Margaret and Dick   


Best of Limoux stories 2002-2003

Return to Limoux; the euro replaces the franc (2002)

Six months is a long time away from Limoux.  With continuing tensions in the US about terrorists, we have been looking forward to some healthy recreation and visits with friends in France.
At the airport I was one of the lucky passengers selected for full search – all baggage and, of course, shoes.  But the trip was blissfully uneventful, as uneventful as any trip can be when accompanied by a cat.  Sable traveled well, aided by a second squirt of tranquilizer mid-way through the plane trip.  I still cringed as I lifted her out of the cage to walk through the security check at the Paris airport, remembering how she had fought and scratched once in the past when I tried to get her back into the cage for the connecting flight to Toulouse.

As I drove the last 100 km from the Toulouse airport to Limoux, I felt the familiar surge of joy as I left the autoroute and drove into the Aude river valley.  The gently rolling green hills had softly rounded curves like weathered sculpture.  The vines were bare in winter, with hardly a hint of buds. 

Opening the door to our house, vacant for such a long time, the shutters still closed, I felt like the first person to enter a house buried for centuries in the ruins of Pompeii.  “Ah, that’s how they lived in those days.  This is what their furniture and pots & pans looked like.  They really left the house neat and clean.”

The euro had gone into circulation during our absence, and I wondered how the transition had gone and what to do with our remaining cash francs.  The weekend of my arrival coincided with the disappearance of francs as legal currency, and banks were of course closed.

First impressions of the transition came at the gas station.  Somehow it seemed painfully expensive to pay 50 euros for a tank of gas, though we had gotten used to paying an equivalent 300 francs.  Spending francs felt like “funny money”, I guess, but euros feel like spending dollars.

The neighbors were happy to see me arrive and open up our purple shutters.  I think we bring an exotic touch to their lives.  They all loved the postcards I had sent from the States.  Getting foreign mail is a big deal.

Mme Garanto came up to our front window and beamed a big toothless smile.  She was overjoyed to see me.  She is quite attached to her foreign neighbors.  “Did you know I am 84 years old?” she asked.  And she will ask the same question tomorrow, and the next day.  She is still spry, though she fell recently.  This she told me later as we passed in the street while she was walking her son’s large dog.  She insisted on stopping right there to take off her shoe to show me her toes damaged in the fall.

Her memory is worse than ever.  Unfortunately now she too knows that her memory is going.  I later intersected with her daughter-in-law.  “Mme Garanto loved your post-card.  She doesn’t remember getting it now, but we loved it.  Thanks for sending it,” said the younger woman.

I stuck my head into Vaquier’s caterer-deli to say hello, and it occurred to me to ask if perhaps they would still accept a purchase in now-obsolete francs.  Mme Vaquier shook her head: “No, it’s only euros now.”  And then, with a wave of the hand and a wink, she added: “But for you, we will make an exception.”

So I rushed back to the house to pick up my remaining few hundred francs and spent them on a freshly roasted chicken and some Vaquier delicacies that I would normally not allow myself:  Parma ham, duck sausage, duck terrine…

Mme Vaquier is a pillar of society, business partner of a major enterprise and native of Limoux.  But she has a lively side that bubbles out often.  She loves to shock people by riding around Limoux at top speed on a scooter, the kind you push with your foot.  Today she had a sling cradling her right arm, which she had broken recently in a fall.  Grumbling as she tried to work the cash register with her left hand, she spied an old acquaintance at the end of the line of customers, a man in his seventies dressed in worker’s coveralls, with gray hair and scraggly whiskers.  She hollered out: “Hello Francois, I need to have you help me undress tonight, since I can’t do it with only one arm available.”  Francois cracked a smile from ear to ear, and the crowd was duly amused.

I think I finally understand why the Limoux stories only flow while I am in Limoux.  Stories like this just don’t happen in Atlanta.

Marketing:  Super-, Traditional, and Tele- (2002)

The phrase la cuisine du marché describes a cuisine based on what is seasonally available at high quality from regional sources.  You figure out the menu after you’ve gone to market.  It means you don’t look for ‘summer’ vegetables and fruits in the winter, but when the season is peaking for flavorful apricots or tomatoes, for example, you use them in abundance.  This is how we tend to shop and cook in Limoux.

But modern trends influence the French younger generation, particularly car-oriented suburbanites with young children, pressed for time, who tend to favor one-stop supermarkets and – French phrase – hypermarkets (think WalMart).

Margaret got a telemarketing survey phone call recently that illustrates the two viewpoints.  Here’s her story.

The phone rang while I was painting the living room.  I couldn't figure out how to say "I don't participate in phone surveys" and was ready for a break anyway.  It was fun.

"Hello, we're conducting a survey on behalf of one of the supermarkets in your area.  What supermarket do you use?"
"Super U."
"Do you shop at the Leclerc supermarket?"
"Why not?"
"It's not in the center of town.  Super U is more convenient."
"Fine then.  How would you rank Super U's cheese and butter?"
"I buy those at the cheese store."
"Their meats?"
"I go to the butcher."
"Their fish?"
"I go to the fish store."
"Their breads and baked goods?"
"I go to the bakery."
"Fruits and vegetables?"
"I buy those at the farmer’s market."
"Farmer’s market."
"Frozen foods?"
"I don't buy frozen foods."
"Their wine department?"
"I go directly to the winemakers."
(...long pause...) "Do you actually shop at Super U?"
"Yes, for all the other stuff."
"Such as?"
"Laundry detergent.  Cat food.  Spices."
"How would you rank them?"
"Oh, just fine."
"The parking?"
"The staff?"
"Fine.  Very friendly."
"Why don't you shop at Leclerc?"
"It's away from the center of town, and I just don't like the ambiance."
"You don't like the ambiance."
"Right.  Too impersonal."
"Leclerc is planning to do a major expansion and include many other departments.  Would you shop more at Leclerc if they did this?"

Perhaps we are not their target customers.

The Socialists' party (2002)

Our mayor holds a dual role, having been elected as deputy to the national assembly in the Socialist sweep of 1997.  So his title is deputé-mayor.

But in the years since the sweep, the French grew frustrated with the Socialist government’s response to excess immigration and increasing crime, clearly connected in many people’s minds.  In the first round of this spring’s presidential election, the far-right LePen party made a surprisingly strong showing, second only to the center-right party of Chirac, thus ending the career of Socialist prime minister Jospin, who came in third.  Socialist voters abstained from that election in large numbers.

But most people who voted for the far right were really voting against the same tired old politicians, Chirac and Jospin, not for Le Pen.  The far right promised an end to immigration and a crackdown on crime, hinting at holding camps for illegal immigrants that sounded too fascist for many people.  So in the presidential runoff, LePen was soundly defeated, as even Socialists voted for Chirac, some wearing clothes-pins on their noses to signify their disgust.

Analysts pointed out a fatal mistake made by Jospin himself, who forced through a reversal of the dates of the presidential and national assembly elections.  By placing the presidential elections ahead of the national assembly elections on the calendar, the first election became a war of personalities, instead of a broad comparison of issues.  And everyone found Jospin’s personality too colorless and his speeches too boring.

So even though our Socialist deputé-mayor Dupré is hugely popular in Limoux, his re-election did not appear guaranteed on the heels of the center-right landslide of the presidential election.

On the first assembly ballot, the center-right swept the country, except for our département, the Aude!  Dupré led but did not get a majority (tough with twelve candidates on the ballot), so there would be a second election.  A French friend who voted early noted that she saw the mayor himself at the ballot box greeting voters.

The runoff approached.  Local Socialists were working hard to assure the deputé-mayor’s re-election.  When neighbor Roger mentioned that there would be a party after Dupré’s victory, we felt uncertain about going.  We are outsiders, after all.
Walking down the street I saw the mayor and waved hello.  I congratulated him in advance for his upcoming victory, we shook hands, and he said: “Be sure to come to the victory party after the second ballot.”  With that invitation, how could we refuse?

Several days later Margaret and I were walking down rue St Martin when a car stopped suddenly, and M Dupré stuck his head out to greet Margaret’s return to Limoux.  “I saw you both on television,” he said, speaking of our brief appearance on French TV during a spot on the Lance Armstrong Foundation cycling benefit in Texas.  What a politician!  The mayor stops traffic on a busy street (no honking, of course, this is Limoux), to greet someone who does not even vote.

M Dupré won the runoff election by a huge majority.  The Limoux Socialists’ post-election party was classic ‘bread and circus’.  After the polls closed, we laid down a bed of salad at home to offset the rich food that would be served, and headed off to join the party.

The crowd filled les Halles, the large covered market hall, and spilled out onto the street.  The noise was deafening.  Volunteers were pouring glasses of blanquette for the toast.  As the caterer laid out trays of food, the crowd surged towards the tables, and came away carrying plates of bread, sausages, paté, and pizza.  The noise level grew as people helped themselves from 10-liter cubitainers of Merlot.

Finally the deputé-mayor made his triumphal entrance.  The crowd roared its approval.  Dupré made a gracious speech, acknowledging the help of everyone imaginable, and recognizing the presence at the party of representatives from the communist left to the center-right.  Beside him on the podium was his depute adjoint, who represents him one place when he is in another.  Chosen to achieve male/female parity in politics, she was radiant in a strapless dress.  The crowd had already had a little too much wine to pay attention for long, and as the noise level grew, the mayor wisely ended his speech to a thundering round of applause.  He was carried off the stage on the shoulders of two large men, who delivered him directly to the bar.

Arques Roc Café (2003)

On one of our bike rides, Margaret spotted the sign for this café in Arques, a tiny town of perhaps 250 inhabitants.  The name caught our attention:  Arques Roc Café.  Say it out loud: “Ark Rock Café” and it sounds like the international chain of urban tourist restaurants.  Maybe they have a T-shirt for a souvenir?

We went in and were delighted.  The name is indeed a play on words with Hard Rock Cafe.  The cuisine is based on the galettes of northern France :  buckwheat crepes with savory fillings.  I had one stuffed with Gruyere cheese, onion, and sweet peppers.  Margaret had one with cheese, egg, and mushrooms.  With a little salad, we felt well fed, and well pleased with the setting, a little terrace behind the restaurant.

The café was decorated with old motorcycles, rusting bicycles, ox yokes, farm implements, and an old James Brown vinyl LP nailed to the wall.  Jazz music was playing.

Our waitron and the cook in the outside kitchen had the light reddish hair and fair skin of the Breton region in northern France, and looked almost Scots or Irish, from centuries of living with clouds and rain and little sun.

The owner-bartender, whose head was shaved bald, was of more indeterminate origin.  Garrulous, with a gravelly too-many-cigarettes voice, he recounted why his light (light?) menu was more in favor with tourists than the traditional heavy cuisine of our region.

Apricots were falling from a tree above our table onto the dirt floor of the terrace.  Our host picked up two, washed them with water from a pitcher, and handed them to us: free dessert.  “If I don’t pick them up right away, the dog gets them, and he really makes a mess.”  He enjoyed our appreciation of the word play in the restaurant name.  “Maybe next year we’ll create a T-shirt.”

Socialist leanings (2003)

It’s almost enough to give me socialist leanings.  This morning on the street I stopped to talk with the Galiniers and noticed a dejected-looking young man with a backpack sitting on the steps of an unoccupied house.  “He spent the night on the step there,” they said.  “He has lost his little dog and is looking for her all over the neighborhood.”  We shook our heads over the sad but the usually unsolvable problem of these SDF (‘sans domicile fixe’, homeless) people on the road with their backpacks, stopping in towns to beg.  Later I saw the young man stopping passers-by to ask if they had seen his dog.

I had seen this young man earlier this week, begging in the supermarket parking lot.  A cute little puppy was peeking its head out of his backpack.  I said no, as I always do, to his request for spare change.  How do you say “I gave at the office” in French?  But there was something naïve and appealing about this young man and I wondered later why I had not given him the 1-euro coin that I got back when I parked my shopping cart.

Later that morning there appeared in the mail slot a note on a small piece of paper:

            Searching for little dog 
            Two months old 
            Brown and black, with a lump on the neck 
            Reference Point:  35 rue Jean Jaures, phone ______

This young man was serious and organized.  What is this Reference Point, and who is helping him and acting as point of contact?  The address seemed close to Jean-Mi’s pizza parlour.  Jean-Mi was a sympathetique sort.  Perhaps he is feeding the young man and helping him get back his dog.

Doing errands later on I decided to stop by 35 rue Jean Jaures to check it out and maybe leave a little contribution for the young man.  No, it was not the pizza parlor.  Further down the street was number 35.  The sign on the door said: 

            Point de Repere (English: Reference Point) 
            Helping people anonymously

The office was closed.  As I stood there noting their open hours, two women came out the door and asked me what I was looking for.  I showed them the Lost Dog note.  “Ah, that is kind of you.  He has found his little dog.  Someone responded to our note in the mailboxes.  All is well.”  All three of us sighed with relief.  “What’s the story with this young man on the road?” I asked.  “Oh, he’s been hanging around town for a couple of weeks begging.  He is not getting a good welcome from the police and city hall.”

I asked about their organization, Reference Point.  They explained that it is an ‘association’, which denotes a nonprofit and largely volunteer organization not part of the official bureaucracy.  “And where does the money come from?” I asked.  “From the city, from the region, from the federal government.”  Tax money at work.

So for a young man on the road who had lost his dog, his closest warm contact, Reference Point served a purpose, a human face, a point of contact.  The dictionary gives a second meaning for the French phrase ‘Point de Repere’:  “Guiding Light.”

In Atlanta, every time I respond to a homeless person who knocks on our door looking for ‘work’ I regret it later because they do little, and it drives Margaret nuts to be put at risk for return visits when I am not around.  This time I did not have to get involved!  Point of Contact:  It’s almost enough to give me socialist leanings.

I still wish I had given him that euro, though.

Best Pain au Chocolat (2003)

Who makes the best baguette in Limoux?  Opinions are diverse and arguments are strong, but a lot of people prefer the baguette from the bakery on the Tivoli Boulevard.  The best multigrain bread?  Arguments rage and opinions do not converge; the Cros bakery on rue St Martin, or the one on the Place de la Republique, or the bakery on rue de la Goutine.  Who makes the best croissant?  Probably the Cros bakery, but only if you specify the butter croissant, otherwise they contain some margarine.  In a country where bread is a daily priority, and bread prices can spark a riot (or revolution), these questions really matter.

So we were not totally surprised to get a phone call from Daphne.  “Please come and join us at the Café de Commerce for a comparative tasting of pain au chocolat.”
Pain au chocolat is like a straight croissant with chocolate inside.  Some people cannot start their day without pain au chocolat.  Once in America we had French friends visiting us with two young children.  The kids couldn’t understand why there was no pain au chocolat in the USA .  To sooth them, their parents stuffed a Hershey bar inside a hot dog roll.  Let the day begin.

Daphne had gone around to half a dozen bakeries in downtown Limoux buying one pain au chocolate at each one.  She invited Margaret, David, Pat, and me to join her for coffee at the café for a definitive pain au chocolat tasting.  Margaret and I can start our day just fine without pain au chocolat, but the opportunity to evaluate the best was just too tempting.

We ordered our coffee, and David carefully cut each pain au chocolate into six pieces.  This was a blind tasting, so the identity of the bakeries remained hidden.

In a half hour of good tastes and opinionated discussion, we evaluated the six candidates.  The criteria were:

Pastry quality:  lightness, flakiness, and the satisfying ‘crunch’ sound (or lack of it).  It became clear that there are two kinds of ‘good’ pain au chocolat:  the flakey kind like a croissant, and the bready kind like a brioche. 

Chocolate:  Quality, quantity, and distribution.  We discovered in the dissection that everybody laid down two thin bars of chocolate along the center of the roll.

Appearance:  Does it make you want to eat it, or does it look like it was manufactured for the supermarket shelf?  People looked for appetizing factors:  color, look of the crust, etc.  There was striking uniformity of opinion, so we just summed up our individual scores. 

When we unveiled the winners, the highest score, to no one’s surprise, corresponded to the Cros bakery, which also makes the best croissant.  The crust was of the light flaky style, and its appearance also made everyone salivate.  Nearly every entry did a good job on the chocolate, though the entry with the lowest total score was dragged down by their mediocre chocolate.  It came from a bread depot, not a true bakery, and its crust suffered from a margarine taste.

In honor of the best pain au chocolat, Margaret created an award certificate, which said (in French):
            Certificate of Distinction 
            Pain au Chocolat, Best of Limoux 
            Chosen by the Daphne Society in a blind tasting, March 2003 
            Our congratulations and thanks

When we went to the bakery and presented the certificate, young Mme Cros broke into a surprised smile.  We had clearly made her day.  She ran back to give it to her husband the pastry baker.  What shall we blind-taste next time, Daphne?  Baguettes?  Foie gras?

Alone n'est pas francais (2003)

The French are a very social people who tend to group together for any given activity.  This is most obvious at vacation time, when they head to the beach or ski slopes in droves, creating traffic jams that can stretch literally for hundreds of miles.  This is a characteristic that we find somewhat incomprehensible.  They find our "loner" tendencies equally incomprehensible.

Cycling habits are no exception.  All over the country, cycling clubs congregate on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings for the regular weekly outings.  Thus there were some expressions of astonishment on Sunday morning when I (Margaret) told the "cyclos" that I was riding to the coast.  Buddy Jean-Claude had designed the route and would accompany me for the first 25 miles with friends Neil, Jerry, and Heinz.  Not only were we heading off on a route different from the club, but I would be cycling alone for most of the day.  A woman heading into the Corbieres mountains and her husband just standing by letting it happen - pas possible!

Well, not entirely alone.  The day was warm and clear, and you can't keep the French inside when the weather starts to warm up. At the top of the col de St Louis, we were caught up in a Corbieres traffic jam:  sixty-some sheep being herded from barn to pasture.  We were pleased that Texas visitors Jerry and Heinz got to experience this quintessential French cycling experience.

Later, after Jean-Claude and company had turned back toward Limoux, I was heading into the hills with some uncertainty about my most recent turn.  Signage is generally unambiguous, but it never hurts to check, particularly before a long uphill climb.  As I was leaving a village, I passed a couple of older, uh, portly gentlemen.  "Is this the direction to le Vivier?"  "Oui, but wait two minutes and I'll get my bicycle and go with you!" one man called after me.  Have I mentioned before that the French are outrageous flirts?

In another remote village near my halfway point, I paused to eat yet another energy bar and empty the accumulated wrappers from my jersey into the village dumpster.  I watched as a truly ancient man made his way across a bridge in my direction.  We exchanged pleasantries about the weather, and he fondly recalled cycling in his past.  "But at my age -- c'est fini!"  I suggested that it was because of his cycling that he was in such fine shape at his age.  He expressed amazement when I told him my destination and even more when he heard my starting point.  He warned me about the upcoming pass:  "It climbs a little bit out there.  Ah, but I see you have a derailleur."  I realized that his cycling experiences had been on a "no-speed" bike that we over-50's remember from our youth.  My climb was easy by comparison.

As I crossed the pass on this last line of foothills before the Pyrenees , the huge mass of Mount Canigou exploded into view.  The shock of its awesome beauty nearly knocked me off my bike.  Canigou was my companion for the rest of the afternoon.

Dick intersected with me at the 60-mile mark, expecting to find my energy flagging.  Training has paid off, and he described me as "high as a kite".  When he checked back at the hotel later to see if I had called for a rescue, he was surprised to see me already in the room.  Eating, of course.  We had a wonderful seafood feast with a view of the port that night.  I was happy to drive back to Limoux with Dick the next day, but we'll never know what chance encounters might have occurred if I had returned alone, by bike.

You know it's spring (2003)

You know it is spring when, on the Wednesday ‘retirees’ ride of the Limoux cycling club, 
            a usually serious, dour man is riding along singing at the top of his lungs;
            a guy who has been away from cycling for 6 months is doing fast sprints; 
            a group whose average speed is 22 km/hr is pedaling along furiously at 35.

The almond trees, the first tree to flower, are bursting with blooms, shedding white petals everywhere.  The pink cherry and plum trees are not far behind.  Flowering trees dot the landscape, planted by former generations on farms since converted to other crops.  The grape vine buds are pushing out, and any vineyard owner who hasn’t finished yearly pruning wishes they had done it earlier.  After a long hard winter, a sunny spring is pushing forth in the Aude valley.

This is my last ride of the winter/spring visit to Limoux, and I’m glad to be doing it with the club.  Neighbor Roger is there, as is his buddy René the club president, and Gérard the handsome charmer.  The twenty riders range in age from 40’s to 70’s.  We call today’s route the Magic Ride.  You pedal uphill for less than an hour, then descend gradually for nearly two hours.  We go uphill through vineyards bursting with spring energy, then downhill through the shady wooded Loquet river valley.  The fast group speeds away and is not seen again.  The medium group (c'est moi) waits on the hilltops for the slow group to rejoin.  The mood is happy, convivial.

Fabienne needs wine for the summer season at Hotel le Monastere, so together with some Canadian friends we pile into the largest car available and go taste and spit to help her with this important responsibility.  We do these trips after Margaret has returned to work in Atlanta, since she quickly saturates on the wine-tasting process.  We picnic on a hilltop with an awesome view of the snow-capped Pyrenees.  An intense green pasture beckons as a picnic spot, but David cautions us that the green stuff is a wheat crop, so we don’t tread on it and settle instead in the brambly brush. 

These winery trips have become an annual spring tradition.  I have promised Margaret that I will not buy too much wine, as our cellar shelves are still full.  But it’s a shame not to buy today’s magnificent chardonnays from a new winemaker of real talent, especially at under $5 per bottle.  The week before we made a pilgrimage to the Minervois, to visit our favorite co-op winery, and of course we needed to stock up on their rose and whites at $3/bottle, and why not a few – let’s make it a carton – of their intense reds at $6-$8 for top-of-the-line.  Then we visit the remote farm of artisan winemaker Durand, who is shaped like a barrel yet charms all the women with his jolly laugh, eloquent words, and marvelous wines.

In the intense round of good-bye dinners with friends we’ve simply given up on the diet and daily note our weight with a resolution to behave better after we’re back in Atlanta.  The buffet dinner at the annual cycling club party adds a couple of pounds for which even an evening of dancing cannot compensate. Mayor Dupré is there, of course.  The DJ shifts from fast Spanish dances to the band music of Carnaval, and everyone is on their feet doing the slow graceful dance.  Mr. Dupré shows me the correct way to hold and gesture with the long decorated Carnaval wand.

My return trip to Atlanta approaches.  It’s always hard to leave, and I have poignant feelings on the last bike ride through the rolling hills.  But it has also been a difficult period to be in France, whose government is at odds with the US government’s unilateral plans for war with Iraq.  The French are very touchy about American domination, whether cultural, economic, or military.  Usually the discussion ends when people decide that I and Margaret are okay as individuals, even if we are American.

Limoux stories index

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