Winter Solstice 2021

Looking up at a crystal chandelier and the light it casts on the ceiling.

Winter festivities
There’s a luscious full moon outside my window as I write this post, and the winter solstice is just two days away. In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest day of the year, an occurrence that led to early rituals which continue to this day, many of them incorporated in more recent celebrations such as Hanukkah and Christmas.

Perhaps it’s human nature, or maybe it’s our western culture, but we tend to shy away from darkness, both the physical darkness of night, and the emotional darkness of some of our feelings. We avoid the darkness with busy-ness, never more so than at this time of year. We shop, we wrap, we cook, we decorate, and we party at a dizzying pace.

I think of the winter solstice as a reminder to slow down, to breathe, to be still. We can embrace the darkness as a time to reflect on the closing year, to express gratitude, and to set intentions. It’s a time to rest, to move slowly, and to prepare for when the light returns.

I’m not suggesting that you drop all your social commitments and burn your shopping lists. This is simply a gentle reminder to breathe. Between moments of busy-ness, I wish you moments of quiet.

This year’s delightful window painting in a nearby grocery store.
A Christmas-red Ford pickup truck parked in the ancient heart of Narbonne. I tried to find the model year, and I think it’s from 1949 (that grille is rather unusual). Cool truck.

A weekend in Provence, redux

Le Cheval à Bascule = The Rocking Horse

When we were in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in October, the fromager (cheese vendor) suggested that we return for a cheese tasting in her 12th-century cave, and that we plan it for the day in early December when Saint-Rémy would host its holiday festival of lights. We thought that sounded pretty swell, so we began planning immediately.

Monique contacted a centrally-located hotel that looked promising, and tried to figure out when the light festival would take place. This seemed to be up in the air (a clue), and after some hesitation, we were told that the date would be Saturday, Dec. 11. Hotel rooms reserved, we also made arrangements for a cheese dégustation (tasting). Our little group was Monique, Rosie and me, and given the busy season, we made it a one-night trip.

Take one excellent cheese shop, add a 12th-century tasting room, mix in glowing lamps and smiling faces, and voilà! It’s a dégustation de fromage (a cheese tasting).
Christmas lights mix with the French tricoulour projected onto the city hall of Saint-Rémy on a frigid night of shopping and hot spiced wine.

The day we arrived was clear and sunny, but the mistral was blowing ferociously and everyone was cold. We enjoyed our cheese tasting, and then headed out to explore the town’s many boutiques, darting from one to the next in search of warmth. Shopping was done.

Later in the afternoon, we returned to our rooms for a short break. We were staying at the Hôtel Gounod, a 17th-century building that was an early relais de poste (an inn, often used by riders carrying the mail), where a rider could get a meal, find a bed, and even change horses. Its earlier name was Hôtel Ville Verte, but it was changed in honor of composer Charles Gounod, who stayed at the hotel when he wrote the opera “Mireille.”

After our break, we went back out to see the light show. Oops, there wasn’t one. Instead of wonder, we had commerce: all the shops of Saint-Rémy stayed open until 10:00 pm, and served hot spiced wine, cookies, and tea to entice shoppers inside. True confession: we were enticed.

We’d found a place for dinner that was just across from our hotel, a cozy and popular spot with a nice-sounding menu. After enjoying a delicious dinner, we all felt sleepy and ready to return to our rooms. On the way out, someone told us the temperatures were expected to be even colder the next day, a piece of news that had Monique changing her mind about attending mass at the town’s ancient church across the street.

Waking up on Sunday, we dawdled over a yummy breakfast in the space that once housed the stables for the inn. Old stone walls and high beamed ceilings provided the rustic touches, while chandeliers and gold-framed mirrors lent elegance to the room.

When we stepped outside, we found that the mistral had blown itself to another town, leaving Saint-Rémy sunny and wind-free, which meant a fine day for exploring more of the town. We found some ancient buildings, a carved-stone sign from the 1400s, one of the original town gates, and yes, a few more shops. After lunch at a crêperie, we set our sites for Bize and home, arriving just as the sun was setting over an unusually clear, full expanse of the Pyrénées Mountains.

Nids de poule = hens’ nests = potholes

Parting shot
I passed this sign on the road in a nearby town, and thought, “Nids de poule?” Hens’ nests? And almost right away I realized the sign was a warning for potholes in the road. This needed a photograph.

Gratitude and autumn color

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.

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Gratitude and puzzle answers!

Awash in Squash
A colorful selection of winter squash.

I come from the United States, where this is the season of Thanksgiving. For my readers outside the U.S., please know that I’m not trying to force an American holiday on you! Rather than thinking of this as a day off work for eating a lot and watching football on TV, I choose to focus on it being a time to give thanks, and that is something that all of us can participate in, no matter the country, and truthfully, no matter the season.

I think of this holiday as an opportunity to reflect on the great gift of love, such as the shared love of family and friends or the love a person has for her town or her country. And for me, it is a time to express gratitude for the blessings in my life.

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Everything new…

Ho’o pono pono
We have arrived at the early days of a brand-new year. In western cultures, the new year is a time to make resolutions, to make a list of things to do/change/work on in order to become a better person. Or to become slimmer. Or wealthier. Or more patient.

There is a long, long list of potential New Year’s resolutions, and cultures all over the globe have their own practices, as well as their own timing, for these celebrations.

In Judaism, the most holy and solemn time of the year is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It occurs just after Rosh Hashana, the New Year, which generally occurs sometime from September to early October. Yom Kippur is a time to take a close and honest look at our intentions in order to discover the true source of our words and actions. The belief is that when we learn to act from a place of love and connectedness, those values grow exponentially in the world.

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Remembrance and gratitude

A century has passed
World War I was officially over 100 years ago. The Armistice to end that terrible war—but then, aren’t they all?—was signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, hence 11:00 a.m. on 11 November 1918.

During the commemoration ceremony here in our little town, children read the names of the local soldiers who never came home, and put one candle on the monument for each of the dead. The mayor gave his speech, which included a recital of the official casualties from each country involved in the war (note: you can look up this information online. The numbers are quite simply devastating.). Our local choir sang some songs, including the Marseillaise, and two wreaths were placed on the memorial, one placed by the mayor to represent France, and one placed by a British man and a man from New Zealand, representing the Allies. It was all beautifully done.

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In Gratitude

I’m writing this from my living room in an old stone house in a tiny town in the South of France, where I’ve relocated for a year. This evening I built a fire, roasted some chestnuts, and began writing to you.

Gratitude for sacrifice. It is November 11—Veterans Day, Armistice Day, Remembrance Day—and my little town put on a show that brought tears to my eyes.

The South of France saw enormous loss during World War I, the war to end all wars and the war that brought us Armistice Day. About 12 times as many men from this town died during WWI as during WWII. I missed the start of today’s event at the cemetery, but caught up when the French Tricolore was marched through town, proudly borne by several veterans. A whole parade of townspeople accompanied them to the war memorial, where young children were invited to the front of the crowd to read the names of the fallen, and the local chorus gave a rousing rendition of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The mayor gave a speech, as did one or two other dignitaries. I didn’t follow all the French, but I understood enough to know that both of the longer speeches gave enormous credit to the United States for entering the war and helping the Allies win.

And that is really what this is all about: a day to remember those who gave their lives to fight for their nations, and to show our gratitude for their sacrifice. The armistice to end WWI took effect in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month; here in my town, the ceremony began shortly after 11:11 in the morning (perhaps those parading vets are walking a bit more slowly these days!).

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