Connections, by Invitation Only

IMG_4957 copyStarting a new life in a new place is fraught, but doing it in a different language and culture adds a layer of complexity.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe expat bibliography is stuffed with tales of misunderstandings and scams suffered by poor newbies ignorant of the wily ways of the French contractor and the Kafkaesque requirements of the French bureaucracy.

We experienced none of that. Everybody was very professional. But at the beginning, with the Carnivore gone at work all day and me at home with a new baby, no car, no job and no friends, the transition was shockingly hard. Happily, very quickly, many people reached out, making connections with us and connecting us with the community, much to our surprise and delight.

P1080706
Why so many rainbows? Even when it rains, there’s sun.

One of the first was our neighbor’s father, who did not quite approve of foreigners next door. However, he gave us the name of a trustworthy local, J-C, who would keep tabs on the place when we were gone.

When we moved in for good, J-C was our guide. He told us where to find a doctor. Which led to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist looked at my address, said she lived in the same village, and that I should check out the gym classes at the community center.

The gym classes became my go-to for all kinds of information. The relative advantages of the various supermarkets in town. How to sign up a kid for preschool. Where to take baby-swimming lessons. What all those French acronyms mean. Any time I needed to know something, I would ask at gym class. I exercised my vocabulary as well as my muscles during the Wednesday night sessions. (For the most accurate weather report, eavesdrop on the line at the bakery.)P1070029The park was another touchstone. It must have been a magical time, because now when I run around the park, I no longer see mothers with little ones on the manicured lawn. I was lucky to have a nice clique of three other mothers as insistent as I was that kids need to go outside unless it’s pouring rain. They had kids the same age as mine, and our four were sometimes joined by various others who were more relaxed about the park-television ratio. Even on wintry days, we would go, huddling against the wind as the well-bundled little ones (emmitoufler is the adorable French word that means “to wrap up in warm clothes”) intently picked up rocks or leaves or chestnuts from one place and dropped them someplace else, while similarly well-bundled little old ladies perched like delicate brown birds on a bench against a sheltered, sun-warmed south wall, watching the spectacle. Who needs cat videos when you have live toddler performances?P1060482When I had surgery on my foot and was laid up for a month, these mothers came by every day to visit me. Every day. They also did the school runs, while another handled swim lessons.

That is when I knew it. I was loved. The roots were sinking in.

Have you ever planted seedlings from a nursery and then later pulled them out, the roots still in a tight ball? Meanwhile, other plants are nearly impossible to get out, having sent their roots wide and deep. 21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 432A difference with humans, though, is that we can have roots in many places at once. Mine are now spread across countries and continents.

I don’t like to think of having lost touch with old friends; there’s no repudiation of the time spent with them, and it’s only normal that we all devote most of our energies to those in our presence. Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, yet that’s sometimes on a superficial level of headlines about what’s eating up our time. 278.RainbowsOn the other hand, I regaled my mom with her faraway grandchild’s antics via email, and she would write back as soon as she read it several time zones later. My mom even babysat from almost 5,000 miles away. She and the kid would get on Skype, and talk. They would draw pictures and hold them up to the camera to show each other. I would be shooed away during these sessions, with a curt, “We are TALKING!” And talk they did. I couldn’t always hear the exact words, but they came in a steady stream, punctuated by plenty of laughter.

My dad preferred snail mail. I would get a thick envelope from time to time, every bit of every page filled with his distinctive writing, which got shakier and shakier. The topics were stream of conscious—certainly his mind worked faster than his hand, and by the time he had scratched out a sentence, he was already paragraphs beyond. He always signed off with “I love you and always will.” Always.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen my siblings or old friends, on the rare times when the stars align so we can get on the phone despite the transatlantic scheduling challenges, we pick up as if we’d last seen each other just a few days ago. The details don’t matter. I love them deeply, fiercely, and that’s all that it takes to keep the connection.IMG_3627 2This post is part of the group “By Invitation Only,” which this month is discussing connections. For other points of view, please visit Daily Plate of Crazy, where you can find not only D.A. Wolf’s sensory take but also links to other By Invitation Only participants. And tell me about the connections that are important to you.

Advertisements

‘Appy ‘Alloween

P1090042Halloween–or as they say, ‘Alloween–has taken off in France. (I get teased about my accent, so turnabout is fair play.) The supermarkets have stands dedicated to candy, makeup and decorations.

P1090055
Typical.

The village holds a costume contest, and a high proportion of the residents participate in handing out treats, which are almost always not individually wrapped!!! I freaked out the first time, but I soon knew almost everybody. In fact, our kid chose a big container of not individually wrapped candies (licorice and fake fruit flavors) for us to distribute. I wanted to get mini Snickers, figuring that if there were leftovers, they might as well be something good. But my kid informed me that on Halloween, kids want candy, and chocolate isn’t candy, it’s chocolate and is for Christmas. Somehow it seems very French to elevate chocolate above mere candy status.

05.FEBRUARY 12 - 60
A perfect haunted house, in a deep, dark forest, too. (It was for sale. Probably still is.)
05.FEBRUARY 12 - 63
Lots of potential, but surely this is a place where things go bump in the night.

The French haven’t yet adopted yards full of inflatables, probably because front yards aren’t a thing here. Either you have a townhouse whose front door opens right onto the sidewalk or you have a “villa” (which includes quite modest free-standing houses) with a garden behind the privacy of a wall or at least a fence. None of those golf-course-like lawns stretching unimpeded between house and curb, unused except for holiday decorations.

In France, Halloween costumes are strictly scary. Save your astronaut and princess outfits for Carnivale on Mardi Gras. Our village is so small that it doesn’t take long for the kids to circulate in large groups. They bang on everybody’s doors, lights on or not. One time, before a house that was shuttered up tight, one of the parents hollered “Papi!” (Grandpa!) and a little old guy opened up and released a sweet into each proffered bag. The whole porch light signal doesn’t work the same way without porches.

P1090049
Scary grave straight from central casting. Not decoration!

After pillaging the village of sugar, the ghoulish kiddies traipse through the community center to have their loot weighed and costumes judged. Our kid won the costume contest one year (headless–it really turned heads), then raised the ante the next year with a zippered face, which was even more horrifying. We waited for the costume winners to be announced, but nothing happened. Then we realized the other kids had left. The lights got turned down, the music got turned up, and we were confronted with the horror of the village’s singles population, and soon-to-be singles population (I recognized a few too many married parents of the kid’s schoolmates, not with their spouses), checking each other out, and not for best costume. Most were already tipsy and you could see that Nov. 1 was going to be a day of regrets for more than a few of them. The kid was crushed the zipper face hadn’t won, but somewhat consoled that it appeared there were no prizes at all that year.

Since the kid got too old to trick-or-treat and is too young for the singles-and-swingers dance, Halloween means a trip to the haunted house, followed by a small party at home with scary movies. The haunted house operates year-round in la Cité of Carcassonne, run by the same people who have the “museum” of torture.Remparts à la Cité de CarcassonneLa Cité is definitely a good set for a scary movie. Gargoyles aplenty. Stern stone walls. Today promises to be bright and sunny, with not a cloud in the bluest sky, but when gray clouds hover low and the wind howls, you can imagine it as a haunt for ghosts.IMG_2149IMG_2148IMG_2139IMG_2118IMG_1918While the gang goes through the haunted house, I plan to visit the cemetery just outside the walls. I have gone to cemeteries in a number of towns in France, and something about them is so interesting. Again, no vast expanses of green lawns. They are real cities of the dead, with incredible chapels and tombs, a few engraved words conveying stories of the residents’ lives.

P1090046
Priez pour lui–pray for him.
P1090051
Spanish surnames…reminders of refugees from past war.

P1090050

P1090048
Born March 21, 1799. That just amazes me.
P1090037
Only the ceramic flowers remain. Is the family gone, or did they move?

P1090040Our village cemetery draws a parade of people every day. Mostly they’re the little old ladies wobbling along to tend loved ones’ graves and say prayers. For the past two weeks, though, the cemetery has been a hive of activity, with cars parked along the perimeter as families tidy up and bring in big pots of flowers ahead of the real holiday, Nov. 1, All Saints Day–Toussaint. Chrysanthemums are the favorite, to the extent that putting them in your garden is just not done. I got a gentle reprimand when I put a pot of mums by our front door. Too bad–they’re such pretty flowers.P1090052In Paris, the Père Lachaise cemetery draws visitors because of the famous people (Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison) buried there. I went there on a Christmas Day years ago–it was one of the few things open on Christmas. And there were lots of people! The delightful podcast The Earful Tower had a segment about Jim Morrison’s grave. Another interesting one is the Montmartre cemetery. But even small cemeteries in small places are fascinating. They’re really proof that they are more for the living than for the dead.

And below, some random bits:

Re: Friday’s post about hunters and boars: here are some prints I came upon in a vineyard:

P1090002
Deep! An indication of the weight of wild pigs.

P1090003

Tomatoes are still going strong in some gardens (photo taken two days ago): P1090006

And this was such a pretty scene, with the white horse and colorful vineyards:P1080995

Heigh Ho, the Derry-oh

P1050776Gunshots cracked the Saturday predawn silence. It happened again on Sunday. I heard more that evening, as we ate on the terrace, our cone of lamplight surrounded by still-balmy darkness.

The hunting season began Sept. 10 in the forests, but not until Oct. 8 in the vineyards because the grape harvest was still under way.

With still-warm nights, we sleep with a window open, and so many sounds come in along with the sweet autumn air.

P1050775
Beware Traps Danger. Hunting reserve.

Crickets. Where were they in the summer? Maybe it was too hot and dry. Now they chirp loudly in the first hours of darkness. When we first moved here, the nearby river was full of frogs that screamed all night. They didn’t croak; they shrieked like little girls in a haunted house. It was a somewhat stressful addition to the natural soundtrack, but now that the frogs are gone I miss them. Too hot? Too dry? Too polluted? No idea why they disappeared.

 

During the night, there are some birds that break out in exquisite arias. Soloists. Other birds blast a sharp warning during their nightly hunts; being a city person, I don’t know bird calls, but they don’t sound like the “who-who” of owls, which we also hear from time to time. The roosters I recognize, at least.

At around 5 a.m. every morning, a scooter sputters toward the village. In my mind’s eye, I follow its route up and down the hills, getting louder, crossing a bridge, rolling through the stop to turn onto a main road and head into town. The minimum age for driving is 18, but one can drive a scooter from age 14. It seems so dangerous—scooters have small engines and barely make it up steep hills, which is also where cars can’t pass safely. The way this one coughs, it’s just as well it isn’t making the journey during rush hour. The driver must be some teenage apprentice heading to a very early shift…at a bakery, maybe? I send out kind thoughts for a safe trip and a good day.

P1070250
A camionette. Not the rickety one full of dogs, but you get the picture.

Even earlier, well before the first inkling of morning, a rickety old camionette—a kind of enclosed pickup favored by vignerons—rattles by with what sounds like a pack of dogs barking in the back. I used to think it was an old guy in the village who had an old camionette and about a dozen beagles. But some years ago the beagles disappeared and the house has been closed up tight, its garden overgrown, so I fear the old man died. I don’t believe in ghosts and the rickety camionette with barking dogs is quite real, so clearly it’s somebody else, most likely off for a morning hunt.

A few days ago, I climbed one of the dry rock retaining walls along my walking route in order to get a better vantage point to take a picture of a vineyard whose leaves were a brilliant orange. As I went up, I realized I would have to find a different way down. So I walked along through the wild brush, looking for a better way down. It was easy—there were clear paths crisscrossing all over, with the tall grass matted down flat. Then I got a look at a bare spot and realized the paths had been made by sangliers—boars. The prints sank deeply into the soft ground. How was the ground there soft, anyway? Our garden is dry and hard from so many days of sunshine. Maybe all the vegetation held in the moisture from the last rain.

P1080963
Was it worth the climb? Not quite high enough, methinks.

I wondered about the boars piecing together a life in the scattered morsels of brush and stretches of garrigue between the vineyards. Houses gobble up more and more land, hopscotching farther out, like an infestation of fungus or weeds or a dread skin condition. Trees and brush are torn out, vineyards ripped up, replaced by either lotissements of identical sorry cottages or hideous Mediterranean mcmansions (post on abominable French architecture coming up). When the ancient villages were created, everybody lived close together, within fortified walls, for safety. Crime was rampant back then, with marauding gangs on the few roads. Now crime is rare, and the dangers of walking in the countryside in the dark are limited to getting hit by a car or coming nose to nose with a wild pig.

P1080971
An abandoned vineyard, with food for wild pigs.

The French also have a hunting song for children. Here’s a charmingly simple video of it, because the hand motions are key. The lyrics:

In his house, a big deer

Looked out the window

A rabbit came to him

And knocked on the door.

“Deer, deer open up for me

Or the hunter will kill me!”

“Rabbit, rabbit, come in and come

Shake my hand.”

 

Sign of Something

P1050358Living in another country, in another language, makes one stop sometimes to consider things locals just take for granted. Weird, funny, pretty or poetic. Signs are a favorite.P1080464 2

Take, for example, a sign warning that of a submersible bridge. Between us, what is the point of a bridge that goes under water? Also, I just love all the exclamation point signs. They’re a cross between OMG and WTF. The road equivalent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”IMG_4601

On Tuesdays, we get a thick stack of ads from the supermarkets and elsewhere in the mailbox. Plenty of folks would rather not get this stuff, and, like New Yorkers who put “no menus” stickers, the French put “pas de pub”–no ads–stickers on their mailboxes. This one says, “no ads, have pity!” Again, I picture “The Scream.”P1070723

“Access reserved except those having the right.” Well, DUH. That is a sure-fire way to make me want to go check it out.633.Acces parking pietons

“Access parking pedestrians” or, in French you could read it as “access to pedestrian parking,” because adjectives (here, piétons would be serving as one) follow nouns (parking, because they say parking and not parking lot). It conjures up an image of a bunch of pedestrians, their walking shoes laced up, pacing in individual parking spaces.

IMG_0549

This one has been up for at least a decade on a road into Carcassonne. “Warning: hen nests forming,” which is a way to say potholes are developing. However, several months ago, the city repaved this stretch so it’s now as smooth as a baby’s bottom, starting from this sign on into town. The sign remains, because, I guess, new potholes will be developing as soon as the fresh asphalt went down. Or else there are chickens lurking around that I haven’t spotted.

IMG_2320

I have featured this one before, on my post about driving in France. But it still makes me laugh every time I drive past and still makes me think of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure.” I only just realized Tim Burton directed that movie. No wonder it’s so great. 05.FEBRUARY 12 - 51

As if anybody would miss a village up here on the top of the mountain. Unless you blink. And the village, Labastide-Esparbairenque, only has a center. It has more letters in its name than inhabitants in its village. Just kidding. The population is 83. Its name is a synonym for Timbuktu for Carcassonnais who want to say a place is at the end of the earth.IMG_4629

“No two-wheelers (bikes, scooters, motorcycles) allowed. No dogs allowed. No fires allowed.” And someone added “No idiots allowed. Forbidden to be a pig.”P1030175

This one is in a similar spirit (no stupidity allowed), but more polite. A boulodrôme is the place to play boules or pétanque. “Reserved for pétanque players holding a national license. The company and the municipality refuse any responsibility for all accidents provoked by unlicensed players. Spectators are asked to not cross the games. Thank you for your civility.” IMG_3169

Somehow it makes sense that the wine cooperative is on Avenue of the Bunch of Grapes. But the cemetery? BTW, if you see wine from Siran, buy it; it’s good.

Now a couple that deserve the exclamation point sign.P1030246

“Warning. Drivers beware. In case of a storm, you are asked to urgently evacuate your vehicle. The commune (the town) cannot in any case take responsibility.” It’s at a parking lot in Banyuls, on the coast. Makes sense–if the area risks flooding, it can’t be built on. And if the weather is nasty, people aren’t likely to go to the beach, so the extra parking probably wouldn’t be needed.P1050147

“Danger Bulls.” Running loose in the streets before the féria of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.P1070069

We’ll end with some pretty ones. I love the old road signs.IMG_4462P1080819

Wouldn’t you want to live on Little Fountain Street?IMG_4388

A blast from the past: public baths and showers, in Bize-Minervois. Until the 1970s, some houses in the ancient village centers didn’t have plumbing. Residents had to go to a bathhouse, which may have operated only once a week (to economize on keeping water and the building itself warm). P1020922

One of the faux road signs sold at tourist shops. Apéritif Place. With pictures of a glass of jaune (pastis), peanuts, olives and a glass of p’tit ponch–a little punch–rum with lime.

À votre santé!

The Quiet, Vibrant Village of Caunes

P1080886Nestled in the foothills of the Black Mountains, Caunes-Minervois is a storybook French village, with cobbled streets too narrow for cars, one beautiful door after another, stone walls adorned with climbing roses and ivy.P1030364It also has lots of life. Although it doesn’t even have 2,000 residents, it has EIGHT restaurants! They are really good, too. The Hôtel d’Alibert, for example, is beautiful and delicious. The Cantine de la Curé (the priest’s canteen–it’s across from the abbey) has tapas in a garden. La Mangeoire (manger, as in away in a) and la Marberie (the marble works–Caunes is known for its quarry for red marble) have lovely interiors as well as shady terraces. P1080815P1080813296.Hotel in CaunesIn the summer, outdoor classical concerts on Fridays animate the lovely garden behind the abbey. In winter, jazz concerts in the abbey’s caveau, or wine cellar, take advantage of the great acoustics.312.Abbey in Caunes6The monastery was the heart of the ancient village, although it was inhabited since neolithic times, and later had a Roman villa. The abbey was started in the 8th century, when the town was becoming rich.  307.Abbey in Caunes5You can visit the church, sumptuously decorated with local marble, and go under the altar to the crypt. There’s a cloister, and a small museum of archaeological finds.

303.Catacomb
The crypt.
298.Abbey in Caunes
The bell tower.

Mostly, though, it’s a pleasure just to stroll around Caunes. Some of the streets turn into stairs, and most in the center of the village are just too narrow for cars to pass. Which means the soundtrack for your walk is the wind and birds.P1080888P1080816P1080837P1080880P1080852P1080840P1080859P1080860P1080827P1080826315.Street in Caunes316.Street in Caunes1317.Street in Caunes2

 

There are some beautiful homes, not just from medieval times but also Renaissance, including Hôtel d’Alibert. Most of the Renaissance buildings are near the mairie, or town hall.

P1080823
Renaissance windows.

P1080851P1080814The doors range from majestically imposing to extremely small. I saved most of them for another post just on doors.P1080881P1080874P1080875

P1080844
The gated door was, for a while, the entry to an underground bar called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the hole in the wall. I’m short and had to bend over to get through. It was very cool and it’s too bad it closed.

Near the abbey is an old lavoir, or communal laundry, which still gets used.314.Laundry in Caunes

Its location on a hill offers views across the plain that extends to the Pyrénées. Gorgeous.P1080855320.Panorama from Caunes2

And the views of the roofs are wonderful, too.P1080891

Charm is everywhere.P1080883P1080812

Though it’s not without its challenges.P1080861

I hope you enjoyed Caunes-Minervois. If you ever see wine from here, buy it (there are several wineries). You won’t be disappointed.

Caunes is a great daytrip from Carcassonne. I haven’t finished with it, either. We will go out of town the next time, plus I have to visit the marble quarry, since our kitchen counters came from it.P1080870P1080876P1080862

Antique Finds

P1080511Since the rentrée, the vide-grenier season has been in high gear. The mass garage sales are the excuse to visit a new village, to people-watch and above all, to find one-of-a-kind items for a song.P1080513This stand had an impressive collection of Ricard items. Ricard is a brand of pastis, an anise-flavored apéritif that’s very popular around here. It is clear and barely yellow but turns cloudy when water is added, and thus gets called un jaune–a yellow. Ricard brilliantly played on the name. The glasses have a line to show how much pastis to pour. I can only guess that the tray, with holders for the glasses and bottle, is designed to set down at the boulodrôme during pétanque.

P1080512
Ricard, the victor over thirst. 
P1080516
A logical combination: Ricard and boules.

The professionals have the greatest concentrations of good stuff, but at higher prices. Look at this collection of antique night clothes.P1070816The pants have a completely open crotch. Interesting. I would guess something to do with using a chamber pot in the dark but I could be wrong.P1070818I love the embroidery. Even when it’s just small initials.P1070817The képi blanc is the hat of the French Foreign Legion. It reminds me of the Colette story. Ageist double standards.

P1080515
That orange phone!

Another had old knives in a very scratched plexiglass case. Can you make out some of the elaborate decorations on the handles and even the blades?IMG_3146

P1080514I do wonder about who would collect figurines of pin-up girls. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. Ick.P1080508The regular folks getting rid of stuff from grandma’s attic are where you find the best gems. Look at that silver inkwell.P1080509

And how about a mantle clock with a cherub on top?

There also are plenty of less-antique offerings. Bowling, anyone?P1080510

The thrill of the hunt is what the vide-grenier is all about.IMG_3149IMG_3144IMG_3148

What’s your best find?

Prehistoric Man

view 1If archaeology is your thing, a great day trip from Carcassonne is to Tautavel, for three reasons:

  1. There’s a fabulous musuem dedicated to l’Homme de Tautavel, who lived 450,000 years ago.
  2. The scenery is gorgeous.
  3. The region’s wines are yummy.

Tautavel man, a Homo erectus, was discovered in 1971 in a cave, along with 149 other human remains. He was about 20 years old and 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches) tall. Sorry I don’t have photos! I hate taking photos inside museums. Click on the links to see the museum’s site.

Tautavel man hadn’t yet domesticated fire, but was a very good hunter. The prey was typically horse, deer, wild sheep, and bison but also included rhinos, lions and panthers, as well as smaller animals.

You can visit the cave as part of a guided group between April and August. Two museums, the Musée de Tautavel and the Musée des Premiers Habitants de l’Europe, display the site’s finds and illustrate prehistoric life. The dioramas are very realistic and not corny at all. Explanations are in several languages. Tip: the museums are closed at lunch, between noon and 2:30 p.m. Tickets, €8 adults/€4 kids, are €1 apiece cheaper if bought in advance online and are good for both museums.

fire demo
Fire demonstration, using a special kind of fungus. Always good to know. This guide was amazing–a real comedian but full of interesting info.

There are demonstrations of how to light a fire using flint and by rubbing two sticks together, and how to use prehistoric weapons, such as a propulseur (not easy—I tried it). In mid-April, the museum hosts the Prehistoric Arms Firing Championship!

I accompanied a school trip, so we went by bus, taking the autoroute to near Perpignan (the exit, sortie 41, is well-marked for Tautavel man), then leaving the coastal plain to wind through low hills—I suppose they count as the foothills of the Pyrénées—with rugged, white rock outcroppings, plenty of garrigue and lush vineyards. The drive is about 1.5 hours, but the countryside and charming little villages make it seem like less. There’s a lot to look at.view 2Speaking of vineyards, the region is near Fitou and has good wines. Here is a link to the local producers.

town
Typical French village cuteness in the heart of Tautavel.

Poor M. Homme de Tautavel, living in a wine region before the advent of wine.

Another Adorable French Village

IMG_4622

Is there no end to the prettiness? Let’s wander through the overwhelming charms of Bize-Minervois, a village of about a thousand people in the Aude department of the south of France.

IMG_4659
People tasting coffee (we don’t just have wine here; there’s locally roasted coffee!) in the courtyard of the former royal fabric factory, today home to gîtes.

The excuse for checking out Bize (which delightfully sounds like la bise, or the French custom of greeting by kissing on each cheek, though some do more than two–going up to three or four kisses, and starting on left or right depending on how far north) was “Tastes en Minervois,” a mix of gastronomy and wine, with some art and music thrown in for spice.IMG_4389The areas around the wine-tastings had plenty of people, but otherwise, the tiny village mostly let one see its true colors. (We were badly organized and arrived after the food had been served.)IMG_4609IMG_4395IMG_4604

For example, beautiful doors.

IMG_4631
This one makes me think of the huge lengths of fabric of the village’s past as a textile center.
IMG_4603
Fit for a Hobbit.

IMG_4597IMG_4594IMG_4573IMG_4575

IMG_4608
A foulerie was a place for pressing textiles. The snake theme is thanks to the Carndinal de Bonzi, who was archbishop of nearby Narbonne in 1673 and who originally hailed from Milan (I know, you’re saying, oh, of course! The symbol of Milan-based Alfa Romeo cars is a snake eating a person).

The windows weren’t so shabby either.IMG_4593IMG_4576IMG_4658

There was cuteness and postcard-picturesqueness at every turn.IMG_4399IMG_4406IMG_4407IMG_4581IMG_4655

The town nestles, warily, next to the Cesse river, which usually is tiny but which, as you can see by its bed, can get a little crazy.IMG_4637

IMG_4408
Local swimming hole

That reminds me of a riddle: what can run but never walks, what has a mouth but never talks, what has a bed but does not sleep, what has a head but never weeps?

A river.IMG_4585

The town of Bize went all-out decorating. There were numerous spots to kick back and taste wine or food. The one above had “furniture” made from tires. And the décor was street signs. I thought the sign, affaissement was hilarious–it sounds like afessement, which isn’t a word but if it were it would mean to lay your butt down (fesse is buttock); affaissement is what happens when a pile of something like sand or rocks kind of slumps down. And slumping down seems to be the same outcome as afessement. I ran it by some native French speakers, who thought it was pretty funny, but the Carnivore informed me that it was completely wrong because the French don’t go for puns like that. I’m not so sure.

IMG_4587
Mandatory pallet furniture.

IMG_4405

But as lively as the festivities were, the best parts of Bize were the tiny lanes, the quirky old buildings, the clearly sleepy ambiance.

IMG_4591
No fear of traffic. But what happens if the fridge goes out and you need a new one delivered?

IMG_4597

IMG_4611
Note the parking spot outlined in white (big enough for a Smart), and the yellow no-parking line…as if! I bet if a car is parked in that spot, it’s no easy thing to get around that curve. Anyway, a car? Here? Maybe every few days.

IMG_4592IMG_4623

IMG_4400
The planters for the climbing vines!
IMG_4394
Undoubtedly a fine institution.

IMG_4403IMG_4626IMG_4404IMG_4635

That wasn’t all. On the way I kept pulling over to bark at my photographer/offspring to take pictures of various beautiful things. Even though all the villages around here have similar levels of cuteness, it’s foreign enough to me despite all the years of living here that I go ga-ga over it every time. Tant mieux.

IMG_4382
Mailhac, on the way to Bize. You see? Where does it stop, all this picturesqueness?

Wine Harvest

P1080694Today may be Sept. 1, but Monday is la rentrée–the great return to school, to work, to routine. For winemakers around this part of the south of France, the end of summer comes with le vendange, or grape harvest, and they are hard at it.P1080487At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. P1080474Within the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.

P1080475
This photo and the one just above were taken a while ago; these are all dark purple now.

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.

P1070428
Can you spot the lonely vigneron tending the wires? Obviously from earlier this year.

Lots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.

P1080704Let me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).

P1080705If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.

Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.

And so when things go badly, we see the long faces.

P1080485
Hit by frost.

Our winters are mild, and temperatures only occasionally drop below freezing at night. But this spring, frost struck low-lying areas a few times as late as April, devastating the vines just as the fruit was budding out.

P1080491
Big gaps.

A large field where some optimistic winegrower had planted new vines early in the spring turned into rows of shriveled dreams. Some plots that belonged to the ancient vigneron, who died about a year ago, were hit and tumbled into abandon. I suppose his son, no spring chicken himself, gave up on them.P1080476

P1070944
Lost cause.

Another plot nearby was completely dead and eventually torn up and plowed over. I met a worker pulling out the stakes that had held the wires for training the vines, and he said they would plant again later. Maybe.P1070939The piles of souches, or stumps,  look like heaps of bones, a cemetery of hope.P1080473The harvest this year is two weeks early because of the hot summer, but the output is expected to be 30% to 40% lower than last year. The wine is expected to be of excellent quality, however. So keep an eye out for Minervois 2017 (though in the meantime you would do well with 2016 and 2015 and 2014….)P1070946

Charmingly Bookish Montolieu

IMG_4529Books, art, old buildings. In the south of France. The village of Montolieu, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Carcassonne, is intellectual AND adorable.IMG_4528Montolieu bills itself le village du livre (the village of books), with 17 bookstores for under 800 residents. Plus art galleries. Plus very cute cafés and restaurants. All nestled among tiny, car-free lanes and crooked stone houses. With jaw-dropping views.

IMG_4523
We arrived too late for lunch and too early for dinner… Note the lady sitting outside and reading at the end of the street.

Enough said. Let’s go for an afternoon stroll.P1080629

IMG_4506
For a little coolness, visit the basement. Everything for €2 (books).
P1080634
Local resident.

P1080630

P1080626
A table in the middle of a street. Why not? Note the curtain on the door at the right (to keep out flies and mosquitos), and the clothesline along the wall. And the straightness of the walls, as witnessed by the rain spouts.

IMG_4503P1080617P1080618P1080620P1080611P1080632IMG_4519IMG_4468IMG_4472IMG_4527IMG_4511P1080609P1080624IMG_4514P1080631IMG_4516P1080633

P1080619
Two-way street, barely big enough for one car.
IMG_4469
Public toilets, with poetry.

IMG_4470

P1080613
A vending machine for organic vegetables. On the wall to the left of it is a pile of books. There were books sitting around everywhere.

P1080644

And finally, the views, over the Dure river. The village is in the Black Mountains, atop a hill that allowed for fortification (but was invaded by Vandals and Visigoths nonetheless). It was a stronghold of the Cathar religion, and later a center for textile manufacturing.

P1080635
Vertiginous terraced gardens overlooking….
P1080637
The Dure river.

P1080639

P1080642
These folks also have a view. I wouldn’t want to have to fix those roofs.
P1080646
At the lookout point, a table with books for those who manage to take their eyes off the scenery.

I have lots more photos and will put some on Instagram, so check there, too. I’ll have to go back to visit the Manufacture Royale (royal factory, for textiles) and the book museum. A very worthy day trip from Carcassonne!P1080610