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!)I 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.It’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).The 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. I 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.Do you do spring cleaning, or are you a clean-all-the-time type? Any tips to share?
Printemps, 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.The 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.I’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.
On 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. The 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.
I 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.
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.
Spring 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.
Another 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?
Do 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.
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.The 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.
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.)
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.
Liberté. 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.
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 Academiehere. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.It was all wrapped up with a gastronomic dinner. Of course.
The 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.
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.I 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.
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.
The 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.One 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….On 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.I 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.
From 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.
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.
Are you avoiding cabin fever and fever fever? Are you a winter person or just hunkering down and enduring it?
Last 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.
We kept it smaller than the Fête de la Lumièrelast 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.As 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.
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.We 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.
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.To 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.
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.
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.Rather 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.I 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…Do you see the pattern?Yes, 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). I 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.
Which doors will you open in 2019? Which ones will you close? Which of either will be by choice or driven by circumstances?January 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.Planning 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.What 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.
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. I 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. The 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.If 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”!!!).
Christmas 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.
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.
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.
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.
How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?
Signs 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. The bûches de noël range from traditional to more modern, like the ones above. And 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.Shops are decorated, mostly low-key, with wreaths and garlands, but some, like the florist above, are in full-on holiday mode.
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.I 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?People tend to do low-key decorations on their homes, too. A few lights, some wreaths. An occasional Santa hanging from a window or balcony.Even little villages decorate. I like the variety of church steeples outlined in lights.
Of course, la Cité needs no decoration. It was particularly moody on a foggy morning last week.The sunrises and sunsets lately have been stunning. This photo is as-is, no editing. Kind of like this post, which is a verbal potluck.Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you. May all your sunrises be beautiful and bright.
Even 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.Les 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.At 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.Transportation 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.To 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.Anyway, 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.Back 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.Clearly 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.The 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.