How to Live Like the French

P1070601I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.

They are lying to you.

The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.

What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. P1060893They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.

P1040987Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.

Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.

And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.

Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.

—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.

Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.

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Is this your idea of buying groceries?

—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.

—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms in fall or asparagus in spring in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions do work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.

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Taking time to smell the coffee.

At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.

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Antique Finds

P1080511Since the rentrée, the vide-grenier season has been in high gear. The mass garage sales are the excuse to visit a new village, to people-watch and above all, to find one-of-a-kind items for a song.P1080513This stand had an impressive collection of Ricard items. Ricard is a brand of pastis, an anise-flavored apéritif that’s very popular around here. It is clear and barely yellow but turns cloudy when water is added, and thus gets called un jaune–a yellow. Ricard brilliantly played on the name. The glasses have a line to show how much pastis to pour. I can only guess that the tray, with holders for the glasses and bottle, is designed to set down at the boulodrôme during pétanque.

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Ricard, the victor over thirst. 
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A logical combination: Ricard and boules.

The professionals have the greatest concentrations of good stuff, but at higher prices. Look at this collection of antique night clothes.P1070816The pants have a completely open crotch. Interesting. I would guess something to do with using a chamber pot in the dark but I could be wrong.P1070818I love the embroidery. Even when it’s just small initials.P1070817The képi blanc is the hat of the French Foreign Legion. It reminds me of the Colette story. Ageist double standards.

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That orange phone!

Another had old knives in a very scratched plexiglass case. Can you make out some of the elaborate decorations on the handles and even the blades?IMG_3146

P1080514I do wonder about who would collect figurines of pin-up girls. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. Ick.P1080508The regular folks getting rid of stuff from grandma’s attic are where you find the best gems. Look at that silver inkwell.P1080509

And how about a mantle clock with a cherub on top?

There also are plenty of less-antique offerings. Bowling, anyone?P1080510

The thrill of the hunt is what the vide-grenier is all about.IMG_3149IMG_3144IMG_3148

What’s your best find?

Danger in Any Language

IMG_4446If you do something stupid, it’s your problem. The French are big on personal responsibility when it comes to safety.

I was walking along a path around a nearby manmade lake, Lac de la Cavayère. A lovely place, set amid rugged hills of pine forest, with beaches and water sports clustered at one end so the other end remains quiet and wild. And I came across the sign below. Careful: Hold children by the hand.IMG_4444In order to get all the way around, the path had to traverse the dam that created the lake. It was plenty wide—about five feet—with as much grass sloping off on either side. It looked as if the lake side was filled in so if one fell, it was into shallow water, at least at first. But on the other side, there was an almost sheer drop to the valley below. No rails. Just a sign.

This is typical. In France, there exist things that are dangerous, and they either are so obvious that you should just act appropriately, or, in the rare cases of nanny state rearing its head, are noted with signs. In the U.S., the least danger would have to be remedied lest somebody do what they clearly shouldn’t and sue anyway. In France, danger is accepted as a natural part of the world, and it’s on you to deal with it.P1060263In the U.S., for example, I was surprised to see seat belts in grocery shopping carts and on horses of a carousel. No such thing in France. In fact, parents are asked to keep off the carousel, except to hold very small kids. If your kids can climb onto the horses, they can ride around the carousel on their own.

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Three of the four castles at Lastours. Note the electrical wire strung across the hills in the lower left.

The hike to Lastours, a spectacular group of four medieval Cathar châteaux, is on a rugged footpath that winds around a mountain. There are a couple of spots with railings, mostly in wider places where people are apt to stop for a photo and where they can pass each other. Rocks poke out of the ground and pose tripping hazards. A fall could send a person tumbling quite far through the brush.

Watch your step.

The castles are lit at night for a sound and light show. It isn’t easy to wire lighting on a rocky mountain. The wiring, in fact, just snakes up, crossing the path here and there. Code? What code?

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Never mind the ponies; everybody is watching the people dangling from the trees.

We went to a gastronomic fair recently. Tastings of artisanal foods and wine. Boring for kids. So there were pony rides for the little ones and zip lines through the trees for the big ones. Of course.

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Five at once!

Tree climbing and zip lines are popular here. At the lake mentioned above, there’s an outfit called Accrobranche (accrocher means to hook onto, and branche is branch) where folks of all ages can zip through the trees. There’s even a line across the lake. You get measured if you’re a kid (the courses you can take depend on height for hooking the safety line), pay, get your equipment and five minutes of training, then  zip away. There isn’t any “we aren’t liable for your stupidity” contract. It IS completely safe, as long as you follow the directions.

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This means, “Look out!”

How many times did my jaw drop when my kid came home with news of a school outing. When I was in school, we visited the art museum. Once we went to a local macaroni factory. We did not go spelunking. Nor did we do rock climbing. Nor swimming in the sea. Nor skiing.

Rock climbing
Just another day in second grade.

That reminds me of when our kid was about four. We went to a ski resort for sledding. It rarely snows in Carcassonne, and even then it isn’t deep and doesn’t last long enough for sledding. But the Pyrénées are a short drive away. Near the café and the beginner piste, there was a designated spot for sledding. It had a gentle slope that flattened out to a broad plateau to ensure the sleds would slow and then stop on their own. The plateau dropped off to the end of a bustling ski piste, with no barriers between them.

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No photos of the runaway sled on the ski slope, but here’s a shot of the only time it snowed enough here for the kids to sled.

Our kid had a wonderful time. We got a workout. Our kid sledded down and we waited at the bottom to haul the kid-heavy sled back up for another round. But our kid was too little and too inexperienced to understand steering. Instead of slowing to a stop on the plateau where we stood, the sled veered to one side, went off the plateau and down the steep slope, picking up speed and crossing the busy ski piste, luckily not hitting anybody. We tried to run after our screaming kid, but the packed snow was slick—bad for running in boots, while making the sled even faster. Our kid was caught in a snow fence, just barely, but enough to get knocked off the sled, terrified but unhurt. The sled went under the net and flew on down to the bottom of the mountain, stopped by a tree. It took the Carnivore half an hour to go down to get it. That was the end of sledding for a while. All of us were pretty shaken.

This was many years ago. I suspect our kid wasn’t the first to inadvertently steer off the sledding area and into the piste. Years later, our kid took ski lessons, and we’ve returned to this resort for practice. The sledding area is still just there in the open.

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More kids in trees.

With such a laissez-faire attitude about danger, it’s surprising that every person, young or old, who signs up for sports has to have a certificat médical from a doctor, attesting that one can do physical activity. Even yoga. Even ballroom dancing. Even adults—if you join a gym, you need a certificat médical, with a new one every year. From what I’ve seen, the people who go to the gym aren’t the ones whose fitness needs to be certified.

Call it the French paradox.

The Iconic French Car

IMG_4648The Citroën 2CV–pronounced deux chevaux, or two horse, after the engine–is the model that most screams “French.” While Detroit was churning out land yachts in the postwar years, Citroën came up with the modest 2CV as an economy model in 1948. They were in production for 40 years. Is that classic or what?

Citroën, are you listening? Bring it back, but electric!

The 2CV might be barebones and simple, for easy maintenance and low gas consumption, it has tons of style.

That curved top, that rolls back for a sunroof! It was designed so people could transport big items, letting them stick out vertically. Practicality plus style–so French. IMG_4829Those round headlights, with visors like eyelids!IMG_4815Those voluptuous fenders and fender skirts!P1040714I think my favorites, besides all red, are the two-tone paint jobs that accentuate the curves.2CV copyIf Citroën gets the good sense to bring it back, I hope they don’t do like the VW Beetle and the Mini Cooper and make it too big and blown out, like somebody puffed out by steroids. Keep it small and simple. With flair.IMG_4811If you want to see the 2CV in all its cinematic glory, here are a few films:

Brigitte Bardot drives one very badly in “La Bride sur le Cou” (The Bridle on the Neck–it’s an expression that means doing whatever one wants).IMG_4808In “Eat, Pray, Love,” Julia Roberts’ friends drop her off in Rome in a two-tone 2CV.

In “Red 2,” Mary-Louise Parker drives, with John Malkovich nervously riding shotgun, in a car chase in Paris against a Porsche.

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This isn’t a 2CV but a Citroën Dyane, a model based on the 2CV.

To show how poor the madly-in-love couple (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson) is in “Indecent Proposal,” they drive an old 2CV.

There are some great moves in this old French movie, “Le Tracassin.” I have witnessed the drive-on-the-sidewalk move in Paris.

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Another Dyane.

Carole Bouquet drives Agent 007 to safety in a 2CV in “For Your Eyes Only,” but then he takes the wheel.

A 2CV figures in “Les Amants,” a film far better known for Jeanne Moreau’s portrayal of an orgasm.IMG_4816There really are too many more to count–which is only to be expected from a car that was produced for four decades.

Strange Sightings

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

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Sock. Can’t blame the dryer.

Me either.

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

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

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

What were the owners of these items thinking?

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Remains of a sweater (striped).

Maybe it’s best not to know.

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

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

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Why?
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How do they change the channel now?

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

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

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

Little Treasures

screen

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

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

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

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

And this delicate lamp.lamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Needs Whole Foods?

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

prunes
Prunes are plums in French.

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

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

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

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Garlic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eggplant 4 kinds
Four kinds here, almost black, paler purple, striped and white! Plus another below.

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

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

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

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Sun-dried tomatoes
confit hibiscus
Candied hibiscus
confit kumquat
Candied kumquats

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

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

 

Village Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An old wine press. Of course.

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

 

Wild Fire

IMG_4340Last weekend, we had a picnic in the garrigue, that magical wild place of this part of southern France. It smells like wild thyme and dry pine, with some wild rosemary thrown in. It sings–the wind humming a soprano through the pines, to the beat of the cicadas.

I posted a couple of short videos on Instagram; I haven’t managed to upload them here, but there’s a link to IG at the bottom of the “About” page. We have lots of trees at home, and lots of cicadas, or cigales, but they can’t compare to the numbers–or decibels–in the garrigue.IMG_4353A few days after our picnic, the Carnivore informed me that the garrigue had been placed off limits because of the risk of fire. The garrigue isn’t one continuous place, but many, some connected, others mere islands where rocky soil has preserved the place for wilderness.

We have a wide choice of garrigues nearby. Some draw lots of people. We choose a spot that’s off a tiny road, which itself is off a back road. The entrance to the garrigue is really like an entrance. On one side, vineyards line up neatly. And on the other side of this “border,” woods and brush push up improbably through rugged rocks. We drove up a bit farther than usual, but without a high, four-wheel drive vehicle, it was impossible to go very far. The “road”–a pair of tracks, really–was too rough.

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“Road.”

Our preferred spot is at the crest of a hill, where the cooling breezes come through, and where the trees are tall and create a large oasis of shade, also cool. Our region avoided the worst of the “Lucifer” heat wave that hit farther east, but temperatures had climbed into the mid-90s, which we thought was quite hot enough thank you. The air had that hot-furnace feel that makes laundry dry in mere minutes on the line and tomato plants shrivel. Watering flowers has been banned for some time, and watering food plants is restricted to night hours.

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Picnic table. Simply sandwiches, nectarines, lots of water, a little wine.

Time to escape to the garrigue. However, the hill is big and the path is difficult–uneven slabs of rocks sprinkled with loose pebbles that are like walking on marbles–on an incline. Don’t go too fast. We hiked about 20 minutes to our spot. Along the way, I eyed dead pine trees with the uneasy knowledge that they were dangerous fuel if a fire were to break out. That strong wind, so welcome for cooling, would make a fire spread like….wildfire.IMG_4351Fires are a part of life around here. As in California, I guess. Or like tornados are in the Midwest of the U.S. About 10,000 people were evacuated two weeks ago from a huge fire near Bormes-les-Mimosas in the Var department in southeast France. And a terrible fire in Portugal killed 60 people, most of them trapped in their cars on a highway.P1050041So I look up anxiously every time I hear the buzz of the Canadair water bombers (the Canadair company disappeared in 1986 when it became part of Bombardier, but everybody around here calls the planes “Canadairs” the way Americans call paper tissues “Kleenex”). They fly in pairs, picking up water at the Bassin de Saint-Ferréol, a reservoir in the Black Mountains near Revel that was created to feed the Canal du Midi. The lower they pass above us, the closer the fire.P1050044P1080156I remember seeing the military planes streaking across the sky to and from the base near where I grew up, and being unsettled by the sonic booms that would follow. Those were the days of radiation signs above doors at school, the days of bomb drills and evil empires. My kid was quite upset one day toward the end of the last school year when they had a drill in case of an attack–barricade the doors, shut off phones. The world evolves, but not always for the better.

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Hotel view: La Cité and the Pyrénnées.

I visited a hotel in another garrigue. A lovely setting with magnificent views. On the edge of the property was what looked like a giant water balloon, about the size of the pool at the sporting complex–water for firefighters, should the need arise.

Rain in the summer is rare here, and welcome when it comes. In fact, today is cool and cloudy, and I’m energized to go running. But I won’t be accompanied by the song of the cigales, who fall silent when temperatures are too cool for their liking.

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Welcome change, as long as it’s short. The sun is expected to return this afternoon.

 

Back Roads in France

P1080442Voluptuous is the word for France in mid-summer. The vegetation spills generously, luxuriously, langorously over the countryside. It’s full of curves and twirls and flourishes. It smells good. It tastes good. P1080446I had something else ready to post today but changed my mind during my morning walk. This couldn’t wait. In fact, there are so many things to share, I will have to split them into a few posts. Come along; I’ll give you the pictures and play by play. If only I could also transmit the sounds and smells and flavors.

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Green figs, just as good as the purple kind.

I set out on a long walk before the sun rose to a point that makes physical exertion a bad idea. However, it took longer than planned because of repeated stops to pick fat, juicy blackberries and succulent figs growing wild. A generous breakfast. P1080455P1080434It’s a bit early for the fruit. Usually they hit their peak in mid-to-late August. Some of the figs are still small and hard, promises of sweet tomorrows.P1080437The grapes aren’t for picking. They aren’t growing wild, after all. I pass the vineyards of the ancient vigneron, who was bent in half but who kept working and who died about a year ago. His son now has all the work to do and is no spring chicken himself. He sells his wine to a cooperative, where quantity counts more than quality. Most of the small vineyards have switched methods, pruning back grape clusters to concentrate the flavor, favoring smaller but better production. The ancient vigneron’s son seems content to stick to the old ways. His vines sprawl and are laden with grapes.P1080435P1080458Even some wild cacti are bursting with fruit. The cacti seem to have migrated across the road from the garden of a retiree who cultivates many varieties of them. The ground here is clay and gets hard and hostile in the summer drought, but those plants that manage to take root also manage to thrive.P1080426P1080428Red seems to be the color of the moment. Red berries everywhere. Not always edible. At least not for humans. The birds enjoy them in their many varieties.P1080456

I stop to admire the solar farm. Do you see it?P1080463

I see it because I know where to look, and I only learned about it last summer; before I looked at that view and had no idea a solar farm was there. (Hint: it’s just left of the right electricity pole. It looks as if the hill is sloping to the left, but in fact, it’s straight and the gray part is solar panels.)P1080461

Can you see it now? It doesn’t mar the view as much as I had expected.P1080416

A tiny snake crosses my path. Much better than a big snake.P1080492

A field, once a vineyard but now fallow, is dotted with wildflowers.P1080460A mysterious gate to nowhere.P1080447

A lady filling a couple of bags with sand. For her houseplants, I suppose. It seems like a hard way to get sand. On the other hand, I admire it. Why drive 10 miles to town to buy a sand in sealed plastic bag when you can walk out and shovel up what you need for free?P1080495

The well-used barbecue of the boulodrome. Thursdays are pétanque night, and when the wind blows the right way at our house we hear the announcements of the winners, delivered with richly rolled R’s and an extra “ah” syllable at the end, typical of the regional accent. We also smell the sausages grilling. Every activity in France is accompanied by food. Even my gym class would eat gâteau du roi (king cake) and drink (alcoholic) cider around Jan. 6. Priorities: breaking bread beats burning calories.

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Red roofs and a green steeple.

Perhaps a picnic in the garrigue this weekend. How about you?