Animal House

lizard-closeupThe 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.

As exotic as it gets

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?”

mesangeA 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.

gecko-2Mostly, 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.

lizard-in-handFor 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.

What animals live near you?



Bye-bye Beach

footprintsJust 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.

peopleThen 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.

Note the cigarette in the mouth and the belly-button shell

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.

A little bar on the beach where you can rent a fancy bain de soleil, which is what they call the loungers. It isn’t just a brand of sun lotion!

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.

Pink flamingos in the etangs, or lagoons.

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.

The lifeguards’ station, with “secours,” or “rescue” written artfully in red.

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.

emptyOn 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.


Ghost River

river stonesThe summers in the south of France are hot and dry. It means no sticky humidity. No mosquitos.

By hot, I mean mid-80s to mid-90s Fahrenheit, sometimes dancing around 100. Nights usually are cool, in the 60s. Yesterday, the high was 34 C (93 F) and the low 13.5 (56 F). It’s why we don’t have air conditioning. Just gorgeous summer weather.

More stonesBut the last rain that was more than a trace was 4.4 mm (0.17 inch) on Aug. 4. It’s about one-tenth the usual total for August.

riverThis river has dried up. It’s hard to believe that a few years before we moved here it flooded houses in the village up to the upstairs floor.

Now, the little rapids look like ghosts. Will we be haunted by what we’ve done to the Earth?


close rapidsAt the beginning of the summer, I couldn’t even see the blocks to cross the passage à gué.

passage a gueFarther downstream, underground springs revive the river to a trickle. Enough for some ducks, who set up housekeeping at the same spot every year.

ducksThe marin has kept the Pyrénées in crystal clear focus. Not a cloud in the sky. Usually the easterly marin brings rain. Thunderstorms are forecast for Monday. Fingers crossed.


Sunny South of France

view garrigueBefore the cassoulet dinner, there was a 2.5-hour hike in the garrigue. (1) It’s a good idea to burn off some calories before indulging in cassoulet. (2) It’s a good idea to hike in the garrigue with a guide who knows all the paths well.

Our guide, M., grew up in the village. M. could be retired but works at the maternelle, or preschool, as an assistant, mostly wiping little ones’ butts and noses. Once I was having a hard time fixing something, and my kid, then under M.’s charge on weekdays, informed me, “You should ask M. She can fix anything.” Another time, I got a cut, and my kid said, “M. can fix it. She’s a doctor.” Which she isn’t. However, my kid is right that M. is superwoman.

dry rapids
What would be rapids in a stream bed, completely dry.

The randonnée, or hike, drew only three people, plus M. She considered the possibilities, then asked whether we’d be interested in seeing something whose name I didn’t catch but it involved something volcanic. I said sure.

bridgeWe quickly left the road to walk along little tracks along a trickle of a river. I’ve walked along there, but on the road, without ever spying this path. How is this possible?

We soon came to a clearing where the trickle traversed a rock basin: “la gourde de la dame,” or the lady’s gourd or water jug. M. informed us that the lady of the local château would come here to bathe, and that usually the basin was fed by a spring. However, this August, it’s too hot and dry and water levels are extremely low.

gourde de la dame
La gourde de la dame

M. and another hiker, also a native of the village, talked about old times, like when they had races through the garrigue for gym class. They also said they had washed at our house, which used to be a municipal shower before the town got running water in individual homes in the mid-1960s. The showers operated only on Saturday–the whole village came once a week.

We came to the barrage, or dam, built by the château’s owner to provide irrigation. Usually the water is much higher. A few boys were fishing.

The very old dam
barrage water
The water behind the dam

We went up and down hills, but mostly up. M. is part of the VTT club, or all-terrain bikes. They also do hiking, and M. leads groups twice a week. She also maintains the paths, many of which are barely visible, especially if you step to the side a bit. Rocks and trees are painted with indicators.

A path

Finally, M. announced we were nearly at the top. We climbed a steep bit, turned around and saw:

solar panels 1
Clean energy: solar in the foreground, wind on the mountaintop.

“Voilà, les photo-volcaniques!” M. exclaimed. I had to be careful not to fall on the ground laughing. After all, M. knows a million things. If we both were stuck in the wilderness, she would be able to survive. Not me. I respect that knowledge. She can be forgiven for a malaprop like photo-volcanique instead of photovoltaic.

solar panels 3

The panels were impressive in their quantity. The site previously had housed some windmills, but they were of an earlier generation and the owners, a Spanish company, had removed them. I had no idea they’d been replaced by solar panels. You could see the windmills from la Cité, but you can’t see the solar panels until you’re right next to them.

solar panels 2
Almost like rows of grapevines

From the hilltop, we had amazing views. To the north, la Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains. Including a gold mine that’s been closed for over a decade, having gained notoriety as the most polluted site in France.

The mine pit

It’s really so sad. The place is so bucolic. We didn’t hear anything, not a single motor. Just birds, wind and of course cigales.

A ruin nestled in the mountains

viewview 2

view 3

And to the south, Carcassonne and the Pyrénées in the distance.

view cite
Can you make out la Cité of Carcassonne? Look for towers, right in the middle of the photo.

It will be a while before I venture into the garrigue again. M. warned us that hunting season started Aug. 15 for sanglier, or boar. She urged us to wear fluorescent vests and orange caps and to make plenty of noise. I’ll just wait until hunting season ends Feb. 28.

Paradise in the Middle of Nowhere

20 view southThe garrigue is a magical place. We try to picnic there at least every summer, which really shouldn’t be a big deal, because it’s a 20-minute walk outta town. Yet, it’s another world.

12 sky pine cones17 view northThe garrigue is a wilderness. It has trees, but isn’t really a forest like in the north. In some places, there’s just low bush that reminds me of the African savannah. Apparently, there was a vast Mediterranean forest that from time to time was degraded, often by fire, and the garrigue is what grew up afterward. The ground is so rocky that it escaped farming or development and stayed wild.

18 rock
The road

The garrigue has the most divine perfume. A mix of dry pine needles, hot dusty rock, thyme, rosemary and wildflowers. I would love to bottle it and spritz it around my house.

19 cigale
A cigale! It stopped rubbing its wings when we approached…like “nothing to see here, move along!”

The garrigue also has an enchanting song. The wind whistles and hums through the pines. The birds sing. But they’re all just backup for the lead singers, the cigales, that scratch out their steady beat. (Here’s a link with recordings of cigales.)

Cigales are cicadas, but their song here isn’t at all like the one that lulled me to sleep in the Midwest of the U.S. It’s as if they speak different languages.

19 pines sunWe decided to go to a spot accessed by the far end of the village. Since we had a cooler of food and other stuff, we took the car and parked at the entrance to the garrigue. It’s almost formal. The road goes up past vineyards, then forks, one side continuing to more vineyards and the other turning rocky and forbidding. We advanced to a shady spot and parked.

We aren’t experts on the garrigue, and it’s huge, so we are careful to stick to the main path. We continued on foot, looking for just the right picnic spot with lots of cushiony pine needles and not too many rocks or sprouting bushes.

3 bikes
Three bikes. The only people we saw the entire afternoon. And no motor sounds or other human presence.

Our picnic consisted of a classy “empty the fridge” assortment of sandwiches, followed by cheese (duh!) and nectarines for dessert. Nothing tastes as good as a picnic, especially one in the garrigue, where the scent of herbs is so strong you can taste them.

A post-prandial siesta followed. Not so much sleeping as being still and absorbing. Pure heaven.

13 sun
The view when lying on the blanket in the garrigue.

A visit to the garrigue is a special moment in this part of the south of France. For a happy trip:

2 paths

5 brush–no fires! They’re strictly forbidden because the place is a tinderbox. The region gets a lot of wildfires, often started by something as small as a cigarette tossed out a car window. It’s usually very windy, which makes fire all the more dangerous, and in summer  the few streams are bone dry.

4 view to carca
Carcassonne in the distance, with the Pyrénées beyond.



The Circus Comes to Town

entryIt was a big day in the little village. Two sets of visitors showed up.

On one side of the street, an itinerant mattress vendor. All in all, a quiet stay.

On the other side of the street, a circus. It was a big one for our town. There’s a very small family circus that comes through in the spring, with just a couple of animals, and even the small kids of the family perform as clowns. The very young audience members love it because such little clowns aren’t scary and in their very protected lives they cannot imagine doing such outrageous things as performing.

I don’t know how these circuses survive, because they draw only a couple dozen spectators. Tickets for this one were €5 for children and €10 for adults, but the smaller circuses charge less. Can they even buy gas to get to the next town, let alone feed themselves and their animals?

setting up
Setting up

We went to the circus during the magical years, even though the entire situation made me want to be an ostrich to not see how poor the performers were. Little ones see only the spectacle. Their eyes sparkle though the finery is faded and fake. Lucky them.

This circus had a bigger menagerie than some.

animals 1


I kind of laugh over the vineyard in the background. Like, is it possible to get a shot without grape vines around here? No!

There was even a lion. I wasn’t going to the show, but I did pop by to see what state the lion was in. A male, with a big mane. That was all that was big about him. His ribs showed. He continued to sleep as I snapped. A family in a rickety rusty-white camionette pulled up. I guess the kids were in the back (probably without seats, and thus without seatbelts). They oohed and aahed over the lion.

lion“Is he big?” asked the children, around 6 and 8 years old.

“He’s enormous,” the mother said.

“One of the biggest I’ve ever seen,” the father assured them.

They happily moved on to examine the other animals.

I was glad that this family, who seemed as poor as the circus clan, were having an exciting morning. But I was sad they didn’t know that lions should look like this:

Ladies lunching at Maasai Mara. You could hear the bones crack.

Anyway, for two days, the circus blasted music from early in the morning until their show started at 6 p.m. In another indication of their budget constraints, they had only a few, very dated songs. “Nuit de Folie” and “Gonna Fly Now” aka the theme song from the first “Rocky” movie played on repeat.

They were quiet at night, so whatever. Unfortunately, the wind was marin–which meant that the overripe odors of barnyard mixed with zoo wafted into the village.

They stayed six days. I dropped coins into the metal donation box for animal feed in front of the lion’s cage. They clanked in a way that made it clear there weren’t other coins in there. I don’t see how these folks earn a living with two shows in six days. Obviously that is just one of the many reasons I’m not in the circus business. Though some would argue…

circus signWhat do you think? Little circuses are wonderful and quaint or an ambulatory PETA case?

French Underground

A column, designed and sculpted by nature

I never thought I’d get into speleology. For one thing, where I grew up, it’s flat. No caves that I know of. Well, John Brown’s cave, but that was pretty far away. For some reason, I dreamed of seeing Carlsbad Caverns, but that was even farther.

Turns out the mountains in France are Swiss cheese. Caves galore to expore!

P1000970I wouldn’t say I’m “into” speleology, but when it’s as easy as the Grotte du Limousis, it’s hard not to at least check it out. Limousis isn’t adapted for wheelchairs or strollers, but we took elderly mother-in-law, who managed the short hike through the garrigue from the reception to the cave entrance, after which, you’re in a more or less flat cave at 55 degrees. Which is fabulous in the middle of summer. Or winter.

The bottom third of the photo is reflection. Can you tell?

As a room mother, I had the honor (?) of visiting an unmarked, “wild” cave nearby. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being cut off from mobile phone reception (duh, underground), with a lamp on your helmet (already, we have to wear helmets? It’s that dangerous?) and a squirming bunch of third graders who are harder to herd than cats and a guide who says, “keep a watch over there,” pointing to a dark corner of the cave, “there’s a hole that goes down 20 meters or more.” Because that’s the room mother’s job, keeping stray cats, I mean kids, from falling into bottomless holes in the middle of the earth.

P1000946Saving grace: while there were bats, there were no spiders. It occurred to me to be afraid of the bugs only after I was well underground with the class and no longer allowed to panic, and it was a huge relief to discover there were no bugs at all.

Limousis is nicer because (1) it’s well-lit, (2) you can walk through it comfortably—no wiggling like a snake through a chatière (definition: “a very difficult and tight passage that you can only get through by crawling”—ha! as if a chatière were big enough for being on all fours! no, you squirm like a worm, plus it’s wet), (3) no puits or deep drop-offs or holes, at least not on the tourist route, (4) it’s beautiful, (5) they serve wine.

So if you’re into caves, just curious, or want to taste some good wine, Limousis is for you.

P1000944The cave was discovered by people who could write in 1811, or maybe 1789. It was discovered much earlier by people who didn’t write, but who left skeletal remains, thank you very much. A bear left its marks, too, near the entrance.

There’s a room that’s rather large with a nice flat floor that the nearby village of Limousis used to use as a salle de fête—a party hall, like for wedding receptions—and it’s naturally air-conditioned (summer) or heated (winter)! Plus the acoustics are awesome. The floor was created over millennia by calcium deposits on an underground lake, which eventually hardened, while the lake water receded, leaving the floor stretched like the cover of a drum, and a hollow space below that produces the resonance.

There’s a pretty green pool and stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones growing up from the ground), not to mention columns where the two meet, all over the place. Don’t touch or you’ll “kill” them—oils from our hands changes the special chemistry. It would be a shame because they grow drop by drop, about a quarter of an inch to almost an inch per century. Math quiz: if a stalagmite is 3 feet tall, how old is it?*

In the last room, there’s a huge formation of aragonite, which is pretty cool.

Aragonite, up close. Doesn’t it look like something from the ocean depths?


In the first room of the cave, the wine cooperative Alliance Minervois ages some wine, called l’Amethyeste—what better place, right?


Answer: 3,660 to 14,400 years old.

The Truffula Trees

tree 3

The platanes got cropped. Once their leaves finally popped out, they reminded me of the Truffula trees in the Dr. Seuss book, “The Lorax.”

If you aren’t up on your Seuss, “The Lorax” is an environmentalist cri de coeur published in 1971. The villain, the Once-ler, invents a useless “Thneed” that uses the leaves of the Truffula tree, destroying it. The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees,” warns against the Once-ler’s corporate greed and short-sightedness, but Thneeds, despite being useless, sell like hotcakes and soon the Truffula trees are gone, leaving devastation. The Lorax flees, leaving a one word warning: Unless.

Some of us feel like the Lorax these days, upon learning that our village plans to cut down these platane, or plane, trees. Why? It costs too much to clean up the leaves. (When I asked him about it, the mayor pivoted and said it ALSO was because the roots were invading the sewer lines; I want proof.) It isn’t corporate greed but a soul-killing drive for efficiency that we see in many arenas. Over a hundred years ago, the villagers planted these trees along the main road to provide much-appreciated shade for generations. They thought about the future. That was then.

line of trees“The Lorax” was made into a film in 2012. It’s so-so. The book, of course, is better and worth reading even if you’re no longer a kid. Because we didn’t listen in 1971.


tree 2

A very upbeat post coming on Wednesday. I need time to sort the photos. A BIG surprise happened yesterday!

Turn Turn Turn

wheat vines bestIn spring, the vines are brown but the other fields are green, whether with tender shoots of winter wheat or just plain weeds. It’s odd that a place is so verdant in winter. We rarely see snow, or even frost, so everything just keeps growing.

By figs green
Wheat in spring

In summer, it’s the reverse. Already at the start of July, the wheat is being harvested, first shorn like the buzz cuts my brothers used to get every summer. My uncle would come over and shear them outside not to make a mess, one after another, like so many sheep. A rite of summer.

By figs brown
Same field, about a week ago.

It’s funny to drive by and see stiff stubble where days before heavy heads of grain rippled in the wind, shivering like a body of water. Amber waves of grain. Later, the fields are cut again, shaved down to the skin of the earth.

Patchwork fields 1Sometimes the harvesters are working at 3 a.m. They probably are far away, but it’s so still at that hour that sound carries effortlessly. The farmers probably are racing the weather, their best frenemy forever. It looked like rain last night–dramatic black clouds, theatrical thunder, impressive lightning, but then nothing more than a few sprinkles that seemed to evaporate before reaching the hot ground. Enough to dirty the car but not enough to sate the tomatoes. Ça ne sert à rien, quoi.

vines wheat treesThe perfume is intoxicating. Cut grass on steroids. That makes sense–wheat is a grass after all. The syrupy sweet smell oozes through the windows. It’s so thick, I want to drink it instead of breathe it. Or bite into it, with melted butter on top. It smells almost, almost, like bread baking. How crazy is that?

long view to carcaWhen we came here, all the fields were vineyards. Nothing but. Since 2008, the European Union has tried to shore up wine prices by reducing supply. Winegrowers get a payout to pull out their vines. Every season, we see more and more vineyards yanked out.

wheat mountains green
Another view in spring

It seems sad because wine is really adapted to the circumstances. The climate here is very hot and dry, and vines send their roots far down to find water underground. Many vines are 40 or 50 years old, gnarled and thick. They are survivors. It hurts to see them pulled out. Plus, the region’s wines have gotten very good.

wheat mountains brown
The same field from almost the same place in summer

In their place? Wheat, colza (rapeseed),  sunflowers, and other things I don’t recognize. They create a patchwork across the countryside, with colors that are continually changing–green, bluish, reddish, brown.

red field
Somebody tell me what the red field in the middle is

It makes me think of that Byrds’ song from the hippie dippy 1960s. A song I never liked (is it because they spelled the band’s name with a y?), but it ran through my head yet again today as I drove past the changing fields. The lyrics, at least, ring true.

Garden Gurus

Gorgeous roses that just keep blooming

When we moved to the south of France, we had to learn new things about gardening. What works in the rainy north or in the Midwest wasn’t appropriate for a temperate place with such dry summers.

Some kind of cordyline…nice and exotic!

So we observed. We wanted low maintenance, which meant mostly perennials. Unless you’re right next door, you don’t always see how much work the neighbors put into keeping their gardens beautiful. If it’s their No. 1 hobby and not yours, then you need different inspiration.

lavender in bloom
Lavender…wonderful smell! Needs to be cut back once or twice a year, but otherwise not much work and doesn’t need watering.

Towns around here do a great job of planting and putting out flowers. We ignored the annuals that get dug up and switched out every few months. Instead, we looked at the roadsides, where plants are on their own once they’ve been put in by municipal workers. Maintenance once or twice a year. Little or no watering.

Here is what we see:

Silver leaf, left, and silver mist, right.

Russian sage, left (purple), and Texas sage, right.

Two kinds of Jerusalem sage (clearly the sage family is a hardy choice).

Rosemary, left, as ground cover, and bamboo, right, as a thick screen (it’s about six feet high).

Oleander, in many colors. That this grows in the median on the autoroute tells you something. After it is established–two or three years–it doesn’t need watering. It stays green all through our mild winters, and blooms voluptuously all summer.

How do you choose what to grow in your garden?

pink oleander row
See the wall? No? That’s the idea!