to the hospice with him.P1080559He loved Kelly, the hospice nurse. I think my dad was something of a treat for the staff. So many of the nursing home residents—and even the residents at the assisted living residents where he and my mom had been for about a year—were losing or had completely lost their mental faculties. But my dad was sharp as a tack. He loved to joke. He paid attention to the news. As my dad’s condition worsened, Kelly would do her paperwork in his room, to keep him company.

I can’t name all the heroes who treated my parents with love, care and dignity. There were so many, from the specialist doctors (some from countries on travel ban lists) to the housekeepers who spoke little English but who managed to coddle my parents despite the language gap.P1080567Glen Campbell is just one of many triggers lately that bring back those months. I’m a podcast junkie and keep stumbling on podcasts about the elderly, dying and related cheerful subjects. On the Fresh Air podcast, Terry Gross (world’s best interviewer) talked to the author of a book about palliative care. I am not so sure about palliative care. When my dad was in the hospital, the palliative doctor pushed hard for all treatment to end. My dad didn’t want treatment to end. He had great confidence in modern medicine, and figured something would give him some more time. When people talk about quality of life, I am leery. Who is to say which life has quality and which doesn’t? Most of us don’t want extreme measures to prolong life in the end stages of a terminal illness, especially if we’re suffering every minute. But if the person isn’t suffering? My dad was told he needed a feeding tube, and he was OK with that. The palliative doctor strenuously argued against it. It gave him a few more months, during which I think he came to grips with the situation. I also think he truly enjoyed every minute of every visit by family, and every conversation and joke with staff. Isn’t that quality of life?

There was an interesting podcast (on Reply All) about the design of nursing homes, including some like the one where my dad was in hospice. There also was a concept called a “Minka,” which is like a little cottage you’d put in your yard, so your aging parent could be nearby and cared for by family. I think it’s a great idea, but at some point, people need 24-hour care and things like medical cranes. It’s an awful lot to put on family (who might not be so young themselves) both physically and emotionally.P1080558On Point had a report about the fight over the right to sue nursing homes. It seems that one of the main roles of government is to protect the weak. But that seems to be flipped on its head daily. Not everybody is lucky enough to be in a facility like the one my dad was in.

When my parents needed to move out of their house and into assisted living, one of the main worries was “how are they/we going to pay for this.” Different facilities required different minimums—24 to 36 months—for paying privately, before applying for Medicaid. Medicaid is available only if you’ve exhausted your own money (as it should be). I wonder what will become of nursing home residents if Medicaid is cut. Will families face a choice of taking care of grandma or paying for their kid’s college education? In some ancient cultures, the elderly were banished to the wilderness when they became a burden and would have to wait alone to be attacked and killed by animals. Are we going forward or back?

The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Hubert HumphreyP1080561

Village Life

P1060934The French countryside is studded with little gems of villages, often boldly at the crest of a hill, from where its church steeple and, likely, a fortress tower, bristles above the horizon. Others are nestled in valleys, nearly invisible until you get close.

In this part of the south of France, les anciens--the people of old–used the building materials at hand–namely large stones pulled from the fields. The stones provide great insulation and are surely one of the reasons people here continue to resist air conditioning. IMG_2694The roofs are covered with red terre cuite tiles, laid in overlapping waves, which usually (not always) are heavy enough to resist the high winds that tear through. Some are cemented down for good measure. Imagine the weight.

The buildings predate any zoning or urban planning. People added on here and there over generations, resulting in a crazy quilt of red roofs.P1060954The church is at the center of the village, its steeple often topped with a rooster, the Gallic coq.  The rooster was a religious symbol in medieval times and during the Revolution became a symbol of France. P1060933Many of the villages are so small they don’t have any baker or grocery store. The sole businesses are wineries, or the odd artisan like plumbers or electricians who work out of their homes. Some don’t even have a school. Parents drive their kids to school in bigger villages nearby on their way to work in town. Only the elderly are left in the villages during the day. P1070421Bigger villages have a grocery, a baker, a café, even a butcher and tabac, or smoke shop, which once were vital for such items as bus tokens, cards for making calls on public phones, stamps and other essentials that no longer are essential. Elderly villagers shuffle out for their daily baguettes while wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. The bakery is also the place to get the most accurate weather forecast.P1060913The tiniest villages are served by itinerant vendors, who stop for a few hours a few days a week and provide a place for locals to not only buy necessities like fresh produce but also catch up on gossip. In one village, I passed a fishmonger truck, surrounded by a clutch of little old ladies in animated conversation.

The older residents perch on the benches under the ubiquitous platanes–plane trees. The ones who use canes cross their hands limply atop the handle, a little like Psy dancing in “Gangnam Style.”IMG_2690When my kid was in the last year or two of primary school in the village, I was informed that it was dishonorable to be escorted by one’s mother. Already, it was dishonorable to walk to school. Even kids who lived a couple of blocks away were driven by mothers who then drove straight back home. To be walked to the door by a parent was the worst.

So I bowed to this declaration of independence, and watched my kid disappear around the neighbor’s hedge. I felt pretty confident about safety in the maze of medieval lanes too small for cars, and completely confident that my kid would dutifully go straight to school. But I’m a worrywart, so I would slip out and do my best spy impersonation, tailing my kid while staying just out of sight. There was a spot along the former ramparts, where the street (more like a passage that would be a tight fit for a Smart car) stretched straight for the final block to school. I would crouch behind a parked car and watch until my kid was swallowed by the playground.P1070748This was endlessly amusing to the bench full of little old guys. Every day, they would be perched there, like so many swallows on an electric line. Sometimes, my kid would decide to run, and I would round the corner for my final vantage point and see nothing. My little birds would tip their caps and nod that my kid had passed as expected.

The little old ladies flock in the afternoons at the park, on a bench that in summer is shaded by an enormous magnolia tree and in winter is protected by a south-facing wall warmed by the sun. They bring knitting, and their fingers fly as fast as their tongues. But the main entertainment is the children. The lawn under the tree is a favorite place for mothers and nannies to get their very small charges outside while they enjoy some precious moments of adult conversation. The path’s gravel has been scooped, carried and dumped a few feet away by countless toddlers. Far more amusing than cat videos.P1070654The little old ladies and little old men used to go for walks, all together, around the vineyards. A pack of them would set off every afternoon–early morning in summer, of course. There was a high point where one could get a glimpse into our yard, and I would find them straining to see in. Foreigners in the village must have been so fascinating. I hope we lived up to expectations.

Over the years, the group dwindled in number. They probably had been together their entire lives. Many were related, varying degrees of cousins, otherwise by marriage. They now are too old to hike around the vineyards. They stay in the village. Several have died. Time marches on even when we no longer can.P1060955When someone dies in the village, a few strains of the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem Mass crackle over the public loudspeakers, and the mayor’s secretary announces the funeral services. Everybody stops what they’re doing, to hear whose name is announced, if they don’t already know.

Most of the time, though, the loudspeakers announce happier things, accompanied by happier music, usually Europop hits from the ’80s. The pizza truck will be at the square from 6 p.m. on. The football club is organizing a dinner; sign up at the bakery. The school is holding a loto. The secretary gives every announcement all the extra syllables and richly rolled R’s of the regional accent.

IMG_2696
An old wine press. Of course.

Today is a holiday, and the village is hushed beyond even Sunday standards. Although we have two more weeks of summer, August 15 signals the apex beyond which is a downward slide toward la rentrée–the re-entry, aka back to school, back to work, back to normal life.P1070739