I <3 Street Art

IMG_5032On a recent trip to Montpellier, the street art really wowed me. I’ve previously posted about the pretty garlands strung across the narrow medieval streets. They were still there, along with others that I found amusing.IMG_5016Coming out of the underground carpark, I headed down the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle and, though I’ve been there before, only noticed for the first time the playground that looked as if it had been designed by Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t find who designed it, but I did learn that it was installed in 2008 and the structures, including delightfully unsafe climbing (see French attitudes about safety here), are supposed to be related to music.IMG_5012IMG_5011IMG_5013The city encourages the street art. I love it. Little surprises, like small gifts or serendipitous wonders, that prompt a smile. I think they enhance, rather than detract, from the old buildings of the historic center. IMG_5070

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Do you see the little blue monster?

 

IMG_5069IMG_5084The art isn’t just painting. There are tiles all over, too. FYI, a hot-air balloon is called une montgolfière in French, after the Montgolfier brothers who invented them.IMG_5071IMG_5068There’s plenty of old art, too.IMG_5017IMG_5065Still looking down, there were designs painted on the sidewalks or streets related to whatever business was there. I walked past several before finally taking photos of these bars, across the street from each other.IMG_5072

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Not the same place as above, though they all have the same Tolix-style stools. Blame millennials.

Something about street art warms my heart and makes me feel surrounded by gentle souls. It’s whimsical, not aggressive. I suppose too much could become twee. But in the midst of these buildings and streets so heavy with history, a little whimsy is a welcome jolt of modernity, livening up the old without tearing it down. It’s democratic, free for all, no ticket required.IMG_5031Is street art a thing where you live?

Quite unrelated: I made my blette (Swiss chard) recipe even easier. For a long time, I made the recipe I’d found in a magazine: little packets, which are very pretty for guests. Then I tweaked the recipe, adding a can of white beans, for protein, to make the packets into a vegetarian meal. Then, to get rid of the tedious process of folding up the packets, I did the same recipe but as a kind of blette lasagne, layering the leaves with the stuffing. Finally, I just chopped up the chard and mixed it with the stuffing. The result is below. A horror for the Carnivore, who likes each ingredient to be separate and whose lowest critique of a dish is “mish-mash.” But I love one-dish meals, and now this one is even easier. Same recipe–just cut up the greens and sauté them with the stems and onions until they’re soft.blettes

 

Up in the Air

IMG_5111What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.IMG_5092On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. IMG_5151The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.IMG_5129

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Lush February forest.

IMG_5117The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.

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Into the void.

The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.

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Looking down.

We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.

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Going back.

We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”

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Mazamet.

On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).

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La Voie Romaine.

To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.

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Stone walls of the former gardens.
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This seems to have been a protohistoric home, naturally protected from the wind and rain on the south side of the slope. But I’m not sure. The gardens also had little towers.
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On the wall of the circular structure. Looks like a donkey to me.

IMG_5124IMG_5142IMG_5138The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. IMG_5099IMG_5101IMG_5098IMG_5113The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.

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A little shrine at the start of the path.
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Interesting plastic bottle for holy water. What will they think of next?
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Another bustling shrine.
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Am haunted by the possible meaning of that doll.

I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.IMG_5130IMG_5131IMG_5132

 

 

Vegetarian in France

mushroomsWe’ve been doubling down on vegetarian meals, cooked from scratch. I want to share some of the recipes that have been hits.

Until recently, it has been hard to find vegetarian options at restaurants, especially here in France profonde. Even salads would be topped with gizzards, duck chitlings and foie gras. When I would ask for something without any of that, the waiters would be quizzical, like, that leaves the frisée, which is just for looks and not much to eat. The concept of other vegetables and beans was not dans l’air.

Suddenly, everybody has vegetarian options, as well as vegan and gluten free. We rarely eat out but I enjoy looking at menus posted outside restaurants for ideas. My main sources of ideas, though, are the Jow app (I wrote about it here), Marmiton, Smitten Kitchen, Bon Appétit and the New York Times (we subscribe to the last two–support journalism, including food journalism, by subscribing!). Bon Appétit has a series called Healthy-ish with lots of yummy ideas.

Another thing I do is make traditional dishes and replace ground beef with beans, mushrooms or both. bread wholeI was listening to the podcast “The History of English,” which recently looked at “The Forme of Cury,” possibly the first cookbook in English. The host noted all the feast days and other days when meat was forbidden, and it added up to about half the year. People lived mostly on bread, used to scoop up a stew of vegetables, some fish and, when allowed, bits of meat. Bigger animals were for richer people. I know an elderly lady who insisted that beef and lamb were “noble” meats but pork and chicken were not. She also was very affected by having lived through World War II and the aftermath; anything that was scarce during the war was good, and everything they ate then (cabbage, beets) was bad.

I think these things affect how people eat today. It isn’t just in France, or Europe or the West–when I lived in Africa it was a big deal to serve guests meat and beef was considered “better” than chicken. People there tended to eat a stew of beans, maize and vegetables twice a day, every day, except for meat on Sunday.

Anyway, reducing or eliminating meat consumption is really going back to tradition, a tradition that is much, much longer than the meat-centric meals we now consider traditional.bread cutHere are some of my favorite recipes that I’ve made recently, in random order (we do not eat pasta on consecutive days, twice a week max). In fact, I’m kind of running through my saved folder on Instagram, which is heavy on NYT and Bon Appétit.

Cauliflower tacos with cashew crema from Bon Appétit. OMG. This is my favorite recipe on the list. Have made it a couple of times. Ate it all before getting a photo. Who wants to shoot a picture when you’re hungry? I just wish we had fresh tortillas and not Old El Paso. This is a sheet-pan wonder that is very easy. I made some pickled onions for crunch instead of radishes, which I didn’t have. You use what’s on hand!

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Cauliflower bolognese. Leftovers in a bento box from Mon Bento, a made in France company. They aren’t a sponsor. I’m just a happy customer.

Cauliflower bolognese from Bon Appétit. Pretty good. I found the cauliflower flavor to be strong, but that isn’t a bad thing. The “meat” is mushrooms.

Kale pesto with whole-wheat pasta from Bon Appétit. “Whole-wheat pasta”–DUH. Always. Kale is very hard to find in France profonde, so we tried it with frilly cabbage. Too cabbage-y. Must try again with other green winter vegetables, such as blettes (Swiss chard). We’ve made pesto with a mix of spinach and basil, but basil is out of season. Sniff!!

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Squash pasta with sage and almonds.

Creamy butternut squash pasta with sage and walnuts from New York Times Cooking. I’ve made this a few times. SO GOOD. I used sliced almonds instead of walnuts. Sage from the garden. Had this last night and didn’t want to make broth so used pasta water. It all works.

Crispy tofu with maple-soy glaze from Bon Appétit. This is great. I added a bunch of stir-fried vegetables, because….more vegetables. The point about cooking undisturbed is essential–turn too soon and it will stick. Didn’t have fresh ginger and used ginger powder; maybe fresh would be better but it was still delicious. To keep the tofu from getting soggy, I removed it when crispy, stir-fried the vegetables, then returned the tofu and poured over the glaze.

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Crispy mushrooms (and peppers) over millet-cauliflower mush, which is better than it sounds.

Farro with crispy mushrooms and sour cream from New York Times Cooking. This was the basic idea and I made it differently. I had some leftover millet-cauliflower mush (recipe in Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”), and used that for the base. Did the crispy mushrooms and leeks, and added a couple of sweet peppers (I know they are expensive in the U.S., but here they are cheap). No dill in the garden, so used fresh parsley, which is growing like gangbusters.

Mushroom Bourguignon from New York Times Cooking. Another big winner. If you are making polenta, it’s a good idea to pour what isn’t in your dinner dish into a greased cake pan so you can slice leftovers into pretty squares. Polenta sets up fast, and if left in a bowl results in unappealing blobs. No pearl onions in the pantry? Just add more regular ones.

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Roasted sweet potatoes with chickpeas and other vegetables.

Roasted yams and chickpeas with yogurt from Smitten Kitchen. I definitely should do more sheet-pan dinners. This was so easy. I threw in a bunch of accessory vegetables–broccoli, zucchini, fennel. Also swapped out the yogurt with a drizzle of almond butter, which is so good it’s criminal. 

Lastly, one that’s just made up on the spot. Crispy tofu with vegetables in a curried tomato sauce, over rice. Cut a couple of blocks of firm tofu in half lengthwise; wrap in paper towels and let them dry (even better–put something heavy on top to squeeze out even more water). Mix some cornstarch with some curry powder in a liter/quart-size container with a tight lid. Set aside while you cut up a big pile of vegetables into about the same size/shape so they cook evenly. I also did mushrooms.

Start the rice–1.5-2 times the water for the amount of dry rice. A cup of dry rice is enough for two people, unless you want leftovers. You can replace part of the water with coconut milk for extra-yummy rice. Cover and bring to a boil; let it keep boiling (turn it down so it doesn’t boil over), still covered, until you see holes in the rice. DO NOT STIR. Turn off the heat, keep covered and let it finish steaming, about 20 minutes.

Pour a little oil (I use olive…whatever) into a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms. DO NOT STIR. Let them cook a good while, until the juices start to dry up, then turn them.

Meanwhile, cut the tofu into small cubes (about 1 cm). Put into the container with the cornstarch mix and shake well to coat all the cubes. tofu curryRemove the mushrooms to a bowl, add a little more oil to the same skillet and cook the tofu. Let it cook all the way to brown before turning. I am not so fussy that I will turn every little cube on every single side. Two or three sides browned is good enough. Remove to a bowl.

Add a little more oil to the same skillet. Cook your vegetables, starting with onions (put on the lid to make them sweat). Add garlic, then other vegetables, starting with the hardest ones. So carrots go in before zucchini because they need a couple of minutes extra to cook.

Pour in a can of stewed tomatoes or diced tomatoes. If the tomatoes are whole, break them up with your spoon. Add some curry paste, to your taste. I used a ton of Indian curry paste, but sometimes I do it with Thai curry paste. They taste completely different. Such an easy way to change things up.

When the sauce is reduced a bit, return the mushrooms and tofu to the skillet to heat them up. Serve over the rice.

I’ll do some more recipe lists/recommendations as I cook (if I remember to take photos. All those bento shots are because I didn’t take a picture until I was putting away the leftovers).

Meanwhile, what is going on with the weather? We had 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius) earlier in the week. Today it’s 55 F (13 C), so it seems chilly, until you remember that it’s FEBRUARY. The almond trees are in full bloom, like ballerinas dancing across the countryside. The daffodils, even in the north shadow of the house, are ready to pop. Crazy. It’s hard not to enjoy the warm sunshine, but it’s worrisome. Et chez vous, comment ça va?

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Mimosa.

 

 

Remembrance and Rhymes

IMG_4933This week was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I kept thinking back to my visit there years ago. It was haunting in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and that I haven’t been able to shake in the nearly two decades since.IMG_4936The entrance is famous. The railroad tracks, too, especially for anyone who has seen “Schindler’s List.” The familiarity of a place one has never been before is a punch in the stomach. I didn’t want it to feel familiar.IMG_4947I visited on a gorgeous spring day. Some friends and I made a weekend excursion to Krakow and, being serious intellectuals interested in history and culture, included a trip to Auschwitz. The train took us through the lush, rolling hills of the Polish countryside. As we walked the grounds, butterflies danced through the air and birds sang. I have read that when the camps were packed with people, there wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, much less wildflowers bobbing in the breeze. IMG_4940Did people hear the birds sing beyond the barbed wire? The movies seem to always be set in winter, almost black and white even when shot in color. But what of those balmy days when the wind carries the syrupy perfume of freshly cut grass? What a cruel juxtaposition, to see the stars above at night or feel the spring breeze or hear a bird sing and to know the universe is brimming with beauty, and yet they are trapped in a living hell. A living nightmare.IMG_4949Unfortunately, in the 75 years since the end of Auschwitz, genocide has not ended. It is always a delicate subject to bring up other cases, or other mistreatments. The point is not  to compare; each case is monstrous for those who suffered. But if we think genocide is wrong, then it is wrong no matter who the target is, and we should push back against creeping “otherization” that strips people of their humanity, that treats them as a block to be expelled without exceptions. Because one cruelty leads to another. History might not repeat itself but it rhymes.IMG_4945The National Public Radio show “Fresh Air” ran an interview with Laurence Rees, author of  the book “Auschwitz: A New History.” You can listen or read the transcript here. National Public Radio delivers uniformly excellent reporting. Support them if you can. Journalism–the real thing, with reporters who dig for facts–is what keeps us free.IMG_4941That top photo is one that haunts me most. It’s in the bathroom–it shows the long trough sink, and the squares are soap holders, with ridges so the soap doesn’t sit in water and melt. It sums up the insanity of Auschwitz: a place where soap was valued but human life wasn’t.IMG_4955I am not in a position of authority here. I am not Jewish and didn’t know about the Holocaust until high school when I read Anne Frank. On the other hand, the whole point is the universality of our humanity. Everybody should care. We all must remember.IMG_4934

Looking Good in Bad Weather

IMG_4694Good riddance, Gloria. Spain and southern France were pummeled earlier this week by Tempête Gloria, which flooded a bunch of places, including Carcassonne, where the Aude river ran into the streets despite having a large floodplain where vineyards, vegetable farms and parks are adapted for soaking up surplus water.

We didn’t get out much, because il tombait des cordes (literally, it was raining ropes–imagine rain falling so hard it seems like ropes–but more akin to raining cats and dogs). Now the sun is out again and it’s in the mid-50s F. As you can see from the photos, even bad weather here is pretty mild, except when we get three months of rain in two days, and even then it wasn’t cold.

I’m seeing lots of young women wearing black tights or semi-opaque nylons with white athletic shoes and skirts, like in the top photo. Sometimes the skirts are short, sometimes long like the one above. I don’t follow sneaker trends but hers seem unusually spiky. Also, the guy next to her has some very colorful Nikes.IMG_4575Winter white is another trend. The young woman’s white skirt, this woman’s white pants. Do you wear a sweater as a scarf? It gives her a nice color accent, and, hey, if it turns out to be colder than she thought she can put on the sweater for an extra layer. Practical!IMG_4771A white coat. Her boots were interesting but my toes hurt just looking at those heels. IMG_4213Another white coat, with white boots. And a scarf. Always a scarf. IMG_4577Even on men. Hanging insouciantly.IMG_4768You also can coordinate your white coat with your white dog. However big it looks, in reality it was bigger. HUGE.IMG_4364Red is even more popular as a coat color. Note that the top of her bag is red. This coat had a lovely swing to it as she walked, thanks to the pleats in the back.IMG_4254All-in for red.IMG_4255She looked so good–straight posture, good haircut, shiny shoes, cleverly tied scarf, that red coat. IMG_4256Also red accents, on the right, or all blue, on the left. The audacity of a red artificial flower in her hair–I love it. I want to sit and have coffee with her and hear all about her life, because I bet it’s interesting. Not easy to see, but she’s wearing a long red pencil skirt with flat red boots.IMG_4766A monochrome look also is popular. This woman paired gray glen plaid pants with gray high-tops and a gray coat.IMG_4776A different neutral–camel. Her bag was in the same Burberry-esque tartan as her scarf. For all I know, they’re both real Burberry; I didn’t ask to check the lablels. Boots and coat both camel. It all went with her hair, something I noticed with lots of women, especially redheads. French women pay attention to which colors work for them and they make the most of it.IMG_4777She was just one of the redheads I noticed wearing coppery colors. There were several others whose photos didn’t turn out. Once you notice one, you see so many! What impresses me is that this shade is hard to match, and it isn’t always on trend, so you can’t just walk into a store and expect to find what you want in that shade. They must collect and curate constantly, making sure what they choose will last several seasons.IMG_4695This is quite a different shade of red, and it matches her coat exactly. She gets points for confidence.IMG_4770Another example of flamboyance, with an oversize hat and a furry coat. You don’t wear that to blend in. She also looked like she would be interesting.

How do you cope with winter? Do you hunker down in black and wait for it to be over, or do you have a fantastic, fun coat that makes you happy every time you put it on? I’ll cop to being boring in black–black sweater dress with black leggings, black boots, black bag, and either a brown or dark gray coat, depending on the weather. I have fewer and fewer clothes as time goes on, and wearing forgettable clothes makes them seem less monotonous. Are you also a minimalist or, like some of the examples here, more flamboyant?

A Day in Marseille

IMG_4662Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.IMG_4599IMG_4601I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.

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Note the traffic. Big improvement.

Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.IMG_4602It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.

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New next to old everywhere…

IMG_4630IMG_4620IMG_4629Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.

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Dr. Max Ginger Healthy for a very satisfying and tasty lunch. Mostly vegetarian but not only.

I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete. IMG_4648IMG_4646

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I don’t know whether I would feel comfortable in that cantilevered building. 

The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people. IMG_4649

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I’ll take that spot.
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Note the chaises longues at the base of the wall in the garden.
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Oh, the views. And from the top of the fort, too.

Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.

The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.IMG_4635IMG_4627IMG_4638

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What looks kind of like a slide on the right is  passerelle over the highway below.

IMG_4640IMG_4622Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.

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People leaving Mucem put their admission stickers on anything. 

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Note the creative planters on the left.

IMG_4661Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.IMG_4664IMG_4665IMG_4666IMG_4613IMG_4618IMG_4607This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer. IMG_4603

 

 

 

Planned Obsolescence

P1090941Our previous washing machine was more than two decades old when it gave up the ghost. We replaced it with a relatively high-end eco-friendly high-tech Samsung model just over three years ago. Better to pay more for a name brand and to buy the larger, fancier model, which should hold up better over the long run, we reasoned. But the machine is already kaput, just a couple of months after the warranty expired. Planned obsolescence?

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Expensive for something that’s disposable.

We called a technician, who said it was probably the electronic card, which is not fixable. We could buy a new card, but it would cost as much as a new machine. He said the manufacturer coated the card in resin so that repairmen can’t, say, fix a loose connection—you have to replace the entire card. These machines are computers these days, the technician said. You can’t just open them up and fix what’s broken. You have to replace the whole thing.

I am doubly disgusted because it’s the vaunted environmentally friendly model. I call BS.

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This kind of window, tall and skinny, is a meurtrière, or (female) murderer.

Yesterday afternoon, I encountered some protesters waving banners. Mostly I saw the imposing vans of the CRS, the most serious unit of law enforcement, which were parked in front of the préfecture, a preferred spot for those venting their anger at government. The protesters were outnumbered by shoppers (the biannual soldes–sales–just started) and were overwhelmingly older. A sea of gray hair. A few chants, some whistles blown. Mostly a party. Later, the cafés were full of protesters having an early apéro, in high spirits. 

The protests are over a change to the French retirement system. I mentioned before that there are a bunch of special categories that allow people to retire much earlier. President Macron wants to eliminate them. He also wants to make a system of points, because unlike in the past, future workers are likely to change jobs numerous times and points would not only make calculating retirement more uniform across different types of work but also would make it easier to get credit for all time worked.

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Photos are not welcomed by protestors nor by police, so you are getting photos of old stuff–la Cité–since we’re talking about old stuff.

I sympathize with this. I have had 16 jobs at 14 employers (twice I was laid off and then hired back when something opened up; in once case my original job was automated out of existence). I’ve spent the last 15-ish years running my own business; before that I spent 11 years at the same employer. Prior to that, four years at one job. Before that, a couple of years at most at each place, mostly part time, two or three jobs at once. It was a preview of what many workers do today, piecing together a living from a collage of part-time jobs. I’ll get a pension only from the place I worked for 11 years. Sure, I contributed to U.S. Social Security at those other jobs, and that will help, if it still exists when I retire. And I’ll get something for my 15 years of contributions to the French system, though at the moment it stands at a grand total of €2,000….per year. At all those early jobs, either I didn’t qualify for the retirement programs because I was part-time or I didn’t stay long enough to be “vested,” under the pre-401(k) programs.P1090928So the point system would help all those people who similarly are changing jobs or working part-time and not getting credit toward retirement. But all those who had special exemptions would lose them, and no VIP ever wants to give up his right to cut to the front of the line.

There’s another angle, which I’ve only started to hear addressed in the news. The other part of pension reform requires people to work longer. The official age now is 62, with a bunch of exceptions. This age will go up progressively over time, until, for those born in 1965, it will be 64. There are more details, but that’s what the strikes are about and things keep changing, so we’ll not wade into the weeds just yet.P1090921“Âge pivot,” “régle d’or,” “bonus-malus” and points aside, the bigger issue is that it’s all fine and dandy to say that if we live longer we need to work longer…but work where? Just try to find a job after age 45. And it gets worse with age. Job postings for “senior” positions ask for advanced degrees and five to seven years of experience. Senior after five years? It seems to be code for “older workers need not apply.” Especially when nearly all job applications start with an online form. Plenty of older candidates just drop off earlier experience, but if you’ve spent a decade at a job, how do you shorten it to that five-to-seven-year window? Meanwhile, employers can simply filter for only candidates with the correct number of years of experience. That isn’t age discriminiation, is it? Nothing was said about age. It’s just an unbiased algorithm. (I hope you hear the sarcasm dripping here.)P1090747Increasingly, friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic are confiding their worries about whether they’ll be able to stay employed until they can reach retirement age. I certainly know many, many talented, hard-working people who have been laid off in recent years, in their mid-50s. These are mostly in the U.S., and the U.S. comes up often in conversations with French friends as the nightmare scenario—the older people working in Amazon warehouses because they don’t have a pension and can’t get a job anywhere else. Or the greeters at Wal-Mart. 

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That says 1673. Retirement was not an issue then.

Now there’s more talk about how to keep French workers trained or retrained, even after age 50. Clearly there will have to be a mind shift. Older workers might not be on top of the latest technology because after you’ve switched and upgraded and switched and upgraded, at a certain point you just want the damn stuff to work and not require new ways to get to the same old stuff. Older people are slower, younger ones complain, and studies show that may be the case, but they tend to have better strategies that allow them to outperform their faster and younger co-workers. Overall, productivity and reliability are more consistent in older workers.P1090912Separately, I almost literally ran into a lady yesterday while I was out jogging. She informed me she is 89 years old (immediately–it was “Bonjour! I’m 89!”). Just adorable. Tiny. Walking nice and straight. We chatted a while and I told her she was my role model–being healthy and active for a whole life. My 30-day challenge is going along bumpily. I still haven’t dared a cartwheel, and I meditated but once, but otherwise I am more or less sticking with it. Some days are better than others. I never manage to do all the things. Not yet anyway. BTW, two people gave me very similar advice about meditation: just lie still and breathe. Let the mind shut down. It will get easier over time. My first (and best) yoga teacher used to have us do this, in the “corpse” position, without all the New Age blah blah. Just quiet. It was very soothing and afterward I felt at first disoriented, being so incredibly relaxed, but then reinvigorated.

Please do share your thoughts about planned obsolescence of appliances and humans, as well as your stories about progress on your own New Year’s resolutions.P1090744

New Year, New Life

IMG_5464We are going to do all the challenges. New Year is the moment for resolutions, but we’re taking a shorter horizon, hoping it’s long enough to establish good habits and break bad ones, and thus become resolutions. A 30-day challenge of all the things.

While doing Pilates with some friends this week, one asked the group, “what decision did you make for 2020?” I liked that framing. Somehow, by overuse, “resolution” has come to mean “good intention” rather than “firm decision.” I am in control of my life, and I am deciding to do a few things differently.

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Sautéed leeks, with white beans and a splash of white wine. My Christmas meal, served with…
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Squash and mushroom risotto. And steamed broccoli. Colorful, nutritious, delicious. We are well into a plant-based diet.

My BFF and I decided to make a list together of all the challenges we wanted to accomplish. You’ll note that they are to-do’s rather than don’ts, except for snacking. Doing the challenge together gives us some accountability. Plus, this post is a public declaration–more accountability! Here’s the list:

  • 10,000 steps a day minimum (according to my FitBit, my daily average is around 8,000)

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    Less coffee, no sweets.
  • Eliminate added sugar (already we both mostly cook all meals from scratch, but we both have a sweet tooth and tend to crack for desserts and chocolate. Also: no wine, which is basically sugar.)
  • Intermittent fasting, which is basically to say eat dinner earlier and no snacking after. 
  • No snacking (this is hard for me, working from home and tending to graze all day).
  • Wake up 30 minutes earlier.
  • Use that bonus morning time to journal (my friend) or exercise. For most of my life, I worked out as soon as I got up. I had a routine, with situps, weights for my arms, stationary bike while reading the newspaper (it took around 45 minutes, with 30 on the bike). I even did it while pregnant, up to a week before giving birth to my kid. Yet I let it drop when my kid started taking the bus to school and got up super early. Plus the stationary bike broke. And I got an iPad and started reading the paper while curled up on the sofa. A snowball of lethargy.

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    Goals.
  • Daily stretching. Another thing I used to do that fell by the wayside. My friend is into dance, and so stretching is important for her.
  • Abs and strength training. Thanks to Pilates, my BFF and I have abs of steel, but mine are under a Michelin Man layer of insulation, AKA fat. I want to get rid of it and also improve strength. In the days when I worked out, my exercises with weights were intended to give me arms strong enough to pick up heavy things without ruining my back. Time to work on that again. 
  • Write every day. My friend wants to journal; I want to write a book.
  • Meditate. This makes both my friend and me uncomfortable. We are not much for spiritual stuff, and neither of us is religious. One reason I prefer Pilates over yoga is I don’t like the meditation part of yoga. But every evidence shows it’s good for us. Must find a way to do it. I actually took a meditation class many moons ago (“find beauty and harmony in your life”). It didn’t stick. Will try again. Just 10 minutes.
  • Run every other day. My friend and I hope to do a 10K this year.

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    My beautiful, car-free jogging trail.
  • Read books every day. Another thing I did faithfully for years was read books before bed. Then I got an iPad and switched to reading news before bed, as if I hadn’t been reading news all day long. There’s always something else to be informed about, even though it’s usually incremental. And then I worry about the dismal future of the world all night.
  • Improve sleep. During the holidays, I’ve been sleeping too much and I spend too much time in bed. This is as bad as not enough sleep. More exercise should help. No wine should help (high glycemic foods before bed can perturb sleep). Eating earlier should help. Reading before bed should help. And I plan to be stricter about bedtime and wakeup time.

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    My to-read list. I just finished the top one, Celestial Bodies. Very interesting and sad. Not shown, but on order from the library (more library books!): Chanson Douce by Leïla Slimani, which I will read in the original French. I tend to be too lazy to read in French and I like to devour books (I read Celestial Bodies in three sittings), so having to slow down for French is frustrating. This must improve!
  • Drink more water (but not right before bed; see sleep). Some years ago, I quit drinking soda, so now I consume coffee (too much), wine and water. But probably not enough water during the day. 6-8 glasses, for sure.
  • Do a cartwheel. I was proud that at age 50 I could do a cartwheel. But now, somehow, my legs don’t quite get up there. Is it the legs? Weak arms? Weak back? Whatever, I want to do it again before I turn 60. My friend, who is younger, wants to do a handstand and walkover. I once could do those, too, but a walkover is decidedly out of the question.

The cartwheel aside (that will take more than a month), the list consists of things to do on a daily basis, starting now. We are going to try to stick to this list for a month. Usually with these 30-day challenges, people pick one thing to focus on. But so many of these are interrelated. Better diet will help sleep, as will exercise. Getting up early will help exercise and/or writing. Etc. It seems that one way to stick to the goals is to aim for all of them so they reinforce each other.Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 10.19.06 AMMy friend follows a YouTuber who does challenges and who crosses off the days of a calendar each time he accomplishes his goal. One blank day isn’t a failure, not even a couple of blanks in a week, but he vows not to have two consecutive blank days. That sounds reasonable. I know a couple of people who vow to diet or quit smoking and as soon as they crack, they give up on the effort entirely. Perfection or nothing. Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m not about perfection. I agree with the adage, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” I’m all about “better” not necessarily “perfect.”

I’ll give you updates about how it’s going and in a month we’ll assess the results.

What are your decisions for 2020? Do you have a bucket list instead? Tips for succeeding at any of these?

Wishing all of you the very best for 2020, surtout la santé!

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À votre santé! Adieu to wine, at least for a month. And this is such a good one. Sniff!

 

Dreaming of a White Christmas

IMG_0232It’s a dark, gray day. It looks as if it could snow, but that’s out of the question. The temperature is 12 C (53 F). This is considerably cooler than a couple of days ago. Crazy. The plain between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées is a patchwork of plowed brown fields or sculptural bare vineyards, mixed with a vivid emerald of all the things happy for the season’s rain so they can grow. (Actually, in the time it took me to write this, the clouds dissipated and the sun is shining brightly.)IMG_4379

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The snow-capped Pyrénées. The stripe of silver-leafed trees in the center of the photo is an olive grove.

IMG_4370IMG_4376The mood in town feels upbeat. Stores are bustling. The sidewalks are packed with people out shopping or going to the Christmas markets, which emphasize food and drink for adults and rides for children. I haven’t looked up close at the skating rink, entoured with Christmas trees flocked with fake snow. I remember one time that I accompanied my kid’s class, despite not knowing how to skate myself, and a big part of the rink was slush because it was so warm and sunny.IMG_0311IMG_0305IMG_0304The rocade, or ring road around town, is backed up with traffic going to the centres commerciaux, or shopping malls. Last year, the Gilets Jaunes went after shops, both in town centers and at malls. This year, the strikers are focused on government buildings and public transportation, and shoppers are more or less left in peace. It certainly has been years–since 2008–since I’ve seen so much activity.IMG_0231It’s invigorating, but I also like to step away to the relative calm of la Cité. It can be packed in summer, but at this time of year, it’s quiet and haunting. Like having my own personal fortress. IMG_0319IMG_0320IMG_0229IMG_0321My kid is disappointed with the mildness of winter here, longing for a good snow. I remember our family’s big old station wagon, and all four of us kids would be in the back seat, huddling together under an old blanket (the “car blanket”) and waiting for the heat blasting the windshield to finally reach us. The windows would resemble submarine portholes, small rounds scratched into the ice that had encased the vehicle in the time it took us to pay our weekly visit to grandma. la cite winter from audeI don’t know whether my kid’s longing is for snow, or for having siblings to snuggle with in a cold car, or for having grandmas to visit weekly if not more. Even though I did what I could to create an ideal childhood for my kid, some things just aren’t possible to provide.IMG_0308I also feel some twinges of jealousy. There’s a particularly beautiful shop in Carcassonne, la Ferme, which sells all kinds of good things to eat and drink as well as cooking and dining gear. It’s a step back in time, packed to the gills, and I want every single thing in there. I eavesdropped on shoppers, debating whether to get this or that for grandpa, for auntie. There are many great things about being an expat, but being far from extended family is the hardest.IMG_0313How about you? Are you shopping? Done? What are your Christmas plans? I so enjoy reading your comments. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you in real life, and every single time my biggest disappointment is that you live too far away to get together–to a person, everyone has felt immediately like a long-time friend. I treasure that. Thank you.

 

Crushing on Crèches

IMG_0462One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Away in a Manger,” which makes me think of a crèche, with all the innocence of a five-year-old looking at a bunch of dolls. I grew up with the James Ramsey Murray version and remember vaguely being outraged when I learned there was a different (and to me wrong!) version by William Kirkpatrick, which happened to be older. But I didn’t know that. What you encounter first is what you think is normal and right.

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This entire village was enormous.

The santons of Provence are famous, but there are so many other variations on the crèche, which is a French word. It dates to the beginning of the 12th century and meant a manger (which literally in French is pronounced mahn-JAY and means “to eat,” but if you want to do apples-to-apples meaning-wise, the French version is mangeoire (mahn-ZHWAR), or long feeding trough for animals). It didn’t take on a religious connotation until 1223, according to the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales–the etymology police.IMG_4447I have a bunch of photos from over the years and wanted to share them. It’s why I took them in the first place. “Somebody else needs to see this!”IMG_0460For example this crèche scene has life-size figures made of straw by a Polish farmer. The biggest figures are 1.80 meters tall (5’9″). The figures are based on an iron base, to which is woven balls of straw. The explanation sign said the straw symbolizes that Jesus was born in a stable, poor among the poor.IMG_4443This has nothing to do with the crèche, but where I grew up there were no crenellated castle walls with towers on any altars. Oh, France. Kids here who see such walls (big ones, for real) on a daily basis must not even notice small reproductions in a dark corner of a church. Nothing special.IMG_4446Another shot of the crèche at the top. Again, check out that altar!

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If you add a string of LED lights to a tableau of clay figurines and moss, is it multimedia?

There are other quaint Christmas touches around.

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Of COURSE Christmas balls were made into bunches of grapes.
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An effort was made but the result is underwhelming. Who can’t relate?
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I love the cacti under the LED reindeer. Also, notice the hanging squid.

How is your Christmas season going? Is your shopping done? We are going ultra light this year. For the tree, too. Just the blue balls and white lights, and actually it’s very pretty. Sometimes less is more.

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A crèche/Santa mashup, with art by local kids.