On the Bright Side of Life

IMG_5409The other night at dinner, I told my husband about something, and he informed me I had told him the same thing just the day before. Of course, it isn’t as if he has anything new to tell me, either. Just like everybody else in the world, stuck at home. Well, no–the lucky ones are stuck at home while the brave continue to keep the world moving forward, so we still have electricity and running water and enough food. Which is more than about a billion people had on a pre-Covid-19 good day.IMG_5337IMG_5360The top photo translates to “underwater bridge,” which seems to negate the very point of a bridge. Actually, it’s a culvert that usually is above the stream, except for when you REALLY need it. Somehow, the concept of an underwater bridge seems appropriate right now. The title reflects my gallows humor at the moment: the song from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”IMG_5345IMG_5348Are you also losing track of the days? It isn’t even as if I thought it was Thursday or Saturday; I had no idea at all. What does one do on Fridays? I don’t remember. Oh, yeah–the recycling goes out. Otherwise, all the things that made one day different from the next have evaporated, and now each day is nebulous–a shape-shifting fog. IMG_5441We are trying our best to eat well. Homemade pizza. Squash risotto with sautéed zucchini. Crispy tofu with mushrooms, peppers and avocado. Our avocados were still too hard to make into a guacamole, so I added some tahini-miso sauce (a tablespoon of tahini, another of miso, another of honey, another of sesame oil and two of olive oil). IMG_5426The key to the tofu dish is to cook things separately but to reuse the same pan. First the mushrooms. We like to get them very brown and borderline crispy. To do that, let them steam off the moisture before you try to stir them. They went into a bowl, a tiny bit of olive oil was added, then the peppers and onions were cooked until softened. Into a bowl, more oil and the tofu was cooked.IMG_5430IMG_5437To get tofu crispy, pat it dry with paper towels. Cut it into pieces. Put some corn starch (maybe three teaspoons? I just eyeball what looks like it will coat the pieces) and curry powder and a little salt in a plastic container with a tight lid. Shake to mix. Add the tofu and shake to coat it. When you cook the tofu, make sure there’s enough oil or it won’t get crispy.IMG_5432IMG_5436IMG_5442The nice weather has lent itself to weed-pulling, but the other day (which day? who knows) I overcame my aversion to sewing and made us a stash of masks. I should make some more to give to, say, the couple who operate the village grocery, or the bakers at the boulangerie, who are keeping us all as comfortable as possible, considering. The next time it rains…IMG_5447It is crazy how quiet it is. It’s always quiet here, but wow. Birds. A rooster. A far-off dog. No cars. No planes. Yesterday there were a bunch of helicopters; probably the army training–there’s a very doomsday-looking area in the mountains that’s for training not far away. And on the weekends, the peal of gunshots as hunters go after boars. The season ended March 31, so it’s once again safe to go off the road and onto the backwoods paths. IMG_5331IMG_5347Speaking of which, long ago, I climbed the rock wall on the edge of some woods and realized, as I looked for a way to get back down, that the paths I was traipsing along were made by boars. That same woods now has a sign saying it’s going to be the site of a new solar farm. I am furious. Just across the F-ing road is a gigantic fallow field where vineyards were pulled out several years ago. It’s just sitting there, bare and basking in the sun. Why tear down a stand of trees? I’m sure it’s all about who was willing to sell the land. As much as I’m in favor of renewable energy and solar farms, it seems very counter-productive to tear down a pine forest. I also suspect that the new housing development just meters away plays into the calculation. People don’t take kindly to boars running through their yards. I’m on the side of the boars. “Development” is the euphemism for destruction. Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

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Doomed.
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Directly across the road.

By the way, have you heard about all the wild animals venturing into towns, now that everybody is in their houses? Pretty hilarious.

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Another vineyard that was pulled out has just been planted with trees.

Life under lockdown is about the same in the south of France as anyplace else. Boring! No–like others in the countryside, we have the benefit of being able to go outside without worrying about viral load. Stay safe and do share how you’re coping.IMG_5355IMG_5349

Siege Mentality

IMG_5358Yesterday I ventured to the supermarket. I didn’t want to go right at the open, figuring I’d be in line behind elderly early birds, and why not let them just go ahead. While on Wednesday it was warm enough to open all the windows to the brilliant sunshine, yesterday brought driving rain that turned to sleet and then to big, fat snowflakes. Surely the prospect of standing in line in such weather–our first snow, five days into spring–would drive away the weak of heart.

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Enormous flakes, as wide as teaspoons.
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Total accumulation. I don’t even have a scraper for my windshield.

There was a line anyway. Two masked guards kept us corralled behind barriers, barking to stay two meters apart. I got glared at by a few waiting shoppers, probably because I didn’t have a mask. I did have a scarf (I’m in France after all), and I pulled it up over my nose and mouth. That steamed up my glasses completely, as if I weren’t already blind enough, and the scarf didn’t stay up anyway. I didn’t take a purse; just a card in my zipped pocket. Less to disinfect later.

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A few days ago, in T-shirt weather.

The guards barked some shopping protocol, but what with the masks, the shoppers talking and the guards’ strong accents, I didn’t catch much. Something about so many people per aisle, and only two people waiting per checkout. Nobody obeyed anyway. The cheese and yogurt aisles (there are two cheese aisles and one yogurt-only aisle) were the most crowded. Fresh produce also bustled. You have to weigh your produce on one of the scales in the produce section, and enter on the touch screen (ICK) what it is, then it spits out a price tag that you stick on the bag. Anybody waiting their turn for the scale at the required distance got cut in front of by people who didn’t want to wait. Maybe clueless? Maybe not.IMG_5347I profusely thanked the cashier for her service. Nobody was behind me in line. I spent about 40 minutes in the store, and it only took me that long because I don’t usually go to that supermarket but the Carnivore does, and I needed to get some of his preferred stuff: pâté, rillettes. I forgot to buy junk food or comfort food and am regretting it sorely. The experience was supremely stressful. Is this what it was like during the war? Waiting in line? Wondering whether you would get home to your loved ones? I would get home, but would I be bringing in the enemy? This enemy is microscopic yet bigger than anything we’ve ever faced. In his address to the nation a week ago, President Macron said France was at war with the virus. A war where the danger isn’t hidden snipers but hidden germs. A war with a rising body count but no bullets. A kind of neutron bomb that is destroying the population without destroying buildings. Things still look normal, but in a closed-for-the-holiday kind of way. A temporary pause that is turning out to be less and less temporary.IMG_5364Today I soaked all the reusable shopping bags in bleach and hung them out to dry in the sun.

Last night I watched TV with our kid, who hasn’t been out at all since schools closed. I went out three times: for groceries, to do laundry, to donate blood. Our kid has gone running but nothing else. I worry about the effects. Is my internal terror showing, spreading? As we watched “The Good Place,” about two episodes in I stopped being shocked at the lack of social distancing. I forgot all about the virus. Life felt normal. We discussed the kid’s English homework, in which a verb exercise included a participle used in the text as an adjective. My kid skipped it (oversight, I suspect, rather than outright mistake), and was devastated not to get a perfect score. We went over the grammar of the situation, and my kid argued via email to the teacher and got the point restored. I was so proud. Speaking up isn’t easy for some people. I left my kid’s room to go to bed and suddenly got slammed with reality again. The world without a cure was still out there. We were still cowering in our house. The illusion of normalcy shattered. We can speak up but the virus won’t listen.

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Not the first poppy of the year.

The restrictions keep evolving. We could go out for exercise, but, as I heard on the Earful Tower podcast, in Paris people were dressing as joggers to just go out. (I do sympathize. We have a big yard, whereas many Parisian apartments are smaller than just the bedroom of La Suite Barbès–the bedroom alone is 35 square meters, or 350 square feet.)  To tamp it down, we are now confined to one kilometer from our homes and to exercise of 20 minutes. I might be defiant and take my walks; I can duck into a vineyard and off the road if I hear a car coming, or even take quite a long walk on narrow paths. Even without the lockdown I never encounter anyone on these back roads. The point is to avoid contact with other people; so much better on back road, regardless of the distance, than to stay in my kilometer perimeter in the village, with everybody else doing the same.IMG_5331The day before I took laundry to our empty AirBnBs, since I have neither repaired nor replaced our stupid Samsung washer. Seven loads. Two machines. It took all day–machines here heat the water, so cycles take up to three hours for really hot water. Technically I should have gone to the local laundromat. I went there a couple of times when our machine first broke down. It is a tiny but bustling place, always with people waiting their turn, in tight quarters. No sink for hand-washing, or for cleaning the counter or the chairs. I would have to take my own bleach-soaked rags for wiping off the selection buttons on the machines. Would I also need to wipe out the inside of the machines? I would not want to put my basket on the counter nor on the floor. All of it grossed me out. Instead I put the laundry into duffel bags and drove to the apartments in the safe space of my own car, hauled it upstairs without seeing anybody, and sat in the gorgeous space, windows open, while the machines turned. Nobody but me has been in there. A safe space. But technically not allowed. Rules that make sense for cities (take your laundry to the nearest laundromat) don’t make sense here. I managed to not see any gendarmes.

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Irises adorn the roadside ditches.

Laundry clean, groceries stocked, I plan to hunker down with my loved ones for as long as possible before sticking my head out of our cozy foxhole again.IMG_5362For perspective, Katherine Anne Porter wrote about the 1918 pandemic in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” among the few literary works about the influenza, merged with the anxieties about the other war, World War I, that was also raging.

Stay safe.IMG_5366

 

 

Treading Water in Utopia/Dystopia

IMG_5305Since Tuesday, when France closed almost everything, I have awoken to birdsong rather than rush-hour traffic. It’s quiet all day and even more so at night, except for the various animals that live in the woods along the nearby river–owls hooting and who knows what else. IMG_5303When the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the noise and air pollution suddenly absent, it feels like utopia. We putter around the house and yard, deep-cleaning everything. The piano moved and its backside vacuumed, something I tend to do only when the tuner is about to come. Weeds pulled. More weeds pulled. A Sisyphean task.

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Weeds, wildflowers…depends where they are.
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Same color combo, in an old stone abreuvoir, or water trough.

IMG_5241The dystopia isn’t far. Calls to friends, especially the ones who live alone. Everybody hunkered down. So many worries. The sun is shining brightly but there is a dark cloud menacing all of humanity.

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Promise.

This shutdown feels like everybody is treading water. A terrifying metaphor to me. I can’t swim. I hate water. Our pool is just shoulder-deep but I avoid it unless we’re in a canicule (heat wave). I can paddle its width but not its length. I can’t tread water.

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Not my house but one of the hideous new ones in a lotissement, or subdivision, blighting the countryside. Note the plank instead of steps from the back porch, yet the pool is filled. 

We went to the supermarket on Monday afternoon. It was strange. There were parking spaces but inside it was bustling. Everybody very intense. Canned goods, pasta, frozen vegetables mostly gone–just the fancy brands left. No baker’s yeast. Plenty of flour and sugar and butter. Disinfecting wipes all gone. Toilet paper aisle diminished but not empty. Promotions on fresh stuff like yogurt–they want to move it before it’s a loss? And huge lines to check out. We waited for close to an hour. Everybody a cart’s length apart. Nobody pushed. Nobody tried to cut the line (unusual). Everybody was patient, polite and quiet. Only a few shopping carts really piled high; most people seemed to get only what they need. Why do people buy bottled water? We are in a developed country with decent drinking water! My kid spotted somebody with two shopping carts. The exception. We gave some coins to the homeless man at the mall entrance for karma. How, where will he survive? Will he survive?

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We can go out, with a form, to exercise, but not in the park.

A quick run yesterday to the village grocery. Groceries remain open. The government doesn’t want people to freak out about food. I wanted to have food for two or three weeks in case I got sick; what would my family do? But we hadn’t gotten chocolate (most important for mental health), so I picked some up locally. Tape on the floor to keep people the required distance from the couple who operate the store. They seemed stressed. Unhappy. They don’t want to be heroes. They are young, and I hope they won’t get sick. Their mothers also tend the shop to give them a break; I suspect that will be stopped.

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Who needs a park? I saw nobody on my hourlong walks.
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I wish you could join me. It smells divine.

At first, like many, I thought the fears were overblown. Just stay home if you’re sick. Sick or not, wash your hands a lot. Lay off la bise. It’ll be fine. But I saw with my own eyes and heard from others tales of incredible selfishness and carelessness. People do not stay home if sick and they do not wash their hands.

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Another view of the Pyrénées, though not as clear as in the top photo.

One person counseled taking Tylenol before flying to evade fever detection–as if that individual’s desire to make a flight were more important than the health of the other hundred or four hundred people on the flight and the thousands working at the airport or passing through.

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Wild thyme in bloom.
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Rosemary in flower.

A doctor friend, in mask and gloves like all the medical office workers, had a patient who was coughing like mad. The doctor offered the patient a mask, and the patient refused! WTF! “I won’t be able to breathe with that. I just have bronchitis,” the patient protested. As if the doctor, or all the unmasked patients in the waiting room, didn’t mind getting bronchitis! Especially now! And this was not a doctor who treats things like bronchitis but a different kind of specialist.

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Orange poppies.

A person in delicate health had a visitor who had the flu (the regular, snotty-nosed kind). The visitor coughed constantly (phlegmy, not dry) without covering her mouth and never once washed her hands after blowing her nose. Luckily the person and all other household members had been vaccinated against the flu. I’d been lax about flu vaccinations in recent years but no more. We did get shots in November. It wasn’t covered, so I shelled out €10 apiece. Well worth it. I can’t wait to get the one for the coronavirus, as soon as it is developed.

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Sign of spring: local asparagus. The markets have been closed.
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Wild asparagus, left, and regular.

Vaccines work. I saw it firsthand when I lived in Africa. There was a mission run by Italian priests and Polish nuns that educated and trained kids who had been paralyzed by polio. The kids were amazing. They would play soccer, hauling themselves around the field like lightning despite being on crutches. They learned trades like shoe repair. I went back 15 years later with a colleague. We stayed at the fancy hotel I never could afford before, a base for mountain-climbing, which we were there to do. I asked the concierge about the mission. She said it was still there, but now just had kids with birth defects. “There’s no more polio,” she said (in a tone like “what kind of dinosaur is this chick?”). I broke down crying. The idea of no more polio was just so emotional. Vaccines work. We went to the mission and gave the nuns fistfuls of euros.

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For sound, see my Instagram.

A tangent: I also remember urging my friend to hurry up because it was getting late, and it would take a good 30-45 minutes to walk back to the village, then we’d have to walk along the fence of a wildlife refuge to the hotel. There were lions in the refuge. It would be dark in half an hour. But sunset on the equator is sudden, like a light switch, and at that instant the sun was blazing. My friend didn’t believe me, said I was overreacting. I said, LIONS. We hustled, but when a pickup came along, I waved it down frantically. The cab was full of people already, but the driver said we could ride in the back, with a bunch of sheep. My friend was not happy (me either; I keep my distance from animals). I made her get in. Even with the ride, it was so dark by the time we got to the final track to the hotel that we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Clearly we met no lions. That doesn’t mean I overreacted.

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The perfume of this hedge was delicious. Do you see the bee?

In 2009, I had to do research on pandemics. It was in a business context, about handling disruptions. It was just after SARS, at the time of the H1N1 flu, which hit children and pregnant women worst. There were vaccines, which helped rein it in, but as a result of that success many people said there was a needless panic. Here is what one expert, a globally recognized epidemiologist, told me:IMG_5250“In last 30-40 years there is a gathering and grave concern that the same antecedent causes that created climate change and historic droughts and famines are all caused by same conditions and a new group of viruses, especially pandemic viruses, have begun to emerge. Too many people are behaving unconsciously in the world. As we cut down green swaths of forest that separate animal and human habitats, we live in each others’ microclimate. So diseases that once could find that quiet reservoir now jump from animals to humans with increased rapidity.”IMG_5269He also said: “There is an increasing risk of unknown or barely known diseases emerging, and we lack people who are trained, we lack surveillance reporting systems that are simple, cheap, easy and replicable.”That was in 2009. IMG_5271The experts knew this could–would–happen, but like Cassandra, they were ignored. Even a week ago, people here were pooh-poohing the situation. I spoke to someone in the U.S. just a few days ago who told me it’s a hoax, fake news propagated by libs, panic fueled by the media, nothing to worry about. IMG_5216The fact that so many Italians are dying is pretty much proof that this isn’t a liberal hoax. The speed with which things are changing gives me whiplash.

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Spring is a good metaphor for rapid change. One tree pops out, while another remains bare.
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More leaf out, nearly overnight.
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The new leaves’ color contrasts with the dark pines. By summer everything will be dark green, even brown.

Before all this, I realized I needed to apply for French citizenship. I’ve been saying it for about four years, but I didn’t actually do it. It was like living happily in a couple without being married and suddenly seeing the benefit of tying the knot. So I ordered all the birth certificates and such and took the French test. I knew I would pass; my worry was making stupid errors as someone who touch-types on a QWERTY keyboard having to use an AZERTY keyboard where the keys are in the “wrong” place. One needed 43% correct to pass. My average was 562 out of 699, or 80%. I got 95% on written comprehension and 92% on oral comprehension–better than I expected–and 64% (!!! possibly the lowest grade of my life, physical education aside) on written expression and 70% on oral expression–both humbling. The written test was an essay for or against mobile phones. I needed to use French expressions but couldn’t think of any that were relevant. Anyway, I passed. I wonder about another test taker, a young man, about 20, who grew up in a village in Morocco and who moved to Carcassonne when he was in 6th grade. I asked which schools he’d attended and he looked at the floor and said he never went to school here, that he had to work to support his family. Clearly his French was fine, but would he manage to write a well-organized essay, not having finished school? He showed up two hours early for his test (we had staggered times). I hope he passed with flying colors. If I had a business, I would want to hire him. Two hours early!IMG_5300Anyway, I got my results on Wednesday and spent all day Friday tying up the last bits of my dossier. I just needed to request an attestation from the income tax department. The notary was mailing an attestation saying we own our house. And today, very bad news: all the post offices are closed and mail is suspended. That means I can’t get my attestations, which must be originals, no scans or printouts. I also can’t buy the certified mail envelopes I need to enclose with the dossier, not even online–no delivery. Nor can I send anything. I have until the end of April, otherwise my documents will be more than three months old and I’ll have to re-order them all (and the UPS delivery cost a small fortune).  I’ll also have to re-take the French test, but you have to wait six months between tests. Maybe they’ll make exceptions, and allow for more time. I was so proud of my dossier, too, in an expanding folder with labeled tabs, each with checklists of the documents for that section, in the order specified by the government.

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These branches looked like necklaces IRL.

I can start the dossier over again if need be. There are other, bigger worries that are out of my hands, that will arrive inexorably, virus or not. It is not the time or place to dwell on those.

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Last summer’s blackberries, still hanging on. Where will we be when this year’s crop is ripe in August? 
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The same for this fig tree. My heart is breaking.

The uncertainty about the future feels like the days after Sept. 11, when it seemed like the world was ending. In fact, the world as we knew it did end. Things didn’t get better; other tragedies followed. But ensuing airport security aside, many people weren’t affected by Sept. 11. This coronavirus is going to affect every single human. IMG_5263

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Delicate wild orchids.

Be smart. Stay home. China stopped the virus through draconian, authoritarian, dystopian measures; if people in democracies continue to fail to stay home voluntarily, draconian measures might follow. Don’t let us get there. Do something positive with this time. A hobby. Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French equivalent of Craigslist, has a campaign right now (because buying stuff on it is impossible at the moment–social distancing!): le bon geste (the Good Gesture), where you can put up offers or requests for things like help with homework via Skype, picking up groceries for someone, dog walking, etc. At the very least, make a list of the people you know who live alone or who are elderly and call them regularly. Send them photos, if they have a phone or computer.

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Frog or toad? Susan, your call! (Everybody should check out her blog, Days on the Claise.)
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Not far from this interesting puddle. What is going on here?

We have to stay out of the way of the health-care system until a treatment and/or vaccine is found. Going out is just selfish.IMG_5266Your coronavirus stories welcome in the comments.IMG_5265

 

 

A Day in Marseille

IMG_4662Marseille 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.IMG_4599IMG_4601I 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.

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Note the traffic. Big improvement.

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.IMG_4602It 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.

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New next to old everywhere…

IMG_4630IMG_4620IMG_4629Marseille 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.

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Dr. Max Ginger Healthy for a very satisfying and tasty lunch. Mostly vegetarian but not only.

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. IMG_4648IMG_4646

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I don’t know whether I would feel comfortable in that cantilevered building. 

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. IMG_4649

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I’ll take that spot.
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Note the chaises longues at the base of the wall in the garden.
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Oh, the views. And from the top of the fort, too.

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.IMG_4635IMG_4627IMG_4638

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What looks kind of like a slide on the right is  passerelle over the highway below.

IMG_4640IMG_4622Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.

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People leaving Mucem put their admission stickers on anything. 

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Note the creative planters on the left.

IMG_4661Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.IMG_4664IMG_4665IMG_4666IMG_4613IMG_4618IMG_4607This 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. IMG_4603

 

 

 

Urban Jungle

IMG_3491When 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. IMG_3489We 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.IMG_3465In 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.

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It doesn’t take much. And is that the door to Tom and Jerry’s place?

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. IMG_3495And yet, I can’t help but be charmed. The streets become magical passages suitable for fairies, especially with the garlands that were strung.IMG_3497IMG_3492IMG_3490

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Something about this resembles Cousin It from the Addams Family.

Some of the garlands were made with bits of lace, very romantic.IMG_3488IMG_3486Some were colorful, very dramatic.IMG_3500IMG_3510IMG_3485You 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.IMG_3501Everywhere 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.IMG_3517IMG_3504Behind the façades, too, are hidden gardens. Real gems. IMG_3473IMG_3471Others, who have neither garden nor sidewalk, make do with balconies.

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Do you see the balcony with what seems to be a bamboo forest?

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.

What’s not to love about that?IMG_3493

 

 

On the Town

P1090973Toulouse is such a pretty city. I went with some friends on Saturday, and we had such fun.IMG_3880It 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. P1090975P1090974On l’Allée Jules Guesde, a vegan festival was in full swing, and we were disappointed that we had already eaten. IMG_3873IMG_3867IMG_3876IMG_3877IMG_3872Besides history and food, there was music, with brass bands playing at various squares. I loved the all-woman group, playing a cover by Madonna.IMG_3892In 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.IMG_3909IMG_3904We 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.

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Place Saint-Georges between crowds.

It was lovely. The ice cream was amazing, and we were entertained by a group of swing dancers. I was itching to join them. P1090976We 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.P1090979 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.IMG_3895P1090969On 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.

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The Distant Francophiles in the south of France, chez nous.

 

 

End of Summer

IMG_3595The 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

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Croissants on the balcony of our AirBnB in Carcassonne.

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.

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Winegrowers use tiny tractors to move between the rows of vines. I love that this museum piece is a Lamborghini. It used to be driven by an ancient winegrower who was bent over in half but who worked his vineyards daily.

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.IMG_3640IMG_3612One 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.

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Early evening.
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45 minutes later.

A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.

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Why do you need a windshield wiper on a window that you can’t see through?
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Ha ha–connerie is stupidity/nonsense/silly antics, so it says “general stupidity.” It originally was “maçonnerie general” or general masonry.
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At a wine and food tasting: Occitan relaxation and naps. Occitan is the old language and adjective for this region, where Languedoc comes from–oc is how people in these parts said yes.

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. IMG_1881If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…IMG_3499

Country Mouse or City Mouse

IMG_3568In 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.

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Can you see it on the hill?

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.

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Zooming in a little.

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.

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And more. Not my idea of skyscrapers, but definitely beautiful.

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?IMG_3565

 

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.

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