The name of the street on which Tom and I (and Mocha and Henri IV) live is called Rue de l’Acampadou, which we’ve been told means something like “between the fields and the town.” Our neighborhood is called Quartier du Barri. Opposite our house is a low wall and the stairs to our garden.
Below that, almost all the way down to the stream, L’Aurasse, is a wooded hillside.
When we first came to Cordes, we walked along the road below our house and tried to come up the hillside on some overgrown footpaths. Mocha was so covered in burrs and sticky seeds when we came home from that walk that we stuck to better maintained paths for a good year and a half after that.
One day during last spring’s confinement, I discovered that the paths on our hillside had been cleared. I went down a set of formerly bramble-covered stone stairs just up from our house and found that there was a maze of cleared paths zigzagging up and down the hill in broad sloping swaths.
Mocha and I began to explore the maze of paths. I was surprised at how wide most of them were, as wide as roads. Over the summer, you could hear the noise of brush cutters as the village cleared more and more.
It was a dry summer. The cut grass lay on the dusty pathways. I took Mocha along the paths but all I saw was the wildlife cover that was gone. The paths made me sad.
Then fall came and it began to rain, and the paths became beautiful grassy walkways. I read somewhere that they have a name, Les Terrasses du Barri, and I realized that they were indeed terraces, and no doubt very ancient.
Now that we’re in the second confinement, which limits walking for exercise to one kilometer from home, I’m realizing what an extraordinary treasure is across the street from our house.
Recently, most of my days have been taken up with writing query letters to literary agents and tweaking Red Vienna, the first volume of Two Suitcases. I even added a short new section. Today Henri IV thought it was time to take a break from it.
Moving to the desktop worked for a short time.
But he was determined. I gave up.
And he decided to take a nap in the kitchen.
A short time later, while waking from a second nap on the kitchen counter, the idea to open his own Instagram account occurred to Henri. I reopened my laptop. He agreed to stay off the keyboard temporarily so we could choose some pictures to share to get it started.
But first he wanted to wash up.
And adjust a few things.
After that, we set up his new site, @henriquatredecordes. Naturally he wanted a simpler name, but some other Henri IVs had already claimed them. Thus, he is forced to go by most of his whole name, which is Henry IV de Cordes.
Satisfied with his day’s work, he sat on his throne to wait for dinner,
We’re told that this winter is not typical for Cordes-sur-Ciel, that it was unusually short, that, in fact, it may well not be over yet.
On nous dit que cet hiver n’est pas typique de Cordes-sur-Ciel, qu’il a été exceptionnellement court, qu’en fait, il se pourrait bien qu’il ne soit pas encore terminé.
After six weeks in California, we came back to our little house in Cordes on January 11. The skies were gray, but the fields were still green.
Après six semaines en Californie, nous sommes rentrés dans notre petite maison à Cordes le 11 janvier. Le ciel était gris, mais les champs étaient toujours verts.
It was cold that month, cold and damp and very gray.
Il faisait froid ce mois-ci, froid et humide et très gris.
It even snowed a little.
Il a même neigé un peu.
But it was cozy indoors and there were at least a couple sunny and clear days each week.
Mais c’était agréable à l’intérieur et il y avait au moins deux journées ensoleillées et claires chaque semaine.
It was a good time for making potimarron soup.
C’était un bon moment pour faire de la soupe au potimarron.
And poached pears.
Et des poires pochées.
I love seeing the trees and bushes without leaves.
J’aime voir les arbres et les buissons sans feuilles.
We took long walks with the dog. One day, I noticed hyacinths in bud in front of a neighbor’s house. It happens, our neighbor said, but then it gets very, very cold again, and the buds never bloom.
Nous avons fait de longues promenades avec le chien. Un jour, j’ai remarqué des jacinthes en boutons devant la maison d’un voisin. Cela arrive, a dit notre voisin, mais ensuite, il fait à nouveau très froid et les bourgeons ne fleurissent jamais.
It was about then that a fortunate thing happened. We’d wondered who the abandoned garden across the street from our house belonged to, and had asked around before we left for California. We could look over the wall and see that, though largely covered in brush, it looked like there there were fruit trees, a chicken coop, and maybe a well.
C’était à peu près alors qu’une chose chanceuse s’est produite. Nous nous étions demandés à qui appartenait le jardin abandonné situé de l’autre côté de la rue de notre maison et nous l’avions demandé avant notre départ pour la Californie. Nous pourrions regarder par-dessus le mur et voir que, bien que largement recouvert de broussailles, il semblait y avoir des arbres fruitiers, un poulailler et peut-être un puits.
Travelling for so long – we’d left Cordes in mid-October for Morocco, stayed four weeks, returning for only a couple, before our time in California – I was longing for roots. As I fell asleep in all those different beds, I’d imagine asking for permission to use that garden: cleaning it up, pruning the trees, digging over the beds and planting vegetables and flowers, and maybe even having a few chickens.
Voyager pendant si longtemps – nous avions quitté Cordes à la mi-octobre pour le Maroc, sommes restés quatre semaines et n’y étions revenus que deux semaines avant notre séjour en Californie – je rêvais de racines. Quand je me suis endormi dans tous ces différents lits, j’imagine que demander l’autorisation d’utiliser ce jardin: le nettoyer, tailler les arbres, creuser par-dessus les lits, planter des légumes et des fleurs et peut-être même avoir quelques poulets.
Our neighbors, Dominique and Lucie, were kind enough to keep Mocha for us while we were gone. A week or so after we came back, we invited them over for dinner. To our delight, Dominique told us the garden belonged to Lucette, who passed away three years ago, and whose house was maintained by her children, though they rarely use it. Coincidentally, they were there that weekend.
Nos voisins, Dominique et Lucie, ont eu la gentillesse de garder Mocha pour nous pendant notre absence. Environ une semaine après notre retour, nous les avons invités à dîner. À notre plus grand plaisir, Dominique nous a dit que le jardin appartenait à Lucette, décédée il y a trois ans et dont la maison était entretenue par ses enfants, bien qu’ils l’utilisent rarement. Par coïncidence, ils étaient là ce week-end.
The next morning, Tom went over, introduced himself, and minutes later, we had permission to use the garden.
Le lendemain matin, Tom est allé se présenter, et quelques minutes plus tard, nous avons eu la permission d’utiliser le jardin.
And, even though it was January, there were irises blooming.
Et, même si c’était en janvier, des iris étaient en fleurs.
We also found a peach tree already budding.
Nous avons également trouvé un pêcher en herbe.
So we began work in the garden, pruning, clearing brush, cleaning up in general.
Nous avons donc commencé à travailler dans le jardin: élagage, débroussaillage, nettoyage en général.
On February 10, M. Jazz de Rodez, a cat of great dignity and considerable curiosity, came to live with us.
Le 10 février, M. Jazz de Rodez, un chat d’une grande dignité et d’une grande curiosité, est venu vivre avec nous.
While the two of them make their peace, the garden keeps growing.
Alors que les deux font leur paix, le jardin ne cesse de croître.
Now there are trees in bloom everywhere.
Maintenant, il y a des arbres en fleurs partout.
Inside, Mocha waits a little impatiently to be taken for a walk.
A l’intérieur, Mocha attend un peu avec impatience de se promener.
And Jazz is sleeping on my lap.
Et Jazz dort sur mes genoux.
I don’t think winter will come back this year.
Je ne pense pas que l’hiver reviendra cette année.
It’s two years since I stopped writing the book I’d been weaving from strands of my parents’ story.
But I’m still working on it.
The project is called Two Suitcases after the two suitcases my parents took each time they escaped, first from Vienna, then Paris, and finally from southwest France, before settling in Philadelphia, where I was born.
Since life pitched me back into Mama Ganache in 2016, I haven’t written more than a few words of the book.
The project has a life of its own, however. The story often arrives when I’m in the middle of something else, teasing me with its possibilities. Perhaps it will be a trilogy: Vienna, Paris, the south of France. Or, there’s surely enough material for a series: maybe Vienna 1929-34, Vienna 1934-38, Paris 1938-40, The south of France 1940-42.
Now I’m setting long term plans aside and thinking, once I am settled in Cordes again, I’ll try to write vignettes, a series of short pieces revealing a bigger story.
Here’s an excerpt from some writing I did in 2015.
Inside, except for a few who stare glassy-eyed into the lighted station, the passengers in the railcar are reading quietly or asleep, some sprawled over two seats, more cramped into one seat with extra luggage under the feet. Trude and Fritz find their own seats and squeeze the two suitcases between others on the racks above. The car is cooling down quickly as it sits in the station, but Trude is wearing almost everything she owns and, snuggled against Fritz on the worn leather seat, she is comfortable enough. People are smoking cigarettes and someone is singing softly, perhaps to a child. She closes her eyes but cannot sleep, so she thinks of their geese, Babette, and especially of Ignatz, who has only a few weeks to live before he graces the Christmas table. At least she won’t be the one who has to pluck his feathers and roast him.
When she opens her eyes, the train is pulling out of the station, the city receding. Nazi flags are displayed in many windows. “What next?” Fritz asks quietly. Trude tries to smile encouragingly at him – she knows how fortunate they are to be on that train – but her whole being is weighed down by the news Henri shared in the car: the brutal camps in the north, the bombings, and the implementation of the Final Solution, the eradication of all Jews in Europe.
Swastikas in shop windows fly by as the train gathers speed.
Minutes later, the conductor comes through the car, punching holes in the tickets of the people who’ve just boarded. Trude’s emotions are so raw that she trembles with fear as he approaches, even though he isn’t asking to see papers or even speaking to the passengers. Her ticket and Fritz’s are punched without incident. She sighs deeply but cannot stop shaking.
Hendaye is nearly five hours away. She should sleep. Fritz is already snoring beside her. How can he sleep, she wonders, when things are so uncertain? The train might be stopped by the authorities anytime. Would their documents pass muster? She can’t set her fears aside – they are too real.
Moments after she drops into a light sleep, voices wake her. The nightmare begins: an officer in uniform is making his way down the aisle, checking passports.
The whole time I haven’t been writing, though, the story has been growing. Cooking. Filling out. Getting richer. Fermenting. Incubating. Gestating.
There is a great deal of tantalizing research to be done: for example, our house is Cordes is a twenty minute drive from the village of Verfeil-sur-Seye, where my parents were in hiding between 1940 and 1942. We’ve only visited once so far, but we’ve been told about a very lucid 102-year old who may remember the years when the refugees showed up in the village.
My quest for dual Austrian/American citizenship has been most fruitful in adding details to the story.
Since I began the application process, I’ve been sorting through the boxes of papers stored by my mother, moved from house to house, unopened for many years. I found the very useful folder of documents she and my father collected while applying to Austria for restitution in the 1960’s: birth certificates, school and employment records, old addresses in Vienna, and identification papers. There are visas, tickets, and bills of lading. My mother’s and aunt’s passports are there – Ida’s stamped with a big red J over the Third Reich symbol – though not my father’s. Such treasures.
The criteria for qualifying for dual citizenship includes proving that my father never was a citizen of any country but Austria, and that he never fought in the army of another country. That opened whole new vistas in the story.
As part of the process of proving that Fritz didn’t volunteer to fight in the French army, I researched the French internment camp, Meslay du Maine, where he was held from September 1939 to June 1940. Eye-opening!
In order to explain why he was never naturalized in the US, I had the transcription of the 1953 court hearing in which he was denied American citizenship translated into German.
Stories upon stories.
But perhaps the greatest gift is the video of an interview one of our daughters did with my mother in 1996 as part of a school assignment about the war years. How extraordinary to see my mother alive, in her own kitchen, recalling the very years I’ve been thinking about so much!
After four weeks in Morocco, outside the Schengen area, Tom and I were home in Cordes-sur-Ciel for two delicious, story-filled weeks. How that place fills my heart!
The view from our bedroom
Walking to the hardware store
My reading place
Full moon over Porte de la Jane
A garden gate in Quartier du Bouisset, Cordes
We visited the market just before the yellow vest movement ruined it, disappointing holiday shoppers and devastating the vendors, many of whom depend on the holiday season to pay the whole year’s bills.
The yellow vests have legitimate complaints. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Surely change is needed – indeed it is upon us in full force – but I grew up in a mom and pop store, and I just spent several years pouring heart and soul into Mama Ganache. I feel for those vendors who just lost the years’ profits. A peaceful vigil would not have caught the attention of the world, but violence is not the answer.
The next steps in our long term visa and my Austrian citizenship process required flying back to California, also outside the Schengen Area. We spent the holidays with beloved family and friends.
Cordes-sur-Ciel was built as a safe haven for people who lost their homes in the nearby city of Saint Marcel, which was razed during the Albigensian Crusade. Said to be the first of the bastides, it has five walls built in concentric circles.
(More about the history of Cordes-sur-Ciel can be found here.)
A neighbor recently told us that the stone wall across from our home is the unfinished fifth wall. Indeed, our house is just below the Porte de l’Horloge, the eastern entrance to the medieval city, which is in the fourth wall, built between the 14th and 16th century. Our neighborhood, quartier du Barri, is a 17th century suburb of the medieval village.
Cordes sits on a rocky outcropping, and is entirely built of local stone: limestone, sandstone, and dolomite. The houses are stone and the streets in the medieval village are cobbled. Walls surround every garden and line every street.
There are walls upon walls upon walls.
Living without a car gives me plenty of time to appreciate stone walls all around. One of the most delightful things about Cordes is its authenticity: it looks like and is a place that has been continually inhabited since the 13th century. The walls reflect its history.
They bring me peace, connectedness, and a sense of stability. They are the keepers of the stories.
I never tire of their variety, their richness, their complexity.
In a village of art, the stone walls are perhaps the greatest art.
Most mornings I wake up before sunrise, open the shutters, roll out my rug and light a candle, and then do some stretches, breathe, and meditate for a while. When I open my eyes, the sun is up – or on its way up – and the view is so lovely, I try to save it in a photo.
These are some of the morning pictures I’ve taken. They begin in early August. The last one was taken this morning, the first day of fall.
Although it is a dog, a wonderful dog, who came to us almost immediately upon our arrival in Cordes, the village is better known for its cats.
Almost everyone in Cordes-sur-Ciel has a cat. And, like a mini-Istanbul, Cordes is home to many feral cats.
In addition to doing their regular work with the rodent population, these wild cats drink water from bowls left out for them and eat kibble sprinkled on people’s doorsteps. (Mocha is also a big fan of the kibble, and has to be convinced daily that it’s not for her.)
There’s an organization, Le Chat D’Oc, that catches, spays and releases, finds homes for, or keeps as many of the feral cats as they can, and individuals do their part, but there are still plenty of cats.
Mocha, at this point in her life, is a rabid cat-chaser. She’s not great with certain dogs either, but I haven’t seen a cat that doesn’t run from her yet. This one was coming up the Pater Noster stairway very confidently – until Mocha gave him the eye.
The next moment, he was gone.
Most of them keep their distance.
This guy, who lives along the footpath where we take our regular evening walk, has been getting braver daily.
I’m working on Mocha.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to live here without a cat in the house.
Cordes-sur-Ciel, population roughly 1000, sits on a hill overlooking the valley of the Cérou, which flows into the Aveyron and then into the Tarn. Our house is on the south side of the hill; the Cérou is on the north. Just to the northwest of the village there is another even smaller village, Les Cabannes, though which the Cérou flows.
The Cérou in Les Cabannes
Les Cabannes, a fifteen minute walk from our house, is the home of the local quincaillerie, hardware store, a very important place when one is just moving into a new house.
At the post office, there’s a community center where you can print a page for 15 centimes, which makes getting a printer seem wasteful.
Tom enjoying a beer and the paper at the café in Les Cabannes
There’s also a bistro we like, Le Petit Café, with a dog called Luigi who’s in love with Mocha. This isn’t as endearing as one might think. Luigi is very passionate. He recently followed us to the post office with such enthusiasm that Mocha and I had to take refuge until the post mistress phoned the café to send someone to pick Luigi up. No one could come in or out of the post office until he was gone. Now one of us goes to the café in advance to ask them to hold onto Luigi while we’re there or when passing by.
About halfway between Les Cabannes and Cordes is our favorite grocery store, Prim’Frais,which specializes in local products. They have a nice selection of relatively exotic items, like fresh herbs, too.
Vegetables at the Prim’Frais
Lately, we’ve been going to Les Cabannes almost every day.
In addition to the Prim’frais, there’s a gas station along the way. The mechanic has a junk yard for parts, and an eye for interesting stuff.
There’s the nose and cockpit of a crashed plane for example:
Here’s what it looks like inside:
There’s also a Renault that’s been there so long it’s getting covered in moss.
And, if you take Rue des Tanneries home, you might see a goat or two!