Village Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An old wine press. Of course.

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

 

Wild Fire

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

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

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

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“Road.”

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

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

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

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Hotel view: La Cité and the Pyrénnées.

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

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

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

 

Back Roads in France

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

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Green figs, just as good as the purple kind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red roofs and a green steeple.

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

Franco-American-Italiano

P1080351I’ve had culture shock many times, but this one took the gâteau.

A few years ago, a restaurant was built on the edge of a parking lot of a Carcassonne strip mall. It was intriguing, because the whole strip-mall restaurant thing is not very French. As it rose, it felt as if it were a mirage transported from the the middle of America.

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Even thought it looks like Kansas, I’m telling you, Toto, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore. 

Yet, it turned out to be an Italian restaurant. In France. My kid had bugged me from the building’s foundations being poured that we HAD to go. When I first stepped inside, I had a hard time to speak French. English came out. It was stronger than any logic, because the throng waiting to be seated all were chatting in French. But my brain was telling me I had stepped into suburban U.S.A. It was the oddest thing.

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No idea how the funky light effect happened.

Parking lot location: check.

Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.

Upbeat pop music: check.

Soaring ceilings: check.

Roaring decibels: check.

Open kitchen to give us the impression of authenticity: check.

Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.

Where were we? Was it really Carcassonne? It certainly wasn’t French. It certainly wasn’t Italian–it was Italian as imagined by Americans. Except that the chain IS French: Del Arte is part of Groupe LeDuff, which was founded by the now-multibillionaire Louis LeDuff in 1976.

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Helpful photo of la Cité on the back side for those who are completely disoriented.

Groupe LeDuff started with la Brioche Dorée (the Golden Brioche), and has added other chains, including Bruegger’s (the bagel chain), Timothy’s World Coffee, Mimi’s Cafe, La Madeleine, among others. Almost 2,000 restaurants, in 90 countries.

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The neighborhood. There are several more stores, but the strip is hard to capture in one shot.

The food was OK. Not great, yet far from terrible. As one often gets in parking-lot restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s and Carrabba’s. And at the beginning, the whole concept was so unusual for here that it drew crowds. Concept aside, good–no, GREAT–food is easy to find here, along with authentic authenticity. I don’t want to slam Del Arte–it isn’t bad at all. Just meh.

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Obviously these were taken at an off-hour. Because the parking lot is full during meal times.

Recently, two Subway sandwich outlets also opened in Carcassonne, one in the center of town and the other in yet another of the strip malls that blight the periphery of town. I was following two couples of Americans down the main pedestrian street, overhearing them talk about lunch (it’s easy to overhear Americans, in part because I understand what they’re saying with zero effort and in part because of the volume of normal American speaking). I thought about telling them of a couple of options. I consider myself an ambassador for Carcassonne and want even strangers to have a good time here. Before I caught up to them, they swung into Subway.IMG_4320Subway is fine. I have eaten plenty of Subway sandwiches in the U.S. But why would a person go all the way to France and then eat the same thing as back home? It isn’t as if there’s a big risk of ordering something disgusting by mistake. Most French sandwiches involve some combination of ham, cheese or hard sausage, or else some sort of tuna salad, chicken salad or shrimp/fake crab salad. With lettuce and tomato. On awesome bread. What’s to fear? Eating local specialties is one of the key ways to explore local culture.

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A plain white shirt with a twist, at La Brune, an interesting boutique in the center of town.

The same thing is true with other shops. The world is becoming more and more similar. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool that tastes are shared by so many people. Can you hate somebody who wears the same jeans and T-shirts that you do? (I suppose so, but it does make people seem less foreign–and hence more relatable–than when each little region had its own traditional dress.) Now you can get the same clothes at Zara or H&M in Amsterdam as in Abu Dhabi, Astana or Austin. That’s great–if you see something new in a magazine or on Instagram, you can buy it easily, even if you don’t live in a fashion capital. On the other hand, the little boutiques with really cool, unique stuff are going under, unable to compete on price and unable to change stock as fast as the fast fashion giants. Fashion is supposed to be about expressing oneself, but it’s increasingly about following the herd.

 

It’s something to consider, whether you’re traveling or shopping and dining at home. Do you seek safety in the numbers? Or do you stand out from the herd?

 

 

 

 

 

Purple, With a Red Hat

P1070396It can be stressful to land in a new place, all your possessions on your back, trying to figure out directions in a strange language. So I am not making fun of the strapping young things who parade about town, jaws slack in amazement and arms tight around their backpacks, which they wear in the front.

At the same time, to take measure of a place, look at the locals. In New York, I learned to keep my bag tucked tightly under my arm, with no loose strap that could be yanked away. I learned not to make eye contact. (Though once I did, by accident. It was years ago. I reading the paper and enjoying a coffee at a sidewalk table of a small café in New York’s Soho. I sensed somebody standing in front of me so I lowered the newspaper and looked up, expecting to see the waiter. Instead, I saw a disheveled man, probably crazy and homeless. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he exhorted. I was sunk–I had made eye contact and he had spoken directly to me. I flashed him a big, friendly smile and answered, “Si fahamu.”  He repeated his plea for Nadine, and I repeated, in Swahili, that I didn’t understand. He made a face that said, “this chick is crazy,” shrugged his shoulders, and sauntered off down the street.)

In Carcassonne, I see little kids, 7 or 8 years old, walking home from school unaccompanied. They aren’t everywhere, to be sure. Most kids get picked up by parents in cars, in the same horrible, car-choked scene you find in the U.S. Those who walk generally are accompanied by an adult. But I still see kids running around, including in the center of town, on errands (up the street and a few minutes later back down but carrying a baguette), riding skateboards or bikes. I like it. It feels alive and normal.

Did I let my own kid walk alone to school? Yes and no. My kid spared no words in French or English about the injustice of the forced march, PLUS from the EDGE of the village, whereas ALL THE OTHER KIDS got dropped off by their parents in CARS. We even would pass a woman (grandmother? nanny?) who would battle to get a squirmy little girl into the car for half a block. Yes. She drove half a block to school, and spent more time fighting to get the girl into the car than she did driving. Also, as I recall, it was far enough to go by car but not far enough to put the kid into a car seat with a seatbelt.

The walks to school required, at age 3, half an hour (for six blocks) in order to examine every rock, leaf and bug along the way, without stress and with time for maximum wonder. By fourth grade, the commute took three minutes, max. One day, my kid declared the end of our hand-in-hand promenades to and from school. The end of waiting by the exit with the other parents at noon and the end of the day. The declaration of independence. I was in a quandary. I wanted my kid to be independent, like the older boys who tore past us on their bikes and whom I regularly spied down in the river, fishing or exploring or whatever. Normal kids. I wanted that.

At the same time, I wanted to know without a doubt that my kid had entered the school. I couldn’t go back to work without 100% assurance. Knowing that the school probably would call after a while was no solace. In that time, where would my kid be? So, I did what any mother would do: espionage.

My kid would set off, meeting up with a pair from across the street, and off they would head to school, about six blocks away. I had insisted on a route that involved medieval streets too small for cars. Still, I waited until they had advanced down the main street, before stealing out, leaning into hedges to hide, peeking around corners. P1070393In our village, the little old ladies walk, and the little old men sit. Specifically, they sit under the plane trees in the center of the village, a vantage point that keeps them on top of what a large percentage of the population is up to. The people who live farther out, the newcomers in the lotissements, or subdivisions, are of no interest anyway.

I would glide up alongside a wall, where, crouching, I could peer unseen through the windows of parked cars all the way to the school. This was highly amusing to the old geezers, perched on a bench like so many swallows. They would nod and gesture and indicate that I could go home, that all was well. And I knew it was. Little villages are full of protectors.

In town, I see lots of little old ladies out for their commissions–their purchases of whatever they need to make the day’s meals. I deem them “old” if they use a cane or a walker; some who may have more years but who are still in good shape get categorized as just “older,” as in older than most of the folks around but not yet “old.” A teenager also is “older” than grade school kids. Everything is relative.

These little old ladies seem quite at ease, in sharp contrast with the young backpackers. They hold their canes in one hand while their boxy handbags dangle loosely from the other. I admire them for negotiating the curbs, the uneven sidewalks, the steps that are inevitable in a place that was designed in 1260. In my opinion, they always have right of way in the crush of human traffic of the market. From what I have observed, I am not alone in my thinking, although there are always some people who seem outraged to find that there are OTHER PEOPLE shopping at the market. As if!

I think of my mom, who from age 60 or so only left her house by car. Not that there were any shops in walking distance in her neighborhood. For that, Carcassonne is walkable like New York, but a lot cheaper, without the lines for everything and with much better weather.

When we were looking at properties to buy, I walked around one neighborhood in hopes of spotting details that would connect houses with places I had seen in real estate ads online. And it always was possible that I would stumble on a hand-written sign offering sale by owner. Plus, I never need much of an excuse to go walking around town.P1070386It was a sunny day, but in winter there were few people out. I spied a tiny woman working her way down the sidewalk using two canes. I figured she lived close by and probably knew everything about the quartier, so I sidled alongside her and started to chat.

She was charming. She had lived there all her life. She had fallen in her home and had just gotten out of rehab; she was out walking to get back in shape. She was 98. We ambled down the sidewalk and she told me about life. I didn’t get any real estate tips, but I had a wonderful time.

I wish I had listened more to the stories from my own mother, who died a couple of years ago at age 90. She sometimes would start to tell me about something, and I would get annoyed, because I had heard a lot of the stories many times before. Too late, I also realized she felt, tasted, smelled the memories as vividly as if they were yesterday. I was recently discussing something with my kid, and later, thinking about it and about my own experiences, I was back in the school gymnasium and could practically smell its special (hated) smell. Surely my mom wanted to connect me to such memories of her own, to share them, relive them but not alone. A Proustian journey, proffering a taste of the madeleine.

I think of my grandmothers. One was an enigma, stiff and proper. The other was completely the opposite–emotional, fierce, proud, unconditionally loving. But although I often prodded her to tell me about her childhood in Europe, she never talked about it much. Nor about anything else. What was it like to immigrate? What was school like? How did she meet my grandfather? (At a dance; he was a good dancer.) How did she, someone who loved loved loved children, have only two, and a decade apart? I suspect problems, miscarriages, maybe even illness, whether of a baby lost and never spoken of again, or herself. Although to my knowledge she was always as strong as an ox. When she was 85 and still living alone in her house, I spied big buckets of ice in her “back room”–a room with windows on two sides where she and her brood of grandchildren would sleep in summer, to get good cross-breezes, and where all those windows’ sills were lined with plants. She carried the buckets up a steep flight of stairs from the drainpipe where she caught rain or melting snow–what her flowers preferred. And one day, sitting at her kitchen table, she complained that it was going to rain because she hurt there, and she raised her leg as effortlessly as a ballerina, knee straight, as high as her head, and pointed to her ankle. I told her she had nothing to worry about. Until she was nearly 100 and rarely recognized us anymore, her hair was dyed black and she put rouge on her cheeks.

A few weeks ago, I stopped to photograph a handsomely renovated building just off the central square, Place Carnot. A passing woman looked at me, looked at the building, then stepped out of the brilliant sunshine to better admire the façade herself.P1070374“If you hadn’t been taking a picture, I wouldn’t have noticed,” she told me. “It’s beautiful.”

“Lots of buildings are getting new façades these days,” I answered, and pointed to a few other examples.

That led to nearly an hour of chatting on the street corner about everything under the sun.

I finally asked her how old she was.

“84, but that’s according to my birthday. Sometimes I feel like I’m 70; sometimes like I’m 90. Today, I feel 70,” she said.

I assured her that I had her pegged at 70. It was true. She was wearing a fluttery green top, very appropriate for the warm day, with dressy pants. Her jewelry quotient was typically française–neither too much nor too timid. She wore makeup, expertly applied, again neither too much nor timid. Her hair was dyed a slightly unnatural Lucille Ball red,  and was cut in layers, neither completely straight nor curly. Did she style it or set it? Maybe. That’s typically française–maybe they made an effort or maybe not. Basically she was an older version of Jeanne Damas. No cane, no walker.

Then, she pointed to her shoes. Cork-soled high-heeled platform sandals! I am far, far younger than 84 and do Pilates and run, and I would not dare to walk on the crooked, slippery sidewalks of Carcassonne in platform shoes. I would be in the emergency room so fast.

I wanted to give her a high five, but instead, I told her I wanted to be just like her and we hugged. She said, “Today, I felt like I was 90, but I told myself I needed to get out. I said to myself that if I didn’t make an effort, soon I wouldn’t be able to make an effort.”

She added: “Il faut lutter.” You have to fight.

This is what I love about where I live: little kids run out to buy baguettes, 84-year-olds strut their stuff in platform heels, and even older ones push their walkers, with their handbags swinging and they will be all right.P1070866The title refers to the poem by the British poet Jenny Joseph (born in 1932; I hope she is rocking some purple these days, but maybe she is just “older” and not yet “old”).

Warning

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!

Also, check out this wonderful book about people finding love late in life. In French, but an easy read. Written with great sensitivity: “Le Coeur n’as pas de rides” by Marina Rozenman. (This is not sponsored!)

 

Antiquing We Will Go

P1070958The brocante of Limoux, on the first Sunday of the month, holds plenty of treasures. (Alert: there’s one this weekend, on July 2.)

Paris, with its huge population, has the famous marchés aux puces, or flea markets, namely les Puces de Saint-Ouen, selling carefully curated antiques at carefully curated prices from stalls that have become fixed shops.P1070970In France profonde, the flea markets are called brocantes and may be single shops selling antiques and vintage items, or they may be itinerant gatherings of these kinds of professional vendors. These are a step up from the vide-grenier, which is like a group yard sale. Brocantes have better stuff, but vide-greniers are where you will find something amazing for a song, buried amid piles of cast-offs.

That said, brocantes here offer some amazing finds at bargain prices. Though you are free to negotiate the prices down further.P1070967Can you guess what the object above is? The Carnivore knew immediately, having been there, done that. Put your guesses in the comments.P1070968And what about the gold things above? I thought at first they were some kind of hook for handing a coat or something. But no, on turning them around, the shape wasn’t right. They’re about 10 inches high. There’s a little cup, but it’s very small. Maybe for visiting cards? Even the vendor didn’t know what they were. Just pretty. He wanted €50 for the pair, which seemed too high for something mysterious, even though I loved the faces. If you know what they are, do tell!P1070956We saw lots of rattan, which I have read is on trend. I’d rather buy it because it is beautiful, like those chairs at the top, and beautifully made, rather than because somebody declared rattan to be “in,” which means that cheaply made versions will be in stores everywhere.

I’m also a sucker for old portrait photos. Those girls look so sweet. I supposed they’ve died–you don’t throw out Grandma’s picture when she’s still around. My mom did genealogy research, very thoroughly I should add. My father referred to it as “your mother is busy digging up the dead.” Anyway, she managed to get photos of ancestors going back as far as photography was around. Not just direct linage, either, but all kinds of relatives. So it makes me a little sad to see these girls for sale.

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Speaking of girls, how about this toy stove?
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Other things are just not destined to be loved by anybody but the original owner.

There were lots of really nice pieces of furniture.P1070970P1070963P1070969After having hunted for decorations for our four fireplaces, they continue to catch my eye. I love these sphinxes.

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A lot more bosomy than the Giza version.

And some old space heaters…P1070961If you are in Carcassonne, I can arrange personalized brocante tours. You can contact me at taste.france (at) yahoo.com.

 

 

Happy or Content?

P1080017Which do you aim for: contentment or happiness? No, they aren’t the same thing, even though happy is content in French. Happiness is bonheur, while contentment is contentement.

Contentment is the long-term satisfaction or deep fulfillment that comes from the cumulation of good times, good relationships. Happiness is the sugar high of buying something new, getting promoted, winning. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it doesn’t sustain.

So much of our lives are geared toward the attainment of happiness, probably because it’s more immediate and it feels darn good. But contentment is what counts.sunset 2Children are probably the best example of this. It seems they are a source of unending demands and pressures—starting with 4 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, evolving and expanding to learning to drive, then university expenses and so on. Petit enfant, petit soucis. Grand enfant, grand soucis. (Small child, small worries. Big child, big worries.) Research shows parents are less happy than people who are childless.

But children enrich our lives immeasurably. When this tiny person comes into the world, we think we have never loved anyone so much. And yet that love keeps growing and growing.sunset 5Of course being a parent isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I have nothing but respect for anybody who decides they don’t want to have kids. The conscious choice is so much better than those who have kids because they just happened or had them because of social pressure, and then they don’t take care of them.

We can get contentment in other ways—from other family ties, from work, from friends, from faith, from activities like gardening or sports. Contentment requires an effort over time, and that effort might be disagreeable but the results are worth it.sunset 3Happiness, by contrast, is a quick fix. Amazon Prime. Want it, get it. Now.

Not to knock that, but no amount of shopping or partying or whatever will fill an empty soul.

Life in France is particularly suited to prioritize contentment over happiness. Shops close in the evenings and on Sundays and holidays—no 24/7 here. Retail therapy takes a back seat to family time.chateau rooftopsBusinesses around here also tend to offer a two-hour lunch break. Meals, in fact, are sacred, a time for conversation and sharing. There is nothing I love more than having a dinner with friends, regardless what is on the table (though that is consistently amazing). At mealtimes, everything else stops.

The absence of air conditioning is another exercise in contentment over happiness. It can feel so good to walk out of the heat and into a cold room. But once you cool down, you need a sweater. Not in France. We slowly adapt to the heat, take the time to walk a little more slowly, choose the shade. And after a while, the high temps actually feel comfortable. Didn’t we wait all winter for these warm days? (It helps that we have cool nights and low humidity.) It’s easier to get out and enjoy the summer when your body is used to the heat.sunset 1Maybe I’m already getting old and crotchety, but I am losing my taste for thrills. The curtains in our apartments were a huge pain (in every sense of huge) to make, but I doubt I would admire them as much now if I had just ordered them online. The antique furnishings that were found from so many sources and brought back to life. It would have been easier to just buy reproductions, or to do the all-modern-in-an-old-building look that’s so popular. But the hard way is so much more satisfying and unique.pyrennees 2From my open window, I hear my friend Merle singing (merle is French for blackbird, so I call him that, though he is operatic and not very country at all), and the cigales thrumming. I smell the grass and the freshly cut wheat from a nearby field. Later I will read the latest installment of the novel my kid is writing and marvel at how these ideas came together and wonder where this vocabulary was picked up (in a good way—it isn’t naughty at all; instead, some of the turns of phrases are bowl me over with their artfulness). I will hang laundry to dry in the breeze and smell fresh in a way no fabric softener can replicate. I will make a pie crust for tonight’s quiche. I will do work that I love. These things give life sweetness and meaning. Nothing thrilling, but all deeply satisfying.sunset 4

Dry Wall

P1070036Dry stone walls (pierres seches) are one of the iconic features of the French countryside. “Dry” means no mortar. (The French use “dry” in many circumstances which have nothing to do with “not wet.” For example, a soup can be “dry” if it doesn’t have enough fat–quite aside from a powdered mix. Go figure. To me, soup = wet, therefore not dry. “Dry soup” is one of those phenomenon that make my head explode.)

The walls look as if they were thrown together by teen boys in a hurry to finish so they could do something else, undoubtedly more fun. How else to account for the horizontal/vertical/nonsensical design? Yet, these walls are hundred(s) of years old, a testament to the skill of those who built them. I can point you to several retaining walls and houses of recent vintage that have moved with the earth and bowed or cracked dangerously. Around here, old means strong.P1070319P1060922This is going to be a photo-heavy post, because I can’t resist the patterns, the way they wave as the terrain has moved, the colors of the lichen, the impossibility of their continued existence. I’ve never met a stone wall I didn’t want to photograph.P1070317P1060920P1070033The walls are home to many creatures: little lizards mostly, but also snakes, spiders and other things that make me scream. Think twice about sitting on them. Not comfortable anyway.P1070035P1070315P1070034P1070320Just now, it’s hot hot hot out. The nights are deliciously cool, and during restless breaks in sleep I migrate toward an open window to let the chill breeze wash over me. During the day, we move slowly and snap at each other quickly. We aren’t yet used to the heat.

The stones are ironic. Our house’s two-foot-thick stone walls keeps the inside fairly cool during the day, without air conditioning. The apartments are even cooler. But similar stone walls, out along the edges of fields or in improbably remote spots in the garrigue, soak up the sunshine and spew it out, like retailers with their doors open in winter, heating the street. Passing a sun-baked wall is like passing an open oven.P1070032P1070306P1060921P1070325Our house was built after World War II (just old enough to be in the strong category), and had never even been a house before we bought it. It had a big parking lot. UGLY. We wanted to give it un coup de vieux (a hit of age), and found people who wanted to get rid of stones. Can you imagine getting RID of these? I guess if you have a falling-down grange and you want to build something neat and modern, then the stones have to go. The proverbial millstone around one’s neck.

Some low walls, with mortar (fewer spiders and snakes, though there are plenty of adorable lizards), made a huge difference in the charm factor. You can tell they came from two different places.P1080034P1080041P1080036

French Laundry

P1070271There’s a divide between France and the U.S., and it has to do with how people take care of their clothes.

Let’s start with washing. Front-load washers have gained popularity in the U.S., but they have long been typical in Europe. They are easier on your clothes than top-load agitators, which really tear them up. However, washing times are longer. Mine has a 15-minute freshen-up cycle, but the shortest real wash cycle takes over an hour and the longest is three hours. That’s in part because the machines heat the water themselves, rather than take it from a hot-water heater.

The models sold here are getting bigger, but they are still a lot smaller than in the U.S. Our old washer held a maximum of four kilos–just under nine pounds. Our new one has a maximum capacity of twice that. According to Consumer Reports, capacities in the U.S. are as high as 28 pounds. (French vocabulary lesson: a laundry room is une buanderie, a laundromat is une laverie and the old-fashioned outdoor laundries are lavoirsDry cleaning is nettoyage à sec, and the place that does it is un pressing or une teinturerie.)

P1070742Another difference is drying. Plenty of people don’t even have electric dryers. I put towels in the dryer to keep them soft and fluffy but try to hang everything else outside–again, it’s better for your clothes, better for the environment and it’s free. Sheets definitely go outside. It makes them smell so good!

Related to that: walking around in the mornings, you see windows open, even in the dead of winter, and duvets hanging over the window sills to air out for at least 15 minutes. Bedrooms tend to be minimally heated (and back in the day weren’t heated at all), and we don’t have bitter temperatures, so it isn’t very wasteful.

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A lot going on here: the bed linens getting aired in the open windows in winter–you can see the photo was taken at Christmas time. The drying rack is set on the sidewalk to get the job done faster. Carcassonne is still the kind of small city where you can leave your stuff outside safely.

One reason my friends cite for avoiding dryers, besides making clothes last longer, is the cost of electricity. Looking at my bill, we pay between 6.38 centimes and 10.43 centimes (about 7 cents to 11 cents) per kWh before tax (which is 20%). The tariff varies by time of day, with heures creuses, or off-peak, discounted. I set the timers on the washing machine and dishwasher to run during off peak. Surprisingly, residential rates in the U.S. are higher–an average of 12.90 cents per kWh.

One reason many Americans I know do use dryers: to avoid ironing. Some don’t even own an iron or ironing board. When we briefly lived in the U.S., the Carnivore was delighted to discover a setting on our apartment’s dryer called “fluff,” which he adorably pronounced “floof” the first time. He was so excited about how things came out with only minor wrinkles.

By contrast, Europeans tend to be not just wrinkle-free but to have knife-edge creases. Even jeans get ironed. The Carnivore is very talented with a steam iron (see the ads below). Personally, I hate to iron but have been doing a lot of it lately, pressing the sheets for our rental apartments. We want them to be impeccable.

While I iron my own clothes, I don’t do my kid’s. Some of the local mothers would iron their children’s clothes even for toddlers–who wear things for about two minutes before getting dirty. An extremely scientific survey of my gym class showed most spend two to three hours a week ironing.

Ironing isn’t limited to France. I remember being impressed by the teen boys in Rome, perched on their Vespas, wearing immaculate white shirts with crisply creased sleeves. Nothing slovenly about them.

When I lived in Brussels, my apartment faced a lovely row of hidden gardens, “Rear Window” style. In a window across the way, a woman (housekeeper, I think), would iron for hours, including the tiniest flouncy baby dresses. And sheets and sheets and sheets.

Another time, I was at the big department store El Corte Inglès in Barcelona. The household appliance department was animated by many demonstrations. There was a woman carving candles. All kinds of shoppers, including families, watched her work. Some of the candles sported the typical curls, while others represented couples in a sexual act. This was something I never saw in the U.S.

And there was a guy ironing. This was no simple steam iron but what the French call a centre de repassage–an ironing center. A big water tank was fixed to the base of the ironing board “so you can iron all day!” my friend marveled. A dozen people–men and women–watched the demo intently.

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This baby goes for a cool €700.

Do you hang laundry outside? Do you iron? Do you pamper your clothing?

 

When French Hunters Gather

P1070714All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.

On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.

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Boars on the left, deer on the right.

Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. P1070692“Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.”  (That’s good.)

“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)

“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)

“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)

Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.

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Here you can better see how a regular dipper was welded onto a long handle.
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The homemade rotisserie motor, electric powered, thanks to a very long extension cord.
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Boar.
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Boar juice.

The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.

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Bring your own silverware, plates, glasses and napkins. Rings optional. This was a classy bunch. Opinel pocket knives, EXTREMELY sharp.
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Unsurprisingly, in a region of winegrowers, some prefer to come with their own, although a very good wine was included with the dinner.
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The pitcher is of the house wine. The small glass with a spoon holds salad dressing.

The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.

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Some greenery under the gizzards and foie gras.

Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.P1070701The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.P1070705The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.

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Look at the size of that bone! They were all collected for the hunters’ dogs, which waited outside.

The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.

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Deer.

Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.

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In all that deer meat, just a small bone. Guess whose plate?

This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.

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This was shared among about 8 people.

P1070717There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.

Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.

As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.P1070695