Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

IMG_1845Happy Bastille Day!

Last night, our village was among those hosting a dinner and fireworks–done the night before the holiday because they can’t compete with the big fireworks tonight at la Cité of Carcassonne.

Here is the dinner menu: salad with gizzards; civet of duck (this civet isn’t the little animal but a kind of ragout made with lots of onions and pronounced see-VAY); bleu de coeur cheese; and apple pie. The Carnivore went, but I skipped it–too many calories and not enough vegetables.IMG_1796When it got dark, everybody went to the park of our château (almost every village has at least one château) to watch the fireworks. There is something charming about being in a crowd where you know 90% of the people. Children ran around freely; the park is their playground and they were excited by a place so familiar seen so unfamiliarly dark. IMG_1922When the fireworks started, more than a few of the little ones became hysterical. Fireworks are an acquired taste.

The crowd oohed and aahed in in unison, which added to the feeling of togetherness.

Compared with last year, the display was smaller and had some glitches. The park has an old stone bridge that used to go over the river until a flood changed its course. Sparklers hanging off the side give the impression of a waterfall of lights. Very pretty, especially with the elegant arch of the bridge. But the string came loose, and half of the waterfall turned into more of a puddle.

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This one looked like one of those deep space photos. And it was a very starry night.

After the big finale, we stood around chatting with friends as people slowly shuffled out. Suddenly another firework blasted off and lit up the sky. One of the technicians took off across the lawn, flashlight in hand, toward the launching area. A couple more strays went off. A small fire burned under the bridge. Technicians’ flashlights flickered back and forth near the rose garden. Clearly little villages have to make do with the farm league of fireworks.

Tonight, though, is the big leagues. For a week, you could feel the excitement mounting in town. There were more people around, adding to the energy. July brings the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and dance. I went to a dance performance in the courtyard of the château of la Cité–a fabulous setting (la Cité isn’t a castle but a fortified city, with a château inside it that was the last resort). IMG_1872Tonight, the only concerts are free ones at Place Carnot, in the Bastide, or “new” town (dating from only 1260, but that’s how things roll around here). Guy Lacroux will play old-fashioned bal musette dance tunes on the accordion before the fireworks, and BRBB, for Béziers Rhythm & Blues Band, will play after.

At the same time, the reason for the holiday is a serious one. The fight for freedom, for equality, for fraternity and pitching in together for the common good. They aren’t easy principles to uphold, and sometimes what seems right can turn out wrong. But France does a pretty good job, and I’m grateful to live here.IMG_1903

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!)

 

Dr. Seuss in the South of France

P1070732The fields and roadsides here in the south of France are dappled with colorful spring wildflowers. Blazing poppies, of course. And voluptuous clouds of yellow broom plant–their French name, genêt, is so much prettier.

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The yellow in the middle is genêt.
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Can’t get enough poppies. Plus, can you see the Pyrenées in the upper left? The electric wires connect the big solar panel installation to the grid.

But if you look closely, you will see smaller spectacles of color and design audacity. They are easy to miss because they don’t have the massive presence of, say, the poppies. These wonders look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, flowering in Whoville or Sala-ma-Sond.

One of my favorites, which I don’t have a good shot of, are the purple Sputniks below:

The wonderful photographer Heather at Lost in Arles did a better job on them, as well as on the little white flowers, whose conical heads look surrounded by manes, like little cartoon lions. Or like sparklers.P1070756There are so many flowers on impossibly thin stems that look drawn by a fine pen, that spread out so far.P1070650

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P1070761These seemed worthy of Whoville lamp posts. Or fairy lanterns.P1070729Long, long stems with big shapes on the end are very Seussian:P1070652

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This one makes me think of Snuffleupagus, who isn’t from Seuss but Sesame Street. But still.P1070721Some scary plants, too.P1070733And some manmade help below. This one is more Barbapapa. Sometimes when I go running, I pass the owner of this place, standing at the end of the drive and waiting for a ride. One day, he was holding a big bottle of whiskey. In the morning. I teased him hard about that. “It’s a present!” he protested.P1070725Maybe I find these amazing because I always lived in a city, where flowers are carefully chosen. Spotting these weird wonders gives me huge joy. What gives you joy?P1070647

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A wonderfully red wild iris.

 

Walk in the French Countryside

wisteria cepie 2The leaves are all out on the trees now, though some of the flowering trees are still dressed as if going to a ball. And the temperatures have been so warm that the poppies are multiplying before our eyes. Soon entire fields will be red.

wisteria cepie
Wisteria everywhere.

So here are some shots of spring before they are too outdated.

treehouse
A treehouse for watching birds.

The treehouse above is now completely hidden by leaves. It’s quite a setup. I’ve seen a ladder going up to it, but usually the ladder is gone. I’ve never seen a kid around it, and I think it was intended for birdwatching only. It belongs to an elderly (but spry) guy and has many “keep out” signs.

white horse
This was such a dreamy surprise between the trees.
orchard 2
An orchard that from the distance looks like a field of cotton candy.
garden bridges
That isn’t a moat, but…

The culverts along French country roads can be extremely deep. I suppose it’s to handle the runoff when it rains, because around here, a feeble sprinkle is rare–when it rains, it pours.

You can see the little garden sheds. Nothing flimsy about them. They are made of concrete blocks. That makes for a cool getaway in the summer.

garden bridge gate
Gated property.

I would never have the nerve to drive over one of these. Near my parents’ home was a bridge that had rails on the sides, but big openings showing the enormous brown river very far below. I felt sick every time we went over it and I would drive out of my way to a newer bridge with concrete sides that hid the river. Farther south, there is an even older bridge that’s only one lane wide over this major river and you feel as if you are flying instead of driving over the river. I do not find that exciting.

pyrenees
Ah, the Pyrénées.

The weather here has been remarkable. Cloudless days, full view of the mountains. No need for a sweater during the day. The saying is “en avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil; en mai fais ce qu’il te plaît” — in April, don’t take off even a thread, but in May do as you please.

faucet
I want one!

Isn’t this the coolest faucet? It was on a public fountain in a village. In a lot of places, such a beauty would have been stolen, but here it’s par for the course. I love these little touches. It could have been a plain faucet, but instead it’s a little piece of art.

bridge
See that sky? The trees are full of leaves now.

This little village, with the old Renault (a 3 or 4; not sure), is just so typical, with its line of plane trees and its red tile roofs. Not a soul stirring, either. A few cats and dogs too busy napping to even look up.

chateau
Surprise.

I love the way châteaux peek between trees in the countryside. You can drive along, and suddenly, hey, what’s that in that copse? Why it’s a château. I never get tired of finding them, and love when we venture beyond our usual routes so I can scour the horizon for châteaux.

Segways in TLS
For something completely different.

Finally, this one goes with nothing, but I found it so startling I just had to share it. Yes, châteaux are normal, but Segways are not. This troupe? flock? pack? of Segways zipped by on an otherwise pedestrian street in Toulouse when we were there back during the soldes. Are group Segway outings a thing elsewhere?

 

Cheers for a Good Cause

packed streetSparkling French wine, good food, church. The perfect combo, right?

Every April since 1990, the Toques et Clochers festival raises money for the restoration of a church bell tower around Limoux, in the south of France. A clocher is a bell, and a toque is the tall white hat worn by chefs. The festival is sponsored by the Sieur d’Arques cooperative of Limoux, purveyor of blanquette de Limoux and crémant de Limoux.

pitcher blanquette
Clever pitchers of bubbly

Blanquette de Limoux goes back to 1531, when the monks at the nearby Abbey of Saint-Hilaire made the first sparkling wine (supported by documents dating to 1544). Supposedly, Dom Pérignon was one of them, before he was transferred to Champagne in the north; however, like a lot of legends, this one is off because Dom Pérignon was born a century later.

pouring a glassMore about blanquette de Limoux and Saint-Hilaire another time. Today, let’s go to the party.

Cepie clocher close
The fetching clocher of Cépie, also in the top photo.
church interior
Inside the church. Less is more, except for chandeliers. So French. What worries me are the metal supports going across the church. It dates to the early 1500s.

The festival has grown over the years, but the villages haven’t. It no longer is possible to park nearby (you can forget about parking in the villages even when there isn’t a festival because the streets are tiny). All cars are directed to Limoux, and festival-goers go through security before being channeled through a sports hall to buy their glasses (now in plastic) and tokens for tastings, as well as other merchandise. The line was surprisingly quick. Then we went through security again to get onto one of the shuttle buses to Cépie, this year’s village. Cépie was completely closed off except for one point, where we went through security again. The French weren’t messing around. Gendarmes were everywhere, and all the roads to the village were blocked with concrete barriers.

crossbody bags
Cross-body bags! Remember! I see five here.

A note here: backpacks were not allowed. This has long been common practice in museums, and a good thing, too, because nobody wants to get whacked by somebody’s backpack when the person wearing it turns around. It seems that backpacks are being rejected elsewhere, so remember to pack a cross-body bag for your travels.

creative glass holder
A brilliant example of French innovation: A very chic cross-body bag becomes a double glass holder. And I like her shirt, too–great details.
glass on string 2
But had madame above bought the glass holder, she would have been even better equipped, like monsieur (who was from NEW YORK!!!!).
pitchers in pockets
More innovation: stick your pitcher …. well, anyway. Her tattoo (or other?) says, “First Bubbles,” kind of like first class.
glass on a cord
Pitcher, glass hanging, glass going to the lips. Not judging!
pitcher in pocket
Misspent youth.

Not only did the organizers think to have event-specific tokens (no refunds), but they even put them on lanyards. You also could buy a cord with a holder for your glass. No wondering where you set it down or which one is yours. They also sold T-shirts, bandanas, aprons and straw hats.

prices tasting
Jeton = token. TTC = tout taxe compris (taxes included).  Cordon de 6 jetons = a string with 6 tokens. Dégustation = a tasting (a glass; they were generous); bouteille = bottle.
prices merchandise
Cordon = cord; porte verre = glass holder; canotier = wide-brimmed straw hat (like the Renoir painting); tablier = apron. You can figure out the rest, right?
jetons
Tokens on lanyards. If you don’t drink them, you have a souvenir. Win-win.

It was packed. Cépie covers just over six square kilometers and has a population of 665 when everybody is home. This weekend, a record 45,000 people packed in for Toques et Clochers. The weather was heavenly and the setting was gorgeous, with the peaks of the Pyrénées peeking above the rooftops.

crowd
C.R.O.W.D.E.D. But not disagreeable. Surprisingly (well, not really surprisingly, but very) civilized.
Pyrennees view
The Pyrénées: close enough for skiing at will, far enough that we have much better weather!

We arrived just in time for the parade of church replicas. Each village whose belltower has been restored had a replica, often carried atop a wine barrel or wheeled along on a wine barrel by costumed villagers. I loved the variety of epochs for the costumes and the contemporary interpretations.

Malras
The church of Malras (pop. 349).
St Polycarpe
The church of Saint Polycarpe, named after the bishop of Smyrna (aka Izmir, Turkey), who was burned at the stake, but didn’t die, so they had to stab him to death. Pop. 167. I was thinking polycarpe? lots of carp? Why one should google everything.
Magrie
Magrie, pop. 514. They are wearing canotiers!
Loupia
Loupia, pop. 219.
Limoux
Limoux, a comparative metropolis with a population of 9,781. It is a very pretty town, with an awesome brocante the first Sunday of the month. And home to the Sieurs d’Arques.
La Digne d'Amont
La Digne d’Amont, pop. 288. The poor guy in front was losing his Star Wars foil neck scarf, but clearly cares not. The hanging pendants are little cups, typical of the various gastronomic/oenological brotherhoods of various foods and drinks.

There were several bands, marching and later on stages around the village (which is so small, the music all mixed together a bit–strains of jazz on the left, country on the right). Drums seem to be a big thing. There was a kids’ corps, a women’s corps, a mixed corps…. Miss Cépie led a throng of small and smaller children, who were dressed (decorated?) as flowers and sunshine. Awww!

crowd before parade
Before the parade.
young drummers
Young drummers…
drummers from behind w lightbulbs
Seen from the back. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer on the light-bulb theme, but light bulbs were all over.
odawa drummers
Adult drummers of the Odawa troupe, very serious, well-decorated, though the drums seemed to be a little phallic.
Odawa big pants
Many of them followed the leader and wore outrageously wide-legged pants, gathered at the ankle. Just sayin’, if you see it later, you can say you saw it here first.

The whole village seemed to have taken up the cause. Houses were spiffed up and decorated, mostly with recycled materials–plastic bottles and corks were turned into flowers, insects, even furniture.

Tocques in tree
Toques in a tree!
courtyard decor
Quite a few courtyards were done up like this, with dummies drinking and random giant insects flying above. Note the ubiquitous wine barrel…even the flowers are in cases of wine.
bouchon furniture
A little relaxation spot in what would otherwise be a bus stop. Everything covered with corks.
bouchons
That took patience.
grape decor
Many clusters of grapes, though the main grape varieties are all white: mauzac, chenin blanc and chardonnay.
maypole
A maypole. Everything is early this year!
grape costume
A group of locals dressed for the occasion. Note the beret. Lots of berets were worn, completely without irony.
grape costume drinks wine
Check out Dionysus on the left. Quite sure he was a local and not driving home.
118 218
These two guys are a matryoshka-doll kind of French in-joke. They are a parody of a parody of Starsky and Hutch, who appear in TV commercials for one of the telephone information lines (like 411 in the U.S.). If you want to blow your mind, google 118 218 and watch the videos. Every French resident can sing the 118 218 jingle. I will be hearing it all night in my head for having written this.

We wandered up and down the little lanes, sticking to the shade. Not everybody was prudent; lots of winter white skin was broiled to a painful red by late afternoon. It was a sea of humanity–or at least a good-sized lake. In French, the term is la foule, and when candidates plunge in to shake hands (and there were many local politicos present!),  ils prennent un bain de foule–they take a crowd bath. The Carnivore wasn’t careful and as he tried to scratch his head found his hand grabbed by some ballot-seeker.

packed vertical street
Granted, the street on the right isn’t for cars but still, what do these people do in the winter?

Despite the ubiquity of alcohol, the relative youth of the attendees and the tight quarters, the afternoon was extremely good-natured and well-mannered. The organizers had wisely switched to all-plastic, from the glasses to the bottles of wine, and had provided lots of trash points, so there was little litter despite the intense concentration of humanity.

band by cemetery
Musical entertainment, with the cemetery as a backdrop.
old couple
An event for all ages. I know I’m in a safe space when there are old people (OK, considerably older than me) out and about.

The “toques” part was well-represented, with purveyors of gastronomic goodies, such as bio, or organic, veal burgers, specialty macarons, seafood, cheeses, and lots and lots of duck and foie gras.

magret sandwich
Sandwich of magret de canard (duck breast).
hams
Hams roasting, and dripping onto onions.
hams menu
Sandwich with ham cooked on a spit with its “little” onions for about $5; a container of homemade fries for €3… CB acceptée = carte bancaire = credit/debit cards accepted.
seafood
Seafood stand: pulpe (little octopus); oysters; fries; fries + mussels; mussels.
frites graisse de canard
Magret = duck breast. Frites graisse de canard = fries cooked in duck fat.
foie gras poele aux pommes
Fois gras fried with potatoes; cold cuts; cheese. I had a cheese plate and it was lovely, with six kinds of cheese.
bio burger
Organic veal burgers. We had some; they were OK. Honestly, veal isn’t fatty enough to grill, though they were VERY rare.
sausage
Sausage and sauerkraut (saucisse et choux-croute).

Before catching the shuttle bus back to the parking lots, the gendarmes helpfully had a table set up for people to voluntarily test whether they were sober enough to drive.

two glasses
Not all French are reasonable, though I have to give him credit for still being vertical. After he gets through those tokens, not so sure….plus TWO glasses?!?!?!

We avoided that problem by inviting friends to come with us to fill up our car, and then I was the designated driver–water only–called the capitain de la soirée in France and “Bob” in Belgium. I remember driving around Brussels and seeing the electronic signs that usually warn of traffic jams reading “Avec Bob au volant, les fêtes se passent en sécurité” or something like that. I was perplexed. I knew that voler means to fly or to steal (yup!), so volant should mean flying or stealing–the present participle. “With Bob stealing…???” Main non! I just hadn’t acquired an adequate automotive vocabulary–un volant is a steering wheel–flying/stealing/steering…of COURSE. So the slogan was “With Bob (designated driver) behind the wheel, the holidays are safe.” A good idea in any language.

Cepie clocher 3
One more shot of Cépie.

 

 

 

 

Au Naturel in France

pyrennees-2No, I didn’t mean it THAT way (au naturel can mean nude). I meant, let’s wallow in the prettiness of the French countryside on a walk around the neighborhood.

sky
This was taken at the same time and place as the top photo of the snow-capped Pyrénées, just aiming at a different direction.

We had a big storm a few days ago. Rain came down as if from a firehose. The river rose enough that I couldn’t cross it on the little blocks. In fact, the blocks caught branches knocked down by the storm.

passage-a-gue
This is called a passage à gué. Walk or drive through at your own risk.
stump
Check out the size of that stump!
rapids
The rapids really roar. You can hear them blocks away.

The wind howled for a couple of days. That’s when it’s nice to have shutters.

overturned-table
The table we keep out for winter dining (it often is nice enough to eat outside, especially at lunch) was overturned, but the potted cactus landed right-side-up.

The rain may have poured, but the village fountain has been shut off for winter.

It seems as if autumn has only just settled in, and now we’re getting ready for Christmas.

white-leaf

vine-on-wall

raindrops-on-grass

big-red-leaf

bird-prints

Snow appeared about a week ago on the Pyrénées. It’s nice that it’s near enough to visit but we don’t have to deal with the mess of slush and ice.

pyrennees-1
Same mountains, different shoot. The view from the local dump/recycling center. Seriously.

For the Love of Painting

birds
By Hugues Tisseyre

There’s a charming little gallery on rue de Verdun, the main drag of la Bastide in Carcassonne. Formerly a church, it hosts a diverse range of exhibits.

 

church-steeple

The doors were open, so we popped in.

church-doorThe paintings made me think a little of Chagall, but also of Cézanne, but then another was a little more Pissarro, and a few had hints of Picasso. But I’m no an art expert. Just a museum nut.

carnaval-blueThere were quite a few dedicated to the Carnival of Limoux, a town just south of Carcassonne. And several around tauromachie, or bull-fighting, which happens in Carcassonne and several other towns around the south of France.

seatedWe were delighted to discover that the man tending the desk was the painter himself. He explained that he indeed admired all those artists, and learned how to paint, as many artists do, by copying their great works before establishing his own style.

But he can explain himself:

painter-message

For the love of painting

Because the hand of the painter is the eye of his heart, the extension of his soul, because the hairs of his brush are the thread that connects the spirit to the material, Hugues Tisseyre paints, he paints his Carnival and all the things he loves.

The Carnival of Limoux, mystical and lyrical, which goes farther than anecdote, farther than the figurative, is the instant magnified by the play of the human comedy deliberately consenting and not submissive to the truth of the mask and its possibilities of transformation of the obvious fatality.

Painting in fact must not progress except in the mind of the senses.

crowd-phantom

He said he was from Limoux and always loved its Carnival, the world’s longest. Here are his thoughts on that:

carnaval-messageThe carnival festival has behind it a long history, which we perceive through texts.

Often a drawing, a painting, an engraving suffices to explain all that to us.

Modern history since 1945 to today marks its limits. Carnival thus ferments, resists, transforms itself according to society’s solicitations. It shows all its capacity for dialogue, renewal, ironic rejection, refual, to reserve the identity which defines a common man’s living culture.

This festival which fascinates and questions is indeed the place that holds the imaginary, memory and writing.

minerveI asked about a huge painting on the ground. “The city of Minerve,” he said. Minerve is one of the most beautiful villages of France–an official designation!–about 45 kilometers northeast of Carcassonne.

I almost fainted when he walked right onto the painting.

hugues

“Oh, it’s very tough,” he said. “If you only knew how many layers of paint there are.”

He explained that one day he got hold of a big roll of moquette, or carpet, and thought the nap would make an interesting base for painting. And the price was right. Though that very nap ate up his brushes, which in turn cost a fortune, he added.

Unfortunately, Minerve was out of our budget. Perhaps one day.taureau

La Tour Boisée

wood caisseLa rentrée–the re-entry, to work, school and regular life after summer vacation–coincides with le vendange–the grape harvest. France has many famous wines, but also many smaller ones that aren’t as well known but often just as good.

bottlesMinervois is a small region just northeast of Carcassonne, with mostly family-run wineries. It’s one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France: around 6 B.C., the Greeks brought grape vines here.

tour
La tour boisée

We recently joined friends new to the region for a tasting at one of our favorite wineries, Domaine de la Tour Boisée, in Laure-Minervois. The domaine is a family operation headed by Jean-Louis Poudou, producing 14 reds, whites and rosés, on 84 hectares (about 207 acres). It recently took on the bio, or organic, label.

Poudou
Jean-Louis Poudou

Here, wine-making takes its time. We once went to a tasting in the U.S. where the vines were but three years old and the winemaker bragged about “aging on wood.” When we asked where he got his barrels–which are a big expense–he sniffed that he didn’t use barrels but wood chips in metal tanks. His wine was beyond awful.

cour
Pallets of bottles, ready for the next year’s vintage.

By contrast, at la Tour Boisée, the vines of carignan, a variety that’s typical of the Minervois, are 60 years old, and those of alicante, a Spanish grape, are 80 years old. There’s a special wine, called 1905, that mixes 23 varieties planted on a plot in the village in 1905. It’s VERY good.

And the Marie-Claude wine of syrah, grenache and carignan is aged at least a year in oak barrels. Real ones. An investment in time and materials.

aubrevoire
An abreuvoir, or watering trough

While choosing a wine is a personal affair, la Tour Boisée’s large selection caters to many tastes. What I want to focus on is the ritual of a tasting.

pouring

First, there was a discussion about our preferences. Our group of five adults leaned toward reds (though I’m a big fan of their chardonnay). Frédérique, the owner’s daughter (who has a wine named after her! Isn’t that sweet?), led us through seven wines. Small amounts were poured into stemmed glasses, swirled and sniffed. The wines’ legs were examined–the legs are the traces of wine that flow back to the bottom of the glass after you’ve swirled. Mouthfuls of wine were swished around, breathed through, and mostly swallowed. The drivers took advantage of the crachoir, or spitoon.

tastedWe spent two hours tasting and talking and learning. Then we filled the trunks of the cars with cases of wine. A big difference with the U.S.: it’s pretty much unheard-of to charge for wine tasting, but it’s considered bad form not to buy at least a case. Of course, if you don’t like the wine, you’re under no obligation.

Olive oil
We also got olive oil. The domaine has over 1,000 olive trees.

We didn’t leave without walking around the property. The namesake tower was part of the village’s ramparts.

tour 2

stairs down
Stairs to a secret walled garden. And the reason for the gate….
goat
…is a goat.
lower arch
Instagrammable cuteness everywhere you look

I don’t do sponsored posts, and this is no exception. We just are fans. Many of the Minervois wineries are too small to export their wines, but la Tour Boisée can be found in the U.S., including at Astor Wines in Manhattan.

under olivier

 

 

 

 

 

Middle Age Spread

glovesThe medieval fête at the Camping de Moulin de Sainte Anne capped off with a dinner, as fêtes in France tend to do.

tables
The slate slabs were roof tiles. I bought some myself at a vide-grenier for use on the grill.

The tables were laid with pottery, slate slabs, knives and wooden spoons. The wine glasses were recycled yogurt pots. You know how Pinterest is full of DIYs for Ball jars? Same thing here, but with yogurt pots, in glass or terra cotta. Yogurt of the brand la Fermière (the farmwife) comes in them.

As we enjoyed an apéritif of spiced wine, the actors and band set up.

arranging skins
Must place the skins just so.

There was a witch hunt, a sword fight, a king crowned and much more.

reading decree
Declaring the hunt for the witch
sword fight
Swashbuckling
knight
Mingling
behind palm
Backstage

As for the food, we started with a tranchoir, a large round of bread, topped with slices of ham, pâté and smoked duck breast, along with a salad, for which we had no forks because those weren’t common until later. (Quizz: when did the Middle Ages end? Answer at end.)

entreeThe actors, who were part of the Echansons du Carcassès club, also served the dishes, which were carried out on a litter.

entree prep

waitresses
The multitalented members of the Echansons du Carcassès. The “witch” is far left.

Next, we had bowls of fèves, or fava beans, with grilled sausages. It doesn’t look like much, but it was delicious and hearty. One tour guide, at the Château de Guise in the north, described the cuisine of the time in detail. For example, a bird like a turkey would be killed, put in a pot with spices, buried with the head sticking out and left to sit. When the beak fell off, it was “done.” No. Thank. You. More medieval dishes here and here.

Wine also was served. Duh.

saucisse feves

Finally, we had a vanilla cream, like panna cotta. It arrived on a litter with a château replica whose towers were aflame. Nice touch of drama.

dessert castleAs night fell, the band struck up. The Artemuses ladies danced, stories were interspersed between songs and much merriment ensued.

band 1As the last song ended, the skies unleashed a much-needed downpour. Perfect timing.

dancing princess
This princess could not sit still when the music was playing. And she was a good dancer.

These kinds of gatherings are open to anybody. This goes for other kinds of events as well. If you see a poster, you can attend (and don’t forget to look for the line about “apporter vos couverts” telling you to bring your own plates and silverware. If it isn’t indicated, it’s probably provided). Best to call the number on the poster to reserve. The price usually is very reasonable. This dinner cost €20 per person. Bon appétit!

If you miss a medieval fête, you can get a medieval meal at La Rôtisserie restaurant in the Château de Villeroute-Termenès, about 50 minutes east of Carcassonne.

Answer: usually Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492 is considered the end of the medieval period and the start of the Renaissance, though, like much of history, that’s up for argument.

Take Me Back to the Dark Ages

 

horse2

The Camping le Moulin de Sainte Anne knows how to put on a show. Yesterday was medieval day.

A field across the road was set up with a medieval encampment and lots of entertainment.

Battles….

battle 1

battle 2

battle 3
The guy on the left “lost” the fight but won top prize for best hair.

Music…

band 1

tatoo
What’s this design? The other guys were from Ariège, but this one was named Leroy MacSomething from Scotland.
cornemuse
A cornemuse, or French bagpipes. Made of animal skin. Another time at the camping, someone fabricated one out of a bag that previously had held boxed wine. That’s ingenuity.

Dancing…

dancer blue

Crêpes made over a fire… It was hot work, dressed like that, on a scorching day, with a big fire.

crepes 1
This really reminds me of the ads for La Laitière.

crepes 2

Stocks…

blocks 1
The medieval cigarette kills me.
blocks 2
He’s going to chop off the kid’s head, and what does mom do? Takes a picture!

Witchcraft…

book sorts
Little Manual for Casting (Nice) Spells…not in the Hogwarts’ curriculum

witch station

book sorciere
Magic Textbook of Witch’s Plants

 

Medicine…

doctor real tools
Doctor tools from the Middle Ages
doctor tools
Reproduction doctor’s mini kit
doctor kit
Reproduction of a kit for a doctor to travel with. The pots would have been of clay, not glass. Bottom right: scissors, used to cut open the scalp for brain surgery. Note the saw–“arm size” for amputations, the woman at the stand told me. Somewhat worryingly, she’s a nurse in real life. 

Calligraphy…(I love that there were so many young people participating)

Games…guess the grain or herb… “Who am I?”

The show was put on by a club, Les Echansons du Carcassès,” based in Villemoustaussou. They can be hired for banquets, seminars, weddings, parties. They rent out costumes, put on ateliers about leatherworking, woodworking, costume-making. If you ask me, they know how to have fun.

The dancers are a troupe called Artemuses, putting on medieval theater, archery, combat, fire juggling.

Later, there was a medieval banquet. Coming up next time!damsels 1