A lovely day in this corner of paradise Saturday, 3 April was our last day of freedom in France— our third covid lockdown was looming. The weather was fine, and a small group of us decided to have a day trip, driving nearly two hours to begin our adventure in the hamlet of Douch, situated north of us in the sprawling Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc.
Before putting our boots on the trail, we were enticed by the hamlet, built entirely of local stone. We spent a happy half-hour strolling past ancient structures, some in perfect condition, others showing the effects of time and gravity with warps and dips and missing stones. Douch is a place right out of a fairy tale.
Leaving town, we passed a bronze sculpture of a mouflon, the local wild sheep that is distantly related to the bighorn sheep of North America. The trail got steep in a hurry. It was a beautiful blue-sky day, but the wind was biting, so we had all begun our outing feeling a bit chilled. Climbing steadily uphill, though, is a great way to warm up, and soon we were stopping to shed jackets and sip water.
We were walking through a forest that wasn’t quite yet ready to relinquish its hold on winter; there was no sign of green leaves, although thick patches of vivid green moss were abundant on rocks and the trunks of trees, creating an elegant and peaceful space reminiscent of a Japanese garden.
The granite here is entrancing; it contains more mica than the Nevada-California granite I know well. Everything twinkled in the sunlight. The trail looked like glitter had been dusted over it, and every stone sparkled like a jewel. Between the cute stone houses, the mossy forest, and the glittering rocks, I think all of us felt like we were walking through some kind of fairy land.
Soon the trail topped out and we were delivered into new terrain: a flatter area that was dense with huge beech trees.
Some time around noon and right on cue, stomachs began to growl. We found a warm spot in the sun, sitting on the stone foundation of a hiker’s refuge, built in 1895 to provide shelter for folks traveling on foot. After a lovely lunch, we explored the shelter and then continued walking.
Walking a little further brought us to another world, one made of grand vistas and rocky cliffs, endless blue sky with a few puffy white clouds in the distance. Several villages nestled along the river far below our feet. We consulted a fine 1930s-era table d’orientation, one of those large maps done in enameled ceramic, indicating points of interest in the wide arc of our view.
We clambered around on the rocks and enjoyed our wind-whipped view, and then we turned eastward, entering another forest. Eventually we came to a boardwalk snaking through yet another new landscape. After Claude and Maryse spoke of the tourbière (a word definitely not in my vocabulary until this day) and the long history of humans using this area and others like it throughout Europe, it finally dawned on me that this is a high-elevation peat bog. I’ve read much about Europe’s peat bogs, but this was the first time I’d seen one. I was grateful for the elevated wooden boardwalk, because the dense grasses and dark water did not look like fun walking.
We descended the mountain and returned to our car for what turned into a wonderful, meandering trip back to Bize. Almost immediately, we stopped again just below Douch to visit the charming church, the Église Sainte-Marie-de-Douch, which has its roots in the year 966, but most of the structure is a few hundred years newer than that. Unfortunately, like many a small country church, this one was closed, but we found an interesting story in the churchyard.
It turns out that this church was the site of one of the first French Resistance actions against the Germans in World War II. In August 1943, a small band of maquisards* had come here to get some basic military training, thinking that they’d found a suitably hidden place for such activity. Unfortunately, the Germans stationed nearby found out, and arrived early one morning for a battle. Of the original 47 maquis, two were killed and four more taken hostage (and eventually shot by the Gestapo in Toulouse); the larger German group of 200 lost eight, with another 12 injured. More important, the rest of the maquis managed to escape.
After the war, General Charles de Gaulle wrote in his Mémoires de Guerre: “Le 10 septembre 1943, à Douch dans l’Hérault, se déroule un combat en règle qui semble une sorte de signal. Une compagnie Allemande est mise en fuite par les nôtres, et laisse sur le terrain son capitaine et 10 soldats morts. Il est vrai qu’à la Borie, le Maquis vainqueur sera a son tour décimé et son chef, le Lieutenant de Roquemaurel, tué à l’ennemi…”
“On September 10, 1943, at Douch in the Hérault region, a full-scale battle took place that seemed to be a kind of signal. A German company was put to flight by our troops, leaving its captain and 10 soldiers dead on the field. It is true that at La Borie, the victorious Maquis was in turn decimated and its leader, Lieutenant de Roquemaurel, killed by the enemy…”
*Maquis, from Wikipedia: “Rural guerrilla bands of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Initially, they were composed of young, mostly working class men who had escaped into the mountains and woods to avoid conscription into Vichy France’s compulsory work service to provide forced labor for Germany.”
Back in the car We wound our way down the mountainside, pausing for a brief look around the village of Combes, another stone town clinging to the side of the steep mountain. Our favorite find here was closed: an auberge that boasts a lovely deck with a great view and a mouth-watering menu. I think each of us made a mental note to consider returning for a meal.
Our final stop was in Berlou, another perched village. This one, however, is in the midst of the AOP St Chinian wine region, and produces some fine wines. We were able to have a short tasting, bought some wines, and then realized that we were pushing our luck with the curfew that would start around 45 minutes later. Claude drove rather too fast, but he did get us all back home well before the curfew, each of us savoring a remarkably diverse and rich day.
Parting shot I had invited two friends to lunch, women who are on their own and new to the area. It’s spring, and the asparagus is rich and wonderful, so I built a menu around that: lightly-sautéed asparagus, wild rice and salmon. When I sent the emailed invitation, I asked if there was anything that anyone didn’t eat, and said it would be easy to change the menu from the salmon I was planning to serve.
A week later, on the morning of the lunch, I was about to step into the shower when I received an email from one of the guests, saying that she’d forgotten to tell me that she’s a vegetarian, and is also gluten- and dairy-intolerant. I thought, “Why in the world did she wait until a few hours before lunch to tell me this?”
Then I got a second message: “Also, no nuts, pulses, fish or vegetables of any kind!” What in the world?
I replied to say that I wasn’t sure I’d have time to get to the store, so maybe she could help me with foods she could eat. Without waiting for an answer, I took a shower and got into a bit of a lather while I lathered up, completely forgetting that the day was April 1.
Well, Laura got me well and good, a fine joke!
April Fool’s Day in France is called Poisson d’avril (April fish), and the literal celebration of it involves sticking a paper or plastic fish to someone’s back. Usually in schools. Teachers are known to return home with whole schools of fish attached to the back of their clothes. Me? I served the fish for lunch.
This year is a little different Thanks to the pandemic, there are no events with crowds of people who are singing, dancing, drinking, kissing each other, and generally having a wonderful time together, and that includes Carnaval. It seems like the perfect opportunity for me to offer a brief look at the last century of celebrating Carnaval in Bize.
I was lucky to pass some time with my friends Pierrette and Jean-Marc, who generously shared their trove of Carnaval photographs with me, and patiently worked to help me better understand this event. Both are retired teachers, so the desire to help someone learn is in their training, although my less-than-fluent French probably tried their patience much like any school kid!
The photograph above is marked “1906” on the back. Several people looked at it, but no one could say just where this is in the village. The two below aren’t dated, but they look like they’re from about the same era; each includes a mule- or horse-drawn cart and fabulous costumes.
What is Carnaval, anyway? I was also given copies of a few written descriptions of Carnaval, and I’m including some of that text here. First up are the words of Raymond Pélofi, a beloved teacher who participated in many town events:
Carnivals have always been a time of escapeduring which participants have been able to disregard the taboos of daily life, a time during which they have been able to make fun of the endless and harrowing tribulations of which most of humanity is often the victim.
And then we have the words of my friend Jean-Marc, whose family is depicted in many of the photos below. His father Alphonse was a long-time mayor of Bize, and apparently his uncle Henri was an affable man who could always be counted upon to entertain the crowd. Here’s what Jean-Marc wrote in 2010 about carnaval:
It is a time of secular festivities, marked by balls, processions and masquerades, which should last from Epiphany (January 6) to Ash Wednesday (mid-February)… Etymologically, the word carnival, from the Latin carnelevare means to remove, to abstain from meat. It used to take place from the day after the Feast of the Kings to the first day of Lent. It ended with the fat days, culminating in the Mardi Gras cavalcade. Throughout this period, young people “ran carnival” in disguises and masks, putting their clothes on backwards to invite the spirits to meet the living. One of the characteristics of this festival was also to abolish any royal hierarchy. One poor soul was elected king and donned royal ornaments. A donkey was dressed in episcopal robes and officiated at the altar. All identities disappeared under masks and make-up, symbolizing chaos… Mardi Gras was the last day to eat meat and dairy products. People took advantage of this time to use up leftovers and make crêpes and doughnuts, which were eaten in abundance… Carnival will always remain in our hearts the symbol of the popular festival, during which it is possible, thanks to the anonymity of the mask, to free oneself from the rules and constraints of everyday life and to go beyond moral and social rules.
The pictures above and below show an equipe de meuniers (team of millers) who are dressed as buffoli (an Occitan word that refers to the people who used fire bellows to stoke fires in the ovens of a bakery). There’s no date on these photos, but based on the clothes of the mannequine, I’d guess this is the late 1940s. The man third from left above is Henri, uncle to my friend Jean-Marc.
Above left: Jean-Marc with his sister Francine and cousin Renée. Above right: Jean-Marc’s elder sister Geneviève is escorted by their father Alphonse in the carnaval of 1951. Below: the equipe poses for a photograph. Geneviève is the second woman from the left, and her father Alphonse is the costumed man standing at the right.
What I see Here’s the thing that makes carnaval so wonderful for me: it’s about community. It’s about tradition, and family, and finding the light and the joy, together. For my first carnaval in 2018, I remember being so tickled by seeing entire families dressed in costumes together, all ages participating. Although I now understand it better, that feeling stays with me.
The events of carnaval span four days, although the preparation takes months (costumes and parade floats, planning the various events, and so on). The parade itself, my favorite part, is on the third day; the partying generally starts with lunch, followed by the parade, which flows right into cocktail hour, and then a town dance.
There’s simply no question: for those who participate, the whole family is all-in. All ages are happily engaged in this event—sometimes four generations in a family—celebrating together every step of the way. Each year, the younger kids look forward to general mayhem with silly string; older kids anticipate decorating their parade car and making their costumes; the adults look forward to sharing their skills in design and construction; the grandparents eagerly share stories of carnaval events in years gone by. Strangers are warmly welcomed into this embrace, and all generations enjoy the partying!
There is an abundance of food and plenty to drink; there is warmth and laughter and an over-arching feeling of togetherness and belonging. Someone sees a friend and runs over for bisous. A grandmother dances with her young grandson. Teenagers compare costumes. With a twinkle in his eye, someone throws confetti at a complete stranger.
When we study history, we learn the dates when things happened, and it’s usually wars or natural disasters or disease. Carnaval brings us a different kind of history, the history of the people of this village, and how this season brings them all together. It is a remarkably rich and nuanced tapestry, with new stories being woven in every year. It’s my kind of history.
My heartfelt thanks go to Pierrette and Jean-Marc, for graciously sharing their photos and stories with me, for making the time to help me understand more about this rich tradition, and for doing all of it with patience and smiles. Merci beaucoup. My thanks also to Maryse and Chantal for helping me identify locations in the village, and to Maryse for lending me her photograph.
Photos historiques du Carnaval
Cette année est un peu différente À cause de la pandémie, il n’y a plus d’événements avec des foules de personnes qui chantent, dansent, boivent, s’embrassent et passent généralement un merveilleux moment ensemble, et cela inclut le carnaval. Il me semble que c’est l’occasion idéale de faire un bref retour sur le siècle dernier de célébration du carnaval de Bize.
J’ai eu la chance de passer un peu de temps avec mes amis Pierrette et Jean-Marc, qui ont généreusement partagé avec moi leur collection de photos du Carnaval, et ont patiemment travaillé pour m’aider à mieux comprendre cet événement. Tous deux sont des enseignants à la retraite, donc le désir d’aider quelqu’un à apprendre est dans leur formation, bien que mon français peu fluide ait probablement mis leur patience à l’épreuve comme n’importe quel écolier !
La photographie ci-dessus porte au dos la mention “1906”. Plusieurs personnes l’ont regardée, mais personne n’a pu dire où elle se trouvait dans le village. Les deux photos ci-dessous ne sont pas datées, mais on dirait qu’elles datent de la même époque. Chacune d’elles comprend une charrette tirée par une mule ou un cheval et de fabuleux costumes.
Qu’est-ce que le carnaval ? On m’a également remis des copies de quelques descriptions écrites du Carnaval, et j’en inclus ici une partie. Tout d’abord, les mots de Raymond Pélofi, un instituteur local très apprécié qui a participé à de nombreux événements de la ville :
De tout temps, les carnavals ont été des périodes d’exutoire pendant lesquelles les participants ont pu transgresser les interdits de la vie quotidienne, des périodes pendant lesquelles ils ont pu tourner en dérision les interminables et harassantes tribulations dont est souvent victime la majeure partie de l’humanité.
Et puis nous avons les mots de mon ami Jean-Marc, dont la famille est représentée sur plusieurs des photos ci-dessous. Son père Alphonse a longtemps été maire de Bize, et apparemment son oncle Henri était un homme affable sur lequel on pouvait toujours compter pour divertir la foule. Voici ce que Jean-Marc a écrit en 2010 sur le carnaval :
C’est un temps de fêtes profanes, marqué par des bals, cortèges et mascarades, qui doit durer depuis l’épiphanie (6 janvier) jusqu’au mercredi des Cendres (mi-fevrier)… Etymologiquement, le mot carnaval, du latin carnelevare, signifie enlever, s’abstenir de viande. Il avait lieu naguère du lendemain de la Fête des rois au premier jour de Carême. Il se terminait par les jours gras, dont le point culminant était la cavalcade de Mardi Gras. Durant toute cette période, les jeunes gens “couraient carnaval” déguisés et masqués, mettant leurs vêtements à l’envers pour inviter les esprits à rencontrer les vivants. Une des caractéristiques de cette fête était également d’abolir toute hiérarchie royale. Un pauvre d’esprit était élu roi et revêtait des ornements royaux. Un âne était habillé de vêtements épiscopaux et officiait à l’autel. Toutes les individualités disparaissaient sous les masques et maquillages, symbolisant le chaos.
Les photos ci-dessus et ci-dessous montrent une équipe de meuniers habillés en buffoli (mot occitan qui désigne les personnes qui utilisaient des soufflets à feu pour alimenter les fours d’une boulangerie). Il n’y a pas de date sur ces photos, mais d’après les vêtements du mannequin, je suppose que c’est la fin des années 1940. Le troisième homme en partant de la gauche ci-dessus est Henri, l’oncle de mon ami Jean-Marc.
En haut à gauche : Jean-Marc avec sa soeur Francine et sa cousine Renée. En haut à droite : Geneviève, la sœur aînée de Jean-Marc, est escortée par leur père Alphonse dans le carnaval de 1951. En bas : l’équipe pose pour une photo. Geneviève est la deuxième femme en partant de la gauche, et son père Alphonse est l’homme costumé qui se tient à droite.
Ce que je vois Voici ce qui rend le carnaval si merveilleux pour moi : c’est une question de communauté. C’est une question de tradition, de famille, et de trouver la lumière et la joie, ensemble. Pour mon premier carnaval en 2018, je me souviens d’avoir été si surpris et émue en voyant des familles entières vêtues de costumes ensemble, tous âges confondus, participer. Bien que je le comprenne mieux maintenant, ce sentiment me reste.
Les événements du carnaval s’étendent sur quatre jours, bien que la préparation prenne des mois (costumes et chars de parade, planification des différents événements, etc.) Le défilé lui-même, ma partie préférée, a lieu le troisième jour ; la fête commence généralement par le déjeuner, suivi du défilé, qui se prolonge jusqu’à l’heure du cocktail, puis le bal.
Il n’y a tout simplement aucun doute : pour ceux qui participent, toute la famille est impliquée. Tous les âges sont heureux de participer à cet événement—parfois quatre générations dans une famille—et de fêter ensemble chaque étape du parcours. Chaque année, les plus jeunes attendent avec impatience le chaos général avec des aérosol à fil serpentins ; les plus âgés s’apprêtent à décorer leur voiture de parade et à fabriquer leurs costumes ; les adultes ont hâte de partager leurs compétences en matière de conception et de construction ; les grands-parents partagent avec enthousiasme les histoires des carnavals d’autrefois. Les étrangers sont chaleureusement accueillis dans cette étreinte, et toutes les générations aiment faire la fête !
Il y a une abondance de nourriture et de boissons, de la chaleur, des rires et un sentiment général de solidarité et d’appartenance. Quelqu’un voit un ami et se précipite sur les bisous. Une grand-mère danse avec son jeune petit-fils. Des adolescents comparent leurs costumes. Avec un clin d’œil, quelqu’un lance des confettis à un parfait inconnu.
Lorsque nous étudions l’histoire, nous apprenons les dates auxquelles les choses se sont produites, et il s’agit généralement de guerres, de catastrophes naturelles ou de maladies. Le carnaval nous apporte un autre type d’histoire, celle des habitants de ce village, et comment cette saison les rassemble tous. C’est une tapisserie remarquablement riche et nuancée, avec de nouvelles histoires qui se tissent chaque année. C’est mon genre d’histoire.
Je remercie de tout cœur Pierrette et Jean-Marc, qui ont gracieusement partagé avec moi leurs photos et leurs histoires, qui ont pris le temps de m’aider à mieux comprendre cette riche tradition, et qui ont fait tout cela avec patience et sourire. Merci beaucoup. Mes remerciements vont également à Maryse et Chantal pour m’avoir aidé à identifier des lieux dans le village, et à Maryse pour m’avoir prêté sa photo.
Much has been written about seeing 2020 fully in the rearview mirror, and I don’t have much new to add, which has left me pondering just what to do with this January blog post.
As the year was lurching to a close, I spent close to six weeks not being able to walk much, and since walking is my primary exercise, I was eager to get my feet back onto the trail. That happened a few weeks ago, and I’ve been racking up the kilometers as much as time and weather permit. On one such walk, it occurred to me that I could tell a story of 2020 through some of my walks of the past year.
Where were you in the year 1226? There is a rare treat awaiting us on this year’s winter solstice. It’s called the Great Conjunction, and the last time humans could see it like this was on March 4, 1226.
When two planets in our solar system appear close to each other—from Earth’s perspective—it’s called a conjunction. When it happens with the two biggest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, it’s called the Great Conjunction, which occurs around every 20 years. However, it’s quite rare when they appear to be overlapping each other AND are visible from earth. The last time they looked this close to each other was during Galileo’s time, in 1623, but the planets also lined up so close to the sun that they weren’t visible from Earth. The next time this will happen is relatively soon: 2080.
A year ago—which feels rather like an entire lifetime ago—I could not have imagined writing this post. But here we are, near the end of 2020: the holidays are upon us, and we are spending much less time in person with other people and more time connecting via technology. Whether you’re working from home or chatting with friends and family, video conferencing has become a fact of life for a great many of us around the world.
How to look your best in a Zoom call There is a wealth of information out there about how to look good on a video call, and I thought I wouldn’t need to add my two cents’ worth. However, I’ve noticed some issues in my own calls, so I thought I’d go ahead and write up a few tips. Everything here comes from my own experiences in video calls, plus I’ve also included a few links to other articles. There are no photos, because I didn’t ask my friends’ permission!
In the United States, late November means Thanksgiving, a holiday that was intended to recognize a spirit of harmonious living and sharing during a difficult time, and a way of showing gratitude for a successful harvest. Americans have a lot of different ways of recognizing this holiday—American football is often involved—but I think of it as a time to be together with those you love, to share the bounty of good food, and to remember all that we have to be thankful for.
With this year’s confinement in France, I haven’t been able to stray far from home, and I’ll be enjoying my Thanksgiving feast solo (see a photo of last year’s dinner below). Throughout this message, I’m sprinkling in a few views of autumn leaves near my house. Here in my little corner of paradise, we don’t have the red maple trees of New England, nor the golden aspen of Colorado, but we do have an abundance of wine trees,* and they’ve given us a glorious show this year.