Too Little, Too Much

21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 239We have had a taste of the old days lately. No Internet, no telephone, only rarely mobile service. The first day or two the lights kept going out. But at least we had lights, and potable water. And we were above all grateful for what we didn’t have: water and mud in our house.

We have watched news reports of hurricane after hurricane hitting the U.S. What is strange is to have one hit us here, in the south of France, not even near the ocean, though not all that far from the Mediterranean.

Already lower.
Same spot before the rain. The “river” went up to a duck’s knees.
And the river bed was a place to play.

We were spared the worst of the winds. Tropical Storm Leslie marched over Portugal where it was the biggest to hit since 1842. It then very unusually skirted the south side of the Pyrénées over to the big, warm bathtub of the Mediterranean, where it picked up more moisture and veered north and inland. And then it cozied up to the south side of the Black Mountains and stayed put for a whole night, dumping the equivalent of six months of rain in a few hours.

It was clear that the storm was extraordinary. It can rain very hard here, even if not often. In fact, we had been suffering a drought, with a little rain in July, and almost none in August and September. The ground had been like concrete until a week earlier, when we got some rain and everybody was so happy. It’s a good thing it did rain then, softening up the ground, because otherwise the deluge that followed would have run off even harder.

may river
More typically, it’s way, way down there.

Even with the shutters closed, we could hear the river rumbling, like a nonstop fleet of trucks speeding by. It shook the house. The wind helped the rain finagle its way up under the roof tiles, so we had drips everywhere. That’s why, when our neighbors called around 5 a.m., we were up—we were placing buckets and plastic boxes and whatever we could find to catch the leaks. 

Our village was devastated by a flood in 1999, along with most of the villages in this region. Our neighbors’ house was nearly carried away by the river. “River” seems an exaggeration for what’s usually a 2-inch-deep trickle that dries up completely in some spots only to reappear a ways downstream. On Sunday night, it was a raging river, stretching far beyond its banks and tearing down everything in its way.

Our neighbors moved their cars to our yard, which is significantly higher, and then got their animals. Anybody who knows me knows that I will cross the street to avoid dogs, even ones fenced in yards or held on leashes. I prefer to have zero contact with any animals—live and let live, I wouldn’t hurt them but I don’t want to touch them or let them touch or sniff or lick me. So it was a big deal that a couple of dogs took up refuge in our glassed-in porch. Plus a cat in a cat carrier. It is proof of how much I love my neighbors.

Not at all normal.

On Sunday night Monday morning, our neighbors waded through water almost to their knees as the river licked at their yard, trying once again to devour it all. The river was unrecognizable, stretching far beyond anything I had ever seen in 15 years. We arrived after the 1999 disaster, but as long as I have lived here everyone has had stories to tell. Weeks without plumbing or electricity. Everyone being sick of being dirty and cold. Mud everywhere. The army shoveling it out and distributing water. Neighbors helping neighbors.

By dawn, the rain was relenting a bit and our kid woke up, panicked about having missed the school bus, not noticing the highly unusual event of us having breakfast with the neighbors. School was canceled for three days. 

The water had already receded a lot at this point.

In our village, it was like a snow day. A few very old houses right next to the river had their ground floors flooded, and some cars parked in front of them were smashed up by the current. The river rose so quickly, and during the night, that people who slept soundly (like our kid) had no idea what was happening, and if they did it was too dangerous to go move a car at that point. 

By dawn, the water had already barreled downstream to torment some other villages. The level was still high, the racket deafening, but it was far lower than hours before, and just kept dropping. Villagers came out to survey the damage, to be shocked at where the water went, to compare it to the high water of two years ago and the Big Flood of 1999. Everyone walked in the middle of the main street, because roads in and out were impassable and there was no traffic. We saw everybody, it seemed. I think I got (and gave) a record number of bises for an hour. 

Our kid lamented that it took a disaster to get people out to stroll about and greet each other. As the days went on and the roads remained closed, except for one circuitous and damanged route that quickly became clogged with cars, our doorbell rang regularly with various friends popping by to say hello. “I like when people come by like that,” our kid said.

There are lots of uprooted trees.

P1100747Our kid has such a tender heart. We had organized a bunch of stuff for a vide grenier, and our kid went through everything, looking for clothes to donate. We loaded up the car and took it all to Trèbes, which was hit hard. 

The drive there was through utter devastation. It was mostly vineyards, so it will rebound. The harvest was over. The winegrowers will trim the vines and pull out the rubbish and replace the uprooted plants. But so much rubbish! Branches and entire trees, but also anything that was sitting in low-lying yards, or even that was put away in garden sheds that got washed way, their contents scattered far and wide. Much of the plain was still a lake of muddy water. It will recover.

Some won’t recover, though. At last count, 14 people died. Not a peaceful way to go. On our way to Trèbes, we saw piles of soggy personal effects, set out at the curb to be hauled away. We saw houses filled waist-deep with mud. The parking lot of the Trèbes arena is a mountain of debris.

Just two weeks ago, it was completely dry.

The president, Emmanuel Macron, visited Monday. Our kid snorted in disgust at the news, but I said he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. If he comes, he will be criticized for using a tragedy for publicity, for wasting taxpayer money on the trip, which requires helicopters, bodyguards, teams of assistants. On the other hand, if he doesn’t come, he will be criticized for not caring, for not raising the tragedy high enough on the agenda; he also will risk hearing about the state of things filtered by ministers and assistants who perhaps have other priorities and agendas. 

Have you lived through a devastating storm? How long did it take for life to return to normal? 

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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 9.01.01 AM
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.

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.


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:

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.

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

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!


Big Drink

cloudy-skies-1It rained. At last.

puddleActually, it rained a few weeks ago, a nice, long soak that allayed the fears of many who saw ground hardened like concrete by drought, which, in the past, has led to flash floods when rain falls at last but too fast.

cloudy-skies-2But then more weeks passed without a drop. The garden sagged. Finally, when the wine harvest was done, it rained again. A nice, long soak.

wet-leavesDon’t you love the smell of rain? The smell before it even starts? The smell during? I was in the house with most of the windows shut, but I got a whiff and knew it had begun.

drop-on-palmI had to go out and walk amid the drops. It was primeval. We need rain.

Our back yard, before the rain. At least we don’t have to mow.

We even had thunder and lightning for drama! Just so we could feel like we had a REAL thunderstorm and not some namby-pamby “shower.”

from-roofEven so, the sun came out. That’s how thing roll here. When we lived in Belgium, the sun would be shining bright but you still needed to take an umbrella because it was likely to rain at some point during the day. Here, even when the rain is dashing down, sometimes you need sunglasses because part of the sky will be clear. I’ve driven with the windshield wipers going full tilt AND with sunglasses on against glaring sunshine at the same time.

I love seeing it come down in the distance.

see-rain-afar-zoomSurprisingly I didn’t see a rainbow, despite the combination of rain and sun. I guess it wasn’t the right angle.

white-cloudsNo pot of gold. But afterward, there were diamonds everywhere.


Bye-bye Beach

footprintsJust before school started, we went to the beach. Our first trip this year, though it’s just 45 minutes away.

We aren’t sun worshippers. And that grit of sand in one’s hair and mouth, sand that sticks to everything, even to dry skin, even to dry clothes that were put into a zippered plastic bag at home–well, meh.

peopleThen there are the crowds. The drive is 45 minutes in winter. In summer it can be two hours. Bumper to bumper. And then, you have to park.

We usually head out around 4 p.m., when most people are leaving. This is a good policy in general in France. The French love their schedules. Pretty much everybody does the same things at the same time. By being out of step, you get the place to yourself.

Note the cigarette in the mouth and the belly-button shell

For example, the supermarkets have 20 checkout lanes but operate a maximum of eight. I often have spent more time waiting in line to pay than shopping. If you go to the supermarket at noon (supermarkets being among the few businesses open between 12 and 2), there are only two or three checkout lanes open, but nobody in line. On the autoroute, the time not to stop for lunch is at noon, when the rest stops are packed, lines for the restroom are miles long and the sandwich selection is depleted by 12:30. No, lunch time is the time to enjoy the unencumbered highway before all the French get back in their cars and cause traffic jams.

A little bar on the beach where you can rent a fancy bain de soleil, which is what they call the loungers. It isn’t just a brand of sun lotion!

Back to the beach. We drive smoothly past one 80-kilometer-long traffic jam in the opposite direction, then arrive at the beach to find the empty parking spot of one of the cars now stuck in that traffic jam. We get our fill of sun and sand in an hour or two, then look for refreshments. Ice cream is always a good idea. Sometimes, if it’s still crowded, we’ll stick around for dinner (fresh fish!) rather than join the throngs on the highway.

Pink flamingos in the etangs, or lagoons.

The two nearest beaches are Narbonne and Gruissan. Narbonne is a little more built-up, with a few apartment high-rises on the beach front. A parking strip runs the length of the boardwalk (which isn’t boards here, but you know what I mean). But the shops and restaurants are right there, too, which is nice.

The lifeguards’ station, with “secours,” or “rescue” written artfully in red.

Gruissan has a bigger beach, and little chalets on stilts line the edge. The parking lot is very small but close by and hidden from view. More charming by far. We’ll take you to the pretty port and the adorable town, which are away from the beach, another time.

emptyOn the day before the new school year, the beach was mellow. Only half had a lifeguard on duty, and the side without was nearly deserted. Walking the length of the beach, I thought a gentleman emerging from the water looked familiar. Indeed, it was a neighbor! Lots of Carcassonnais have beach chalets at Gruissan or Narbonne.


I didn’t see any burkinis, but I did see lots of kids wearing a high-SPF version, left. A good idea–better than a wrestling match to apply sun lotion, which then immediately gets washed off. There also were a frightening number of naked and badly sunburned kids.

We’ll be back. Our favorite time to visit the beach is winter. The sun is bright but not burning, the beach is empty, and a few restaurants stay open. We only need one.


Ghost River

river stonesThe summers in the south of France are hot and dry. It means no sticky humidity. No mosquitos.

By hot, I mean mid-80s to mid-90s Fahrenheit, sometimes dancing around 100. Nights usually are cool, in the 60s. Yesterday, the high was 34 C (93 F) and the low 13.5 (56 F). It’s why we don’t have air conditioning. Just gorgeous summer weather.

More stonesBut the last rain that was more than a trace was 4.4 mm (0.17 inch) on Aug. 4. It’s about one-tenth the usual total for August.

riverThis river has dried up. It’s hard to believe that a few years before we moved here it flooded houses in the village up to the upstairs floor.

Now, the little rapids look like ghosts. Will we be haunted by what we’ve done to the Earth?


close rapidsAt the beginning of the summer, I couldn’t even see the blocks to cross the passage à gué.

passage a gueFarther downstream, underground springs revive the river to a trickle. Enough for some ducks, who set up housekeeping at the same spot every year.

ducksThe marin has kept the Pyrénées in crystal clear focus. Not a cloud in the sky. Usually the easterly marin brings rain. Thunderstorms are forecast for Monday. Fingers crossed.


Paradise in the Middle of Nowhere

20 view southThe garrigue is a magical place. We try to picnic there at least every summer, which really shouldn’t be a big deal, because it’s a 20-minute walk outta town. Yet, it’s another world.

12 sky pine cones17 view northThe garrigue is a wilderness. It has trees, but isn’t really a forest like in the north. In some places, there’s just low bush that reminds me of the African savannah. Apparently, there was a vast Mediterranean forest that from time to time was degraded, often by fire, and the garrigue is what grew up afterward. The ground is so rocky that it escaped farming or development and stayed wild.

18 rock
The road

The garrigue has the most divine perfume. A mix of dry pine needles, hot dusty rock, thyme, rosemary and wildflowers. I would love to bottle it and spritz it around my house.

19 cigale
A cigale! It stopped rubbing its wings when we approached…like “nothing to see here, move along!”

The garrigue also has an enchanting song. The wind whistles and hums through the pines. The birds sing. But they’re all just backup for the lead singers, the cigales, that scratch out their steady beat. (Here’s a link with recordings of cigales.)

Cigales are cicadas, but their song here isn’t at all like the one that lulled me to sleep in the Midwest of the U.S. It’s as if they speak different languages.

19 pines sunWe decided to go to a spot accessed by the far end of the village. Since we had a cooler of food and other stuff, we took the car and parked at the entrance to the garrigue. It’s almost formal. The road goes up past vineyards, then forks, one side continuing to more vineyards and the other turning rocky and forbidding. We advanced to a shady spot and parked.

We aren’t experts on the garrigue, and it’s huge, so we are careful to stick to the main path. We continued on foot, looking for just the right picnic spot with lots of cushiony pine needles and not too many rocks or sprouting bushes.

3 bikes
Three bikes. The only people we saw the entire afternoon. And no motor sounds or other human presence.

Our picnic consisted of a classy “empty the fridge” assortment of sandwiches, followed by cheese (duh!) and nectarines for dessert. Nothing tastes as good as a picnic, especially one in the garrigue, where the scent of herbs is so strong you can taste them.

A post-prandial siesta followed. Not so much sleeping as being still and absorbing. Pure heaven.

13 sun
The view when lying on the blanket in the garrigue.

A visit to the garrigue is a special moment in this part of the south of France. For a happy trip:

2 paths

5 brush–no fires! They’re strictly forbidden because the place is a tinderbox. The region gets a lot of wildfires, often started by something as small as a cigarette tossed out a car window. It’s usually very windy, which makes fire all the more dangerous, and in summer  the few streams are bone dry.

4 view to carca
Carcassonne in the distance, with the Pyrénées beyond.



Turn Turn Turn

wheat vines bestIn spring, the vines are brown but the other fields are green, whether with tender shoots of winter wheat or just plain weeds. It’s odd that a place is so verdant in winter. We rarely see snow, or even frost, so everything just keeps growing.

By figs green
Wheat in spring

In summer, it’s the reverse. Already at the start of July, the wheat is being harvested, first shorn like the buzz cuts my brothers used to get every summer. My uncle would come over and shear them outside not to make a mess, one after another, like so many sheep. A rite of summer.

By figs brown
Same field, about a week ago.

It’s funny to drive by and see stiff stubble where days before heavy heads of grain rippled in the wind, shivering like a body of water. Amber waves of grain. Later, the fields are cut again, shaved down to the skin of the earth.

Patchwork fields 1Sometimes the harvesters are working at 3 a.m. They probably are far away, but it’s so still at that hour that sound carries effortlessly. The farmers probably are racing the weather, their best frenemy forever. It looked like rain last night–dramatic black clouds, theatrical thunder, impressive lightning, but then nothing more than a few sprinkles that seemed to evaporate before reaching the hot ground. Enough to dirty the car but not enough to sate the tomatoes. Ça ne sert à rien, quoi.

vines wheat treesThe perfume is intoxicating. Cut grass on steroids. That makes sense–wheat is a grass after all. The syrupy sweet smell oozes through the windows. It’s so thick, I want to drink it instead of breathe it. Or bite into it, with melted butter on top. It smells almost, almost, like bread baking. How crazy is that?

long view to carcaWhen we came here, all the fields were vineyards. Nothing but. Since 2008, the European Union has tried to shore up wine prices by reducing supply. Winegrowers get a payout to pull out their vines. Every season, we see more and more vineyards yanked out.

wheat mountains green
Another view in spring

It seems sad because wine is really adapted to the circumstances. The climate here is very hot and dry, and vines send their roots far down to find water underground. Many vines are 40 or 50 years old, gnarled and thick. They are survivors. It hurts to see them pulled out. Plus, the region’s wines have gotten very good.

wheat mountains brown
The same field from almost the same place in summer

In their place? Wheat, colza (rapeseed),  sunflowers, and other things I don’t recognize. They create a patchwork across the countryside, with colors that are continually changing–green, bluish, reddish, brown.

red field
Somebody tell me what the red field in the middle is

It makes me think of that Byrds’ song from the hippie dippy 1960s. A song I never liked (is it because they spelled the band’s name with a y?), but it ran through my head yet again today as I drove past the changing fields. The lyrics, at least, ring true.

Blue Skies

moulin skyBlue skies

black mountains 3Smiling at me

view to caunesNothing but blue skies

black mountains 2Do I see….

to carca 2Never saw the sun shining so bright

from moulinNever saw things going so right

to carcaNoticing the days hurrying by

genetWhen you’re in love, my how they fly

black mountains windmillsBlue days

black mountains wheatAll of them gone

black mountains pathNothing but blue skies

black mountains jogFrom now on…

The beautiful lyrics are by Irving Berlin. One of the best renditions is by Willie Nelson. All photos taken on my jog yesterday morning. Life is just fine when this is what one must deal with on a morning run. Three days of perfectly blue skies. And counting.




little street 11
The renowned Banyuls vineyards in the distance are just as vertical.

We had a visitor for a few days and wanted to play tourist. We escaped the heavy rains that are flooding the north of France, but we still got some showers. It’s one thing to brave a few drops to visit something new, but another to see the same sites for the hundredth time, no matter how fabulous, when the weather is meh.

La mairie, or city hall, shows Spanish influences.

Our visitor hadn’t been to Banyuls, near the Spanish border, and it had been years since our last trip. One weather report suggested  scattered showers, while another promised peeks of sun. We ended up under mostly gray skies but dry. A perfect afternoon jaunt that felt like we’d gone on away on vacation.

restoThe weather held out for us to stroll around and have a leisurely lunch en terrace with a view of the beach.

view w beach
The rocky beach. Usually every centimeter is covered with bare skin.

As beautiful as Banyuls is I cannot imagine going there in July or August, when it’s absolutely overflowing with people. But on June 1, there were enough people for it to feel alive and yet for us to find ourselves alone on its charming, vertical streets.

A port, of course.

If I went nuts over a tiny village like Malves, imagine what I did with Banyuls. So today you get to see its charming streets, appreciate its beauty, and thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to carry your groceries home like the folks here. Though I bet all the residents are in great shape.

little street 15

little street 13little street 12little street 14little street 9little street 10little street 7little street 5little street 8little street 4little street 2little street 6little street 3

little street 1
The house on the right is for sale!!! View of the beach!!! No privacy though.
trop tard
This is what happens if you don’t buy that house right now: “Too late!”

Ice saints

all windows
Windows at the church of St. Vincent in Carcassonne, built in the 13th century

Les saints de glace, or the “ice saints,” are here: St. Mamert on May 11, St. Pancrace on May 12, and St. Servais on May 13.

saint painting
Saints, not sure who

People have been obsessed with the weather since time immemorial. And to keep track of things, if you you were a farmer who didn’t read or write, you used the saints’ days.


Today, France adheres to laïcité, or non-sectarianism, but it wasn’t always so. As Barbara Tuchman wrote in “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,” “Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg ‘during the length of time wherein you can say a Miserere.’ It governed birth, marriage, and death, sex, and eating, made the rules for law and medicine, gave philosophy and scholarship their subject matter. Membership in the Church was not a matter of choice; it was compulsory and without alternative, which gave it a hold not easy to dislodge.”

And so, today, official holidays include Ascension last week, lundi de Pentecôte on May 16, as well as Aug. 15 (feast of the Assumption), Nov. 1 (All Saints Day), Easter Monday and Christmas.

saints 5
No idea what’s going on here, but it’s pretty

And the nightly newscast’s weather report ends with an announcement of the next day’s saints.


The ice saints got their names from the rotten habit of  a promising spring turning cold and nasty for a last few days. Apparently, Galileo’s students made some of the first observations, and the Little Ice Age from 1645-1715 probably cemented the idea. I once read an article blaming the phenomenon on a final cycle of low pressure out of the Arctic, while another said it was the period when the Earth passed through a bunch of space dust, cutting off the sun’s rays.

saints 2There’s the saying “Avant St. Servais, point d’été. Après St. Servais, plus de gelée,” or before St. Servais, no spring (“point” is like saying “zip” or “zilch”–it means none, but with more attitude); after St. Servais, no more frost.

A relic

But another saying doesn’t let Servais get the last word: Quand le St. Urbain est passé, le vigneron est rassuré, or when St. Urbain is over, the winegrower is reassured.


All this is to say that I am not as lazy/crazy as I look for not having planted the garden yet. Just waiting for St. Urbain on May 25.

The view after 232 steps to the top of the St. Vincent bell tower, toward la Cité. 
Roofs 1
I spy with my little eye the roof of our apartment!
roofs 2
I never get tired of looking at these rooftops
Roofs 3
And you can see the weather was all ice sainty…temps around 70 F. NOT ENOUGH