Before/After: Bathroom

WC 2Our vacation rental apartments are a collection of used-to-bes. The bathroom in the courtyard apartment (which we’ve named L’ancienne Tannerie, because the courtyard used to be a tannery) used to be a laundry room.

Sink must go 1
It must weigh a ton

One of the earlier demolition moves was to extract that gigantic concrete sink. We kept the niche in the wall. That corner now is the shower, with two shower heads. I tried both and can’t pick a favorite.shower with nicheThe door in the before shots leads to a circular staircase in another building on the courtyard. We sealed it off, and smoothed out the curve, because that deep corner gathered scary things.

buanderie
Before.
towels
After.

I had a hard time getting decent photos. This room is crazy bright, even with a glaze over the windows. The inside of the window frame is black. The Carnivore, our painter and the other workers lamented such a bad decision, but I got the last laugh because it looks great.

toward 3rd door
Before.
looking in door
Same view, after. No more door. The sauna is directly behind me. I love a towel warmer.

This room got the black and white cabochon floor that I had wanted for the big kitchen. The walls have metro tiles, which are beveled subway tiles, like in the Paris Metro. I had asked at the tile store about “subway” tiles and was told crisply that surely I was looking for “metro” tiles. Ahem.

The bathroom is next to the sauna. Of course.

sink and mirror and light
I love the Venetian mirror.

On the other side of the sauna, but reached by a different door, is the powder room, in its original place but with a different door (it used to be reached via the closet for the furnace and hot water heater. Yes, that had to change).Toilette 1The former doorway’s arch became home to the sink, with the toilet now across from it (next to where the sink originally was). The floor has the same tile as the wall. I was nervous that it would be too much, but the floorspace is small and it looks nicely seamless.

WC2 from door
After.

While we have been obsessed with finding antiques for the apartments, here it feels so clean that everything is brand spanking new. Well, except for the Venetian mirrors. And the little marble-topped cupboard for toiletries in the bathroom. New and old.

The apartments are available for rent on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie here and the front apartment here.

When French Hunters Gather

P1070714All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.

On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.

P1070675
Boars on the left, deer on the right.

Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. P1070692“Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.”  (That’s good.)

“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)

“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)

“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)

Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.

P1070693
Here you can better see how a regular dipper was welded onto a long handle.
P1070691
The homemade rotisserie motor, electric powered, thanks to a very long extension cord.
P1070676
Boar.
P1070684
Boar juice.

The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.

P1070698
Bring your own silverware, plates, glasses and napkins. Rings optional. This was a classy bunch. Opinel pocket knives, EXTREMELY sharp.
P1070696
Unsurprisingly, in a region of winegrowers, some prefer to come with their own, although a very good wine was included with the dinner.
P1070697
The pitcher is of the house wine. The small glass with a spoon holds salad dressing.

The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.

P1070700
Some greenery under the gizzards and foie gras.

Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.P1070701The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.P1070705The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.

P1070708
Look at the size of that bone! They were all collected for the hunters’ dogs, which waited outside.

The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.

P1070710
Deer.

Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.

P1070713
In all that deer meat, just a small bone. Guess whose plate?

This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.

P1070715
This was shared among about 8 people.

P1070717There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.

Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.

As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.P1070695

 

The Hills Are Alive

P1070457Not the Alps. The Pyrénées. Not the highest peaks, but magnificent nonetheless.

We were on the treasure hunt that is de Ferme en Ferme (Farm to Farm), covering some of the same ground as last year. We carefully examined the map in order to hit our favorites (À la Petite Ferme for hard sausage, Campserdou for raw milk) but also to check out some new ones. P1070468The thing about the mountains is that already it takes a while to get there, and then it takes forever to go from one place to another. Plus, the day of de Ferme en Ferme, narrow mountain roads that rarely see a vehicle suddenly have hundreds of cars.

P1070471
Quillan.
P1070472
You can make out Limoux in the distance; Quillan is just to the right. Carcassonne is beyond Limoux.

But rather than dwell again on hangry people wondering when they are going to eat, we will enjoy the views.

P1070476
There’s still snow higher up.

P1070491I couldn’t get over the vivid contrasts in greens, depending on which kinds of trees dominated a part of the forest. And those forests are dense and dark.

I wish I could also share the sweet smells of pine, grass, earth. And the sounds of so many birds. And the cacophony of crickets. It’s been forever since I’ve heard crickets. P1070455We crossed a high plateau and had to turn at the town of Espezel. I looked it up and the population was 209 in 2008; it was 407 in 1962. Says a lot about opportunities in the middle of nowhere. A man, wearing a big black beret without the slightest trace of irony, was about to enter a cute little bar/restaurant. Espezel might be losing residents but it’s gaining visitors who come for hiking. We pulled up quickly to ask the man for directions. They get lax about signs in the middle of nowhere.P1070469The man told us the way to the road we wanted–not a sign anywhere–and we were on our way. However, my co-pilot kept panicking at all the signs that said the col–mountain pass–was blocked. Still snow? Don’t worry, I said, Ferme en Ferme wouldn’t send hundreds of people on a blocked road.

I was right that the road wasn’t blocked. But I was wrong about the road. The instructions got us to the T-intersection as we had requested, but then instead of turning left, we turned right (again, not well marked). I thought we were on our way to Galinagues, and the map showed some impressive zigzags. But in fact, we were winding up the Rebenty river to Fajolle, where one could visit a fishery (not the Carnivore’s cup of tea).

I don’t regret the detour a bit. First of all, get a load of this: P1070480Even better, was the view going down:

 

P1070490And along the way:

P1070489
Babbling brook: check. Actually, this is the Rebenty river. Crystal clear.
P1070486
Cuteness: check. How’s this for a public library?
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Drinkable water: check. It’s rare to see a fountain like this that says the water IS potable.
P1070484
Laid-back vibe: check. This is IN THE ROAD. Clearly they don’t see many cars around here.

The village of Fajolle counts 14 residents, most of whom seemed to be out for a hike together, with the loners preferring to fish from the road. No sidewalks, shoulders, rails. Just a low curb. Back in the day (1793), Fajolle had 365 people. Imagine. They probably didn’t get out much, if ever. And in winter, they were really stuck. There are six-foot poles that mark the roadside for when it snows. Skiing is not far away.

P1070494
Marsa, in the Rebenty valley.

We did make it to Galinagues. We bought a bunch of goat cheese of different ages (and therefore harder or creamier). Leaving, we were counseled to follow the valley of the Rebenty back to Quillan. It was lovely. Truly a corner of France to explore again.

Antique Mania in Pézenas

champagneSunday was the grand déballage–the big unwrapping, a term used in connection with antiques–in Pézenas.

Pézenas is a beautiful town in the hills of the Herault department, a bit beyond Béziers. We have been numerous times to visit its bounty of 50-some antique shops. Many are open on Sunday and offer a rare something to do for those of us who don’t have the usual obligations with extended family on that day. Twice a year, Pézenas holds a big brocante faire, with about 150 antiques dealers, who set up stalls along about a mile around the ring of the historic old city center.

shop cafe
Vintage shop in front, café-restaurant in back.
courtyard shop 2
A gate leads to a lush courtyard serving several shops, including this one and the one below.

courtyard shop 1It was a lot of fun, on many levels. We had specific things in mind to buy and tried to ignore everything else, no matter how enticing. (It is very hard to stop looking at furniture when you’ve been hunting for so long, but now there’s no more room!) Still, we couldn’t help but be distracted by pretty or quirky things from time to time.

pharma tool
A tool used by pharmacists to seal caps on bottles.
lettuce baskets
Lettuce baskets, which I recognized thanks to Corey Amaro’s blog.
sharpener
A sharpening tool with its wooden holder that would hang on a wall.
bed
Detail of a bed frame.

The top photo shows a crystal egg, called a cave à champagne. A glass or mirrored tray inside holds the champagne flutes around a hole for the bottle, which descends into ice below. The whole thing looks like it requires nerves of steel and no partaking of the champagne by the server to ensure a steady hand. We saw several, including in dark blue. Très cher.

pipe

fountainWe heard English (of both the British and North American varieties), Spanish, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian, as well as plenty of French–with different regional accents.

phones

scalesWe didn’t find what we wanted and came away with just a framed picture. However, we completely enjoyed browsing. There were many objects, and many collections of such objects, that we rarely see at the vide-greniers, which are often the first stop on an antique’s journey to a second life.

jesusangels

shower
Plumbing with panache.

That’s what makes antiques a challenge and so satisfying–you can’t just walk into someplace or order online and get just what you want, the first try. You have to look and look, and wait and keep looking some more. You have to play a long game. Here, where vines take six years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine but then produce for 40 or 70 years, the long game is in the DNA. Rushing to buy almost-good-enough is throwing money away. Patience and persistence make the find all the sweeter.

cellist
Along the route, all kinds of music, from jazz to classical.

 

Cheers for a Good Cause

packed streetSparkling French wine, good food, church. The perfect combo, right?

Every April since 1990, the Toques et Clochers festival raises money for the restoration of a church bell tower around Limoux, in the south of France. A clocher is a bell, and a toque is the tall white hat worn by chefs. The festival is sponsored by the Sieur d’Arques cooperative of Limoux, purveyor of blanquette de Limoux and crémant de Limoux.

pitcher blanquette
Clever pitchers of bubbly

Blanquette de Limoux goes back to 1531, when the monks at the nearby Abbey of Saint-Hilaire made the first sparkling wine (supported by documents dating to 1544). Supposedly, Dom Pérignon was one of them, before he was transferred to Champagne in the north; however, like a lot of legends, this one is off because Dom Pérignon was born a century later.

pouring a glassMore about blanquette de Limoux and Saint-Hilaire another time. Today, let’s go to the party.

Cepie clocher close
The fetching clocher of Cépie, also in the top photo.
church interior
Inside the church. Less is more, except for chandeliers. So French. What worries me are the metal supports going across the church. It dates to the early 1500s.

The festival has grown over the years, but the villages haven’t. It no longer is possible to park nearby (you can forget about parking in the villages even when there isn’t a festival because the streets are tiny). All cars are directed to Limoux, and festival-goers go through security before being channeled through a sports hall to buy their glasses (now in plastic) and tokens for tastings, as well as other merchandise. The line was surprisingly quick. Then we went through security again to get onto one of the shuttle buses to Cépie, this year’s village. Cépie was completely closed off except for one point, where we went through security again. The French weren’t messing around. Gendarmes were everywhere, and all the roads to the village were blocked with concrete barriers.

crossbody bags
Cross-body bags! Remember! I see five here.

A note here: backpacks were not allowed. This has long been common practice in museums, and a good thing, too, because nobody wants to get whacked by somebody’s backpack when the person wearing it turns around. It seems that backpacks are being rejected elsewhere, so remember to pack a cross-body bag for your travels.

creative glass holder
A brilliant example of French innovation: A very chic cross-body bag becomes a double glass holder. And I like her shirt, too–great details.
glass on string 2
But had madame above bought the glass holder, she would have been even better equipped, like monsieur (who was from NEW YORK!!!!).
pitchers in pockets
More innovation: stick your pitcher …. well, anyway. Her tattoo (or other?) says, “First Bubbles,” kind of like first class.
glass on a cord
Pitcher, glass hanging, glass going to the lips. Not judging!
pitcher in pocket
Misspent youth.

Not only did the organizers think to have event-specific tokens (no refunds), but they even put them on lanyards. You also could buy a cord with a holder for your glass. No wondering where you set it down or which one is yours. They also sold T-shirts, bandanas, aprons and straw hats.

prices tasting
Jeton = token. TTC = tout taxe compris (taxes included).  Cordon de 6 jetons = a string with 6 tokens. Dégustation = a tasting (a glass; they were generous); bouteille = bottle.
prices merchandise
Cordon = cord; porte verre = glass holder; canotier = wide-brimmed straw hat (like the Renoir painting); tablier = apron. You can figure out the rest, right?
jetons
Tokens on lanyards. If you don’t drink them, you have a souvenir. Win-win.

It was packed. Cépie covers just over six square kilometers and has a population of 665 when everybody is home. This weekend, a record 45,000 people packed in for Toques et Clochers. The weather was heavenly and the setting was gorgeous, with the peaks of the Pyrénées peeking above the rooftops.

crowd
C.R.O.W.D.E.D. But not disagreeable. Surprisingly (well, not really surprisingly, but very) civilized.
Pyrennees view
The Pyrénées: close enough for skiing at will, far enough that we have much better weather!

We arrived just in time for the parade of church replicas. Each village whose belltower has been restored had a replica, often carried atop a wine barrel or wheeled along on a wine barrel by costumed villagers. I loved the variety of epochs for the costumes and the contemporary interpretations.

Malras
The church of Malras (pop. 349).
St Polycarpe
The church of Saint Polycarpe, named after the bishop of Smyrna (aka Izmir, Turkey), who was burned at the stake, but didn’t die, so they had to stab him to death. Pop. 167. I was thinking polycarpe? lots of carp? Why one should google everything.
Magrie
Magrie, pop. 514. They are wearing canotiers!
Loupia
Loupia, pop. 219.
Limoux
Limoux, a comparative metropolis with a population of 9,781. It is a very pretty town, with an awesome brocante the first Sunday of the month. And home to the Sieurs d’Arques.
La Digne d'Amont
La Digne d’Amont, pop. 288. The poor guy in front was losing his Star Wars foil neck scarf, but clearly cares not. The hanging pendants are little cups, typical of the various gastronomic/oenological brotherhoods of various foods and drinks.

There were several bands, marching and later on stages around the village (which is so small, the music all mixed together a bit–strains of jazz on the left, country on the right). Drums seem to be a big thing. There was a kids’ corps, a women’s corps, a mixed corps…. Miss Cépie led a throng of small and smaller children, who were dressed (decorated?) as flowers and sunshine. Awww!

crowd before parade
Before the parade.
young drummers
Young drummers…
drummers from behind w lightbulbs
Seen from the back. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer on the light-bulb theme, but light bulbs were all over.
odawa drummers
Adult drummers of the Odawa troupe, very serious, well-decorated, though the drums seemed to be a little phallic.
Odawa big pants
Many of them followed the leader and wore outrageously wide-legged pants, gathered at the ankle. Just sayin’, if you see it later, you can say you saw it here first.

The whole village seemed to have taken up the cause. Houses were spiffed up and decorated, mostly with recycled materials–plastic bottles and corks were turned into flowers, insects, even furniture.

Tocques in tree
Toques in a tree!
courtyard decor
Quite a few courtyards were done up like this, with dummies drinking and random giant insects flying above. Note the ubiquitous wine barrel…even the flowers are in cases of wine.
bouchon furniture
A little relaxation spot in what would otherwise be a bus stop. Everything covered with corks.
bouchons
That took patience.
grape decor
Many clusters of grapes, though the main grape varieties are all white: mauzac, chenin blanc and chardonnay.
maypole
A maypole. Everything is early this year!
grape costume
A group of locals dressed for the occasion. Note the beret. Lots of berets were worn, completely without irony.
grape costume drinks wine
Check out Dionysus on the left. Quite sure he was a local and not driving home.
118 218
These two guys are a matryoshka-doll kind of French in-joke. They are a parody of a parody of Starsky and Hutch, who appear in TV commercials for one of the telephone information lines (like 411 in the U.S.). If you want to blow your mind, google 118 218 and watch the videos. Every French resident can sing the 118 218 jingle. I will be hearing it all night in my head for having written this.

We wandered up and down the little lanes, sticking to the shade. Not everybody was prudent; lots of winter white skin was broiled to a painful red by late afternoon. It was a sea of humanity–or at least a good-sized lake. In French, the term is la foule, and when candidates plunge in to shake hands (and there were many local politicos present!),  ils prennent un bain de foule–they take a crowd bath. The Carnivore wasn’t careful and as he tried to scratch his head found his hand grabbed by some ballot-seeker.

packed vertical street
Granted, the street on the right isn’t for cars but still, what do these people do in the winter?

Despite the ubiquity of alcohol, the relative youth of the attendees and the tight quarters, the afternoon was extremely good-natured and well-mannered. The organizers had wisely switched to all-plastic, from the glasses to the bottles of wine, and had provided lots of trash points, so there was little litter despite the intense concentration of humanity.

band by cemetery
Musical entertainment, with the cemetery as a backdrop.
old couple
An event for all ages. I know I’m in a safe space when there are old people (OK, considerably older than me) out and about.

The “toques” part was well-represented, with purveyors of gastronomic goodies, such as bio, or organic, veal burgers, specialty macarons, seafood, cheeses, and lots and lots of duck and foie gras.

magret sandwich
Sandwich of magret de canard (duck breast).
hams
Hams roasting, and dripping onto onions.
hams menu
Sandwich with ham cooked on a spit with its “little” onions for about $5; a container of homemade fries for €3… CB acceptée = carte bancaire = credit/debit cards accepted.
seafood
Seafood stand: pulpe (little octopus); oysters; fries; fries + mussels; mussels.
frites graisse de canard
Magret = duck breast. Frites graisse de canard = fries cooked in duck fat.
foie gras poele aux pommes
Fois gras fried with potatoes; cold cuts; cheese. I had a cheese plate and it was lovely, with six kinds of cheese.
bio burger
Organic veal burgers. We had some; they were OK. Honestly, veal isn’t fatty enough to grill, though they were VERY rare.
sausage
Sausage and sauerkraut (saucisse et choux-croute).

Before catching the shuttle bus back to the parking lots, the gendarmes helpfully had a table set up for people to voluntarily test whether they were sober enough to drive.

two glasses
Not all French are reasonable, though I have to give him credit for still being vertical. After he gets through those tokens, not so sure….plus TWO glasses?!?!?!

We avoided that problem by inviting friends to come with us to fill up our car, and then I was the designated driver–water only–called the capitain de la soirée in France and “Bob” in Belgium. I remember driving around Brussels and seeing the electronic signs that usually warn of traffic jams reading “Avec Bob au volant, les fêtes se passent en sécurité” or something like that. I was perplexed. I knew that voler means to fly or to steal (yup!), so volant should mean flying or stealing–the present participle. “With Bob stealing…???” Main non! I just hadn’t acquired an adequate automotive vocabulary–un volant is a steering wheel–flying/stealing/steering…of COURSE. So the slogan was “With Bob (designated driver) behind the wheel, the holidays are safe.” A good idea in any language.

Cepie clocher 3
One more shot of Cépie.

 

 

 

 

Restaurants in France

place carnotFrom what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.

Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.

menu chinese russian 2First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.

trilingualBut if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.

The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking, or to help them succeed for good cooking. That is, away from the most obvious tourist spots, where the restaurants don’t have to care about the French diner. In order to get the best of French cuisine, you have to eat where the French do.

Things to look for:

Multilingual menus–they are often a clue to a high level of tourist trade.

lemon tart relieved
Lemon tart relieved with flavor of citrus fruits!!!!
home sauce
Home sauce? They mean homemade.

This is not a fail safe measure. Even for establishments without personal translators, it takes minimal effort to get the job done online. (Sometimes with comic results; however, bad translations don’t mean bad food–they mean bad translators.) So on the one hand, let’s give restaurants credit for being welcoming to tourists by providing translations, since it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

menu chinese russian
English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian? Looks like not everything translates.

On the other hand, the tough judges aren’t the tourists but the locals. You want to eat where they do. And if a restaurant is good enough, it will have so much business with the locals that it won’t need the tourists. This is the ideal restaurant. Reservation cards on tables are one hint that a place is good. Locals don’t walk in; they reserve.

Let’s say you’re walking around, looking for a place to eat. How can you tell whether a restaurant will be satisfying? One tip: look for chalk.

l'endroitPre-printed menus, like translations in many languages, aren’t a huge effort or expense anymore. But they can (as in sometimes) indicate that the menu doesn’t change with seasons. And that the menu is too big. There’s a risk they’re out of this and that, especially if you’re not traveling in high season, or you’re going to be served pre-cooked or industrial stuff, not freshly homemade.

Instead, look for a chalkboard with the day’s menu written in chalk. That means it changes, possibly daily.

felix
It takes practice to decipher French handwriting style.

A small menu means the chef pays attention to each dish and each ingredient.

Another key to your dining satisfaction is to know that an entrée is a starter/appetizer (not the main course). Entrée means entry, after all. The main dish may be called a plat (plate, or dish) or else you’ll just see viandes/poissons (meats/fish) in a separate category. I have noticed more vegetarian choices lately, but that’s a new trend. Even salads tend to have meat. Salade gourmande usually includes foie gras, gizzards and slices of dried duck breast. Just so you know. Usually these kinds of big salads are considered a meal and aren’t in any “prix fixe” or set-price menu. A “salade composée” is just a lot of ingredients laid on a bed of lettuce, not tossed. The French are not big on tossing. They like each item to be distinct. Just so you aren’t surprised.

small menu 2
*For the day’s special, see the blackboard.

Often, the menu will have separate dishes in their separate categories–five or six starters, then five or six main courses–and then a variety of “menu” choices, where you can get a good deal. It might be choose among entrées, plats, desserts for one price. Or it could be entrée + plat or plat + dessert for one price, and entrée + plat + dessert for another price.

le 104Cheese, at least a nice wedge or round with a bit of bread, usually is included in a menu. Sometimes also a small pitcher of wine, especially at lunch.

Seriously. This IS France!

On to the waiters. They are professionals. The tension is not really about them and their alleged rudeness but about diners’ expectations. What French diners expect from waiters is not at all what Americans expect.

The French waiter is not supposed to be your friend. He (and it very often is a man) is supposed to serve you. This is not rude; he’s supposed to leave you alone. He will not tell you his name; he may describe the day’s specials, but not to the extent that is fashionable in the U.S. He won’t stop by to see whether everything is OK.

Freaks
Clearly this menu changes often.

But if your water pitcher is low, it probably will be whisked off the table and refilled without you asking. If you drop your napkin, a new one will appear next to your plate as if by magic. The French waiter is not a participant in your meal but an invisible guardian angel ensuring that your meal goes flawlessly.

This continues right up to the end. Because in France, especially outside big cities like Paris, your table is yours and yours only for the entire evening. You can reserve for 8, but if you show up at 7:45, they won’t say it isn’t ready yet. If you show up at 8:30, you won’t be scolded and then rushed through your meal, because another party is scheduled to take over the table at 10.

artichaut 3 languages
In English and Spanish, too. The steak tartare with Thai seasonings is delicious, BTW.

Since the French love to linger at the table, there will be a pause between courses. This is expected; the service isn’t slow because the French don’t want their dishes to arrive one right after the other. When diners finish eating, their plates stay on the table until everybody in their party has finished, so that the slow eaters don’t feel pressure to rush. And, if they don’t see anything awry at your table, the waiters won’t come unless called. This is because you have every right to stay at the table and yak with your friends until the restaurant closes, without being pressured to continue to order drinks or coffees or whatever. So when you do want to leave and pay, you have to get their attention. The easiest way is to start to leave; they’ll come quickly with the check.

I have been to restaurants in France with visitors, and they have judged the service as bad, because it didn’t meet their American expectations: the waiter didn’t chat, the waiter ignored the table (though we never needed him), dirty dishes weren’t whisked away upon the last bite, the check took forever to arrive.

carnot 2The other thing is if you order something that’s not “done.” Two possibilities might ensue: First, in France and much of Europe, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is sadly mistaken (not the same as wrong). Take the menu above; the last item is veal sweetbreads with a morel cream sauce and risotto. But the waiter might have seen several non-francophone diners confronted with ris when they were expecting riz, having misread the menu. And he might try to see whether you know that ris isn’t rice, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same way as riz. And you might easily take it as the waiter being rude.

Or the waiter just can’t comprehend what you want. On a family trip to Italy years ago, my brothers routinely ordered coffee with their meals. Coffee lovers, they couldn’t wait to taste a vaunted Italian venti. The waiters would nod, “sì, sì, signore,” but the coffee wouldn’t come, despite frequent pleas by my brothers. The waiters would reply something in Italian that probably meant “we didn’t forget your coffee.” Eventually, the toddlers in the group had enough of sitting still and we would rush to get the check and leave before tantrums began. And my brothers never got their coffee. Because in Italy, nobody drinks coffee with dinner; it’s for after dessert. (They finally went to a café expressly to have an espresso. “There was a little cup, about the size of a thimble,” one brother recounted. “The bottom of it was barely covered with some brown foam. But I tell, you, it was enough!”)

encornetsWhen we lived in New York, the Carnivore suffered grievously every time we went out to eat. It was the same problem of clashing expectations, but in reverse. Why are these waiters telling us their names? Look, here they come again! Can’t they leave us in peace? Why do they bring the main dish so quickly? They don’t give us a minute to breathe! They give us the check before we’ve even had coffee!

He would send the main course back and tell them to wait until he had finished with the appetizer (or worse, the aperitif). And he would completely lose it when we would be told we needed to finish up and get out because the next party was waiting for our table. Once, he hadn’t finished the appetizer when the main course arrived, and the waitress grabbed the appetizer plate as he was still stabbing food with his fork. He pointed out that he hadn’t finished, so she just dumped the remaining food onto the main course dish.

But what do you expect? In New York, waiters are actors or singers or some flavor of Future-Successes for whom waiting tables is unworthy of their Greatness. They play the obsequious role only up to a point, then rebel as soon as it looks like they might not get a maximum tip. In France, waiting tables is an honorable métier, paid a living wage (with health coverage and retirement, of course), worth doing for an entire career.

menu citeAlso, forget about the 20% tips over here. Usually service is included, but one is polite to leave a little extra–10% would be generous.

So those French waiters aren’t ignoring you. They will know if you drop your fork before it even hits the floor and will slip you a new one before you think to ask. Their job is to work magically, without you noticing. They aren’t being slow or inefficient; they are letting you take your time.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Bon appétit!

Pont du Gard

pdg-closerThe Pont du Gard is everything and more. Although it isn’t a bridge (pont) at all, but an aqueduct built by the Romans to carry water to the city of Nîmes from a spring near Uzès.

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View from the belvedere

The Romans turned something practical into a work of art that has lasted for nearly 2,000 years, even if long ago it stopped channeling water in the 6th century. In fact, it had an afterlife as a tollgate in the Middle Ages, and from the 1700s until it became a museum, it was a road bridge.

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The path toward the pont
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You can just make out the three rows of arches

The pont has three levels of arches–making it the highest Roman structure–across 360 meters (almost 1,200 feet), to cross the Gardon River. The pont is part of an aqueduct system that’s 50 kilometers (31 miles) long and is so perfectly calculated that water flows only thanks to gravity the entire way, even though it descends only 12 meters over its entire length. How do you say “hydraulic engineer” in Latin?

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The stones sticking out served as ladders.
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When this was built, there was no reassuring flat platform around. I would not have wanted to work on this project.

The entire system took 10 to 15 years to build, and the pont itself took less than five (and there are 19 other, smaller bridges). History doesn’t tell us whether there were cost overruns, but it seems there weren’t many delays, especially for something so huge built by hand. How do you say “project manager” in Latin?

archNîmes at the time was a booming city, and the local spring wasn’t able to keep up with its fast-growing population. The Romans were picky about where they got their water–they liked to go to the source (pun intended), in this case the spring, or group of springs connected to an underground aquifer, called the Fountain of Eure, near Uzès. That they went so far and actually thought it would be a good idea to carry the water all the way to Nîmes is pretty amazing. How do you say “geological engineer” in Latin?

river-long-viewThe setting is gorgeous. Driving through rolling hills, you get to the gorge carved into the soft sandstone hills by the river. The Pont du Gard is even more amazing for having withstood 19 centuries of fast and furious rain-swelled river without damage.

When we visited, last fall, the river was low and slow, with quite a few bathers.

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The spot in the upper left is a swimmer.

Thick forest covers the hills. You can hike up to a belvedere, or lookout, above the pont. The path is steep and rough–natural–and not suitable for strollers or canes. However, the parking lots are reasonably near the entrance (there’s one on each bank of the river) and the lanes to the bridge are smooth and mostly flat; there’s a wide walkway alongside the bridge, too. Lots of bikes were there (good and bad–too many expected the throngs of pedestrians to jump out of their way).

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Above, some awesomely old olive trees. Below, the plaque says: “This aqueduct built by the Romans to conduct to Nîmes the waters of the Fontaine of Eure repared by the states of Languedoc in 1702 was consolidated and restored in 1855 by the orders of the Emperor Napoleon III and by the care of the minister of state”…then the name of the architects, which I can’t quite make out except of Ch. Laisne.

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And of course, graffiti is nothing new:

graffiti-1843

When the euro notes were designed, the idea was to use images of architectural elements common across Europe without copying any single structure. The idea was unity and common culture, beyond historical personalities or past conflicts. But the back of the €5 note looks suspiciously familiar.

banknote5euroThe Pont du Gard is about a two-hour drive from Carcassonne.

Before/After: The Bedroom

The bedroom of the front apartment underwent a major transformation. For one thing, it had been chopped into two bedrooms, and we turned it back into one. You can relive the demolition here.

Bedroom wall gone huge room
Notice how the little wall had gone right up around the moldings!

It wasn’t easy–all the debris had to be carried out bucket by bucket.

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After

We ended up with a space that’s 35 square meters–more than 375 square feet. For a bedroom. It’s almost a ballroom.

The historic preservation folks asked us to keep the jib door, but it’s sealed, with sound insulation and shelves on the other side. The door to the right used to lead to a hallway, which opened to the space with the furnace and hot-water heater, and the toilet was off of that. We closed it off and put a toilet in the hallway.

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Before: a hall
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After: a powder room.

The view to the street shows how each former room had a window. Sorry about the backlight.

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Before
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After. The door on the left is the bathroom.

I’ve made pale gray slipcovers for the chairs. The fabric is lovely soft velvet with a tone-on-tone paisley pattern.

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That door goes to the living room.

The bigger space is more suited to the gorgeous fireplace.

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A closeup of the boiserie
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Detail on the mantel
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The kneeler found a home

The bed is full of special details. For one thing, we went with a queen-size organic mattress made in Mazamet. So it is a bit bigger than the antique headboard.

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The sconces were another antique find.

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Even the sheets are antique. What young bride-to-be embroidered them for her trousseau? And then put them away, because they are like new.

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Whenever possible, we chose Made in France.

made-in-france

We look forward to welcoming visitors with an authentic French experience in an amazing setting.

Our apartments can be found on Abritel/Homeaway/VRBO: the front here and the back here or on AirBnb, with the front apartment here and the back here.

Charging Bulls

two-bullsThe south of France has a long tradition of bull fighting, with ferias taking place in several cities and villages from spring to fall.

Azille, a village of just over 1,000 inhabitants about 35 kilometers from Carcassonne, holds a feria around the May 1 holiday–this year it’s scheduled for April 30-May 1–with a second one planned for July 21-23.

07-april-12-55Some of the ferias turn into drunken bacchanals as evening arrives. The machismo and surplus of testosterone seems to bring out the worst in young men still high on having chased bulls in the morning. Arles, Bézier and Nîmes all hold huge ferias in their Roman arenas.

calmer-with-bullsBut Azille’s feria is more of a family affair, with lots of rides and games for small children. And the village is very pretty and worth a visit on its own.

07-april-12-57The big excitement, besides the bullfights themselves (and I can’t bring myself to see those), is the running of the bulls from one end of town over to the stadium where the bullfights are held.

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A game that involves tossing a steel pétanque ball onto an egg (see it in the middle of the stump?). The prize is one of the bottles lined up on the sidelines.

The crowd mills between stands for food, drink and games, the smell of grilled meat wafting through the air. Singers and flamenco dancers entertain from a side stage.

surroundng-bullThe excitement builds as people are shooed from the main street to take cover behind large grills hooked together on either side. You don’t want to be too close to the grill, because the bars are wide enough for a horn to pass through. Anyway, most people have climbed up on the tables in order to see.

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See them trying to hide in the doorway? The bull ran straight into that blue glass window moments later. Didn’t get inside, but the window was shattered.

A few foolhardy boys and men older boys remain inside the barred zone, waiting to prove their masculinity by pulling a bull’s tail.

kid-touching-bullA  band of riders on horseback wait for each bull to be released from a truck. The poor animal usually comes out rather dazed, a condition only exacerbated by the yelling crowds on either side. There’s only one place to go–down the big empty street, and so off it goes, pell-mell.

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Coming back for the next one.

The horses are guided around the bull to keep it on track. The bull often turns tail, sending the young males fleeing for cover. It would be boring if the bulls simply trotted down to the stadium, right?

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Trying to make a getaway by heading back to the truck.

As each bull is delivered to the arena to await in ignorant bliss the corrida later that day, the horses head back for the next release. They really are the stars of the show, with their utter calm in the midst of chaos.

coming-toward-usLast fall, a court in Spain overturned a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region of Spain, just over the border from France. Anti-corrida petitions and graffiti spring up regularly in France, but the custom still holds.

 

Before/After: Kitchen

kitchen-straight-afterAnother reveal in the front apartment: the kitchen.

The apartment is really half of a gigantic apartment that was very impractical–it was a maze and each room could be accessed only by passing through another room. So one had to pass through bedrooms in order to get to the bathroom. Not great if the person in that bedroom wants to sleep.

We split the apartment into two still-large apartments (about 80 square meters or 860 square feet each). But that meant we had to create a kitchen for the front apartment. Our options were limited by historic preservation rules.

The only place to put it was in the entry. We removed a closet and closed off the door to the other apartment. We discovered that the flimsy 3-cm wall of the closet was supporting the “harnais” above. That required bringing in a beam to hold it up.

 

kitchen-straight-before
Before, taken from the same spot as the top photo. That far door is now closed off, the closet on the right is gone and a kitchen is in.

 

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After…the door to the harnais, where horses’ harnesses once were kept, had been hidden by wallpaper.

The original tomettes had been covered with vinyl.

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The horror!
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Unadulturated tomettes in the closet. Would they be like that under the vinyl? YES!

We loved this bookcase and decided to use it for open shelving to make it easier for renters to find what they need.

entry-bookcase
After
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Before
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Before…toward the living room.
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After

The kitchen is small but efficient. The two windows face the stairwell, which is lit by a skylight. To keep the space from feeling dark, we installed three sconces in the kitchen, in addition to the two in the enty and the overhead pendant light.

The apartment is now listed on AirBnB, HomeAway/Abritel and VBRO.

entry-straight-before
Before…facing the opposite direction (you can see the “hallway” next to the closet in the reflection of the mirror). Check out the locks! (The tall door had warped.)

 

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After…a silk carpet on restored tomettes. The locks replaced by a three-point system and the door fixed.
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Lots of crystal pampilles on the new sconces.