“All I have is a voice." (W.H. Auden)
In January, the air is crisp and, on occasion, the wind chills but nothing warms the heart than circling the village within and beyond its frontiers.
I start, naturally, outside our house in the petite rue that cuts our impasse
(dead end). I turn right on the foot alley to emerge in one of the main roads bordering the village circulade. I can either turn left or right depending on my state of mind. When I turn right, I will face a steep hill after passing the gate
to the campground and elementary school. I ascend slowly, attentively avoiding dog poop that generally appears because of the street access to a large park on my left. Once I pass the school and the road to the tennis courts, the “suburb”
of the village begins. Here, single family homes, some two stories but most one level, are evident. There are a few with adjoining plots thus creating a large garden, or olive orchard, beyond the main house. And of course, these large properties
are almost always with dogs. Loud, annoying but not necessarily aggressive.
At the top of this small hill, I can go straight pass the sign indicating the end of the village boundary and the start of beaucoup vineyards
that populate these hills. On my left is a well recognized, almost always full, chambres d’ hotes with its own pool. Rather expensive my neighbors might say but it has terrific views that one visiting friend says reminds him of Napa
Valley without the pretension.
Instead, I generally turn right and wander along the streets of villas that now occupy once thriving vineyards. I was told that the mairie (municipal government) can decide to expand the
housing plots every 10 years and that development takes time as water and sewer lines are drawn and put in place over a number of years. Thus, the need to plan the construction schedules carefully.
All houses are individually designed
and constructed so there is variety among them. Most have fairly high fencing that obstructs the complete view of the house. There are hardly any passing cars on most days and even fewer random walkers like me. Once or twice, I will encounter
my friend Annie as she takes her morning walk so we stop, do the bisous and make small talks. I also often see a few men and women taking their dogs out for their canine exercise. One, in particular, is a familiar and friendly face. A big
man who walks a small terrier.. so small I am tempted to pick it up and play with it like a stuffed toy.
After many houses, I spy the sign indicating the village stade or, in English, sports ground. This is situated
between the villas and the vineyards and borders the woods. I sometimes detour from the main road to walk through but mindful of someone’s warning that there may be hunters or snakes coming out of the woods. Not a good idea
to encounter either one.
Back on the main road, I trek along easily on flat ground until I reach that part that descends down to the major avenue. I cross this avenue to enter another area filled with modern villas all situated south
of the village center. From this part of the village, I can go straight and circle the lower part of town or cut across the villas through the small, short streets. Whatever route I take, I end up on the side of the village where the cave cooperative
is located. From August to October, the wine vapors get stronger the closer one gets to the cave. The rusty gate is open then because the trucks come for their grapes to be unloaded and processed. Interestingly, the cave faces a small but
lovely flowering park.
On the other side of the park, one finds the maison de retraite or the retirement/assisted living facility. Through the glass sliding doors, I see personnes âgées
(the French expression for old people) inside the main hall. Some playing cards, others conversing and a few staring outside at me. Wondering, perhaps, how a person from the other side of the world ended up in their neighborhood! This route,
one that takes me pass the cave cooperative and the maison de retraite, is one of my favored routes because the street is generally empty of car and foot traffic. And no canines to interrupt my thoughts.
this same road, I go by the war monument that is ubiquitous in every town and village. Across this monument, one finds the old 12th century church open only during mass held once a week. At this point, I have another choice to
make. Turn left to reach the western boundary and ascend another hill that passes by the cemetery and leads to the village clinic. Or turn right towards the village center passing by the church entrance and leading to the mairie.
It doesn’t matter really as both are enjoyable routes that bring me closer to home. And home, en effet, is the ultimate destination. Onwards!
It’s Christmas time.. the villages are decked with lights, stores are stocked with foie gras, chocolates and champagne, and everyone is in a merry mood. There is a buzz in the air amplified by concert carols and Christmas market activity
in almost every village. Yet, there is also a sense of calm and anticipation; none of the stressful, hectic commercialism that used to mark our holiday preparations. It is refreshing to say the least.
I like to think
that it is the tranquility of village life that makes this so. The folks decorate their homes without the full regalia of lights on roofs, windows and lawns. What you see, instead, are some swags of Christmas colors, the ever-present Pere
Noel attempting to climb windows and balconies and the colored lights, sometimes small Christmas trees , that the local mairie would set up along the Rues and common areas. It is very simple yet respectful of tradition and meaning.
Meantime, many villages hold Christmas markets designed to give ideas for gift giving. But these are mostly handicrafts, food baskets and wine. Amidst the many stalls, one can find food vans serving paella, sandwiches or second daughter’s
favorite roasted chestnuts. Oh, and the vin chaud to warm the body and spirit while wandering, perusing, buying.
Capestang had a fairly good size market in the Salle Polyvante one weekend and in wandering around, I met a Philippine
native selling Asian handicrafts. We strike a conversation, thrilled to speak my parent’s dialect with her while my daughters looked thoroughly confused. “Mom, was that Tagalog?” asked first daughter. I replied, “It’s
your grandparents dialect and no, it is not Tagalog. But you’ll hear that a lot of it when we celebrate your Aunt’s wedding this holiday season.” Meantime, my newly found compatriot and I exchanged phone numbers and promised to
stay in touch. As we were ready to leave, she thrusts one of the Thai silk shawls into my open purse and whispered, “Merry Christmas!”
One Saturday, we drove to Carcassonne to witness their version of
holiday fete. The usual artisans were plying their wares under marquee tents evoking traveling royalty. Wandering around were costumed actors ready for their scheduled re-enactments. We chanced upon a handsome trio buying kebabs (yes,
kebabs) and took a photo opportunity for remembrance. For lunch, we ventured to an almost empty bistro with a reasonably priced set menu. By the time our main dishes arrived, the place was full of visiting Spaniards. The mix of
Spanish and French resonated with us very well.
We wandered, on another weekend, in Narbonne where the cabin like stalls were lined up along the promenade. The usual arts and crafts, vin chaud, and food were on display and, on the
other side of the river, the rides and games to thrill the children. My girls were not interested in participating but enjoyed watching the little ones squeal and laugh with glee. We chanced upon a stall that had nothing to sell.. only to
give away. These were tourist information about Galicia in NW Spain. As we passed, I grab a brochure out of curiosity and it was about the French route for the Camino del Santiago Compostela. Is there a message here, perhaps?
As for our regular grocery shopping, they now included foie gras and chocolates. These products were attractively positioned at the entrances. They could not be missed. The range and number of
choices were confusing; thus, sales people stood around promoting their wares and enticing us with free tastings. Who could resist? I reasoned that the promos justified the number of purchases. And the upcoming trip will allow me to
share these treats with family and friends this holiday season.
The food and wine were not the only temptations. There were several concerts scheduled in the villages around us, including ours. But the evenings were
spent nesting at home, watching TV and preparing for our Asian trip. It was too comfortable to venture out. In our village, we did not need to. The music floated in the air towards our window which we kept partly open, despite the chill air,
to enjoy some of the melodies.
At other evenings, we entertained our friends with some home cooking and plenty of champagne and wine. The girls were at their element; preparing, serving and joining the conversations
while American carols played in the background. Music, food and friendship. What a perfect combination this holiday season.
There are times when there are places to go, things to do, and friends to see that days and weeks are full. Then I realized I have not written a blog. Such was the case in November.
It was a beautiful month although
some days were cold indeed. The wind, not as strong as the renowned Provençal mistral but not as benevolent either, chilled the bones even when the sun was shining. But the weather did not erase the loveliness of the vineyards as they burst
(and faded) with red and golden colors. Tractors eased up on the village roads, wine vapors weakened, and our Languedoc sun played hide and seek.
We took our chances and journeyed around towns and villages now that the tourists
are gone. First daughter spent some time in Meynes (near Nimes) with a French family while second daughter and I explored Montpellier. First daughter enjoyed her immersion and gushed about the four course meals she had twice a day.
“Mom,” she said, “they always have a cheese tray followed by desserts for lunch and dinner. It was goooooood!” And of course, she helped out in meal setting and clean up. C’est obligatoire.
Meantime, second daughter and I overnighted in the lively city of Montpellier with the ubiquitous university students, shops and markets. We almost didn’t make it; frustrating as it was to find the parking garage. We circled the area of
the hotel (with a map given by the reception) but the signage was poor and the traffic lights confusing. But we did make it, spurred by the desire to see the city before dusk settled. Here, second daughter had her first taste of roasted chestnuts
and now eagerly looks for it in every village market. I stumbled upon a store that sold pickled green mangoes from Jamaica. Another source of comfort food to be enjoyed and shared with village friends.
friends had plans to return to Lourdes and we made a car trip out of it. Though it was only for the weekend, it was a pleasant drive made more so by the company and the conversation. And Henri, our canine companion, was easy and well-behaved.
We made the obligatory rest stops for sandwiches and drinks. And we enjoyed a simple dinner in the heart of the virtually empty town.
I never ceased to be in awe of Lourdes. The general atmosphere of fervent faith and unwavering
confidence inspires the moment one enters the gate. It is always a privilege to hear mass here. This time, we celebrated mass in the Basilica. The hours for the piscine was short and we missed the window. But we know we will be back.
She knows it, too.
Amidst the many commitments that showed up this month, we celebrated birthdays, Guy Fawkes day (complete with effigy burning and fireworks -- enjoyed with a sumptuous dinner), and Thanksgiving. The latter was more
memorable as it was my father’s first visit to our corner of France. Unfortunately, it was cold. Fortunately, it didn’t rain. And dinner was among a company of intimate and welcoming friends who served copious amounts of
food and wine to last until the next year. It was, in my father’s words, “the best Thanksgiving ever.” C'était vrai.
To market, to market, to buy a fat pig;
Home again, home again, dancing a jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.
My earliest recollection of food shopping was with my paternal grandmother in her hometown. During summers, the grandchildren were shipped for some bonding time with our grandmother and maiden aunts and to temporarily
relieve our parents of child-rearing duties. Twice a week in this dusty town, the merchants begin arriving early in the morning and staying until early afternoon to sell their goods to the residents. The covered, open, and cement-floored market became
the hub of the town’s activity and everyone, anyone, was sure to be sighted here. My grandmother would dress up for the occasion, complete with the traditional dress and pearls, her basket and parasol, and would promenade from the house
to the market. Her grandchildren, me included, would trail behind her holding each other’s hands.
This was one of her favorite activities. She would go from stall to stall, eyeing and/or touching the goods, asking questions
and finally haggling. Often she would linger amidst her favorite vendors to catch up on the latest family news while introducing her grandchildren as in “these two here are the children of my son X and those three are the children of my son
Y.” Our names were irrelevant; only the identity of her children who sired us. Our prize for the patience and good behavior would be a thrilling ride on the passenger seat attached to a motorbike, known as the tricycle, back to the house
with the shopping basket. She would trail behind by foot, parasol in hand, perfectly content with her choices and her budget.
I recall these memories often as I go to village markets for many of our supplies. True there
are groceries, supermarkets and even a mom and pop convenience store in our own village. But there is an easy pleasure and an abundant sentimentality when shopping in these weekly markets.
is not big enough to host a one. Instead, the meat and cheese van comes on Tuesday mornings to spread their wares for the locals; mostly the elderly or those without personal transport. I especially like their roasted pork ribs that turn crispier
when refried and their fresh sweet butter bought by the quarter of a kilo. Once I asked for a demi-kilo since I did not know how to say a “quarter only” in French. The vendor examined me up and down with a puzzling look. So he
picked up the slab of butter and showed me the half-kilo. Shocked at the proportion, I shook my head so he pared this down to a quarter. Merci.
On Fridays, Puisserguier hosts the market which is temporarily
relocated in the field near the cave cooperative as the grand promenade is being upgraded with new water pipes. It is much more difficul to get to and there are fewer vendors for lack of space (and access to electricity for their vans). But
the Paella seller comes and he is so generous with the large shrimps and mussels when we make our order. Sadly, I have not seen my favorite Vietnamese vendor since the move.
So on Sundays at the Capestang market,
before the 10:30 am mass, we wander along the stalls and look for another Vietnamese vendor to get our needed comfort food fix. He usually throws in an extra summer roll for second daughter. We follow this up with roasted chicken from another vendor
in the same marketplace. Our lunch and dinner meals are then complete.
St Chinian also hosts a twice-weekly market; one of which falls on Sunday as well. There appears to be the same choices as Capestang
so we are lucky to have these two villages within a 10 minute drive. It is not unusual to encounter our neighbors doing their own shopping. We stop, do the bisous (left cheek first then right), while saying our “bonjour,”
“vous allez bien?” or “ça va?” We exchange pleasantries and we say our “au revoir.” It is almost a social event but not quite a “fete.”
If I sometimes miss these nearby
markets, I drive to Narbonne and shop at Les Halles. The bustling but clean indoor market is full of wonderful smells that tempt the appetite rather quickly. The array of goods are stunning and one’s sense of smell and sight
can be overwhelmed. Walking around, maybe enjoying a tasting or two, perusing the breads, the cheeses, the fresh seafood and viand can consume an hour yet it is not a very big place. But there is so much to see and to comprehend that time passes.
And it is easy to pause, to sit on a stool in one of the bars to have a café or a beer or a glass of wine, while gathering one’s thoughts, checking the shopping list or just watching the buyers and sellers. If only my grandmother was here,
I often mused. She would be just as delighted, I know, to witness food shopping as an art and not merely a necessity.
Seems like we never left as we seamlessly re-enter la vie française after over a month’s stay in the U.S. It seems like nothing at all has changed in the village while many things have been transformed in our Washington, DC suburb.
But we are glad, even elated, to be back at our maison secondaire and our neighborhood.
The Rentrée started out well enough as children all over France returned to their scholastic activities. Second daughter now attends
middle school, the collège, with first daughter. While waiting for the bus passes, I dutifully drove them every morning passing through grape ripened vines and patiently following vendange traffic. First daughter is thrilled to reconnect
with her friends while second daughter is glad to see familiar faces from her école.
There is a new principal at the college and the former one is sorely missed. He of gentle encouragement, ever responsive and more importantly,
English speaking has moved back north to lead a major hospitality training high school. The new principal is friendly enough and welcoming but I have no recourse but to speak in my badly pronounced, badly conjugated French. It is immersion
in its raw form!
But the girls are adjusting very well to the academics with schedules not yet finalized and constantly changing. They are not regretting the return and are eagerly anticipating what the school year will offer.
This anticipation lingers despite an evaluation conducted recently by the Beziers school administration which caused first daughter angst, then tears. “She speaks French like an American. She needs to put more effort, “says the
Beziers person. He continued, “Her heart does not seem to be in it because she knows she only stays for a year.” “Mais non,” I say. “She loves it here and she may return for her year abroad during her university
days.” It was enough to hurt first daughter’s feelings and to enrage our local vice-mayor who has now taken it upon herself to work with first daughter’s accent.
Meantime, we have assumed our pace and practices
at home and feel utterly nested. We spent one weekend joining many locals in the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine – like a heritage weekend – where major historic sites were open and many with guided tours and discussions.
All in French, bien sur. Despite their ubiquitous presence, we nevertheless enjoyed visiting these sites and are grateful for the privilege of living amongst them.
Due the fairly balmy weather, we took another weekend excursion to
Collioure, known to many French people as the jewel of the south. It only took about an hour and half of pleasant Autoroute driving to reach this village and the journey was well worth it. The lack of parking spaces at noon led us to a restaurant
that had reserved spaces for clients. It was a tight squeeze and we made it work. As we carefully went down the steps to the restaurant, we walked into the dining area facing a magnificent view of the castle and the bay. Luckily, the
waiter saw how greedily we drank in the view and placed us in a table close to the edge of the balcony fronting this sight. Priceless. As for the food, the flavors matched the sumptuousness of our view. We enjoyed the gastronomic meal
sans gastronomic prices.
It is heady to be in wine country this time of the year. Where village entrances signal warnings of vendange to alert drivers to slow down and be
patient. What is the rush?! The passing vision leaves one spellbound and the scented air refreshes. My morning, and sometimes afternoon, walks take me through our vineyards. Encouraged by a local friend and her black Labrador,
I would pick a grape or two and taste it. Sweet. During drives, I would spot a vineyard laden with purple fruit visible from miles around. I would park the car and march through the vines searching for a large juicy grape to feast on.
Even second daughter has experienced this while hiking through the surrounding area with her teachers and classmates. This sport activity day involved tasting different grapes, learning about the region and stopping at one of the Caves for a drink
of Muscat wine. “Mommy, it was too sweet," she announced. “I didn’t finish my glass but some of my classmates did.” Oh well... she has years to acquire the taste and I hope that she learns this here where drinking
is both an art and a science. Not a reason to get drunk.
And because it is September, foire vins promos are all over the groceries and supermarkets. Wines from all over France are featured and are on sale. Most everyone
has vintages on their minds. And I am not spared. But my enjoyment is drinking a glass or two with local friends, some familiar and others fairly new. Whether it is a glass of wine paired with slowly roasted pork from our American friends
in Puisserguier or an accompaniment to goat cheese tart during my monthly spa day in Quarante. It is not just the vintage that makes the drink awesome, it is time and place. And the people. The people.