Dreaming of a White Christmas

IMG_0232It’s a dark, gray day. It looks as if it could snow, but that’s out of the question. The temperature is 12 C (53 F). This is considerably cooler than a couple of days ago. Crazy. The plain between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées is a patchwork of plowed brown fields or sculptural bare vineyards, mixed with a vivid emerald of all the things happy for the season’s rain so they can grow. (Actually, in the time it took me to write this, the clouds dissipated and the sun is shining brightly.)IMG_4379

The snow-capped Pyrénées. The stripe of silver-leafed trees in the center of the photo is an olive grove.

IMG_4370IMG_4376The mood in town feels upbeat. Stores are bustling. The sidewalks are packed with people out shopping or going to the Christmas markets, which emphasize food and drink for adults and rides for children. I haven’t looked up close at the skating rink, entoured with Christmas trees flocked with fake snow. I remember one time that I accompanied my kid’s class, despite not knowing how to skate myself, and a big part of the rink was slush because it was so warm and sunny.IMG_0311IMG_0305IMG_0304The rocade, or ring road around town, is backed up with traffic going to the centres commerciaux, or shopping malls. Last year, the Gilets Jaunes went after shops, both in town centers and at malls. This year, the strikers are focused on government buildings and public transportation, and shoppers are more or less left in peace. It certainly has been years–since 2008–since I’ve seen so much activity.IMG_0231It’s invigorating, but I also like to step away to the relative calm of la Cité. It can be packed in summer, but at this time of year, it’s quiet and haunting. Like having my own personal fortress. IMG_0319IMG_0320IMG_0229IMG_0321My kid is disappointed with the mildness of winter here, longing for a good snow. I remember our family’s big old station wagon, and all four of us kids would be in the back seat, huddling together under an old blanket (the “car blanket”) and waiting for the heat blasting the windshield to finally reach us. The windows would resemble submarine portholes, small rounds scratched into the ice that had encased the vehicle in the time it took us to pay our weekly visit to grandma. la cite winter from audeI don’t know whether my kid’s longing is for snow, or for having siblings to snuggle with in a cold car, or for having grandmas to visit weekly if not more. Even though I did what I could to create an ideal childhood for my kid, some things just aren’t possible to provide.IMG_0308I also feel some twinges of jealousy. There’s a particularly beautiful shop in Carcassonne, la Ferme, which sells all kinds of good things to eat and drink as well as cooking and dining gear. It’s a step back in time, packed to the gills, and I want every single thing in there. I eavesdropped on shoppers, debating whether to get this or that for grandpa, for auntie. There are many great things about being an expat, but being far from extended family is the hardest.IMG_0313How about you? Are you shopping? Done? What are your Christmas plans? I so enjoy reading your comments. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you in real life, and every single time my biggest disappointment is that you live too far away to get together–to a person, everyone has felt immediately like a long-time friend. I treasure that. Thank you.


Renovation Nightmares

IMG_0296Happily, no helicopters were needed for our renovations. But such are the challenges of maintaining ancient buildings that lie within walled cities whose streets were laid out a millennium before cars.

A few weeks ago, I was walking around la Cité and heard an incredible racket. With the narrow streets, the sound bounced around such that I wasn’t sure at first what it was or where it was coming from. Then I realized it was a helicopter and got a little worried about why it was so close to la Cité. Carcassonne is home to the Third Regiment of Parachutists of the Marine Infantry (RPIMa), so planes and helicopters are not unknown in skies around here. And when wildfires break out, we get some very low-flying planes that drop water.

Traffic blocked, too. Not that there was any traffic. The beams were picked up from a parking lot and carried inside the walls, like a stork with a newborn.

Outside la Cité’s walls I understood–the helicopter was making a special delivery of long beams for a renovation project. Such beams would have been too long to thread through the winding paths, not at all straight, of la Cité. Having gulped at the cost of delivery of renovation materials by truck (during certain times on certain days!), I imagined many zeroes popping up behind some number, like in a cartoon. Nothing is easy or cheap with old buildings.

Main drag of la cite empty
The main street of la Cité on a busy winter morning.
Difficult access was intentional. Today’s weather–clear blue skies and flirting with 60 degrees–is nothing like this moody photo.

It made me reflect again on what we went through, putting in new wiring and plumbing in apartments built for neither.

Toilette 1
WC 2
YIKES! Not to code!!!
wiring mess
All new wiring, heading toward the new fusebox.
Making a path for the new wiring through 2-foot-thick stone walls. 
New wiring in salon
Wiring in place.
Unexpected surprises: In some places, the walls were stuffed with straw and lime paste. Good insulation.
Cuisine sol 2
Not in good shape. Luckily, they covered a treasure!
We restored the original tomette tiles throughout the apartments.
Kitchen hotte
It served its purpose, but as the architect says, “it has no historical value”

You can see the saga of our renovations under the heading Our Vacation Apartments. We hope you get to visit in person, too!


Color My World

IMG_4898Yeah, everybody does 5k races, and everybody even does them throwing colored powder at the runners. But not everybody does them around a medieval fortress.IMG_4802We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

On Saturday, the young, healthy and energetic citizens of the city gathered along the Aude river for “Color My Run.” It’s in English because that’s cool, authentic. The symbol is a castle because … France.IMG_4758I know these color runs have been a thing for quite a while, but we are in France profonde–deepest France–and it was a first here. Put together by a group of students (more cheers for young people!), with proceeds going to Secours Populaire, or People’s Relief.

It was all organized in usual French fashion, which is to say, extremely organized, except that, in European fashion (I won’t pin it solely on the French, since a number of other nationalities do it, too), the lines were more amoebas than lines, but at least they moved quickly. The young organizers scanned participants’ tickets (you had to sign up online–of course) with their phones (of course. Does anybody use phones to call? I don’t think so, but they do everything else). It helps that Carcassonne is small and not very cut-throat. People are still registering at the starting time? Well, we’ll wait until everybody is ready. Plenty of time! Relax!

I tell you, life here is good. Even people running a race have all the time in the world.IMG_4765We were not on top of the fashion situation, because lots of runners came decked out in crazy outfits.

You can see a couple of runners on the other side of the river. Gorgeous place to work out.

IMG_4767One group of young ladies even dyed their hair, half green, half red. That’s dedication.

The red-headed guy with red shorts was the first finisher, by a long shot. He loped by alone as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Amazing.

The runners took off along the Quai Bellevue–it does have a pretty view–then crossed the 14th century Pont Vieux, or old bridge, which is entirely pedestrian.IMG_4771

A sea of white T-shirts on the bridge. It’s so pretty here.

IMG_4843IMG_4872I thought the route was going to be an easy loop along one side of the river–semi-wild, very pretty parkland because it’s in a flood zone–and then on the other–more parks, all flat. However, just after the bridge, the route included a quad-melting climb to the walls of la Cité.IMG_4828IMG_4810

The powder was corn starch with food coloring.

There’s a new art installation, called Eccentric Concentric, by Felice Varini, with 15 yellow circles on the ramparts. I am no art critic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but to me it looks like either the symbol for wifi or the symbol on the highways to warn that there’s a radar ahead.IMG_4868IMG_4866As long as it’s temporary.

When I lived in New York, first I was downtown and constantly marveled at the high-rises and bright lights. I’d go to the top of the World Trade Center just because it was nearby and always a thrill. Later, I lived in Brooklyn and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to go home, always gazing in wonder at the view out the back window, even after years of it. Now, it’s la Cité that makes me pinch myself. How is it possible that such a place existed? An even bigger question: How is it possible it still is intact today?

The bridge, the castle….even the “new” town is from 1260. Pinch me.

To do something as universal and ordinary as running, while in the shadow of such a place, well, I never can believe it’s real, even after so many years.IMG_4783The thing is, all the stuff around it is so pretty but la Cité is so awesome you don’t even notice the rest. Like the pretty little dam on the river with a little footbridge.IMG_4799At the end of the run, which was noncompetitive, there was an afternoon rave with the cutest DJ brothers. They clearly took their work very seriously, and made playing music look as complex as any scene from the command deck of a space ship that’s under attack, yet they seemed to enjoy it at the same time. The post-run crowd relaxed by jumping madly (after a run!) and had good, clean fun, as you can see below.

A smoke machine! The DJs lead the dancing.

IMG_4910IMG_4901IMG_4896IMG_4888IMG_4876And if anybody now has an earworm of Chicago crooning “Color My World,” bringing back a flood of prom and homecoming memories, well, maybe next time you will run, too?IMG_4895





Summer Truffles

on breadOne of the saving graces of winter is tuber melanosporum: the black truffles that perfume dishes from December to February.

There’s another variety, called tuber aestivum, or the summer truffle, which is whiter and has a more subtle taste.

Philippe Barrière

A couple of years ago, Philippe Barrière opened his Atélier de la Truffe on rue Trivalle, the street just below la Cité. He long was the person who inspected each and every truffle sold at the markets in Aude. As I mentioned before, the truffle trade has long been an under-the-table affair, with unknowledgeable buyers sometimes paying fortunes for nothing more than rocks. In Aude, by contrast, all the truffles sold at the markets are inspected.

A few tables inside, as well as seats at the bar. More tables outside in front and back. A bounty of good wines.

So M. Barrière knows his stuff, and we and a bunch of our friends decided to spend a summer evening enjoying his expertise.

A tip from the master: a sprinkle of salt heightens the truffle flavor. It worked! Gruissan is not far from here, on the Mediterranean, and has sea salt production.

Truffles are costly, so we limited ourselves to having an apéritif chez Barrière and then moving to a main course in the Bastide. First, we went for foie gras with truffles on toast.

foie gras
There’s foie gras under each row. He wasn’t stingy with the truffles!

I am not a foie gras fan, but I must admit it was beyond succulent. When the slates were set on the table, the scent of truffle from the generous portions was intoxicating.

wineWe had a lovely bottle from Borie de Maurel in la Livinière part of Minervois. If you ever see a wine from la Livinière, you can bet it is good.

chevreThen we had truffled chèvre, again delicious, though the foie gras was better. It’s like poor Aly Raisman. She is an amazing gymnast, better than everybody at the Olympics….except for Simone Biles, who got the gold. (Raisman won silver.) The chèvre was amazing…except that the foie gras was even more amazing.

menuHere’s a quick translation of the menu (truffled plates):

Smashed summer truffle on toast

Shirred eggs with summer truffle

Potatoes with summer truffle

Goat cheese with summer truffle

Beef carpaccio with summer truffle

Foie gras and summer truffle (notice the “and”–it means they’re sliced on top and not grated and mixed in like the others)

Fish carpaccio (he said it was tuna), with foie gras, summer truffle

Homemade summer truffle ice cream

bread basket
Do you see what the bread basket is made of?

We’ll be back….

Truffle tools: a scraper for €60; €70 if it folds.



Blazing, Amazing


Let’s not lose sight of  beauty. Let’s not forget how to feel wonder and excitement and awe.

P1040105I would have posted this on Friday, but events interfered. Looking through the photos, I thought, wait, this is what is right with France.

IMG_2425Carcassonne put on a fantastic show. It was so democratic. It was free of charge. It drew  half a million people. They came on foot. They were well-mannered, even after the street lights were turned off (seriously, doesn’t it say something when the street lights are off and people still behave?). They didn’t even litter very much.

IMG_2421There were all ages, but all were the same age–kids–before the spectacle in the sky. The crowd sent up ooohs and aaahs in unison, frequently breaking out in applause, which the pyrotechnicians across the river had no way to hear.

IMG_2341The show began with a few small, bright flashes and big, deep booms. They picked up the cadence, then the lights started to bloom across the sky, illuminating the ramparts of la Cité in ghostly, colored light.


IMG_2342It continued, like this, building ferocity until there was a storm of explosions overhead. Then it paused, letting us relax a little and realize that our hearts were racing and that we’d gotten goosebumps from the excitement.


IMG_2478And it would pick up again. At one point, there were waves of fireworks from left to right, then right to left. They began lazily, then grew faster, then came from both directions at once, then led to a new round higher in the sky.

P1040092It was a ballet of light. Looking at the photos, I thought time and again of dancers in formation.

IMG_2350The highlight is the “embrasement” or burning, of la Cité, which dates to 1898. Though it was under siege in 1209 in the Albigensian Crusade, and finally surrendered, it never was burned down.

1 before dark
3 embrasement

After 20 or 25 minutes, the explosions came so fast and furious, and were so spectacular, we thought it was the finale a couple of times over. Some 25,000 to 30,000 projectiles were fired. But the real finale was far bigger, building, building into a riot of light and color in the sky.


Bravo, Carcassonne.


Bleu, blanc, rouge

heart 1
France, je t’aime

Usually, I enjoy sharing news about France. But the happy news has been overwhelmed by the sad news.

It it lost on nobody that the attack in Nice happened on the day France celebrates its liberation from tyranny.

As we went to the Bastille Day fireworks in Carcassonne, I gave our kid instructions about what to do in case…we got separated. I wasn’t even disappointed when we were turned away from the bridge, with the best views, because it already was full. I had feared it would be a tempting target. There were arrests about a month ago related to suspected plans for an attack during the Carcassonne fireworks.

But the city’s streets overflowed with people, to an extent I had never witnessed. Officials expected 500,000. Carcassonne’s normal population is not even 50,000.

Même pas peur.

en terraceThe restaurants of Place Carnot were packed. We ate outside. #enterrace. Couples danced to old bal musette tunes, played by a live band. Même pas peur.

dancersThen everybody decamped for la Cité and the big show. People walked calmly. Even after fireworks began, there was no pushing. Politeness and civility reigned. I felt utterly safe, not even worried about pickpockets, not even after the street lights were extinguished. Going back home, some sang–silly songs, la Marseillaise. I got goosebumps and felt an overwhelming love for all this humanity.

fleetingIn Nice, people did the same things–dining en terrace, oohing at the fireworks. Même pas peur. Except that before they could get home, the bright lights of their lives were extinguished.

heart 2

Our heart goes out to them and their families.


autrefois vinegars
Infused vinegars

In a welcome change to the usual souvenir shops selling wooden swords and shields, a number of interesting shops have opened in la Cité.

Interesting because they sell all kinds of French goodies.

autrefois fruit confit

One of the prettiest is Autrefois, a small chain that has just opened in Carcassonne with French delicacies both sweet and savory. It’s at 10 rue Cros Mayrevieille in la Cité, but even without the address you can’t miss it.

autrefois chocolates
Chocolate-covered almonds, including green ones to resemble olives

It’s a feast for the eyes as well!

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Slideshow includes candies like calissons and nougat; shortbread cookies and biscotti; a wall of herbs; closeup of vinegar flavored with garlic, thyme and hot pepper; rice from the region;  verrines of mushrooms, rabbit with provençal herbs, duck with olives and provençal herbs and boar with provençal herbs; and a wall of tapenades.

Le paradis, quoi.

Ice saints

all windows
Windows at the church of St. Vincent in Carcassonne, built in the 13th century

Les saints de glace, or the “ice saints,” are here: St. Mamert on May 11, St. Pancrace on May 12, and St. Servais on May 13.

saint painting
Saints, not sure who

People have been obsessed with the weather since time immemorial. And to keep track of things, if you you were a farmer who didn’t read or write, you used the saints’ days.


Today, France adheres to laïcité, or non-sectarianism, but it wasn’t always so. As Barbara Tuchman wrote in “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,” “Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg ‘during the length of time wherein you can say a Miserere.’ It governed birth, marriage, and death, sex, and eating, made the rules for law and medicine, gave philosophy and scholarship their subject matter. Membership in the Church was not a matter of choice; it was compulsory and without alternative, which gave it a hold not easy to dislodge.”

And so, today, official holidays include Ascension last week, lundi de Pentecôte on May 16, as well as Aug. 15 (feast of the Assumption), Nov. 1 (All Saints Day), Easter Monday and Christmas.

saints 5
No idea what’s going on here, but it’s pretty

And the nightly newscast’s weather report ends with an announcement of the next day’s saints.


The ice saints got their names from the rotten habit of  a promising spring turning cold and nasty for a last few days. Apparently, Galileo’s students made some of the first observations, and the Little Ice Age from 1645-1715 probably cemented the idea. I once read an article blaming the phenomenon on a final cycle of low pressure out of the Arctic, while another said it was the period when the Earth passed through a bunch of space dust, cutting off the sun’s rays.

saints 2There’s the saying “Avant St. Servais, point d’été. Après St. Servais, plus de gelée,” or before St. Servais, no spring (“point” is like saying “zip” or “zilch”–it means none, but with more attitude); after St. Servais, no more frost.

A relic

But another saying doesn’t let Servais get the last word: Quand le St. Urbain est passé, le vigneron est rassuré, or when St. Urbain is over, the winegrower is reassured.


All this is to say that I am not as lazy/crazy as I look for not having planted the garden yet. Just waiting for St. Urbain on May 25.

The view after 232 steps to the top of the St. Vincent bell tower, toward la Cité. 
Roofs 1
I spy with my little eye the roof of our apartment!
roofs 2
I never get tired of looking at these rooftops
Roofs 3
And you can see the weather was all ice sainty…temps around 70 F. NOT ENOUGH

Game of Thrones, Family Edition

medieval rodeo red lion
Knights in white cotton

Among the reasons to bear the crowds of tourists in the summer are the medieval spectacles. Groups of re-enactors, like you see in the U.S. for, say, the Civil War, do something similar for the Middle Ages. They wear period clothing. They eat period food. They live in makeshift period dwellings. They conduct period work, such as forging or weaving.

Carcassonne is, of course, a medieval mecca. Re-enactors set up camp between la Cité’s two rings of walls, and you’re free to walk and gawk. It’s like stepping back into time, except you get to go home to electricity and flush toilets.

Carcassonne hosts an arts festival in July (more on that later), but in August, it’s all medieval all the time. It’s the perfect thing to do with kids.

medieval rodeo jousting

Don’t miss the jousting tournaments. It’s as if the Game of Thrones costume people took over the rodeos I’ve been to in the Midwest. Instead of cowboys, there are knights, whose flowing locks tumble down their backs when they take off their helmets. And amazing performances by the horses, too.

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Usually there are two shows a day. It’s risky to buy tickets at the last minute, because they sell out–the seating area isn’t very big (but that means you are up close anywhere in the stands). I’ll update when the tourism department posts the dates and prices.

The name of the wind

Pyrennees and la Cite
La Cité, with the Pyrénées behind. Get your umbrella ready.

You might be familiar with the mistral, the famous winter wind of Provence. Here in the other South of France we have other names for the wind. Or winds.

Because there are many, each with its own personality.

IMG_0271 (1)
Can you see how the wind shaped these trees? They are leaning toward the southeast, bent by Cers

Cers comes out of the northwest. It’s dry and usually signals good weather. In the winter it blows cold; in the summer it can be hot. It’s the dominant wind in the region, blowing three days out of four across the plain between the Massif Central and the Pyrénées. It chases away the clouds and rain. And it can be forceful, sometimes more than 60 mph (100 kph). Still, everybody loves Cers. It’s called le vent sain—the healthy wind. It brings sun. It makes the air “breathable” in summer. It generates clean electricity. Go Cers!

Le marin is the opposite. It comes out of the southeast, from the Mediterranean, and brings rain. The marin starts out fine—a little humid, but amazingly fine days with not a cloud in the sky and picture-postcard views of the Pyrénées. But if you can see the Pyrenees, you can count on rain within three days. Usually the marin is a here-and-gone kind of wind, not staying long. But this winter, the marin has settled in for a spell, hence the above-normal temps and below-normal sunshine. In summer, everybody curses the marin: it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. Usually the heat here is dry and quite bearable. Air conditioning is mostly unknown, and, frankly, unneeded. You adapt to the heat and it just doesn’t bother you. Most buildings are made of stone and stay cool even in the middle of summer.

View of Pyrennees
The Pyrénées, shot yesterday, when the temp hit 70….today it rained. Thanks, marin.

Le sirocco comes from the south, i.e., from Africa. It’s hot hot hot and dry and carries very fine sand (from the Sahara!), leaving a yellowish dusting on everything.

Le vent d’Autan blows around Toulouse, to the west, but sometimes hits Aude, with its gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph). It’s the wind that can drive you crazy, the locals say. It supposedly brings on labor in pregnant women.

Le tramontane comes out of the north, which here means the Black Mountains at the bottom of the Massif Central. Hence, it’s cold. Some people say tramontane and Cers are the same thing. It’s clearly something to argue about.

And if that’s all there is to argue about, life is pretty darn good.