Merle, the Singer

P1070411The 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.

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Same branch as above, months earlier.

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!

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Not Merle, but other residents.
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Keeping an eye on me.

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!

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Bird? What bird?

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.

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A different visitor. Gorgeous.

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. P1070351

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Speaking of smart, let’s hear it for the bees.

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.

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Teamwork to haul off a naan fleck.

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.”

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What are they saying?

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.

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Saturday morning.

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.

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A bee casualty among the fallen acacia blooms. Why do so many of them die?

That said, please, ants, stay out of the kitchen.

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South of France Summer

IMG_3168The 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.IMG_3164My 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.

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Blackberries already! My runs are now interrupted as I stuff my face.

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. IMG_3161I 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.IMG_3165Maybe 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. IMG_2969

 

 

 

 

 

Europe’s Heat Wave

P1100648I 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.

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Carcassonne’s main shopping street is shaded by colorful parasols.

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.

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Here, not Belgium. (Those are vineyards in the background). Looks like the crewcuts my brothers got in the summer… back when they had hair….
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Same wheat, a month ago.

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.

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As you can see, it’s worse around Paris. We are down in the corner, by the sea and Spain.
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The number of days of orange alert since 2010, by department. Aude is in the 5-9 range. What constitutes orange alert differs by department and has to do with highs and lows for three consecutive days.

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.

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From a few weeks ago.
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This week. Future wine!

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”….P1100651The 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.P1100658

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Just so French village: if you don’t have a yard, you make a clothesline on the sidewalk.

0A9BAE15-858C-40D1-A509-62DA9837A6FBWhat 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.

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This candle always melts before even getting lit.

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.

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That’s 82 F at 6:50 A.M. It’s in Fahrenheit because we got it at Lowe’s.

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Besides cooler temperatures, early risers get spectacular sunrises. I couldn’t choose between with or without the village, so you get both.

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.

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Canicule style: Nurse in flipflops and shorts at the blood drive office.

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.

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Bring on the rain.

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?P1100641

 

Mini Motos

IMG_2681It’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.IMG_2674pink motoP1100785 2P1030288IMG_2569One 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.img_0658The 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. IMG_7043

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This one isn’t trying to look retro; it is the real thing, still plugging along.

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.IMG_2672IMG_2670I 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. IMG_2670IMG_2571I 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.

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OK, not a moped, but very stylish.

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. IMG_1823IMG_1824 2IMG_1825Meanwhile, 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. IMG_2671While 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).

 

Five Days in the Other South of France

IMG_2130On 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.Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 8.52.21 AMHowever, 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:Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 9.13.41 AMWe 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.

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l’Ancienne Tannerie

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.

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At our favorite restaurant, le Clos des Framboisiers. This is special off-menu starter, a flan with red peppers, served on a bed of vegetables, with asparagus cream. Delicious. The very first photo is half-cooked foie gras, with a balsamic-raspberry jam, a mini-waffle, and sprouts seasoned with a raspberry vinaigrette.

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.

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Another starter: Sautéed scallops with an orange-curry carrot cream and a drizzle of provençale oil.

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.

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Another not on the menu: stuffed chicken breast on mashed potatoes, and I forgot what all was in it. OMG.

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:IMG_2129Plus 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.

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Steak with a morel-port reduction.
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Duck breast with caramelized pear, perfumed with flaxseed.
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Lamb with a honey-onion jam, deglazed with balsamic vinegar.

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.

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Brie de Meaux.
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Crottin de Chevre (goat pellet!), hiding under the toast, with honey. Classic.

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.

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Dark chocolate ganache with whipped cream.

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.

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Another special not on the menu: a raspberry mousse with dark chocolate crumble, topped by raspberry whipped cream.

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.

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Outdoor dining around the pool at le Clos des Framboisiers during the summer.

Thanks to my friend and his sister for giving me that joy over the past (too few) days.

French Underground Redux

IMG_1962What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.

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A couple of columns.
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An impressive column, millennia in the making.

With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria). IMG_1954IMG_1957IMG_1929

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Reflections

The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.IMG_1915

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A drapery or curtain formation.
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Bear scratches. In the first room. All the bones and bits of pottery were found in the first room–before torches nobody–not even bears–dared go farther.
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The ceiling looks like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, no?
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This also looks like abstract art.

The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.

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A fine column.
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In another part of the cave, you can see the water lines, which is how the “ballroom” would have formed.

IMG_1941IMG_1940The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.

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The water in this “lake” rises as high as that stalagmite in the center, and dries completely in November.

There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers.IMG_1934 IMG_1931IMG_1932The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.

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A big puddle of water, perfectly clear, the bottom like an eerie moonscape.
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Another puddle. Can you make out where the reflection is?

IMG_1926The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. IMG_1950IMG_1953I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!IMG_1912

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What sculpture nature makes!

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Facelift

P1090909Carcassonne has been encouraging property owners in the center of town to freshen up their façades. At first, the results seemed garish amid the predominantly sandy shades of plaster past. Painted ladies. But now that so many have been done, the effect is festive. P1100777P1070868It’s also an opportunity to hide all the wires that have accumulated over the decades. As one of the historic preservation people told me, folks put in an electric line for one lightbulb per room, then they added lines as they added radios, refrigerators, and other appliances, usually without redoing the wiring, and just bundling everything on the outside, because these walls are stone, as thick as an arm’s length. Indeed, the wiring in our apartments was frightful, and we had it completely redone. I see lots of hanging wires still, but the regulation is to hide them, so it must be coming.IMG_1535The central square, Place Carnot, fairly gleams now. Above and below. All those colors are so Instagrammable.P1090755IMG_1534P1090122Even the safety netting was celebratory.IMG_1532The main street, rue du Verdun, also is looking smart.IMG_1017IMG_1015Below, a façade that has seen some history. Those claw-like things are to reinforce where the wall is threatening to buckle.P1100775I kind of enjoy the traces from the past, like the walled-over door. But there’s a fine line between character and disrepair. I’m also chuckling because I took these photos over several months and somehow the sky is consistently azure.

More visitors are arriving this week, and I have to keep this short so I can finalize preparations. On the menu: asparagus omelette, strawberry-mushroom risotto (my kid’s new specialty), cheese soufflé (which I have had my past two rounds of visitors make and it was perfect both times, proof even beginners can make it!), and chocolate mousse.

I’m sure we’ll see some fun things to share soon.

Unmistakably French

P1020091I am still collecting French fashion photos, especially couples and men. So many chic people out and about! But today is crazy busy so I’m going to share my penchant for all the fancy carved details that let you know you’re in France.P1060854P1070102IMG_3076

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Because the railings are too beautiful not to show.

P1030324P1080847P1070070IMG_0016What are your favorite decorations? Faces? Lions? Really old dates? Coats of arms?

Day Trip to Toulouse

IMG_1793Toulouse, the pink city of the south. Pink because of the pale red bricks that dominate the architecture. A friend and I decided to brave the gilets jaunes in order to get a needed breath of city air. IMG_1768The city air has much improved since Toulouse limited so much of the center to pedestrians only. What a joy to stroll around. No crowding on the sidewalks. There’s plenty of room for those who want to stop and look in the windows and those who are in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s perfect for flâner, that quintessentially French term for strolling leisurely in town, certainly with some lèche-vitrine (literally translated as licking the windows–window shopping) along the way.IMG_1782The car-free streets have led to an explosion of bicycles. Perfect.IMG_1765So much prettiness everywhere. And since we weren’t really interested in shopping, our eyes paid more attention to the architecture. Quite a mix.IMG_1767Do you see the old tower? And the half-timbered building?IMG_1789A steeple perfectly framed by the narrow streets. (Note the rental bike dock.)IMG_1791Then there are more modern touches. Haussmann’s influence is felt down here, though the old lanes weren’t eliminated in favor of grand boulevards. There are some boulevards, to be sure, but they follow the traces of the ancient ramparts. Plenty of Belle Epoque buildings.IMG_1774I’m so glad the little lanes survived. Like the Marais  in Paris, but without the crowds. Some of the main shopping streets were noir du monde–full of people–but they never felt like a crush of humanity. And on the little side streets, we got to eavesdrop on conversations. A group of young men, I’d say in their 20s, were in a lively discussion about cheese. You would have thought they were going over a controversial call in a sports match. For several blocks, they walked just behind us, talking excitedly, while my friend and I listened and exchanged smiles. Only in France. IMG_1794We saw groups of gendarmes at nearly every intersection and square. Near the building below, we bumbled onto the assembly point for the gilets jaunes, and passed a bunch of people in T-shirts with DIY labels of “medical volunteer.” They had spritzer bottles tucked into the straps of their backpacks. I didn’t want to be around for when those would be needed.IMG_1786We managed to avoid any action. Anyway, the timing of things here works to one’s advantage. Nothing, but nothing is going to happen anywhere until after lunch, which ends at 2 p.m. Talk about sacred. Which means the yellow vests were just getting together around then and didn’t start marching or whatever until a good hour later. By then we were far away.IMG_1775I would like to live across the street from this building. Across the street so I would see it every time I looked out my windows. I’m a sucker for Art Deco and a sucker for mosaics. They don’t make buildings like they used to.IMG_1776For example the one below. It was on a narrow street, so the interiors must be terribly dark with the metal façade, which apparently can open like shutters.IMG_1796IMG_1795On the other hand, I rather liked the geometry of the building below, with the sharp zigzags contrasting with the layered cake rounds that resemble the Guggenheim in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.IMG_1785IMG_1769I liked the repetition with the rounded columns on the Art Deco building in the foreground on the left. (More bikes!)IMG_1799We parked on one of the boulevards rather than in an underground garage, which I usually use. Another example of good city planning: two hours of parking was only €1; four hours was €2 and four hours and 45 minutes was €20. This encourages people to park for short errands and discourages the nearby office workers from leaving their cars there all day (you can’t just feed the meter, either–you have to enter your license plate number and you get a ticket that you have to leave on your dashboard.) Our feet were plenty tired before our four hours were up. IMG_1797I took so many shots that I’ll do another post with just doors and windows.

 

Fashion Sightings in the South of France

IMG_0783Before the weather changes too much, I want to share the street-style photos I’ve been collecting. Usually I am doing something else–I’m no Bill Cunningham, who spent hours at the corner of 57th and Fifth, snapping fashionable Manhattanites on their way to work and inventing street-style photography. So my hands are full, my phone in my bag, and I have to fish it out, open the camera (a feat in itself with bifocals) and try to catch up with my prey, often while pulling a shopping caddy and navigating market throngs.

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This tumeric color is everywhere. It has more orange than mustard.

So it takes me a while to get a collection of photos. These have been collected since January, which accounts for the climatic range.

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Her cape was a gorgeous blue and swung so elegantly when she walked. I liked that it had a hood.

What catches my eye are people with flair. Or personality. It’s a high bar here, because nearly everybody dresses up to go to the market or to go shopping in town. Carcassonne is far from France’s fashion epicenter, yet I appreciate that people make an effort. I’m not interested in fashionistas wearing the latest off the runway. Or young models or those who could be, who look good no matter what they put on. I like seeing real people with style.

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Great haircuts everywhere. Styles that move–not perfect blowouts. I saw her again on Saturday–I recognized her bag first–and she had on a similar outfit, pants with a blazer, this time with leather patches on the elbows. 

My visiting cousin remarked on it–the contrast with farmers markets in a big U.S. city, where everybody looks like they just took a break from weeding the tomatoes to pop by the market and sell or buy some produce. It’s beyond casual to the borderline of grungy. My cousin was surprised to see a vegetable vendor here with perfectly manicured, painted nails.

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Between downpours. Her raincoat was beautiful, with unusual gathers all over. Do you see how her gloves match her shopping trolley? And her scarf goes with the roses. She is carrying a slim cross-body bag. Also, note the people giving the “bise” in the background. And the guy with his beautiful straw basket. 

This lady seemed to part the crowds as she walked through the market. She had perfect posture and walked with purpose. I asked to take her photo and she agreed, saying that often happens. We chatted a while and she told me her age–78!!!!! I have seen her since at the market, recognizing her sans chapeau thanks to her shopping caddy. She is always striding like Shelley Hack in the Charlie perfume ads (speaking of which, OMG somebody has a blog just about that!). I was with a friend once when I saw her–too far to catch up. She had a great haircut (of course) and was wearing jeans with boots and a fur vest.  My friend sniffed and said something about another 40-something woman trying to look like she’s 30. I informed her that this woman was nearly double that age. That changed everything. Goals.IMG_1414I don’t know how old this lady is, but her hair also was impeccable. And despite walking with a cane, she had rod-ram-straight posture. Also, you can’t really see it, but she was wearing a cleverly tied scarf.

Note the couple on the left in the same photo, with matching sweaters. I should do a post on couples’ style. I very often see couples with coordinating outfits. Do they plan it, or does one see the other putting on, say, a mustard-colored sweater and then decide, hey, I’ll wear my mustard-colored jeans, to cite an example I spied on Saturday.

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This is from a few months ago. I saw them again on Saturday and they were both in red, head to toe.

IMG_1415So much to note here. Cute straw bag. Both have sharp haircuts. Both wearing scarves–cotton for spring–and hers matches his shirt. She has on patterned tights. IMG_1011That leads me to another tangent: tights. Especially now that the weather is mild, but bare legs would be too much, colorful and/or patterned tights are everywhere.

 

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Mustard tights, mustard sweater and a black-and-mustard scarf.
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Not tights but leather (pleather?) leggings with lace cut-outs at the knees. And she had two different-colored socks.

Let’s go back to my favorite demographic: the older women who will not be invisible. Women get either ogled or ignored when they’re young, and then just ignored. I love seeing the ones who make staff spring to attention to serve them. It doesn’t depend on beauty or being tall or thin. It does seem to depend on walking into everyplace as if you owned it, like the woman below.IMG_1278This lady was so straight, considering she had a walker. She wore leather gloves, and when she sat down for a coffee on the terrace near me, I saw her perfectly manicured nails matched her hat. A friend of hers walked by and greeted her with the bise. Both wore dangling earrings.

This woman has my admiration for going to the market on a bike! While wearing a skirt! Note that in the photo on the right, her coat and bag match. And on the day on the right, it was raining. I want to get to know her.

 

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Pop of color. 

 

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Goth student? The skirt was very frilly. Not my thing, but she was clearly all-in. You go, girl!

Some colors are clearly trending. Red is big. Red with black. Red with gray. Red with red.

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Her coat, which I suspect is from Spanish brand Desigual, very popular here, has red accents, and her skirt has a red and an orange stripe.
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Red coat, red boots, red scarf, red bag. And, you can’t see it, but bold red lip.

Olive, sage, hedge green, whatever you want to call it, is big. I saw three women–and three men (not with the women)–in three days completely dressed in olive.

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Olive shirt, jeans and jacket with mustard scarf, bag and shoes.

And camel is still going strong, a good color to bridge winter to spring to summer.IMG_1416Did any of these strike your fancy? Are you seeing similar trends?