Tips for Winter Travel in France

P1090387Travel in winter can be challenging, although off-season can be deeply satisfying–no crowds, cheaper prices, you can really experience the local lifestyle. All it takes is being prepared for the whims of the weather.

Depending on where you’re from, the temperatures might feel downright balmy. According to the site Où et Quand (Where and When), Paris has an average January high of 6 Celsius (43 Fahrenheit) and low of 3 C (37 F), and rain an average of 13 days, or 40% of the time. (For reference, London is nearly identical, with two more days of rain.) Down here in Carcassonne, it’s warmer–average high of 9 C (48 F) and low of 4 C (39 F), with 15 days of rain. However, the sun often comes out even on rainy days (we have 35 more hours of sunshine than Paris). On Saturday’s drive to the market, I needed the windshield wipers and my sunglasses at the same time.

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Climate for Paris, above, and for Carcassonne, below

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 4.11.06 PMThis year, though, we’ve had one tempête (storm) after another. Carmen, David, Eleanor, and a series of nameless storms that have brought unusually warm temperatures, plentiful rain and merciless winds across France and Europe. We went from T-shirt weather (in January!) to four days of intermittent downpours and wicked wind. As I started to write this, the wind had calmed, the sun was out, and it was 9 C (48 F) at 8 a.m. Later, with it was 17 C (62.6 F).  An absolutely glorious day.

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Our thermostat: 20 C inside, 17 C outside on Jan. 23.

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 1.29.01 PMBut when you’ve made your reservations six months earlier, you don’t know whether you’re arriving for the week of unseasonably mild weather or the week of storms. My advice:

Pack layers. Duh. But not just one layer; if you have three sweaters, can you wear them all at once? It can mean the difference between enjoying your trip or being miserable during a cold snap. Wear them together in Paris and separately in Carcassonne.

Have a hood. While a knit cap is good for covering your ears and keeping warm (and not blowing off in the wind), this winter you wouldn’t have needed it (not a problem–a knit cap doesn’t take much space). But what about the rain? A very chic friend of mine abhors umbrellas, and it’s true that it’s a pain to cart one around. She chose coats with hoods that she could just pop up as needed. Water-resistant fabric is even better. Hoods don’t blow off, don’t need to be carried around, don’t mess your hair as much as a hat and are always there when you need them.

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“Anti-rain.”

Or get one of those little fold-up rain ponchos. Yes, you will look like a tourist. Like a smart tourist, whose trip (not to mention health, coat and bag) wasn’t ruined by some water.

Treat your shoes with waterproofing products before you leave. If you didn’t do this, never fear: they sell the stuff at any shoe store or supermarket here. We have all the mod cons. The downside of doing it during your trip is that it will stink up your room and you have to let it soak in and dry well before wearing the shoes. Plan ahead!

Make sure your bag is waterproof, too. Or have a waterproof pouch for your electronics.

Bring a hat and gloves. They take no space in your bag and make a huge difference to keeping you warm.

Pack a swimsuit. See below.

Think about ways to get out of the weather. My favorite thing to do when traveling is flâner: wandering around, taking in the architecture, shop windows, and above all the people. This is less fun in a storm. Here are some alternatives:

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The fine arts museum in Carcassonne.

Museums. It may be time to check out some of the more obscure options.

Paris museums here. Carcassonne museums here.

Cafés. You can sit all day with a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. Classic.

Shopping. Duck out of the rain and into some shops, including some that you might have passed by. French shopkeepers often have very clever goods that you never would have thought of. And as for clothes shops, they’re an alternative to people-watching.

Malls, aka centres commercials or galeries. They are mostly in the International Ugly style, but you can be oblivious to the weather. Often they’re anchored by a hypermarket–like a Wal-Mart with groceries and everything else. This can be interesting as a sociological exercise–I am not being sarcastic. The products are different! Most are on the outskirts of towns and require taking a car, bus or taxi to get to.

Malls in Paris here. Carcassonne is more or less surrounded by centres commercials on its periphery: Pont Rouge, LeClerc, Salvaza, Cité 2.

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A bookstore…this is a really good one,too.
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A médiathèque.

Hit the books. FYI, a librarie is a bookstore and a bibliothèque is a library and a médiathèque has other media besides just books. Either way, you can browse for free, even though you can’t check anything out. Bibliothèques are better for people-watching (the French love books), but bookstores offer the possibility of finding a good souvenir to take home. Bibliothèques also host events–I went to a ballet presentation once.

Paris bibliothèques here. Carcassonne médiathèques here.P1090376Get a haircut. This was one of my go-to options on my regular trips to Paris. I would get sick of walking and being cold, and you can only drink so much coffee, so I would find a hair salon that took walk-ins (look for a sign that says sans RDV–without rendez-vous, or appointment). I never went to the same place twice and never got a bad cut. It was delicious, too, to have a nice, warm, shampoo. Nervous? Just get a shampoo and blow-out (shampooing et brushing–sounds like shawm-pwan, kind of) or ask for a trim–une coupe d’entretien. Other possibilities: mani-pedi, massage or hammam (you’ll need a swimsuit for that).

The hammam at the Paris Mosque here. It’s amazing. Separate days for men and women.

Spas and hammams in Carcassonne here.

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Chapelle Notre Dame de la Santé, finished in 1697, next to a hospital for the plague.

Go to church. The Catholic church for centuries had a tighter hold over daily life in France than any king. It was a main sponsor of the arts, too. Some churches have museum-quality paintings and sculptures. The stained-glass windows are full of stories, and the architectural details are fascinating, if you take the time. Some churches have crypts or areas that have been excavated for archaeological research. If you’re lucky, a choir or organist will be practicing while you’re there. Sometimes churches also host concerts, especially in the evenings. The local tourism office can give you details.

Free concerts in Paris here and here.

In Carcassonne, there’s often a choral group singing at the Basilique Saint-Nazaire in la Cité. And the Chapelle des Jesuits in the Bastide, with exceptional acoustics, has concerts on Thursdays, starting at 8:30 p.m.

Take a class. Tourism offices are good resources for one-off class options. I used to do Argentine tango, but you have to make sure the class takes walk-ins. Yoga and Pilates are easy to find. Cooking is another possibility, but you might have to arrange that at least a day in advance. Classes are also a good way to expand your French vocabulary–usually whatever is being taught is also being demonstrated, so even if your French is basic you can understand.

Paris dance lessons here.

A wide variety of activities in and around Carcassonne here.

Go swimming. If there’s no indoor pool at your hotel, never fear. There are plenty of public pools, almost always indoors. You will be required to wear a swimming cap, and baggy swim trunks aren’t allowed (hence the famous Speedo reputation).P1090386And, of course taste wine. You can find a tour, go to a wine bar (Carcassonne has a large choice) or just visit a wine shop if you can’t get to individual wineries; many offer tastings at reasonable rates.

We’ll do this again for spring and summer!

 

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Umoja

kilimanjaroThe group “By Invitation Only” has chosen Unity for today’s theme. I had planned to write about a few of the many successes of the European Union, but something came up that struck near to my heart. So bear with me.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeWhen my kid was in preschool, the extraordinary teacher, Mme. L., decided to structure the year as a trip around the world. All the lessons—learning the alphabet, colors, counting—would relate to different countries. Some parents thought it was too much for four-year-olds to learn geography and concepts about other cultures when they should be getting drilled on writing S and E in the correct direction. Maybe even learning how to add. But Mme. L. persisted.

The children made “passports.” They “visited” China, India, Mexico, Senegal and the U.S., and they also talked about other countries. They learned songs, were read stories and ate food from those countries. They learned phrases in other languages. They made musical instruments and miniature houses of the countries’ style.

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Real huts, in the foreground.

One day my kid came home with red clay all over. “We made huts today,” my kid explained, going on to describe how the clay walls kept the interiors cool in the warm climate. (BTW, a teacher friend informed me that young kids should always come home from school dirty, as it shows they did things and didn’t just sit like zombies at a desk.)

Mme. L. opened the world to these kids right at the moment when they were curious and not yet inculcated with negative stereotypes. Our village isn’t exactly diverse. Carcassonne is a little better, but it’s a sleepy town with no industry and limited economic opportunities.

One day, I was at a shopping center with my kid when a black man wearing a colorful, beautifully embellished robe walked by. My kid was curious: Which country do you think he’s from? Do you think he likes the weather? The food? Do you think he misses his country?

I was most struck by the fact that my kid’s reaction was not fear or rejection of someone different but interest. Also that my kid knew, at age four, that Africa was a continent with many countries, and that in those countries live individuals who might eat different food or live in different kinds of houses, but who are basically the same as us.

Another time, my kid, surveying the bounty of toys on the bedroom floor, declared gravely, “I am spoiled rotten. Some kids don’t even have one toy.”

Not everybody is lucky enough to have had a preschool teacher like Mme. L.

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Jacaranda trees in bloom in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
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Downtown Nairobi is much fancier than in this “archive” shot.

The title of this post is “Umoja,” which is “unity” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya and of Tanzania.

I have not been to all 54 countries in Africa, but I have visited five and lived in one. They were all beautiful, but beyond the natural beauty what I loved most was the beauty of the people, the culture. How many people have gone on safari and swooned over the animals while shunning the people?

I landed in Kenya in October 1985, as the drought that ravaged Ethiopia was still going strong. That was the famine that killed a million people and that inspired Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World,” which you can listen to here, and the lyrics are here. It’s time to read them again.

I saw many things in Kenya. Lions so close I could hear them crack the bones of the wildebeest they were feeding on. Giraffes grazing with cows. Majestic mountains (the top photo is of the Kibo peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in Tanzania, right on the border). Exotic flowers. Scan 18Scan 16I saw incredibly hard-working people, many of whom did back-breaking labor for all 12 hours of sunlight. I saw very devout Christians who didn’t just attend church every Sunday in their best clothes but who walked the walk, taking care of each other though they themselves had so little. I saw very devout Muslims unloading sacks of cement at the port in hot and sticky Lamu, sweating profusely but not drinking a drop because it was Ramadan. I saw a culture where children were revered. Where education was paramount, worth every sacrifice.

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My house. I had the right half. It was nice. Except for the bats. And the fist-size spiders.
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The view from my porch. I wish you could also smell it. Delicious.

I also saw starving children, especially in the north, their empty stomachs distended, their hair orange from malnutrition, their energy too sapped to swat away flies from their faces. I saw their parents, in no better shape, working desperately to save them.

Once, when leaving “Hoggers,” a hamburger joint in Nairobi so devoted to America that it played tapes of a U.S. radio station, complete with the D.J.’s banter and weather and traffic reports between songs, I saw a young man, barely clothed, filthy, ravaging through the trash in the alley outside Hoggers, and stuffing jettisoned food into his mouth. That image will never leave me.

On a trip back many years later, taking the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I was booked into a sleeping car with two other women, both Kenyans. They were businesswomen; we were all about the same age, and we drank Tusker beer and talked about life. At that time, I was just visiting from New York; their lives and mine differed only in the details; the vast majority of our experiences were the same to an extent that startled me. Life is life. Around the world.

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Editor, holding her baby daughter, in front of her house. Her husband is in white. Notice how neatly pressed his suit is–washed by hand and ironed with a coal iron. That’s her mother in the blue sweater. Notice the flower planted in front. The dirt is swept clean. 

Every trip, I visited a former student. Her Christian name was Editor, which her mother, who didn’t speak English, had thought was pretty. Editor was always my favorite. Not my best student, but hard-working and honest and ambitious. She had a coffee and tea farm not far from where she’d grown up. Married, with two kids. She named her daughter after me.

Editor introduced me to her “big sister,” who wasn’t a blood relative at all but a mentor. In an area with no banks, women formed savings clubs, pooling their money and giving the pool to one member. The member would repay it and the pool would go to the next member. Often they would use it to buy a cow, which was not just a kind of savings account but which provided milk that could be consumed and sold, and each year would produce a calf, which also could be sold. Dividends, basically. New women would be brought in, sponsored by established members who were on the hook for their recruits’ repayment. As a result, the older women kept close tabs on their mentorees, helping them work through difficulties.

The “sister” also had two kids. She had a farm, as everybody did or tried to, because growing your own food means you won’t go hungry, whatever else may happen. She also had a job, and so did her husband, so they not only had a car but their house was made of bricks and had electricity and a TV. I lived for two years without electricity and I can attest that having it or not doesn’t make one a good or bad person, but it most certainly makes a person more efficient. The same with running water.

Over dinner, we talked and talked, and I kept thinking that they would have fit right in with my friends in my Midwestern hometown.

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Some of my students in front of a classroom.

My school had about 450 kids. No electricity. No running water—they had to go to a stream at the foot of the hill to get it by the bucket (not easy because it wasn’t very deep). No glass in the windows. About 40 kids per class. Three kids sitting on two chairs at one desk with one book (yes, the poor middle kid had to straddle two chairs, but had the best view of the book). You could hear a pin drop in class–they were there to learn. It was a boarding school. They got up at 6, dressed into their uniforms, cleaned the classrooms (sweeping, then mopping not with mops but with buckets of water wiped up with big rags, on their hands and knees), studied, had breakfast (always a millet/sorghum porridge called uji). Then class. Lunch and dinner were always githeri, a maize-and-bean soup with vegetables, served with ugali (polenta).  they got a little meat stew with potatoes or more ugali at lunch on Sundays. They had a little free time after school, spent doing sports or clubs like drama, and then studied again after dinner. There was one kerosene pressure lamp per classroom, and they arrayed their desks for a sliver of light.

I loved them. Even the naughty ones. Especially the good ones. They had many questions about the U.S. They thought it was hilarious that I would go jogging, bizarre that my hair was smooth and my feet soft and that it was crazy that there were people who did so little physical work and who had so much to eat that they had to exercise or they would be fat.

I had a bottle of fresh milk delivered every morning, still warm from the cow, with cream at the top. I had to use it all each day because I didn’t have a refrigerator (that electricity thing again). One day, next to my milk were a pair of flipflops I’d thrown away when the thong ripped a hole in the sole, so they wouldn’t stay on any more. They had been repaired, by hand, by the young man who delivered my milk. Such good flipflops shouldn’t be tossed because of such a small problem.

We’re spoiled rotten.

We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have such abundance that we are choking the planet with our waste. We are terrible stewards but we have the arrogance to tell everyone what to do.

With a little humility, we can see that we’re all in this life game together.

We are the world.

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My little neighbor, Muriithi, who would sit in front of my door until I opened it to get my milk, then would leap up to dance and sing my name. His life is worth as much as anyone’s.

You can find the other contributions to “By Invitation Only” at Daily Plate of Crazy. Please read them all–very different approaches to the same topic.

Four-star rental again!

kitchen fireplaceWe don’t do things by half measures. We have two vacation rental apartments, and both have earned four-star ratings. We featured la Suite Barbès on Tuesday. Today is the turn of l’Ancienne Tannerie. On AirBnB, you can find la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here.

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Mostly antiques. The hand-carved coffee table is from Lamu, Kenya. Not antique, but it fits in.
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Look at that marble mantle!

Logo 4 étoiles 2017The star rating was given by the ministry for tourism’s department for furnished tourism rentals.

The apartment’s name comes from the fact that, back in medieval times, the inner courtyard was a tannery. The tiny alley behind the building is called ruelle des Tanneurs–Tanners’ Lane. Our apartments are in the “new” town of Carcassonne, which was built around 1260 under the orders of King Louis IX, aka St. Louis, to house the refugees expelled from la Cité after the Albigensian Crusade of 1209. Our building, however, must have replaced an older one (that likely burned down–fires were a big problem), because the high ceilings (13 feet) and large windows are in later architecture.

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View from the living room (and kitchen, and small bedroom, and bathroom).

cour toward doorBTW, here’s a list of the residents in our building in 1624. You can see several were tanners, well into the Renaissance. (There’s also a captain, “called Captain Galaton of Pezens,” although Carcassonne isn’t on the coast.)

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The floor plan is the very definition of “n’importe quoi.”

As with the other apartment, we preserved the historical details while adding modern conveniences (sauna, anyone?). And, to make sure visitors know they’re in France, it’s furnished with locally sourced antiques. Like this marvelous crystal chandelier that we drove to a little village to the south of here to buy.

living fireplaceWe kept the old piano with ivory keys. I love the sconces on it, though I imagine that one would have had to play carefully if candles were burning.

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The stereo was a criteria for the stars.

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Many old books!

What’s new: all the wiring, double-paned windows, plumbing…. plus the original terra-cotta tomettes were cleaned and treated.

The apartment sleeps up to five. There’s a spacious bedroom, a small bedroom, and a sofabed.bedroom 1

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The crazy, lop-sided niche in the bedroom.
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A bedroom for one, au cas où.
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The sofa opens to a double bed.

The kitchen is my favorite room. The fireplace is big enough to stand in. I love having the table in the middle.kitchen to fridgekitchen lightkitchen to stove

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First, note the thickness of the walls. Talk about insulated. Second, note the clock and the painting….

Among the paintings we found was one of the kitchen. It shows the clock and the fireplace.clock paintingAnother painting we found in the apartment depicts Square Gambetta, which is two blocks away, before World War II. During the war, German troops destroyed the pool and its fountain, pictured.gambetta paintingThe square was redone a few years ago for construction of an underground parking garage. First, it was completely covered with gravel, and everybody hated it. So it was done over, with squares of formal gardens, a small restaurant, the old carousel and a fountain where kids can play in the water in summer. The same allée of plane trees still stands.

Visitors always ooh and ahh over the bathroom. It has a giant glass shower that doesn’t photograph well at all, being clear. The sauna always brings smiles, too.bathroombathroom mirror

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Choice of overhead rainfall or handheld shower. The little niche was there originally. Check out the before posts!

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The sauna. Such an indulgence.
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The WC is separate.

It has been such a pleasure to hunt for pretty furnishings and accessories that establish an ambience of French tradition and authenticity. And it has been an even greater pleasure to meet people who appreciate it all as much as we do.mantel decorationA quick reminder of the main draw of Carcassonne, the majestic Cité, just a few minutes’ walk away from the apartments:la cite from bridgela cite peekla cite sunsetla cite trivalleWe’d love to welcome you and your friends!

Four Stars at la Suite Barbès

living to mirrorOur vacation rental apartments in Carcassonne received four stars in an official inspection recently.

Logo 4 étoiles 2017We are doing everything strictly by the rules, from the renovation to the rental, and are focusing on the highest quality. The ministry for tourism’s department for furnished tourism rentals set the criteria.

We’re very pleased with the results. Five stars weren’t possible—no possibility of a swimming pool in an apartment in the center of town, nor, for a historically classified building could we have an elevator or air conditioning. The renovation was under the supervision of the Bâtiments de France–our apartment is historically classed not just for the façade but also the interior.

Our apartments are listed on AirBnB, with la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here. Let’s take a look again at la Suite Barbès; the next post will look at l’Ancienne Tannerie.

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A little reminder of the local draw: la Cité of Carcassonne, shown here at sunset recently, just a short walk from the apartments.

Not to repeat previous posts too much, this one will zoom in on a few favorite details. You can find other posts with pictures and stories about the apartments and their renovation via the tab Our Vacation Apartments above. The post about being featured on Desire to Inspire shows broader shots of the rooms.

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A detail of one of the antique gilded mirrors. The previous owner included them in the sale because they were too perfectly matched to the motives (a basket of flowers on this one) to separate them.
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Full view of the mirror.

living to fireplaceliving to paintingsEach painting has a story.painting citeWe bought this watercolor at the Toques et Clocher event in Cépie. The painter looked familiar–it turned out we had met at a dinner party some months before, plus she’s the sister of the apartment’s neighbor. Is that karma or what?

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The old bridge in Carcassonne.

We found the other three paintings in a storage closet in the apartment. They all feature local scenes. You’ll see almost the exact shot of the one below in this post about the Canal du Midi (the photo captioned “Black Mountains in the background).

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The Canal du Midi.
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The Aude River.

The stars are based on a long list of criteria, including the quality of furnishings and decor, modern conveniences like washing machine and hair dryer plus all the usuals in the kitchen, how well the kitchen is stocked with everything needed to prepare meals, the space, etc.

 

La Suite Barbès has a large living room and a crazy big bedroom (35 square meters, or 375 square feet), plus two marble fireplaces, and elaborate moldings. The furniture is almost entirely antiques sourced from local brocantes or bought from the previous owner.

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Queen-size mattress and antique embroidered sheets, which, considering they predate cotton growing, are organic.
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A sweet engraving found at an antique shop.

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This painting is by my mother. I always thought it was gigantic–it’s almost 3 feet tall–but it looks tiny in this room.
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Armchairs face the bed; the bathroom has a washing machine.
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I love this Venetian mirror. The silver sconces were tough to find (usually they’re gold-colored).

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The bedroom fireplace. A chandelier in every room.
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This is the chandelier in the living room. It’s enormous–before we put it up, it was on the floor and came up to my waist. With real crystals.
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The roly-poly cherub is worthy of a smile.
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This dining set has been in this spot for generations.
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The table has four different animals at its base. This is a sanglier, or boar.
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The bedroom and living room each have a small balcony.
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The kitchen has an induction stovetop. Induction is wonderful–what we have at home.
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Cannisters with coffee, tea…

We have enjoyed meeting the people from all over the world who stay in our apartment. They like the décor–you know you’re in France. They also like the location, just a block from the central square, so it’s close but without the noise. La Cité is about a 10-minute walk away, making it easy to get to without actually staying all the time in the touristy area. The Canal du Midi is also about a 10-minute walk away, as is the train station.

We hope to welcome you and/or your friends in 2018!

 

 

Roadside Attractions et Bonne Année

P1090318One of the things that never fails to astonish me in France is driving along the autoroute–mostly just as soul-sapping as the U.S. Interstate–and then spotting a château, or at least the fairytale towers of one, in the distance.

Despite nearly two decades in Europe, my jaw still drops every time. The A61 autoroute has a great lookout point for admiring la Cité of Carcassonne, too.P1090320I apologize for the spottiness of posts over the holidays; I had prepared photos so I could write while we were visiting the Carnivore’s family, and then I went and paid attention to the people in front of me instead of to my screen. It was all very nice, with obscene amounts of rich food. I’ll share some highlights later.

We drove across France through the last dregs of Storm Carmen, although the rain didn’t get ugly until we turned east. At times, through Dordogne, it was so foggy we could barely see the taillights of the car ahead of us. Roadside broom bushes were already covered with yellow flowers because of the unseasonable warmth. It was 16 degrees Celsius (61 Fahrenheit) at 7 this morning. On Jan. 3!!!!

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And there were others that didn’t turn out.

At this time of the year, it’s customary to bestow best wishes on one’s friends and family. Usually Jan. 1 is the day the young pay visits to their elders, although at a certain age that gets tricky. One relative was juggling visits from grown children with visits to some aged aunts. Who is “elder” is a moving target.

One can extend wishes throughout the month of January, and cartes de voeux, or “best wishes” cards, are as big if not bigger than Christmas cards. In person, everyone recites the same formula, like a national mantra for good luck: “Meilleurs voeux, et surtout la santé!” or “best wishes, and above all good health!” And they distribute two or three or four kisses then look you straight in the eye while insisting on the good health part. Because not everybody in the world is cynical; plenty of people–even most, I’d bet–have good hearts and sincerely care.

So if you were here, I would take you by the shoulders and distribute, left/right/left, la bise, and then hold your hand in mine and tell you, sincerely, that I wish you all the best for 2018, and, above all, good health. You’ll have to make do with the virtual version.

 

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.

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