Thursday, June 30, 2005

Flower Showers

The canicule is still on, but a sudden wind came up late in the afternoon causing the wires to dance.

Rue Vermeille, my street is the prettiest street in the village. Flowers and plants are everywhere along the narrow sidewalks that separate the houses from the street. The street itself is not much wider than an SUV.

Hanging from the roofs of the three and four story attached stucco houses are huge flowering plants, some as much as twelve feet across creating a sea of purple flowers.

Usually the wind blows down the street, but for some reason, this time it blew into my open windows carrying purple petals that swirled around my studio. They danced across my computer, settled on my table, landed on my fireplace and kitchen counter.

Two days later I am still finding petals I missed. This is NOT a complaint. The world would be better if the only attacks were by flowers.

The English Lesson

“How about an ice cream and an English conversation...” Barbara asked.

I hung up the phone, shut off my computer, and headed to La Noisette to meet Barbara and Marina.

This is not my Syrian friend Marina, but a gite-owning Catalan who has a new job with a Swiss company. The young woman, although she took seven years of English, is afraid that her English won’t be good enough to meet the daily requirements of the job.

Franck brought us pistachio, mango and peach wine ice cream served in Manhattan type cocktail glasses with twisted blue stems.

For the next hour we talked, correcting her where necessary, building her confidence when it became obvious she understood most of what we were saying. Being in the opposite position with French, we understood what she was going through. Unlike us she is still translating rather than thinking in the language. But there are times when we're tired both Barbara and I switch off from thinking into translating.

Chris, the owner of the house across from the end of our street joined us. He is on holiday from London where he designs stage sets. He has painted the front of the house with a mural of plants. He joined us and Marina now had three different accents to listen to.

Kay his wife came along, as did Hannah, a Danish woman fluent in English.

An hour and a half later, Marina’s eyes were glazing over from the concentration. Franck was clearing away our dishes. “C’est difficile,” Marina said.

“It’s difficult,” Barbara corrected.

“It’s difficult,” Marina said.

Lola is in disgrace

Lola is a three-month old very black kitten that Jean-Pierre and Babette took as a replacement for their beloved Max, a very serious and stalwart cat that died at the age of three from kidney failure. Winde from the cheese shop gave the kitten to them.

Jean-Pierre and Babette live in the three floors over their green grocers at the end of my street. Each window is flower-laden. Lola spends her days in the window box directly over the shop complaining to every one of the injustices of being left alone. No matter that the shop closes for three hours at lunch each day where the kitten is no longer “abandoned”.

Cats in window boxes aren’t uncommon. Ptah II, a pure white cat, sits in Barbara’s window box over her shop, contrasting to her red and pink flowers. What he thinks of his small, noisy counterpart, kitty corner to his place, he doesn’t say. He is the wise man of the street.

Babette, tired of hearing the meows that cast doubt on her cat kindness, although she is known to take store inventory to feed strays, decided that Lola could spend the day in their bedroom at the top of the stairs. With the canicule forcing temperatures up, up, up and the room being air conditioned, no animal humane society official would declare her an unfit cat mother.

Their bedroom is at the top of a staircase. At the bottom is a folding door. To give Lola more room, Babette chose to close the door at the bottom of the stairs.

Lola was not going to take this lying down. Or rather she was going to take it lying down. She tried to slither under the door trapping her head.

When Jean-Pierre returned home for dinner, the cat’s head was wedged under the door, her tongue was hanging out, but she was breathing. Afraid that by opening the door, they would behead the kitten, they cut her out.

Within a very short time, she was back to her tricks.

Jean-Pierre and Babette are looking for a new door.

“And a new kitten?” I asked.

“Non,” Babette said. The voice was firm. The expression was of a mother who loved their bad child.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Score: May 1, Building Codes 0

Argelès building requirements for the old town used to require that the facades and roofs not be modified. To preserve the front of buildings that are anything from 500 to 200 years old makes good sense, but to preserve roofs so that birds and anyone in an airplane could see how Argelès looked in 1505 seemed a bit over-the-top. Thus the roof restriction was lifted.

After a day so hot and humid that water fell from the air, Barbara and I went to dinner at May’s. Before her retirement she was a Scottish midwyfe. The French call them sage-femme, wise women, and May is wise not just in her profession, but in her solution to building codes.

The other guest was Morgana, an American/English woman, who is fascinated by the Cathars. When Barbara and I first started researching the Cathars and the Rennes-le-Château mystery years and years ago, we received mainly a ho-hum reaction from most people. Thanks to Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code people are now telling us about their great new discovery. However, we were more than happy to share our knowledge with Morgana. She never ho-hummed us, although that is not a criteria for our knowledge sharing.

May has a three-story house overlooking the Place de La Republique and has spent well over a year rebuilding and redecorating. We decided to risk eating on her terrace despite forecasts for rain.

Since building regulations would have prohibited her building a terrace, she simply took the one room that overlooked the street and removed the roof. The terrace is enclosed by the original walls and still has the original window. We talked, ate and drank the local wine as birds swept under the feather of clouds that gave way to a star-lit night.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Garbage Wars

Poubelle is the French word for garbage, far prettier sounding than what the word represents.
Years ago, Friday was garbage soup day, when all the leftovers were blended in an onion broth and flavoured with cream. If we had guests it became a first course and was renamed Soupe La Poubelle. They loved it, and I was only in trouble if they asked for the recipe.

Here in Argelès, especially during the season, garbage is picked up daily. Around 5 a.m. the trucks rattle down the narrow streets. We have bins divided into paper/glass/tins/plastic and food garbage. Our address is printed on the bin.

During the summer, people spend a lot of time on the street, setting up tables, eating, having wine, inviting passer-bys to join them. Native Catalonians meld with French and people whose homes are secondary residents.

Last night there was high drama when two strange women walked by and dropped their garbage in one of the Catalonian’s bins. “I knew it,” M. Garcia said. “I have garbage in my bin that isn’t mine.” He went on to separate out the woman’s garbage and his. He was determined. She was embarrassed as she slunk away with her black plastic sack.

M. Fernendez checked through his garbage to make sure it was truly his. There were things that weren’t his. I had noticed British papers and beer bottles in mine, things I never read or drank, but my reaction was so what?

The Danes watched open-mouthed. “Isn’t it better to share a garbage bin than have someone throw it on the street?” one asked but the Catalonian’s didn’t understand English.

Humans tend to be territorial. The joke is my daughter marks her territory by dropping her possessions all over her house (and mine). I am very territorial myself. However, protecting garbage is so low on my priority list, that it isn’t visible after 2,900,972 listings.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The C word

C is for Canicule, French for heat wave. This year’s canicule has begun. No one knows if it will be as bad as 2003 when 30,000 died, ten times the number of people that died in 9/11. It is why I lose patience with Americans who drive SUVs and tell me that 3000 people were killed in the WTC collapse. In fact every time I see someone in anything but a gas efficient car, anytime someone drives unnecessarily say from one store to another in the same shopping center or to a neighbors three houses away, I want to yell, “Murderer!!!!!!!!!! Stop your climate-changing behavior now.” I won’t even mention the desire to trash any SUV that sports a support-our-troops sticker. Fortunately I don't see many in Geneva or Argelès.

A lot of those 30,000 deaths were older people and the fact that air conditioning is not as prevalent in Europe as it is the States did contribute, but until 2003 extended heat waves were never a problem. Buildings with thick walls and shutters keep temperatures comfortable. My first Swiss home in a tiny valley was need-a-sweater-inside cool even when temperatures outside soared.

In Argelès, although my flat is in the grenier (the attic where grain was once stored), my curtains are quilted on the sun side and the thick wall do leave it relatively cool aided by a fan. Llara, my daughter, insisted I buy air-conditioning, and I did, although I hope she won't expect obedience in all matters. At night, I run it if necessary to take the temperature down. Although it is in the 90s now as I write this, the flat is comfortable with a fan and natural air.

My flat in Geneva caught a cross breeze. I kept the shutters closed during the day with the windows open and raised the shutters after dark. With the exception of the 2003 canicule only on a couple of nights was it unbearably hot and those nights I slept on the balcony.

Nothing, however, can match the 100+°F temperatures my office reached in 2003. This was with the shutters closed and the lights off. We were sent home early. Water was distributed during the day. I debated sitting nude, except I figured somewhere there was a rule against that. There were less workers around. All employees had a minimum of four weeks holiday (two by law had to be taken together) and many chose to take them to escape the heat, although they would have had to go to Northern Sweden or Norway to do so.

I will be spending the summer months in Argelès, Geneva and Rome. In Geneva, the house is near a lake and the finished basement offers refuge from the heat. In Rome I will spend five-days inside a hotel at the conference I am attending. I doubt it will be air conditioned to US standards (I hope not like the conference I went to in NY when the room temperature even with 100 bodies never reached 60°, certainly extreme and environmentally hostile.)

In Argelès in the late afternoon when it is the hottest, there’s the beach or a café. One place in Village has a breeze even on the worse days. There is nothing like sitting there with a cold beer and listening to the rustle of the wind in the trees overhead.

My biggest resentment toward heat is the lack of energy, but this year I have decided that heat is time to read another book, go to the beach and not try and get through my to-do list that would be too long even on a high-energy cold day. Am I getting smarter in my old age as the world gets hotter????
Ingolt and Kiki gave a party at the Hotel Hostalet inviting their Danish friends, both seasonal and permanent, along with the Catalan neighbors and misc nationalities, in this case, French, Spanish, Australian, English, American and almost Swiss. Barbara and I switched places in her store so she could attend, although the party continued long after closing.

A free concert played at the square behind the house Barbara and I originally owned in the village. A fountain, a bronze pillar with a laurel-covered curly-haired man’s face, is in the center of the square and that is surrounded by planters with pink, white and purple begonias and benches. From the middle ages the fountain (in earlier shapes and designs) supplied the water for the houses surrounding the square. Today people no longer need to fill buckets and carry water into their homes.

The concert over, we stopped by William and Claire Sargeant’s house. He and I wondered if we were relations way way back, because my mother’s maiden name was the same as his, although my branch of the family migrated to the new world in the 1600s but not on the Mayflower.
We ended up eating there.

This Sunday morning I went out to buy a courgette which I want to bake with some left over feta for lunch. I was going to come right back and write, but thought a cup of tea at La Noisette would certainly help in the creative process.

Almost two hours later I had chatted with more than 12 neighbors and friends, some stopping to have coffee. Winde from the cheese shop carried her coffee cup back. Franck supplies the small shops with coffee brought in a ceramic cup and saucer and on a tray (Starbuck's can't do it that way)

A helmeted person went by on a scooter. Robbert!!! is down for the weekend. We caught up on his move, the Swiss train failure (almost unbelievable), and how we could catch the train back to Argelès when I come back down after Geneva and Rome in August, his son and anything else we can think of. Robbert and I shared the company flat in that little Swiss village for almost three years. A friend has described him as the brother I always wanted. It’s a good description. He is also the type of friend who has what I call peelability. Even after 15 years I am still discovering new levels to him and his knowledge.

Finally I head back to the flat to write. Sunday is also the day of Meet The Press, Late Edition, Dateline (BBC), Diplomatic License. Like Dateline the French also air a program where journalists from several countries give their perspective on different stories from around the world. I can get lots of needlework done.

And at one time I was worried I would feel isolated when I was here. To quote my daughter. "Ha!!!!"

Thursday, June 23, 2005

La Fête de St. Jean

The flame has come down from Mount Canigou marking the summer solstice. Argelès has celebrated la fête de St. Jean The origin of this festival goes back to Charlemagne in the 9th century.

The flame was lit this morning at the top of the mountain and stopped at villages along the way to light bonfires. It was slated to arrive in Argelès at 22:00. The packing lot by the Shoppi supermarket had been cleared and the wood for a bonfire was placed in the center. While the crowd waited, people danced the Sardane

Children ran around. A group of little girls played a version of red light and Simon said. Neighbors greeted each other.

The fête is free. Nothing is sold. People come to enjoy it without a single commercial interest.

Overhead four rows of small flags hung: the EU blue with the stars circled, all the flags of EU countries, the French flag and of course, the red and yellow stripes of Catalonia.

A little after 22:00 people were asked to move behind the barricades. In front of the old gendarmerie drums beat. Giant sparklers shot stars into the sky. The drummers were followed by people dressed as witches, devils and jesters. As they danced around the wood for the bonfire, they swung sparklers in eight-shaped patterns that sent stars at least in 12-foot diameters. The drumming and dancing went on and on. The smoke from the fireworks were so thick that the flags above were no longer visible and the gunpowder smell was heavy in the air.

The sparklers were extinguished. One flame remained. The carrier lowered it to the wood. It caught sending the flames skyward. The Barricades were removed and led by the dancers and drummers the crowd circled the bonfire. Then the drummers and the flame moved on to the next village.

Summer has begun.
This is the end of the short starkist cherry season, which only last about two weeks. These are the sweetest cherries I’ve ever eaten. Apricots, nectarines and peaches are beginning to appear on the market where green and white asparagus was displayed.

Much of what is sold is grown within a 100 mile radius. Most of the local green grocers mark where the items comes from. When things are available only in season, their taste is more appreciated. I still miss the silver corn available at the end of the New England growing season. The idea was to pick it while those at home set the water to boil. Shuck it as soon as you come in the door and eat it a few minutes later. The Green Giant doesn’t even come close.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Ball

The first ball of the season was held last night. This was not the balls of debutants or romantic novels with women in long gowns and men waltzing by in tails. These balls are held outdoors at the Place de la Republique.

Two sides of La Place are flanked by eight pastel colored houses with iron-railed balconies. The Ecole de Musique, the former town hall, dominates one side with its red-bricked building and blue-trimmed windows. L’Hôtel Hostalet and La Café de la Place set out their white plastic tables and chairs, which are covered with glasses of wine, Banyuls, champagne, beer and a can of Coke of two.

When the tarmac needing replacing four years ago, the village fathers decided to put down stone tiles with a hint of pink making a smooth dance floor. All cars have been cleared for the dance.

The band was live performing French, American and Spanish songs. This ball was for is the Fête de Musique, started over a decade ago by J. Laing, the then cultural minister. Tonight there will be concerts and dances all over the country.

Although many people sat, almost everyone danced with no self consciousness at some point during the night. Older women danced with their friends, their skirts whipping their legs. A man held his four-year old daughter, dressed in a white frock, and it could only be described as a frock in its delicateness. As he held her in his arms, she threw back her head and laughed.

Another man with a girl of the same age swayed as she stood on his shoes. A few women and two men dance alone. I saw my neighbors, the Fernendezes, the people who worry about my plants more than I do, swing by. The Dubois moved with a grace that I never knew neither of them had. There was another couple who could be in dance contests their foot work was so complicated. I remembered them from previous years.

An eight-year old boy shinnied up one of the four trees and watched us from the branches until his mother saw him and insisted he come down. He swung like a monkey from a branch before dropping into her arms and be shuttled home faster than he wanted to go. Hugo, a two year old, watched from his balcony. He was naked, his way of keeping cool in the heat. Next to him was his dog who has a Benjie head but with longer legs.

Although the music played until 12:30 the crowd thinned out after 11:30.

During the summer there will be many more dances. Many nights people will be in a circle dancing the Catalan native dance, the Sardane ( lets you hear the whiney music) where dancer take three steps right, three left, lowering and raising their arms.

The band packed up. I quickly helped the hotel owner clear off the tables and headed home.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Preparing for their future

The Swedish couple is leaving on Saturday after a week here. They'll drive 25 hours straight, alternating sleeping, and taking only quick food and potty stops. They do have 25 minute ferry ride. They are renovating Antoinette’s old house.

Antoinette died last summer at 91. She was an old Catalan woman who sat on her chair outside the door snapping her beans and telling everyone how she didn’t feel well. Each day she walked to the cemetery to visit with her husband. Neighbors said she was making up to him for driving him so hard in life.

The house is a huge Catalan house opening on two streets.

All houses have a problem with damp first floors that causes paint to flake no matter what kind of paint or what kind of surface unless there is year around heat. The man thinks he has found a solution by digging up the floor and laying a special subfloor. On all his holidays he is here with his wife and children. Cartloads of dirt have been shoveled out. They will be back for three more weeks at the end of the summer.

As the couple took a break with me at Franck’s café he talked about the possibility for not waiting until retirement to move down here permanently but to open a construction business.

As they say, on verra.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Sunday Breakfasts

La Noisette, Franck and Louise’s tea room across from the church, now serve English breakfasts. I fell asleep Saturday night thinking about Sunday morning. It was everything I dreamed it would be, two sunny-side up eggs, beans (I am New Englander rooted enough to prefer molasses in my baked beans except in an English breakfast), baked herbed tomato and of course, a good cup of milky tea.

However the French flavour was maintained with the baguette and neighbours walking by saying “Bonjour” and “Bon appetite.” Babette, the green grocer, two buildings up the street, waved and asked me if it were good. I held two thumbs up.

Franck stood at one end, trying to figure out how to protect the outside area on windy days, then tended to the flowers in the two planters flanking the terrace.

Sunday morning breakfasts have always been special. From the days on Wigglesworth Street starting when Bill would whip up a meal that would satisfy our hunger late into the day. Sometimes they even arrived on trays in bed along with parts of the Boston Globe. One time he presented us with printed invitations and a menu that included eggs of choice, bacon, sausage, English muffins, bagels, blueberry muffins, juice and more. We called my daughter who lived on the next block. Although not a morning person, the idea of a Bill breakfast, got her to Wigglesworth Street in record time.

When I was doing my masters in Wales, Geoff at the B&B used to do the English breakfasts, which was a good thing, because the food at the university’s refractory took courage to put in your mouth, never mind swallow.

In Geneva, I made myself a big Sunday breakfast, set the table often decorated with flowers from the previous day, and sat at my table looking at the field and the château across the streets. My new place is close to the lake and I still imagine going into the garden and eating a big breakfast when I get back there next month.

As much as I love croissants and brioche, the idea of having an English breakfast within a few minutes walk gives Sunday a whole new meaning.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Danes Are Back

Some of my favorite Danes came back last night. Thanks to a Danish TV presenter on the Scandinavian level of Katie Curic, who bought a house years ago that she rented to other Danes in the television and film industries, Argelès, especially in the summer, has become Copenhagen South. Her renters bought homes that they in turn rent to other Danes in the various parts of the entertainment industry. Some make their homes here permanently, others vacation here and some come to work off season, although I suspect the warmer climate has more to do with that than escaping the diversions of home.

This family is a film producer and his surgeon wife, accompanied by his grown daughter and her handicapped son. The producer, who has won two Emmys for best foreign documentary always dresses in black. His wife is always in white. Although he is not heavy he fills up any space that he occupies with his flamboyance. She is quieter.

His daughter has sometime alone, sometime with her ex and son and then time with her son alone giving her a vacation. On a rainy day last year she was biking down to the sea to swim. For me it was too cold, but a quick reminder of the North Sea, made me understand.

I look forward to some good conversations.


Watching the French film Lemming at the theatre around the corner, I suddenly was aware there was no background music. The wind in the trees, the coffee percolating, the whir of the lettuce dryer could all be heard under quiet conversation or no conversation at all. The only music was when something bad was about to happen, jarring the audience almost as much the event itself.

I thought of the air for Daiken air conditioners that I saw in Syria. There was a mime, no music, no voice over, contrasting to the usual hysteria of TV adverts. Then they showed the 3ftx1ftx4in wall mounted air conditioner and said, “Celebrating five years of silence.”

Silence, is it possible?

When I write I usually have music on. In the morning it is a cock that wakes me and if I don’t hear him, it could be garbage truck or the street cleaner that acts as an alarm clock. Even if those fail, voices of neighbors wishing each other good morning will do it.

In the middle of the night the frigo hums letting me know it is doing a good job in keeping my food cold. Thank you!

Climbing to Montsegur with Robin, Ruth and Barbara last week (Make sure you look at the site to get an idea of the height) R&R were ahead of me, B behind, all out of sight. I was alone on the path. No traffic was close enough to hear. However, birds sang and somewhere near bees buzzed. A light breeze ruffled the leaves. This was as silent as it gets, but it was anything but silent.

I tried an experiment by laying still, windows closed, TV and radio off, doing nothing. This is not meditation but listening to quiet. My mind wanders to old cloisters with sisters who took the vow of silence. Could I do that? I doubt it. What I like is the various noises that indicates life is around me, crowing, singing, buzzing, humming.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Working for Barbara

My friend Barbara sells books, African art, jewelry and ethnic clothing plus clothes that she designs and makes. During the season she is open 7/7, and I try to work for her a couple of afternoons a week to give her a breather and/or catch up on her sewing. If I don’t work, I feed her a couple of times so she doesn’t have to cope with dishes. This is not for money, nor does it take a job away from anyone because she would not hire anyone for these shifts.

She’s been my neighbor in three different places over the last 25 years and we’ve developed an easy friendship that is based on good times, meal sharing, and what do you need. Thus we’ve shlepped things up and down stairs, driven places to accomplish whatever.

Thursdays afternoons tend to be quiet, but it is always a surprise who might come in. Two women from Toronto wanted bracelets for one of the women’s daughters, a young boy was disappointed that we had nothing Mexican and an English woman and her American friend came in. The American was like Barbara and I, a person who spent more time outside our native country than in it.

Across the narrow street, Hugo, a two-year old, walks out on his balcony. He spends a lot of time on his balcony watching people walk up and down the street. He spies me sitting in the store and laughs as I wave.

On hot days I might sit outside the store and chat with Babette, the green grocer, the jeweler or anyone else who works by. It is a nice break from writing.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Spending a night in an old jail

The six-room hotel we found in Mirepoix goes back to the 14th century when it was jail. although much has been done to it since then. Now it is a three-star hotel. Mark with an English K nor Marc with a French c welcomed us.

The town is also medieval and I even had a character from Mirepoix in my novel Heretics and Lovers.

Barbara’s and my room was called the Chambre du Marquis. The big bed was surrounded by curtains, the small bed doubled as a couch in front of the fireplace. The armoire was an antique. The floors were a Spanish tile and the ceilings still had the original beams on 11-foot ceilings. Our view was the square and a gothic church spire. Robin and Ruth had the same view from their Chambre du Marchéchal.

However when we went out to eat we walked under the wooden arcade that ran the length of the street on the square. “Look,” Robin said. We followed his finger to the hand carved wooden gargoyles that lined the arcade. On the street side there were two other rows of carved wooden gargoyles. The top row was harder to distinguish because wind and rain had worn them away, but the lower row was sheltered and therefore protected and better preserved.

The next morning we woke to the sound of metal as merchants on the marché put up their stands. With over 200 stands, it was one of the largest marchés I have found in France.

Having spent lots and lots of time staying in chains during business trips, the idea of any place that it totally unique, is a pleasure. It is impossible to make a chain out of a hotel that began life as a jail seven centuries before.

Three wives

Barbara, Ruth and I, along with Ruth’s husband, Robin, headed for the medieval city of Minerve, pronounced menerve. In a pun the phrase in French can mean – it annoys me. The village and scenery did anything but annoy us. Minerve made one of the last stands to defend the Cathars.

After wandering the ancient streets, our next step was to buy some of the local Mirepoix regional wine.

Although caves were plentiful, we chose one, which had a beautiful show room. An older man poured various wines. Barbara was interested in buying wine in boxes, certainly something that might shock wine connoisseur pretenders, but wine keeps better in boxes than in bottles.

At one point the salesman said to Robin, “You are lucky to be with three women.” As he poured and talked, we could see him trying to figure out who belonged to Robin. Barbara sat next to Robin in the front seat as the salesman helped carry the boxed wine to the car and we guessed that he had it figured out, but wrongly.

We teased Robin that we should have boosted his macho image by all of us calling him darling or two of us arguing about whom he favored.

In the hotel we stayed at later the same day, Robin received the same comment on his good fortune. Again the inquisitive stares. We wandered up stairs alone so none of the staff knew for sure who was with whom. Since we struggled down to petit dejeuner at different times and since Barbara settled the bill for us all, there was no way they could ever have figured it out.

I suspect, that although Robin, who is a good looking man, loved being thought of as such a source of female attraction, he would not like being a spouse to three very strong women.
An overnight trip should have been enough for him.

French Patchwork

Patchwork is an American folk art form. However, patchwork and quilting is sweeping France. In the last week I’ve been to two exhibitions. One was local and could almost be described as painting with cloth. The other was about 60 kilometers away where there is a patchwork museum We drove up on Sunday and found the museum along a canal where red-headed ducks swam as dogs ran up and down the paths that ran parallel to the water. We lucked out on the day we were there. There was a special marché of all types of materials to support sewing crafts.

The displays and information were first rate. We even lucked out on the price. One Euro instead of three.

Singers entertained us, there were snacks to eat.

Although I never expected to find such a museum in rural France, patchwork is a rural art. My favorite was a donation by an American woman, who said since she was 89, she didn't need the quilt anymore, making a marvellous international connection between generations, artists and nations.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Swiss Democracy

What do Swiss do on Sunday? Go to church and vote. Well not every Sunday, but lots. This real democracy has been in its present form since the 1800s when it copied almost, the American bicameral legislature, although it has existed since 1300 in some form or another, making it one of the world’s oldest democracy rivaled only by Iceland.

Often the more numerous Swiss Germans vote one way overruling the Swiss French vote, but last Sunday the country approved the Schengen Treaty making border crossings easier as well as approving civil arrangements for couples.

This time there was no talk about the Roesti Curtain. Roesti is the hash-brown potato-type dish of the Swiss Germans. The term is used to describe the different attitudes in voting. However, lots of Swiss French eat Roesti.

Long may the continue the voting tradition.

PMS Replacement

I am probably one of the few women in the world that misses PMS. Instead of getting bitchy, I went into overdrive accomplishing chores that I had put off for four weeks. My roommates used to either save up things for me to do, or hide out during this period.

The scene in my novel Chickpea Lover, where the heroine washes the inside of the chimney, is autobiographical. Sadly the following sex scene wasn’t.

Today I went into overdrive in cleaning just like I did with PMS. My daughter has mocked me because I wash my cleaning appliances and I do admit I am neurotic. I don't want dust under my fridge, dust between my books. I wash off fingerprints on my cooking appliances, etc. Mega cleanings means moving everything out including the fridge and washer.

In a small space this isn’t that hard. Before Gérard, the unusual on-time French workman, pointed the original stone wall, it gave off dust to the point that if I swept down the stairs, by the time I was back up they were coated again. I suspected Catalan Leprechauns were bringing sand in from the beach just to dirty my stairs, but that is a problem of the past.

Anyone reading this who is planning to visit me, Rosemary and others, don’t worry that my neurosis will ruin your holiday. I revert to something normal when I have company. It may be all the threats of nursing homes if I didn’t shape up made by my daughter. She means now, not when I become old and infirm.

Today’s surge had nothing to do with PMS. I have found another catalyst. There was an article I didn’t want to write. Computer or cleaning cloth? The cloth won.

How Many Frenchmen Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb


My first run in with French light bulbs was years ago when I was living with Michel. As a good housewife I went to buy a light bulb. When I couldn’t find it and I didn’t know the word, I went to a clerk and acted out turning on a switch, not being able to see, unscrewing the bulb and shaking it to my ear. The clerk said, “You want a light bulb?” in perfect English. I hadn’t thought to ask if he could speak English, and he was enjoying my performance too much to tell me. “The word is ampule,” he said as I left.

I got the ampule home only to discover that the French have many kinds of screw in, push in, and snap in bulbs. Also there are different sizes of all the bulb endings.

The lighting during the day in my Argelès flat, thanks to the skylight is bright, but at night the developer had saved money by limiting the lights so if someone was within a few feet, I almost had to call out, “Is there anyone there?”

Gérard, the unusual French workman who shows up when he says he will, put in track lighting two years ago. The first Halogen bulb burned out Monday. There was no problem removing it. I went to the first store and found one identical in size, but instead of two nibs at the point of insertion, there were two points. “Try Shoppi,” Frenchman number 1 said.

“Try Weldon’s,” Frenchman number 2 said.

“All the way to the back and right,” French number 3 said.

“You should have gone left, Frenchman number 4 said.

I got to the checkout counter and noticed the writing on the bulb said 50W 230 while my sample bulb said 50W 220. “Is this a problem?” I asked the check out clerk. French number 5 called Frenchmen number 6, 7 and 8 who debated what it meant. “Try it, and if it doesn’t work, bring it back, number 5 said.

It worked.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Lights Out

I hadn’t realized the lights had gone out because the computer had switched to battery until I tried to turn on the light. Nothing worked, the fuse box had all switches at normal position. Going downstairs, the neighbors were out on the street, not unusual because many of the neighbors sit and talk for hours on the street. They were without lights too.

An examination showed a good part of the town was out. I went to my friend Barbara’s. Since she had a gas stove, she was able to cook dinner, goat. At this time of the year it doesn’t get dark until at least 10 p.m. We ate by candlelight and I was about to borrow a candle to get back to my place.

We looked outside. The lights had come back on and we hadn’t noticed.

A trip to the beach

On the twenty minute walk to the beach I was engulfed by the smell of lavender. I walked a little further and was overwhelmed with the smell of jasmine. I remember my trip to Grasse years ago where I toured the perfume factories. The perfumers took almost one square foot wooden boxes, filled them with an amber gel and petal by petal of jasmine formed a single layer. The gel absorbed the scent. After several days the gel is melted down and used for the perfume in various combinations.

Some web sites about Grasse: and the best site is

I had earned the beach break. Not only had I added more about Pope Benedict XII to my novel Heretics and Lovers, I had nailed a scene in my novel Triple Deckers where Peggy realizes how loveless her life has been when she sees a couple hugging while waiting for the Red Line to Harvard Square. I had also cracked a story I am writing on the arts in Cork and sent out some of my last newsletters. I intend to continue writing W3 monthly but will blog it instead of emailing it. When the list went over 7500 it became too much.
The road to the beach was once all vineyards but it is now full of houses, but most have more flowers than I can identify.

The beach is the last sandy beach before Spain. The blue flag signaling the EU had tested the water and found it unpolluted was flapping in rags in the wind. Heavy winds had taken their toll. The water was 20°, the air 30°. (28° is 82°F).

I don’t worry about what people think of my body. There are too many bronzed beauties strutting around the beach to notice my chicken white skin. I stretched out my towel and shut my eyes listening to the waves, a few birds and the conversation of two young French girls. Their twittering increased. I sat up in time to see a well built young man, check to make sure they were watching. He did a quadruple somersault backwards into the water. I decided to walk along the edge of the water letting the waves break up to my knees. By the time I had come back, the young man was sitting with the girls.

Next month the beach will be towel-to-towel full, but today it was sparsely occupied. I always find a place, but then an English woman comes next to me and inevitably has a stream of speech that includes conversation like this: “Samantha, that’s not the way to hold your shovel. Simon, you need three towers on your sand castle. No, you can’t have a biscuit for another three minutes. We’re having lamb tonight, won’t that be nice. Now where is your father? I can’t stand to come to the beach, because he disappears...” and on and on and on and on. I never said I could understand that he was trying to get away. In ten trips to the beach, I have run into at least eight motor-mouth women all who sound like the sample above.

Walking back I really wished Llara could have been there. Despite having blond hair and blue eyes my daughter turns bronze if a sunbeam even comes near her. On one trip here, she was working on changing racial profiles, and decided she was a goddess in training, a tan being the requirement to make it to full goddessdom. I asked her what she would be a goddess of. “Goddess of management,” she told me.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Dibs and Dab

1. M6 (TV station) now has a morning exercise show. For years I’ve done some form of exercise on waking from jogging to sit ups but am delighted to have something to exercise to. However there is less cellulite on the long-haired, long-limbed women gyrating on my screen than I had at 10 so I can’t even blame it on age. One reason I don’t join a gym, I prefer to be a clutz in private.

2. Criticism for the lack of black artists on the upcoming Live Aid concert. Why is it no matter what someone tries, someone attacks it?

3. The Brits are floating the idea of a road usage tax having cars pay for each mile they use varying from a few pence to £1.34. I bet if American ever had a $1.00 a mile tax we would suddenly not be driving to the store next door in the same shopping mall, and begin car pooling big time. Money could be used to finance public transportation. Anyone who knows me, knows I detest any non fuel efficient car. Anyway, although maybe not in my lifetime, oil will run out. Dinosaurs are refusing to die to form more fuel. I doubt if the taxes will happen.

4. Someone who reads my blog regularly asked if I ever wake up and say another shit day. I do intend to write about the positive. My “bad day” yesterday was discovering my milk frother didn’t work, my satellite company changed my subscription so I didn’t have BBC prime, and a light bulb burned out. Since France has many different type of light bulbs instead of a standard screw in model, I need to do a safari for a replacement. Any annoyance at my “bad day” was swept away by BBC’s reports on Dafur. I must remember that I and everyone I know live better than 99% of the people who ever lived in the world. I will return the milk frother, the TV is now back to normal, and the light bulb safari is a project for today.

5. For some reason I have had a tremendous prgnancy-strong craving for corn flakes lately. I mix yoghurt and fresh figs, add bananas and then the cornflakes so they don’t get mushy. I am sure I will get back to the crusty bread from the local bakeries at some point.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Daily Life in the Time of Calvin.

At the Place du Molard in Geneva, used book sellers had set out their offerings around the flower-decorated fountain. Although I was meeting my former and current landlady who is the same person plus the family that are now living in my old flat for lunch, there was time to browse.

I try and read at least one French book a month. Unlike English books, which I eat, French takes me longer and the book has to be fascinating. I prefer used books, because they are cheaper, and if I am lucky someone has put notes in them. It is a type of communications between other readers and me.

The book La Vie Quotidienne à Genève au Temps de Calvin almost jumped into my hand. I am trying to develop a mystery series set both in modern times and with a subplot somewhere in history. I also want to set them in different cities. Murder in Argelès is written, but needs a rewrite. Underground Railroads, is set in Rockport, MA and is also written and making the rounds. Last month I researched Murder in Damascus while in Syria, and I have been postponing researching Murder in Geneva.

However, this 245-page book has all the background I need on what Geneva was like during Calvin’s time.

The woman said there was a newer edition out, but at 8 CHF, I was content. As I walked across the street and sat on the steps in front of yet another fountain waiting for my lunch partners, I started reading.

I learned that where I bought the book in the time of Calvin was beach front property. Lake Lehmann had come up all the way to the Place du Molard. Now it is a couple of rather large streets away. I also learned that despite the proximity of the lake, water was a problem. It had to be hauled from the lake up the hill to the Old Town.

Somewhere in the 1400s a man from Avignon had offered to build 12 fountains for 800 Ecus. The city fathers only authorized one, at the place I was sitting. I looked behind me. The fountain was definitely newer, but I still could imagine a woman in a long dress and apron walking down the hill along the cobblestones with her pitcher to get water to wash her luncheon dishes. Before I could go any further either in my imagination or the book, my landlady called to me. The sandwich shop where we were eating, was definitely of modern times.

Buying a Milk Frother

I went shopping. Yup me. Shopping. By choice. I went to the Geneva branch of the Manora Department Store, fourth floor, household goods to buy a milk frother.

It was identical to the one I had given a cappuccino-loving friend. Like most Americans, he found more than one use for it. It was also great to make salad dressings.

Not to brag too much, but I am renown for my salads. Whenever there’s a pot luck (or Canadian supper as pot lucks are called here) and I offer to bring a pie, vegetables, etc., people always say, “but your salads are so good. Can you bring that?” Now I know I also make good pies, vegetables, etc. so it is not a fear of my other dishes that makes them ask for salad. My not-so-secret secret is in the dressings, never store bought, but made with the freshest of oils, herbs, soy, seeds, whatever, whisked and whisked and whisked…

For the last artichoke I cooked I made my usual vinaigrette, but the emulsion just wasn’t smooth enough. I gave in. After all, thinking about a 19.50 CHF purchase for eight months isn’t exactly an impulse buy.

The device, which is about ten inches long, met my three criteria.

1. Does it give me energy?
Yes. I will enjoy using it.

2. Is it beautiful?
Yes. It is gracefully shaped, silver, and the little whip at the bottom looks like a
Euro-sized slinky in a circle.

3. Is it useful?
Yes. Considering I make salad dressing for almost every meal.

Later that evening I was having dinner with a friend and I told her about it. She knows how much I despise adding anything to my place that isn’t 892% necessary under my three criteria.

“I bet you are going to put it in the basket over the sink,” she said.

She was right.

He Was Hollywood Handsome

He was Hollywood handsome as he sauntered along the quai next to Lake Lehman. His blond hair was cut in a way that the rippling breeze left every hair in place. His body was gym perfect and he slung a blue suit coat over his shoulder. His shirt was pink striped and he wore jeans.

He looked straight ahead, or at least his head did not swivel to watch the speed boat pulling the water skier. Nor did he appear to notice the two young women on roller blades that did a double take and watched his perfect ass.

Behind him a little blond girl in a pink sundress with an aqua ruffle on the bottom and pink and aqua sandals peddled a bike with training wheels. She finally caught up with the man. He turned and took off his glasses. Their facial structure was so similar there was no need for a DNA test to determine relationships. Whatever he said, she started to cry. He walked ahead of her and she followed on the bike, only more slowly leaving a good amount of distance between them.

He was Hollywood handsome, but he was ugly.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Birthday Party

Lillian’s 80th birthday party was held in a farm in Dordogne overlooking a valley of farms and the twisting river. Everything served from the foie gras to the chicken soup with the transparent tapioca balls was raised on the farm. Well not everything. The wine was from the region not from the farm.

Lillian, herself looked and acted as if she were in her fifties. (I’ve always hated saying some looks 32 or 61, because I am not exactly sure what 32 or 61 looks like, but Lillian certainly does not fit the concept of a little old white haired lady.).

Some 70 relatives had come not just from the area but from all over France, Canada and of course Switzerland. They varied in age from four months to 95, the latter being a woman dressed in white pants and a bright red blazer with jewelry, her blond hair modernly styled. She hopped from table to table talking to everyone. Not one person was obese, although there was one chubby and about four chunkies.

Like all family gatherings there were stories of who did what to whom and when, laughter, some tension between those that had problems in the past, forgiveness of others. Although I wasn’t part of the family, people went out of their way to include me or explain backgrounds.

I was reminded of the 50th wedding anniversary party for my Aunt Alma and Uncle Pat held in Florida twenty years ago. This hall looked out on a man-made lake. When we entered a room of 100 or so people, I said to my daughter, “There’s the family.”

“Where?” she asked.

“All over.”

It was the same atmosphere of happiness to see each other and to share a special time. At both parties, people kept saying the same thing: “We usually only meet at funerals, isn’t it lovely to meet for a happy event.” Like Tolstoy said “happy families are the same everywhere.”

Hotel Radio

The art deco exhibition last year at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had been wonderful, but I never expected to live in Art Deco surroundings. On the trip to Dordogne my Swiss friend Florian and I met up with his daughter Mathilde and her Swedish partner Hans, who had picked out the Hotel Radio.

One look at the art deco lobby made me want to change to low-waisted dress, put on a cloche and Charleston across the lobby. The rooms were in the same style, in cheery whites and yellows. The sink was a huge bowl balanced on a wooden counter top the same way a soup bowl would be on a table.

The restaurant provided us with one of those memory meals, course after course of mini taste sensations presented in a manner that made me debate whether I should take a photo or eat it. Translucent leaf-shaped crackers with sprigs of dill cooked in them so they looked like fossils, is just one example. Our food was brought by two waiters so we all were served at the same instant.

This was even more impressive because Hans and Mathilde had their Great Dane Theodora with them and to reach Hans, the waiters had to step over the dog. ( to read a story I published about Dogs in restaurants )

Each course was served on a different art deco plate: a translucent checkerboard of white and black glass, a brilliant blue glass circle, a square white plate with the corners turned up. The butter dish was a 3x5x2 crystal cube with a slot for the butter knife in the middle. However the after-dessert dessert was a 8x2x.5 stone slab with five sticks each topped with a bite of a sweet, a tuft of cotton candy, chocolate, a strawberry and confections that we were too full to do anything but look at.

When we walked back through the lobby, my desire to Charleston, was non-existent. I decided I never wanted to eat again or until the next day, whichever came first.

Snake Stories

The snake, no bigger than the length of my hand, a beautiful Hershey Kiss Milk Chocolate wiggled across the red dirt path.

Ignoring the phallic and Freudian implications I want you to know. I DON’T LIKE SNAKES.

My opinion was influenced by my Grandmother. Because we lived on 14 acres of land, much of it woods, snakes were not uncommon. We always knew when she saw one, even if the windows and doors were closed. Most of the neighbors knew. Some probably suspected her husband of wife abuse. She gave credence to the cliché screaming bloody murder.

As a student teacher I turned from writing on the chalk board to look into the flickering tongue of a snake, held by one of my less likeable students. Rather than repeat my grandmother’s reaction, I calmly (on the exterior) took the snake from the kid, being careful to hold it around its neck in case it was poisonous, asked him questions and pretending to be one of those people on TV who show animals to talk show hosts, asked the other kids if they wanted to hold it. This was NOT bravery. It had taken a nano second to realize that any other reaction would have brought daily donations of creatures that would be better left in the wild. The student was hovering between a low D and an F. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the teacher who wouldn’t be cowered.

Right before I gave birth to my daughter, I dreamed I was in bed when my mother arrived. She was wearing a fake fur white coat with black spots. The collar was a fuzzy snake that slithered off. I woke up and told my husband, got up, went to the bathroom as most very pregnant women do. After going back to sleep I dreamed the same snake wiggled over to my bed, raised his head cobra style and said, “I bet you thought you got rid of me in the last dream.”

My last snake dream was after a day in Montaillou My friends Robin, Ruth, Barbara and I had visited the château ruins where in the late 1300s the Lady Béatrice had an affair with Pierre Clergue, the local priest. As Robin and I were heading down the path after Barbara and Ruth, a snake crossed our path. That night I dreamed that the snake had followed us, hid under the car, waited for us two hours while we ate in a restaurant, got off at the movie theatre in Argelés where Robin let Barbara and I off, followed me for two blocks to my home, slipped under the front door and up two flights of stairs, then made it under my door where a piece of paper is too thick to fit and up the last flight of stairs. Even though I knew it was totally stupid, I slept the rest of the night with the light on.

The little milk chocolate snake slipped into the brush at the edge of the path. I never thought that baby snakes could be cute like baby cats, dogs, monkeys, elephants, etc., but I was wrong.


Some families hand down jewelry, houses, furniture, and other valuables. My family consigns the love of a license plate – 49T.

It started somewhere in the 50s when my father received the number from a Massachusetts Governor, which he kept until he was ready to retire to Florida. In MA you can only pass a vanity plate onto a relative, and although my cousin Frank pushed to be the lucky recipient, I as adored daughter won out over the much cared for cousin. My father in turn asked for and received the plate 49T in Florida. He loved big cars, I loved small cars and when our two vehicles were parked side-by-side, it looked like a boat and a dinghy with matching plates. His 49T is still on my Mom’s car.

When I moved to France I missed the plate. My then French lover had a fake French license plate made up as 49T as a joke but appreciated gift.

Vanity plates do not exist in Switzerland, and for the last 12 years I have not owned a car so 49T was filed in memory until yesterday when my daughter in her email announced she was going to try and get the plate 49T in her new home in Virginia. Family traditions may make sense only to family members, but I know if my father were still alive he would be flashing that grin that I loved so much.

Fast Vacations

There’s fast food and fast vacations. My Swiss friend Florian vacations fast and infrequently. In 1993 he took one week to meet my friends and family in Florida and Boston. In 1995 he took me, my daughter and her significant other on a four day tour of Provence, but that hardly counted as a vacation because it was over the four-day Easter weekend when he couldn’t work. In 1998 he visited the Ukraine for less than a week, which was half pleasure, half business. Then last year he spent a long weekend visiting me in Argelès. Switzerland is a country where people vacation four to sick weeks a year.

Thus I was more than amazed that he proposed to take extra time while we went to his sister-in-law’s 80th birthday party in Dordogne. I was shell shocked when I got into his car that he wanted to add another day onto the trip.

When we were in Provence it was this is Nostradamus’s town whoosh, this is a medieval village whoosh and a number of other whooshes that remain pleasant blurs.

This trip seemed to be equally whosh. We saw the volcanic park whoosh, a medieval village whoosh and the château where Josephine Baker raised her adopted children whoosh.

However after the birthday we headed for Futuroscope, a park developed by the department of Vienne to develop the area as a conference centre and destination spot.

Long ago I learned not to prejudge what he proposed. We spent the day, one whole day, visiting the different theatres, admiring the architecture, flowers, water events, etc. One took us on a voyage where the water flowed under our seats and the birds flew over our heads. What impressed me most about the park was that there were only seven boutiques, selling either educational items or things that would not break or be thrown away in a couple of hours. The boutiques were tucked away. Not once did I hear a child cry “buy me…” Even the food in the park was priced equal to or less than one could pay outside the park.
We were not able to see all the exhibitions nor did we stay for the evening performances. This time it was my fault, because I had to get back to my commitments. He understood