Archive for November, 2009

Latour/La Tour/The Tower

November 15, 2009

We writers love towers. They are removed and lofty, closer to the divine. Maybe we believe writing in a tower opens our thoughts to the heavens, to the muses. Maybe we need to look away from our work—the tedium of language, the marks on the page, these attempts to quantify a life, life itself, and one’s thoughts—into distances, to see the bigger, wider view. Maybe we seek quiet and solitude to be alone with our thoughts, to focus on the words. Maybe we need to hide to create. The tower’s symbolism and uses—power, protection, lookout, communication, storage—draw us up the stairs, toward the sky. The words housed in this stone structure—the words themselves a structure—contain, and maybe disguise or secret something, maybe imprison, maybe let us watch for something else.

Acrobatic ballet on former prison tower, Auch

At the first of November, Susan and I and the children move up to our home for duration of our stay in a village in France, the château’s tower apartment. It is a proper private space about 50×25 feet with a fully equipped kitchen, living room, dining area, bath and toilet, two bedrooms, and laundry, and a huge loft opening onto a covered balcony overlooking the countryside to the east, north and south. A wood stove stands in the open hearth, supplementing the under-floor heating, and we are fully connected to the rest of the modern world with satellite television, DVD, and Wi-fi. On the other hand, the square holes for the beams of the catwalk ramparts that once ringed the roof attest to the tower’s former importance as a lookout post for the monastery that owned and built it and the surrounding residents. Since the 11th century, when the stones were worked and laid and stacked up in a tower of more than 60 feet on top of a tall hill, Christian Crusaders regularly crossed this part of southern France on their way to Spain and the Holy Lands. Invaders frequently made incursions from the south—where lies Spain beyond the Pyrénées, about three hours drive from here—and the east—where the Mediterranean Sea opens to Rome and Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. Pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella passed nearby. In the tower, we are the tallest thing for miles around. We inhabit both old and new worlds. We climb the thousand-year-old stairs, hang our laundry where the monks kept an eye out for Saracen raiders, sleep restlessly while the winds from the Atlantic and the white Pyrénées howl like ghosts, and wake to write at dawn for an audience to whom I am connected by satellites and radio waves. Weird.

In the Tarot, the Tower is a symbol of destruction, the collapse of the systems and structures we erect in our lives to make us feel safe, to keep us secure, to hide away our secrets, our vulnerabilities. The pictures from the most ancient decks show a stone tower struck by lightening, the people within escaping from the flames and stones in the nick of time, often naked to the storm. This is a mythology that explains those times in life when everything falls apart. When what we had counted on suddenly no longer is. Jung liked this symbolism, of course. He even built a tower himself, by hand. Our tower seems strong, even when the wind blows. We tell ourselves that it has been here for a thousand years. This is unlikely to be the storm that brings it down.


I have always been a weather-watcher, but in the tower, I find myself both obsessed and mystified by the weather. Up here, the winds blow almost all the time. The winds in France have names—Autan, Mistral, Tramotane, Cers. The winds that blow in this part of the Haute Garonne are not the Mistral of Provence, but they can be just as fierce, just as damaging. The winds that blow in from the south and west—from the Atlantic Ocean and across the Pyrenees—in the fall and winter can be very cold, very wet. In the first week of November, our first week in the tower, a series of storms blow in from that direction, sideways sheets of rain, sycamore leaves sweeping past our windows. The wind is loud outside, like waves at the beach or the blood through the heart and veins of someone under great stress, intense. In legend, these winds can make a person go mad, tumble the walls of self that holds the mind together. But isn’t that always the legend of great winds? The tower stands rock solid, cutting the yowling winds. We feel safe but unnerved.

La tour, Montesquieu- Volvestre

Lightening does strike, on occasion, we’re told. It has hit this very tower, the tallest thing for miles. It strikes the chimney and travels straight to ground. It hits the satellite dish and, like an evil sprite, dances through all of the electrics in the whole château, blowing out the television, the d.v.d. player, towel warmers, computers, washing machines, an oven. We protect ourselves as much as possible, keep everything important unplugged unless we’re using it. Unless we see and hear a thunder storm approaching. We watch for lightening like those sentinels of old watched for marauders. I think of the Tarot card image, everything tumbling to the ground.

We find that the weather on the ground floor may be very different from that up in the tower. Some days we hike down all those flights of crooked wooden steps from the howl of wind outside into warmth. The wind from the east feels dry, though the clouds may lower and darken the day early. The clouds may part suddenly, blue skies opening up. Rainbows spring up from the brown plowed hills and disappear into lavender clouds. The snows creep down the Pyrénées as the storms pass, day by day, week by week. And then the weather turns warm again. We pick more of the tomatoes from the garden. My spinach and arugula sprout in the garden. We run in shorts one day and dress the children in winter coats for school the next. Who are we inside this tower? Something different each day. Something unpredictable as the weather swirling around us. But also something solid and unchanging within—is this the self? We come down to earth some days, and find it a strange place.

I move my chair and work table so that I am able to see the sunrise, pinks and oranges and purples and reds. I sit on the swing on the balcony on warm afternoons and look through binoculars. I point the telescope toward Jupiter so that we can look for the giant red spot, a mammoth storm that has been swirling up there 400 million miles away for thousands of years. Since the time this tower was built and monks in robes tended the fields and slept on boards without blankets and watched the horizon for danger coming. They sat, perhaps, just about here and watched these same stars. We look up and out for God, but isn’t that spirit also contained within these walls, permeating the very stones of this tower? The light I see tonight left that star when that lonely monk sat in my place now. When this tower falls, what secret minotaur will be revealed?

View from our tower

In this tower, though, I am not alone. James and Izzy and Susan are all here, and soon we’ll be joined by the dogs in our care. It’s a busy tower, full of life. My heart swells with it. The structure is sound. It holds our joyful noise and points it to the heavens. It draws the heavens down in bolts that illuminate and warm, transformed into dancing sprites. Change—even destruction—can open the heart to magic, to the divine within.

I rise at 5, as is my custom, to be alone in the loft with my words, my writing, my stories, watching the sunrise, watching for invaders, storing away the harvest for another, colder day. I don’t know all that is hidden in the heart of this structure. It has not yet been revealed to me. The tower has not yet fallen away. Change will come though. I know it. And it may be the change of a tower falling, some structure tumbling, a rug pulled from under my feet. It has happened to me before: my coming out, my brother’s death, my father’s silence, even falling in love with Susan and the birth of the twins, the total demolition of my former life. I have learned that the tower falling can bring new light. We can rise to the challenges, embrace the changes, move into a new world.

Sometimes the words build the tower up. Sometimes they protect the secrets. Sometimes they reveal them and the tower crumbles. I seem to land on my feet, naked perhaps, vulnerable. But clean. Illuminated. The words are just a tower. The life within the walls is ordinary and divine in the same breath, the same light of heaven. Stones may crumble, but the light warms, a kind of magic. We must trust—not fear—the process of change. I signal the world miles away. We are safe up here together, even when the walls come down.


To Market, To Market

November 10, 2009

To write about markets in rural European towns is an exercise in cliché. We Americans—and most urban Europeans, for that matter—are so used to the supermarket, the mall, and the internet that when we travel to a place where the most important shopping is done one day a week from open-air stalls spilling out around an ancient village square, we are charmed. How quaint. How sweet. How colorful. We take out our cameras and shoot bright photos: old fellows in colorful bandanas; women in aprons carrying big baskets, folks with baguettes under their arms; tables and carts and vans laden with food, flowers, clothing, goods and live animals. Here in the farmlands south of Toulouse and most of rural France, shopping on market day is still a community event, an opportunity to socialize and exchange news as well as merchandise. The produce has been picked the day before, the walnuts and sweet chestnuts gathered from local forests. There are bargains (three basketball-sized heads of leafy lettuce for €1), and tourists to be conned (a block of cheese for €20). Handmade soaps and felted wool slippers from local sheep occupy booths next to mounds of t-shirts, jeans and socks. Live chickens with their feet bound lie in rows on the sidewalk; a merchant gently lifts the haunches of a huge brown rabbit to confirm his gender. Our first market day is during the school holidays for Toussaint (all-saints day), a brilliant October morning, in the town of Samatan. The mood is festive, the harvest is in, and we are not only charmed, we are hooked. I must therefore risk cliché.


To say that food is important in France is an understatement. Important meals like Sunday déjeuner (lunch) lasts from around noon until after dark. Rather than pizza under hot-lamps in cafeteria lines, school lunches are served to the children—who must each have a personalized cloth serviette (napkin)—in three courses—dishes like poulet cordon bleu (chicken cordon blue) and pâté du région—with multiple baskets of fresh bread. The typical French refrigerator is what Americans call “dorm-sized”; these diminutive storage coolers are all that’s needed when you buy food almost every day. How else would it be fresh? Nearly everyone stops at the grocers every other day, and often at the bolangerie (bakery) and charcuterie (butcher shop) as well. Within two weeks of arrival, we place a standing order for two baguettes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with the bread-man, Monsieur M., who rattles up the long driveway in his delivery truck to the fanfare of barking dogs. We often stop for even more bread while out. The French love of food is not a difficult custom for us to adopt.


Market day in Samatan is Monday morning. We have a list of market days in all the surrounding market towns—fifty within about fifty kilometers—and I have set a personal goal to attend every market on the list at least once during our ten months here. There is a slight preference for Saturdays and Mondays, but there are at least half-dozen from which to choose on any day of the week. Samatan is a large town and the market spreads out around the town square, including a huge metal building devoted to the sale of live animals, and spilling into the parking lot of the Shopi supermarket and along all the streets radiating out from the center. On this gorgeous October day, it is jammed with shoppers and tourists, but even on a rainy day in November the streets will be packed. There are at least a hundred stalls: clothing ranging from leather jackets to Hanes underwear, running shoes, nightgowns, stockings and socks; sewing notions and fabrics, including rainbow-arrayed boxes of buttons and threads; fresh meats, ranging from rabbit to beef to duck to Alaskan salmon; the full range of vache, chèvre and brebis (cow, goat, sheep) varieties of French cheeses; bedding plants, which in the fall include strawberries dangling red fruits and pansies and broccoli and cabbage and lettuces and leeks; fresh vegetables and fruits of the season; an array of dried salamis made from every creature imaginable; local patés; platters of spices sweetening the air with cinnamon, vanilla, peppers…; a variety of at least fifty dried fruits, including pineapple, raisins, dates, figs, strawberries, and bananas; sweets, pastry and breads; handmade soaps scented with everything from lavender to bubblegum; kitchen supplies and hardware; prepared foods for take-away, curry and paella and pizza. We risk cliché, take out our camera and snap away.

In the live animal barn, rows of geese with their feet tucked under them twist their necks to watch us walk by; chickens and roosters with their feet bound lie on their sides, little black eyes darting here and there; hundreds of yellow chicks peep in crates; baby bunnies and huge hares may be petted, though their destinies are likely the dinner plate; hundreds of parakeets in cages screech and jabber into the chaos; juvenile guinea pigs and mice and hamsters in cages at child-level sniff fingers with twitchy noses; puppies—mostly Border collies and bird dogs—and kittens wriggle for attention or snooze, exhausted with being adored, in boxes or pens; young pigs snuffle in their hay; a few calves sway at the ends of tethers. It’s chaos. James, who is afraid of chickens, refuses to go in, but Izzy and I make the entire circuit, petting the bunnies and puppies and kittens, watching the geese watching us as we walk by. The old nursery rhyme repeats in my head: “To market, to market to buy a fat pig….”


We do not buy any live animals—pigs or otherwise—but we do purchase some tights for Izzy, three bunches of leaf lettuce, a bunch of carrots, a bag of walnuts, chestnuts to roast, dried mango, some pinons, a chunk of petit basque cheese, a felted wool purse for Susan, and softball-sized apples. We fill our shopping bag.

We have guaranteed the children’s interest and excitement for the market by giving them each €1 to spend on anything they want, so long as it’s not live animals. We don’t need any more chicks or mice in the château! They look long and hard for just the right items, rejecting candies and pastries and fresh strawberries. There aren’t really any toys at this market. Izzy is determined to have a flowering plant in her room, having left her African violet in the care of her kindergarten class in Vermont, so she chooses a pink pansy for 50 cents. James spies the choumaillous (marshmallows)—perhaps six, mostly blue and pink, in plastic baggies—and spends 50 cents. Izzy can’t resist and buys a bag for herself with her change from the flower.

The best moment of the day, however, is when Susan spies a wagon arrayed with dry salamis, perhaps twenty different kinds. A sign reads “Tous 3/€10” (any three for ten Euros). A bargain. I want the one encrusted with rosemary. Susan selects one made from porc (pork), a straightforward choice. And then she makes her mistake. Qu’est-ce que vous  recommandez?” she asks the woman who is the vendor. I’m rummaging in my bag for €10.

The woman immediately reaches for a salami and adds it to our bag, stating firmly, “Âne. C’est trés bon.”

Susan hesitates. The bag is thrust in her direction as I hand over the note.

“Merci,” the woman says. “Au revoir.” She turns to the next customer.

“Merci, Madame,” Susan says, and we walk away. She has a strange look on her face.

“What?” I ask. “What did she say? What kind did she recommend?”

Susan leans close, away from the children. “Donkey,” she whispers. “We just bought a donkey salami.” What can we do? We laugh. “I just couldn’t be that up-tight American who refused after asking her for a recommendation,” Susan says.


On the drive home, we engage the kids—high on marshmallows—in making up new versions of the old cliché: “To market, to market to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggity jig.” James offers, “To market, to market to buy a choumaillou; home again, home again, do-malloo, do-malloo.” For Izzy it’s “To market, to market to buy a pink pansy; home again, home again, aren’t we fancy.” And for Susan, I invent this: “To market, to market to buy a salami; home again, home again, next time, no donkey.”


November 7, 2009

carc1One of the few toys we brought with us for our ten months in France in our 400 pounds of luggage is a set of cardboard pieces called Klutz Building Cards: How to Build Castles. It’s an ingenious toy: simple, cute, a good way to talk to the kids about knights and princesses and medieval history. We spend several evenings in the first few weeks comparing our constructions to pictures in books and online, discussing ramparts and defenses, wars and raids, and what it must have been like to live in those times. We compare the printed pieces to our own château, which was a fortified home and granary. James and Izzy have one lonely little plastic knight figure, which they tumble into the towers and perch in precarious situations along the walls, mainly so that he can fall off, complete with the requisite screams: aaahhh—blam! His little sword is the only weapon we’ve ever officially allowed as parents, so it is, of course, central in much of the imaginary play. The cardboard pieces of the building set are printed with stone walls (some vine-covered), stained glass windows, wooden planks, ramparts, shuttered windows, open windows, hearths with huge kettles hung inside. All this cardboard construction and theoretical history lessoning becomes startingly real on the day we visit Carcassonne.

Carcassonne is east of Toulouse, toward the Mediterranean Sea, in the unfolding of hills between the Massif Central rising to the north and the Pyrénées to the south that was once the disputed border with Spain. The land here forms a natural corridor more easily traversed by Romans, Crusaders, invaders, traders and others. The earth is rich for farming. The temperatures are relatively mild. Most of the towns perch atop hills, and many (along with homes and keeps like the château in which we’re living) were fortified. Carcassonne, roughly halfway between Toulouse and the sea, was one such place, a walled city on a hill, a castle, a bastide, a fortification, a child’s toy castle come to life.

By the time we arrive in the lower (slightly newer) town of Carcassone, the children are restless. We had stopped at an Aire (a rest area) off the A61 for a picnic to stave off their hunger on the way, but an hour in the car plus twenty minutes to find our way to the Cité, which is the old upper town within the castle wall, has tried their patience. Despite the pictures we’ve seen online and in books, none of us are quite prepared for the sight of Carcassonne. We wind our way up the narrow roads, following the signs, round a bend, and there it is—curving stone walls, turrets, mammoth wooden gates, a drawbridge over a (now-dry) moat, wooden ramparts, the notched stone top all the way around where the knights would (really!) shoot arrows, drop boulders, and pour boiling oil onto their attackers. A real castle.

Isabelle carcasonne

The region around Carcasonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, has been inhabited for about 5000 years, and the Romans established a fortified outpost on top of the hill called Carsac at about 100 BC. Some of the lowest ramparts date from that era, but the present-day structure is a bit of lesson in European history, walls built higher, a second wall added to make a “curtain” of defense, the town closed in within the wall, towers erected to watch for the English invaders and crusaders from the west, the Visigoths and Franks from the north, and the infidels and barbarians from the south and west, over the course of more than a thousand years. The Romans gave the town to King Theodoric II of the Visigoths (from what is now eastern Germany) in 453; the Visigoths fought off King Clovis of the Franks (also a Germanic tribe, but more closely allied with the Romans) in 508 but lost the town to Muslims from Spain in 725; King Pepin the Short (another Frank, the father of Charlemagne) sent the Spaniards packing from the region in 760 but couldn’t break through the defenses of Carcassonne to take the castle. A succession of local counts (from which the English word “county”—the land ruled by a count—comes) controlled Carcassonne through the Middle Ages, most notably the Trencavel family beginning in 1067, who built the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and their elaborate residence, the Château Comtal, within the fortifications of the city walls. Pope Urban II blessed the cathedral in 1096. During the Crusades, the fort and Trencavel family finally surrendered to the army of Simon de Monfort (a French nobleman and Christian convert who married into English nobility), who declared himself viscount and added more fortifications. In 1247, the city submitted to the rule of France and King Philip III built the outer walls. The Black Prince (of England), King Edward, couldn’t get through the defenses of the fortress in 1355, so (as was typical during these times) he destroyed the lower town. The fortress, after nearly 1000 years of additions and reinforcements, now protected by a double curtain wall and 53 towers, was deemed impregnable. What wars and armies couldn’t accomplish—the destruction of Carcassonne—however, peace almost did. In 1659, the region and city officially became part of France. No longer a military outpost, the fortifications fell into ruin, so much so that the government scheduled the whole thing for demolition in 1849. Enter Carcassonne’s truest knight in shining armor, an architect named Viollet-le-Duc, who made the restoration of Carcassonne his life’s work. Criticized for some historical inaccuracies and liberties in the restoration (some towers, for instance, have peaked roofs rather than the flat roofs more typical of this region), le’Duc’s legacy has resulted in a marvelous recreation that inspires the imagination and brings the distant past into sharp focus. This is no Disneyworld invention or cardboard construction; Carcassonne makes history—the castles, the wars, the people’s lives—three-dimensional and interactive, a stone fortress that makes that world a little more real.

ramparts carcassonne

We enter Carcassonne from a car park at the Narbonne gate on a clear and warm October day. We cross a bridge over what would have been a moat filled with water and dodge other tourists to enter the forty-foot wooden gates. At tourist information, just to the right inside, we collect a map and look down into a dry well, dark and cool, and out the slot windows in the stone walls. Narrow medieval cobblestoned streets that slope into caniveaux (gutters) down the middle curve past candy shops and cafes and places to buy Styrofoam shields and swords and princess crowns and homes with wooden shutters stacked one atop another. More than 200 people still live within the walls of the upper town, the Cité, but these are not characters dressed in period costume. These are shop owners and waiters and soccer fans—modern descendants, perhaps, of those people who sheltered in the fortress when the lower town was attacked or those who set up shop where customers already congregated. One of the successes of the modern Cité de Carcassonne, for me, is that it does not have to try hard to lure the tourists, at least not during this shoulder season of fall. This is no medieval fair, staged for entertainment, but a city that thrives on a tourist economy. The historic and educational landmark of the fortress draws the crowds, and the residents provide the food, gee-gaws, postcards, and services on which those people will spend their Euros.

In late October the town is crowded but not claustrophobic; it is easy to imagine the chaos of a hot day at the height of the summer tourist season when thousands of people per day visit. Indeed, the first two weeks of August are dedicated to a medieval fair called the Spectacle Médiéval with period costumes and theatrical enactments including live jousting tournaments. The fact that Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, was filmed in Carcassonne attests to its charmed quality of history-come-to-life. And perhaps the costumes and jousting lend a more performative aspect to the experience, but something about the simple reality of the ancient stones beneath our feet and in the walls makes this day’s visit nearly perfect.

saint navaire carc garg

We thread our way through the streets and emerge into a wide square. Directly across is a second set of walls, the interior castle or château, complete with wooden ramparts or walkways along the tops of the walls. We purchase tickets (€8 for adults; children free), cross a second drawbridge, pass through more huge gates and into a vast courtyard with an ancient sycamore tree at the center. Upstairs, in a wide banquet room, a video in wide format recounts the history of Carcassonne (in French), and then we wander. There is room after room of artifacts dating from the Roman era through the restoration: statues, gargoyles, mosaics, tools, weapons, and coins. We walk the ramparts, reading the information plaques at every interval, learning about the methods of defense, discovering the slots for archers, looking down between the stone squares of the battlements to the walls, the cathedral, the town, and the countryside spreading into the blue distance. It is as if we have stepped through history into that cardboard castle on the living room floor at home, now stone and timbers and cobbles and very real. It’s also fun. Each tower is different. Each turn of the battlements reveals a new view. It’s easy to imagine being on watch atop the wall, huddling by the human-sized fireplace in winter, hauling water and food and armaments up and down the tower steps. And I am completely aware that this Carcassonne romanticizes the reality. This Carcassonne is immaculate, the restrooms are clean, the people are bathed and shaved, no one is hungry or diseased or smells, no stones are being hurled at the walls from catapults manned by slaves. No one is dead or bleeding, except the kid who scrapes his knee while playing under the sycamore in the courtyard.

Back in the village streets, we stop in at the Basilica Saint-Nazaire to admire the stained glass windows, the vault, the combination of Romance and Gothic architectures, and the gargoyles leaning out over the square. We find a restaurant with tables in the sun behind a wall for a late lunch. There is not much else to do in Carcassonne. A museum of chivalry, arms and archery will entertain older children, and at the Musée d’École one can see what a French school was like in the 19th century. One can stay in one of the fine hotels within the castle walls, dine at any of the dozens of restaurants or simply have a cup of coffee or (a favorite with James and Izzy) lait chaud (warm milk with sugar) at a café. A walk between the two sets of walls in the lices, the grassy space the moat would have filled, probably scummy and dank with offal back then, is a pleasant circuit of about 3km. We end our visit with a ride on the gorgeous carousel outside the Narbonne gate. Watching the children bob up and down in that never-ending circle, the walls and towers of Carcassonne behind them, darkening against an orange sunset, it’s easy to believe in a kind of magic that brings history closer, sanitized or idealized perhaps, but not cardboard or miniaturized.

carousel carc

I notice in the children’s play the next day that the little knight spends less time falling off the wall of our living room castle-construction and more time tending to everyday business. He gets cold and is wrapped in a blanket. He gets hungry and has to cook over the fire. He feels lonely and afraid when he is on watch in the tower outpost. Thanks to Carcassonne, that imaginary world has become a little more real.