Summertime…

Despite the pause, I have been thinking of you. It is slow and frustrating to type with one hand. I usually go very, very fast. Do they still teach typing in school? They don’t in France. It’s crazy, because typing is so much more important today than it was in the 1970s. I see young professionals hunting and pecking with two fingers and think, WTF. I took typing in summer school, not wanting to waste an entire precious year on it, and indeed two months was enough to learn to touch type. Speed comes with practice.

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Naïve

cat windowWe’re all naïve. All 7.8 billion of us. In more ways than one.

I saw the word used technically, to describe humans in the face of the new coronavirus. Because the virus is new, none of us had ever had it before, and so we are “naïve.” It’s the perfect word in other ways, too.

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Per usual, random photos I’ve recently taken on my exercise outings because I don’t have relevant coronavirus illustrations.

Like many people in February and early March, I thought it was a lot of hubbub about nothing. Cover your coughs, wash your hands, not that bad unless you’re old and sick with something else. Remembering SARS, which came with so many gloomy warnings, and which sounded so scary. It was deadlier than Covid-19. People caught it from the plumbing in their apartments. Way worse than being near somebody coughing–you can at least step away from such people, but to catch a deadly disease while sleeping in your own bed? SARS was under control fairly quickly, and no vaccine or treatment was ever found…. Thinking it would always be so efficient to control pandemics was naïve.2cvA microscopic string of RNA has changed everybody’s lives. Not just today, under various lockdowns, confinements, remote learning/working, etc. It is going to haunt us for a long time. Perhaps forever.bare branchThere will not be a switch that flips us back to Before, to some date in November 2019 or so (probably earlier), when the threat hadn’t yet crossed over into humans. When the world economy was humming. When the future looked, if not bright, then as a glass somewhat more full than empty.streamAs far as the future goes, we are still naïve, in the other sense of the word, of lacking experience or understanding. We don’t know for sure whether people who were infected will be immune for life, or whether it will be like colds (also caused by coronaviruses, different ones) that we get over and over. We don’t know the long-term effects. We don’t have a cure or even a treatment besides oxygen. We don’t have a vaccine.vines 3I wondered about the 1918-1919 influenza. I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, which I figured was both close enough to the event for the pandemic to still be remembered as a big deal and distant enough to have some perspective. Indeed, the entry covers almost two full pages. It mentions the previous influenza outbreak of 1890–which was only 39 years earlier itself; of course there were still people around who had lived through that. Interestingly, a decade after the “Spanish flu” pandemic, the cause was still in dispute–was it bacterial or viral?

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The name at the bottom, Marie-Cecile, lived from 1906-1918, and seems likely to have been an influenza victim–a young woman who died in 1918 probably wasn’t killed in battle.

Now experts say that influenza not only was viral but that it was a kind of H1N1 virus, like the kind that broke out in 2009. It hit in three waves: the first was relatively mild, the second very deadly, and the third was similar to the first.

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Now blooming. The corn poppy is a symbol of World War I. 

“Frequently the lungs became severaly affected and the patient passed into a state of anoxaemia recalling that due to exposure to the ‘pulmonary irritants’ of gas warfare.”blooms whiteThe 1890 outbreak, which also actually had three waves between 1889-1892, is described in detail as well:

“The invasion is sudden; the patients can generally tell the time when they developed the disease; e.g., acute pains in the back and loins came on quite suddenly while they were at work or walking in the street, or in the case of a medical student, while playing cards, rendering him unable to continue the game. A workman wheeling a barrow had to put it down and leave it; and an omnibus driver was unable to pull up his horses. This sudden onset is often accompanied by vertigo and nausea, and sometimes actual vomiting of bilious matter. There are pains in the limbs and general sense of aching all over; frontal headache of special severity; pains in the eyeballs, increased by the slightest movement of the eyes; shivering; general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits, many patients, both men and women, giving way to weeping; nervous restlessness; inability to sleep, and occasionally delirium. In some cases catarrhal symptoms develop, such as running at the eyes, which are sometimes infected on the second day; sneezing nd sore throat; and epistaxis, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, tonsilitis and spitting of bright blood from the pharynx may occur. There is a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night. There is often tenderness of the spleen, which is almost always found enlarged, and this persists after the acute symptoms have passed. The temperature is high at the onset of the disease. In the first twenty-four hours its range is from 100 F in mild cases to 105 F in severe cases.”

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1892…a link to the third wave of that pandemic?

It also said that, in the 1890 outbreak, stress around the pandemic caused a 25% increase in suicides in Paris.iris carrefourThe Covid-19 virus’s complete genome was sequenced and put online in mid-January. And yet there’s much we don’t know. It might seem as if experts are changing their minds, or that they don’t know what they’re doing, but in fact they are honing and updating information as it becomes available.

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Do you see the château?

France is supposed to gradually reopen as of May 11. It already is happening, though. I see more cars on the road. Businesses that had been closed have found an excuse to reopen. One change is that almost everybody is wearing a mask now, even while driving alone in their car. Maybe they don’t want to touch it?

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Clever.

I was going to our mairie, or town hall, to get recycling bags the other day, mask in hand, because usually I would see nobody out in the village. However, lots of people were out, going to the bakery, to the little grocery, for walks. I saw a friend sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house, and she was talking to a little old lady who was out for her constitutional. I’d met this lady many times, including on a run in winter where she responded to my bonjour with “bonjour, j’ai 89 ans” (hello, I’m 89 years old). My friend asked her whether she had a mask and she said no, she didn’t know where to get one in the village and had no way to go out of the village. How old are you, my friend asked. “Ninety,” she answered, adding, “in July,” which she pronounced as “juillette,” adding many rolls of the tongue in an especially heavy local accent. I handed her my homemade mask (I was still holding it–we were talking–shouting at top volume–from a distance of at least three meters from each other). She was thrilled. I can make more. My friend, a retired nurse, instructed her on cleaning of the mask. orchidSo I ran back home to get another mask and go back to the mairie. A sign on the door said it was closed and that if villagers needed anything they were to call. So I called. They told me to come and ring and they would hand the recycling bags through the window. “Oh, you’re outside now,” the secretary exclaimed. A window opened a crack and the roll of yellow bags emerged–not even a fingertip of the person inside was evident. I hollered merci as I grabbed the roll. The window shut the the instant the roll passed through.poppies 1The Saturday market reopened. It is far superior to shopping at the supermarket, as always for quality and price but also for hygiene. The central square is barricaded, with a single entrance and exit, and a table with sanitizer at each. And police, who were neither wearing masks nor social distancing as they shot the breeze. There were just a few vendors, but they included the family of vegetable farmers, the goat cheese guy (who rocked a gorgeous tie-dye mask), and the local apple grower. A ribbon separated shoppers from the produce. We waited in line, spaced by tape on the marble, and the vendors served us, so there was nobody else handling the produce. Almost everybody had a mask except for the oldest shoppers. I was among the youngest, so that tells you how skewed the demographic is at the market.vinesIt was very sad, though, to see all the cafés closed, their terrace tables stacked up under tarps. I wondered whether this was what it was like during the war, when people ventured out to stand in line to buy food. It was sad, too, to see the other shops, mostly for clothes and jewelry and such, closed but in a way that felt like “Sleeping Beauty”–as if they were about to fling open their doors but were frozen in mid-step.

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Look at all those chickens!

I wonder about life afterward. Will people be afraid to take the bus or métro, and flood the streets with individual cars? Or will they feel the same way and commute by bike? Will people be afraid of being cooped up in a small space and move to suburbs, eating up more and more of the precious farmland that needs to feed more and more people? Or cutting down the little wild nature that is left, so they can have their individual houses with yards that function like private parks, like buffers from neighbors, full of grass that needs watering and mowing and that they almost never spend time in? Or will people who are hearing birds for the first time realize that it’s important to preserve and even enlarge the space for nature?

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Tiny petals everywhere, like confetti.

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Confetti for our post-confinement party?

How are you holding up? vines 2

On the Bright Side of Life

IMG_5409The other night at dinner, I told my husband about something, and he informed me I had told him the same thing just the day before. Of course, it isn’t as if he has anything new to tell me, either. Just like everybody else in the world, stuck at home. Well, no–the lucky ones are stuck at home while the brave continue to keep the world moving forward, so we still have electricity and running water and enough food. Which is more than about a billion people had on a pre-Covid-19 good day.IMG_5337IMG_5360The top photo translates to “underwater bridge,” which seems to negate the very point of a bridge. Actually, it’s a culvert that usually is above the stream, except for when you REALLY need it. Somehow, the concept of an underwater bridge seems appropriate right now. The title reflects my gallows humor at the moment: the song from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”IMG_5345IMG_5348Are you also losing track of the days? It isn’t even as if I thought it was Thursday or Saturday; I had no idea at all. What does one do on Fridays? I don’t remember. Oh, yeah–the recycling goes out. Otherwise, all the things that made one day different from the next have evaporated, and now each day is nebulous–a shape-shifting fog. IMG_5441We are trying our best to eat well. Homemade pizza. Squash risotto with sautéed zucchini. Crispy tofu with mushrooms, peppers and avocado. Our avocados were still too hard to make into a guacamole, so I added some tahini-miso sauce (a tablespoon of tahini, another of miso, another of honey, another of sesame oil and two of olive oil). IMG_5426The key to the tofu dish is to cook things separately but to reuse the same pan. First the mushrooms. We like to get them very brown and borderline crispy. To do that, let them steam off the moisture before you try to stir them. They went into a bowl, a tiny bit of olive oil was added, then the peppers and onions were cooked until softened. Into a bowl, more oil and the tofu was cooked.IMG_5430IMG_5437To get tofu crispy, pat it dry with paper towels. Cut it into pieces. Put some corn starch (maybe three teaspoons? I just eyeball what looks like it will coat the pieces) and curry powder and a little salt in a plastic container with a tight lid. Shake to mix. Add the tofu and shake to coat it. When you cook the tofu, make sure there’s enough oil or it won’t get crispy.IMG_5432IMG_5436IMG_5442The nice weather has lent itself to weed-pulling, but the other day (which day? who knows) I overcame my aversion to sewing and made us a stash of masks. I should make some more to give to, say, the couple who operate the village grocery, or the bakers at the boulangerie, who are keeping us all as comfortable as possible, considering. The next time it rains…IMG_5447It is crazy how quiet it is. It’s always quiet here, but wow. Birds. A rooster. A far-off dog. No cars. No planes. Yesterday there were a bunch of helicopters; probably the army training–there’s a very doomsday-looking area in the mountains that’s for training not far away. And on the weekends, the peal of gunshots as hunters go after boars. The season ended March 31, so it’s once again safe to go off the road and onto the backwoods paths. IMG_5331IMG_5347Speaking of which, long ago, I climbed the rock wall on the edge of some woods and realized, as I looked for a way to get back down, that the paths I was traipsing along were made by boars. That same woods now has a sign saying it’s going to be the site of a new solar farm. I am furious. Just across the F-ing road is a gigantic fallow field where vineyards were pulled out several years ago. It’s just sitting there, bare and basking in the sun. Why tear down a stand of trees? I’m sure it’s all about who was willing to sell the land. As much as I’m in favor of renewable energy and solar farms, it seems very counter-productive to tear down a pine forest. I also suspect that the new housing development just meters away plays into the calculation. People don’t take kindly to boars running through their yards. I’m on the side of the boars. “Development” is the euphemism for destruction. Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

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Doomed.

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Directly across the road.

By the way, have you heard about all the wild animals venturing into towns, now that everybody is in their houses? Pretty hilarious.

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Another vineyard that was pulled out has just been planted with trees.

Life under lockdown is about the same in the south of France as anyplace else. Boring! No–like others in the countryside, we have the benefit of being able to go outside without worrying about viral load. Stay safe and do share how you’re coping.IMG_5355IMG_5349

Treading Water in Utopia/Dystopia

IMG_5305Since Tuesday, when France closed almost everything, I have awoken to birdsong rather than rush-hour traffic. It’s quiet all day and even more so at night, except for the various animals that live in the woods along the nearby river–owls hooting and who knows what else. IMG_5303When the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the noise and air pollution suddenly absent, it feels like utopia. We putter around the house and yard, deep-cleaning everything. The piano moved and its backside vacuumed, something I tend to do only when the tuner is about to come. Weeds pulled. More weeds pulled. A Sisyphean task.

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Weeds, wildflowers…depends where they are.

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Same color combo, in an old stone abreuvoir, or water trough.

IMG_5241The dystopia isn’t far. Calls to friends, especially the ones who live alone. Everybody hunkered down. So many worries. The sun is shining brightly but there is a dark cloud menacing all of humanity.

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Promise.

This shutdown feels like everybody is treading water. A terrifying metaphor to me. I can’t swim. I hate water. Our pool is just shoulder-deep but I avoid it unless we’re in a canicule (heat wave). I can paddle its width but not its length. I can’t tread water.

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Not my house but one of the hideous new ones in a lotissement, or subdivision, blighting the countryside. Note the plank instead of steps from the back porch, yet the pool is filled. 

We went to the supermarket on Monday afternoon. It was strange. There were parking spaces but inside it was bustling. Everybody very intense. Canned goods, pasta, frozen vegetables mostly gone–just the fancy brands left. No baker’s yeast. Plenty of flour and sugar and butter. Disinfecting wipes all gone. Toilet paper aisle diminished but not empty. Promotions on fresh stuff like yogurt–they want to move it before it’s a loss? And huge lines to check out. We waited for close to an hour. Everybody a cart’s length apart. Nobody pushed. Nobody tried to cut the line (unusual). Everybody was patient, polite and quiet. Only a few shopping carts really piled high; most people seemed to get only what they need. Why do people buy bottled water? We are in a developed country with decent drinking water! My kid spotted somebody with two shopping carts. The exception. We gave some coins to the homeless man at the mall entrance for karma. How, where will he survive? Will he survive?

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We can go out, with a form, to exercise, but not in the park.

A quick run yesterday to the village grocery. Groceries remain open. The government doesn’t want people to freak out about food. I wanted to have food for two or three weeks in case I got sick; what would my family do? But we hadn’t gotten chocolate (most important for mental health), so I picked some up locally. Tape on the floor to keep people the required distance from the couple who operate the store. They seemed stressed. Unhappy. They don’t want to be heroes. They are young, and I hope they won’t get sick. Their mothers also tend the shop to give them a break; I suspect that will be stopped.

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Who needs a park? I saw nobody on my hourlong walks.

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I wish you could join me. It smells divine.

At first, like many, I thought the fears were overblown. Just stay home if you’re sick. Sick or not, wash your hands a lot. Lay off la bise. It’ll be fine. But I saw with my own eyes and heard from others tales of incredible selfishness and carelessness. People do not stay home if sick and they do not wash their hands.

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Another view of the Pyrénées, though not as clear as in the top photo.

One person counseled taking Tylenol before flying to evade fever detection–as if that individual’s desire to make a flight were more important than the health of the other hundred or four hundred people on the flight and the thousands working at the airport or passing through.

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Wild thyme in bloom.

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Rosemary in flower.

A doctor friend, in mask and gloves like all the medical office workers, had a patient who was coughing like mad. The doctor offered the patient a mask, and the patient refused! WTF! “I won’t be able to breathe with that. I just have bronchitis,” the patient protested. As if the doctor, or all the unmasked patients in the waiting room, didn’t mind getting bronchitis! Especially now! And this was not a doctor who treats things like bronchitis but a different kind of specialist.

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Orange poppies.

A person in delicate health had a visitor who had the flu (the regular, snotty-nosed kind). The visitor coughed constantly (phlegmy, not dry) without covering her mouth and never once washed her hands after blowing her nose. Luckily the person and all other household members had been vaccinated against the flu. I’d been lax about flu vaccinations in recent years but no more. We did get shots in November. It wasn’t covered, so I shelled out €10 apiece. Well worth it. I can’t wait to get the one for the coronavirus, as soon as it is developed.

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Sign of spring: local asparagus. The markets have been closed.

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Wild asparagus, left, and regular.

Vaccines work. I saw it firsthand when I lived in Africa. There was a mission run by Italian priests and Polish nuns that educated and trained kids who had been paralyzed by polio. The kids were amazing. They would play soccer, hauling themselves around the field like lightning despite being on crutches. They learned trades like shoe repair. I went back 15 years later with a colleague. We stayed at the fancy hotel I never could afford before, a base for mountain-climbing, which we were there to do. I asked the concierge about the mission. She said it was still there, but now just had kids with birth defects. “There’s no more polio,” she said (in a tone like “what kind of dinosaur is this chick?”). I broke down crying. The idea of no more polio was just so emotional. Vaccines work. We went to the mission and gave the nuns fistfuls of euros.

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For sound, see my Instagram.

A tangent: I also remember urging my friend to hurry up because it was getting late, and it would take a good 30-45 minutes to walk back to the village, then we’d have to walk along the fence of a wildlife refuge to the hotel. There were lions in the refuge. It would be dark in half an hour. But sunset on the equator is sudden, like a light switch, and at that instant the sun was blazing. My friend didn’t believe me, said I was overreacting. I said, LIONS. We hustled, but when a pickup came along, I waved it down frantically. The cab was full of people already, but the driver said we could ride in the back, with a bunch of sheep. My friend was not happy (me either; I keep my distance from animals). I made her get in. Even with the ride, it was so dark by the time we got to the final track to the hotel that we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Clearly we met no lions. That doesn’t mean I overreacted.

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The perfume of this hedge was delicious. Do you see the bee?

In 2009, I had to do research on pandemics. It was in a business context, about handling disruptions. It was just after SARS, at the time of the H1N1 flu, which hit children and pregnant women worst. There were vaccines, which helped rein it in, but as a result of that success many people said there was a needless panic. Here is what one expert, a globally recognized epidemiologist, told me:IMG_5250“In last 30-40 years there is a gathering and grave concern that the same antecedent causes that created climate change and historic droughts and famines are all caused by same conditions and a new group of viruses, especially pandemic viruses, have begun to emerge. Too many people are behaving unconsciously in the world. As we cut down green swaths of forest that separate animal and human habitats, we live in each others’ microclimate. So diseases that once could find that quiet reservoir now jump from animals to humans with increased rapidity.”IMG_5269He also said: “There is an increasing risk of unknown or barely known diseases emerging, and we lack people who are trained, we lack surveillance reporting systems that are simple, cheap, easy and replicable.”That was in 2009. IMG_5271The experts knew this could–would–happen, but like Cassandra, they were ignored. Even a week ago, people here were pooh-poohing the situation. I spoke to someone in the U.S. just a few days ago who told me it’s a hoax, fake news propagated by libs, panic fueled by the media, nothing to worry about. IMG_5216The fact that so many Italians are dying is pretty much proof that this isn’t a liberal hoax. The speed with which things are changing gives me whiplash.

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Spring is a good metaphor for rapid change. One tree pops out, while another remains bare.

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More leaf out, nearly overnight.

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The new leaves’ color contrasts with the dark pines. By summer everything will be dark green, even brown.

Before all this, I realized I needed to apply for French citizenship. I’ve been saying it for about four years, but I didn’t actually do it. It was like living happily in a couple without being married and suddenly seeing the benefit of tying the knot. So I ordered all the birth certificates and such and took the French test. I knew I would pass; my worry was making stupid errors as someone who touch-types on a QWERTY keyboard having to use an AZERTY keyboard where the keys are in the “wrong” place. One needed 43% correct to pass. My average was 562 out of 699, or 80%. I got 95% on written comprehension and 92% on oral comprehension–better than I expected–and 64% (!!! possibly the lowest grade of my life, physical education aside) on written expression and 70% on oral expression–both humbling. The written test was an essay for or against mobile phones. I needed to use French expressions but couldn’t think of any that were relevant. Anyway, I passed. I wonder about another test taker, a young man, about 20, who grew up in a village in Morocco and who moved to Carcassonne when he was in 6th grade. I asked which schools he’d attended and he looked at the floor and said he never went to school here, that he had to work to support his family. Clearly his French was fine, but would he manage to write a well-organized essay, not having finished school? He showed up two hours early for his test (we had staggered times). I hope he passed with flying colors. If I had a business, I would want to hire him. Two hours early!IMG_5300Anyway, I got my results on Wednesday and spent all day Friday tying up the last bits of my dossier. I just needed to request an attestation from the income tax department. The notary was mailing an attestation saying we own our house. And today, very bad news: all the post offices are closed and mail is suspended. That means I can’t get my attestations, which must be originals, no scans or printouts. I also can’t buy the certified mail envelopes I need to enclose with the dossier, not even online–no delivery. Nor can I send anything. I have until the end of April, otherwise my documents will be more than three months old and I’ll have to re-order them all (and the UPS delivery cost a small fortune).  I’ll also have to re-take the French test, but you have to wait six months between tests. Maybe they’ll make exceptions, and allow for more time. I was so proud of my dossier, too, in an expanding folder with labeled tabs, each with checklists of the documents for that section, in the order specified by the government.

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These branches looked like necklaces IRL.

I can start the dossier over again if need be. There are other, bigger worries that are out of my hands, that will arrive inexorably, virus or not. It is not the time or place to dwell on those.

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Last summer’s blackberries, still hanging on. Where will we be when this year’s crop is ripe in August? 

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The same for this fig tree. My heart is breaking.

The uncertainty about the future feels like the days after Sept. 11, when it seemed like the world was ending. In fact, the world as we knew it did end. Things didn’t get better; other tragedies followed. But ensuing airport security aside, many people weren’t affected by Sept. 11. This coronavirus is going to affect every single human. IMG_5263

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Delicate wild orchids.

Be smart. Stay home. China stopped the virus through draconian, authoritarian, dystopian measures; if people in democracies continue to fail to stay home voluntarily, draconian measures might follow. Don’t let us get there. Do something positive with this time. A hobby. Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French equivalent of Craigslist, has a campaign right now (because buying stuff on it is impossible at the moment–social distancing!): le bon geste (the Good Gesture), where you can put up offers or requests for things like help with homework via Skype, picking up groceries for someone, dog walking, etc. At the very least, make a list of the people you know who live alone or who are elderly and call them regularly. Send them photos, if they have a phone or computer.

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Frog or toad? Susan, your call! (Everybody should check out her blog, Days on the Claise.)

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Not far from this interesting puddle. What is going on here?

We have to stay out of the way of the health-care system until a treatment and/or vaccine is found. Going out is just selfish.IMG_5266Your coronavirus stories welcome in the comments.IMG_5265

 

 

It Can’t Possibly Be November

IMG_4120Yesterday I crossed paths with the cutest fairy–I was horrified later to realize she was a fairy, having incorrectly called her a butterfly–with irridescent rainbow wings and matching skirt. Even her face had been painted with colorful swirls. She came up to my knees, which is not much at all.

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The stones in this wall looked a bit like teeth in a Halloween skull.

We were crossing the street, the fairy clinging to the hand of her mother. The sun was shining, despite the storm clouds. Just as the light changed, the skies opened in a kind of localized ice-bucket challenge. I was soaked to the skin before I had made it across the two lanes. Preoccupied with dodging the drops, I didn’t see how the fairy fared.stream in autumnIMG_4133 2P1060202That was about the extent of Halloween for us. We don’t get trick or treaters, especially since our kid is too big for such things. What I do see all over is Christmas. No! It’s still warm out! Until the rain arrived, even a light sweater was too much during the day. Of course, the rain is welcome; it’s what turns the countryside a brilliant green in winter. IMG_4134IMG_4129IMG_4123The vineyards are only starting to change color, not yet reaching their vivid peak. Flowers are blooming, especially wildflowers in the garrigue. As I made my way through a wooded area on my walk/run route, I heard a very loud buzzing. It sounded like what some poor idiot hears right before they stumble on the decaying body of a murder victim in a horror film. So it was with great relief that I realized the buzzing was bees, working a flowering vine that had taken over a dead tree. I put a short clip on Instagram. Unfortunately, I can’t electronically share the lovely perfume of the flowers.IMG_4127IMG_413002.NOVEMBER 11 - 05My new route takes me along the edge of the garrigue, that magical wilderness that smells of pine and herbs. I wear an orange cap I bought in the hunting aisle at the sporting goods store and fluorescent pink windbreaker to let hunters know I’m not a boar (maybe a bore, and at times a pig, especially around chocolate, but never, ever a boar). It only later occurred to me that the more dangerous encounter might be with an actual boar. I decided to sing to ward them off. It’s the perfect place–not a soul.

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Guess who!

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A stone wall in the middle of nowhere.

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The vegetation in the foreground is mostly wild thyme.

Sadly, that is changing. I see fields where vineyards have been pulled out, marked off for new housing construction. The centers of villages and towns empty out as people want freestanding houses with yards, encroaching on nature and transforming the landscape in ways that will be hard to turn back. The newcomers do not appreciate chance encounters with wild boars, either.

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An even bigger wall in the middle of nowhere, on the border between the wild of the garrigue and the last field.

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You can see how enormous the wall is here, where it’s falling down. Three or four feet wide. Undoubtedly built by hand, very long ago.

Today is a holiday–All Saint’s Day–and I’m contemplating how to spend it. Probably raking up the golden leaves, which fall faster than I can pick them up. Gardening is a Sisyphean task.IMG_4137IMG_4124IMG_411402.NOVEMBER 11 - 04What are you up to? Ready for winter? Or is it already winter where you live?05.FEBRUARY 12 - 49P1060011

 

French Style Fails

IMG_3020Not everything is exquisite good taste over here in the land of butter and croissants. We have soul-less subdivisions with idiotic names and no trees. We have strip malls and mall-malls (though definitely inferior….watching “Stranger Things” made me nostalgic for the mall as social center; though our centre-villes are better than most downtowns). Instead of velvet Elvises, there are velvet Johnny Hallydays.

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That’s a turret on that house, which was probably built in the last decade or two. No comment about the metal work on the gate.

Worst of all, we have McMansions. There is a wonderful blog, McMansion Hell, which dissects all that is wrong about the genre.

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Prison or home?

Tear-downs are a new phenomenon. Many a gorgeous château is the result of hundreds of years of additions and renovations. The mixed styles create an endearing eccentricity about these rambling stone heaps with willy-nilly towers. It is quite a different thing to start with a blank slate and do a wide-ranging pastiche all at once. It’s the architectural equivalent of canned laughter, silicone boobs, Viagra. Fake, fake fake.

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How many finials are too many?

I also have to say that I have seen more than my share of hideous interior décor. These people clearly are not reading the plentiful blogs about French style. In fact, they have rejected French style for something amorphously modern, but not TOO modern, for goodness sake. Instead, it’s a bastard of modern (aka 1970s/1980s) with the contemporaneous interpretation of traditional. The result is furniture that is both ugly and uncomfortable, a simultaneous assault to the eyes and to the spine.

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House on steroids. The definition of “butt-ugly.” Not from these parts but farther north, where, on a walk, all I could think of was, OMG everything here is H.I.D.E.O.U.S.

Take, for example, the home of a couple we know. Her: extremely short hair because it’s less work; had Groucho Marx eyebrows until her daughter’s wedding when they were plucked and she is thank goodness keeping up with that; explained, the first time we met almost 20 years ago, that they had “just” stripped the wallpaper (and neither new wallpaper nor paint was ever put up). She’s all about efficiency not aesthetics, function over form. Him: cocky; retired from a sinecure but likes to brag about his business acumen, which consists of inheriting money from his father-in-law; always on the lookout for a fight (of the fist variety, not the sharp words kind); brags about having finagled great deals, through under-the-table clever negotiations, but always pays way too much. Sound like anybody you can think of?

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House on…antidepressants?  Is there anything kind one can say? I fear there is not. And WTF is on the ventilation grate?

They bought a house for retirement that was twice as big as the house they had raised a family in. It’s in a subdivision outside of town, where one must take a car to get anything. Not a single shop. It’s near where a big forest fire ravaged the pines last month. Where houses don’t belong.

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Where no man has gone before.

This house, which was a “great” bargain, has some peculiarities. There’s a three-centimeter (2-inch) step just after you enter, swinging in a half-circle along with the front door. That’s because the builders miscalculated the interior floor. (First tip that this is a bad house!!!!) The steps to the second floor have risers that are about 30 centimeters (12 inches). I found it hard to climb them, and I’m pretty fit. Yet, even though I’m very short, I had to duck not to hit my head going up/down because the stairwell was too small.

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Nightmare.

But hey, the house is HUGE.

They also bought it furnished, so I can blame multiple people for bad taste–the couple for thinking it was just fine and the original owners for having committed such furniture felonies in the first place. In the living area (open plan kitchen/dining/living), there’s a sofa and matching love seat, both with legs so high none of us could sit back and also have our feet on the floor. In pleather.

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The strip in the middle is the wall of the “new” city, built in the 1300s. The buildings that cuddle up to it on either side were built much (and on the right much, much) later.

The dining table has a similar design, with those big-based chairs/seats that you can’t scoot in once you sit and that are also too high to touch the floor. Maybe the original owners were giants? The current owners aren’t–he’s moderate height and she is even shorter than I am.

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Case in point: there was a big opening here at one time. Somebody closed it up, probably for good reason. But there’s still a door, with a cool arch above, and a window with adorable hearts in the shutters.

This is just one example, because I sometimes think everybody here has bought furniture from the same place. You can get antiques practically for free, and yet people go to big-box stores in a “zoning commercial” (how do I even describe that….it’s a part of town that’s full of strip malls and big-box stores….pure hell) and they choose the absolutely ugliest options available. I love antiques but I also love modern–le Corbusier, lots of Ligne Roset. It isn’t to judge modern vs. antiques. I guess the stuff I see is a downscale version. But why? Ikea does a good job of modern for cheap. Heck, I am a total cheapskate. But that’s why I love antiques. Plus the quality. You can’t beat it–solid wood, hand craftsmanship, no off-gassing.

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Not built in a day. The gray-roofed towers are more modern by a long shot, but date to the 13th century; the red-roofed tower is Roman, far older.

Anyway, I would not photograph examples of bad taste in people’s homes even though they don’t read the blog. And this post is more about homes as buildings, rather than their interior design. Usually I show you places that are achingly beautiful, worthy of being on postcards or calendars. Yes, there is much to celebrate in French taste, but not everybody has gotten the memo.

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Sprouting like mushrooms. Or cancer.

I love it all the same.

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But I don’t love this house. Windows? Why no windows?

Surely you have McMansion horror stories to share. Unload them!

End of Summer

IMG_3595The nights have been crisper, wonderful for sleeping. But it’s only today that it finally feels like fall. Some much-needed rain started during the night and is supposed to continue, gently and steadily, all day. I imagine the plants in the garden straightening up, as if they’re doing the sun salutation in yoga, raising their anthropomorphic faces to the sky and greeting the raindrops

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Croissants on the balcony of our AirBnB in Carcassonne.

The wine harvest has started, but it seems subdued compared to past years. Vast stretches of vineyards have been plowed under to become fields of wheat, sunflowers and other crops. Usually the mornings at this time of year would be heralded not by the neighboring rooster but by the growl of the big vendange machines, that look like monsters from a horror film.

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Winegrowers use tiny tractors to move between the rows of vines. I love that this museum piece is a Lamborghini. It used to be driven by an ancient winegrower who was bent over in half but who worked his vineyards daily.

Another reason we’re happy for the rain is that there have been a few fires. Every year, there are fires, but these seemed especially worrisome. One brought in 12 firefighting planes. I had only ever seen two flying over, en route between the fire and Lac de Saint-Ferréol, where they refill with water.IMG_3640IMG_3612One fire grew significantly between the time I first saw the smoke and when I was heading home later. I pulled over at a rare wide spot on the road. Other cars joined me. Everybody took pictures with our phones and ended up chatting for quite a while. It’s crazy how you can connect with people sometimes.

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Early evening.

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45 minutes later.

A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.

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Why do you need a windshield wiper on a window that you can’t see through?

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Ha ha–connerie is stupidity/nonsense/silly antics, so it says “general stupidity.” It originally was “maçonnerie general” or general masonry.

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At a wine and food tasting: Occitan relaxation and naps. Occitan is the old language and adjective for this region, where Languedoc comes from–oc is how people in these parts said yes.

The foods at the market are changing. Soon the peaches and nectarines will turn mealy and we’ll have to give up on them. But happily there are already apples. Still lots of tomatoes and I have been given orders to make sauce. IMG_1881If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…IMG_3499

More Minerve

IMG_3337As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.IMG_3395The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve.IMG_3373 What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.

Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?

Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.IMG_3387IMG_3359IMG_3357The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.IMG_3363

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The very porous local limestone.

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You can see the waves that water left in the sand.

Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.

I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.IMG_3364Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.

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It looks too low to walk through, eh?

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Mais non! It’s plenty high.

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View from the other side.

But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.

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This is called the Poterne Sud, the southern gate to the town.

And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. IMG_3378We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.IMG_3380IMG_3342IMG_3350IMG_3352

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This was ridden by a man as old as the scooter.

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Utterly Adorable Minerve

IMG_3282There are cute French villages and then there are REALLY CUTE French villages. Minerve is in the superlative category. Officially so: it’s on the list of les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful French Villages). I know I just said I was a city girl, but I do love places like this.IMG_3330It has been a while since we’ve visited. Though it’s been on the to-do list for all of my recent visitors, we just never had the time for the 45-minute drive from Carcassonne. What a mistake. The drive is gorgeous. And the village…well, these photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in August. Peak tourist. Yet you can see for yourself that Minerve was quiet. A secret. Now you know. Share wisely.IMG_3328The town is built at the confluence of the Cesse and Brian rivers. About 50 million years ago, the entire area was the bottom of a warm-water sea, as evidenced by the fossils in the limestone. The rivers carved deep gorges, which form a comma-shaped peninsula, kind of. Natural fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age.

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Aerial view.

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The work of water.

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It reminds me of Gaudí’s Casa Milà, aka la Pedrera, in Barcelona.

The Romans came along, too. The town appeared officially in writing around 873. Old. Stuff like that just boggles my mind. Obviously places fell down and were built over, but probably some of the same stones were used. And today those houses are still there, and they have Internet.IMG_3331

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The side of one street.

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Right across from the preceding photo. Traffic is not a problem in Minerve.

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What IS a problem: wise guys tossing rocks into the gorges. People hike down there. It is “Forbidden to throw rocks.” Clearly an age-old challenge.

There’s a charming bookstore and lots of artists’ shops and studios and many places to eat and drink. There are about 130 residents, down considerably from the boom years of the mid-1800s, when there were about 400. It’s clearly not an easy place to live. Imagine hauling your groceries–or worse, a new piece of furniture–down these “streets.” But vacationers provide some animation. Just enough to keep the place alive, without overrunning it. IMG_3326IMG_3316The rivers lie far below, bone dry at this time of year, but prone to flashes of rage. At least the town is high and dry.IMG_3336

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Can you imagine having to replace the tiles on that roof on the right? With a plunge I don’t know how far down but many times more than the house itself.

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Imagine how that bridge was built, before mechanical aide.

The Candela is all that remains of the viscount’s castle, which was built at the end of the 13th century. There once was a drawbridge nearby. The castle was dismantled in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wonder why.IMG_3305IMG_3298IMG_3294The church was closed, but the exterior was fascinating.IMG_3320IMG_3319

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Anything goes. N’importe quoi.

I took so many photos, I’m going to do another post. Come back for more on Friday.

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La mairie, or town hall.

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Residents of Minerve are called Minervois, which is also the name of this wine region. Very good wine!

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Country Mouse or City Mouse

IMG_3568In the south of France, people are laid back, things move slowly, we take the time to savor life, and that includes two hours (minimum) in the middle of the day for lunch and nap. It all seems idyllic, until it isn’t.

We woke up on Thursday morning with no Internet, no fixed phone service and no mobile phone service. Things were a bit like when la Cité of Carcassonne, pictured above, was built back in the Middle Ages.

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Can you see it on the hill?

It turns out that a telephone substation in another village caught on fire. This station serves 33 villages, including ours, across a surprisingly wide area. Who knows when it will be fixed. (1) It’s still August. You can’t do anything until after la rentrée (the re-entry) on Monday, Sept. 2. And even then, people are coming back from vacation and need a good week to get back into the routine. (2) The phone company, Orange, is unfamiliar with the concept of customer service. They seem to have watched Lily Tomlin’s phone operator skits as guides. I shouldn’t dump too much on Orange; I cannot think of any phone company in any city or country where I’ve lived (and the list is long) that had good service. (3) We’re in the south, and nothing moves quickly, even  when it isn’t vacation. (4) The point that irks me the most is that it just affects some little villages, and thus isn’t important.

Sometimes–often–I hate living in the country. I love France, and I love living in France. But I regret not living in a city. I am 100% city mouse.

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Zooming in a little.

I remember one time we went to Barcelona for a weekend. We stood near the corner by El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store worth a post of its own one day, and looked at the wide street sloping down, completely full of people. I sighed with happiness; the Carnivore sighed with stress. Some of us cannot wait to jump into la foule (the crowd) and swim with the schools of humanity. I find my heart warming as I observe my fellow humans going about their business. Some are chic, some are eccentric. Children seem to be in a bubble of their own, never paying attention to where they’re going, quick to spot other children, or animals, or disgusting things on the sidewalk (they ARE closer, after all), while their parents struggle to herd them along. I wonder where everybody is going, what their lives are like. I want to chat with them all.

I was talking to somebody just recently about moving to France. I told her we moved here from New York and that it was hard. I cried and cried for months. Her eyes grew big, and she said something about culture shock. I assured her that I’m a lifelong francophile; the culture shock wasn’t about France, but about going from a major metropolis to a village a few hundred people.

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And more. Not my idea of skyscrapers, but definitely beautiful.

The closest Carcassonne comes to bustling is la Cité on summer afternoons and the market in the central square on Saturday mornings. Even then, it’s a dialed-down version. There’s a certain convenience to life without crowds. Parking is easy. Lines for anything are rare. People are friendly.

I try to appreciate the good side. It’s essential for survival. The rolling hills of vineyards, giving way to the mountains, are exquisite. This blog has made me pay attention to all the beauty around me.

Thank you for reading. Who knows whether we will have Internet next week. Maybe I will commute to Carcassonne for a connection. We’ll see. Meanwhile, tell me, are you a city mouse or a country mouse?IMG_3565