On Strike

IMG_0561Yesterday was unusually quiet here in France profonde. Almost no traffic. Most people stayed home if they could. We slept in late. This impromptu vacation day was thanks to the national strike against pension reform.

I wanted to have a light, happy post today after last week’s Debbie Downer rant. But yesterday’s strike, which is continuing today, is inescapable. Even if you don’t live here, you probably want to retire one day, so read on.

The French system is pretty generous, but demographics–folks live longer and have fewer babies–mean that while there were five workers for every retiree in 1960, today there are three. While pensioners and those close to becoming one argue that they paid for their retirement, the system is like many others, including Social Security in the U.S.–those working now pay for those retired now. It isn’t an account like a 401(k) where you put in your money and you have it later.IMG_0559The problems with 401(k)s are that (1) most people don’t save enough, (2) those who do save don’t invest the money wisely, being either too risky or too conservative and (3) if the market drops when you want to retire, you might not be able to afford it. As with any investment, you could lose everything.

A broader system offers better protection for the average Jacques. Also, because it’s run by the government, workers don’t have to worry about their employer going belly-up and their retirement disappearing in a poof of smoke with it. Remember Enron? A few greedy guys made some sour deals and cooked the books, bringing down the company. More than 9,000 employees had retirement plans based on Enron stock, which became worthless.IMG_0572 The problem in France lies in the details, as is often the case. There’s retirement for a special few, and then retirement for everybody else. President Emmanuel Macron wants to get rid of the 42 régimes speciaux, which cover only 3.4% of the working population. Most French think the exceptions should be abolished–most of them don’t benefit. Probably many of those with an exception think the other 41 régimes are unworthy, but don’t even THINK about touching theirs. And some fear a domino effect–if one exception is eliminated, then the others will eventually go as well.

I have a friend who retired in her 40s. Seriously. She was a secretary for a notaire, or notary. In France, notaries are inescapable, necessary for formalities for property purchases, wills, etc.–more like lawyers than like a notary public in the U.S. The notaries created a special retirement regime in 1937, before the general one, and their exceptions got grandfathered in. Granted, they pay in a lot more than regular workers do. In general they retire if they are 55 and contributed for 25 years, but there’s an exception to the exception, which my friend enjoyed: If you worked 15 years for a notary and you have three kids, you can retire at any age you want.

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Look closely–there’s a cross.

Ballerinas at the Opéra de Paris (but not ballerinas elsewhere!), can retire from age 40 to 60, having paid in for 10 to 15 years (there are subcategories to this subcategory). Extra credit for having kids. It’s true that being a ballerina is physically taxing, poorly paid and not something that translates to other professions. If you have an injury and can’t continue, your options could be limited.

We know somebody who was a train conductor (as in ticket taker, not driver). Yes, decades ago, working on a train was dirty and dangerous. But today they are electric and automated. He says, “When I was hired, I signed a contract with the terms that I would retire when I was 60. They have to honor that.” I pointed out that when he joined the railroad, life expectancy was 73. Now it’s 83. The contract was based on calculations for the lower life expectancy, even if that wasn’t stated explicitly. Was he willing to live (or die) up to his side of the bargain? He sputtered and admitted that people living longer in retirement would require more money, but that should come from somebody else, not him. Younger people should pay more. IMG_0568Not so easy. Youth unemployment is high–almost 21%–for a bunch of reasons. One is that workers enjoy some protections from being fired, so employers try to make do without hiring rather than get stuck with a bad apple. That also is changing, with protections being chipped away–sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The bane of gig jobs is creeping in, like kudzu or some other invasive species. But changes to worker protections did help lower unemployment overall to 8.5% from double digits a few years ago.

People say, well, older workers should retire and make way for younger ones who need jobs. But this is bad for the economy. The French call retirement “les grandes vacances”–the big vacation–but it’s really more akin to unemployment: It’s taking money from working people and giving it to non-working people. The more people who work, the more the economy hums, and the more jobs there are. In the case of Japan, where 30% of working-age women don’t work, every one percentage point increase in work participation by women would boost the economy by half a percentage point. It makes sense–you turn to services to make life easier, maybe ordering takeout or going out, having the house cleaned and laundry done, looking good by having haircuts more often. It doesn’t have to be all about consumption of stuff.IMG_0563Raising the retirement age is inevitable–retirement initially was based on an age that most people wouldn’t reach. So yes, you would work until you died. The idea wasn’t for a big vacation but to prevent the elderly, no longer able to earn a living, from becoming destitute.

In effect, broad-based pensions are demographic Ponzi schemes that worked until the baby bust. This is not an argument for more babies–far from it, the global population is big enough–nor is it an argument against government pensions. It’s an argument that nothing is set in stone, and that programs have to adjust. It isn’t sustainable to have people work for 30 years and be retired for 40. Even a 40-40 split doesn’t work. Retirement has to be shorter. Retiring later beats dying earlier.IMG_0571Working longer is easier said than done. I know so many people who have been laid off (not in France, though), even as their employers advertise job openings. I suspect my friends have been culled because they’re too expensive. They are all extremely sharp and diligent, so it isn’t because of their productivity. Their employers are profitable and hiring. Employers increasingly look at workers as disposable, even in sectors that need “knowledge” workers. With job applications now almost entirely online, it’s hard to cut through the algorithmic filters, even if you don’t fill in your graduation dates or if you drop off a decade or two from your résumé. If they want 5-7 years of experience for a “senior” job, then you’ll be spit out if you have pared down your experience to 10 years. Older people (anybody over 50) are considered slow, lacking innovation and tech-savvy.

It all means the problem is thornier than just changing the age, and look at what that step provoked. 800,000 protesters across France yesterday. I really love the way the French take to the streets to show what they believe in–Je Suis Charlie, Nous Toutes, the environment. On the other hand, I often disagree with their causes. The Gilets Jaunes originally were mad about a pollution tax. And with the pension strike now, it’s about people saying “I want mine even it it costs you.” Every French person under age 50 who isn’t part of the 3.4% enjoying special status should be out in the streets protesting in favor of change. They’re the ones getting stuck with the bill.

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Photos of the church at Rustiques, built in the era when you worked until you died.

Working for a Living

IMG_3113It’s said that the French work to live, while Americans live to work. I would like to work forever, though with reasonable hours, French-style. It wouldn’t just be for the money, though that’s a necessary factor, but also for the intellectual stimulation and social contact with people.

A bunch of things collided to make me think lately about the nature of work. I was talking to someone who mentioned lousy jobs–the ones with repetitive tasks, possibly dangerous or at least likely to involve occasional injuries, with inflexible or odd or constantly changing hours, few or no benefits, no hope for advancement. One employee is nearly indistinguishable from the next and so they can be fired and a new one hired without angst.

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Random pictures from here and there, just to break things up.

Many of these jobs are being automated. Maybe they should be–there’s nothing inherently satisfying about them other than the paychecks they bring, and why have people doing dangerous tasks instead of machines? But what about the people who do them now? Especially those who are doing fairly dangerous jobs and earning good salaries as a result? They are not going to shift to a lab to look for a cure for cancer. And it isn’t because they aren’t able to make this switch to the vaunted knowledge economy that they should be written off.

One of my early jobs, when I was in high school, was automated and I was laid off. I worked at a bank, doing data entry. Back then, when you made a charge with your credit card, the clerk would set it into a little cradle and, RRRPPPP RRRPPP, imprint the card number into the three carbon copies of the receipt (the legacy of which is the raised numbers on your cards still today). My colleagues and I had four-inch-thick stacks of the bank copy of these receipts. We would type in the card number and amount as fast as our left hands could flip to the next receipt. There were little red lights on the keyboard to alert us to errors (each pile was entered by two different people and they had to match perfectly). Our keystrokes were timed to monitor our efficiency.P1060663 2 Occasionally, the headsets we wore would beep and we would stop to authorize a charge. Back in the day, if a charge was rather large, the retailer would call a human at the bank for authorization. We had a little box of microfiches that were updated regularly, and would slip it into a projector to look up the card number to see whether the person was paying their credit card on time or whether they were over the limit (refused) or the card was stolen. I had one stolen card, and it was very exciting. I had to tell the clerk to keep the customer in the store while calling the police and to cut the card in half.P1060683I was the youngest person working there, and it was a great job for a 17-year-old. I worked four hours a night after school Monday to Thursday and eight hours on Sundays, where I got time and a half.  I made $4.75 an hour (when the minimum wage was $2.30) and more on Sunday. I had Friday night and Saturday night off. Incredible.

But I couldn’t figure out the life plan of the adults I worked with. On the one hand, it was a good job, but I didn’t see anybody promoted in the years I worked there. There was nothing about data entry that led to bigger and better skills. And I don’t think my co-workers were concerned about moving up. They had a nice, clean office job that they did well and they didn’t need to think about when they left for the day. They worked to live.IMG_5089 2Funny, but in high school my counselor thought I should stick with the bank job–steady, at ridiculously high pay. She said I could get hired on graduation as a secretary because I could type. I said I wanted to HAVE a secretary, not be one. (That got me in trouble with my mother.) I had good grades, great test scores, but we were in a tough neighborhood. People like me were supposed to become worker bees not bosses.

I went to college anyway, with a full scholarship, though it didn’t cover books and such. So I worked full-time and went to school more than full-time because I finished in three years. Of course now I regret it–I don’t have any friends from college–I ran out of my classes to catch the bus to work. I missed out on the college experience. Lesson: living to work can be empty.IMG_3111I see Felicity Huffman going to jail for all of two weeks for buying her kid into college and I wonder whose place her kid took. Do you remember/know of the invasion of Grenada? A supposedly communist coup led to the U.S. invasion, citing the need to protect the Americans going to medical school there. Turns out, Grenada had a booming diploma factory for Americans who didn’t qualify for med school in the U.S., but the family couldn’t bear the thought of Junior not being a doctor and shipped him off to Grenada. 

I don’t know anybody who would rather see a doctor whose family bought his degree rather than the poor but brilliant kid who worked his way through. While it’s clear that kids brought up in stable households with decent incomes have better outcomes in school, at least in France the schools are pretty consistent and university is open and without tuition to anybody who has the test scores (there are costs, like housing, but they’re a couple thousand a year).

In some ways, today’s economy is like the one of many decades ago. My grandma got milk delivered by the milkman in a little truck. Today, people get deliveries from Amazon or Deliveroo or one of the others. The big difference with the past is that milkman earned a middle-class living for his family and stay-at-home wife, as they almost all were then. Delivery drivers now have to work incredibly long hours, or supplement with other gigs, and they still only scrape by. The app business model depends on not paying living wages.

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These details were created by human hands.

Check out the documentary “American Factory.” Fantastic. You see these people doing kind of routine jobs but proud to do them and do them right. They are working to live but while they’re on the clock, they are all-in. But when the factory, which had been closed, is bought by a Chinese company, the new management doesn’t see it that way; they see the American workers as slow and lazy and unwilling to put in hours the way their Chinese employees do. 

There’s a new podcast based on the tapes Studs Terkel made of the interviews he did for “Working,” his seminal look at people and their work in the 1970s. The podcast went to the interviewees to see where they are now. Fascinating. There was the telephone operator talking about how boring and machine-like her work was–work now long done by computers, just like my bank job. There were the generations of car mechanics and the great pride they had in diagnosing problems. Some people aren’t made for desk jobs.IMG_3104Then there’s teaching. It used to be a good, middle-class job. In France, it still is, thanks to the panoply of benefits the government provides to people at the bottom of the income scale. Income redistribution. Socialism. I don’t receive these benefits and I pay plenty in taxes to finance them. But I love it. I think it’s the right thing to do.

I hear a lot about how incredibly innovative the U.S. is, but what I see are a lot of little software programs–apps–that don’t advance much. Most of them make doing something or another a little bit easier. Is that innovation? They feel like the specialized kitchen gadgets that, yes, peel garlic faster, get the pit out of your avocado, slice and dice more surely than someone without knife skills, but I suspect 99% of such gadgets sit in drawers, untouched.IMG_3117Sure, Google changed search (but I use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you), Amazon changed/demolished retail, Apple put computers in our pockets (Nokia was working on that, too, but too late). Even before AirBnB, I booked holiday homes, though the app is much easier. Is “easier” enough to qualify as innovation? Not sure. Uber made it easier to hail a ride, but by exploiting drivers, who brought their own cars–no capital expenditure on fleets necessary for Uber, no contributions for pensions or health care or all those other things that human workers have traditionally required. I’ve never used Uber and never will. Same with Facebook. I’m far from a Luddite, but I’m picky about what I put on my phone and which businesses get my custom. My kitchen drawers are almost devoid of gadgets. It’s a lifestyle.

This is a very grognon post, but I really care about people who work hard and don’t make ends meet, and it seems to be the case for more and more people. What about you? Do you live to work or work to live? What do you think about gig jobs? In light of your opinion, do you use apps? What should we do about jobs eliminated by automation?

Bonus: A little retro Huey Lewis and the News with Workin’ for a Livin’. Circa 1982.IMG_3108

 

Apéritifs

P1020922L’apéritif is sacred in France. That means it comes with all kinds of rituals and even special equipment, though that’s not what counts. You can have a fine apéro, as the French like to shorten it to, with just a glass of wine. The ritual can be done by anybody.

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Filling the streets near the Saturday market.

The first and most important ingredient is people. You thought I’d say alcohol, but no. Even if you’re having a soft drink, you can enjoy apéritif hour. It’s a moment of socializing with friends, family, even strangers. The connections and conversation, regardless of whether they’re lubricated with alcohol, are what count.

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I photographed this one too early; usually the Saillan is one of the busiest cafés

Around here, there are two times for apéritifs: the typical one, around 6 p.m., for before-dinner drinks. And similarly around 11 a.m., for before-lunch drinks. I find that to guarantee an unproductive afternoon, so instead I raise a cup of coffee to toast friends I bump into at the Saturday market.

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Beer: Breakfast of champions? A daring place to place a glass, on a bollard barely big enough.

Indeed, the cafés around the market buzz with activity, and many of the coffee cups get replaced by stemmed glasses of wine as noon approaches. Cafés put tables (chairs optional) or wine barrels into the streets that are closed for the market. It’s a big party, and some are so packed, despite the extra street space, that you can barely wiggle past. Feel free to strike up conversation with anybody. It’s all friendly, especially at noon.

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Preparing for a crowd.

A few set up tables serving appetizers, called zakouskis. Zakouskis are part of the ritual. Don’t drink on an empty stomach! Olives and nuts are popular. Pretzels, chips, all that jazz. Charcuterie, or hard sausages, though cheese usually is reserved for after dinner except for little cubes, sprinkled with herbs or celery salt. Also smaller nibbles, which can be elaborate, like tapas, or even become a meal, in which case it’s an apéritif dînatoire.

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Plenty of choice in the olive department, and this isn’t even everything.

For drinks, you have the standards: wine (red, white and rosé), sparkling wine, white wine or sparkling wine with a dash of cassis liqueur for a kir or kir royale (if sparkling), the apéro of Dijon.

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Best served cold, under a palm tree.

Around here, anise-flavored pastis is popular, called un jaune–a yellow–because the clear, golden pastis oxidizes and becomes a cloudy yellow when ice and water are added. It’s a drink with lots of equipment–special glasses with a line showing how far to pour the pastis; water pitchers and ice buckets. The Ricard brand is so popular that many people just ask for a Ricard, if they don’t say “p’tit jaune.”

 

 

Among cocktails, le petit ponch, also shortened to ti-ponch, has rum, lime and cane syrup with origins in France’s tropical colonies.P1030304

Oysters are also popular, with a glass of white wine. Not so much in summer….

Apéritif comes from the Latin word aperire, to open. They had a medicinal origin, with the concoctions of herbs for laxative effect, cited in the 13th century. (See some here.) But in modern times (since the mid-1700s), an apéritif is intended to open your stomach, to make you hungry.

Will you be raising a glass with friends this weekend?

South of France Summer

IMG_3168The roosters that live in the shade of the woods along the riverside wake me long before dawn. They are joined by the caws of another bird, something big and wild. Do herons make noise? I don’t know a heron from an egret or anything else that’s big, with long legs and lives near water. But they are neighbors.

I slip through the darkness to the living room to open the windows and welcome in the cool night air. It’s in the mid-60s Fahrenheit, but it feels icy and delicious. When I put on my glasses, I can see the stars, so many stars. But since I glide through the house in the dark, glasses are of no use and I don’t bother with them. I know where the furniture is, where the window handles are, how many stairs and how big they are. The familiarity is comforting.IMG_3164My kid got a summer job, detassling corn, of all things. I grew up in the Midwest, and most people I know detassled corn in the summer. One of my siblings back home almost choked from laughing when told the news. In French it’s called castration, which is what it is, but somehow more brutal to say.  The fields are a long drive away; my kid and several friends joined up to carpool, or co-voiturage. I drop my kid off at the meeting point, or take my turn driving over the rolling hills, as vineyards give way to vast fields of wheat, sunflowers and corn as we head west. There are few cars on the road at such an early hour. The kids are groggy and silent. I feel like we’re flying through paintings by Monet or Jules Breton.

The sun still hasn’t peeked above the horizon when I’m en route home, but it’s light, the world wrapped in a pale pastel veil. One morning, fog unfurled across low-lying fields, stretching luxuriantly like a cat.

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Blackberries already! My runs are now interrupted as I stuff my face.

The colors of the sky grow more vivid, all purples, oranges and yellows. Then the sun appears, nearly blinding me as I drive straight toward it, the road a ribbon unspooling across the patchwork of golds and greens. The whole world now is golden, the delicate paleness has vanished. Within minutes, the gold, too, is gone and the sun, alone in a deep blue sky, nary a cloud in sight, delivers its frank, sharp rays that divide the landscape into stark overexposure or inky shade. IMG_3161I am home before the sun has climbed high enough to hit the east side of the house. I quickly close the shutters to keep the interiors a cave-like cool. Even though the heat wave is past and we have perfect summer weather, we don’t have air conditioning and use old-fashioned methods to keep the house comfortable. My friend, Merle, serenades me. He boldly follows, keeping a two-arms’-length distance, never more nor less. Merle is the blackbird who lives here with his wife (merle is French for blackbird, and a good name for an excellent singer). He’ll get his own post when I manage to get a flattering photo of him. He comes close, but not close enough for my phone’s camera.IMG_3165Maybe it’s that Europe is so far north–Carcassonne is about 43 degrees north, like Yankton, South Dakota; Niagara Falls; Pocatello, Idaho; Vladivostok, Russia. Summer days are longer than what I grew up with, though not as crazy as in Belgium or even farther north, like Scandinavia. Appreciating the dawn requires getting up really early, made all the harder by the fact that it’s still light at 9:30 or 10 p.m. And those evenings are yummy, too, as the day’s warmth fades but not so much that the cicadas stop singing. Bats swoop back and forth, dining on insects, almost in time with the cicadas’ metronome. 

Some friends came for dinner with the foster children they care for. Kindergarten and first grade, brother and sister. As night fell, we reclined on the chaises longues to look for shooting stars. The boy asked to hold my hand. Then he had a better idea. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable, he said, if he were on the same chaise as me? He snuggled into the crook of my arm. His sister, jealous, claimed the other side. We scanned the skies, but the boy was a little afraid of shooting stars. He told me about monsters. Did I believe in them? No, I told him, you don’t need to worry about monsters. He said sometimes he believed in them, sometimes not. I listened to his five-year-old ideas about the world and hoped he would remember this moment of magic, the stars dancing, the night birds in concert with the cicadas, the light blanket of a summer night’s warmth enveloping us. IMG_2969

 

 

 

 

 

Day Trip to Toulouse

IMG_1793Toulouse, the pink city of the south. Pink because of the pale red bricks that dominate the architecture. A friend and I decided to brave the gilets jaunes in order to get a needed breath of city air. IMG_1768The city air has much improved since Toulouse limited so much of the center to pedestrians only. What a joy to stroll around. No crowding on the sidewalks. There’s plenty of room for those who want to stop and look in the windows and those who are in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s perfect for flâner, that quintessentially French term for strolling leisurely in town, certainly with some lèche-vitrine (literally translated as licking the windows–window shopping) along the way.IMG_1782The car-free streets have led to an explosion of bicycles. Perfect.IMG_1765So much prettiness everywhere. And since we weren’t really interested in shopping, our eyes paid more attention to the architecture. Quite a mix.IMG_1767Do you see the old tower? And the half-timbered building?IMG_1789A steeple perfectly framed by the narrow streets. (Note the rental bike dock.)IMG_1791Then there are more modern touches. Haussmann’s influence is felt down here, though the old lanes weren’t eliminated in favor of grand boulevards. There are some boulevards, to be sure, but they follow the traces of the ancient ramparts. Plenty of Belle Epoque buildings.IMG_1774I’m so glad the little lanes survived. Like the Marais  in Paris, but without the crowds. Some of the main shopping streets were noir du monde–full of people–but they never felt like a crush of humanity. And on the little side streets, we got to eavesdrop on conversations. A group of young men, I’d say in their 20s, were in a lively discussion about cheese. You would have thought they were going over a controversial call in a sports match. For several blocks, they walked just behind us, talking excitedly, while my friend and I listened and exchanged smiles. Only in France. IMG_1794We saw groups of gendarmes at nearly every intersection and square. Near the building below, we bumbled onto the assembly point for the gilets jaunes, and passed a bunch of people in T-shirts with DIY labels of “medical volunteer.” They had spritzer bottles tucked into the straps of their backpacks. I didn’t want to be around for when those would be needed.IMG_1786We managed to avoid any action. Anyway, the timing of things here works to one’s advantage. Nothing, but nothing is going to happen anywhere until after lunch, which ends at 2 p.m. Talk about sacred. Which means the yellow vests were just getting together around then and didn’t start marching or whatever until a good hour later. By then we were far away.IMG_1775I would like to live across the street from this building. Across the street so I would see it every time I looked out my windows. I’m a sucker for Art Deco and a sucker for mosaics. They don’t make buildings like they used to.IMG_1776For example the one below. It was on a narrow street, so the interiors must be terribly dark with the metal façade, which apparently can open like shutters.IMG_1796IMG_1795On the other hand, I rather liked the geometry of the building below, with the sharp zigzags contrasting with the layered cake rounds that resemble the Guggenheim in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.IMG_1785IMG_1769I liked the repetition with the rounded columns on the Art Deco building in the foreground on the left. (More bikes!)IMG_1799We parked on one of the boulevards rather than in an underground garage, which I usually use. Another example of good city planning: two hours of parking was only €1; four hours was €2 and four hours and 45 minutes was €20. This encourages people to park for short errands and discourages the nearby office workers from leaving their cars there all day (you can’t just feed the meter, either–you have to enter your license plate number and you get a ticket that you have to leave on your dashboard.) Our feet were plenty tired before our four hours were up. IMG_1797I took so many shots that I’ll do another post with just doors and windows.

 

Good Day, Sunshine

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 9.09.24 PMIt is with great honor and reddened cheeks that I learned I was nominated for a Sunshine Blogger Award by The Vintage Contessa. Who knew!

La Contessa herself is a star, in an allegorical solar sense. She radiates happiness even though she has had some health scares. She either knows or is bound to meet everybody interesting that you can imagine. She is modest but magnetic. SHE LIKES CAPITAL LETTERS.

And, she seems like a ton of fun.

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A few local sunrise/sunset shots seem appropriate.

Since her sunny disposition already has received attention, I must whittle down the list to three other bloggers. This is difficult, because I have far more than three. And so, I wrote them down and drew out of a hat. Just to be fair.

But first, questions were asked, and I will be asking some as well. La Contessa asked:

1. What is the ONE ITEM YOU CANNOT FIND IN FRANCE FOOD OR OTHERWISE THAT YOU MISS?

Girl Scout cookies. Thin Mints, especially. I would even go for the knock-offs: Grasshopper cookies. 

2. What was the ONE THING that TERRIFIED YOU THE MOST about MOVING ABROAD?

This is hard because I have lived in other countries before. The first time was with the Peace Corps in Africa, and I suppose I was terrified of big bugs and of getting sick. Later, I lived in Belgium. By the time I moved to France, it wasn’t very exotic. The biggest culture shock was urban to rural, not U.S. to France. I had always been a city dweller, except for my time in Africa. IMG_02243. Do YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST FRIEND YOU MADE in FRANCE? IF SO ARE YOU STILL FRIENDS? Tell us about the first encounter!

This is a hard one, because we first make acquaintances, and it’s through life that they become friends. The first good friend was at the park. I took my baby to crawl on the grass and there was this woman with a baby about the same age. Of course we noticed each other and started talking. That led to regular—daily, rain or shine—meetings at the park. She taught me so much. The baby she was with wasn’t her own but a foster child. She is a true saint who has taken in so many children. She’s somebody I never tire of talking with, her cassoulet is so good it brings me to tears and she never corrects my verb conjugations. As I said, a true saint.

4. What do YOU MISS MOST of YOUR HOMELAND?

Family. I was very close to my siblings, despite having lived overseas or very, very far away almost all of my adult life. We can talk all night. When we’re together, I am nearly doubled over the entire time with a stomach ache… from laughing. Sore cheeks and the whole thing. I love them so. 

The other thing I miss is Mexican food. IMG_7129Now the nominees:

Michele of Hello Lovely. The name says it all. Looking at her posts is a kind of zen meditation for me. Immediate de-stressing. Plus, the woman is prolific! She does all this with a smile and oodles of chic, despite having struggled with health issues. That’s sunshine.

D.A. of Daily Plate of Crazy. Again, an appropriate name. D.A. is a gifted writer whose essays are always relevant and thought-provoking. She also has a sunny demeanor besides also facing health challenges. She teaches by example.

Elizabeth of Pinecones and Acorns.  I can gain three kilos just reading her blog, which always features beautiful, delicious recipes. We share a love of France (actually, Michele and D.A. are committed francophiles as well) and of Egyptology. Life has thrown her some lemons, too, and she has made lemonade. Sunshine.IMG_7544I feel guilty sticking to three because there are quite a few others who bring sunshine to my days. The Internet can be a cesspool, but these people restore my faith in humanity. They bring me new ideas and make me smile.

On to the questions for the three (but everybody can answer, too!). Not the Proust questionnaire, though that’s a tempting choice for a roster of francophiles.

1. How or where do you find the joy in each day?

2. Tell us about a happy day of your life—not necessarily the happiest–those tend to be milestones like births and weddings–but just an ordinary day that you look back on as a time of carefree bliss?

3. What is your péché mignon—your guilty pleasure?

4. What piece of advice or wisdom can you share with us? It can be practical or profound.IMG_7545Rules for the Sunshine Award
1. Thank the person who nominated you and include a link back to their blog.

2. Answer the questions given by the person who nominated you.

3. Nominate other blogs and give questions for them to answer.

4. Notify your nominees through social media or by commenting on their blogs.

5. List the rules and display a Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post.

I hope readers will also enjoy these four writers, whose sunny dispositions come through in their work. And you’re all invited to answer the questions, too, and to name other favorite blogs.IMG_6354

 

Purging

IMG_1690I recently Marie Kondo-ed my wardrobe. (New life goal: have my name become a verb; this might be even better than having my name become a dessert or a cheese.) I haven’t read the book nor seen the show, but I had the assistance of a knowledgeable friend. In fact, a second opinion is invaluable when sorting one’s stuff. Perhaps MK herself suggests it.

I Marie Kondo-ed other parts of the house, too. Books. DVDs. Kitchen stuff. The discard pile grew. I made many trips to the déchetterie, or dump.

Next step was selling the good stuff: a vide-grenier. Individual garage or yard sales aren’t allowed here; one must go to a communal flea market. Usually the space is €1 or €2 per meter, with those proceeds going to the organizing group–usually a club or a school. Participants have to fill out a form, so as to separate the twice-a-year purgers from the every-weekend vendors that are supposed to pay tax. As all-day outdoor events, vide-greniers pause during winter, but the season is gearing up again. It was the first weekend with several–a good thing, because folks like to make a day of it, hitting several on a circuit.

The first time I did a vide-grenier, it was cut short–by noon the blazing sun had disappeared behind roiling black clouds, and everybody packed up fast as fat raindrops pelted down. I didn’t care–I had sold almost everything and had made nearly €500.

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Not crowded.

We loaded the cars the day before and got up at 5 in order to set up. Vide-greniers start early. I got in plenty of steps before sunrise.

Then we waited. A few people came by, but attendance was thin. We figured that selling for low prices was better than taking the stuff to the déchetterie. But even so, people haggled mercilessly. Some haggling is normal–you have something you bought for €30, used once and haven’t touched since. It seems like €15 would be reasonable, or even €10. We would start at €5 and end up at €2. If we were lucky. One guy wanted a DVD. Figuring I’d never get €2, I said €1. He insisted on 50 centimes. I accepted, half kicking myself. Then he pushed further: 40 centimes. I said, forget it. He threw the 50-centime piece at me.

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The other outfit (it has matching pants) from the same shop as the suit I showed the other day, la Bonne Renomée. Nobody even gave it a glance.
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Not fast fashion.

Other people looked carefully, then reassessed and put back a few things, as if to stay on budget. If they were polite, I gave them a crazy low price, then also handed them the things they wanted but had put back. Times are tough.

A little girl bought a stuffed animal. She was maybe four years old–she still had her front baby teeth. She had a little bag from which she primly pulled out a big polka-dot change purse. She examined her money and frowned. “I only have €2,” she told her father. The toy was €1. He explained that I would give her back €1, that €1 plus €1 makes €2. You could see it soaking into her four-year-old brain. It was too cute. She beamed and did a little jumping dance. I gave her a bonus of some colorful shoelaces, still in their package.

During one of the many lulls, I left my kid, aka The Closer, in charge and walked around. Everybody was selling the same things: Old clothes, old toys, old electronic gadgets of dubious reliability. I saw two dozen child car seats; no wonder nobody gave ours a glance. IMG_1689But it was the clothes that got me. Piles and piles and piles. I looked it up: clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, and we wear each item a third less than we did in 2000. People throw away–not including recycling–an average of 70 pounds of clothes and shoes per person each year.

We have bins around here to collect clothes and shoes. It’s sorted–decent stuff is resold at places like la Croix Rouge, damaged stuff is made into rags, and the dregs are ground up into insulation. It’s where our leftovers are headed.

We packed up at 5 p.m., having earned a whopping €45. I don’t know what kind of economic indicator it is–does it reflect a widespread fast-fashion hangover? Is it that even €2 is too much for some people to spend? Was it a one-off, a date when people had other things to do, and the vide-grenier season will boom later?

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She doesn’t look like a vampire.

Separately, this photo was too good not to share. The window says: “Frequent Stops/Blood Samples.” I bet nobody tailgates!

Spring Cleaning

P1070307It’s time to clean up this old ruin.

The stretch of fine weather and the impending arrival of a houseguest motivated me to do some spring cleaning. Especially cleaning the windows, which my French friends do once a week but which I do quite a bit less. We have So Many Windows. And it’s such a Sisyphean task. You clean them, it rains and they get spots. Clear blue skies are forecast for another week, so I went for it. I have the song “Aquarius” by The Fifth Dimension in my head–the refrain “bear the sunshine” was in a Windex commercial many decades ago. (Check out the link to the music video! Peace and Love!)P1070660I had the brilliant idea to treat some wood with beeswax, but it wouldn’t come out of the bottle. It is very stupid to bottle beeswax because it isn’t very runny (which reminds me of another commercial from childhood, for Heinz ketchup to the tune of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation”). I ran the bottle under hot water, then got completely spattered with wax when I opened it. Someone, not me, thought it was funny. The remaining beeswax was poured into a wide-mouth jar, which is how it should have been sold to begin with.P1060959It’s nice to spiff up one’s stuff from time to time. Some people are all about replacing with new, but I have fidelity to my things. On Sunday, our kid made focaccia in the kitchen, chatting with me as I sat at the table with the sewing machine and dispensed with a pile of mending. So many ripped seams. Simple to fix; just takes the time to get out the machine, thread the needle (increasingly difficult), do it. My mom darned socks and patched our clothes. Mending and sewing seem very last-century, but there are zillions of videos of young women repairing and adjusting thrift-store finds. One of them inspired me to tailor some pants that I had found a little too saggy. I suspect I will wear them more now (plus I dyed them “tulip red” so they’re like new).P1070662The Carnivore and I dragged all the patio furniture out of the garden shed and cleaned it. I pulled weeds and he trimmed the oleander–it already had flower buds and I hope it will hurry up and made new ones. Pale pink and deep “féria” magenta, they make a colorful wall around us. There are still many weeds, more than grass. Another Sisyphean task. P1060957I dream of downsizing, so that the portion of my life devoted to maintenance shrinks and the portion devoted to enjoying life can expand. Some people take their enjoyment from maintenance itself, which seems like mental judo–using the opponent’s own weight against him. Don’t fight head on, but direct the energy to your advantage. I respect that, but I’d still like more time for museums.P1070736Do you do spring cleaning, or are you a clean-all-the-time type? Any tips to share?

 

Spring in My Step

IMG_1378Printemps, or spring, started here about a month ago, but now it’s official. What a joy to have that thin dawn light on waking, instead of inky darkness that makes one want to roll over and curl up. The birds are singing their lungs out, the sky is turning brilliant hues before the sun makes its formal appearance over the horizon. It’s energizing. It’s easy to get out of bed.IMG_1259The vignerons, or winegrowers, are hustling to prune the vines before they bud out. We barely got any frost, let alone a hard freeze or snow, this winter. Frost is a threat until les saints glace–the ice saints–in early May. The afternoons are wonderfully warm, but it’s plain cold before dawn. Spring in the south of France is long and slow, in no rush for those baked days of summer. It tempts and taunts, with surprisingly balmy days followed by a wash of cold gray. We’ve had a good four weeks of almost-uninterrupted blue skies, and even the big, heavy clouds didn’t deliver. The garden is parched, the soil hard. I actually want rain.IMG_1379I’ve been reading about the floods in the Midwest. So awful, and so soon after the last floods. I know how they feel, at least kind of. We were isolated, with no roads, no telephone or Internet, for several days following flash floods last fall. Our house and most of the village escaped damage, but 15 people died nearby and many homes, businesses and farms were devastated. Too much rain, too fast. It happens more and more.

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This little stream was a raging river back in October.

IMG_1257On these nice days, I’m trying to get out for walks. I was really into it for a while, then lapsed. I think it happened when I overdid the running and my knees started to hurt and make strange noises. I took a rest and the rest took over. In fact, that happened just before the flood, which washed away my jogging path, so even when my knee was better, I had an excuse not to go out. I am picky about where I run–I avoid cars and, above all, dogs. IMG_1267IMG_1396IMG_1364The park path is being completely redone, full of earth-movers at the moment, so I’ve been setting off on country lanes. I appreciate getting to a spot where you don’t hear anything but nature. The wind in the pines, the birds singing. In summer, the cicadas thrumming. IMG_1243IMG_1380

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Promise!

IMG_1251IMG_1366I have a Fitbit that tracks my steps. I really like the no-delusions-of-grandeur factual accounting of what I’m doing. If I spend a day at my desk, I can’t dismiss it with embellished ideas about having walked around the house enough to count for something. Because it doesn’t. Fitbit takes your age, height and weight and calculates how many calories you’ve burned, based on the number of steps and heart rate. My average is just shy of the recommended minimum of 10,000 steps, burning an average of 1,980 calories. That is awful! No wonder it gets hard to maintain a steady weight, and even worse to lose weight, as you age.IMG_1266

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Like stars in the sky.

IMG_1260 Yesterday we brought out all the patio furniture and worked in the yard. I continued my Sisyphean fight against weeds. Soon I will plant the bee and butterfly garden. Something low maintenance–one and done. Native plants that won’t need to be watered.

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Can’t resist repeating my IG pun: WALLFLOWERS!!!! My friend B would have loved it.

IMG_1376Spring cleaning inside may occur soon. Not exactly Marie Kondo, though definitely purging some joyless junk. A moratorium on acquisitions of anything but comestibles. Just don’t need it. I want to shake off winter and stuff and just breathe.IMG_1370

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I know I showed some of these ladies recently, but I can’t help thinking of them every time I see these flowering bushes.

IMG_1367Another aimless post, as weightier topics swirl in my mind. Like a snow globe. When they settle, I will set them out. Do you do the same? What are your spring rituals?

 

Spontaneous Connections

44.Maison BorDo you talk to strangers? Offer unsolicited advice or compliments? End up in a conversation with someone whose name you don’t even know?

Even though I consider myself shy, I like to help. When I see tourists scrutinizing a map or stoically walking, their luggage in tow, away from town, I stop and offer directions. This drives my family crazy. Overall, I love people, and I love crowds, but I was brought up not to impose myself, not to speak unless spoken to. So generally I observe and enjoy.

The other day at the market, I finished shopping before my carpool duties kicked in, so I stopped at a café. It was raining and my usual haunt, Le Carnot, was packed inside. Usually I sit outside, the better to catch the stream of friends passing by, who also tend to congregate at Le Carnot. The servers are efficient, friendly and easy on the eyes, so what’s not to like? However, I didn’t want to navigate my loaded shopping caddy through the packed café to search for an empty table in the back.

Maison Bor, across the square, looked less busy. A big awning sheltered the outdoor tables, but even one smoker is too many for me, so I went in. The server saw me coming and opened the door. I felt welcomed.

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Not nougats. But you’ll soon see the connection.

I parked my caddy next to another by a table full of nougats, the house specialty, and got a table near the back. More people came in. A couple to my left talked to a guy reading the newspaper to my right. An elaborately coiffed and made-up older woman came in and sat at the table right next to me. “Oh, my! It’s crowded,” she crooned as she unpeeled layers of coats, scarves and such. She set a plastic container on the table and opened it.

The couple got up to say hello, with double kisses all around, to another couple at a table farther away. The newspaper guy joined their conversation without getting up from his table. A woman came in, found all the tables occupied, and asked to join the table (for four) of the newspaper guy. I just sat and listened to it all. Somebody had gotten out of the hospital. Grandchildren were visiting this afternoon. The headlines in the paper. The awful weather.

The server came to take the order of the woman next to me. The first couple were back at their table and asked for the bill. The server said “€2.40,” and the woman of the couple said, “What? Not free?” To which the server replied, “Oh! It was free yesterday! But I didn’t see you yesterday!” Their joking was light, friendly banter. The server was a big, burly guy, in his late 30s maybe. I grew up thinking that being a waiter was something you did when you’re young or in between other things, but in France it’s as legitimate a career as anything else, and certainly servers are extremely professional. I like that. Work of any kind deserves respect–self-respect and respect from others.P1080699The woman next to me started talking to me about the weather. I said it was cold, but that where I was from it was worse. My brother had sent me a video of instantly freezing boiling water. The woman looked me over and said, “Ah, I thought I detected an accent! I LOVE American accents!” She went on to lament the state of U.S. politics and to mourn  Obama’s departure. This happens every single time somebody finds out I’m American.

The couple began to bundle up to head out. The guy with the newspaper teased them about overdoing it. The man of the couple said they were heading out into Siberia. (It was about 4 Celsius, or not quite 40 Fahrenheit, miserably cold for these parts, where it rarely freezes.) The newspaper guy replied that he had just read about the polar vortex (he called it la vague de froid–cold wave–I haven’t heard “polar vortex” used yet), with temperatures of minus 38 (turns out Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same at that point). He described the instantly frozen boiling water trick.

The woman next to me piped up, saying I was a native of true winters and that my brother had frozen boiling water. This led to an animated five-table-plus-server discussion of weather, culture, politics and food (I challenge you to talk to any French person without one of you bringing up food. Impossible).

The couple finally extricated themselves. I nursed my coffee a while longer, chatting with the woman next to me. She asked the server for a piece of lettuce, for her snails. That was what was in the plastic container! She tilted it so I could admire the snails. One had already escaped and was cruising across the table.

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With butter, garlic and parsley. They were in a huge skillet, about 3 feet in diameter. I passed.

I asked whether she was going to eat them. She was aghast. Bien sûr que non! They were mignon (cute) and she was going to give them a new lease on life in her small garden. I told her I had an surplus of snails in mine, no need to add. (I didn’t tell her that I put on rubber gloves after it rains and collect them for release into the prairie where they have plenty to eat and can leave my parsley alone. Yet no matter how often I do it, they are everywhere.)

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Not my yard! Where I exile snails.

She picked up the escapee and with perfect red fingernails held it about an inch from her nose. It stretched its head and feelers around, a bit like a baby that’s held up in front of its parent. She brought it toward her lips (which matched her nails) and gave it a kiss. “Si mignon!” (so cute!) she assured me.

We talked a while more about such banalities that I don’t even remember them, but I enjoyed the conversation. It was time to fetch the carpoolees, so I wished her and everybody else in the café a good day and headed into the rain. Carcassonne is a small town and I don’t doubt I’ll see Snail Lady again.

Feel free to share your tales of spontaneous connections.