The Very Best Hostess Gift

band 2
SummerTeam, a jazz quartet from Lyon

We missed the Fourth of July. Don’t know how. For several years when we first moved to our little village in the south of France, we hosted a July 4th cookout. It was a way to invite the various people we had met but we didn’t yet know well enough to have over for a more formal dinner.

Burgers grilling. See the flag? Whose burgers are best?

But the party took on a scale we hadn’t anticipated. After a few years, we had over 200 people, many of whom we had never seen before–word of mouth spread and it got out of hand. From what I’ve read, we’re not alone.

We stopped doing the party. But by then we had a circle of really good friends, who lamented the loss of hamburgers with all the fixings. So we did it again, on a smaller, invitation-only scale.

The local apéritif….un petit jaune. 

We were planning a belated July 4 cookout on Sunday with 15 people or so, when a dear pal, A.,  asked Husband if he could bring some extras. I wasn’t present for this, and when I found out, I panicked. It was late Friday night, or was it already Saturday? I had just gone to bed after having made the desserts…for 15. How many extras? Maybe six. Maybe 15.


Pasta salad with lots of veggies, potato salad with lots of onions and mustard in honor of my mom, and all the fixings for burgers…though the burger plate is empty here! It only took seconds!

We always make more than enough burgers and figured we’d be OK there. I made extra salads and crudités the next day and picked up some watermelon to stretch the dessert table. Still, on Sunday morning, I was stressed, in a rotten mood not knowing who or how many would appear.

Some friends came into the house as I was about to take out the appetizers. Mostly distracted by the friends, I heard music and thought, vaguely, that Husband had set up a sound system as he loves to do, but this was really loud for the kind of mini-speakers he prefers. I also thought Husband’s taste in music had suddenly improved. It sounded like Norah Jones. Did she have a new album? Or was it Corinne Bailey Rae? Or Diana Krall? Not thinking too much about it, I took the food outside.

band 1And ran into a live jazz quartet, SummerTeam. The lovely chanteuse was singing “Fly Me to the Moon” as I walked out of the house and got gob-smacked by their presence. ?!?!?!? I worship jazz. And these beautiful young things played all the old standards. I really almost fell over.

They squeezed into a bit of shade between the pergola, the pool and and a palm tree, and seemed to actually have fun. I suppose there are worse gigs than playing between a palm tree and a pool, and being fed great burgers between sets.

The guests arrived in a constant flow. La bise, la bise, la bise. Then came the Unknowns, bearing huge, foil-covered trays. Me, mouth gaping in astonishment: WHUH?!?!?!? Under the foil were chicken wings and legs, and deep-fried calamari, to round out the appetizers. Thank you, A!  The Unknowns (who didn’t remain unknown very long) and A. had pitched in to hire the band to come and play!

Much nicer, and less flimsy than plastic. And after a couple of decades, well worth the price.

The surprise guests were fun and charming, and very helpful. We have a stock of 40 simple Ikea dishes we use for events–they have gone through hundreds of parties over the years, along with accompanying silverware and glasses–we don’t do plastic. But 40 wasn’t quite enough for 35-ish guests to move on to dessert. Dishwashing was in order, but the automatic one would have taken too long. In Europe, appliances like dishwashers and washing machines heat the water themselves rather than taking it from a hot-water heater, so the process is much slower than in the U.S.

Real glasses, too. What do you think!

One of the surprise guests came in the house, spied me washing dishes and stepped back outside to bellow “EQUIPE!!!” In seconds my kitchen had six or eight (hard to tell! it was crowded) men and women wielding soapy sponges and tea towels. I don’t expect guests to do dishes, but I was grateful to them, again.

A work of art

Back outside, I thought how magical it was, thanks in no small part to the band. All the guests, the entire place, were transported by the magic of the music. It helps that the band was really, really good. I loved every single song, and I am very picky about jazz.

The kids dove in the pool and stayed there…mostly (they somehow have radar to hear the lifting of plastic wrap on desserts that are still in the kitchen). One neighbor brought chocolate mousse, another nice surprise. The adults lounged around, increasingly horizontal. Some eventually had to leave. But a few just lolled about, until, around 7 p.m., somebody said, hmm, we really SHOULD eat dinner. Husband defrosted some Toulouse sausages and relit the grill, the remains of the salads came back out, and a dozen of us had Round 2. There was no shortage of food, despite my worries. It broke up at nearly 11 p.m., after discussing and resolving the major problems of the world. We had started at noon. I would call that a successful bash.

So, if you decide to crash a party with a bunch of pals, do it with food in hand and a live band!

BTW, I need to cut back to posting twice a week. I will post on Tuesdays and Fridays. Be there or be square.


The Truffula Trees

tree 3

The platanes got cropped. Once their leaves finally popped out, they reminded me of the Truffula trees in the Dr. Seuss book, “The Lorax.”

If you aren’t up on your Seuss, “The Lorax” is an environmentalist cri de coeur published in 1971. The villain, the Once-ler, invents a useless “Thneed” that uses the leaves of the Truffula tree, destroying it. The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees,” warns against the Once-ler’s corporate greed and short-sightedness, but Thneeds, despite being useless, sell like hotcakes and soon the Truffula trees are gone, leaving devastation. The Lorax flees, leaving a one word warning: Unless.

Some of us feel like the Lorax these days, upon learning that our village plans to cut down these platane, or plane, trees. Why? It costs too much to clean up the leaves. (When I asked him about it, the mayor pivoted and said it ALSO was because the roots were invading the sewer lines; I want proof.) It isn’t corporate greed but a soul-killing drive for efficiency that we see in many arenas. Over a hundred years ago, the villagers planted these trees along the main road to provide much-appreciated shade for generations. They thought about the future. That was then.

line of trees“The Lorax” was made into a film in 2012. It’s so-so. The book, of course, is better and worth reading even if you’re no longer a kid. Because we didn’t listen in 1971.


tree 2

A very upbeat post coming on Wednesday. I need time to sort the photos. A BIG surprise happened yesterday!

Blazing, Amazing


Let’s not lose sight of  beauty. Let’s not forget how to feel wonder and excitement and awe.

P1040105I would have posted this on Friday, but events interfered. Looking through the photos, I thought, wait, this is what is right with France.

IMG_2425Carcassonne put on a fantastic show. It was so democratic. It was free of charge. It drew  half a million people. They came on foot. They were well-mannered, even after the street lights were turned off (seriously, doesn’t it say something when the street lights are off and people still behave?). They didn’t even litter very much.

IMG_2421There were all ages, but all were the same age–kids–before the spectacle in the sky. The crowd sent up ooohs and aaahs in unison, frequently breaking out in applause, which the pyrotechnicians across the river had no way to hear.

IMG_2341The show began with a few small, bright flashes and big, deep booms. They picked up the cadence, then the lights started to bloom across the sky, illuminating the ramparts of la Cité in ghostly, colored light.


IMG_2342It continued, like this, building ferocity until there was a storm of explosions overhead. Then it paused, letting us relax a little and realize that our hearts were racing and that we’d gotten goosebumps from the excitement.


IMG_2478And it would pick up again. At one point, there were waves of fireworks from left to right, then right to left. They began lazily, then grew faster, then came from both directions at once, then led to a new round higher in the sky.

P1040092It was a ballet of light. Looking at the photos, I thought time and again of dancers in formation.

IMG_2350The highlight is the “embrasement” or burning, of la Cité, which dates to 1898. Though it was under siege in 1209 in the Albigensian Crusade, and finally surrendered, it never was burned down.

1 before dark
3 embrasement

After 20 or 25 minutes, the explosions came so fast and furious, and were so spectacular, we thought it was the finale a couple of times over. Some 25,000 to 30,000 projectiles were fired. But the real finale was far bigger, building, building into a riot of light and color in the sky.


Bravo, Carcassonne.


Blue Skies

moulin skyBlue skies

black mountains 3Smiling at me

view to caunesNothing but blue skies

black mountains 2Do I see….

to carca 2Never saw the sun shining so bright

from moulinNever saw things going so right

to carcaNoticing the days hurrying by

genetWhen you’re in love, my how they fly

black mountains windmillsBlue days

black mountains wheatAll of them gone

black mountains pathNothing but blue skies

black mountains jogFrom now on…

The beautiful lyrics are by Irving Berlin. One of the best renditions is by Willie Nelson. All photos taken on my jog yesterday morning. Life is just fine when this is what one must deal with on a morning run. Three days of perfectly blue skies. And counting.



Eye Candy


Some things are too majestic to ignore. You can hurry on with your busy life, but you’re missing out if you don’t stop and soak up an amazing sunset.

Others are simply so strange you can’t help but stop and gawk.

Tiny car

These extra-tiny cars don’t require a license. They also don’t go very fast. They are like riding mowers with roofs. Most of them look like shrunken Smart cars. But even in this range, I’ve never seen a model that was, well, what is this? A dwarf pickup? Who? Why? So many questions.

I also saw my first Twizy. It makes the Aixam above look like an SUV. It sped around the corner, leaving me with my jaw gaping to the sidewalk as I tried to comprehend what had just gone by. It was gone before I could get out the camera, but I will be on the prowl for it now. Meanwhile, you can get a look here.

Then there are cute things, noticed while out and about.

Eurofoot chocolates

For example, in honor of the current 24/7 Euro Foot thingy that’s everywhere, the chocolatier Jeff de Bruges tried to make soccer more …. palatable.

And finally, some things grab your eyes and your nose.

gene closerThe genêt is flowering. Entire hillsides are covered with clouds of yellow flowers. They have a heavy, sweet fragrance that travels far on the breeze.

In English, it’s a broom plant. It grows all over the garrigue, and often along the roadsides, in big, voluptuous bushes that reach maybe 10 or 12 feet tall. It’s just green most of the year, but in May and June it changes everything to gold.

gene far


Another round of Banyuls

flowers 1There were too many photos to put into one post, so you’re stuck with Banyuls again. Hardship, right?

police stationThis time we’ll zoom in on a few charming details around the town. For example, how often does the word “adorable”  come up in connection with “police station”? And that scooter is cuteness itself.

Plus it had CLEAN public toilets on the other side! Four of them! With soap and everything!

The wise people of Banyuls knew to leave well enough alone in some cases….

old sign

while keeping most of the place spiffy. There was a lot of Belle Epoque architecture.

belle epoque house 2

building 2


belle epoque house

They had some interesting ideas about electricity, sometimes charming

electric box

sometimes not. I suppose it’s inevitable with stone walls.

electric wires

There were some cute vehicles.

But parking is difficult.

parked car 1
Better not forget the parking brake. (Do you see the van, up high?)

parking flood sign

This sign near the beach says: Attention drivers. In case of a storm, please URGENTLY evacuate your vehicle. The town cannot be held liable in any case.

Of course, steep hills + solid rock or buildings everywhere + sudden rain = flash flood. Get a load of these foundations:

The people of Banyuls like to decorate, whether it’s a rock outcropping, an electric meter cover or a paella pan.

paella painting

Mostly with good taste.

Nicely planted palms around a little bandstand and square.
olive tree
This olive tree must be a couple hundred years old.
street light
Wonderful street lamps. The wiring, not so much.

On the flatter, more spread-out end of town, the villas hid behind grand gates.

gate 5

gate 4

gate 3

gate 2

gate 1

More modest homes also had handsome entries, even if they seemed sized for third graders.

And they are crazy about flowers. Especially bougainvillea, in every neon shade.

flowers 7

flowers 2

flowers 3

flowers 4

flowers 5

flowers 6

flowers 8

flowers 10

flowers 9

flowers 13 cactus

flowers 12

flowers 11

There was another verbiose sign:

boules rules

“Thank you for your public-spiritedness”! These pétanque players seemed to be minding the rules.


Must be rough playing right next to the beach, especially on hot summer nights.

wine shop 1

Banyuls is a highly recommended day trip from Carcassonne. And until you can come, you can pretend, by getting a bottle of Banyuls’ famous fortified wine (it’s like port, but DO NOT say that to anybody from Banyuls). Santé!


little street 11
The renowned Banyuls vineyards in the distance are just as vertical.

We had a visitor for a few days and wanted to play tourist. We escaped the heavy rains that are flooding the north of France, but we still got some showers. It’s one thing to brave a few drops to visit something new, but another to see the same sites for the hundredth time, no matter how fabulous, when the weather is meh.

La mairie, or city hall, shows Spanish influences.

Our visitor hadn’t been to Banyuls, near the Spanish border, and it had been years since our last trip. One weather report suggested  scattered showers, while another promised peeks of sun. We ended up under mostly gray skies but dry. A perfect afternoon jaunt that felt like we’d gone on away on vacation.

restoThe weather held out for us to stroll around and have a leisurely lunch en terrace with a view of the beach.

view w beach
The rocky beach. Usually every centimeter is covered with bare skin.

As beautiful as Banyuls is I cannot imagine going there in July or August, when it’s absolutely overflowing with people. But on June 1, there were enough people for it to feel alive and yet for us to find ourselves alone on its charming, vertical streets.

A port, of course.

If I went nuts over a tiny village like Malves, imagine what I did with Banyuls. So today you get to see its charming streets, appreciate its beauty, and thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to carry your groceries home like the folks here. Though I bet all the residents are in great shape.

little street 15

little street 13little street 12little street 14little street 9little street 10little street 7little street 5little street 8little street 4little street 2little street 6little street 3

little street 1
The house on the right is for sale!!! View of the beach!!! No privacy though.
trop tard
This is what happens if you don’t buy that house right now: “Too late!”


malves chateau 3Welcome to Malves en Minervois. As its official Web site says, it’s “a charming village of about 825 inhabitants nestled in a green setting.” True.

It has a fabulous renaissance château from the 16th century, with 300 square meters per floor (think of the heat bill!). There are some pretty wonderful painted ceilings and frescoes. And a big park behind the château, where they sometimes have arts or food fairs.

malves catThese photos were taken around 9 p.m. on a Friday night. Just sayin’.

Stone houses….malves trees

Sharply shorn trees….

malves corner house

Odd little houses with entries like afterthoughts. There was an elderly lady sitting in the garden around the corner whom I startled as I went by. Clearly unusual to have strangers wandering about. Birds, yes. Photographers, no.

There ARE some things to do, besides stroll. There’s a café next to the château that’s sometimes open. And a little grocery. I was just passing through and couldn’t resist the light. And the flowers in unexpected places.

Of course, there’s a winery. Don’t be silly! Château Malves-Bousquet, next to the big château. It’s good, too–Minervois has some excellent wines. We’ll go into that another time.

Malves road



mystery wall 1There’s a wall in the woods.

For no apparent reason.

mystery wall endWho built it? Why?

Clearly, it was a long time ago. So it must have been a ton of work.

mystery wall thicknessIt isn’t just a single row of stones, either. It has been filled in about a yard deep.

It’s in the countryside, not near a town. Especially not near a town from back when it might have been built. In those days, marauders attacked solitary outposts, so folks retreated behind the fortified walls of their villages at night, going out to their fields by day. Even farms, which usually had several families, were fortified. It sounds like a scary time.

There’s no farm here. No trace of houses. No vineyard that was cleared of rocks that eventually became walls. Just trees and brambles and birds who are happy the woods are too thick for most people to come and bump around.

mystery wall closeWere these stones naturally flat (doubt it) or were they hewn? If so, why so much effort for this wall?

The thing about France, and Europe in general, is that these kinds of mysteries from the past are everywhere. Just take a walk, and you can stumble across them.

mystery wall 2

Criminal behavior

Poppies looking up
Who would want to hurt these?

In general, the French manage to live up to their national stereotype of a people with good taste. But there are lapses.

View before
The view from my kitchen window, not entirely before because I see he already attacked the bottom swathe. The top photo shows the same poppies a few days ago.
Weed eater
Weed eater

Someone affiliated with the retirement community across the street decided to chop down the poppies on the berm that protects the village from the architectural horror of the retirement pavilions (though I think the residents of the retirement community think the berm is to protect them from the road traffic). Because of course it’s prettier to see black plastic for keeping down weeds (didn’t work so well, did it?) than to see terrible, terrible red poppies that people actually stop and park to photograph.

View after

The horror

On our side of the street, we love poppies. With all the rain, the weeds have grown ferociously. On Sunday, we took advantage of the sun and the soft ground to pull them out. We cleaned the area in front of our gate, careful not to bother the poppies.

poppies entry
A welcoming pop of color, no? Anyway, the irises on the other side are long gone.

We have a bit of a red theme going on. The roses are blooming like they’ve never done before. #rosesnofilter!

Don’t ask me names; I don’t know. The rose bushes were a wedding present from my co-workers. An excellent idea, better than a third toaster. Of course, my co-workers were uncommonly intelligent and I miss them terribly.

That big red rose shown alone could be smelled from three feet away. Heavenly.

And the poppy field behind our house just keeps getting redder.

Poppy field

Sorry for another poppy post so soon but it was provoked.