The 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.
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.There are so many flowers on impossibly thin stems that look drawn by a fine pen, that spread out so far.
These seemed worthy of Whoville lamp posts. Or fairy lanterns.Long, long stems with big shapes on the end are very Seussian:
This one makes me think of Snuffleupagus, who isn’t from Seuss but Sesame Street. But still.Some scary plants, too.And 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.Maybe 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?
Not the Alps. The Pyrénées. Not the highest peaks, but magnificent nonetheless.
We were on the treasure hunt that is de Ferme en Ferme (Farm to Farm), covering some of the same ground as last year. We carefully examined the map in order to hit our favorites (À la Petite Ferme for hard sausage, Campserdou for raw milk) but also to check out some new ones. The thing about the mountains is that already it takes a while to get there, and then it takes forever to go from one place to another. Plus, the day of de Ferme en Ferme, narrow mountain roads that rarely see a vehicle suddenly have hundreds of cars.
But rather than dwell again on hangry people wondering when they are going to eat, we will enjoy the views.
I couldn’t get over the vivid contrasts in greens, depending on which kinds of trees dominated a part of the forest. And those forests are dense and dark.
I wish I could also share the sweet smells of pine, grass, earth. And the sounds of so many birds. And the cacophony of crickets. It’s been forever since I’ve heard crickets. We crossed a high plateau and had to turn at the town of Espezel. I looked it up and the population was 209 in 2008; it was 407 in 1962. Says a lot about opportunities in the middle of nowhere. A man, wearing a big black beret without the slightest trace of irony, was about to enter a cute little bar/restaurant. Espezel might be losing residents but it’s gaining visitors who come for hiking. We pulled up quickly to ask the man for directions. They get lax about signs in the middle of nowhere.The man told us the way to the road we wanted–not a sign anywhere–and we were on our way. However, my co-pilot kept panicking at all the signs that said the col–mountain pass–was blocked. Still snow? Don’t worry, I said, Ferme en Ferme wouldn’t send hundreds of people on a blocked road.
I was right that the road wasn’t blocked. But I was wrong about the road. The instructions got us to the T-intersection as we had requested, but then instead of turning left, we turned right (again, not well marked). I thought we were on our way to Galinagues, and the map showed some impressive zigzags. But in fact, we were winding up the Rebenty river to Fajolle, where one could visit a fishery (not the Carnivore’s cup of tea).
I don’t regret the detour a bit. First of all, get a load of this: Even better, was the view going down:
And along the way:
The village of Fajolle counts 14 residents, most of whom seemed to be out for a hike together, with the loners preferring to fish from the road. No sidewalks, shoulders, rails. Just a low curb. Back in the day (1793), Fajolle had 365 people. Imagine. They probably didn’t get out much, if ever. And in winter, they were really stuck. There are six-foot poles that mark the roadside for when it snows. Skiing is not far away.
We did make it to Galinagues. We bought a bunch of goat cheese of different ages (and therefore harder or creamier). Leaving, we were counseled to follow the valley of the Rebenty back to Quillan. It was lovely. Truly a corner of France to explore again.
The vines are almost all pruned now. The pieds de vigne, or woody parts, stand in perfect rows like so many well-behaved students at assembly. Or sentries, silent, brooding. With a little lower-back pain.
The vines are old, sometimes 30, even 70 years old. Wine takes time.
The one above reminds me of an old vigneron, or winegrower, who was similarly bent over. He drove a rickety old tractor that putt-putted down the street to his vines. It was a Lamborghini, something that never failed to make me chuckle.
My kid and I always smiled and waved to him as we headed to school and he passed on his way to work. We probably also said bonjour, which I doubt he ever heard over the racket of the Lamborghini’s finely tuned engine. He always brightened and waved back. He seemed amused by children, a good thing for somebody who lives next door to a preschool.
I was amazed that he kept working. He must have been around 90. Years later, somebody told me that he was a mean guy that nobody liked. I felt terrible for him. How did he get such a reputation? Was it deserved? Or was it a label slapped on by somebody for one falling out and then became part of village lore? He seemed sweet to me. And his tiny tractor, with some yellow paint still clinging to its sides, was cause for great excitement for a preschooler.
After a good frost but before the first buds on the vines, the vignerons are out pruning (tailler) the vines. It’s usually a solitary job. A beat-up car or camionette parked in an odd place (OMG, what is that car doing there? was there an accident?) is the first clue that somewhere in the expanse of row upon row, a bent figure will be clipping away.
In the years since our kid graduated from the village school to upper grades in town, I no longer get out morning, noon and evening, and I miss out on local news. There are three main sources of information: the knot of parents waiting outside the school doors; the local commerce–bakery and grocery store, mostly; and a loudspeaker system by which the mairie broadcasts announcements. These are preceded by very badly recorded clips of music, usually some pop song that was popular 15-20 years ago and just as often in English as in French, then the announcement, read by one of the mayor’s secretaries with a lavishly thick local accent. More music, the announcement one more time in case you missed it, then more music and out.
However, sometimes the snippet of music is the “Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem mass. And then you listen for who died. I knew most of the old people by sight, not name, smiling and waving on four-times-daily school commutes (9 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 5 p.m.). When our kid declared independence, meaning going to school alone, I had to agree yet I was so worried that I would creep behind, working to keep up while staying far enough back not to be seen. There are some benches near a fountain, under the platane trees, where several old men gather to watch the world go by. My kid would greet them, a high point–well, four points–in their day, often the only person to go by. And these papis would smile and assure me, as I peeked around the last corner from which I could see all the way to the school down an ancient street too small for cars, that everything was fine and I could go home. Our little secret.
I missed the announcement of the old vigneron’s passing. I realized I hadn’t seen his tractor in a while, nor did I see him tending his vineyards. Finally I asked someone and learned he had died a few months earlier. I think of him every time I pass one patch, where I often saw him, bent like the vines he was pruning. Sometimes I wave anyway.
I wonder whether the vignerons talk to their vines, which seem so much like individuals, with personalities. I would ask, but I suspect they would look at me like “this American really IS crazy.”
Plenty of people talk to their plants. My grandma had a way with African violets. One day, she confided that her secret was that she talked to them. She pulled me into her sun porch, where African violets lined the window sills, to demonstrate: “If you don’t bloom, you’re going out!” she barked at the plants. Bloom they did. Tough love.
The trimmed branches are called sarments, good to add to a barbecue fire for flavor. The word “sarment” often figures in restaurant names.
In 2008, the European Union launched a program to reduce a glut of wine and keep prices from crashing by reducing EU vineyard area by 94,000 hectares a year. Kind of like OPEC for wine. People love to complain about the EU, but united we stand, divided we fall. Without an overall plan, everybody would have said, let the other guy tear up his vineyards. And they all would have suffered as prices fell further. Overall, vineyards in the EU shrank 24% between 2008 and 2015.
It wasn’t the first time vines have been uprooted. In 92 A.D., the Roman emperor forbade planting new vines in Languedoc and ordered half the vineyards to be destroyed, because French wine was giving Italian wine too much competition.
Since last year, vines have been allowed to be planted once again.
Did you know that 85% of French households say they bought wine for their own consumption during the year, but just over half drink only a once or twice a week; only 16% of the French drink wine daily or almost daily. The average price of a bottle of wine in France is €6.33. And most of it is good stuff, even when it’s cheap.
Update: I wrote this a few days ago, and the very next day, leaves popped out on the vines. If they made a noise, the countryside would sound like a popcorn machine right now. They seem to open right before your eyes. I’ll try to get out and Instagram some later today. The leaves have a “just woke up and blinking in the sunshine” air about them.
Between the days of hard blue skies, sometimes we awake to discover that the fog has crept in on little cat feet.
Unable to see the rooftops from the window. Unable to see the road up the hill. Unable to see even across the yard. Thick. Dark white. Quiet.
When it had lifted enough not to be treacherous to venture out on foot–the roads have no shoulders, and I didn’t want a passing car to send me into a ditch–I was enchanted by the “fog filter” on the countryside.
It’s funny to see how things turn green in winter. The wheat fields are becoming emerald carpets. The grass and weeds between the rows of vines, left to hold the topsoil in place, are lush.
The pine trees that can become kindling for wild fires in summer are now verdant, as if razzing the deciduous plants whose finery is gone until spring.
Some of the vines have leaves left, but others are bare. Wintry. The wine growers are busy trimming while the weather is mild.
Others are out in the vines, too. The other day we were stopped on a main road for a boar hunt that was passing through. I’ve never seen a boar, but I hear there are too many.
Even on a fog-filter day, there are bursts of color. On this side of the hill, only the sound of the wind in the pines and the songs of birds. On the other side, the cars on the departmental road create a constant thrum. Electric vehicles can’t get here fast enough.
And finally, the fog lifts, and we see the majesty of the mountains. Is that still France? Or is it Spain? Or Andorra? In Nepal, the guest house had the Himalayan peaks traced on the window, with names pointing to crest. You stooped until you lined up the mountain view with the correct outlines and figured out which one was Mount Everest. Because they others weren’t high enough to worry about.
Though I’m mildly curious about which peak is which, I don’t want to let a focus on superlatives like “highest” take away their collective magnificence.
Happy holidays to all. We are taking a break until after the New Year, as the French do, in order to focus on friends and family at hand.
As pretty as the lights and decorations are in town, I kind of like these decorations by nature, all taken on a walk in my village.
It can be hard to be an expat at Christmas, even after so many years. Some French traditions are nice–the relatively muted consumerism (it’s still there, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I give France a 7 vs. the U.S.’s 11), the Christmas markets with their quaint chalets and elegant snacks (champagne and oysters), the way everything shuts down between Christmas and New Year so people can have time off with their families.
What do I miss? Baking Christmas cookies. We baked many thousands of them last year and the year before (during which my handheld mixer died and I made a zillion batches by hand because: fridge full of butter and eggs). This year? Meh. Christmas cookies are not a thing in France. Friends here were flummoxed by the boxes of cookies we delivered, almost to the point of being embarrassed: “But we don’t exchange gifts!” “It isn’t a ‘gift’–it’s cookies.”
Anyway, we ate too much dough during the process and worked too hard at Pilates since then, so, not this year. Maybe next year.
A teeny tiny part of me misses the cold and snow. Just an itsy bitsy bit. Not much. An hour would do. (It’s 62 Fahrenheit as I write this.) The way the cold pinches your nostrils and stings your cheeks. The scrunching crunch of footsteps on snow. The clean smell. The absolute hush that envelopes the world when new snow falls.
I miss Christmas carols. Sure, Christmas music plays in some shops, but groups of carolers going house to house doesn’t seem to be a thing. It’s the singing part that’s fun, noses in the air and mouths open like Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang (a must-watch!). Belting. Glo-oooo-o-oooo-oooo-oria!
Speaking of belting, I miss going to Handel’s Messiah and singing the Hallelujah chorus. Also, seeing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Both are very American traditions.
Most of all, I miss my family. After a rough 2015, we didn’t get to travel back this year. Decorations are nice, but family is what Christmas is all about.
No, 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.
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.
The wind howled for a couple of days. That’s when it’s nice to have shutters.
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.
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.
So often I have to pinch myself when I step outside and see such that yes, I am living in a postcard. Especially lately.
One of the great fall foliage spectacles happens as the vineyards of southern France change to patchworks of vivid reds, oranges and yellows. The colors depend on the grape varieties, so each plot is a defined hue in a patchwork. The rolling hills of vines in the south of France give New England’s trees some stiff competition.
Fall is one of the greenest seasons of the year here. The return of rain makes the grass grow again. Soon the plowed fields of winter wheat will be emerald seas. Many of the trees and shrubs keep their leaves all year, so it never feels quite as bare as in the north.
During the height of summer’s heat and dry spell, it was rare to see butterflies, but now they are all over, mostly flitting in pairs, and catching the sunshine in a way that reminds me of July fireworks, spilling over and over across the sky. I suspect they left us for cooler climes during the summer and now are on their way south. Our winters are mild, but not mild enough for butterflies.
They clearly got the memo about fashionable fall colors.
Even the houses are dressed in saturated shades.
Everywhere I go, another breathtaking vista unfolds.
Sometimes the light is sharp and clear, the cloudless sky a hard blue, the Pyrénées–newly white–sharply etched across the horizon. But in the mornings and evenings, the light is golden, then increasingly red. Not so different from the leaves themselves.
Fine days mean crisp nights. As fireplaces are lit again, the scent of burning wood perfumes the air. It contrasts with the wet, earthy compost smells as leaves and grass turn back into rich dirt.
Sometimes the light reminds me of the paintings of Jules Breton.
There’s even beauty underfoot. All it takes is opening our eyes. The mix of colors is wonderful.
It’s a very busy period, yet I can’t help but stop and stare. Today, we take the time to appreciate.
I always loved fall–I was that nerd who couldn’t wait to go back to school. But now fall is associated with the loss of loved ones. Long lives well lived, but their absence leaves a hole that’s as raw as ever.
At the same time, it’s a wake-up call. A reminder to appreciate every minute. Every hug. Every bite, and not just on Thanksgiving. Every leaf and stone.
I’m lucky and grateful to have such a wonderful family.
The animals we encounter in France are different from those I’ve dealt with in the U.S.
My parents lived in a mid-size city of about half a million people. With a wooded park nearby, deer often ambled onto a vacant lot one house over. Even some very big bucks. Raccoons were a constant challenge. And the opossums! Squirrels were taken for granted.
Here, on the edge of a little village that’s on the outskirts of a little city of 50,000, I see far less wildlife. Occasionally a fox or pheasant or quail. The hunting club gathers at the community center on Sunday mornings, with wild boars strapped to the hoods of their vehicles. We got all excited recently with a sighting of a single squirrel in the park. And a nest of hatchlings, below left, and a poor injured bird, right, had us cooing.
Around the house, the birds that woke us early in the spring seem to have fled the drought; with rain this week, we’re hoping they come back. In winter, we crumble up any leftover bread to sprinkle on the grass. In the mornings when I open the shutters, they are lined up atop the wall, looking at me, as if to say, “So? What’s taking you so long? How about some crumbs?”
A family of mésanges, or titmouse/chickadees, had nested amid the rafters of our entry for years and were none too pleased when we enclosed it. They would click and cluck at us, keeping a distance of about a meter wherever we went in the yard, simultaneously fearless and wary.
Bats come out in the evenings. Sometimes when closing the west shutters against the approaching afternoon sun, I would disturb bats that had taken refuge against the cool wall behind the shutters. They are such little balls of fur when they sleep.
Mostly, though, have lizards galore. They occasionally get inside the house and panic. We try to get them back out without hurting them. Our kid has a knack for picking them up, which is amazing because they are so skittish and lightning fast.
For a while we had a huge lizard–at least a foot long–in a pile of rocks. It was great entertainment to watch the lizard peek out, then tear across the grass into the oleander along the wall, then reappear, twig in mouth, to streak back to the rock pile. We haven’t seen this lizard for some time, which is too bad. We’ve been told that a lizard like that in a garden ensures no vipers will take up residence.
Just as the appearance of the geckos is a sign of spring, we’ll know it’s winter when they stay hidden away.
Just before school started, we went to the beach. Our first trip this year, though it’s just 45 minutes away.
We aren’t sun worshippers. And that grit of sand in one’s hair and mouth, sand that sticks to everything, even to dry skin, even to dry clothes that were put into a zippered plastic bag at home–well, meh.
Then there are the crowds. The drive is 45 minutes in winter. In summer it can be two hours. Bumper to bumper. And then, you have to park.
We usually head out around 4 p.m., when most people are leaving. This is a good policy in general in France. The French love their schedules. Pretty much everybody does the same things at the same time. By being out of step, you get the place to yourself.
For example, the supermarkets have 20 checkout lanes but operate a maximum of eight. I often have spent more time waiting in line to pay than shopping. If you go to the supermarket at noon (supermarkets being among the few businesses open between 12 and 2), there are only two or three checkout lanes open, but nobody in line. On the autoroute, the time not to stop for lunch is at noon, when the rest stops are packed, lines for the restroom are miles long and the sandwich selection is depleted by 12:30. No, lunch time is the time to enjoy the unencumbered highway before all the French get back in their cars and cause traffic jams.
Back to the beach. We drive smoothly past one 80-kilometer-long traffic jam in the opposite direction, then arrive at the beach to find the empty parking spot of one of the cars now stuck in that traffic jam. We get our fill of sun and sand in an hour or two, then look for refreshments. Ice cream is always a good idea. Sometimes, if it’s still crowded, we’ll stick around for dinner (fresh fish!) rather than join the throngs on the highway.
The two nearest beaches are Narbonne and Gruissan. Narbonne is a little more built-up, with a few apartment high-rises on the beach front. A parking strip runs the length of the boardwalk (which isn’t boards here, but you know what I mean). But the shops and restaurants are right there, too, which is nice.
Gruissan has a bigger beach, and little chalets on stilts line the edge. The parking lot is very small but close by and hidden from view. More charming by far. We’ll take you to the pretty port and the adorable town, which are away from the beach, another time.
On the day before the new school year, the beach was mellow. Only half had a lifeguard on duty, and the side without was nearly deserted. Walking the length of the beach, I thought a gentleman emerging from the water looked familiar. Indeed, it was a neighbor! Lots of Carcassonnais have beach chalets at Gruissan or Narbonne.
I didn’t see any burkinis, but I did see lots of kids wearing a high-SPF version, left. A good idea–better than a wrestling match to apply sun lotion, which then immediately gets washed off. There also were a frightening number of naked and badly sunburned kids.
We’ll be back. Our favorite time to visit the beach is winter. The sun is bright but not burning, the beach is empty, and a few restaurants stay open. We only need one.