Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Little Different

 In the grocery store, a man stocking avocados sneezed. "Bless you," I said without thinking.

"Thank you," he replied. It was nothing to him, but I suddenly realized that was something I would never have done in France. First of all, the words are hard to say "à tes souhaits" (“to your wishes”) and they sound to me like "a tissue," which maybe is appropriate. Second, I've never heard a French person say that to anyone in public. 

I suddenly realized, I wasn't in France any longer. 

A sunrise across the golf course as I walked out of Mom and Dad's house in Florida

The morning after we arrived, I walked out the door to go for a run and the man in charge of the roofing project at my parents' house was standing in the yard. "Bonjour," I began to say, then bit back the words. "Morning," I substituted

One night, we cleaned up after dinner and Mom started the dishwasher. I checked my watch. It wasn't 9 p.m. yet, the time we usually start the dishwasher in France because the electricity gets cheaper. I sat in the office for a bit preparing for my classes the next day. Then I heard Mom in the kitchen again. 

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Unloading the dishwasher," she said. It hadn't been three hours, the time it takes our dishwasher in France to run. 

"Why does it take so long over there?" she asked when I explained the situation. I wasn't sure. Maybe because the dishwasher heats the water. I've just gotten used to it.

The same with the washing machine. The shortest cycle in France is an hour. Here, the cycle finished in 27 minutes, the dryer goes about 25 minutes and the laundry is finished. And we don't have to wait until night time to start it! It's amazing.

A couple of times, I have caught myself using the word toilet. Of course, that is a word in English, but it's not something we would say when excusing ourselves. "Excuse me, I need to find a toilet," would probably indicate I'm about to get sick rather than that I need to use the bathroom. Bathroom, restroom, I remind myself, but "toilette" is what sticks. 

Me and Earl with Tampa  Bay behind us

Here in the States, stores are open on Sundays and there is traffic, traffic, traffic everywhere. The town where my parents live has a population of about 10,000 people. It leads to another town with 10,000 people, and a six-lane, sometimes going down to 4-lane, road goes from one to the other. It is always busy. As I watch the road, I wonder how we go from Quillan to Carcassonne on a two-lane road, sometimes interspersed with four lanes. The traffic on this six-lane road is fast and aggressive. 

The only thing real about Covid here, other than the more than half a million deaths, is the people wearing masks. Otherwise, everything is open, business as usual. Except for Starbucks, which is only open at the drive through, and Trader Joe's which counts the number of people going in to limit customers in the store. We're in Florida now. Soon we'll be driving north toward Ohio. I don't anticipate things will be very different, except maybe no outdoor dining because of the cold.

It's a real jolt to see life going on as normal in the States after France has been in lockdown or in curfew with restaurants closed since October. I understand now why the virus has continued to spread. 

Friday, April 09, 2021

A Miracle Day

Fourteen months. That’s how long it has been since I’ve seen my parents. 
And it has been a harrowing year to live across the ocean, knowing that a pandemic was attacking and killing thousands of people in my parents’ age group.
That’s why it seems like a miracle that today, I got to hug them again. 

I know, I know. It isn’t safe to travel now. The odds of getting out of locked-down France, into Spain and onto a flight to Florida seemed low. But my parents have both had their vaccinations and Earl and I have had our first shot, which the doctor said should give us about 85% coverage. It was a risk we needed to take. 
France locked down nearly a week ago. We got our negative Covid test results Thursday morning and our friends Jack and Jules drove us an hour to the train station in Perpignan. 
There we caught a train to Barcelona, which takes about an hour and a half. There were about 5 people in our train car. Spain is more open than France, but people are all wearing masks and staying distant. 
We took a walk from our hotel Thursday evening, finding a Starbucks (the one decadence I miss from the States) and sitting near La Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi designed cathedral that is still unfinished, to drink our coffee. 
No crowds taking pictures this time in Barcelona
We got take out from a Turkish restaurant and carried it back to our hotel room. In Spain, restaurants are allowed to serve people until 5 pm. Then they can offer take out dining from 5-10. Their curfew is at 10, which makes France’s 7 pm curfew seem pitiful. 
We had a breakfast buffet at the hotel. It felt weird to eat inside a restaurant. There was only one other person in the big room. The buffet had hand sanitizer and plastic gloves at both ends to limit the spread of virus. 
Only one other person was eating breakfast
A taxi picked us up at the hotel and we walked into a very empty-feeling airport. There was no one in line in front of us so we quickly checked in. I hadn’t been allowed to check-in online because the first question American Airlines asked was whether we had visited South Africa, Brazil, China, Europe, etc, recently. Since we were flying out of Spain, you can guess the answer to that question. Answering yes meant we couldn’t check in online. 
There were many helpful people at the airport. I always feel guilty saying “no hablo espagnol” and being satisfied with “hola” and “gracias.”
Our plane looks so small from here. 
When we got on the plane, we realized how fortunate we were to find a flight going abroad at all. This flight from Barcelona to Miami had only 29 passengers on a flight that could take more than 200. Thanks, American Airlines for not canceling. 
The flight attendants offered us our choice of seats (not in business or first class, obviously). 
Fellow passengers were few and far between

We had snacks and lunch and little cups of ice cream with a plastic spoon. 
In case you've forgotten what an airplane meal looks like.
Noodles and sauce, salad, cheese, bread and chocolate cake for dessert. 

If only it had a wooden spoon. 

I finished reading a book and watched a French movie about a woman hiking with a donkey, hilarity ensues. 
We landed in Miami because it seemed a better option than hanging out in airports and transferring to another plane. Instead, we reserved a car to drive the three hours to Mom and Dad’s. 
We return the car to a nearby town Saturday morning and then we’ll quarantine at Mom and Dad’s for 10 days. And if all goes well, we should get to see those well-loved sons of ours in Ohio, one of whom we haven’t seen in 14 months either. 
My heart is full at the miracle of it all. 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Last Day in March

I’m not sure if I need to add many words to the pictures from today, but an adventure always needs a little explanation. 
My friend Jules and I set off to explore a castle, Château de Quéribus, about an hour from home. The website said it was open, but when we got there, a man in a black leather jacket with an unleashed dog stood reading the sign, obviously disappointed. “C’est fermé,” he said. It’s closed. 
The view from below, outside the closed gates

We watched other people pull up and leave, equally crestfallen. We walked to an overlook and spent a few minutes. Then I heard a sound of women talking, echoing off the rock of the mountain and spotted two young women trodding along the path high above us. “Look, Jules. They’re in.”
We walked down to the closed gate again. A path led under some wooden barriers around the gate. We climbed under and found ourselves climbing up the steep path. 
We considered ourselves fortunate to get this far
I expected to come up against a barrier at each bend, but we reached the overlook and sighed, enjoying the view. 
The view from the castle
Then I climbed the wooden stairs, expecting the doors of the castle to be closed. Nope. Open.
We explored all of it from the cathedral
The soaring ceilings in the cathedral
to the dungeon, where I cracked my head as we were climbing the stairs, but no blood. 
The dungeon at least had windows, but my phone added light to the stairs as I took this picture

What a glorious day to look over the countryside. 
Can you spot me in the window? 

And if the day had ended there with some surreptitious castle viewing and beautiful weather, it might have been enough
Out the castle window

but we headed to the Mediterranean, of course. In the past week, I've taken more trips to the coast than I did all of last year. I've yet to regret it.
We went to Canet-en-Roussillon beach. A wander along the sidewalk led us to a pizza shop that was open. We ordered a pizza and crossed the street to set up our beach towels next to a wall that would block the wind (of course there was wind). 
We ate pizza with ham and black olives and then just soaked up the delightful sun for a bit, until antsy-ness got the best of us and we packed up our belongings.
The expanse of sand before the sea was huge. It took forever just to walk out to the water, which is still cold, by the way. 
The frothy waves

Kite surfer

In these times of a pandemic, we never know when we might be locked down again. But here in France, we know because the President gave a speech this evening and said starting Saturday will be a four-week confinement. We especially don't regret an outing knowing that we'll be unable to travel more than 10 kilometers from home in the coming month.
And the day ended perfectly when Earl texted me and alerted me that our doctor had a vaccine for him today, and she might be able to eek out enough for me as well. 
Jules and I met him at the doctor's office on the way home and she was able to give both Earl and me our vaccines. What a relief to be partially protected, about 85% she said after a few weeks. Jules gets hers next week. 
So we're ready for the next lock down after some lovely explorations and adventures. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The South of France is Calling

If you’re American, do you remember commercials when you were a kid tempting you to travel to Florida during the cold winter up north? I do. My brother and I would sing along, “when you need it bad, we’ve got it good. When you need it bad, come to Florida...” We’d bug our parents to take us on vacation. 
I feel that way now about the south of France. Every picture I take, I think, everyone must be longing to join in. Of course, France is closed down now, slowly handing out vaccines, and people can’t travel here for vacations. 
My husband looking like the lone person along the Mediterranean at Narbonne Plage. 

I also realize that my life may always be split between wanting to be here for my French life, and wanting to be with my parents (in Florida) and my sons (in Ohio) and Grace and Jack (who are in lockdown in Dublin). 
Sunday morning was glorious as we set off to Esperaza market. The quirky market continues to offer a bit of everything. 
View from the bridge

Plenty of vendors. The gendarmes patrol and warn people to wear masks

We bought a bag from this vendor. She makes them out of saris from India.

This booth has so many musical instruments that would torture our
 nieces and nephews if we bought them for their children. 

That afternoon, we went on a 16 mile bike ride, stopping for a drink in a friend's garden at the halfway point. The sun, the sky. It feels exhilarating.
Then Monday, I had another day off. 
The temperature was predicted to be warm here 21 degree Celsius, 70 Fahrenheit. At the beach, the temperate would be cooler, but signs have indicated that France might be going into lockdown again, so I wanted to take any chance to (safely) break away from our town and explore. Our friend Jo came along, which added to the fun.

Narbonne Plage
We bought lunch to go from a restaurant across the street from the beach, offering three courses for 19 euros, but we settled for a starter and entrée for 16 euros. Salad with avocado, lardons and radishes. A main course of chicken Senegal style with rice and plantains in coconut milk sauce. 
We took the food across the street to the beach, and the restaurant owner gave us actual silverware to use after we promised to return it. 
If you have been able to eat out for the past six months, you may not understand how luxurious it feels to get food from a restaurant. We barely even complain about cooking anymore since we're so used to cooking every meal. But nearly every time we take a local trip, we make sure we can get take away food to enjoy.
After a nap in the sun and a walk on the beach, we had ice cream cones for dessert.
On the way home, we stopped at a winery for a wine tasting. Another luxury in these Covid times. We tasted four of the six wines offered and ended up buying two of them before hurrying home to beat the curfew, or as the French say, couvre feu, which literally means cover fire. 
Macron is slated to speak Wednesday morning. He may be closing down France again. Although our region is not very high for Covid, France overall has 100% of its ICUs full. Our ICUs in Occitanie are at 67%. It's time to get this virus under control, again. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

A Two-Hour Drive to Albi

 Continuing to make the most of my days off work, we traveled to Albi, France on Monday.

I didn't know much about it, but Earl swears it was on our original list of possible cities to live in. It seems a bit north to have made the list, and we didn't actually visit it, so if it did make the list, it sank to the bottom to be forgotten by me. 

Instead, we focused on the Aude and the Gard regions of Occitanie, closer to the Mediterranean. And we ended up living in the Aude, so named for the river that runs through our town. Albi is in Occitanie, but north of Toulouse and in the Tarn region, so named for the river that runs through it. 

These days, we just itch for any place to provide some variety during the time of Covid. Our friends Sue and Steve drove because they were taking along their adorable puppy Elwing.

I read from a tourism site as we drove (yes, I'm that obnoxious person in the car). Albi, the Albigensian Crusade was named for the town, has the largest brick cathedral in the world. And we were struck by all the brick as we pulled into town, searching for the best place to park and explore. 

View of the brick Cathedral
As soon as we entered the square, of course, we were impressed by the brick cathedral, St. Cecilia built from 1282-1480. The men were quick to point out where the color of the bricks changed as the cathedral was constructed. I pointed out the plainness of the brick compared to the gothic entryway. Lots of gingerbread or bric a brac or gewgaws. Whatever you want to call it.
A close-up of the stone entryway with its climbing details. 

You can see the clash between the brick and the stone entryway. 

The city is also famous for its timbered buildings. So many old houses leaning precariously but holding onto the timbers from hundreds of years ago. 
Timbered buildings and a brick arcade

Our first stop, of course, was for take out coffee. Something we only get in Quillan on market day. Then we wandered the city. There's a section with some expensive shopping. 

Sue and Steve posing with the Albi sign, the cathedral behind them

We found some quaint squares where people live in houses getting close to 1000 years old. 

Steven insists the tiny house at the side was the smallest ever. I say it probably connected to a bigger part of a house. He pointed out it has its own house number. 

The morning was chilly, but the sun came out in the afternoon
We had a choice of several places for lunch. We were debating crepes or Chinese and in the end chose Chinese. They're even giving out bamboo utensils at French restaurants these days. Something that would have been unheard of before. 
Chinese noodles to go. We're always in search of take out food. 

I had egg noodles, chicken, broccoli and mushrooms with teriyaki sauce. If you haven't eaten out for five months, you can understand how important these meals are. We found a bench in a square overlooking a fountain and enjoyed the food. Earl and I shared an Orangina. The sun had come out. 

We thought we would head to the car, but I had checked the doors of the cathedral and it was supposed to be open from 2-5 p.m. (that's 14h to 17h). I thought we'd just have a peek inside. Living in France, you sometimes get a bit blasé about churches, seen one, seem 'em all, but, WOW. 

The cathedral was amazing on the inside. 
3 D painting, or maybe trompe l'oeil, meant to fool the eye

Just took my breath away
So, if you get a chance to see the inside of St. Cecilia Cathedrale in Albi, do it. And to think, we nearly left without looking inside. It's also one of the largest painted cathedrals in the world. 

We walked back to the car, glad for our day of exploring  in Albi. 
Even the bridges are brick

Hope you are having adventures where you live too. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

A Walk in the Woods

This curfew is making me feel constrained. Of course, that’s the point, keeping people confined from 6 pm to 6 am. Just this past weekend, the curfew got pushed back to 7 pm. I’m grateful for the extra hour, but I feel antsy. 
Since I was a little kid, I’ve sprung out of bed in the morning, afraid I might miss something happening in the world. 
The view of our town from very high above
I hate being trapped inside when something could be going on in the world. Truthfully, it's not; the world is very quiet right now in our part of France, but I can't shake the feeling.
I have proclaimed a few times that we should spend every minute of the day outside since we aren't allowed to wander during curfew.
So on Sunday, after a morning at the market with a coffee to-go and a pastry, then three hours working, I headed out on a walk. I wasn't sure where I would go, just exploring. 
I started on a normal path up to Ginoles, stopping to feed some carrots to the two donkeys that graze there. The sun came out in the afternoon, but the wind was biting, so I wore a hat and a couple of layers. A lot of the time, I tied my jacket around my waist, but when I was hiking downhill, I got cool and felt glad for the jacket.
I pushed on the steep path up to Ginoles and did a bit of bushwhacking to arrive at the street above the church. Then I kept going.
A few times, I have followed the road to the Col, but this time, I followed the path, going down and up again rather than winding around. 
I reached the Col du Portel by path; not a bad route

A look back where I had come from
Then, instead of running or walking down the twisting road, I continued to follow the hiking path through tall pine trees. 

I crossed a bridge

I had to shimmy through some prickly plants where the path narrowed. 
And finally, I couldn't find the path anymore so I had to follow the road. 

The sign welcomes people to Quillan, but I appreciated the view of the faraway mountain between the peaks.

A few hours later, I arrived safely home, a bit worn out, but not regretting the hours I spent walking through the woods before I shut myself indoors for curfew again. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

More Covid Adventures

On a 10-degree day (50 Fahrenheit) soaking our feet in thermal waters

 It seems silly, the things that we miss during lockdown. I have friends who have lost their mothers and fathers. Who am I to whine about missing restaurants, bars and cafes? Getting together with friends, stopping for coffee at the end of a walk or meeting for a glass of wine at the bar overlooking the river. 

But that is one thing we've missed. Restaurants and bars have been closed in France since October 30th.

Rain was predicted in Quillan for Monday. We had talked about revisiting the beach from the previous week, since our friend Kris had been working rather than joining us. But high winds were predicted along the Mediterranean all week. We started looking at maps and when we heard about a restaurant that served food at outside picnic tables, we agreed to go, thinking it might feel like eating at a restaurant again.

The restaurant though was at the top of a Col, though, a mountain pass. The weather forecast said sun, but the high temperature predicted was 1 Celsius, 33 Fahrenheit. 

We drove through curving roads, moving higher and higher, expecting to see snow, but much of the snow has melted. Along the way, Kris named a litany of foods he planned to order once we got to the restaurant. "Steak haché and frites, moules, a demi of rouge, and that's just for starters."

When we rounded a corner, we saw a fabulous view of the Pyrénées and the snow we had anticipated. 

In spite of warm weather, the high peaks retain their snow.

The place looked deserted. We were the only car in the lot. We walked around enjoying the view but shivered in the cold. The time had arrived for us to see whether the restaurant was open. 

We walked in, masks in place, and acted like people who hadn't been at a restaurant for five months. The proprietor asked if she could help us and I stumbled over words like "repas" and "dejeuner." Finally, she understood we were there for food and she cautioned that we needed to eat at the tables outside. We agreed and eagerly ordered. Tartiflette for me, potatoes with cheese and ham, a delicious mountain meal. Earl, Kris and Derrick all ordered hamburgers with special sauce and fries. Derrick drank mulled wine while the rest of us had red wine. 

The view from the picnic tables is lovely, but chilly. 
Me and Earl
After our lunch, finished with a coffee and a toilet break (always a worry for me because many toilets are closed due to Covid), we drove across the col to the town of Ax-les-Thermes. We've heard that cities with Ax and Aix were hubs for Romans, like Aix en Provence, but I can't confirm that from my curosry search online. The Romans were there in Ax-les-Thermes, enjoying the thermal waters back in the day. And Ax is related to the Latin word for water.
Nevertheless, the town is now know for its waters and for its skiing. France has banned skiing for the year because of the virus. French people who try to go to nearby countries (Spain, Andorra, Italy) are not allowed to ski either. 

There are hot water fountains in two places in town. 
The temperature warmed up quite a bit from the restaurant to Ax-les-Thermes, registering at about 10 Celsius or 50 Fahrenheit. We quickly pulled off our boots and socks to soak our feet in the warm water. 
Good thing I had a pedicure for my birthday
Kris and Earl enjoy the hottest water

  The water is generally hotter closer to the source it comes out, but it wasn't too hot on the day we were there. 
After some time in the water, which left our feet feeling very soft, we drove up to the ski station. The snow machines are not making snow. Only patches are left. Kids and parents pull up sleds and come down the hills. 

A lonely ski slope
I had packed some hot chocolate with amaretto in a thermos, so we enjoyed it while Kris and Derrick's dogs played in the snow. I even brought along a can of whipped cream, which the Brits call "squirty cream." 
A cup of hot chocolate in the snow and sunshine. 
It was a pretty great adventure. 

A Little Different

 In the grocery store, a man stocking avocados sneezed. "Bless you," I said without thinking. "Thank you," he replied. I...