How to Live Like the French

P1070601I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.

They are lying to you.

The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.

What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. P1060893They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.

P1040987Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.

Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.

And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.

Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.

—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.

Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.

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Is this your idea of buying groceries?

—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.

—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms in fall or asparagus in spring in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions do work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.

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Taking time to smell the coffee.

At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.

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The Quiet, Vibrant Village of Caunes

P1080886Nestled in the foothills of the Black Mountains, Caunes-Minervois is a storybook French village, with cobbled streets too narrow for cars, one beautiful door after another, stone walls adorned with climbing roses and ivy.P1030364It also has lots of life. Although it doesn’t even have 2,000 residents, it has EIGHT restaurants! They are really good, too. The Hôtel d’Alibert, for example, is beautiful and delicious. The Cantine de la Curé (the priest’s canteen–it’s across from the abbey) has tapas in a garden. La Mangeoire (manger, as in away in a) and la Marberie (the marble works–Caunes is known for its quarry for red marble) have lovely interiors as well as shady terraces. P1080815P1080813296.Hotel in CaunesIn the summer, outdoor classical concerts on Fridays animate the lovely garden behind the abbey. In winter, jazz concerts in the abbey’s caveau, or wine cellar, take advantage of the great acoustics.312.Abbey in Caunes6The monastery was the heart of the ancient village, although it was inhabited since neolithic times, and later had a Roman villa. The abbey was started in the 8th century, when the town was becoming rich.  307.Abbey in Caunes5You can visit the church, sumptuously decorated with local marble, and go under the altar to the crypt. There’s a cloister, and a small museum of archaeological finds.

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The crypt.
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The bell tower.

Mostly, though, it’s a pleasure just to stroll around Caunes. Some of the streets turn into stairs, and most in the center of the village are just too narrow for cars to pass. Which means the soundtrack for your walk is the wind and birds.P1080888P1080816P1080837P1080880P1080852P1080840P1080859P1080860P1080827P1080826315.Street in Caunes316.Street in Caunes1317.Street in Caunes2

 

There are some beautiful homes, not just from medieval times but also Renaissance, including Hôtel d’Alibert. Most of the Renaissance buildings are near the mairie, or town hall.

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Renaissance windows.

P1080851P1080814The doors range from majestically imposing to extremely small. I saved most of them for another post just on doors.P1080881P1080874P1080875

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The gated door was, for a while, the entry to an underground bar called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the hole in the wall. I’m short and had to bend over to get through. It was very cool and it’s too bad it closed.

Near the abbey is an old lavoir, or communal laundry, which still gets used.314.Laundry in Caunes

Its location on a hill offers views across the plain that extends to the Pyrénées. Gorgeous.P1080855320.Panorama from Caunes2

And the views of the roofs are wonderful, too.P1080891

Charm is everywhere.P1080883P1080812

Though it’s not without its challenges.P1080861

I hope you enjoyed Caunes-Minervois. If you ever see wine from here, buy it (there are several wineries). You won’t be disappointed.

Caunes is a great daytrip from Carcassonne. I haven’t finished with it, either. We will go out of town the next time, plus I have to visit the marble quarry, since our kitchen counters came from it.P1080870P1080876P1080862

Antique Finds

P1080511Since the rentrée, the vide-grenier season has been in high gear. The mass garage sales are the excuse to visit a new village, to people-watch and above all, to find one-of-a-kind items for a song.P1080513This stand had an impressive collection of Ricard items. Ricard is a brand of pastis, an anise-flavored apéritif that’s very popular around here. It is clear and barely yellow but turns cloudy when water is added, and thus gets called un jaune–a yellow. Ricard brilliantly played on the name. The glasses have a line to show how much pastis to pour. I can only guess that the tray, with holders for the glasses and bottle, is designed to set down at the boulodrôme during pétanque.

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Ricard, the victor over thirst. 
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A logical combination: Ricard and boules.

The professionals have the greatest concentrations of good stuff, but at higher prices. Look at this collection of antique night clothes.P1070816The pants have a completely open crotch. Interesting. I would guess something to do with using a chamber pot in the dark but I could be wrong.P1070818I love the embroidery. Even when it’s just small initials.P1070817The képi blanc is the hat of the French Foreign Legion. It reminds me of the Colette story. Ageist double standards.

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That orange phone!

Another had old knives in a very scratched plexiglass case. Can you make out some of the elaborate decorations on the handles and even the blades?IMG_3146

P1080514I do wonder about who would collect figurines of pin-up girls. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. Ick.P1080508The regular folks getting rid of stuff from grandma’s attic are where you find the best gems. Look at that silver inkwell.P1080509

And how about a mantle clock with a cherub on top?

There also are plenty of less-antique offerings. Bowling, anyone?P1080510

The thrill of the hunt is what the vide-grenier is all about.IMG_3149IMG_3144IMG_3148

What’s your best find?

Prehistoric Man

view 1If archaeology is your thing, a great day trip from Carcassonne is to Tautavel, for three reasons:

  1. There’s a fabulous musuem dedicated to l’Homme de Tautavel, who lived 450,000 years ago.
  2. The scenery is gorgeous.
  3. The region’s wines are yummy.

Tautavel man, a Homo erectus, was discovered in 1971 in a cave, along with 149 other human remains. He was about 20 years old and 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches) tall. Sorry I don’t have photos! I hate taking photos inside museums. Click on the links to see the museum’s site.

Tautavel man hadn’t yet domesticated fire, but was a very good hunter. The prey was typically horse, deer, wild sheep, and bison but also included rhinos, lions and panthers, as well as smaller animals.

You can visit the cave as part of a guided group between April and August. Two museums, the Musée de Tautavel and the Musée des Premiers Habitants de l’Europe, display the site’s finds and illustrate prehistoric life. The dioramas are very realistic and not corny at all. Explanations are in several languages. Tip: the museums are closed at lunch, between noon and 2:30 p.m. Tickets, €8 adults/€4 kids, are €1 apiece cheaper if bought in advance online and are good for both museums.

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Fire demonstration, using a special kind of fungus. Always good to know. This guide was amazing–a real comedian but full of interesting info.

There are demonstrations of how to light a fire using flint and by rubbing two sticks together, and how to use prehistoric weapons, such as a propulseur (not easy—I tried it). In mid-April, the museum hosts the Prehistoric Arms Firing Championship!

I accompanied a school trip, so we went by bus, taking the autoroute to near Perpignan (the exit, sortie 41, is well-marked for Tautavel man), then leaving the coastal plain to wind through low hills—I suppose they count as the foothills of the Pyrénées—with rugged, white rock outcroppings, plenty of garrigue and lush vineyards. The drive is about 1.5 hours, but the countryside and charming little villages make it seem like less. There’s a lot to look at.view 2Speaking of vineyards, the region is near Fitou and has good wines. Here is a link to the local producers.

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Typical French village cuteness in the heart of Tautavel.

Poor M. Homme de Tautavel, living in a wine region before the advent of wine.

Desire to Inspire

SONY DSCDesire to Inspire, one of my favorite blogs, featured our apartments! We are so excited to be part of such a collection of gorgeous interiors and exteriors. Desire to Inspire lives up to its name. All the pretty things. A cornucopia of eye candy. Beautiful homes and work spaces from around the world.SONY DSCThey even did two posts. They chose our best photos, of course, so click over to see them. The back apartment, aka L’ancienne Tannerie on Airbnb, is here. The front apartment, aka La Suite Barbès on Airbnb, is here.

Here are some other shots, professionally done by Paul Catoir, who runs Clic Clac photography in Charleroi, Belgium.

We’ll start with L’ancienne Tannerie.

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Yes, we ate the delicious pastries after the photo session.
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The ceilings are so high it’s hard to include the chandeliers. And the crystal one in this room is so pretty. Desire to Inspire used a great shot with the chandelier, mirror and the moldings.

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Back apt living mantle
Mantle detail.

On to my favorite room, the kitchen.

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We ate all that stuff, too. Yes, before the pastries.

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Every single renter has been crazy about the bathroom. Again, more shots on Desire to Inspire.SONY DSC

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The sauna.

The bedroom is exceptionally quiet and stays cool in the summer, thanks to all those two-foot-thick stone walls.SONY DSC

There’s also a small bedroom with a twin bed. It’s much cuter in person.SONY DSCSONY DSC

Now let’s cross the landing to la Suite Barbès. SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

The shot above is from the entry-slash-kitchen.

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The space above the kitchen is the “harnais,” which was used back in the day to store horse harnesses. Now it’s furniture limbo.
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Opposite direction.

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The bedroom is gigantic–35 square meters, or 376 square feet. You can see the before and after here.SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

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I love that mirror in the bathroom. And that pedestal sink. And the tile. 

And in the bathroom, another huge shower:SONY DSC

Check out Desire to Inspire on Instagram, too. We’re also on Instagram (although I’m mostly a weekend poster).

We have just gotten started renting out the apartments, and all the visitors have been so nice. It has turned out to be really fun to welcome people from around the world, and to give them a place to stay that is unmistakably French.

And the real reason to visit Carcassonne:

Carcassonne la Cité
La Cité from Pont Vieux

Another Adorable French Village

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Is there no end to the prettiness? Let’s wander through the overwhelming charms of Bize-Minervois, a village of about a thousand people in the Aude department of the south of France.

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People tasting coffee (we don’t just have wine here; there’s locally roasted coffee!) in the courtyard of the former royal fabric factory, today home to gîtes.

The excuse for checking out Bize (which delightfully sounds like la bise, or the French custom of greeting by kissing on each cheek, though some do more than two–going up to three or four kisses, and starting on left or right depending on how far north) was “Tastes en Minervois,” a mix of gastronomy and wine, with some art and music thrown in for spice.IMG_4389The areas around the wine-tastings had plenty of people, but otherwise, the tiny village mostly let one see its true colors. (We were badly organized and arrived after the food had been served.)IMG_4609IMG_4395IMG_4604

For example, beautiful doors.

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This one makes me think of the huge lengths of fabric of the village’s past as a textile center.
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Fit for a Hobbit.

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A foulerie was a place for pressing textiles. The snake theme is thanks to the Carndinal de Bonzi, who was archbishop of nearby Narbonne in 1673 and who originally hailed from Milan (I know, you’re saying, oh, of course! The symbol of Milan-based Alfa Romeo cars is a snake eating a person).

The windows weren’t so shabby either.IMG_4593IMG_4576IMG_4658

There was cuteness and postcard-picturesqueness at every turn.IMG_4399IMG_4406IMG_4407IMG_4581IMG_4655

The town nestles, warily, next to the Cesse river, which usually is tiny but which, as you can see by its bed, can get a little crazy.IMG_4637

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Local swimming hole

That reminds me of a riddle: what can run but never walks, what has a mouth but never talks, what has a bed but does not sleep, what has a head but never weeps?

A river.IMG_4585

The town of Bize went all-out decorating. There were numerous spots to kick back and taste wine or food. The one above had “furniture” made from tires. And the décor was street signs. I thought the sign, affaissement was hilarious–it sounds like afessement, which isn’t a word but if it were it would mean to lay your butt down (fesse is buttock); affaissement is what happens when a pile of something like sand or rocks kind of slumps down. And slumping down seems to be the same outcome as afessement. I ran it by some native French speakers, who thought it was pretty funny, but the Carnivore informed me that it was completely wrong because the French don’t go for puns like that. I’m not so sure.

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Mandatory pallet furniture.

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But as lively as the festivities were, the best parts of Bize were the tiny lanes, the quirky old buildings, the clearly sleepy ambiance.

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No fear of traffic. But what happens if the fridge goes out and you need a new one delivered?

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Note the parking spot outlined in white (big enough for a Smart), and the yellow no-parking line…as if! I bet if a car is parked in that spot, it’s no easy thing to get around that curve. Anyway, a car? Here? Maybe every few days.

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The planters for the climbing vines!
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Undoubtedly a fine institution.

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That wasn’t all. On the way I kept pulling over to bark at my photographer/offspring to take pictures of various beautiful things. Even though all the villages around here have similar levels of cuteness, it’s foreign enough to me despite all the years of living here that I go ga-ga over it every time. Tant mieux.

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Mailhac, on the way to Bize. You see? Where does it stop, all this picturesqueness?

Charmingly Bookish Montolieu

IMG_4529Books, art, old buildings. In the south of France. The village of Montolieu, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Carcassonne, is intellectual AND adorable.IMG_4528Montolieu bills itself le village du livre (the village of books), with 17 bookstores for under 800 residents. Plus art galleries. Plus very cute cafés and restaurants. All nestled among tiny, car-free lanes and crooked stone houses. With jaw-dropping views.

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We arrived too late for lunch and too early for dinner… Note the lady sitting outside and reading at the end of the street.

Enough said. Let’s go for an afternoon stroll.P1080629

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For a little coolness, visit the basement. Everything for €2 (books).
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Local resident.

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A table in the middle of a street. Why not? Note the curtain on the door at the right (to keep out flies and mosquitos), and the clothesline along the wall. And the straightness of the walls, as witnessed by the rain spouts.

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Two-way street, barely big enough for one car.
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Public toilets, with poetry.

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A vending machine for organic vegetables. On the wall to the left of it is a pile of books. There were books sitting around everywhere.

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And finally, the views, over the Dure river. The village is in the Black Mountains, atop a hill that allowed for fortification (but was invaded by Vandals and Visigoths nonetheless). It was a stronghold of the Cathar religion, and later a center for textile manufacturing.

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Vertiginous terraced gardens overlooking….
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The Dure river.

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These folks also have a view. I wouldn’t want to have to fix those roofs.
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At the lookout point, a table with books for those who manage to take their eyes off the scenery.

I have lots more photos and will put some on Instagram, so check there, too. I’ll have to go back to visit the Manufacture Royale (royal factory, for textiles) and the book museum. A very worthy day trip from Carcassonne!P1080610

Village Life

P1060934The French countryside is studded with little gems of villages, often boldly at the crest of a hill, from where its church steeple and, likely, a fortress tower, bristles above the horizon. Others are nestled in valleys, nearly invisible until you get close.

In this part of the south of France, les anciens--the people of old–used the building materials at hand–namely large stones pulled from the fields. The stones provide great insulation and are surely one of the reasons people here continue to resist air conditioning. IMG_2694The roofs are covered with red terre cuite tiles, laid in overlapping waves, which usually (not always) are heavy enough to resist the high winds that tear through. Some are cemented down for good measure. Imagine the weight.

The buildings predate any zoning or urban planning. People added on here and there over generations, resulting in a crazy quilt of red roofs.P1060954The church is at the center of the village, its steeple often topped with a rooster, the Gallic coq.  The rooster was a religious symbol in medieval times and during the Revolution became a symbol of France. P1060933Many of the villages are so small they don’t have any baker or grocery store. The sole businesses are wineries, or the odd artisan like plumbers or electricians who work out of their homes. Some don’t even have a school. Parents drive their kids to school in bigger villages nearby on their way to work in town. Only the elderly are left in the villages during the day. P1070421Bigger villages have a grocery, a baker, a café, even a butcher and tabac, or smoke shop, which once were vital for such items as bus tokens, cards for making calls on public phones, stamps and other essentials that no longer are essential. Elderly villagers shuffle out for their daily baguettes while wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. The bakery is also the place to get the most accurate weather forecast.P1060913The tiniest villages are served by itinerant vendors, who stop for a few hours a few days a week and provide a place for locals to not only buy necessities like fresh produce but also catch up on gossip. In one village, I passed a fishmonger truck, surrounded by a clutch of little old ladies in animated conversation.

The older residents perch on the benches under the ubiquitous platanes–plane trees. The ones who use canes cross their hands limply atop the handle, a little like Psy dancing in “Gangnam Style.”IMG_2690When my kid was in the last year or two of primary school in the village, I was informed that it was dishonorable to be escorted by one’s mother. Already, it was dishonorable to walk to school. Even kids who lived a couple of blocks away were driven by mothers who then drove straight back home. To be walked to the door by a parent was the worst.

So I bowed to this declaration of independence, and watched my kid disappear around the neighbor’s hedge. I felt pretty confident about safety in the maze of medieval lanes too small for cars, and completely confident that my kid would dutifully go straight to school. But I’m a worrywart, so I would slip out and do my best spy impersonation, tailing my kid while staying just out of sight. There was a spot along the former ramparts, where the street (more like a passage that would be a tight fit for a Smart car) stretched straight for the final block to school. I would crouch behind a parked car and watch until my kid was swallowed by the playground.P1070748This was endlessly amusing to the bench full of little old guys. Every day, they would be perched there, like so many swallows on an electric line. Sometimes, my kid would decide to run, and I would round the corner for my final vantage point and see nothing. My little birds would tip their caps and nod that my kid had passed as expected.

The little old ladies flock in the afternoons at the park, on a bench that in summer is shaded by an enormous magnolia tree and in winter is protected by a south-facing wall warmed by the sun. They bring knitting, and their fingers fly as fast as their tongues. But the main entertainment is the children. The lawn under the tree is a favorite place for mothers and nannies to get their very small charges outside while they enjoy some precious moments of adult conversation. The path’s gravel has been scooped, carried and dumped a few feet away by countless toddlers. Far more amusing than cat videos.P1070654The little old ladies and little old men used to go for walks, all together, around the vineyards. A pack of them would set off every afternoon–early morning in summer, of course. There was a high point where one could get a glimpse into our yard, and I would find them straining to see in. Foreigners in the village must have been so fascinating. I hope we lived up to expectations.

Over the years, the group dwindled in number. They probably had been together their entire lives. Many were related, varying degrees of cousins, otherwise by marriage. They now are too old to hike around the vineyards. They stay in the village. Several have died. Time marches on even when we no longer can.P1060955When someone dies in the village, a few strains of the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem Mass crackle over the public loudspeakers, and the mayor’s secretary announces the funeral services. Everybody stops what they’re doing, to hear whose name is announced, if they don’t already know.

Most of the time, though, the loudspeakers announce happier things, accompanied by happier music, usually Europop hits from the ’80s. The pizza truck will be at the square from 6 p.m. on. The football club is organizing a dinner; sign up at the bakery. The school is holding a loto. The secretary gives every announcement all the extra syllables and richly rolled R’s of the regional accent.

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An old wine press. Of course.

Today is a holiday, and the village is hushed beyond even Sunday standards. Although we have two more weeks of summer, August 15 signals the apex beyond which is a downward slide toward la rentrée–the re-entry, aka back to school, back to work, back to normal life.P1070739

 

Purple, With a Red Hat

P1070396It can be stressful to land in a new place, all your possessions on your back, trying to figure out directions in a strange language. So I am not making fun of the strapping young things who parade about town, jaws slack in amazement and arms tight around their backpacks, which they wear in the front.

At the same time, to take measure of a place, look at the locals. In New York, I learned to keep my bag tucked tightly under my arm, with no loose strap that could be yanked away. I learned not to make eye contact. (Though once I did, by accident. It was years ago. I reading the paper and enjoying a coffee at a sidewalk table of a small café in New York’s Soho. I sensed somebody standing in front of me so I lowered the newspaper and looked up, expecting to see the waiter. Instead, I saw a disheveled man, probably crazy and homeless. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he exhorted. I was sunk–I had made eye contact and he had spoken directly to me. I flashed him a big, friendly smile and answered, “Si fahamu.”  He repeated his plea for Nadine, and I repeated, in Swahili, that I didn’t understand. He made a face that said, “this chick is crazy,” shrugged his shoulders, and sauntered off down the street.)

In Carcassonne, I see little kids, 7 or 8 years old, walking home from school unaccompanied. They aren’t everywhere, to be sure. Most kids get picked up by parents in cars, in the same horrible, car-choked scene you find in the U.S. Those who walk generally are accompanied by an adult. But I still see kids running around, including in the center of town, on errands (up the street and a few minutes later back down but carrying a baguette), riding skateboards or bikes. I like it. It feels alive and normal.

Did I let my own kid walk alone to school? Yes and no. My kid spared no words in French or English about the injustice of the forced march, PLUS from the EDGE of the village, whereas ALL THE OTHER KIDS got dropped off by their parents in CARS. We even would pass a woman (grandmother? nanny?) who would battle to get a squirmy little girl into the car for half a block. Yes. She drove half a block to school, and spent more time fighting to get the girl into the car than she did driving. Also, as I recall, it was far enough to go by car but not far enough to put the kid into a car seat with a seatbelt.

The walks to school required, at age 3, half an hour (for six blocks) in order to examine every rock, leaf and bug along the way, without stress and with time for maximum wonder. By fourth grade, the commute took three minutes, max. One day, my kid declared the end of our hand-in-hand promenades to and from school. The end of waiting by the exit with the other parents at noon and the end of the day. The declaration of independence. I was in a quandary. I wanted my kid to be independent, like the older boys who tore past us on their bikes and whom I regularly spied down in the river, fishing or exploring or whatever. Normal kids. I wanted that.

At the same time, I wanted to know without a doubt that my kid had entered the school. I couldn’t go back to work without 100% assurance. Knowing that the school probably would call after a while was no solace. In that time, where would my kid be? So, I did what any mother would do: espionage.

My kid would set off, meeting up with a pair from across the street, and off they would head to school, about six blocks away. I had insisted on a route that involved medieval streets too small for cars. Still, I waited until they had advanced down the main street, before stealing out, leaning into hedges to hide, peeking around corners. P1070393In our village, the little old ladies walk, and the little old men sit. Specifically, they sit under the plane trees in the center of the village, a vantage point that keeps them on top of what a large percentage of the population is up to. The people who live farther out, the newcomers in the lotissements, or subdivisions, are of no interest anyway.

I would glide up alongside a wall, where, crouching, I could peer unseen through the windows of parked cars all the way to the school. This was highly amusing to the old geezers, perched on a bench like so many swallows. They would nod and gesture and indicate that I could go home, that all was well. And I knew it was. Little villages are full of protectors.

In town, I see lots of little old ladies out for their commissions–their purchases of whatever they need to make the day’s meals. I deem them “old” if they use a cane or a walker; some who may have more years but who are still in good shape get categorized as just “older,” as in older than most of the folks around but not yet “old.” A teenager also is “older” than grade school kids. Everything is relative.

These little old ladies seem quite at ease, in sharp contrast with the young backpackers. They hold their canes in one hand while their boxy handbags dangle loosely from the other. I admire them for negotiating the curbs, the uneven sidewalks, the steps that are inevitable in a place that was designed in 1260. In my opinion, they always have right of way in the crush of human traffic of the market. From what I have observed, I am not alone in my thinking, although there are always some people who seem outraged to find that there are OTHER PEOPLE shopping at the market. As if!

I think of my mom, who from age 60 or so only left her house by car. Not that there were any shops in walking distance in her neighborhood. For that, Carcassonne is walkable like New York, but a lot cheaper, without the lines for everything and with much better weather.

When we were looking at properties to buy, I walked around one neighborhood in hopes of spotting details that would connect houses with places I had seen in real estate ads online. And it always was possible that I would stumble on a hand-written sign offering sale by owner. Plus, I never need much of an excuse to go walking around town.P1070386It was a sunny day, but in winter there were few people out. I spied a tiny woman working her way down the sidewalk using two canes. I figured she lived close by and probably knew everything about the quartier, so I sidled alongside her and started to chat.

She was charming. She had lived there all her life. She had fallen in her home and had just gotten out of rehab; she was out walking to get back in shape. She was 98. We ambled down the sidewalk and she told me about life. I didn’t get any real estate tips, but I had a wonderful time.

I wish I had listened more to the stories from my own mother, who died a couple of years ago at age 90. She sometimes would start to tell me about something, and I would get annoyed, because I had heard a lot of the stories many times before. Too late, I also realized she felt, tasted, smelled the memories as vividly as if they were yesterday. I was recently discussing something with my kid, and later, thinking about it and about my own experiences, I was back in the school gymnasium and could practically smell its special (hated) smell. Surely my mom wanted to connect me to such memories of her own, to share them, relive them but not alone. A Proustian journey, proffering a taste of the madeleine.

I think of my grandmothers. One was an enigma, stiff and proper. The other was completely the opposite–emotional, fierce, proud, unconditionally loving. But although I often prodded her to tell me about her childhood in Europe, she never talked about it much. Nor about anything else. What was it like to immigrate? What was school like? How did she meet my grandfather? (At a dance; he was a good dancer.) How did she, someone who loved loved loved children, have only two, and a decade apart? I suspect problems, miscarriages, maybe even illness, whether of a baby lost and never spoken of again, or herself. Although to my knowledge she was always as strong as an ox. When she was 85 and still living alone in her house, I spied big buckets of ice in her “back room”–a room with windows on two sides where she and her brood of grandchildren would sleep in summer, to get good cross-breezes, and where all those windows’ sills were lined with plants. She carried the buckets up a steep flight of stairs from the drainpipe where she caught rain or melting snow–what her flowers preferred. And one day, sitting at her kitchen table, she complained that it was going to rain because she hurt there, and she raised her leg as effortlessly as a ballerina, knee straight, as high as her head, and pointed to her ankle. I told her she had nothing to worry about. Until she was nearly 100 and rarely recognized us anymore, her hair was dyed black and she put rouge on her cheeks.

A few weeks ago, I stopped to photograph a handsomely renovated building just off the central square, Place Carnot. A passing woman looked at me, looked at the building, then stepped out of the brilliant sunshine to better admire the façade herself.P1070374“If you hadn’t been taking a picture, I wouldn’t have noticed,” she told me. “It’s beautiful.”

“Lots of buildings are getting new façades these days,” I answered, and pointed to a few other examples.

That led to nearly an hour of chatting on the street corner about everything under the sun.

I finally asked her how old she was.

“84, but that’s according to my birthday. Sometimes I feel like I’m 70; sometimes like I’m 90. Today, I feel 70,” she said.

I assured her that I had her pegged at 70. It was true. She was wearing a fluttery green top, very appropriate for the warm day, with dressy pants. Her jewelry quotient was typically française–neither too much nor too timid. She wore makeup, expertly applied, again neither too much nor timid. Her hair was dyed a slightly unnatural Lucille Ball red,  and was cut in layers, neither completely straight nor curly. Did she style it or set it? Maybe. That’s typically française–maybe they made an effort or maybe not. Basically she was an older version of Jeanne Damas. No cane, no walker.

Then, she pointed to her shoes. Cork-soled high-heeled platform sandals! I am far, far younger than 84 and do Pilates and run, and I would not dare to walk on the crooked, slippery sidewalks of Carcassonne in platform shoes. I would be in the emergency room so fast.

I wanted to give her a high five, but instead, I told her I wanted to be just like her and we hugged. She said, “Today, I felt like I was 90, but I told myself I needed to get out. I said to myself that if I didn’t make an effort, soon I wouldn’t be able to make an effort.”

She added: “Il faut lutter.” You have to fight.

This is what I love about where I live: little kids run out to buy baguettes, 84-year-olds strut their stuff in platform heels, and even older ones push their walkers, with their handbags swinging and they will be all right.P1070866The title refers to the poem by the British poet Jenny Joseph (born in 1932; I hope she is rocking some purple these days, but maybe she is just “older” and not yet “old”).

Warning

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!

Also, check out this wonderful book about people finding love late in life. In French, but an easy read. Written with great sensitivity: “Le Coeur n’as pas de rides” by Marina Rozenman. (This is not sponsored!)

 

Baba au Rhum vs. Savarin

IMG_3968I have a new life goal: to have a dessert named after me.

In the meantime, here is the tale of the foodie of all foodies and a dessert recipe whose richness and delicate flavors will make your dinner guests swoon. It’s the next installment in our series on the cooking class my friend Christine did for guests of our vacation apartments.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was such a gourmande that he not only has a dessert named after him but a cheese as well. Even better, it’s an especially rich version of Brie (75% fat!!!), a soft cheese with a soft, white rind. My mouth is watering just typing this. It previously was called Délice des gourmets (Gourmets’ delight) before being renamed after the king of gourmets. (Note to self: get into cheese, too?)

Brillat-Savarin officially was a lawyer and politician, but he is best known as a food writer. This is no small feat, considering he was politicking (small-town mayor) during the French Revolution. Things soured, as they tend to during revolutions, and with a bounty on his head Brillat-Savarin fled to Switzerland, then the Netherlands, then the U.S.

Exceptionally for a refugee from war, he still managed to eat well and to write about it. His masterpiece, “Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusiers sociétés littéraires et savantes.” Translation: “Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendantal Gastronomy; a work that is theoretical, historical and on the agenda, dedicated to Parisian gastronomes by a professor and member of numerous literary and wise societies.”IMG_3956I want to be a member of numerous literary and wise societies, especially those that seriously discuss cheese and dessert and that meditate on transcendental gastronomy.

Renowned francophile-California foodie M.F.K. Fisher translated Physiology of Taste to English, and she doesn’t let many chapters of her own memoirs go by without raving about the genius of Brillat-Savarin. However, despite M.F.K.’s voluptuous praise of him, until I started to write this I wasn’t sure what Brillat-Savarin had accomplished, just that it was great.

Brillat-Savarin set out to deliver a scientific analysis of food, eating and pleasure. However, his most famous quotes are more sociological, still current considering he died in 1826, and very tweetable:

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.

To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being as long as they are under our roofs.

The fate of a nation depends on the way that they eat.

The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them.

The way in which meals are enjoyed is very important to the happiness of life.

Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.

Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral……they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted.IMG_3964I totally understand why M.F.K. Fisher named him one of the two or three men she couldn’t live without (though to be clear, he died almost a century before she was born).

Before we get to the dessert, let’s dig into the metaphorical meat of the recipe. As the Brillat-Savarin cheese is a kind of Brie, so, too, the savarin dessert is a kind of baba, which is a kind of babka. (Cue the Seinfeld scene with Jerry and Elaine in the bakery, intending to buy a chocolate babka but ending up with a lesser babka in cinnamon). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasrVIZQ4AE

Babka is a kind of Polish yeast cake or brioche (hah! the circle comes back around to France! and hah again for my unintentional pun, because the savarin/baba bakes in a circular form), introduced to France by Stanislaus I, who had been king of Poland until he was exiled to France in 1709. Yet another refugee.

Stan was pretty tight with the French. He married off his daughter to Louis XV and regained the Polish throne in 1733 thanks to French help. He was deposed again in 1736, this time by the Russians. Some things never change.IMG_3972Stanislaw headed back to France and had a good gig as Duke of Lorraine until he died. At some point, the story goes, he brought along a babka for the road. It was a little dry, so he—more likely his chef—added a little booze to soften it up. As one does.

The boozy babka became a baba. This is understandable, as “baba” rolls off the tongue more smoothly without that K, and everything rolls off the tongue when alcohol is added. However, Larousse Gastronomique, authored by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, says that Stanislaw named the dessert after his favorite character in “1001 Arabian Nights”–Ali Baba. The baba contained raisins or dried fruits, was soaked in a liqueury syrup and topped with patisserie cream (like vanilla pudding but better) or whipped cream.

The savarin, invented by a pair of Parisian pâtissiers in 1844, ditched the dried fruits, a move I totally approve of, and gave the dessert its wreath shape (it used to be a long cylinder). So really, the recipe I’m going to share is technically for a savarin, rather than a baba, though in restaurants, the two are interchangeable (that is to say, if you see baba au rhum on a dessert menu, you can order it without fear of confrontation with dried fruit). IMG_3969Although I adore saying “baba,” now that I have learned more about Brillat-Savarin, beyond M.F.K. Fisher’s gushings in her memoirs, I like giving him the credit, even though, as far as I can tell, he appreciated food strictly from a consumption point of view and didn’t cook himself.

However, the best part about cooking is that you can make things exactly the way you like them. For example, with whipped cream and without dried fruit. As my (and undoubtedly your) mother always said, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

This is a great dessert for entertaining because (1) you make it ahead (the better for it to drink up its booze–you even can make it without the booze if that’s important to you–but making ahead is always key to successful entertaining) (2) anything with lots of whipped cream looks awesome (3) you certainly can make individual babas but when you make one big dessert that is cut into servings, the gourmands sometimes get a chance for seconds. And that is always nice.P1080268Baba au Rhum aka Savarin

120 g (1 cup) flour

50 g (a big half stick or 1/4 cup) butter

150 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar

1 package (11 g = 2 big teaspoons) baking powder (yes, not yeast. but it turns out great)

3 tablespoons whole milk

3 eggs, separated

1/4 liter (1 cup) water

1/4 liter (1 cup) cane sugar syrup (you can use corn syrup; here, corn syrup is nearly impossible to find, but cane sugar syrup is in the cocktails aisle)

10 cl (7 tablespoons) rum

25 cl (1 cup) heavy cream (fleurette)

couple of tablespoons of granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 180 Celsius (350 Fahrenheit).

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is very white.

IMG_3957
ONE DIRECTION

Mix the flour and baking powder.

Warm the milk and melt the butter. Add to the egg/sugar mix. Add that to the flour mixture.IMG_3958Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks (in French, this is beautifully expressed as beating them into snow). Fold them delicately into the batter. GENTLY STIR IN ONE DIRECTION! Chef Christine insisted on this!

IMG_3963
Like snow.

Pour the batter into a buttered crown/wreath-shaped mold (a bundt pan will do).

Don’t overdo the butter on the mold, or the batter will make bubbles.

Bake for 25 minutes. When it’s done (a toothpick or knife comes out clean), let the cake COOL IN THE MOLD.

You must let the baba cool before adding the syrup!

Make the syrup:IMG_3973Mix the water, cane sugar syrup and rum and bring to a boil. Pour the WARM syrup evenly over the baba. It will stand on top; don’t worry—it will soak in after a couple of hours.

Just before serving:

Make the whipped cream by beating the cream and sugar (sugar to taste). If you use a stand mixer, check often lest you end up with sweet butter (voice of experience). IMG_3978Turn the baba onto a plate. Either fill the hole or frost the baba with the whipped cream. Serve with optional extra rum (to taste).IMG_3965