Another Adorable French Village

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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Mandatory pallet furniture.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Vertiginous terraced gardens overlooking….
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The Dure river.

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These folks also have a view. I wouldn’t want to have to fix those roofs.
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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

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

 

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.

P1070877
The yellow in the middle is genêt.
P1070882
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

P1070668P1070644

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

P1070771
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.