A Bridge Too Far

220.Viaduc de Millau2Gluttons for punishment, my kid and I headed to Montpellier on Sunday to visit a retailer not found in Carcassonne nor even in Toulouse. While shops in France usually are closed on Sundays, they open on the three or four Sundays before Christmas. Add to that the fact that only semi-trucks carrying refrigerated goods are allowed on the autoroutes, and Sunday seemed ideal.

From the start, things went wrong. I stopped to buy gas and put air in the tires before getting on the autoroute. The station had been flooded in October, and I hadn’t been back for a while, what with the roads out and detours. Turned out it was closed for renovations. No other gas stations before the autoroute, but, hey, no problem, the tank was almost full; my itsy bitsy car needs only about a half a tank to make the 300-kilometer roundtrip.

We would park at the shopping mall with said retailer, then take the tram to the city center, to avoid having to drive all over the place. I finally got a phone with a GPS, so I  didn’t need to write out the directions from Mappy. Such luxury.

We sang Christmas carols and admired the moody, haunting countryside on the way. It looked almost like shan shui paintings at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris. The light rain swathed a gray veil over the winter greenery. So different from summer’s parched brown palette, with its sharply defined shadows captured by Cézanne.

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Le Viaduc de Millau, the world’s tallest bridge, taller than the Eiffel Tower. It’s on the A75, which is toll-free except for crossing the bridge, which is about €10 for cars.

After we joined the A9 autoroute northbound, warning signs appeared: car on the side of the road. Then, A75 (a different autoroute) obligatory exit. I wasn’t sure what that meant. That the folks going on the A75, which starts around Béziers and heads to Paris, had to take a certain exit? We continued.

We came to realize that it meant the A9 was closed and all traffic was being detoured to the A75. No problem, I thought. We have a GPS!

We followed the other cars, winding around to the tollbooths. All but three were closed, so the lines were long. And they were swarming with gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. They made a big show of “guiding” cars through the piles of tires and pallets that were burning. The tarmac was a mess, having melted and been churned up by previous fires. Gendarmes stood, bouncing from one foot to another to keep warm in the drizzle, but not interfering. A huge tree in the center of the roundabout after the tollbooths was uprooted.

Why?

I’ve read unflattering comparisons between the gilets jaunes and the women’s march in Washington and Black Lives Matter protests. But the women’s march and BLM didn’t set things on fire or uproot trees. There might be bad actors attracted to any demonstration, ready for an excuse to wreak havoc. The folks at the autoroute exits didn’t seem like the casseurs who made a mess in Paris, even though it doesn’t seem like the casseurs were the ones who devastated the tollbooths. The yellow vests seemed intent on getting even with somebody, anybody, for attempts to wean them off their cars, which were parked on the side of the road and festooned with yellow–mostly SUVs. They made a big show of being gentil, kindly directing the traffic mess that they had created.

There’s an argument that the autoroutes were constructed with tax money, and so they should be free. The protesters don’t like that there’s a toll, and that it’s collected by a private company that maintains the autoroute (and also sends out vans to accident sites and cars that have broken down on the side of the road, etc.). For the most part, the autoroutes in France are as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and the speed limit is 130 kilometers an hour–80 mph. The argument is that the toll is higher than needed for maintenance, and anyway there shouldn’t be a toll at all. (For about 90 kilometers on Sunday, I paid €7.80; to cross France north-south costs about €60 in tolls.)

Of course, the militant drivers would not like it if the autoroutes were more crowded than they already are. Sometimes in summer, the A9, which hugs the Mediterranean coast from Spain up to Nîmes, before plunging into the center of France, is a long parking lot of cars from all over Europe, full of vacationers hoping to get to the beach before their cars overheat. Periodic suggestions for surge pricing further enrage people, though I’d be the first to drive at a weird time to have less traffic AND pay less. But having different prices is seen as undemocratic. The protesters have also destroyed roadside radars–every single one we passed was knocked down–because they ruin the fun of speeding.

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Millau, which we managed not to see. This is from a different day.

Our brilliant (not) GPS (actually we used two–Waze and Maps–with identical results) advised us to go on, then had us double back at the first roundabout. “We’ll probably get on in the other direction,” my kid surmised. Nope. Cars were getting off the autoroute, but roaring fires kept anybody from getting on in any direction.

We finally got away again. We ignored the GPS and followed the signs to Agde, planning to take back roads up to Montpellier. But eventually it wasn’t so clear where to go. We listened to the GPS. Bad idea. We turned this way and that and ended up on another divided highway (with no way to make a U-turn) when we passed the same Cactus Park we’d seen half an hour earlier. Indeed, soon we were back at the burning barricades of the roundabout from hell.

My kid informed the GPS yet again that the autoroute was blocked (feedback is how they know about problems) and we tried yet again to find a detour. We went through some charming little towns, but you get no photos because my kid said it wouldn’t be fair to show them in the rain when they must be even prettier in the sun.

We eventually did make it to Montpellier, 2.5 hours late. The mall was a bust. It was just like any mall you would find in the U.S. except it was open to the sky. This usually would be a plus, but we were there on one of the few days a year of rain. Just nine days before Christmas, a few people hurried by. There were no lines for the changing rooms.

We ditched the idea of taking the tram to the city center and decided to just get home. Looking over the routes suggested by the GPS, we chose the detour on the A75, which hooked up with the A9 at a point beyond the disastrous barricades we’d encountered earlier.

We soon were climbing through hills on the outskirts of Montpellier. Disconcertingly, the signs told us we were going toward Millau (not on our way) and Clermont-Ferrand, which is just about in the center of France and much more of a detour than we’d bargained for. My car started beeping that we were almost out of gas, but we didn’t see a single service station.

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 The view from the viaduct. Gorgeous, even in the rain.

The scenery was gorgeous, though, a different kind of rugged than what we were used to. And the church steeples were a different shape. It’s funny how you notice regional traits, like the way cousins might have the same nose.

My kid asked the GPS to take us to a gas station. That worked out well, and we got a pannetone as a gift (from Italian gas chain Agip).

The GPS led us back to the A9, with promises of Narbonne and home. This entry, too, had a long line of cars being filtered by yellow vests, and fires burning and destruction all around. A few minutes later, the skies opened and it poured as if to set sail to Noah’s ark. Good, I thought, that will send the yellow vests home. But on arrival at Carcassonne, they were huddled under the roof of the toll station, collecting the toll tickets, as if giving us a present for having destroyed the barriers and letting us pass for free. I handed mine over, but as I pulled away I yelled expletives at them, horrifying my kid. But it made me feel better.

 

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Single Payer FAQs in France

P1100672I’ve been reading news about “Medicare for all.” For people outside the U.S., it’s a no-brainer. Of course everybody gets health care. Of course the cost isn’t based on how healthy you are. Of course it’s affordable. Of course you choose your doctor.

I can only really tell you about the French system, which, in nearly 15 years of experience, has been excellent.

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Helicopter landing at the hospital. Courage to whoever was inside.

Who qualifies?

All French residents get a Carte Vitale, a green chip card with your French social security number (kids under age 16 are on the card of one of their parents). The card itself doesn’t cost anything. Coverage is obligatory. If you are a tourist, however, you aren’t covered and have to pay out of pocket or get your insurance to pay. But the bill won’t be anything like what you’d confront in the U.S.

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Emergency room waiting area. Efficient. Carcassonne’s hospital is fairly new.

Who pays?

Everybody. The government insurance covers 77% of health expenses. A further 14% is covered by complementary insurance and almost 9% covered by individuals (co-pay, if you like, but not for everything; it’s mostly for glasses and dental work). The government funding comes from employer and employee payroll taxes (50%), income taxes (35%), taxes on tobacco, alcohol, the pharmaceutical industry and voluntary health insurance companies (13%) and state subsidies (2%).

I was talking to someone in the U.S. who was turned off by single payer, saying that he didn’t want to pay in for lazy people who don’t work. Of course, there are some freeloaders in France, but the cost of keeping them healthy is nothing compared to the taxes evaded by the rich using offshore shell companies. They are the real freeloaders. But psychologically, humans pick on those with less status than us and turn a blind eye to those with more.

Also in France, there’s a list of 30 health conditions that are 100% covered–hospitalization, treatment, doctor visits, medication, etc. These include diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, incapacitating stroke, cystic fibrosis, HIV, malignant cancer, etc.  A friend had a kidney transplant–something stressful enough, and at least she didn’t have to worry about the cost.

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Where emergency patients get wheeled in on gurneys for triage. Not fancy.

What is this complementary insurance?

Complementary insurance covers all or most of the fees not covered by the government program. It’s voluntary and paid individually. It’s private mutual insurance, meaning it’s nonprofit. Patients lose if profits win. The average in 2017 was €688 per person annually or about €57.33 a month.

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Patient room. The screens are for TV and Internet; you have to buy time.

How high are the taxes?

Employers pay 13% of salary for health care, maternity, disability and death insurance. Self-employed people making under €43,705 a year pay between 1.5% to 6.5%; over that you pay 6.5%.

In the U.S., the average worker contributions are $1,213 a year for a single person and $5,714 for a family. Worker premiums have gone up about 75% over the last 10 years, vs. about 48% for the employer share. About 80% of workers’ employers pay at least half the premium for both single and family coverage. The average cost of insurance for employers is $6,435, with a $6,000 deductible. (Excuse me, I just fainted at that deductible.)

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Other view of a room. The brown column is a closet.

How does it work?

If you’re sick, you call your doctor. Around here, we sometimes can get in the same day, sometimes not. If it’s urgent, one of the other doctors in the group will take us. We don’t have many emergencies, so we usually make appointments for a week or two in advance for routine checkups. Our long-time doctor moved away, so we shopped around for a new one, trying a few recommended by different friends before settling on someone we liked a lot. The idea of in-network or out-of-network doesn’t exist because there’s just one network. While people are free to shop for a doctor when thinking about switching, the French system does require picking a primary-care doctor to limit abuse, such as how much people can shop for somebody to write them a prescription they might not need.

If you have to go to the hospital, there are no surprise bills from out-of-network doctors you never met or who worked on you when you were unconscious. Some doctors can demand a surcharge, but it’s usually in the tens of euros.

How is it different from the U.S.?

Everything is less fancy. This might be in part because we are in the sticks and not in Paris, but I saw the same thing in Brussels. It’s all nice, but not luxe. One hospital in my hometown had a grand granite entry with a grand piano, carpeting in the halls, sofas and armchairs in the rooms. Here, the hospital is brand-new, heavy on the linoleum, only one hard plastic chair per patient room.

However, granite (or carpeted–EEEWWW) floors don’t make anybody better. All that matters is that the place can be kept clean and that it’s arranged in a functional manner.

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Vintage formica table in one room. Must have come from the old hospital. Or even the hospital before. Waste not.

The doctors’ offices are pretty simple, too. Always nice, but never fancy. One thing that I found unusual was that the office and examining table are in the same room. You go in, sit at the desk across from the doctor, then get undressed (no paper gowns), get examined, get dressed, your Carte Vitale is read, you pay your €25 and leave. No little exam rooms in a line where a nurse charges in for your vitals, then the doctor comes by for two minutes and disappears. I told one doctor about this, and how the little exam rooms would save a lot of the doctor’s time by not waiting for patients to undress/dress, and she was horrified. Especially with the elderly, she said, it’s important to observe how patients move as they’re dressing. She saw the U.S. system as penny-wise, pound-foolish.

French health care is of very high quality despite being lower cost. France has 3.2 doctors per 1,000 people, fewer than some European countries but more than the U.S., which has 2.5 per 1,000.  Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births dropped  to 8 in 2015 from 15 in 1990, whereas in the U.S. they rose to 14 from 12 in the same years. Check out this article about dying mothers. Life expectancy at birth is 82.4 in France, among the highest in the world, compared to 78.6 in the U.S. Infant mortality is 3.7 per 1,000 live births, vs. 5.9 in the U.S.

In addition, a number of preventive campaigns aim to keep costs down by catching problems early, including free mammograms every two years after age 50, as well as free tests for colorectal cancer.

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In the lobby, a piano. Not grand. Nor is the lobby.

Isn’t it weird having the government decide what’s covered?

Well, somebody has to do it, and it’s probably better that it’s decided by society at large rather than by your employer, non? Most people don’t realize that larger companies self-insure–in fact 60% of U.S. workers covered by their employers are literally covered by their employers through self insurance. It’s called captive insurance, and it’s a way of using the risk of employee health costs or death benefits (which would be low risk if you have healthy employees) as a hedge against other corporate risks. The company sets aside a pool of money as its own insurance. It contracts with an actual insurance company to administer claims. The employer can decide what to cover or not, although the Affordable Care Act set some standards on that.

That means employers have an interest in whether you’re healthy. A few years ago, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced to employees that he was cutting employees’ retirement benefits because of self-insurance payouts for two “distressed” babies.

With single payer like in France, employers help pay in, but risks are spread across the entire country. There are no questions about pre-existing conditions, because participation in the system is obligatory.

While there are certainly cases of people abusing the system (I know a couple who would go for a weeklong “cure” for “arthritis” every year at a spa), for the most part nobody gets surgery for the heck of it, nobody has chemotherapy just because they can get it for free. Health care is one of those things you want to not have to need. It shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford it, certainly not in developed countries.P1100679

Picking Wine

P1080475At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of grape harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. spilled-grapesWithin 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.P1080437

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.machine-caunesLots 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.grapesLet 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).P1080704If 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.P1080705Around 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.amid-vines-villalierBefore the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left).  Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.hand-picked-1

Bella Ciao

P1080529As I write this, a Euro-electro cover of the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” is blasting into my window from a boisterous gathering. Sound travels easily in the countryside.

If you don’t know this song, listen here (not the techno version).tree and rocksYears and years ago, an eternity really, when my kid was a little round sausage of yumminess and naïvété, the (first grade?) class learned the song “Bella Ciao” for the year-end show. They always learned something that would bring great applause from all the grandparents in the audience, and there was something adorable about these little tykes belting out hits from half a century earlier.

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Once again, random photos. This time from a search for a brocante where the Carnivore and I got lost in the countryside.

Thus I’ve known Bella Ciao for a while. Obviously it was an Italian song, so I didn’t understand the lyrics (unlike another song my kid learned in school even earlier: “Si Tu Vas à Rio”–“If you go to Rio….don’t forget to go up yonder, to a little village, hidden under wild flowers, on the side of a hill….” a song about reminiscences and good old times, which is kind of hilarious coming out of the mouths of four-year-olds).P1050713Several years later, my kid was studying World War II, and “Bella Ciao” came up again in the context of families deciding whether to weather the terrible fascist political climate or to flee, to become refugees. The song’s origins were the women of the Po river valley who weeded the rice paddies and who suffered terribly. (How did a song about suffering women manage to be sung by so many men?) (Italian and English lyrics here)P1020416Later (although one article said the partisans came first, in 1919, and the rice weeders came after World War II), it was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem, and then as a pro-communist song. These kinds of liaisons are difficult, because you can be very anti-fascist and also downright cold to communism–the original idea might have been nice but in reality communism was a huge con job and an economic and social failure. Yet, in binary, black-and-white situations, you don’t get to be anti-communist AND anti-fascist, because those get lumped as one and the same. So either you have to choose to be anti-fascist and just ignore the communist part or you shrug and walk away from everything altogether. In some parts of southern France, communists haven’t gotten the memo about its demise. There also are plenty of refugees or descendants thereof from Franco’s Spain, so there’s a strong anti-fascist streak as well (a Spanish cover of the song was censored in Spain in 1969…Franco died in 1975, for those of you who don’t remember Chevy Chase on SNL’s Weekend Update). “Bella Ciao” became the hymn of labor strikes in the 1960s and then crossed the Atlantic in service of the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which, you might recall, ended badly, thanks to the CIA.

P1050710“Bella Ciao” has been in my head lately because it was a theme of the hugely popular Spanish series (picked up on Netflix) “La Casa del Papel”–“Money Heist” in English. What an interesting series! I didn’t see all of it, but it was fascinating, with the corrupt victims, the good-hearted villains, the messed-up police….nothing rote, everything complicated. AlloCiné compared it to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but it was free of smugness and made you question everything. Maybe it was an intellectual “Ocean’s Eleven.” It also was devoid of fashion, yet had such indelible looks. The red jumpsuits! The Salvador Dali masks!chateau rooftopsIn looking around for who in the world did the electro version I was hearing, I discovered that “Bella Ciao” is in a renaissance as it were, thanks to “La Casa del Papel,” which made it hip again.  French-Congolese rapper Maître Gims did a version with lots of la, la, la (which translates as la, la, la, whether Italian to French or French to English). French DJ Jean Roch (I do NOT approve of that silky green jacket. Nor of the backup dancers) and American electro house musician Steve Aoki also did it. And French-Spanish singer Manu Chao, though he was before the current craze. In fact, his family fled Franco’s Spain, which is how he was born in France.P1070751Have you heard Bella Ciao before?P1080530

 

Citizens of the World

P1080791We don’t get to pick where we’re born. Some of us get lucky but mistakenly think their random chance is skill. Recently events brought home just how lucky we are.

We have some friends, a couple who are both teachers with two kids, one the same age as mine. Four years ago, they went off on an adventure–moving to the Republic of Congo (this is the Congo whose capital is Brazzaville, not the bigger neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which used to be called Zaire). They lived in the oil center of Pointe-Noire and liked it very much.

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Random sunrise/sunset shots

When their contract was up, they weren’t ready to move back to France and got a new teaching gig in Bamako, the capital of Mali. This was very different; Mali is at war with Tuareg separatists in the north as well as Islamist terrorists. There’s a ceasefire with the separatists, but our friends aren’t allowed to leave the capital. Their children go to school and come straight home. They can’t go anywhere else–no shopping, no movies, no parks, no sports clubs.

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Pyrénées at dusk. How many refugees crossed them to escape Franco and settle here?

It’s really sad; I visited Mali in 1999 (solo–it was before I met the Carnivore) and loved it. I went to Ségou, Djenné (home of the world’s largest mosque built from mud, a true marvel), Mopti (a city of 114,000 that I’d never heard of but loved), the Dogon country (home to animists who live in houses built into the sides of cliffs) and, of course, Timbuktu, which was as spectacular as its name suggests. In two weeks, I saw more of Mali than my friends, who have lived there for a year.P1080958The friends were back this summer to visit friends and family and we caught up. I drove the wife to say hi to some mutual friends. The conversations were interesting–everybody knew somebody who had worked in this country or that country. I also have many friends who think nothing of living in another country, usually sent for work. Even me–France is the fourth country I’ve lived in. We are citizens of the world. Not only can we pick up and move almost anywhere we want, but we actually get welcomed by other countries.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is not the case for everybody. Some people want to move because they’re ambitious and seek a better life somewhere else. Other people don’t want to move but are forced to by war or other problems.IMG_4331Our kid did a photography class recently. It started last year, after I decreed that the summer would not be whiled away on YouTube and Snapchat. This was met with a very negative reaction. “I won’t know anybody!” But I unleashed my inner drill sergeant, and my kid went to photography class. And loved it. And made a bunch of friends–many of the others in the class were refugees from Chechnya.P1080793This year, my kid eagerly signed up for summer photography, hoping to see the guys from Chechnya. However, they weren’t in the class. Other refugees, though, were. Two from Guinea (under military dictatorship) and two from Mali. Yup. While French people go to Mali for work, Malians flee to France for peace. It must blow these kids’ minds to be handed cameras that cost more than their families probably earned in a year.sunset 4My kid said one of the boys would sit in a fetal position and cry at lunch. I learned they were all unaccompanied. They are housed in small groups around Carcassonne, and looked after by counselors. The government covers their expenses. Let me say, I find this an excellent use of the taxes I pay and I am more than happy to pay it.sunset 3I cannot imagine what they must have gone through to travel to France. Alone. You must be desperate to send your child off to a strange land alone. But they’re boys, and the alternative is to risk seeing them kidnapped into an armed group or drafted into the army to fight. War either way. They chose life. At great risk, but everything about life comes at great risk in those countries, where they did not ask to be born.P1080788My grandmother’s family left her home country when World War I started. I had heard stories about how they were on the wrong side of the political fence, and my great-uncle was about to reach the age to have to fight. Instead, they fled to the U.S., and my great-uncle fought in the U.S. Army. It wasn’t a question of fighting or not, but of fighting for what.sunset 2The photography class is built around a changing theme of  historical heritage. This year, it was about the influx of Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s regime. The class went around town to interview people who had fled Franco’s Spain. Imagine these refugee boys meeting others who also had been refugees. I wonder what was going on in their heads. The elderly people spoke of how it was hard to move to a new land, that they missed Spain, but that eventually they became integrated. I hope that these boys can look out to the day when they, too, will be integrated in the fabric of French life. If I can integrate, why not them?

 

 

Wine to Go

IMG_5681If you visit France, of course you want to take home one of its most famous specialities: wine. Whether for yourself or a gift, you can get some amazing wines in France from wineries that are too small to export, or, even if they do export, that aren’t easy to find.

How do you make sure your treasures get home safely? We have used this method for more than 15 years and have never had a broken bottle. It’s easy and nearly free.

You need one cardboard wine box for every two bottles; scissors or a box cutter; duct tape or some other strong tape. (BTW, I read once that it’s smart to pack a small roll of electrical tape in your carry-on for emergencies. It saved me once when my suitcase appeared on the carousel completely open, with all three latches broken. Of course this wasn’t in any way the airline’s fault. Anyway, the tape let me get the suitcase shut enough to get out of the airport.)

IMG_5686First, cut the box so it opens flat.

Roll the bottle and cut where it goes all the way around.

Wrap tape around the middle.

Bend the bottom like wrapping a present and tape well.

Squeeze the top–the cardboard will pleat around the narrower bottle neck. Tape well.

IMG_5700Tape the whole thing like crazy. It goes through the X-ray machines just fine, and we’ve never had them questioned or opened.IMG_5701Sometimes for good measure we first wrap the bottle in bubble wrap and then do the cardboard. And sometimes we then put the wrapped bottle into a plastic bag so that if, heaven forbid, it breaks, it won’t seep out all over your clothes. At least not as much.

This method has worked well for us, though. Even when we’ve dropped our luggage. Even when we’ve dropped the wrapped bottles.IMG_6307FYI, the wines shown here are beyond excellent, from small wineries that do export. We featured la Tour Boisée earlier; le Château Villerambert Julien also is fantastic. Both are from the Minervois A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée–the official guarantee it comes from a certain region and meets strict standards). Minervois is just northeast of Carcassonne. Look for it!

Australia in France

kangaroosIt’s hard to believe, but there are French people who dream of traveling far away. Yet, many French families just have the budget for a modest vacation in a sunny corner of their homeland. The places they go and the things they do offer some great tips for all travelers, but especially those with families.ostrich closeupFor those who would love to go to Australia but can’t afford flights, the Australian Park near Carcassonne beckons. It’s also great for families. It’s also a popular place for local kids to hold birthday parties, not to mention school trips.white kangarooIt’s like a small zoo, which is good. My hometown in the U.S. has a world-class zoo, which has grown and grown since I was a preteen earning spending money raking leaves there in the fall (it’s quite interesting to rake leaves while being watched intently by elephants). But it’s so huge that it’s impossible to see everything, and the weight of all those other animals presses one to keep moving rather than spending the time to observe (and anyway, so many animals sleep during the day that there isn’t much to watch).kangaroo 1Visits at Le Parc Australien take place in small guided groups, so you get to go into the animal enclosures, including one with 150 parrots that you can feed. There are other birds, including ostriches and emus, and other animals, including wallabies and dromedaries. There’s even a nursery with babies. Even though the park is small and the variety of animals is limited, a visit can take the better part of a day because you don’t just look and move on but can interact.kidThere are other activities, such as playing a didgeridoo, throwing a boomerang, playing aboriginal games or panning for “gold.”

The park was created in 2001 by a biologist, who was the first to raise ostriches in France. All the animals were born in captivity in Europe, because Australia stopped exports of animals in 1964 to protect its species.

The park is about three minutes from la Cité, just past the suburb of Montrédon and near the Lac de la Cavayère. The hours change by season; check the site.ostrichesIt is funny to see what other cultures find to be exotic. There is one cupcake shop in town, and it has turned into a roaring success with, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively local clientele. I make a mean cupcake, so I’m not about to shell out €3 for one, though I wouldn’t hesitate for one of those perfect strawberry tartelettes that are standard in French bakeries. A few years ago, hamburger joints appeared everywhere. Then bagels (not everywhere; just two bagel restaurants in the centre ville). Now it’s Mexican restaurants, whose menus are heavy on hamburgers and lacking in enchiladas.  birdsMy kid’s kindergarten class visited the Australian Park, and in second or third grade they went to a zoo in Toulouse. There’s also a kind of safari park at Sigean on the coast that we visited. The landscape at Sigean actually reminds me a little of Africa. While I feel kind of sorry for the animals in zoos, especially having seen them in the wild in various places around the world, they are important in making a connection with kids, so they don’t view nature and animals as abstractions on TV or in books. The Australian Park is especially nice, because of the petting areas. A real hands-on experience.kissing kangaroos

Cookout for a Crowd

P1100608Entertaining in summer is so different from winter. As soon as it’s nice out, we eat en terrasse for every meal, and the same applies for dinner parties. While winter dinners are cozy and intimate around a candlelit table, they can only be so big. That also is nice–the conversations are deeper with a smaller group.

But a big party is fun, too. We got in the groove of cooking hamburgers, partly to redeem them from the bad rep of McDonald’s (people here complain about McDonald’s but France is MacDo’s most profitable market outside the U.S., cough, cough). Fan or foe, anybody would admit that a homemade burger cooked on a real grill is a step above.

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A little help from our friends. Seriously, everybody pitched in. Buns on the right.

Burgers are a good option because they offer mass customization: you prepare and cook a ton of them the same way, and everybody can dress theirs up as they like. We learned our lesson and made them rather small and thin, for quicker cooking and because some people eat just one small one and others eat five. (In earlier years, we threw away an awful lot of half-eaten big burgers.)

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Batter fried veggies, pâté en croute, calamari, fried ham-and-cheese, breaded fried cheese…

One friend brought appetizers, so that was taken care of.

We had two salads on the side: a pasta salad with an Italian vibe (lots of fresh basil, olive oil, red wine vinegar) and an Asian-inflected cabbage slaw–no creamy dressings in this heat. They were made one day ahead.

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I love this. Even better after a day.

And we had a buffet of desserts: Tollhouse cookies, nut bars, a chocolate cake and a carrot cake.

The carrot cake has a history. One of our early such cookouts coincided with July 4. I decorated the carrot cake with blueberries and raspberries to make an American flag. One of our friends thought this was so pretty, it had to be shown to everybody before we cut it to eat. As she walked around with it, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I answered “Carrot,” she stopped as if she’d gotten an electric shock, and nearly dropped the cake. She recovered and then, as if to save me from the horror of the idea of a cake made with carrots, asked about the frosting. “A kind of cheese,” I explained. At that time, Philadelphia cream cheese was found only in expat groceries (where I had paid a small fortune) and I didn’t yet know that Saint-Môret is pretty much the same thing.

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Once the carrot cake was cut it quickly became an unphotogenic free for all.

That was it. Nobody touched the carrot cake. Finally, somebody who was out of earshot for this came around and took a piece. Biting into it, she exclaimed, “Wow, this pain d’épice is delicious”–pain d’epice (spice bread) being familiar, but usually much drier and without a tangy cream cheese frosting. That gave the others an excuse to satisfy their curiosity and the carrot cake was quickly devoured.

By now, even here in France profonde,  trendy tea salons serve carrot cake and cheesecake.

Here are some recipes for feeding a crowd (we had about three dozen people):P1100597Asian-influenced cabbage slaw

1 head of red cabbage (green is OK but not as pretty), grated or sliced as finely as you can

1-2 red bell peppers, chopped

4-5 carrots, grated

1 onion, finely chopped

fresh ginger about the size of a thumb, peeled and finely minced

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup sesame oil

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp soy sauce

Put the liquids in a jar and shake to make the vinaigrette. Toss with the vegetables. If you do it a day earlier, it’s even better, because the vinegar will soften the cabbage. This is a refreshing alternative to traditional coleslaw.P1100604Pasta salad

500 g (1 lb.) pasta of your choice, cooked al dente (don’t overcook, so it holds up)

4 carrots

1 red bell pepper

1 green or yellow bell pepper

1 cucumber

3-4 tomatoes

1/2 cup basil leaves

1 large onion

Chop all the vegetables and toss with the pasta. Because of braces, we chop pretty finely and grate carrots. I peel nothing, just wash–keep those vitamins! The basil I scrunch into a bunch and cut into ribbons, but you also can tear it. Other possible additions: olives (black or green), sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, even fruit like peaches. There is no right or wrong here.

In a jar, combine 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3/4 cup olive oil, a clove of garlic (minced very finely) and a big spoonful of capers. Shake to mix and toss into the salad.

The carrot cake recipe is from Epicurious–BA’s Best Carrot Cake, from Bon Appétit, May 2016. We didn’t include the rum (actually our kid made all the desserts except for the frostings). For some reason, I didn’t use the frosting recipe there and instead used the Epicurious “Classic Cream Cheese Frosting,” which came out way too runny, perhaps because of the heat here, and I ended up adding a lot of powdered sugar.

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My new favorite chocolate cake, with marshmallow frosting. In sheet form, less impressive than a layer cake, but just as delicious.

The chocolate cake was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Moist, rich, not cloyingly sweet. It’s from the Violet Bakery, and I found the recipe on the excellent blog 101 Cookbooks. I did the marshmallow frosting, too, which was just like a marshmallow cloud. Didn’t manage to pipe it, though, possible again because of the heat. This one is my new go-to recipe for chocolate cake.

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I forgot to take a photo until they were half eaten…

The Tollhouse cookies were the classic recipe, made in a sheet pan as bars to speed things up.

The nut bars are a tried-and-true success from “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” which is an oldie but goodie. Page 256. This cookbook gets constant use, even after decades. A few things seem very ’80s, but the vast majority is classic. And classy.

Here are the nut bars, called Pecan Squares, but, not wanting to take out a second mortgage to buy exotic pecans, I used walnuts, which are delicious.

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Ditto with the nut bars. People came up to me, still eating them, as if they were in a daze from having had a revelation, and asked for the recipe. All hail the Silver Palate.

The Silver Palate’s Pecan (or walnut) Squares

Crust:

2/3 cup powdered sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 pound butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease a 9×12 sheet pan (or grease and use parchment paper). Sift the sugar and flour together. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you get fine crumbs. Press into the pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Topping:

2/3 cup melted unsalted butter

1/2 cup honey

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 1/2 cups coarsely chopped nuts

Mix all the ingredients together and drop in dollops onto the crust, spreading it out evenly.

Return to the oven and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes (better to set your timer for less and pull it out when it’s brown and bubbly and not when it’s burned!).

I cut everything into bite-sized squares because plenty of people wanted one of everything, and they could always come back for seconds. Or thirds.

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The very dark chocolate cake was gorgeous against the very white marshmallow frosting.

This was not a hugely expensive party to throw, considering how many people we had. Nor was it hugely complicated. The hamburgers themselves involved 9 kilograms (almost 20 pounds) of ground beef, with about 20 eggs, a cup of soy sauce, a cup of Worcestershire sauce and 2 cups of bread crumbs (the eggs and bread crumbs keep them from breaking up). This made about 85 hamburgers.

The best bet is to make the burgers a day or two ahead, and to have three dozen or so in a big container and then to have the rest in a couple of smaller containers. The big container gets cooked first, because everybody will fall on them as fast as they come off the grill as if they hadn’t eaten for a week. The others can stay in the fridge until needed, and, if there are leftovers, you can put them in freezer bags, all ready for a future cookout.

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Prepping the serving table. Dessert-size china plates are an easy size to hold.

We had everything ready the day before, and the day of, we just had put out the paper “tablecloths” and cushions and the plates (real china dessert plates that have been well-amortized over 20-some years) and silverware (Ikea, again, well worth the investment from 20 years ago). Then we all put our feet up and relaxed for about an hour before guests arrived. Which is as it should be.

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A mini-fridge with beer. Note the hanging bottle opener (decapsuleur) and the container for bottle caps. A crate for empty bottles was under the table holding the cooler.

Do you throw big parties? Tell all! If not, what’s holding you back?

Driving in France

Peewee Herman signIt’s entirely possible to vacation in France without a car. High-speed trains connect the big cities as fast as planes, and even the slower trains are faster than going by car. And inside any big city, a car is more of a hassle than anything—parking is nigh impossible.

A car is useful only if you want to get out into the countryside, for example, to go from village to village, or to get out into the garrigue. Even if you plan to bike, it’s important to know the rules of the road, which aren’t at all like in the U.S.

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Priority to the car on the right. Be careful!

Possibly the most important, or the thing the least like the U.S. is priorité à droite. When in doubt, priority is to the car on the right. There are no four-way stops. A triangular sign (point up), bordered in red, with a black X means at the next intersection, you have to stop for any cars coming from the right. Look out; sometimes the next intersection is with an alley you barely see, and the locals will plow right into you because they know they have the right of way. In case of an accident, fault is easy to determine—the car dented on its right side is wrong.

White line for stop
This intersection has both a stop line and a stop sign…rare.

The French hate stop signs. Instead, they paint a heavy white line at intersections where you are supposed to stop. So you have to watch the pavement as well as the signs.

A dashed line across the road means yield. (Actually, they often interpret it as ‘I see a car coming, so I’m gunning it to cut in front.’ So you’ll probably have to slam on the brakes a lot.) It can be a dashed line instead of a solid stop line like above, which basically means you can do a rolling stop. Or it can be where you merge into traffic.

prepare to stop passing
Arrows mean the passing lane is near the end.

As in the U.S., a dashed center line means you can pass and a solid line means no passing. Sometimes, they have a solid line where there is a long sight line, just because the road curves a bit. And sometimes, they have a dashed line where you can’t see oncoming cars. Lesson: just because it’s a dashed line, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pass. And beware of passing stuff like tractors and bikes where there’s a solid line because you can get a ticket if a cop sees you. Also: they put curved arrows when the dotted lines are about to end, meaning it’s too late to start to pass.

Speaking of cops, they rarely pull you over. Instead, they sit in their cars or hide in the bushes with radars that take a picture of you speeding by. The picture is mailed to you (or to the car rental place, which will then just bill your credit card). No sweet-talking your way out of it. With special binoculars, they can get you from over a kilometer away. They do have traffic stops, where they check every car or every fourth car or whatever, to check for drunk drivers. They are strict: the limit is 0.5, which is about one glass of wine. When you go to wine country, you’re going to need a designated driver (called le capitain). The French are very sharp at spying cops in hiding and will flash their headlights when there’s a speed trap or traffic stop ahead (or for other reasons, like an accident, or a mess on the road—whatever the reason, it’s best to slow down).

There are radar signs on the highways, which indicate a fixed radar lurks ahead. They, too, take pictures of speeders.

Speed limits, unless indicated otherwise are (in kilometers per hour):

50 in towns of any size—as soon as you get to the sign that marks the town limit, you have to slow down to 50. Watch out, because there could be signs limiting the speed further, like to 30.

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Leaving the city limit (it’s not a “no Carassonne” sign)

80 out of town on any road (tiny track between vineyards, county road, national highway). Sometimes the speed will be limited to 70, but that will be indicated with a sign. Beware: the speed limit changed July 1 to 80 kph from 90.

110 where indicated on national highways that have two lanes in each direction, divided by a median (just because you have two lanes doesn’t automatically mean you can go faster).

130 on autoroutes, except when it’s raining and then it’s 110 (and yes, they do check).

A triangular road sign with a heavy black arrow, intersected by a thinner line means a crossroads is ahead.

A diamond-shaped yellow sign bordered in white means you have priority. Same sign with a black line through it means you no longer have priority (so look out for the black X or the arrow with a line through it, which warns you of intersections where you don’t have priority…but they don’t always mark these intersections).

A circular sign bordered in red with a white center means cars aren’t allowed. Not the same as a do not enter sign, where you would simply be going the wrong way on a one-way street.

A triangular sign with three curving arrows making a circle means slow down for a roundabout ahead.

Céder le passage = yield. Usually with a triangular sign, white bordered in red, with the point down.

A sign with a red circle and a red car on the left and a black car on the right means no passing.

A blue sign with arrows pointing up and down, with one in black (or white) and the other in white (or red) means the road is narrow and the car in the direction of the bigger arrow has right of way.

A round sign with a blue center and a red border with a red line through it means no parking. The sign on the right, above, means you need one of those little hour-cards that you can buy at a bureau de tabac. You set the time you arrived. Same sign with an X means no stopping.

A round sign with a black line through means end of something. A sign like that with the number 70, for example, means end of the 70 kph speed zone, i.e., 80 kph.

A square blue sign with a P means parking. If it has a little meter in the corner, it means you have to find the meter (someplace on the street, it might be two blocks away) and pay and put the ticket on your dashboard so the meter readers can see it.

A square blue sign with a kind of a T, where the T is in red, means dead end.Traffic circle ahead

Signs for highways with the city names on green backgrounds mean they are free highways.

The same kinds of signs with blue backgrounds mean tollroads.

The same town signs on white background mean departmental roads.

Roads are numbered like this:

D123 (I’m making up numbers here) with yellow background means a departmental road. Like a county road. Small, lots of stops. Usually, the bigger the number the smaller the road.

N123 with a red background is a national highway. Can be 1, 2 or 3 digits.

A12 with a red background is an autoroute, usually toll, but some stretches may be free. (1 or 2 digits)

E3 with a red background is a European highway. This just means you can follow the same road across borders and perhaps not get lost because the national numbering systems aren’t the same. (1 or 2 digits)

Sortie means exit. The exit signs are an oval with the autoroute sign (two parallel lines converging in perspective) and a little arrow coming out of the right line, along with the number of the exit.

A kind of double white X on a blue background, with the points of the X connected to each other by curved lines, means a junction of two autoroutes.

At the tollbooths, do not go in the ones marked with a T (usually an orange T). Those are for people who have the RFID tags, like EZ Pass. A blue or white sign that says CB means credit cards (Cartes Bancaires). A green sign, usually with a kind of outline of a person in profile leaning out a window, or with a bunch of circles (for coins), means you can pay in cash, to an attendant.

A curved arrow painted on the ground means merge in the direction of the arrow. So if you’re getting onto the highway, it’ll point to the left, meaning the entry ramp is ending and you need to move over. Or if three lanes turn into two, it’ll point to the right, meaning the left lane is about to disappear. Sometimes these turn up where there’s road construction.

Aire = rest stop. Watch out: some have gas/food and some are just with toilets and picnic tables. They are marked.

Vehicles exiting
I love those exclamation points.

Péage = toll.

Rocade = peripherique = ring road that goes around the town.

Sortie de camions = truck exit/entrance (caution for slow trucks)

Piétons = pedestrians

Attention! Nids de poules en formation = beware! Hens’ nests (potholes) forming. This is on the road to Carcassonne and I giggle every time I see it. The road has been repaved and now is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but the sign remains.

My favorite, though, is the top sign, which reminds me of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure,” where PeeWee is in the truck with Large Marge.

I just don’t have time today to write. This is a repost of one of my earliest entries, updated with the new speed limit. I hope it’s useful.

I am up to my ears in baking. We are having a gigantic party this weekend. I’ll give the rundown next week. This is not the moment to bake–it’s the canicule–heat wave, and yes, related to canine, but it’s because of a constellation, Big Dog, whose brightest star, Sirius, rises and sets with the sun during the hottest part of the year). We have mostly been spared–highs around 34 Celsius, or 93 Fahrenheit, but that’s hot enough when you don’t have air conditioning.

Any driving tips to add? Questions? How are you dealing with the heat? Bon weekend!

Sales Season in France

IMG_5755The French soldes or sales come twice a year–in July and January. They’re the moment when retailers mark down old inventory to move it and make way for the nouvelles collections. Store-wide sales aren’t allowed outside the designated periods, though retailers can offer promos or promotions at will on a few items, kind of like loss leaders. P1100471This summer’s soldes started June 27–it’s always on a Wednesday, probably linked to the fact that school is in session only half the day on Wednesdays (and classes continue until the early days of July, so yes, it matters). They will be over August 7. For some reason, two departments (Alpes-Maritimes and Pyrénées-Orientales)  have soldes from July 4 to August 14.

Usually the soldes run for six weeks, but the government wants to shorten it to four, starting with the next winter soldes. (The winter soldes start the second Wednesday of January, unless that would be after Jan. 12, in which case they start on the first Wednesday.) IMG_5756The idea is that retailers get tired of having soldes for so long and that merchandise gets picked over quickly, leaving the dregs to lie about for too long. Shorter soldes would create more urgency.

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Third markdown…

Each week of the soldes, retailers cut prices further. They start off with a tease, with most stuff marked to 20% or 30% off, then up to 40% or 50%, and finally toward 70% and more.

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Fourth markdown.

I operate on the coup de coeur strategy for the soldes. If you really like something, it’s dangerous to wait for it to be marked down–your size or favorite color might be gone. If you have broad parameters, like “jeans,” or “shoes” then you might find something that tickles your fancy and doesn’t pinch your pocketbook. Some of the best deals are in small boutiques, which want to clear the racks for new items and which might not have a good system to get rid of remainders. The soldes also apply to other retailers, like electronics or appliances.

I did the soldes in Toulouse recently. Even though we brought water bottles, I started to feel overheated after a few hours of beating the pavement. We had waited out the first couple of weeks, not so much out of strategy than out of scheduling, but it was just as well, because by afternoon there were long lines for changing rooms.

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The main shopping drag in Carcassonne with its pretty parasols that cast such lovely, soft shade.

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The parasols of Carcassonne…the opposite of the Parapluies (umbrellas) of Cherbourg (culture tip: that’s the name of the 1964 movie that was Catherine Deneuve’s first big role).

I do have two coping strategies: Go early, as soon as the doors open. This applies to museums and other tourist sights, as well. Everybody says they’re going to get an early start, then they roll out the door around 10 or 11 and it’s almost lunch and so why not just wait until after eating. In fact, lunch time is the other strategy–it’s sacred in France, so if you go against the flow (when you want to get something done, otherwise, by all means, adopt the leisurely lunch!) you can avoid the crowds. P1100470Wishing you short lines and beaucoup de bonnes affaires!