Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.
Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.
Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.
I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete.
The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people.
Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.
The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.
Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.
Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer.
When Montpellier was founded in 985, cities were for survival. Most people went out to work in surrounding fields, and didn’t have time or energy or space for greenery. We have watched Montpellier evolve over the years, ridding the narrow streets of its historic center of cars and introducing a profusion of vines that completely change the character of a place that otherwise is stone on stone.In 2017, Montpellier launched a “vegetation permit” to encourage “microflowering” by geting individuals to plant greenery around them–in small communal gardens, containers, wherever roots could find dirt. The city also is planting 1,000 trees a year.
The result is lovely. I can think of all the practical arguments against such climbing vines–they destroy the mortar joints of walls, they are full of creepy crawlies like spiders, they hold humidity, which also is bad for the walls, they tangle with electric wires. And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.
Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.Some were colorful, very dramatic.You can’t just look up, because sometimes the surprises are underfoot. And you might not even be aware you’re walking on a rainbow if you aren’t going up.Everywhere that the narrow streets open even a little, to a space not worthy of being called a square, there are trees squeezing up between the cream-colored stone buildings, and café tables spreading beneath them.Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The climate around here is such that these vines stay green year-round. The city says one benefit is they help clean the air.
Toulouse is such a pretty city. I went with some friends on Saturday, and we had such fun.It was the Journées de Patrimoine (Heritage Days), but my friends weren’t too interested in history, alas. That didn’t stop me from snapping photos right and left. On l’Allée Jules Guesde, a vegan festival was in full swing, and we were disappointed that we had already eaten. Besides history and food, there was music, with brass bands playing at various squares. I loved the all-woman group, playing a cover by Madonna.In the main square, Place du Capitole, a Basque festival was going on, with a band, dancers in traditional dress, giants that we later saw parading around, and lots of stands where you could taste and buy the regional specialties.We were strolling down the main pedestrian shopping street, rue Saint-Rome, when the Gilets Jaunes approached from the direction of the Capitole. To avoid them, we turned down a side street and discovered some cute shops we usually would have missed by sticking to the main shopping streets. Then we headed toward rue Alsace-Lorraine, but the Gilets Jaunes had turned and were coming down that street. So we zipped a couple of streets down to cross ahead of them and managed to get to Place Saint-Georges, for gelato and tranquility.
It was lovely. The ice cream was amazing, and we were entertained by a group of swing dancers. I was itching to join them. We meandered on, popping into the Lush store. A very young salesclerk unlocked the door for customers and then locked it again. We could hear the Gilets Jaunes drums and chants, but figured they were on the bigger street. No–they poured past, chanting but not breaking anything. More or less respectful. Non-protesters managed to swim upstream on the sidewalks on either side. We just watched from inside the store. Finally they were gone and we left. Looking back down the street, it was a fog of tear gas at Place Saint-Georges. No more swing dancing, or gelato. Soon they were retreating down the same street, pushed out of the square. Parents hustled their kids along to stay out of the GJs’ way. I heard a very small child, maybe four or five years old, on a trottinette, remarking to his mother that there was tear gas. I can tell you I was pretty old before I had any idea about tear gas. All the same, it shows that people have stopped paying attention and just continue to carry on, despite the protests.On a separate note, we recently got to meet Janelle of the Distant Francophile blog, and her husband, Scott. They manage to be utterly chic and adorable at the same time. And a real love story. Janelle mixes travel tips, wardrobe advice and recipes, all with fantastic photos. I was tickled that they chose to stay in one of our AirBnBs and that we got to know them better. If you’re a francophile, then definitely check out Janelle’s blog and Instagram.
The nights have been crisper, wonderful for sleeping. But it’s only today that it finally feels like fall. Some much-needed rain started during the night and is supposed to continue, gently and steadily, all day. I imagine the plants in the garden straightening up, as if they’re doing the sun salutation in yoga, raising their anthropomorphic faces to the sky and greeting the raindrops
The wine harvest has started, but it seems subdued compared to past years. Vast stretches of vineyards have been plowed under to become fields of wheat, sunflowers and other crops. Usually the mornings at this time of year would be heralded not by the neighboring rooster but by the growl of the big vendange machines, that look like monsters from a horror film.
Another reason we’re happy for the rain is that there have been a few fires. Every year, there are fires, but these seemed especially worrisome. One brought in 12 firefighting planes. I had only ever seen two flying over, en route between the fire and Lac de Saint-Ferréol, where they refill with water.One fire grew significantly between the time I first saw the smoke and when I was heading home later. I pulled over at a rare wide spot on the road. Other cars joined me. Everybody took pictures with our phones and ended up chatting for quite a while. It’s crazy how you can connect with people sometimes.
A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.
The foods at the market are changing. Soon the peaches and nectarines will turn mealy and we’ll have to give up on them. But happily there are already apples. Still lots of tomatoes and I have been given orders to make sauce. If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…
In the south of France, people are laid back, things move slowly, we take the time to savor life, and that includes two hours (minimum) in the middle of the day for lunch and nap. It all seems idyllic, until it isn’t.
We woke up on Thursday morning with no Internet, no fixed phone service and no mobile phone service. Things were a bit like when la Cité of Carcassonne, pictured above, was built back in the Middle Ages.
It turns out that a telephone substation in another village caught on fire. This station serves 33 villages, including ours, across a surprisingly wide area. Who knows when it will be fixed. (1) It’s still August. You can’t do anything until after la rentrée (the re-entry) on Monday, Sept. 2. And even then, people are coming back from vacation and need a good week to get back into the routine. (2) The phone company, Orange, is unfamiliar with the concept of customer service. They seem to have watched Lily Tomlin’s phone operator skits as guides. I shouldn’t dump too much on Orange; I cannot think of any phone company in any city or country where I’ve lived (and the list is long) that had good service. (3) We’re in the south, and nothing moves quickly, even when it isn’t vacation. (4) The point that irks me the most is that it just affects some little villages, and thus isn’t important.
Sometimes–often–I hate living in the country. I love France, and I love living in France. But I regret not living in a city. I am 100% city mouse.
I remember one time we went to Barcelona for a weekend. We stood near the corner by El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store worth a post of its own one day, and looked at the wide street sloping down, completely full of people. I sighed with happiness; the Carnivore sighed with stress. Some of us cannot wait to jump into la foule (the crowd) and swim with the schools of humanity. I find my heart warming as I observe my fellow humans going about their business. Some are chic, some are eccentric. Children seem to be in a bubble of their own, never paying attention to where they’re going, quick to spot other children, or animals, or disgusting things on the sidewalk (they ARE closer, after all), while their parents struggle to herd them along. I wonder where everybody is going, what their lives are like. I want to chat with them all.
I was talking to somebody just recently about moving to France. I told her we moved here from New York and that it was hard. I cried and cried for months. Her eyes grew big, and she said something about culture shock. I assured her that I’m a lifelong francophile; the culture shock wasn’t about France, but about going from a major metropolis to a village a few hundred people.
The closest Carcassonne comes to bustling is la Cité on summer afternoons and the market in the central square on Saturday mornings. Even then, it’s a dialed-down version. There’s a certain convenience to life without crowds. Parking is easy. Lines for anything are rare. People are friendly.
I try to appreciate the good side. It’s essential for survival. The rolling hills of vineyards, giving way to the mountains, are exquisite. This blog has made me pay attention to all the beauty around me.
Thank you for reading. Who knows whether we will have Internet next week. Maybe I will commute to Carcassonne for a connection. We’ll see. Meanwhile, tell me, are you a city mouse or a country mouse?
The opening act is the rooster, starting so far before dawn that the sky, while not black, is navy blue, a velvety background to the dazzling morning stars. Then comes Merle, who often perches on the neighbor’s television antenna. At this hour, he seems not so much to sing as to deliver either a monologue or newscast. Merle is a merle, a blackbird, and I’ve gotten to know him well over the past couple of years.
Merle is gregarious, even with our neighbor, whose big heart finds room for any stray and who currently has six or seven cats and twin bulldogs, named Hermione and Hubert. Merle also sings to the neighbor, who looks like Catherine Deneuve did 15 years ago, so I get a bit jealous, but she admitted she leaves him food. But so do I! With no cats to dodge!
Merle does spend a lot of time with me. He hops around in the grass, always about six feet away, while I hang laundry on the line. If I turn around or step toward him, he skitters into the bushes, as if I can’t see the fat black bird behind the leaves, especially since he makes a ruckus in the mulch. Merle, get your act together, or the cats will get you!
When we dine in the pergola, he comes to a branch just above it, violating his six-foot rule, serenading our dinner. At sunset, he perches on the peak of the roof and sings his lungs out. Sometimes it’s a complex aria, full of emotional highs and lows. Operatic. Sometimes it sounds more like speech.
I keep reading about how smart so many animals are. Elephants for sure. Dolphins. Octopus. I heard an interview with a scientist about how even plants may communicate. Just because we can’t decipher it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
While filling a watering can, I watched a procession of ants along a wall. Traffic was heavy in on direction, the ants staying in line as if on a highway whose stripes I couldn’t see. Occasional ants made the return trip, and they bumped heads with every single ant they passed. Obviously they were communicating something. Yes, scientists will throw pheromones at you, but I think reduces what they do to something biological and not intellectual.
The other day, my kid made naan. Best eaten hot, so we left cleanup for after dinner. Ants beat us to it. I was fascinated. Several ants cooperate to haul away a fleck of dough. They tugged one way, then one would go around to the other side to help there. Maybe they use pheromones, but they aren’t stupidly sniffing (actually they don’t smell; their antennas pick up the chemical) and following.
Imagine ants looking at a computer and saying, “Humans use this to communicate, but it’s all ones and zeroes. Can’t be very important.”
Scientists also think trees talk (a different one here). They not only communicate but share nutrients and water and protect their young. One interview I heard hypothesized that other living beings are on different time scales and different frequencies that we just can’t detect. A tree might live hundreds of years, and the communication might be so stretched out that we observe nothing. A fly lives months, and might be so fast that we detect nothing.
We are so human-centered that we don’t pay any attention to anything else. We tear up forests for agriculture, and tear up agriculture for houses and shopping centers. More and more and more consumption, most of which we don’t even consume; it goes through our hands momentarily before moving to a landfill.
And when ants or bees or other bugs bother us, we annihilate them with chemicals. My thinking on this has changed drastically in the past few years. Maybe I was late to the game. But it seems we have a long way to go.
The roosters that live in the shade of the woods along the riverside wake me long before dawn. They are joined by the caws of another bird, something big and wild. Do herons make noise? I don’t know a heron from an egret or anything else that’s big, with long legs and lives near water. But they are neighbors.
I slip through the darkness to the living room to open the windows and welcome in the cool night air. It’s in the mid-60s Fahrenheit, but it feels icy and delicious. When I put on my glasses, I can see the stars, so many stars. But since I glide through the house in the dark, glasses are of no use and I don’t bother with them. I know where the furniture is, where the window handles are, how many stairs and how big they are. The familiarity is comforting.My kid got a summer job, detassling corn, of all things. I grew up in the Midwest, and most people I know detassled corn in the summer. One of my siblings back home almost choked from laughing when told the news. In French it’s called castration, which is what it is, but somehow more brutal to say. The fields are a long drive away; my kid and several friends joined up to carpool, or co-voiturage. I drop my kid off at the meeting point, or take my turn driving over the rolling hills, as vineyards give way to vast fields of wheat, sunflowers and corn as we head west. There are few cars on the road at such an early hour. The kids are groggy and silent. I feel like we’re flying through paintings by Monet or Jules Breton.
The sun still hasn’t peeked above the horizon when I’m en route home, but it’s light, the world wrapped in a pale pastel veil. One morning, fog unfurled across low-lying fields, stretching luxuriantly like a cat.
The colors of the sky grow more vivid, all purples, oranges and yellows. Then the sun appears, nearly blinding me as I drive straight toward it, the road a ribbon unspooling across the patchwork of golds and greens. The whole world now is golden, the delicate paleness has vanished. Within minutes, the gold, too, is gone and the sun, alone in a deep blue sky, nary a cloud in sight, delivers its frank, sharp rays that divide the landscape into stark overexposure or inky shade. I am home before the sun has climbed high enough to hit the east side of the house. I quickly close the shutters to keep the interiors a cave-like cool. Even though the heat wave is past and we have perfect summer weather, we don’t have air conditioning and use old-fashioned methods to keep the house comfortable. My friend, Merle, serenades me. He boldly follows, keeping a two-arms’-length distance, never more nor less. Merle is the blackbird who lives here with his wife (merle is French for blackbird, and a good name for an excellent singer). He’ll get his own post when I manage to get a flattering photo of him. He comes close, but not close enough for my phone’s camera.Maybe it’s that Europe is so far north–Carcassonne is about 43 degrees north, like Yankton, South Dakota; Niagara Falls; Pocatello, Idaho; Vladivostok, Russia. Summer days are longer than what I grew up with, though not as crazy as in Belgium or even farther north, like Scandinavia. Appreciating the dawn requires getting up really early, made all the harder by the fact that it’s still light at 9:30 or 10 p.m. And those evenings are yummy, too, as the day’s warmth fades but not so much that the cicadas stop singing. Bats swoop back and forth, dining on insects, almost in time with the cicadas’ metronome.
Some friends came for dinner with the foster children they care for. Kindergarten and first grade, brother and sister. As night fell, we reclined on the chaises longues to look for shooting stars. The boy asked to hold my hand. Then he had a better idea. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable, he said, if he were on the same chaise as me? He snuggled into the crook of my arm. His sister, jealous, claimed the other side. We scanned the skies, but the boy was a little afraid of shooting stars. He told me about monsters. Did I believe in them? No, I told him, you don’t need to worry about monsters. He said sometimes he believed in them, sometimes not. I listened to his five-year-old ideas about the world and hoped he would remember this moment of magic, the stars dancing, the night birds in concert with the cicadas, the light blanket of a summer night’s warmth enveloping us.
I write this from the dark hole of my office, the large, east-facing window covered by a black-out shade that helps enormously to reduce the greenhouse effect. The heat wave, or canicule, has ended in our region, but it’s still 27 C (80 F) in my office.
All of Europe has been in the furnace this week. We’ve been spared the worst of it. We got to 31 C (88 F) yesterday, though our own thermometer showed 98 F. It was hotter in Paris, which set a record of 42.6 C (108.7 F) and in London, with a record 36.9 C (98.4 F). In normally cool and rainy Belgium (when I was moving there, a colleague told me not to bother packing short-sleeved shirts because I wouldn’t need them), fields were so hot and dry they caught fire.
In France, the Mediterranean basin was relatively spared. Between the last heat wave at the end of June and this one, the weather has been delightful. Warm days with highs around 30 C (85 F) and cool nights with lows around 16 C (60 F). Really perfect summer weather, with clear blue skies and the thrumming of the cidadas (check out my Instagram for a video). The south of France is called the Midi, which doesn’t refer to the middle but to noon–it’s the region where it’s always noon, or warm. As such, it’s designed for heat, with narrow streets that get shade from buildings, and buildings constructed like caves, with stone walls two feet thick. Even our house, built after WWII, has two-foot-thick stone walls.
The rest of the house is less gloomy, with shutters closed on the east but open on the west. For now. When the sun crosses over, I’ll shut the shutters on the west and open the ones on the east. I shut the windows around 9 to keep the cool air in and the hot air out. Even with all the windows open, the house never cools down quite as much as outside. Like 95% of Europeans, we don’t have air conditioning, and I’m glad. Yesterday, I sat outside to soak up the cool morning air. It was 24 C (75 F), and I was cold. That is the benefit of not having air conditioning. You get used to the heat. But only up to a point. It’s hard to put up with long stretches higher than body temperature.
My parents had a whole-house fan in the ceiling of the hallway at the center of the house. It was hidden by shutters that would clack open when the fan was turned on. The fan sucked in air from every window. It was heavenly. When we were little, we had only a window air conditioner, in the living room. Heat spells were party time. Usually we were sent to bed on time, I think by 8 p.m., because that’s when the “family” shows were over and the “adult” shows came on. But during heat spells, my dad spread out a feather bed, handmade by my grandma from down plucked from geese my dad had hunted (and eaten). My siblings and I staked our claims, angling for a good view of the TV. My dad would eat ice cream straight out of the box, and so would we, jousting with our spoons to mine a good vein of chocolate ripple or whatever, while watching TV shows our mother usually prohibited because of violence: “Mission Impossible,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Mash,” “The Rockford Files”….The nuclear reactor near Toulouse had to be shut down because the river that provides cooling water was too hot. Meanwhile, France set a record for electricity consumption yesterday. Imagine how much more it would have been with widespread air conditioning. There have to be other ways to deal with the heat, to keep things from getting worse. To me, air conditioning is the equivalent of Thneedville, the comfortable but completely artificial town in Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” where people move once they’ve destroyed the rest of the environment.
What kind of world are we bequeathing to our kids? A real living hell? I’m not a fan of Vice, but check out this article.
This week has been too hot to do anything physical. It was too hot to do anything mental. I couldn’t work anyway–my computer overheated and shut down. My kid and I binge-watched TV shows, waiting for the respite of evening, when the pool would be in the shade for a cool soak. We ate almost nothing. Fruit and yogurt. No cooking. Nothing was appealing, certainly nothing hot.
Some people don’t get a choice about taking it easy. Workers were chopping down enormous platanes, or plane trees, hundreds of years old but infected with a fungus. Garbage trucks circulated, relieving us of our overconsumption. The baker turned out loaf after fresh loaf. I remembered the workers in Lamu, unloading bags of cement by hand in a kind of bucket brigade from dhows at the dock, shimmering with sweat in the heat and humidity, unable to drink because it was Ramadan. But they never slowed their pace.
After receiving numerous appeals to give blood, I realized I needed to act quickly because I had a dentist appointment–there’s a waiting period after dental work, which had fouled me up previously. I had a checkup on Thursday. I called the donor office and they gave me a 12:30 appointment on Wednesday. No problem, I thought. My car and the hospital have A/C. And it was fine … until I walked out into the parking lot and felt like I got hit by a frying pan. Je suis tombée dans les pommes–I fell into the apples, which is the poetic French way of saying I passed out. Eventually I recovered but was more or less wiped out for the rest of the day. I felt as droopy and wilted as my hydrangeas.
The hydrangeas are out of luck. We aren’t under watering restictions that some other departements face, but I’m only watering the fruits and vegetables. I try to remember to catch water from washing fruits and vegetables, or cooking pasta (the extent of turning on the stove these days), to give to the flowers. When I lived in Africa and had no running water, every drop was precious. I’d catch my “shower” water (my shower was me pouring cupfuls on myself) for washing clothes, and then that water would be poured on trees. It is shameful that we have designed our buildings–our lives–to pour purified water down the drain.
We are supposed to get rain today and tomorrow. We’ve had day after day of perfectly blue skies, so the change is welcome. It’s hard to believe we could have a drought after the deadly deluge in October. Extreme drought, extreme floods. Welcome to the new normal. Not just here, but everywhere.
How are you dealing with heat where you are? Has it gotten worse?
It’s increasingly easy to get around French cities on two wheels. More cities offer rental bikes and bike lanes are expanding. Mopeds, or cyclomoteurs, are another popular choice. I like their candy colors and retro style.One reason they’re popular is that you don’t need a license. Since you can’t get a driver’s license in France until age 18, lots of teens find mobility on mopeds, though there’s still a test for driving them. Usually there’s a sea of cyclomoteurs in front of high schools.The podcaster Oliver Gee of the Earful Tower and his lovely wife Lina did a heart-shaped (kind of) tour around France on their cute little red scooter for their honeymoon, and even stopped in Carcassonne. If you’re a francophile, you should check out his podcast and YouTube videos.
I can see the convenience, especially in a large city, where going across town by bike or public transport could take a long time, or if you have to go very early or very late. There is somebody with a puttering moped who goes through our village around 4 a.m. Sometimes when I’m lying awake with the windows open, I can hear the motor buzzing its way closer and closer, like a mosquito that you kind of make out in the room and then realize it’s coming in for your blood as it nears your ears. The moped moves beyond our house, sputtering as it struggles up the steep hill before it descends on the other side, out of earshot. Why so early? What does the driver do? Probably works in a bakery in town–that starts early.I keep hearing about electric scooters and have spied one so far in Carcassonne. Manual scooters are more popular. There’s also an outfit that does tours on Segways. I used to think it would be great to have a moped to tool around town. Not where we live now–it’s too far and too hilly and the roads don’t have shoulders. I don’t need to go anywhere at 4 a.m. Long ago, I met a colleague for drinks in Paris and he offered me a ride on his moped. It was terrifying. In Paris, drivers turn left from the far right lane and stuff like that. Not my colleague, but cars. The folks with a ton of steel around them to protect them if they happen to run into anything.
That brings me to the Twizy, which is a great name for this thing. Made by Renault, it’s called a quadricycle. Seats up to two people and even has a tiny trunk (considering the trunk of my Aygo holds one bag of groceries, I am used to a small trunk). Plug-in electric, with a maximum range of 100 kilometers (62 miles). It’s expensive for what it is (€7,000 for the basic model), but I think it’s cute and interesting. Meanwhile, it’s hot here. School has been canceled. National exams for ninth-graders have been postponed, throwing families’ summer travel into chaos. The heat wave is called a canicule, which has to do with dogs–the dog days of summer, which is when Sirius, or the dog star, rises with the sun. Enjoy this analysis by a weather forecaster. While I definitely appreciated a dip in the pool late last night, it isn’t as bad as all that. This region is built for heat. Thick stone walls insulate interiors like caves. Shutters blunt the greenhouse effect. Everything just slows down and activity is shifted to morning and evening. Surprisingly, I haven’t noticed the cicadas, who start singing when temperatures rise to 25 C (77 F), the music of summer around here. Yesterday, we were at 34 C (93 F) and today we are supposed to hit 38 C (100 F).
On Tuesday, I said goodbye to our latest visitors, a friend of many years and his sister. It was a really good visit, and they claimed they enjoyed it even more than the week they spent in Paris before coming down here. The pace is calmer, the lines are shorter to non-existent, the weather is sunnier, the food is better and there’s no shortage of things to see and do.
As usual, I made a spreadsheet. I gave it to my friends so they would know what was in store each day. It wasn’t about keeping a strict schedule; instead it was to know whether to dress for walking or visiting. For me, it was to group destinations geographically.However, this was overly ambitious. It’s a little bit like a buffet serving only foods you like. You want to taste everything, but it isn’t possible–there’s just too much. Everything looks so conveniently close on a map, but in reality, especially on small roads in the mountains, it takes a long time to get from A to B. Happily, the driving is accompanied by jaw-dropping views, no matter where you go. So you have to pick the best options, which are sometimes just the most realistically accomplished, and really relish them. Here is what we actually accomplished:We started the days a little later than I had expected (totally fine! it’s vacation! but in case they were ready to charge off early, I had a plan), we spent more time than I had expected at each place, and some things ended up just too far to drive. Even though my friends stayed at our apartment l’Ancienne Tannerie in Carcassonne, just a short walk from la Cité, we didn’t go Carcassonne’s main attraction until Saturday afternoon, when other family obligations limited how far we could venture. It was good to have a sight to see that was so close by. We returned to la Cité on Sunday morning to see the museum and to walk around again when there were fewer people. We also didn’t go on Thursday because it was a holiday and was certainly crowded.
We alternated restaurants and home cooking to avoid feeling overfed, but two of the meals at home were copious anyway because we had another visitor–a longtime friend of the Carnivore’s from Belgium. Luckily he spoke good English and my friends were able to get another European perspective in the dinner conversation. We cooked our greatest hits, almost all of the recipes having appeared here on the blog. The cooking portion will get its own post.
If you’re staying in a home or apartment and want to eat in but you don’t have all your recipes or usual utensils, you can pick up prepared dishes at supermarket delis or at butcher shops. We got a cassoulet from the butcher with each round of visitors–just put it in the oven. Couldn’t be easier. And believe me, the local butchers make very good cassoulet. Another thing we picked up was aligot, a cheesy potato dish.
Our friends arrived at lunch time, so the first thing we did was go to eat. I had expected to have a simple sandwich at a café on the square, but they had left their hotel in Paris very early to get to the airport and hadn’t had breakfast. So we went to a little restaurant on Place Carnot, l’Artichaut (The Artichoke). One had duck, the other a macaroni dish with blue cheese and beef, and the Carnivore and I both had steak tartare.
Somehow we managed to work up an appetite by evening to go to our favorite restaurant. Le Clos des Framboisiers was recommended to us shortly after we moved here and it has stayed our favorite spot ever since. The food is always interesting, never ordinary, and both the Carnivore and I (with opposite ideas about food) find offerings we like. The service is impeccable and the setting is gorgeous–it’s in an old stone farmhouse that once was on the edge of town, or even outside it. A housing development has since grown around it–you wind around the maze of streets to a cul de sac, where almost all the customers’ parked cars sport 11 license plates–each département in France has a number, and Aude, where Carcassonne is located, is 11. Even though it’s in walking distance of la Cité, it’s hard to find and has no website, so it remains a locals’ favorite, and you had better reserve. Once you pass behind the tall walls, you’re in another world. There are several rooms, each intimate yet different: One has stone walls, another overlooks the pool, another is all wood, with lots of African and other ethnic art. The diversity of the décor–which changes frequently–make each visit feel fresh. The menu changes frequently, too. We were there in March, and two months later it was different. Here is the latest:Plus there were a starter and a main dish that weren’t on the menu. The only thing missing is a vegetarian option, though I see they make alterations; will ask next time. The menu is prix fixe–apéritif, starter, main dish, cheese and dessert for €32 per person. I think the only reason le Clos des Framboisiers doesn’t have Michelin stars is that the décor is too relaxed. On our early visits, everything clearly came from brocantes, and no two chairs matched. Same with the cutlery. I loved it. Personality! Certainly the food warrants Michelin notice.
My friends thought the restaurant and food were a surprising mix of fancy and casual. The food was delicious, as always, nothing industrial or prepackaged about it. It isn’t a chain, but a restaurant run by the chef and his wife, using locally purchased ingredients. The restaurant felt relaxed, but everybody there was wearing what might be called casual smart. It didn’t seem like a fancy place, but it was so much nicer than, say, Carraba’s or Olive Garden, yet the same price or cheaper for similar menu items, and far less than a chain like Ruth’s Chris. The portions aren’t gigantic–doggy bags are unheard-of here–but even the Carnivore is stuffed to the gills by the end of the evening.
Not to forget there’s a cheese interlude. Because: France.
For some reason, I don’t have photos of all the desserts. There was a lemon sorbet with vodka and pear sorbet with pear liqueur.
I think we were at the table for more than three hours. It never felt long, and any time between courses was a welcome pause to prepare for the rest. Also, the conversation was fantastic. My friend and I had a lot to catch up on, picking up the thread of each other’s lives as if it hadn’t been three years since we last saw each other. I guess when you’ve known each other for more than three decades, such a gap is nothing. And his sister turned out, unsurprisingly, to be my soul sister. It was a total delight to get to know her, yet frustrating, because she wasn’t staying.
Don’t you love making those connections? Where you discover someone who has come to more or less the same point in the world, albeit by another route? The sister and I couldn’t be more different on one hand–she said her goal in life was to be a stay-at-home mom. I put off having children until it was almost too late, rebelling against the pressure to have kids and to accept second-class status in my career because the sacrifices to succeed would be incompatible with family life–for women, not for men, who had no problem having kids and working. Early on in my work life, my supervisor (we’ll call him Kent, his real name) told me that “the problem with America is women like you: white, married, educated and you refuse to have children.” Of course, the real problem is supervisors like Kent, who count the number of hours spent at work rather than the quality of the work done.
The sister was not someone who sought refuge in child-rearing because everything else was too hard. I’ve met more than a few of that type, too–let the men go to work and handle the money, and the women can cook and clean and take care of the children and not worry about anything. Paternalism. If that’s what some want, fine, but don’t impose it on others. Anyway, my friend’s sister was simply passionate about children, and they are endlessly interesting, if energy-sapping. She also loves cooking, in an intellectual way, understanding how the chemistry works. She knows how to make things with her hands: not just food but also textiles. I was impressed. But where we communed was our mutual curiosity about the world. Either you see the world as a troubled, scary place to turn your back on, to shut out, wall off, keep out of your ordered, predictable existence. Or you see the world as a fascinating place, full of adventures and surprises. There are few things as satisfying as presenting such a curious person with a new experience–a painted medieval ceiling, a hidden picnic spot, a gorgeous view, a new food, new drink–and watching them discover it with the enthusiasm of a child unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.
Thanks to my friend and his sister for giving me that joy over the past (too few) days.