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.

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French Frats

img_0728Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité. The motto of France. And another kind of fraternity–une confrérie–is more like a brotherhood, and in typical French logic, is a feminine noun. They started out being quasi-religious and charitable, but now are mostly based on promoting certain traditions, especially those having to do with gastronomy.

The confréries are a way for French foodies to indulge their gastronomic obsession along with their love of pomp and ceremony, tradition and regulation, seriousness and silliness. You name something to eat or drink and there’s a club devoted to it. They dress up in costumes and attend each other’s festivals. 

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See the little bunch of grapes on the hat?

The ones that really slay me are when they wear a cup around their necks. Be prepared!

There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Boudin Noir (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Black Blood Sausage) and the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Haricot de Soissons (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Soissons Beans). There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique de l’Ordre de l’Echalote de Busnes (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Order of the Busnes Shallot) and the Chevaliers de la Poularde (Knights of the Hen). The Carnivore was in fact a member of la Confrérie du Taste-Cerise. Two groups are dedicated to cassoulet: the Academie Universelle du Cassoulet and the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet. I wrote about the Academie here. And la Confrérie Los Trufaïres de Vilanova de Menerbès (that’s Occitan–the ancient language of this region–for the truffle brotherhood of Villeneuve Minvervois) here.

 

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Banners: la Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, left, and la Mesnie des Chevaliers du Fitou (the house of the Knights of Fitou)

Belonging to a gastronomic brotherhood involves dressing up in medieval costumes and getting together to eat your chosen dish regularly, as well as helping to promote it and preserve its purity and traditions in France and around the world. It’s the Chamber of Commerce, with a big dose of bons vivants. You can see a parade of various groups at the Toques et Clochers festival I wrote about here; toques are the hats worn by chefs, while clochers are church bells. The festival raises money via food and drink to restore a church belfry each year.

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Her hair!

Anyway, French frats came to mind on Saturday, when, while buying locally grown cauliflower at the market, I was distracted by the dulcet tones of horns. How appropriate! Of course, I had to investigate. I didn’t figure the gilets jaunes had brought in a band.

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I love the range of ages of the musicians.
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Also, the guy in the crowd with a chic scarf that matches the ribbon for his medal.

By then, a men’s choir, le Choeur des Hommes des Corbières–a neighboring wine territory–had started singing. I can’t upload videos here, but you can see one on my Instagram. An elderly gentleman, wearing a long apron and a hat, poured little cups of wine for the crowd from a wooden cask hanging around his neck. It was 10 a.m.

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The cask! I love his hat. Also the beret in the top photo, as common as baseball caps here. Without irony.
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A giant wine bottle on a litter. A Melchior? It was about three feet tall.
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The maker of la Tour Boisée wine. I wrote about it here. This is one of the few wines from this small region, Minervois, that’s sold abroad. If you find it, buy it! (Personal recommendation–I get nothing from them!)

It was the feast of Saint Vincent, patron saint of winegrowers. So the national gastronomic club of Prosper Montagné (hometown boy, born in Carcassonne, inventor of the food truck, writer of the original Larousse Gastronomique, which is the bible of French cuisine) organizes a march past Montagné’s childhood home to the Church of St. Vincent (of COURSE a church in the center of Carcassonne is dedicated to St. Vincent!) for a blessing of the wine. Then they paraded through the central Place Carnot and on around the corner to a former church (they were about one per block back in the Middle Ages and now only a couple of bigger ones are still used) that now is a temple to bullfighting, headquarters of the Cercle Taurin. You can see the local TV coverage here.img_0754It was all wrapped up with a gastronomic dinner. Of course.

 

 

Winter in France Profonde

img_0347The wind has been howling for what seems like weeks. The temperature has tumbled into the low single digits Celsius (mid-30s Fahrenheit). The gray sky is so low it seems to lie like an uncomfortable blanket on the rooftops.

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The Pyrénées.

Even though I have cabin fever I don’t venture out. I put on a coat, with the hood on, to open and close the shutters. The wind often tears them out of my hand and they clack hard against the house. Good thing it’s solid.img_0287I am fighting another kind of fever–the kind that accompanies achy joints and a throat made sore from sleeping with one’s mouth open because of congested sinuses. I’m not sick but I feel like I’ve been on the verge of it since forever. Low energy. The village exercise classes start up again this week after the holiday break, but I can’t go because we have a dinner invitation. I’m almost grateful for the excuse. Usually I would choose exercise over eating. This feeling, like a heavy blanket similar to those heavy gray clouds, weighs down. It stifles my brain.

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Again the Pyrénées on the horizon.

I look over the rolling hills of this “plain” where we live, and they are at once similar to the plains where I grew up, and yet so different. No snow, though we might get a few flakes (but tomatoes are still growing in the garden and one of the roses bush has a beautiful red blossom). The sky this morning looked like snow. The early light was wan orange, the color of the vitamin C tablets I’ve been sucking on. It wasn’t like a blazing sunrise; it was uniform, the same pale orange all over. Rather beautiful, actually. Almost like the woozy grayish yellow the sky turns before a tornado. This isn’t tornado territory nor season, though.

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Do you see the ribbon of white, mostly on the left and all the way at the edge of the right? Fog along the Aude river.

img_0345The plains here are green in winter and brown in summer. The winter wheat is pushing up. The weeds between the rows of grapevines are living it up. I see solitary winegrowers bent over the vines, pruning them. The line is stark between where they’ve pruned and the wild tangles yet to do. I don’t envy them. I don’t think it’s possible to wear enough layers to stay warm out there, unprotected from the wind. In some places, such grueling work is done by machines, but not here. Doing it by hand gives better quality. I am grateful for these people for whom quality still counts.p1050813One day between the holidays, when it was quite a bit warmer (over 10 C, or in the low 50s F), I took a walk. Checked on our sometimes unruly river. Checked on the village. There are always folks out walking. Some walk in groups, probably the same friends since they were toddlers. Little old ladies trek to the village cemetery, sometimes a couple of times a day. Over the years, I watch their hair go white as they stop trying to keep up with dye jobs, their little dogs slow down then disappear, canes appear. They sometimes stop me to tell me they’ve seen my kid out in the village and my, what a grownup now and I remember when….img_0466img_0472img_0471On a couple of weekends, I made detours on back roads to avoid the gilet jaune protests. I saw some pretty things, like the boat on the canal in the top photo. And these locks.img_0351I also walked around a few cute villages, but I have to gather some stories or history or something to go with the photos of them. Another day, when it was gray but not cold, I walked over to la Cité. It looks like a movie set in the winter–few people, the stones very medieval moody.

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Verdant for January, no? This is the moat of the castle inside la Cité. No water–it’s on a hilltop.

img_0328img_0330From Pont Vieux at the bottom of la Cité, you get another view of the Pyrénées. Can you spy the people strolling along the river? There’s parkland on both sides, with the prettiest paths that go really far.

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I was amused by the ducks and then…
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A bunch of pigeons flew over. 

I want to cook up another bunch of comforting chili, but I think we will have eggs tonight. The Carnivore bought a truffle at the market in Mousselens, and when you have a truffle, you eat it with every meal until it’s gone. It goes best with mild foods that don’t compete for your attention. It deserves the starring role. Eggs, risotto and potatoes all work well. More on that next time.

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There are bright days in between!

Are you avoiding cabin fever and fever fever? Are you a winter person or just hunkering down and enduring it?p1060504

Finger Food Feast

IMG_0453Last weekend, we had a bunch of friends over for a little party. Too many people to put around a table, but it’s fun to get everybody together and not just in summer, when there’s plenty of space outside.

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It only looks like a lot of glasses.

We kept it smaller than the Fête de la Lumière last year, inviting about 20 people. The menu was similar but hey, we can’t rest on our laurels! Make new friends but keep the old…and that goes for recipes, too.Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 9.41.26 PMAs usual, I made a spreadsheet. This is so helpful for making a shopping list. I duplicated last year’s, and just deleted or added dishes as needed. So the big work is the first time, and then you just have to tweak.

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Chili…so delicious!

This time, the big course was vegetarian chili. I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe and it was a hit. I did not, however, roast the sweet potatoes. Are you kidding? Everybody knows chili is better on Day 2, so I made it the day before. I feared the sweet potatoes would be cooked to mush even if they went in raw. I doubled the recipe, and while we had leftovers, there wasn’t all that much extra–lunch for me and the kid for just two days after. The French famously dislike spicy food, and this wasn’t spicy at all; we had a bottle of Tabasco on the side for those who were adventurous.IMG_0450We served the chili with cornbread (3/4 cup butter; 2 eggs, 1.5 cups buttermilk mixed/ 1 cup cornmeal, 3/4 cup white flour, 1/4 tsp baking powder; 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt; one can (a little more than a cup) of corn. Mix the dry, mix the wet, mix the two together. Bake at 400F/200C for about 25 minutes–check halfway in and turn if one side is browning faster than the other). Big hit.

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Deviled eggs, aka oeufs mimosa, and Thai chicken wings.
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The Thai drumsticks…something a little offbeat is always welcome. 

As usual, there were deviled eggs, Thai chicken wings and drumsticks (baked in the oven at 400F/200C the day before, then reheated in batches) with peanut sauce, crudités with ranch dressing, and homemade hummus (1 big can of chickpeas, about 400 g, rinsed; one clove of garlic, some (maybe 1/4 cup?) olive oil, tahini (about 1/4 cup) and lemon juice to thin it out). The difference between homemade hummus and store-bought is night and day, and homemade is so easy.IMG_0439To go with the hummus, the kid made (at the last minute!) some rosemary cheese sablés. Kind of this recipe, but without the olives, which the kid hates, and instead with fresh rosemary from the garden. Doubled the recipe and they disappeared. They mostly were eaten plain, but they were available for the hummus, as were baguettes from the bakery.

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Mystery meatballs. Mystery as in no recipe, just made on the fly.

I wanted to recreate the meatballs I made last year, which were a big hit, but I realized the recipe I had saved I didn’t use last time; I think I made something vaguely Italian. This time I had hoisin sauce, but I made up the recipe on the fly: ground pork, LOTS of fresh minced onion, a couple of eggs, some breadcrumbs to stick. The onion is essential for moist, tasty meatballs that don’t get hard. I baked the meatballs in the oven and didn’t even need to turn them. Bake them on a cookie sheet at 400F/200C only until they’re just cooked, then put them into a glass dish for reheating; they’ll brown up more.  A hot oven is good for cooking them fast without drying them out.

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Meatballs and chicken, ready to be warmed in the oven.

Half the table was given over to charcuterie, per the Carnivore. The cheese assortment was barely touched in light of the rest of the bounty.IMG_0418Rather than cheese, people skipped straight to dessert: chocolate crinkle cookies, a nut sheet cake (cut into squares) and, of course, Christmas cookies. Our friend brought his grandma’s famous chocolate mousse. Quelle délice! And, when everybody could eat no more but didn’t want to leave, the clementines were passed around.

We do like to use real plates and silverware. It’s easier to hold, feels fancier and, after so many years with the same dishes, is more economical and environmental.IMG_0424I didn’t dress up, but I do have a fun dress that I got during the soldes a while back. It’s silk, so it’s light enough to wear in summer; it has sleeves, so it’s OK for winter. It’s so, so simple, yet…IMG_0427Do you see the pattern?IMG_0430Yes, tiny Eiffel towers and gold stars in a black sky of stars. So appropriate.

One of my favorite hostess gifts that people brought was this box of savory toast spreads. We already tested a couple of them and they are delicious. Bio, too (organic). IMG_0474I think I covered all the recipes, but if you have questions, let me know! Lots of good stuff, with big impact with little effort or budget.

Best Wishes for 2019

IMG_2916Which doors will you open in 2019? Which ones will you close? Which of either will be by choice or driven by circumstances?IMG_0475January 1 is just another day, yet it’s a marker that we can choose to use. Even before calendars, humans marked the solstices and equinoxes. I am sure they made plans, too–“this season I’m going to find a new hunting ground” or “this time I’m going to plant more rice.” The first step in making a change is planning.IMG_2161Planning isn’t everything. A dear loved one used to make plans and lists, sometimes in great detail. But nothing ever happened. Tomorrow is another day, until our tomorrows run out. I think she was shackled by a fear of failure–if you dare to do something, it might not turn out, but if you just plan, it stays full of shiny potential.IMG_0650 2What are your goals for 2019? Where do you want to be? I love reading and hearing about what others do–it’s motivating, as if we’re all pulling, not so much together as at the same time.IMG_0477 2

My goals include going back to my favorite Pilates class even though it’s expensive because it did so much good for my back; improving my French, especially grammar, and, within that, especially verb conjugations, namely nailing conditionnel/imparfait, which are not at all the same thing but whose endings are devilishly identical (couldn’t they have come up with a different set of endings instead of reusing them?). Speaking of French, I found a new podcast that I really like: “Spla$h,” by a pair of French economics professors (in French), who do an excellent job of explaining some economic questions–not so much in a supply/demand/M2 way but in terms of “how did we end up with this situation?” For example, they did an excellent job of explaining the ire over tolls on the autoroutes and why those highways have tolls to begin with. IMG_0476 2I also want to write every day, not for the blog or for work, but just for myself. And to spend less time keeping up with the news, which only upsets me. On the other hand, I want to subscribe to another news publication (the New Yorker?) because I like getting news from multiple sources, and I want to support legitimate journalists. It isn’t a contradiction–I want to stop having a heart attack every time I get an email alert about some breaking news (in fact, maybe I should just unsubscribe from those), yet be well-informed about the news with context. chateau doorThe biggest change I made in 2018 was to be far more conscious of the environment. I always considered myself an environmentalist (one sibling called me a tree hugger), but I only started composting early last year. Before I heard this, I didn’t think about how nylon in clothing was going to last forever, except for the parts that break down into toxic microbeads of plastic and foul the soil or water. I did think about how bad meat is, yet I ate it regularly anyway; now I’m about 90% vegetarian. I want to continue to ramp it up, to consume more thoughtfully and to consume less overall.IMG_0479 2If you want some tips or motivation for achieving your goals, check out these excellent episodes from the podcast Hidden Brain: on habits and on resolutions and, from Freakonomics, on tricks to boost your willpower (like “temptation bundling”!!!).

Which doors are in store for you in 2019?P1100773

Party Prep

IMG_0311Christmas was just yesterday but I am so over it already. It was lovely and quiet and cozy, but even though our celebration was low-key, I feel like I’m coming off a sugar high from the saccharine consumerism everywhere. It permeates the air. It’s like second-hand smoke.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the decorations, the carols, the food. We joined the no-gift movement, so there was no pressure for shopping. We spent Christmas afternoon baking cookies. For Christmas dinner (on Christmas Eve), we ate favorite dishes–ris de veau  (veal sweetbread–the thalmus to be specific) in a mushroom cream sauce for the Carnivore and tofu turkey loaf with risotto for me and our kid. The Carnivore even flambéed his ris de veau. Cut no corners.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, we watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” AND the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Childrens’ shows were so classy in the 1960s, with jazz on the soundtracks. Even the Grinch song has a jazzy feel.

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A mocha bûche de noël…from a bakery. Very good!

We are gearing up for a little party on Friday with our neighbors–about 18 people, so too many for a sit-down dinner. Instead, we are hosting an apéritif dinatoire, or appetizer buffet, as we did last year for the Fête de la Lumière, which came and went earlier this month without us getting our act together.

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Count on a wine region to work the local specialty into holiday decorations.

In fact, today I must get the chicken wings in their marinade and make a few dishes. I can do the crudités and the ranch dressing while our kid decorates the cookies that we made yesterday. Thinking about buffets I have known and loved, I realize that while cheesy potatoes or green bean casserole are delicious, they aren’t in the French style. For one thing, it’s hard to eat with a knife and fork from a plate perched on your lap. So almost everything in our buffet is cold (except the wings and meatballs) and made in single servings that are easy to pick up and eat with one’s fingers.

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The reindeer lights just above the fake cacti made me smile.

The plates are dessert size, which is easier to hold with one hand. They’re real china, not plastic, and have gotten a lot of use in the 20 years I’ve had them. We noticed a happy side effect–the small plates mean people get up to serve themselves again from the buffet. And they often sit down in a different spot, which encourages mingling. Only the eldest member of our gang stayed in one seat for the entire evening; everybody else played a kind of musical chairs.

I’ll try to get some photos and will share recipes next week, because it’s unlikely I’ll post on Friday.

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The Carcassonne Christmas market and produce market hip by jowl on Saturday.

How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?

 

 

 

Christmas in Carcassonne

IMG_0238Signs of Christmas everywhere. Windows decorated, especially at the bakeries and chocolate shops. The shop above, Bimas, is renowned in Carcassonne, a veritable art gallery of cakes and chocolates. Eye candy for the mouth. P1060388The bûches de noël range from traditional to more modern, like the ones above. P1060329And graisse de noël–Christmas fat!–has appeared in the cheese shops. Graisse de noël is a cross between Cantal cheese and butter. Very rich, very good.IMG_0249IMG_0250Shops are decorated, mostly low-key, with wreaths and garlands, but some, like the florist above, are in full-on holiday mode.

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Minimalist, yet somehow cozy.
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The bane of crafty pallets has arrived.

The skating rink is trying to stay frozen as temperatures climb into the mid-teens Celsius (flirting with 60 Fahrenheit). The Christmas market and holiday amusement park fill with people in the evenings when the lights go on. Square Gambetta’s plane trees twinkle with lights. I like its tree.IMG_0242I was surprised to see flowers blooming in the square. Roses and whatever these plants are. The leaves look like bamboo, but what are those pink flowers?IMG_0247IMG_0245People tend to do low-key decorations on their homes, too. A few lights, some wreaths. An occasional Santa hanging from a window or balcony.IMG_0014Even little villages decorate. I like the variety of church steeples outlined in lights.

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You know you’re in France when there’s a château in the background.

IMG_0220Of course, la Cité needs no decoration. It was particularly moody on a foggy morning last week.IMG_0232The sunrises and sunsets lately have been stunning. This photo is as-is, no editing. Kind of like this post, which is a verbal potluck.IMG_0224Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you. May all your sunrises be beautiful and bright.

Shining Cité on a Hill

P1080806Even after so many years of living in Carcassonne, I still get tingles at the sight of la Cité. As I drive into town, my eyes scan the distance for its distinctive turrets. I know where to train my eye on my usual routes, but yesterday I ran an errand in a different direction, and, wanting to avoid les gilets jaunes, made a big detour.P1060641Les gilets jaunes, or the yellow vests, are the latest wave of protesters, so called because they wear the high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to have in their car. They are angry about a 10% increase in the tax on diesel. Previously, diesel had been significantly cheaper than unleaded gas. In addition, diesel cars get about 30% more mileage, and diesel engines need less maintenance and last longer. So even though diesel cars tend to cost a few thousand euros more than standard cars, they can be worth it if a person drives a lot.05.FEBRUARY 12 - 01At least that used to be the case, and it’s why there has been a proliferation of SUVs–called quatre-fois-quatres, or 4x4s–that are too big to negotiate turns on little village lanes or to fit in typical parking places. In the Bastide, the heart of today’s Carcassonne, they often hop onto the sidewalk, being wider than the streets.Empty street la cite 4Transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in France, and private citizens’ cars make up more than half of that. At one time, car makers promised they had found a way to make diesel clean, which led France and other European countries to push people to switch to diesel cars by making diesel cheaper than unleaded. But it turns out diesel still is dirty.

While I sympathize with idea that people feel squeezed and many have yet to feel an end to the 2008 global crisis, at the same time, hearing SUV drivers complain about a tax on diesel is like hearing smokers complain about a tax on cigarettes.P1060643To broadly generalize, the French like the idea of revolution, of protest. To the barricades! Stick it to the man! Friends fondly reminisce about 1968, even though most were too young to have been throwing pavers in the streets of Paris. When, some years ago, the education poobahs tried to cut a teaching position at our village school, which would have increased already-crowded class sizes, parents immediately organized a strike. Some had strike kits, the way a crafty mom might have a gift-wrapping station, all ready to pack up and carry to wherever it might be needed. Spray paint, poster board, old sheets… I joined them on the roadside–it was how things get done in France, I was told. Indeed, it worked, at least temporarily.P1080790Anyway, on my detour yesterday, I spotted the faraway turrets, ghostly in the rainy mist. As I neared, I came around a turn by the old hospital, where one has a particularly good view, and I gasped, as I always do.P1060644Back in la Cité’s heyday (before 1209), transportation was by foot–by horse if one was wealthy. France’s population is guestimated at around 17 million in the 14th century (an official census didn’t happen until much later, not to mention the issue of changing borders–check out this cool time-lapse video). Today the population is 67 million. Before 1884, when Edouard Delamere-Deboutteville of France built the first (?) gasoline-powered car, there were no automobiles; today France has 32 million passenger cars, and 30% of French households have two cars. When you live in a place where the “new” town dates to 1260 and local history stretches back more than 2,000 years, the change brought by cars in just over 100 years is shocking. And that’s just France–the same change is happening across the globe. Pollution knows no borders.Main drag of la cite emptyClearly the streets of la Cité were made for walking–at most, hand-pulled carts. La Cité’s unique double walls and 52 towers were built to resist attacks and were never breached. The only time Carcassonne fell was in the Albigensian crusade, when Pope Innocent III called for the extermination of the Cathars. Even then, after holding out for two weeks of siege, the inhabitants weren’t overrun but decided to surrender, having gotten news of the mass slaughter in Béziers. They fought the man, but the man won. In fact, the Inquisition followed.Remparts à la Cité de CarcassonneThe gilets jaunes vow to continue, and even ramp up, their protests. The president, Emmanuel Macron, vows to stay the course. Taxes here are high, yes. But of all the taxes to protest against, why the one on pollution? This protest leaves me ambivalent.

What are your thoughts?

Window on Europe

P1050851There’s a lot to love about Europe. Not just the food, the history, the culture, the architecture, the countrysides, the windows (with a few favorites chosen today to accompany the text). A big part of what makes life here so good is thanks to the European Union. Photos of pretty windows aside, this isn’t the usual light fare yet everything is relevant to most people’s lives–like protecting you against bank fees and phone companies. What’s not to like?IMG_5618A favorite pastime seems to be making fun of silly legislation passed by the European Parliament. But that is often unfair, and sometimes the supposed laws aren’t even for real (get your news from mainstream media!). Take, for example, the Great Olive Oil Affair. The EU wanted to make olive oil labels easier to read and to ban restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable containers … because restaurants were refilling with lower-quality oil. In fact, the olive-oil producing countries were in favor of the ban, yet it was cited as a reason to vote for Brexit, because the Leavers wanted the right to be cheated by restaurants. P1050993In fact, everybody but Emmanuel Macron loves to bash the EU. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit about  “what have the Romans ever done for us.”

Lest anybody think otherwise, I wrote most of this ages ago, and it’s absolutely not intended to troll the U.K. for Brexit. While we all whine about how things need to be better (and lord help us if we get self-satisfied and give up on improving!), we don’t appreciate enough how far we’ve come. Think of this as a pre-Thanksgiving post.P1060197Aside from the big things, like peace, and the ability to travel and trade easily, here are a few ways the EU has improved life:

—Probably the biggest thing has been the reduction of poverty and modernization of southern Europe. Spain, for example, wisely used its generous handouts from the EU to build top-notch infrastructure like high-speed trains. My taxes make Spain better? YES!!!IMG_5219—Since 2006, the EU has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed to fatten livestock. More than a decade later, the U.S. banned certain antibiotics for fattening livestock. While it isn’t 100% proven, some scientists theorize that the obesity epidemic is linked at least to some extent to people consuming so much meat that contains antibiotics. However, the bigger threat is from antibiotic resistance.P1050167—The EU eliminated mobile phone roaming fees within the EU with a “roam like at home” rule. So I can use my basic (yet with unlimited calls) plan of €2 a month even when I’m in another EU country and not get hit with surcharges.

–The “Universal Service Directive” (those EU bureaucrats kill it with sexy names for their laws, don’t you think?) lets you change mobile phone companies but keep your number–and they have one day to switch you over. It encourages competition by making it very easy to switch operators.

—It required the same bank fees for payments, transfers and ATMs within the EU as domestically. No surcharges if you use your bank card at a shop or ATM while traveling.IMG_5129The euro reined in prices. Inflation in France was 24% between 2001 and 2011, compared with 68% between 1981 and 1991. Regarding the years chosen: in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations for the euro. That led to 199, when a single currency in fact, but not name or physical currency, began, because the exchange rates among the first euro members were locked in. The actual euro coins and notes appeared Jan. 1, 2002. (If you click on the link, the headline reads: L’euro fait flamber les prix depuis dix ans? Que nenni! Which means: The euro made prices skyrocket over the past 10 years? Not at all!) And let’s not forget how nice it is to travel around Europe without changing money–that also saved money because each time people or businesses exchanged currencies, they paid a commission.IMG_2694—In particular, prices fell for electronics and home appliances, largely because of cheap imports. And those were possible in part because the EU set standards for member countries (except the U.K. and Ireland), which previously had slightly different plugs, the better to protect domestic producers. IMG_5078All in all, life in the EU is good. Life expectancy has soared to 81 years today from 69 in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from a high of 10 metric tons per capita to 6.7. Those regulations have improved air and water quality, and thus life in general. IMG_4593Things aren’t perfect here, and there are plenty of ways the system could get better. But overall, the EU is a great example of how the government is indeed the solution, not the problem.IMG_3499

The Sharing Tightrope

032.Entrance of La CiteI get Banksy. And Elena Ferrante. And Daft Punk. And George Sand.

When I started this blog, I wanted needed to write about my observations of French life, the things I had been chronicling in regular emails to my parents since moving here. I started the blog when they died, like so many long-married couples, within weeks of each other. I never intended to sell anything, and I still don’t, other than our AirBnB apartments in the center of town. Hence, I kept the spotlight on France. I don’t show myself or, especially, my family and friends. They might not mind one story or photo but they might mind another, and it’s a line I don’t want to cross. I want to share the humanity of our lives without destroying their privacy. They aren’t online influencers, nor am I. We’re just quiet people, leading quiet lives. To be an open book on the Internet, it’s best to remain an enigma. Unless one is a Kardashian.

149.Entrance Chateau Cité
The château of la Cité (because la Cité is a city with a castle in it). No photos here of Oliver and Lina because I was in the moment with them, enjoying their company and not focusing on getting shots.

That said, I have met in person a number of readers who have passed through our beautiful region. It’s always a delight, because they are so enthusiastic about France. I am amazed at how so many people online are truly wonderful people. No, I must correct that: having traveled around the world and having lived in four countries, I can say unequivocally that the vast majority of people are truly wonderful people. It is not amazing at all that people who read about food, history, antiques and travel would be agreeable. 153.Basilique saint NazaireReaders have shared such funny and heartfelt stories of their own in the comments. They have generously offered advice. And support.

The past week, we have enjoyed the company of Oliver and Lina Gee of the Earful Tower podcast. They are even cuter in person than they sound on the air. I found their podcast from another wonderful blog, French Girl in Seattle. A virtuous circle of francophile references.560.La Cité1We watched them do a live video tour of la Cité, and I was impressed by the amount of research Oliver had done. They are brimming with curiosity and enthusiasm about France. I enjoy it much more than the folks who complain about French quirks, which often aren’t quirks at all. They are either individuals being individual or the storyteller is the one really at fault. When our plumber doesn’t completely tighten something, we see it as a quirk of our plumber (and the Carnivore just goes around tightening everything after the plumber is done) and not of French plumbers. I can’t speak to French red tape, because I haven’t encountered any. My carte de séjour was a breeze, so was the driver’s license, so was enrolling our kid in school. Everyone we have encountered in bureaucracy has been very professional and efficient, except one time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we first bought our house here, we opened a bank account at the post office and set up automatic payments for utilities, etc. We were still living in Belgium at the time. We came back to prepare plans for the renovation (all the contractors were very professional, by the way, no tales of woe to share there), and discovered we had no water. We contacted the water utility and learned it was shut off for lack of payment. We ended up at the post office, where we found out the clerk had a question about something and was afraid to call us long-distance and also claimed he didn’t know our address. If anybody knows addresses it’s the post office. Anyway, the money we had deposited was blocked during this saga, no bills had been paid and the post office (more precisely the clerk who took care of banking in the village post office) hadn’t informed us of anything. We promptly took our money to a different bank (which the post office claimed was impossible, they couldn’t possibly accommodate a withdrawal over €400, but they managed. Again, I don’t consider this a French thing but an inept clerk thing–he undoubtedly wanted to hide his screw-up from his supervisors).Stairs to tower of la citeAnyway, back to Oliver and Lina. I will write about each of them individually (Lina designs her own line of shoes!), but in the meantime, get yourself over to the Earful Tower or to iTunes or Stitcher or Spotify or however you get your podcasts and sign up. They usually are based in Paris, but since they got married this summer (so cute!) they are traveling on a little red scooter (so cute!) in a heart-shaped route around France (so cute!). Carcassonne is the bottom point of the heart, exactly on the line that divides France between east and west.alley in la citeThe Earful Tower is full of stories about French culture, history and language. I love it and usually listen to each episode twice, because they are packed with details.