Archive for the ‘Haute Garonne’ Category

On the voie romaine: Nîmes, Arles, and the Pont du Gard

May 26, 2010

On one of the many lanes across the farmland around Latour is a path marked with a guidepost for hikers: Voie Romaine (Roman road). Though not mapped on any of the general maps of the Roman Empire I’ve discovered thus far, this path is probably one of many in this area, just south of Toulouse (Tolosa), just east of Auch (Elimberris), and just west of the Garonne River, known in Roman times as the Garumuni. In the Roman era, this was Western Gaul, dotted with outposts, farms and extensive villas among the conquered barbarians. The Romans built more than 13,000 miles of roads in Gaul, now France, including, in this area, the Via Aquitania from what is now Narbonne on the Mediterranean Sea through Toulouse to Bordeaux on the Atlantic. From Narbonne, the Aurelian Way ran east to Italy and the Via Domitia south to Spain. In villages and cities along the way, parts of the original stones of the road have been uncovered, including in places the ruts worn by chariots 2000 years ago. Here in the Haute Garonne, smaller unpaved routes followed the river valleys or cut across the hills to connect Roman settlers and villages. Indeed, the site of Latour des Feuillants, built on the tallest point for miles around, was probably used in Roman times as a camp, or lookout, or way station. The voie Romaine probably passed through the valley just below the chateau, and a small spring in the hillside of the property was likely used by Roman travelers.

For the children’s two-week April vacances, we take off for a few days, following the A62 east along the old route of the Via Aquitania to Narbonne and the Mediterranean Sea, then on along the old Via Domitia—marked on the expressway with roadsigns showing a Roman in a chariot—toward Nimes and Arles in the department of the Gard.

Our first stop is the spectacular Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct built over the River Gard between the villages of Uzes and Remoulins about 20 kilometers north of Nimes. The day is gorgeous and green, and after we park the car on the west side of the river, we follow the trail upstream to where the huge bridge-like structure—more than two thousand years old, fifty meters high and 275 meters long—spans the beautiful river. A World Heritage Site, the Pont du Gard provided water to the city of Nimes, which the Emperor Augustus made the capital of Narbonne province around 28 BC. We walk across the lower part of the bridge under the arches, and explore the museum and Ludo, an interactive kids’ exhibition. We experiment with the model system of canals, dams, and aqueducts; the kids dig and map their “finds” like archeologists; and we learn about life in Roman times in model classrooms, market stalls, and baths. In the museum we talk about the lives of the slaves used to build these huge structures, and the machines invented for construction, transport and warfare. The whole 50-kilometer aqueduct system—and the lives of the people who made it—are explained in models and videos and dioramas. We end with ice creams and a climb to the top to see the view before returning to the car.

The water ran through the top part in a covered trough.

We drive back to Nimes and find our hotel, check in and change, and drive into the center of the small city to eat. The old town is lovely, centered around the elliptical Arena of Nimes, dating from the end of the 2nd century AD (another World Heritage site). This amphitheater, modeled on the Colosseum in Rome (built at about the same time) is the best preserved in the world and is still used for bullfights, concerts and other events. We wander the quiet narrow cobblestoned alleys of the old town, stopping for a look at the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple from 16 BC, which has also served as an early Christian church, a meeting house, a stable and a storehouse. On the tiny Rue de Grand Couvent, we found Au Flan Coco, a wonderful restaurant housed in a former abbey with high arched and vaulted ceilings. The specialty of the house was stuffed tart-like puffed pastries; Susan had one with onion and I tried the fish. Both were excellent and both came with huge fresh salads. The kids shared a steak, and finished with sorbet. All, including wine, for less than €60. Exhausted and happily sated, we returned to our hotel on the outskirts of town for a good night’s sleep.

Amphitheatre in Arles

The following day, we drove the half hour to Arles, where we breakfasted in a small café, visited the tourist information center, then walked through the lovely streets to the Romanesque Church of St. Trophimus to see the Last Judgment sculpture on its portal and the columns in the cloister. Susan’s new series of drawings here in France is about human misperceptions of animals and incorporates imagery from gargoyles and sculptures, so we wandered around looking for lions and monkeys and donkeys and the like in the facades. On up the hill, we circled the ruins of the Roman theater on our way to the arena, in which we imagined ourselves turning thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the gladiators in the ring below. The view from the top of the river and valley was stunning, and it was easy to understand how this town—so close to the Mediterranean that the Romans built a canal to it—became an important Roman city. As we strolled the streets back down to the Roman Theater (both the theater and arena of Arles are World Heritage Sites), we watched for the sign-post reproductions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in front of the actual places he painted. At the theater, James and Izzy “performed” songs from the repertoire they have memorized at school this year on the remains of the stage before the semi-circular seating area. We ended our day with a stop at the Musée de l’Arles Antiques, which contains a wonderful collection of Roman sarcophagi and full reconstructions of mosaic tile floors so intricate and colorful that they seem like carpets.

Roman columns just lying around in Arles...

With some sandwiches for a late lunch, we loaded up in the car and headed east on the A8 to visit our friends in Nice, following the ancient path of Romans returning home to Italy, almost in the ruts of the chariots some 2000 years ago, along the voie Romaine.

LÉcole, Part Three

May 21, 2010

At mid-term, just before the two-week April school vacances, James and Isabelle receive their first report cards. These are not the typical U.S. kindergarten report cards noting such things as “plays well with others” or “satisfactory progress.” French report cards, even in CP (the equivalent of kindergarten) students are given letter grades of A, B, C, D, and F in about twenty-five different categories. These are serious scholastic assessments, and the kids are doing serious academic work. We are delighted, of course, and James and Izzy extremely proud to discover that they have both earned nearly all A’s and B’s.

By this point, school has become for the kids better than being at home with the mothers. When we pull into the parking lot in the morning, the other kids rush the fence, waving and shouting “Bonjour, Isabelle!” and “James! James!” At the end of the day, they march out two by two with the other children, holding hands with their best friends, laughing and smiling. They all call “à demain” to Madame P. as they file through the gate, and James and his pal, Pablo, burp “au revoir” to each other as Pablo heads for the bus. Madame P. herself tells us that James and Isabelle’s reading and math and language skills are excellent. “They are just like my other French students now,” she says. “No difference.”

Primary education in France is much more rigorous, we think, than the equivalent grade level in most U.S. schools. Certainly, different skills are emphasized, and the methods of instruction are different.

Math work

We are particularly impressed with the mathematics work that James and Isabelle are accomplishing, including (as we near the end of the school year) the addition of four or more three-digit numbers in a column, basic geometry, and measurements and weights. They will, of course, have to learn inches and feet and quarts and gallons and pounds and ounces when we return to the States, but they’ve got the metric system down. According to “Trends in International Math and Science Study, 1995,” France ranks 13th in the world in math education (U.S. is 28th), and we believe that the primary school foundations we’ve seen have a lot to do with that achievement.

Cursive cahier

Both children have learned to write in cursive, which they call “French writing,” and which is hardly taught at all in American schools these days. They are allowed to play educational computer games when their work is done, so they have also learned some basic keyboarding skills.

Vocabulary instruction is a phonics-based program, and we’ve all learned a lot of new words from the worksheets of sounds and words that are our homework nearly every night. There is also an emphasis on memorization, both of poems and songs, which the children then recite in front of the class.

The reading curriculum is where we find the only flaw in French education for our kids, though it is certain that both James and Isabelle have developed excellent French accents and pronunciation, and that they can sound out almost any word. The whole class goes to the school library every Friday, where each child can check out one book for the week to take home, but the class reader is a Xeroxed text from which we read about two pages every night, repeated in school over and over again. It takes an eternity to finish one book, long enough that we’re all completely bored by the time we finish it. Of course, we’re book people, and we’ve been taking the kids to the library (including the public library over in Samatan here in France) weekly to check out a stack of books heavy enough to require a shopping bag almost since they were born. The kids certainly know those three or four books they have read in class, and those books do include some difficult vocabulary. At home, we’ve continued to read books in English as well. We can’t complain too much since now James and Isabelle can read in two languages at only six years old!

One of the many poems we have all memorized...

When we look back at the first days of l’école in Saint Araille, it’s almost impossible to believe the adjustment James and Isabelle have made. Their teachers and support staff at the school have been amazing and wonderful, very supportive and just tough enough. Both of our children adore Madame P. and work hard to please her. If we were able to stay on here, she’s already said that they are ready for the next level. School is both fun and challenging in France (and in French), and we hope this experience has given James and Isabelle even more important lessons in living, making them open to adventure, ready to take risks and confident in their abilities to make new friends and learn in new ways (including speaking in burps!). We hope they have learned to be brave and a little excited in the face of the new and different… even—back in the U.S. next fall—first grade!

Les Fantômes

May 21, 2010

When you move into a house that has been around since 1100, sitting on a patch of the Earth inhabited for about 25,000 years, you assume there might be a few ghosts about. Plenty of people have lived in the château Latour; it’s likely that some of those inhabitants or visitors died here. And just perhaps some of that matter or energy that made up those humans has hung around.

It’s not so much that I believe in ghosts, but more that I try hard not to succumb to the all-too-human arrogance that asserts absolute understanding. The universe is mysterious. We simply do not know everything. Galileo is a great example, denounced to the Roman Inquisition, tried, convicted of heresy and sentenced to house arrest in the 1600s for the mere suggestion that the Earth was not the center of the universe. We’ve been wrong before. I try to keep a mind open to possibilities. This, of course, is both helpful and problematic when you’re a writer. Too many possibilities leads to writer’s block or a prose so scattered no one can follow, but a mind closed to possibility can never be the mind of a fictionist. My characters and stories grow from my imagination, often in a way that seems mysterious. Sometimes I almost hear voices. Sometimes I can see a whole scene or character, or hear a conversation, that exists—I think, but am not certain—only in my head. Sometimes the words and stories come with so little effort that it seems like magic. Explain it with psychology or biology or history. Call it madness or divine inspiration or demonic possession. Call it mystery or magic. I can’t explain it, but sometimes the fiction seems a kind of haunting.

We moved up to the tower apartment on October 21, Halloween Day, so I asked Pete and Rosie for a good ghost story. They told me about the phantoms with whom they share Latour des Feuilllants.

First is the white-robed man with the square hat who is most often encountered on the fifty wooden steps in ten flights up to a tower that originally served as a look-out across the hills and valleys for marauders, invaders and other dangers on one of the many Roman roads that cross this part of France. Both Pete and Rosie have seen him numerous times, Pete most clearly in an evening encounter at the first floor landing. Some time later, in his reading of the history of the monks who were the original inhabitants of the chateau, Pete discovered an illustration that matched the costume he had observed in his encounter: a man in a square white hat with robes nearly to the floor, identified as a “first visitor” or cleric who would have been sent out from the Vatican to check up on country estates like this one, owned by the Church and manned by the monks from monastery outposts. This spirit is not malicious, Pete says, but a gentle watchman who drops by to check up on things from time to time.

Chained outside the front door...

Chained outside the front door is a couple from around the 1400s, more traditional sorts of ghosts. The gruesome story goes like this. The master of the house, as was common in those days, exercising his “droit de seigneur,” got a serving girl pregnant. When she gave birth, the master and mistress—the couple chained outside—threw the girl and her newborn into the big fireplace in the formal dining room. These evil-doers, the story goes, are condemned to a long tenure stuck on earth. But they are outside, we’re assured, not permitted to enter.

Thrown into the fireplace...

There are often unexplained smells—of baking, often—and sounds in the château. Occasionally something like a piece of paper will move, just slightly, without explanation. The monks buried their own on the property, just outside the wall, so some of those fellows may be wandering about as well. Pete says he feels he’s being watched quite often as he works about the garden and orchard. Sometimes he talks to the ghosts. Maybe that’s a little like me when I write. Talking to ghosts.

How do Pete and Rosie know these details about the ghosts? Early on in their ownership of the house, a guest—a French garage mechanic—came down to breakfast after his first night having slept terribly. He explained. “There was this terrible heavy weight on my chest all night.” He slept in the same room in which Susan and I slept when we first arrived in Saint Araille. Susan—a sponge for feelings and emotions in the ordinary world—suffered a week of disturbing dreams there, “bloody” and violent dreams, as she described them. Izzy too, sleeping in the bedroom at the other end of that apartment, had bad dreams those first weeks. We had chalked it all up to the newness of the situation. The change in our lives. Now we reconsidered our psychological explanation.

In addition to being a mechanic, the Frenchman was a psychic—apparently a quite well-known one—and he offered to exorcise the chateâu for Rosie and Pete. They agreed, and followed along as he performed the task. As the mechanic/psychic and his friend (another psychic) moved from room to room and floor to floor in the château, he told them what he saw, who he encountered, a little of the ghost’s history. His friend kept asking questions like, “who is that?” Or “why do I hear a baby crying?” As they proceeded, stable to breakfast room to dining room, salon and up through the building, he sprinkled holy water, prayed, and, finally, gathered the spirits together and then released them to rise to heaven. At that point, Pete became suddenly so cold that he had to leave and go sit by the fire. The psychics left soon after, to go to Lourdes to replenish their supply of holy water, and the woman said that as they looked back at the château on the hill, they could see a mist rising toward the sky. All the drive to Lourdes, their car was under a bright patch of sun, “illuminated” though it was a cloudy day.

I’ve never seen a ghost, never experienced the things Rosie and Pete describe, exactly. But I kept my eyes open all winter, all those long trips up and down the stairs to take the dogs out in the darkness, ready for an encounter with the white-robed first visitor. I never saw him. I did feel nervous, spooked even, quite a few times. The château was huge for our little family of four and the two dogs, and because we kept ourselves primarily up in our tower apartment, the rest of the house was cold, dim and dusty. If ever there were a place for ghosts, this is it.

In March, Pete and Rosie returned from New Zealand, and Spring arrived. Doors and windows and shutters were flung open, the daylight hours lengthened, and the house became more lively. More filled with life. Anything ghost-like seemed to fade back into the few shadows.

Then Susan strained her back, leaving her in agonizing pain for several weeks. The best mattress in the apartment is on a small twin-sized cot up in the loft at the very top of the tower, next to the double bed in which Izzy sleeps. Susan began sleeping on that firm bed in the loft, which is windowless except for one skylight and the glass door that opens onto the porch overlooking the countryside. The weather changed around then. Cold, wet winds blew in from the west and the Atlantic Ocean. We tucked in around the wood stove in the evenings until bedtime.

One morning after the kids were delivered to school, Susan said, “I almost forgot to tell you. I saw ghosts last night.” Very late she had woken and seen several reddish glowing figures around the loft. At least four and maybe as many as a half-dozen. “I was plenty awake enough to know that what I was seeing wasn’t a dream,” she said. “I tried to think of what it might be. A plane going over? No. It was dark out, overcast. There were no lights on in the house.” The figures were just there, presences, wavering a little. “It was really weird,” she said. “Definitely something there.” Eventually they went away, but she was spooked and didn’t sleep well the rest of the night. Two nights later, she had a much more intense experience. She woke to find a reddish light form right next to her bed. A sound like static or a humming. In the middle of the form, she saw a sepia-toned series of scenes, like a silent movie on fast-forward. She saw women wearing long dresses and scarves and men, peasants she thought, harvesting hay or grain and throwing it onto a wagon. Scenes from a life, she thought, a long time ago. There didn’t seem to be any malice in the ghost, but intensity, she said, as if the ghost really needed her to see this. A witness to a life, perhaps. Again, it eventually disappeared. After that, until her back healed, Susan willed the spirits to stay away, telling them before going to sleep that she wasn’t willing to see them now. We have had no ghostly encounters since then.

Are we haunted? Who knows?

This is what I do know. Ghosts have crept into almost everything I’ve written since Susan’s encounter—a long short story, this essay, a whole new novel for teens set here in the château. I am fascinated by the idea (though not the actual experience; I’d just as soon not see any ghosts). Why do we see or imagine ghosts? What do these fantasies or fantômes or fears have to tell us? Are our unconscious minds communicating something we need to recognize or know or learn about our own lives? Do we simply frighten ourselves by contemplating the vast unknown in the universe? Is some matter or energy or spiritual being trying to lead us astray or toward some celestial epiphany? Or is it merely that we humans live consumed by the importance of our individual lives, which, it turns out, are relatively insignificant.

Here in Latour des Feuillants, I am conscious, daily, of the fact that in this very spot have likely lived and died thousands of other individuals: prehistoric cave painters, Roman soldiers and travelers, monks and peasants, wealthy lords of the manor, extended farming families, World War II resistance fighters and twentieth century bed and breakfast owners. Twenty-five thousand years of single all-consuming human lives. As I consider Susan’s haunting, the intensity of that ghost who needed to have his or her life witnessed, remembered, counted, I think I better understand my own fictional hauntings. These lives and stories and people who appear—apparitions—in my mind and become physical on the page, whether they are subconscious parts of myself or some mysterious others, are a most important magic. The writing, for me, is a kind of manifestation of existence. With the words, I try to witness the vitality and mystery and humble reality of a single, simple human life. And in the end, I suppose, this too becomes a kind of ghost.

La tempête de neige

January 10, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

We’re snowed in!

View from la tour

On Thursday, the cold weather that has been wreaking havoc in England (remember, we get about fifty British television stations on the satellite t.v., so we know more about British news than French) blows a cold wind down from the northeast. The clouds lower as I tie up the still-blooming roses on the south wall of the chateau. By the time Susan picks up the kids at school at 5, snowflakes dance in a purple-dark sky. The drivers of the two vans that serve as schoolbuses tell the parents that the buses are cancelled for the next day. The teachers, however, are firm: no decision has been made about cancelling school; we should call in the morning. The other parents call out, “à lundi!” (‘til Monday!) as they leave. The children, holding the big bags of holiday chocolates the teachers have given them, are delirious with the possibility that there might be a snow day.

Ice on the roses

Snow in the South of France is like snow in the U.S. Deep South. It happens only a few times each year, and everything completely stops for a few inches. They have no equipment for snow removal, and drivers are basically inexperienced with snow-driving. It’s also very hilly here. This is all very quaint to us veterans of Vermont’s six-month snow-up-to-the-windows winters. We already had one snow day—the Friday before the Christmas holidays—when about three inches fell just at dawn, barely covering the ground. It wasn’t even enough snow to sled. It melted by noon that day. So when Friday school is cancelled on the basis of another few centimeters on the ground, we’re not surprised. What does surprise us is that the snow keeps falling. Rather, the snow keeps blasting on a horizontal wind out of the northeast… for 56 hours.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tower of London? Maybe you remember Arcite and Palamon of “The Knights Tale” in The Canturbury Tales, imprisoned in a tower. How about Rapunzel? Believe me, three days snowbound in our tower apartment with two six-year-olds makes me wish for long hair and a charming Prince. The rescue would be worth the hair-pulling.

We play cards. We watch movies. We haul wood up the stairs from the stable. We let the dogs out and in and out and in. We dress the kids in their snowpants and force them outdoors for thirty minutes at a time, then spend the next hour inside trying to warm them up. We do laundry. We play cards, Monopoly, Scrabble. We all sit down to do the kids’ homework—weather vocabulary, naturally:  le printemps, l’été, l’automne, l’hiver. We force the children to write out postcards to be mailed when (if) the storm stops. We bake cookies, cake, bread. We walk down the hill to the mailbox, but French postal carriers apparently don’t take that vow to deliver despite “snow, sleet or freezing rain.” We make hot chocolate until we’re out of milk. Time goes very slowly. The snow screams sideways past the windows. The wind finds little cracks between the stones of the walls. We keep the woodstove cranked high. On Saturday night, we push back the furniture and do Yoga T.V. in the living room.

Sunday dawns clear and white, about eight inches of snow on the ground, including all of the roads. The Toulouse news reports that a seventeen-year snow record has been broken. Avalanche danger is high in the Pyrenees, pink in the sunrise. The temperatures finally rise above freezing at about noon, but no cars pass on the road below. We go outside and look at animal tracks—stone martin, deer, mice, birds—throw a few snowballs, and try to ride the snowboard down the hill though the snow is mostly drifted to the edges. The roads slowly melt. I am a little sunburned. La neige will all be gone by Tuesday evening, and the temperatures are predicted to be back at 50˚ (F) by next weekend. Like prisoners released, we thaw, we move, we let down our hair.

Sledding From the Top of the Pyrénées

December 31, 2009

December 30 dawns foggy with warm air streaming across the snow-capped Pyrénées mountains to our south. One of James and Izzy’s main goals for vacances d’école is to go sledding. Downhill skiing is not within our budget, but we can see the snows on the Pyrénées seemingly right out our windows. It seems we should be able to get there to slide without too much trouble, especially on a day when the weather is predicted to be mild and clear. We do a little research on the Internet and find a cross-country skiing place that has a rental shop and luge hill for children and adults. Google Maps claims we can drive there in an hour and eleven minutes. James watches the sunrise, pink and orange, on the mountains, with some concern. “That looks really high,” James says. “I might be scared to sled all the way down from the top of the Pyrénées.”

We’re packed with snacks and snow pants and extra socks and in the car by 9:30. As we enter the A64 (expressway) heading south, the sun breaks through to burn off the fog. When we exit at Montréjeau about forty minutes later, we’ve got the car windows open, the sky is blue, and the temperature is over 50ºF. The Pyrénées break clear of the clouds, sparkling white over the green meadows and rolling hills. We begin to wind our way south and up through the villages of Nestier, Bize, Nistos-Bas, and Haut-Nistos, and Nistos, following the sign for Nistos Station de Ski at Nistos Cap de Neste. At one hour and eleven minutes, more or less, we’re in the village of Bize. Thank you, Google maps. We continue up. The road is tiny, steep, and winding. Up up up. The grass is still bright green on the sides of the road. No snow, though there are tantalizing peeks through the evergreens of the top of the Pyrénées against blue sky above. Forty-five minutes (and some very white knuckles) later, the tiny road dead-ends in a parking lot above the tree-line. There are perhaps fifteen cars, a chalet-style house with bar/café and rental shop, a small skating rink, and the top of the Pyrénées mountains ringing the bowl. It’s still at least fifty, and the snow is icy and melting, but it’s snow. And it’s gorgeous. The kids change into their snow pants and gloves. We rent two plastic luge sleds (with hand brakes) for €8 and start up the hill.

Picnic in the Snow in the Pyrénées

It’s glorious—absolutely clear, warm, and peaceful. The kids make a couple of runs—though they don’t use the brakes at all and it seems possible that they will, indeed, sled all the way to the bottom of the mountains—and then we have a picnic in on the mountain. There are a few other families with kids sledding, plus a few intrepid snow-hikers and cross-country skiers. A long, very icy trail snakes back and forth across the bowl with a low grade of descent, so after eating, we climb up there and take a few runs with a mom and kid in each sled—moms controlling the brakes. It’s a rush, even with the brakes almost totally engaged. By 2:30, the kids are wet and cold and tired, so we return our sleds, change into dry things, and head back down the mountain.

Drop off at edge of road to Nistos Cap de Neste

At Nestier, we turn north and follow the signs to the Grottes de Gargas, only a short detour from our route home, in the foothills of the Pyrénées near Saint Bertrand de Comminges. At 3, the tour guide herds us all (a group of about twenty, including many children, like ours, on school vacation) up the steps of a hill to the cave entry, guarded by a locked steel door. The grottes consist of two very different main caves, connected in more modern times by a passage. The whole thing has been well-preserved, and the new managers have laid a narrow concrete sidewalk for the tour and installed lights to highlight the most important paintings and etchings. In the first cave we see etchings of ibex, horses, and other animals carved into the walls about 15,000 years ago. The guide speaks some English and is very solicitous of all of the children, inviting them to the front, close to where she uses her red laser pointer to identify the parts of the creatures’ outlines.

The second cave is very different and the art here is much older, dated to around 25,000 years old. Here are at least 192 negative prints of hands made by blowing ground charcoal or manganese oxides and red iron oxides mixed with ocher yellow goethite across hands of men, women, and children so that an outline relief was created. No one knows, of course, why these were made, though theories abound. Some of the hands seem deformed or are positioned into what might be a kind of sign language. Susan supports the theory that fingers were lost to frost bite (this was during the Ice Age, of course) or cut off to avoid gangrene. Maybe the hands were printed as a form of ritual—marking a connection to the spirits within the rock or stone—or as play or entertainment. The guide tells us that these inner caves were not inhabited but seemed to have been reserved for special events like this art making or other rituals.

It’s drippy and spooky in there under ground, so close to the hands of humans—art-makers—who lived 25,000 years ago. Someone touched this wall. A human with a hand like mine. We are breathing, in some way, the same cool damp air they breathed, connected through this touch to stone. It’s humbling.

This day of contrasts—from the thin blue air atop the Pyrénées to touching the long-distant past buried under the rock of the Earth—seems to be a complete moment, a full life experience in some ways. The white moon in the deep blue sky is nearly full as we drive home to the château. We are far from home but also completely at home, here on the small blue planet at the outskirts of the universe, sledding all the way down from the top of the mountains, braking on the ice, enjoying the ride.

La Grippe

December 29, 2009

It’s a much better word for the flu, isn’t it? La grippe. Spooky. Dangerous. Exotic. Something that grabs you and holds you tight, maybe never lets you go. In this year of pandemic panic, we crazily took off with two small children for a year abroad. We left Vermont in October, just before the H1N1 “swine flu” vaccine became available in the U.S., just as the whole health care reform debate got into full swing, and traveled to that most dangerous of foreign lands: France. When Susan talked to the pediatrician before we left, he teased her, saying, “Oh, you’re not just afraid of germs; you’re afraid of International Germs!” France, according to the World Health Organization, has the best health care system in the world. Universal coverage. Great research facilities. Doctors who even make house-calls. As the U.S. Congress debates how to improve or fix the American health care system, we have had the opportunity to observe, first-hand, a different—and maybe better—way of taking care of the health of a nation. Our experience in the shadow of la grippe seems instructive, not only in the basics of so-called socialized medicine but also as an insight into the ways the French—and, by contrast, the Americans—see health and government and medicine in general.

Before we left the States, we did everything we could to be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus. We did get the regular seasonal flu shot, but the vaccine for H1N1 was not yet available before our departure date. Not only did we call our doctor but I went on the Internet as late as the day before we left Vermont to search for places to get the shots. James, our six-year-old son, often develops breathing difficulties at the end of a bout with the common cold or a flu, twice requiring Albuterol treatments. He’s prone to bronchitis and pneumonia. With all the reports we read about the H1N1 being especially hard on children like James, we thought that his risk factor was high. Alas, no vaccine was available. We decided we’d probably be able to find a way to get it in France. At that time, Europe had had only spotty outbreaks of the virus. Vaccinations weren’t really even a priority for most people.

We arrived in October to gorgeous, summer-like weather. Paris was blazing hot. Our friends there, who are doctors, met us at the airport with la bise—the traditional French greeting of kisses on both cheeks—all around. We asked them about the H1N1 pandemic. The government had not yet outlined the plan for vaccination, they said. In fact, they would attend a required meeting in Paris that night for general practitioners (les generalists). They acknowledged that doctors were concerned. But the vaccines were being made in France. It will be fine, they said. There will be plenty of vaccines. Not to worry. It’s not really here yet anyway, they assure us. And so we visit the Eiffel Tower, hand-sanitizing at every turn, and boarded the train south to Toulouse and Saint Araille.

After we settle into our long-term lodgings in the château, we ask our hosts, Pete and Rosie, who are preparing to go to Australia, if they have had any word about the H1N1 vaccine. They laugh. “Is that the swine flu?” they ask. I tell them about how serious it seems in the U.S., about the college freshman from Boston who went off to school and died within a couple of weeks. I explain that we are concerned about James’ lungs. Rosie says that with the regular vaccine one might get it at the pharmacy oneself and have a visiting nurse inject it, or even inject it oneself at home. She assumes it will be the same with the swine flu “jab.” But the pharmacist has no information. We ring Rosie and Pete’s (and soon to be our) doctor, Doctor T. He seems rather cranky about our questions. He explains that les generalistes will have nothing to do with the vaccines, that they will all be administered at newly created “vaccination centers.” We Google “H1N1 vaccine France” nearly every day for updates. The news reports that la bise is no longer recommended by the government, a hotly debated political topic, but everywhere we go, this is still the greeting. In early October, the government rolls out its vaccination plan: everyone will be able to get the shot from an official centre de vaccination in turns in order of risk. The French health care system, the Ministère de la Santé, will mail a letter—a bon—to every citizen in France with his or her place of vaccination and the date when he or she can receive the vaccine. No one will be required to get the vaccine, it is assured, but everyone in the whole country can be vaccinated before the end of January.

In France, everyone is covered by health care centralized in the government social security (Securite Sociale). The medical card each citizen carries is imbedded with a microchip that records all medical history centrally. Since the French decided that the H1N1 vaccine for children should be given in two doses, both of which should come from the same “batch,” this centralized system would not only assure that the vaccine was distributed according to relative risk (rather than to Wall Street bankers or professional hockey teams) but that both doses came from the same batch. General practitioners would be free to care for the sick rather than swamped with vaccination requests. The government revealed a complex, stratified plan that provided the vaccine to health care workers first, in October, and thereafter to pregnant women, children three and under, and to those with chronic conditions that placed them at a higher risk. School children and everyone else would be vaccinated after that. The government website opened, listing the vaccination centers—assigned by postal code—and their open hours. Everyone should bring their social security card and their bon when coming for the vaccine. The steps that would be carried out upon arrival at the vaccination center were detailed. Volunteers were signed up to administer the vaccines and process the paperwork. (Have I mentioned the French love of bureaucracy?) The plan was ready. The doors opened at the vaccination centers.

No one came.

The French are typically skeptical of their government, oddly not unlike the conservative right in the U.S. Conspiracy theories were trotted out. The vaccine had been developed too quickly. It wasn’t safe. Lawsuits were filed charging the government with an attempt at mass poisoning. The H1N1 was not, after all, much to worry about. Only a few French people were even sick. In the first week of November, a poll shows that only 20% of the citizenry plan to be vaccinated.

At the same time, I search the Internet every day, trying to discover how we—non-French citizens, non-holders of a social security card or a medical card, folks for whom a bon will not appear in the mailbox—might get the vaccine. We Americans—right next door to Mexico where the virus first appeared—are clearly more concerned than our French neighbors. Pete and Rosie depart for Australia without being vaccinated. We ask new friends with small children if they know where or how we might get the vaccine. They shrug. Not important. Clearly we are over-reacting. The American Embassy (in Paris) issues a statement that Americans who are part of the French social security system (working for French companies) will get their bon in the mail, and they list English-speaking doctors (in Paris) who might prescribe a bon that one can take to a vaccination center. Nothing for us. We find the vaccination center assigned to our postal code—Rieux-Volvestre, open only on Wednesdays from 3-7. Should we just show up and see what happens? We look up the French word for asthma (asthme). If he were French, James would be in one of the higher risk categories. We have our medical records. Should we call our pediatrician in Vermont and ask for a letter to support us? The news reports that several centers have had to throw out vaccine because no one—and these are the medical professionals who were first on the risk list—has shown up to be vaccinated. Our doctor friend in Paris emails to say not to worry; there will be plenty of vaccine for everyone who wants it. The government opens the vaccination centers to those in the next risk category: pregnant women, babies, and those with chronic diseases. Still no one goes to the centers to be vaccinated. A few schools near Paris close due to outbreaks of H1N1. A young woman dies in Toulouse. One of my Google searches reports the order in which people will be vaccinated with “homeless people and foreigners in their turn”; our turn, it implies, being at the end. Another Wednesday passes. And then two-dozen people in France die within a week from complications of H1N1.

Up in the tower, we all become sick with something that seems flu-like—the kids vomiting a few times, then each of us with sore throats and coughing. But none of us ever runs a fever over 100. The kids and I are well within a couple of days, though Susan’s symptoms seem worse and hang on longer. We aren’t sure whether we’ve had the swine flu or something else. James breaks out in a bizarre rash of welts, but by then he has no fever or other symptoms. And another Wednesday passes. By the end of November, 240 schools are closed around the country and nearly one-hundred people have died. Suddenly, the formerly deserted vaccination centers are jammed. In Lyon, they have to call out the riot police to control the crowds. When we cancel a birthday lunch with our friends with the baby because we are all still sick, they get in their car and drive to the vaccination center and stand in line for two hours. The government drafts all medical and nursing students. They call upon the military to assist in meeting the need. That Monday, in the children’s Cahier de Correspondance (the little book in which the teachers and parents communicate) a Xeroxed notice has been pasted in—school-aged children are the next group to be vaccinated, if the parents so wish; we are to go to our appointed vaccination center with the bon we should have received in the mail. We decide it’s time to just show up.

On Wednesday, December 2, at 3 in the afternoon, we drive to Rieux-Volvestre, about 25 minutes from Saint Araille. We bring our medical records, passports and visas and some cash, just in case. It’s a cool bright day. We arrive twenty minutes after the center opens, and the line already snakes through the parking lot. We have to park far down the street. I take the kids to the playground—one structure swarming with about thirty children (I have hand-sanitizer at the ready)—and Susan stakes our place in the line. We wait. Everyone waits. A lady hands out numbers like those at the deli counter; we’re number 162. It’s a cross-section of French society. The vaccination center is the only place to get the shot. Everyone in our area has to come here. There are well-dressed retirees, an Asian man, many young women with strollers, a whole extended family of farmers with mud on their shoes, some of James and Izzy’s classmates with their parents, and, as the afternoon drags into evening, office workers still in their suits arrive to join their families. Line cutting is rampant, people coming and going, but though people are disgruntled, no one is really angry or ugly. This is just the way things are done here. People chat with their line-neighbors. The parents of toddlers whip out snacks, but the rest of us are unprepared. We all look up to watch a distant hang-glider. As we creep closer to the front, the method becomes more clear. The rec center doors open and about twenty people are allowed in. One of the officials comes out and asks for pregnant women and mothers with babies, setting up a second queue for these special groups. Their line moves no faster than ours. I go to the car and gather all the library books and markers and activity books from the backseat. James sits on a curb and reads Garfield in French, a small throng of other children looking over his shoulder. Finally, after two hours, the sun beginning to set, we reach the door, still unsure if anyone will give us vaccinations at the end of this long wait.

Inside, we are crammed into a lobby and hallway, herded, eventually, into the bleachers in the gymnasium. The children clamor to the top row in a rowdy pack. Susan and I sit, clutching our number, with the other forty or so adults. One of the young mothers has to leave her infant with strangers again and again to chase down her toddler, who we deem “the escape artist.” We all pitch in to block his assent to the rafters. Every five minutes or so, a man calls out a few numbers, and those folks hurry down the bleachers, along the hallway and into a small room. After awhile, they come out and pass along the front of the basketball court (barricaded off—Aucunes chaussures de rue premises!—no street shoes allowed!) again to stand in line in another hallway under the bleachers to enter, finally, through a set of double doors. We wait in the gym for a half hour before our number is called.

In the small room, we are directed to stand in line at the first of three tables. There are perhaps twenty people crammed into the room, attempting to move from station to station. Susan steps forward for our little family. They ask for our health cards and our bon. Susan explains that we are Americans and do not have such things. What? No health card!? The volunteer is shocked. “Tell them James has asthma,” I say. Susan launches into James’s issues with asthme and the fact that we are living here for a year and the children are attending public schools here. The Frenchman in charge shrugs. The woman official with whom he’s consulting makes the same gesture. He says, well, in principal, we vaccinate “tous” (everyone), n’est-ce pas? Well, of course, they must be vaccinated. Papers shuffle. Susan hands over passports, visas, documentation of health records. The volunteers are unsure how to fill out the forms for us, the strangers, the foreigners. Meanwhile the escape artist and his mother and infant sibling are behind us, the infant fussing, the mother trying to talk to the officials at the table. I open one of the children’s library books and show the baby pictures. He smiles. He wriggles in his stroller straps. I show him another picture—Une girafe? I ask. And another. “Un chien?” The baby laughs. His brother, the escape artist, and a couple of other kids turn to watch the book. Susan gathers her documents, papers and forms—two for each of us. We’re to proceed to the next table to fill them out. Susan gives me one for James and one for myself. “Just copy everything I write on these,” she says. I can read enough of the French to fill in our names, dates of birth, address, phone number. I recognize the usual list of questions: allergies, cold symptoms, etc. We finish our paperwork and proceed to the third table, where we stand in line for a few moments before sitting down to discuss our answers with what I assume to be a medical student, a nice young woman. We are released to the next step.

Out of the small room, back through the gym, we join the line in the next hall. The children are very hungry, and tensions are rising among all of them—vaccination time is near. I open one of the children’s books from the library and try to figure out what it’s about, holding the book open and reading the French words, asking the kids questions about the pictures. “Prout de Pompier,” I read from the cover. “I wonder what that means?” The kids shrug, but they’re interested, distracted from the needle-moment at hand. The elderly couple beside me look over, eyebrows raised. I open the book and we look at pictures. “What do you think is happening here?” I ask, pointing to the bright illustration of a firefighter with a wisp coming from his pants. I read the French words aloud. The couple behind me smiles a little. I turn the page and read again. The double doors open and we all move through. Susan whispers to me over my shoulder, “You know that book is about farting, right?” I did not know. I’ve learned a new word in French: prout. Fart. The mother of the escape artist thanks me. This is enough.

At last, we enter a large room—a cafeteria in other times—set up with screens manned by nurses and medical personnel in white coats. But we—the foreigner family—are ushered through this room and into another small office, here to meet with a regular doctor. I have written on one of the forms that I am allergic to Thimerosol, a common adjutant in vaccinations, and Susan has confessed to cold symptoms. The doctor is very nice, very professional. The vaccine does not contain Thimerosol. Susan isn’t feverish. We are finally cleared for la piqûre (the puncture) and returned to the line in the other room. The children take their markers to a cafeteria table to draw. We all take off our coats in anticipation. We’ve been at the vaccination center for well over three hours. A kind man—a volunteer—comes in and dumps a bag of candy into a basket. The children, who are starving now, spot it right away. We’ve promised them anything, everything, in exchange for their cooperation with this ordeal, and they’ve been remarkably good, even though now, all around us, babies are screaming behind the little curtains. Everyone is exhausted. Even the kids seem relieved when it’s finally our turn. James and I go together, and Izzy and Susan go to another little curtained booth. The nurses are kind and efficient—though James’ nurse has to show mine, who is much younger, exactly where to give me the injection. As soon as we’re done, I grab a handful of bon bons and pass them to James. He deserves it. We all do.

Even after the vaccine, there is another line, everyone putting on their coats and the children eating unlimited sweets. At the final station, more forms are completed, stamped, and the children’s bons for their second injection three weeks hence (two days before Christmas) issued, along with paperwork detailing the shots we’ve just received. We leave the vaccination center well after dark, starving, exhausted and sore in the shoulders, but somehow elated. It’s as if we’ve passed some kind of test.

Does the French system work? Yes. We paid nothing for our vaccinations. We saw people of all classes in the line, everyone getting the same fair though tedious treatment. Was it efficient? Absolutely not. All those papers, all those stations. But the French seemed to take it in stride. Remember, the word “bureaucracy” originates in the French. And it wasn’t just a glitch caused by a last-minute unexpected rush; we go through almost exactly the same process when we return for the kids’ second vaccine three weeks later. The only things that have changed are that more people come prepared with blankets and food and entertainment, we have bons for les piqûres this time, and the vaccination volunteers provide sweets at almost every step rather than just at the end.

In our other encounters with the French medical system so far, Susan decided, finally, to get treatment for her lingering sinus infection. She went to Dr. T., our local generaliste, who will not prescribe antibiotics without an x-ray. The offices here have no staff to speak of—no receptionist, no phalanx of billing clerks trying to negotiate the myriad levels of insurance company rules and regulations. One person answers the phone and sets up appointments. You arrive and sit, and the doctor him- or herself comes out to fetch you at your time. That medical card with the imbedded chip is scanned and the information about the services you’ve received, your medical condition, and prescriptions are automatically recorded in the state database. If, like us, you are foreign, you pay a set fee for the visit—€22, about $30—and pay the pharmacist and radiologist in cash as well. The medicines are pricey, of course, but cheaper than they would be for the uninsured in the U.S. The x-ray of Susan’s sinuses costs €48, about $60; in the U.S., the same x-ray costs $120. We will attempt to get our U.S. health insurance provider to reimburse us, but we know it will be a nightmare of paperwork and negotiations.

The price of health care is lower here, and the anxiety we all feel in the U.S. when we are uninsured or if we become ill with some catastrophic illness that may or may not be covered by the insurance we do have is non-existent here. You need a vaccine; you get a vaccine. You’ll stand in line for awhile, but you’ll know that no wealthy person paid to jump ahead of you. You’ll know that you won’t be bankrupted should the doctor find a cancer when she grabs your arm for la piqûre.

From across the ocean, it’s hard to invest a lot of energy in trying to understand the various permutations of the health care bills being debated in Congress, but we try to keep up. The French system is also complex—not exactly a single-payer system, but close to one, funded both publically (by government) and privately (by employers). Citizens can choose their own doctors, go to as many specialists as they want, and pay out of pocket if they want to go to private hospitals where waits for surgeries may be shorter. But those out-of-pocket costs will be much lower than bills for the same procedures in the U.S. because the government caps prices. According to a (very good) report in Business Week, “France spends just 10.7% of its gross domestic product on health care, while the U.S. lays out 16%, more than any other nation.” Doctors earn less here, but all medical school is paid for by the state, malpractice insurance costs are negligible, and French doctors don’t pay the income tax themselves. The French system is also expensive, paid for by taxes at 20-40% of income, and most people buy supplemental insurance (about €200 a year for a family of four) to cover gaps between government reimbursement and costs (such as for glasses and dentistry), but the French are mostly satisfied with their health care, far more so than are Americans.

We strangers in the village are certainly satisfied. While on sabbatical, our family of four existing on a substantially reduced salary from the university in Europe with a decidedly unfavorable exchange rate, about $600 is deducted from my salary each month for our family’s (required) health insurance coverage in the U.S. We pay out of pocket for all our medical expenses here in France and must apply to our American health insurance company for reimbursement. Frankly, it’s probably not worth the effort; between our $500 deductible and the $20 co-pay for each visit, full price for doctor’s visits and medications in France are cheaper. And for the H1N1 vaccinations, there was never even any question that the benefit to the society of a fully protected citizenry far outweighs the price of the shot. Money never entered the discussion. After all our worry about la grippe, this new peace of mind about our health and its protection while in France is priceless.

Joyeux Noël

December 25, 2009

Our holidays began with about three inches of snow last Friday morning, resulting in cancelation of the last day of school before vacation… a child’s dream come true! We attempted sledding since we’re on top of a big hill, but, alas, not enough of the white stuff, which melted before midday anyway. We were disappointed that the children’s school holiday performance was also canceled, but we baked sugar cookies for the Loto benefit (Bingo) on Saturday night. Susan dropped them off to the teachers, who were in the back room cooking crepes to sell at intermission. She couldn’t stay, but they wished us all well for the holidays. “Joyeux Noël!”

On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Rieux-Volvestre, about 20 minutes east, singing Christmas carols in French in the car, to attend a free concert on a restored 17th century organ in the Cathedral Saint Marie. Some Bach, the Ave Maria, traditional Christmas songs, and selections from Occitan were on the program. We kept the kids still by plying them with sweets. Everyone in the small crowd—families with teenagers, grandparents with a toddler, a group of elderly women who sang along quietly, farmers with mud on their boots—sat happily in their coats and scarves the whole two hours. A clarinetist accompanied the organist for a few numbers, a wonderful mezzo soprano sang, and for the traditional Occitan songs, a man with a traditional instrument called a cornemuse, much like a bagpipe, played along. At the end of the standing ovation, the whole group joined in on an encore, which happened to be the same Christmas carols we had just learned in French in the car. At 4:30 on that clear, cool Sunday afternoon, we spilled out into the narrow streets—cobblestones, waddle and daub medieval houses close in—and wandered toward the center for the Marché Noël: donkey rides, a bounce house, handmade hats and soaps and Armagnac for sale in the covered market. Père Noël in his red velvet suit distributed sweets from a horse-drawn wagon, shouting it out: “Joyeux Noël!”

During the week we finished up shopping, got the kids’ second H1N1 vaccines, played soccer with the dogs, and made more ornaments for our little tree in the tower. On Christmas Eve the weather turned warm and gorgeous—around 60 F and clear. I went for my walk at about 3, and on my way home nearly everyone who passed was dressed up for the holiday evening out. A neighbor slowed and waved, rolling down his window to wish me, “Joyeux Noël!”

We too showered and dressed in our finery, got in the car and drove to Toulouse, stopping briefly at the supermarket to buy Susan black stockings. A supermarket on Christmas Eve is the same in France as in the states, save for the heaps of oysters in baskets in the aisles. And I’ve never seen such a mob of people buying black stockings at once! The check-out clerk smiled as I left: “Au revoir! Joyeux Noël!”

We had decided to splurge and attend the ballet in Toulouse–a first for James and Izzy–and cheap by American standards, €50 for our family of four. We arrived early enough to eat ham sandwiches in a café across the street, glasses of wine for us and lait chaud (big cups of warm steamed milk with sugar) for the kids. We chatted with the owners and other patrons, who admired Izzy, la Princesse in her crown and fancy dress, and James in his red bow tie who stole the crown for his moment. “Au revoir, Joyeux Noël!” we all said as we left.

The ballet was perfect—five short 19th century pieces, lots of tutus and satin, a fine troupe and good orchestra in the beautifully renovated Halle des Grains. At five minutes before the show was to start, the ushers appeared up in the cheap seats, got us all up and re-seated everyone in the empty seats down below. We ended up in the fifth row. The lights went down. The music came up. The dancers thumped onstage. James and Izzy sat forward in their seats, eyes wide, mouths open. I watched them watching the magic of their first ballet. On the far side, Susan too was watching the kids, her eyes shining. James turned to her and said, “I love this!” Izzy turned to me and whispered, “Mom, thank you!” Later, when she and Susan went to the restroom they met the prima ballerina–changed into jeans but still wearing her tiara, just like Izzy, in the hall. “Joyeux Noël!”

On our way out of the city, streets wet and shining, reflecting the blue strings of lights over the streets and the green and red-lit bridges over the River Garonne, we passed a phalanx of about fifty gendarmes around the Cathedral Saint Etienne, preparing for the mobs sure to appear in the next hour for the midnight mass. We drove home to the château through the countryside, farm houses and villages winking with holiday lights, little churches everywhere lit up for the traditional services. We would have gone, but the children were already asleep in the back seat. We arrived home just after 11. Izzy woke up enough to put out the cookies and milk for Santa, who brought scooters to coast down the driveway, and remote-control cars to torment the dogs, and kites to fly on the hill of Latour des Feuillants.

And another gorgeous day in the village.

James and Izzy Dressed Up for Christmas Eve at the Ballet

Joyeux Noël!

Bonne Anniversaire

December 15, 2009

On a Friday in November while in France, I celebrate my 51st birthday, the youth of old age, according to a French proverb. The children, who will be in school all day, tease me about being over fifty, but I cavalierly assert that fifty is only halfway to 100. “And I fully intend to live to 100,” I tell them as we drop them at school. Their sixth birthday comes one week after my birthday, so November usually becomes focused on the kids, as it should be. But there is something about a birthday, no matter one’s age, that wants celebrating somehow. It’s a marker, that moment that the sun returns to the same place it inhabited on the day you were born.

Back at the chateau, Susan’s mother, Sandra, and her friend, Eric, are visiting. Susan asks what I want, and, as always, I say that I’d like a nice meal in a restaurant. It’s the ultimate luxury for me—good food with friends, fellowship with other humans, and no dishes to do at the end of it all. So we review the list of recommendations that our hosts have left for us. At the top of Rosie and Pete’s favorites is Bistro de Pays (translated, plain and simple, “Country Bar”) in St. André, traditional French fare in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Rosie’s note about it reads: Phone ahead to reserve, show up, eat what you’re served! I know that Susan—a notoriously picky eater—will never make this place her first choice, so I play the birthday-me-first card: Bistro de Pays il est! We reserve a table for “dejeuner,” lock up the house and stable, get in the car and go.

It’s a gorgeous day, my birthday. Sunny and warm, probably about 70˚ F. The road to St. Andre from Saint Araille is curvy and narrow, up one hill and down the next, the snow-capped Pyrenees appearing at the crest of each rise. We zip in and out of villages, pass old women on old bicycles headed for somewhere, and slow for sheep and cows crossing. I think about the Haute Garonne region, the way the glaciers must have pushed up earth into these hills as they advanced and receded back to the mountains, the way the Mediterranean Sea must have swamped this area for awhile, and then the more recent history of Romans and Spaniards, knights and Crusaders, invaders and monks and pilgrims, traders and explorers and farmers—always farmers here—crossing and settling these fertile hills and valleys. It must have been a pleasant journey. The climate is perfect. The scenery changes with each mile. Something like aging, I think. I like this place, the youth of old age rather than the old age of youth, which, according to the proverb, is forty. I don’t feel old; I can still make the climb up the hill, and the view both behind and ahead is splendid.

About an hour later we arrive in St. André, one more small village in a chain of small villages. A Mairie. Maybe a maternelle or l’ecole. A church with a bell wall. A few houses. A farm with a cavernous stone barn. Perhaps a garage or small store. All of the towns we pass through are mostly deserted. In St. André, however, a half-dozen white delivery vans line the street next to and across from the church, a veritable traffic jam. A good sign, Rosie has said: Look for the delivery vans. Those guys always know the best places to eat. Is this the place? We don’t see a sign. Eric parks next to the church. I can see into the building behind us, a very small kitchen, steam rising from huge metal pots on a stove, two women wearing white aprons. It could be my own kitchen; it’s that small. On the street-side, a sign: Bistro de Pays.

We enter the screen door as the church bells begin to strike twelve. Halfway through the day, halfway through this life. I hope. On the left side of a small center hallway a windowed door reveals a tiny store. We open the door to the right. A well-stocked bar. Fifteen or so tables—six arranged in a row together, family-style—all set with cloths, old unmatched china and heavy silverware, wine bottles, and water pitchers. The only diners in the room are a group of delivery men at the first table, who all look up at us—the Americans—as we enter. Conversation stops. The four of us mumble to each other, begin to walk toward an empty table. A smiling woman in white apron comes from the back, takes our name, and gestures to a table. We sit.

Vous aiment un apéritif? she asks. An aperitif? Why not? It’s my birthday. I’m in the youth of old age. Susan’s mother and I nod. Oui! She serves us an amber liqueur in petit crystal glasses from the bar, Paloumbas de _?_. It’s sweet and strong, flavored with peach or plum, I think. A local favorite, she says. As we drink, another group arrives—two couples, one English-speaking—and they are seated at the table next to ours. One of the women passes her astrological birth chart to her friends. She is celebrating her birthday too. Her friends toast her: Bon aniversaire! It is as if a strange twin has appeared, and I can’t help but look closely at her. Are we alike for sharing the same day of birth? She looks about my age. Do her stars predict a similar path? What did bring us both to Bistro de Pays in the tiny village of St. André from some distant place on this particular day?

More truck drivers—male and female—arrive and are seated, some at the long table, though they do not seem to know one another. The woman in the apron brings bread. We pour the wine, a local red, and break the bread. I am a little fuzzy from the drink and warmth of the room. Another couple arrives. The restaurant is full within the hour. Only the woman in the apron waits tables, but she serves the same things to each table, one after another, in some cases moving the same plate of one dish from one table to the next.

I am not a restaurant critic, neither a chef nor food connoisseur, but I know that this food is wonderful. The soup arrives in a huge tureen just for our table, and we all serve ourselves. Pale brown, potatoes and carrots and big pale beans; it fills the belly and heart, and steams the windows. I am happy. The whole restaurant is happy. People laugh. I watch the delivery drivers share bottles of wine from table to table. The woman in the white apron brings the next course: a white mayonnaise-like sauce over thinly sliced celery root, oily black olives on the side. Then the patê, rich and smooth, arrives, and we cut thick slabs to eat with our bread—more bread—before the loaf is whisked off to the next table. I watch my birthday twin cut herself a slab from the loaf. The meal and the day stretch on.

Just before 2, the main course arrives. We’re in luck, because today’s meal includes cassoulet, the specialty of this region of France. Named for the pot in which it is prepared, the cassole, cassoulet is a very slow-cooked bean stew that has a particular mix of meats depending on the individual (or regional) recipe used by the cook. In ours there are sausages and chunks of duck and goose, as well as some roast beef, I think. Originally a peasant dish from medieval times, I’ve been told that a proper cassoulet is cooked sometimes for days, with more and more water added as it reduces, hence the thickness. It is also traditional to use the base from one cassoulet to start the next, leading to legends that some cassoulets are hundreds of years old in origin. The perfect dish for a fifty-first birthday. Even older than me!

As we scoop up seconds from the pot of cassoulet on our table, the woman in the white apron returns with a platter and serves us slices of pale tender pork roast, a hint of apple in the flavor. We eat. We eat. Everyone eats. Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.” For me, in this moment at the Bistro de Pays in St. André, I feel at one with all humanity. When we eat good food, though we are strangers, we return to some kind of essential common existence. And there will be no dishes to wash at the end!

At last, we sit back. Sated. Satisfied. The woman in the white apron returns. Dessert? Of course. It’s my birthday, after all. There are choices: Chocolate mousse; flan; yogurt and fresh fruit; ice cream. We choose one each, and all are delicious. The chocolate mousse—my choice—is like eating chocolate clouds, a satiny richness that is perfect with the rich coffee that ends every French lunch. The truck drivers depart, and then my birthday twin with her friends from the next table. We decide that we have just enough time to drive over to see a little church we’ve heard about, and stand to pay our bill at the bar. The tab for this luxury, this long afternoon of life lived fully in gustatory glory? €12 each. About $15.

We walk out into sunshine, church bells ringing again, stretching and yawning. This is the youth of old age, that hour of the early afternoon when life feels rich and full of promise, when the view stretches to white-capped mountains in the distance and back across the hills toward home. We visit the little church painted with intricate stories, and the little well outside that is known for miracles, and we return to fetch the children from school under a painted sunset sky. C’est un bon anniversaire, indeed.

Did I Mention that We’re in the SOUTH of France?

December 9, 2009

Today’s Brattleboro Reformer reports “First major snowstorm blankets southern Vermont.” Yes, we’ve been keeping abreast of local (home) news while here in the tower in the chateau in southern France. And this bit helps us to remember that we truly are far from home. Today in Saint Araille was sunny and about 70 F. Susan wore shorts for her run; I picked fresh tomatoes and arugala from the garden; the kids ran around playing soccer with the dogs. And then we went to buy a Christmas tree. Do we miss the snow? Well, just a little, but there it is, about an hour away, on top of the Pyrenees, glowing pink with the sunset. We’ll go skiing during the holidays maybe, and then come home to eat outside in the garden. Think of us while you shovel!

La Ville Rose

December 8, 2009

La Ville Rose

Here in Saint Araille, an orange glow in the northern night sky marks the location of Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France, about fifty miles away. Called La Ville Rose, the pink city, for the distinctive brick used in much of its architecture, Toulouse is a colorful place with a thriving economy and youthful population. The city is culturally diverse, with a history of progressive thinking and tolerance partly derived from its situation at one of Europe’s geographic crossroads, approximately halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and about three hours’ drive from the Spanish border. Affluent today as the high-tech center of France’s aerospace industry, the beauty of this small city is due to its historical affluence, particularly during the 1400’s when it was the center of export for woad, the plant from which the color blue was made before indigo was imported from India and the Americas. Many of the grey stone streets in the center are pedestrianised, and the River Garonne, Canal du Midi, and numerous parks provide shady green respite. Situated in the south, winters are mild and short here. We have found Toulouse small enough for the foreigner to easily negotiate but large enough to provide all the urban conveniences. La Ville Rose seems to us to be nearly a perfect city.

Toulouse has been inhabited since at least 300 B.C. The Romans established a colony here in 200 A.D., and the city suffered the comings and goings of all the usual suspects of this particular area, trampled by travelers, traders, warriors, and invaders including the Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Franks, not to mention the plagues, famines, fires and wars that marked most of early European civilization. The streets in the old part of the city still follow the Roman paths, meandering and narrow, and you shouldn’t be surprised to happen upon sites marked as ancient Roman temples between shopping in the second-hand stores near the Academy des Beux Arts and dining on the local specialty, cassoulet. As we watch our children in a playground beside the riverbank, listen to college students discussing their textbooks, or sip a coffee in a café, the rich history of the city seems a living backdrop to the contemporary life around us.

The town played a major role in the religious wars the Roman Catholic Church instigated against the Cathars, including hundreds put to death in Toulouse and the surrounding area during the Albigensian Crusade and Inquisition. The area around Toulouse, the Languedoc, was known for literacy and religious tolerance in the early middle ages. The Cathar’s version of faith valued aestheticism and rejected power and the idea of a single god, all cited as “just” cause for the Crusaders and Inquisitors to wipe out Catharism in a series of bloody raids, wars, executions, and occupations. Of course, the fact that the Languedoc was also fertile and lush farmland, a veritable breadbasket, and an important pathway between the continents, meant that conquering such a land added to the physical wealth of the knights and lords from the north (and the Catholic church) who joined the ventures against the “heretic” Cathars. Something of those early roots of tolerance seems evident in the progressive and forward-thinking Toulouse encountered today.

Toulouse is a vital and gorgeous city. For the tourist, the center offers a wealth of distractions. The aforementioned woad plant—the source of the blue pigment so desired by textile dyers and artists of the middle ages—brought prosperity to the region and to Toulouse, where a vital export business was established in the mid-1400s. After fire destroyed most of the city in 1463, using brick instead of wood to build became standard practice, hence today’s “pink city.”  The wealth of the woad traders who dominated the city’s economic and social life well into the 1700s can be seen today in the fabulous hôtel particuliers—private urban palaces—they built. Indeed, a visit to the Renaisance Hôtel d’Assézat, originally built for a wealthy manufacturer, now housing the Bembourg Foundation’s extensive collection of art, should be on every tourist’s agenda. More than fifty more elaborate Renaissance hôtels still dot the city, some accessible via private tours.

The enourmous Capitole de Toulouse—135 meters long—on the expansive Place du Capitole combines an original medieval gate and courtyard with a 1750 neoclassical (pink brick, of course) façade, topped by a bell tower designed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the well-known architectural restorer of the fortress at Carcasonne, an hour east. Today the seat of the city government, the Capitole also houses an opera company, a symphony, and the Salle de Illustres, a Baroque hall inspired by the Galleria Farnese in Rome and filled with 19th century paintings and frescoes. On the plaza outside (Place du Capitole), a Wednesday market is good for African handicrafts, fabrics and clothing. During the holidays, we go on a weekend before Christmas for the evening Marché de Noel, where we shop for small gifts and decorations and stand around with hot mulled wine and warm roasted chestnuts under the lights.

A few blocks north of the Capitole, the Basilica Saint Sernin, built between 1080 and 1120 and often cited as the largest Romanesque church in the world, offers a reminder of the role religion played in the history of Toulouse. Saint Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse, who was martyred (dragged through the streets by a bull) in 250 when he refused to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods, is supposed to have been interred on the original site of the basilica. At least 128 weird relics—bits of bone, teeth, a fragment of the “true cross,” etc.—donated by Charlemagne are lodged in the crypt, chapels, and ambulatory, which increased the basilica’s popularity as a stop on the pilgrimage route called the Compostella de Santiago, adding religious tourism income to the town and church coffers. The stone that killed Simon de Monfort, a leader of the Crusades against the Cathars, was thrown from the roof of St. Sernin in 1218. The interior of the church is vast and light and open (115 metres long, 64 metres wide and 21 metres high) with vaulted ceilings, a peaceful and spiritual place in the cruciform shape specifically designed with an extra-wide ambulatory so that the pilgrims could see the relics without disturbing any services underway at the time. As we wander the aisles, stopping to stare at the moldering grey tooth of a saint nestled on velvet in an elaborate gold reliquary cask, we wonder how the believer on the road to Spain in 1200 might have felt awe.

A five-minute walk south along the Rue du Taur (Road of the Bull), the Eglise Notre Dame du Taur provides a dramatic architectural contrast to St. Sernin. Tucked between houses, one doesn’t expect the gothic expanse inside from the narrow façade. This church, however, also plays a part in the St. Sernin story, for legend has it that Notre Dame du Taur (literally, “Our Lady of the Bull”) is built upon the spot where Saint Saturnin became detached from the bull that tore through the streets of Toulouse with his body. Others believe that Notre Dame is actually built upon the spot where the Romans sacrificed bulls to their gods, the act for which noncompliance led to Saint Saturnin’s death sentence. Inside is Jacob’s geneology in a 14th century fresco as well as the pictoral story of St. Saturnin’s life and bloody death.

Eglise de la Daurade, on the bank of the Garonne near the Art Academy, built on the site of an ancient pagan temple and then a Benedictine abbey, houses the Black Madonna, Vierge Noire, of Toulouse, a statue of Mary whose face has darkened from candle soot over many years, and who is credited with many miracles. She seems to particularly favor pregnant women. Her outfit is changed several times each year by a special contingent charged with the honor, and it is said that parishioners have solicited new garments from famous designers of French haute couture. It’s hard not to speculate about what the Virgin thinks of her fashionista attire.

The Musee des Augustins offers yet another perspective on the diversity of Toulouse, both religious and architectural. Originally a convent with a beautiful cloister, chapter house, sacristy and chapel, the grounds now house an impressive collection of more than 4000 works of art, including, among other objects, Romanesque capitals and funerary epitaphs rescued from religious sites around the country, paintings that were the spoils of Napoleonic conquests, and statuary from local hôtels particuliers. The cloister garden is serene and orderly, lush with flowers, vegetables and herbs, each labeled and all carefully tended. Here it is easy to imagine why the wealthy might choose to retreat into such a place, to live in one of those tiny rooms in the walls above. If you visit on a Wednesday afternoon, take advantage of free entry and tour, wander the illuminated gardens, and stay to attend the free weekly concert on the restored baroque organ. If you are traveling with small children, like us, come when a concert is scheduled for later and wander through in the afternoon, telling the stories of the huge paintings while rehearsals echo through the halls.

Another former religious house, les Couvent des Jacobins, provides a wonderful example of 13th and 14th century Gothic architecture. The fanned brick ceilings seem like palm trees or huge flowers stemming from the marble columns. The Convent also houses the relic of the body of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, there’s a detailed inventory of which bones and their measurements on the Convent website: http://www.jacobins.mairie-toulouse.fr/accueil/accjaco.htm . It’s the contrasts that get to you—bizarre scrap collections and majestic constructions to faith; wars and economics and religions overlapping; the best of tolerant and intellectual enlightenment next to torture and inhumanity. We wander the streets of Toulouse, the world, and we discover that we are a strange history, a meeting in the contemporary moment of weirdness and goodness and horrors.

Back on the streets of the city, we stop at Gulps, the candy store on Rue St. Rome, and the carousel at Place du President Wilson before heading back to our car, parked at one of the many underground garages in the center. We will return another day to walk across the Pont Neuf to Les Abatoirs, the Toulouse Modern and Contemporary Art Centre built inside the old slaughterhouses across the river, other days for the range of markets (book markets, vegetable markets, flea markets, toy markets, even “adult” markets—we’ll skip that one), and another day at Cité de l’Espace, the science and space theme park ten minutes east in the suburbs. We’ll visit the Gay and Lesbian Center. If we’re very lucky, we’ll take a cruise down the Canal du Midi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a 150 mile feat of 17th century construction. But truthfully, we don’t need an excuse to come to Toulouse. We will return many days (and evenings) during our time in Saint Araille. Tonight the glow of La Ville Rose in our northern sky seems positively pink. It’s a city that provides its own diversions at every turn, the past and the future in one location. It is a crossroads that is also a wonderful destination.