It seems as if spring has been giving us a slow tease for a month already. Finally, it’s official.
There’s always a line…until they sell out, which is fast.
To me, it’s officially spring when the asparagus stands appear at the market. That was a few weeks ago. Asparagus trucked in from Spain doesn’t count. I like it picked no longer than the day before. The thing about living in France is that you get full license to be a snob about food. It comes with the carte de séjour.The wild almond trees are the first to flower. A group of women from the village used to go for walks through the vineyards from early June to mid-July–when the evenings stay light until quite late. They would point out plants on the side of the road, and somebody always had a jam they made from it, or a way to cook it, and inevitably there was a recipe to make an alcoholic beverage, whether sweet, savory, bitter, you name it. Booze was definitely the biggest category. With my eyes opened to the cornucopia just sitting out there, I picked up some almonds. I got them home, and cracked them open and tasted one. Disgusting. Strongly like marzipan but way more bitter. I went online to read about whether they had to be toasted or treated to improve the taste, and discovered that they are extremely poisonous! They’re full of cyanide! It only takes 10 or so to make you deathly ill. Though I can’t imagine anybody being able to eat 10. Blech. Anyway, it taught me the dangers of wild foraging.The buds and burgeons on bare branches start to open into actual foliage, creating a vaguely green scrim around the roadside bushes. One of these days, as if a switch were flipped, everything will be filled out.The vineyards take longer to reawake. The vignerons are laboring to trim the vines before their sap begins to flow again. Painstaking. Back-breaking. Wish them good health when you sip your next glass.The Pyrénées are still covered with snow, and up to 50 cm (20 inches) was forecast for today! Yesterday was T-shirt weather, but by 4 p.m., the storm rolled in and sent the temperatures dropping. Today feels like winter, not spring, though we didn’t get snow. Higher up, though, they did. The ski slopes are only an hour or two away by car/bus, and the local ski club has outings until the end of March.
I never tire of this view.Interesting things show up.
What is this spiky plant with red flower?
The flora here includes many plants that never lose their leaves, keeping the countryside surprisingly green even in winter. All these photos were taken in the past two weeks.And, of course, the dreamy clouds.
Living in France has changed my cooking and eating habits. Sure, the French have amazing packaged, ready-to-eat foods lining the aisles of the hypermarchés. And somebody is buying all that stuff–according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the French in 2010 (latest figures) spent 53 minutes a day preparing meals, vs. 71 minutes a day in 1986, while le snacking (seriously, they used that term) increased almost 11% between 2014 and 2015.
Our kid has remarked on the predominance of ready-made dishes at friends’ homes. Admittedly, it’s challenging to whip up a meal from scratch in under half an hour. Challenging but not impossible. It requires planning, and if your bandwidth is taken up by things like work, then maybe home cooking is a thought too much.
On the other hand, cooking from scratch doesn’t always take that much more time than using prepared packages. Cakes and moelleux au chocolat (aka brownies) are a prime example. And cooking from scratch is cheaper and healthier.Years ago, I took a guided hiking tour in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières. I was the only non-French person. Our equipment and food traveled separately from us, on donkey-back, with tents set up and meals ready when we’d arrive at the next campsite. We sat cross-legged in a circle on the ground, and the cook would serve up the first course, always soup. We’d pass the bowls around until everyone had one, then would taste. One day I was at the far end, and got my bowl of soup first. I did what I’d seen the others do each day: I drew in a long breath over my bowl, then reflected aloud, “Quelles épices?”(which spices), which drew much laughter. The composition of every dish was the launching point of every dinnertime conversation, branching out from minute analysis of the spices to the ingredients and methods of preparation, and sometimes spinning into arguments about which region of France had the best butter or whether one region’s salt was superior to another’s. I had never heard so much intense discussion and debate about food. Every. Single. Day.
I loved it.
Our kid has absorbed this French obsession about food and is a talented and opinionated cook, declaring the other day, “When I have my own place, I’ll know I’ve succeeded if nothing I buy has labels.” Think about it–vegetables from farmers; cheese from cheesemongers or cheesemakers; bread from the baker; meat from the butcher, trimmed before your eyes; fish with the head still on from the fishmonger (OK, I will skip that one. I can’t eat anything that looks at me). We already mostly eat that way, except the fancy cheese is a special treat, not a regular habit. Even milk can come without packaging.
Much of our produce comes from local farmers, but we do buy some imports–oranges, pineapples, off-season vegetables….I just read that the U.S. imports 53% of fresh fruit and 31% of fresh vegetables. The figures for France are similar: 40% of fruits and vegetables are imported, notably produce that doesn’t grow here, such as bananas and avocados. However, the French article notes that domestic production has dropped. I do wonder about that, with all the housing developments and shopping centers taking over prime farmland. Once paved over, it will produce food no more.
Home. The word itself is soothing. All soft H, long O, humming M, even the silence of the E.
Houses are built but homes are made.
I have seen some pretty spartan living quarters, but they always included decoration, even if it was pages and pictures from old newspapers and magazines, wildflowers in a used tin can. Usually, there is something personal. A memento. A photo, a souvenir from a happy moment in the past, a relic of a loved one.Homes are gathered. Some might say collected or curated, but that involves an aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily include raw emotion. It’s why, to me, the best interiors are those that are layered by years of life experiences, not the latest trends clicked and ordered and delivered same day.
There is a magical quality to the minimalist and modern Roche Bobois aesthetic. Epuré– streamlined–is the term. One imagines that the resident of such pared-down perfection could have an entire wardrobe of white clothes and that they never would be wrinkled or stained, and no paper would ever arrive from officialdom to cause one to tear one’s hair out and spend several days trying to get the situation resolved. Because such houses have no place for papers that represent unresolved problems. All surfaces are void. All problems are null. It is a seductive proposition.But I don’t believe it for a minute. And while I like a modern space every now and then, the way I like vinegar–a bright, bracing contrast to more comforting, comfortable things–a little goes a long way. Too much, and all you get is sour emptiness. No heart. No past. No memories. No love.
I’m very sentimental. As I type this, I’m wearing a sweater that belonged to my mother, even though there’s a huge rip on the sleeve. I have other sweaters, but this one was hers. It will have to be far more shredded before I part with it. (Fair warning to my husband.)Every piece of art in our house has a story. Sometimes the story is that I, or my husband, or both of us were someplace and the picture or carving captured that place, that moment, and we wanted to keep it with us forever. None of it is valuable in a collector’s monetary sense, but all of it is beloved–not so much the items themselves but the moments they represent and the people we were then. Sometimes the story comes from having been was passed down. Especially the photos. The exuberant smiles on my siblings’ then-young faces. What a mess we made our home, four forces of nature with far too much energy to be contained by the walls and roof of a mere house. The smallest thing can transport me there, across the ocean, across the decades, so much so that I am startled to find myself here, now, when I snap out of my reverie. I am not sad to be here. I want to go hug my kid and kiss my husband and jump for joy for being so lucky. That doesn’t negate the yearning to also throw an arm around the buzzcut boy in the photo. A home is feathered not only with things but with rituals and sounds and scents. My mother’s constant classical music. My dad’s snores from down the hall that let me know he was home safe from work. Roast beef on Sundays whose smell permeated the house when we came back from church. We have different rituals, but they still tie us to each other, like a shared safety net. As Rick says in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”
For about a year and a half I’ve been wearing a wrist-based monitor and I love it. I work from home, and since our kid started going to school by bus in town and I no longer walk to and from school four times a day (coming home for a two-hour lunch…yes, it’s the south of France), I can easily get consumed by my screen and barely budge for hours.
My monitor tells me how many steps I’ve taken, how many calories I’ve burned, more or less, how many hours I’ve slept and how well, and my heart rate. For a while, I filled out the online form with everything I ate, but that was too tedious, so I just look at the total that I’ve burned. It is sometimes depressingly low.
My monitor is like a Mary Poppins on my wrist, seeing all and nudging me to be my better self. I can see when I’ve been at my desk too long and whether I slouched through a run or whether I actually went all-out, based on the heart-rate stats. The overall effects are in the resting heart rate, which are comfortingly low. I am a type-A overachiever, and I love nothing better than to best myself.
I can see how I slept–not just how I thought I slept, but actually how many minutes I was tossing and turning and how much time was in the Alzheimer-fighting deep sleep zone. I can look back at factors like how late I ate, or whether I had wine with dinner, or how late my last coffee was, to try to tweak my sleep for the better, and to see how it turns out.
I realize that all of the numbers are broad generalities, because a wrist-based sensor isn’t the same as the precision of a laboratory. But it gives me an idea and keeps me from being overly optimistic. A reality check. A kick in the pants.
I am not into selling stuff, and so I haven’t mentioned the name of my monitor, but it’s one of the popular ones. The first one fell to pieces (and I was furious) but was still under guarantee so I have a newish one that seems to be of sturdier design. There are many options. A friend has a phone app that counts steps. Whatever works. Sometimes we need somebody/something to tell us, hey, do better! Other people who have tested multiple brands are better positioned to make a recommendation.Another interesting, and free, test is the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s World Fitness Level Calculator. It asks lots of questions (like maximum heart rate and resting heart rate) that are easier to answer with one of these wrist fitness monitors, but it also asks lots of lifestyle questions, like whether you’ve ever smoked, and your waist circumference. At the end, it gives you your fitness age. My fitness age is less than my chronological age, despite the fact that my best sport is reading (I have never successfully caught a ball). It’s probably because I do exercise pretty much every day, figuring that being able to run up steps and carry stuff and act like the much-younger parents of my kid’s friends is well worth a daily half-hour of misery. I also go to Pilates once a week, to add to the suffering, but that is so worth it for correcting back problems.
As for the French take on this stuff, almost all my French friends do some kind of exercise. One swims (outside!), even when I think it’s insanely cold. Another does Pilates and aquagym. Several go to the village exercise class, which I did for years. Some do yoga. Another does yoga and walks for an hour a day. I had always read that French women don’t work out or do anything that involves sweat, but pretty much everybody I know actually does work out in one way or another. A group of retired villagers goes for a walk around the vineyards every day–early in summer; midday in winter. Their ranks have dwindled over the years and is down to four feisty old ladies. They stop at the cemetery on their way home.
I even found some stats: 64% of French people over age 15 do some kind of sports at least once a week. The most common activity is walking for leisure, with 42% of people doing it. The sport most people do the most frequently is “utilitarian” walking–i.e., commuting on foot. It probably helps keep obesity levels to around 15.3% in France, compared with 38.2% in the car-centric U.S. Another source said 48% of the French walk or run.There are gyms and associations for every imaginable sport, from fencing to flamenco to football. Crazily, to join a gym or sport club, you have to go to the doctor for a medical certificate that says you’re healthy enough to do the sport. The city of Carcassonne just launched a program to get people in not-great health (people with chronic illness, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Parkinsons, hypertension, arthritis, or kidney or respiratory problems) to do sports in a supervised way–you get a prescription from your doctor and can go to a sports center for €50 per six months for locals. Which is quite a bargain. The sports include rowing, kayaking (in a pool), swimming, walking, nordic walking, climbing (indoors), archery, stretching, tennis, muscle-building, exercise, balance, yoga and cardio training.
If you can motivate yourself to exercise alone, you’ll save money–running doesn’t cost anything except for shoes. I was on the track team for one year in high school, at the behest of some friends, and came in last in every event I tried. I once ran a 10K and came in second-to-last, nosing out a guy twice my age. Despite my lack of aptitude, running appeals because it’s cheap, time-flexible and efficient. I’ve been doing high-intensity intervals–30 seconds of walking, 20 seconds of jogging and 10 seconds of sprinting. Last fall, during a sprint, I asked myself whether I was really at my max and tried to go faster. I ended up splat on the ground with two skinned knees. On the other hand, I can take stairs two at a time without getting winded, so it’s worth it.What do you do to stay in shape?
Gigantic pickup trucks have sprouted like mushrooms on French roads. Until recently, the only pickups were some museum pieces–ancient Peugeots, their rust barely holding them together, usually slumped to one side, the way many of us end up late in life.
A Peugeot 404. Classic.
Considering that French streets are about four feet wide and parking spots are the size of a kitchen sink (and underground parking garages have ceilings so low you have to commando-crawl out of them), the new generation of pickups on steroids are more often found outside cities.
Check out this pickup description, on a car site: “the arrogance and exaggerated size of U.S. monsters…” And on the Parisien: “In the city, where its outsize build that isn’t always easy, attracts disapproving and inquisitive looks, proof that the big 4×4 still has the image of a polluter.” And on another car site: “If some consider them retrograde…” and later calls them “mastadons.”
The main reason for this sudden love of gashogs? Taxes! You didn’t think it was because they are practical (not) or beautiful (absolutely not)?
For some reason, France decided that big SUVs weren’t ecological and slapped an €8,000 malus (penalty) on them, causing sales to drop. And for some reason, France decided that pickups are utilitarian vehicles and so their pollution is OK, regardless of their emissions.
On top of that, they qualify for one of Europe’s favorite tax dodges: company cars. Companies not only don’t have to pay taxes on company cars but they also get to deduct 100% of the TVA (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée, or value-added tax–a special kind of sales tax, kind of, which is 20% on fuel) on diesel.
My car would fit in that wheel well.
During the summer, a traveling monster truck show passed through. In French, they’re called monster trucks, but monster sounds like mahn-STAIR. Stunt vehicles are cascaders. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Many, many people donate blood, yet there’s still a need. I knew this, but there was always a reason why it wasn’t convenient to participate during the local blood drives. Finally my kid challenged me to do it and wanted to watch. No peer pressure is as intense as kid pressure on a parent to bring out our better angels.
So we went one morning after shopping at the market. Several volunteers dressed as big drops of blood were pleading with people at the market to walk down the block to the room where an efficient army of workers was taking donations from a surprisingly robust crowd of volunteers.
I flunked the test, though. I had run that morning (no exercise too soon before or after) and had only coffee for breakfast. I went back after a big lunch. It went smoothly, and afterward we sat at a long table of very French food: cheese, hard sausage, brioche and some industrial baked goods (Breton cookies and palmiers). Lots of juice and water. I had some cheese and brioche and palmiers and drank a lot and figured I was good to go.
We got about a block when my head started to spin. It had been decades since I’d last donated blood. My kid guided me to a bench on the street, and I felt better after a minute. But we hadn’t gone half a block when I got dizzy again. We were in front of a café and I quickly put myself onto a chair on the sidewalk. But I started to slide right off it and couldn’t stop. My kid was trying to get me up. People stared. My kid informed me that people thought I was drunk. Lovely! Some nice ladies went into the café and came out with water and sugar, and I managed to drink it, and eventually perked up enough to get around the corner to our AirBnB apartments, which were empty that weekend. I lay down and waited for my husband to come. No driving home. I would get my car later.
Now I am in the database, and two months later I got a call from the Établissement Français du Sang (French Blood Establishment) asking for more. I learned that I could take an appointment at their offices at the hospital, with no waiting and parking right in front of the door. I got my husband to drive me just in case, but I was fine.
It was even quicker, and I thought gosh, I should do this more often–well, whenever they call. The other donors clearly were regulars.
Although I was tired the rest of the day, I have to admit I felt like a million bucks the day after. I looked up information about giving blood and found out it burns 650 calories, on average, which was a sweet bonus. Especially because you need to eat something decent beforehand (the second time I had a nice protein-rich breakfast of eggs) and will eat something afterward. I do miss those American doughnuts.
You can donate blood every eight weeks, which comes to about six times a year. You give about a liter, or a pint, of blood per donation, which can help up to three people. You also can donate plasma and platelets, which involve a longer process and which can be donated more frequently.
My dad received blood transfusions. He would complain that his “counts were down,” and that he “needed a pint,” as if he had some kind of dipstick and it was akin to glug-glugging in a can of blood like oil into a car. I can’t bring him back, but I can help somebody else.
Everybody likes fresh food but sometimes the French take it to another level.
When I first moved here, I noticed the utter chaos at the supermarkets on the day before a long holiday weekend. Shops at that time closed on Sunday and holidays (the custom is starting to chip away, but still, most stores stay closed). A friend explained that people waited until the last minute to shop so the food would be fresh.
Baguettes are bought daily, and most bakeries make them throughout the morning if not all day, so they’re fresh. Bread that’s straight from the oven is a different thing than something that’s been made off-site, packaged in plastic, and trucked to the store. If the baguettes are still hot, you have to buy two, because one is sure to be consumed before it gets home.But the thing I find most charming are the vegetables. Most of the local vendors at the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday market pick the day before. They’ll even tell you that the asparagus, for example, was cut the night before (that’s in spring, when it’s in season, not now). And then there are things that come to market still alive. Like the endives, growing in pallets, and customers pick themselves.
Or the snails and chickens.
Or the herbs sold in pots because cut wouldn’t be as fresh.
There are orchards and berry farms where you can pick your own, too.
Unlike some parts of the globe, we are not under a thick blanket of snow. In fact, we are having unseasonably warm temperatures in the 60s (usually winter temperatures are in the 30s to the 50s), along with buckets of rain from storms Carmen and Eleanor (in a week!). So we get fresh local vegetables throughout the winter–a million kinds of squash; root vegetables like carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, celery root; brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard. Eating what’s seasonal is best for nutritional value as well as for the environment. And it ensures we eat a constantly changing variety of foods. Depending on where one lives, it isn’t always possible–when the ground is frozen and covered with snow, nothing is growing. But where the climate allows, such as in France and much of southern Europe, the garden produces all year.
Christmas spirit is in full force around Carcassonne. The skating rink in the central square is resisting melting away (it’s 11 Celsius or 52 Fahrenheit as I write this). Even more lights are up, including new, illuminated Santas. Many grandparents were out with their grandchildren–there’s only a half day of school on Wednesdays (some schools have gone back to a four-day week with Wednesday off), and grandparents often babysit. I much enjoyed eavesdropping on a talkative girl of about eight who was ambling around la Cité with her obviously besotted grandfather.
The shops were welcoming beacons in the dark, looking all cozy inside, with little holiday touches and shoppers collecting presents. Year-round, French shopkeepers generally ask whether a purchase is a gift and will either put it in a pretty bag with a ribbon or will wrap it for you. They almost never charge, except when there’s a charity group doing the wrapping as a fund-raiser.A Christmas market encircles the skating rink. It isn’t a big market and more than half of it is devoted to food. It bustles with people having a drink with friends and snacking on delicacies like oysters or aligot (a cheesy potato dish).
The giant snowballs that loom over the pedestrian shopping street are much prettier by night.
Village lights are more modest, but charming in their own way.
Carcassonne added some classy chandelier-style lights this year.
One of the most charming things I saw was this sign at a café/restaurant:
“For those who are alone on the evening of the 24th, come spend the evening at Ô Deliz Café”…”Party meal and musical ambiance. A warm welcome…”
That’s the spirit of Christmas! Regardless whether you celebrate Christmas, I hope the lights where you are bring as much magic as I found in the display here. Wishing you the happiest of holidays.
The French are masters of the dinner party. One of the best ways to share meaningful moments with family and friends is around a meal. Preparing dishes they will enjoy is part of it, but nourishment comes not just from the food but also from the conversation.
It’s curious that when I was looking for titles of movies to give, I came across a wealth of bad examples. The dinner party seems to have gotten a reputation as a moment for Type-A, class-conscious stress. For example, in the 1998 French movie “Le Dîner de Cons,” fancy-pants Parisians have a dinner in which they must bring along an idiot for the others to ridicule, with the dumbest one winning. Or the recent Salma Hayek movie, “Beatriz at Dinner,” in which a Mexican-born masseuse is invited to stay for dinner with her rich, nasty client.
And then there’s “La Grande Bouffe,” a 1973 comedy in which a group of friends rents out a country house with the intention of committing suicide from overeating and which is a lot more hilarious than it sounds.
Big gathering or small, I have learned things about successful dinner parties, especially from the French.
The food should be made in advance and ready to serve when you move to the table.
Everybody should be seated around the same table; consider assigning seats. Small children can be exiled to a separate table if there are several of them, but whenever possible they should sit with the adults and participate in the conversation.
Comfortable seats for everyone. Nobody over age 30 should ever be forced to sit on a backless bench, no matter how good you think benches look.
Soft lighting, soft music.
What doesn’t matter (all these things are nice but not by any means necessary):
Matching plates, glasses, or matching anything.
Pretty place settings.
Beautifully presented dishes.
Silverware set correctly.
Our dining table seats eight with a leaf, although we can squeeze up to 10. Even with eight, the conversation tends to split into two. That’s OK, but it can be wonderful to have just six at the table and have everybody in the same discussion.
Some years ago, the Carnivore and I cooked a French dinner for my family when we were staying with one of my siblings in the U.S. The entire family came, including aunts and a dear friend of mine. With extra leaves and a card table we got everybody around the same table—21 people if I counted correctly. Usually at family gatherings, there’s a big buffet in the kitchen and everybody grazes at will, finding a spot at the table or in the living room, drawn to the inevitable sports game on TV, with plate perched upon one’s knees.
For our French dinner, the TV was off and the living room was empty. It was a tight squeeze but we were together. The Carnivore and I “plated” the dishes and distributed them. We got a few serving dishes on the table for passing, but there wasn’t much room. We also served seconds. The benefit of an open kitchen is that the cooks are still present.
Wine flowed. I said it was a French dinner.
The main entertainment was the story-telling by my siblings, who are not only masters of the art but excellent at playing off each other, and playing off our father. Many tears were shed—of laughter.
As everybody finished eating, we collected the plates…but, next came the cheese course. So they stayed put instead of wandering away to check the game (to me, seeing them but once a year was special, whereas they get together quite often, so of course then the style is more relaxed). And after the cheese came dessert. I don’t think they had ever been at the table for such a long time.
That taught me an important lesson—if you want to break the magic, move. It can be nice to stand up after a long stretch of sitting, but the point of courses is that there is a reason to come back to the table after your break. If you are doing a buffet, the fast eaters will be on dessert while the slow eaters are still on the starter. A dinner party is enjoyed slowly, with plenty of pauses.
One of our friends here suffers from rheumatism and usually is the first to go home. But at one dinner party the conversation was particularly lively. Eventually nature called, which led someone to check the time. It was 4 a.m.! The amazing powers of a comfortable chair and scintillating chatter. One last French tip: in season (like now), have a big bowl of mandarines or clementines. Easy to peel, small, refreshing after a big meal, they are more something to do with one’s hands, to prolong the moment, rather than extra food. I’d say they have taken the place of the after-dinner cigarette, since none of our friends smoke. At most dinners we attend–or give–a big bowl of them comes out after the dessert and coffee.
Do check out the other participants in By Invitation Only!