Living in Cordes – Stone walls

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.

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There are walls upon walls upon walls.

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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.

 

Living in Cordes – Mornings

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.

Living in Cordes – Cats

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.)

IMG_2018IMG_4010There’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.

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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.

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The next moment, he was gone.

Most of them keep their distance.

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This guy, who lives along the footpath where we take our regular evening walk, has been getting braver daily.

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I’m working on Mocha.

I don’t know how long I’ll be able to live here without a cat in the house.

Living in Cordes – Les Cabannes

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.

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The Cérou in Les Cabannes

La quincaillerie

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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There’s the nose and cockpit of a crashed plane for example:

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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!

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Living in Cordes – Mocha

The evening Tom and I returned from Le Havre with our rented van full of the boxes we’d shipped from Los Angeles, our neighbors Ann and Leif greeted us in front of our house with sad news. Andreas, the other newcomer to our neighborhood, a Swiss artist who’d also moved to Cordes from California, had died suddenly.

His dog Mocha was staying with another neighbor, Dominique, who couldn’t keep her until Andreas’s relatives came, which could be several weeks. Not only did Pompom the cat object, but Mocha’s barking was bothering Dominique’s guests.

When we saw that the address on Mocha’s address was Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA, the solution was obvious. Mocha would come to stay with us until Andreas’s family decided where she would go.

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The next day, after we returned the van to Albi where we’d rented it, we picked Mocha up at Dominique’s house. Mocha was not happy. She didn’t want to stay with us. It was clear that she loved Andreas very much and was grieving deeply.

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So, when Tom opened the door take some empty boxes to the recycling, she was out like a flash.

Naturally, she headed back straight to Andreas’s place. Tom and I managed to corner her briefly, but when a car went by and we had to alter our very strategically chosen positions, she took off again, this time down the street toward the bistro where Andreas, like most Cordais, liked to sit.

We had pictures on my phone, and people knew Mocha, but no one had seen her. She was spotted near Andreas’s place several times. We left a note with Tom’s French phone number on his door; people called, but no one could catch her. Pretty soon half the village was involved.

At 10:30 that night we heard voices in front of our house and looked out the window to see Leif, who told us that Dominique found Mocha sleeping on Andreas’s step, scooped her up, and now had her in her car. She’d be right over.

So Mocha came home. She had chopped sausage and a little duck for dinner. And she went to sleep on our bed.

Day by day she is becoming more accustomed to her new home. She no longer pulls on the leash when we go near Andreas’s house. She enjoys hanging out at the bistro, where she’s very popular.

And she loves being groomed! (Not so much the bath.)

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But a long walk, table food, and sleeping on a good bed suits her very well!

Now we’ve heard from the family that we can keep her!

Thank you, Andreas, for this wonderful new family member.

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Living in Cordes – Beauty all around

Perhaps August is the most beautiful month of the year in this medieval village in southwest France, or maybe it only seems so because it’s the beginning of our new life here and we’re seeing everything with fresh eyes.

Either way, here’s a series of pictures from our first two weeks. A few, like the one above, were taken from our bedroom window first thing in the morning; the view is enchanting.

After dinner we usually climb the hill behind our house. This picture was taken about half way to the top.Our neighbor, Lilliane, who comes from Paris every summer, tells us the best restaurant in the village is at the Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes. Rochelle, Tom, and I sat on the patio there, shaded by a 300 year old wisteria, until a thunderstorm chased us inside. Even inside it was dramatic. As I took the last bite of my oeufs brouillé au truffes (the English menu called them “blurred eggs with truffles”) one of the tall casement windows blew open with a bang, startling everyone in the room.

Later we sheltered under the roof of Les Halles, the covered square at the top of the village, and watched as lightning lit up the sky above the museum of contemporary art, once one of the grand houses of the village.When taking the footpath from our house to the lower village, bring a bucket for all the wild fruit: blackberries, plums, quince, apples and grapes.

I think my favorite meal is soup, salad, and bread, with a Gaillac rosé.

One day we were greeted by traditional Occitan music and dancing when we got off the bus from Albi.

Another view from the window:

A doorway on our street:

After Rochelle left, Garrett, Chris, and Ed visited. Garrett cooked us a spectacular Sichuan Chinese meal.

A walk in the upper village:

And a visit to the Musèe Charles Portal, the history and archeology museum, which rises high above the western gate to the city, the Charles Portal.

Lace-making machinery from the early 20th century:

And more morning pictures:

Including some hot air balloons which floated gently over the village at daybreak.

Really, what more could anyone ask?

Living in Cordes – Tuesday in Albi

Tuesday was our fourth day as French homeowners and the first day all the shops are open after the weekend. It was also the last day we would have a rental car, so Tom and I went to Albi, a picturesque 20 minute drive from Cordes, to change the SIM card in his phone and set up French phone and Internet service. Coming from the US, we had the amusing idea that the task could be completed in one visit.

Turn out that in France, particularly in August, it’s more complicated than that.

For a start, to get a French phone number, you need a French bank account. Like many of the French cities we’ve visited, Albi’s central commercial district is largely closed off to cars and offers everything you could need, so we walked over to the Albi branch of the bank that also has a branch in Cordes.

In France, we discovered, an appointment is necessary to open a bank account. The Albi bank officer could make one for us in Cordes, but the next one available was on Thursday a week.

At the Albi branch, however, an appointment was available the following Tuesday. That seemed worth the bus trip, especially since we’d already found out that we’d have to return to the Apple store for a charger that’d had to be ordered. Tom said we’d take the Albi appointment.

The bank officer wrote down all the documents we’d need: passports, three months of bank statements from our California bank, proof of residency in France (which we already have – though how we got it so soon is another story), and several more documents that she kindly agreed to leave off the list, since we couldn’t possibly have them yet.

She’d also need our phone number, of course. It’s an American number, Tom said. But then the bank cannot call you to confirm! A French number is needed!

Catch 22.

However, having already set a precedent regarding the missing documents, Tom was able to convince the officer to confirm the appointment right then.

Lesson learned: even when the red tape seems endless, a little dialogue goes a long way.

Credit goes to Tom’s excellent French, pleasant personality, and the willingness of the French to keep the conversation going and to negotiate.

It’s true we still have to go back to Albi in a week with the rest of the papers, and that surely won’t be the end of the steps we’ll have to follow – we’re told it takes about three weeks to get local internet and phone service set up – but Albi is such a beautiful place and I’m sure there will be other things we need that aren’t available here in the village, that I won’t mind going back.

Arrived: Cordes-sur-Ciel

Who would have guessed that the line to rent a car at the Bordeaux airport would take 2 1/2 hours? Or that not one of the three agents would adjust their customary style to – at the very least – shorten the conversations they usually enjoy with each customer? Imagine how exciting the story of our journey from California would have been. Arnaud at Avis was particularly skilled at drawing out his clients’ stories, but I kept looking over my shoulder at the dozens of families with small children behind us: a sea of impatient grimaces, hungry whines, and tapping feet. I’m not sure it made any difference.

It took us close to three hours to get onto the road.

Outside, it was 38C, record-breaking heat, but the thoughtful GPS took us along the back roads, so we enjoyed the ride –

– even the muddy track through the cornfields that saved us a good two minutes over the more conventional route.

Eventually we arrived at the office of M. duMartin, the notaire (real estate lawyer), in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where the couple from whom we bought the house and our real estate agent were waiting.

I will be eternally grateful that Tom is fluent in French! M. duMartin, jowls and chins indistinguishable, thick steel-colored hair brushed back and plastered to his head, melted into his ornate chair behind the expanse of his ancient desk, and read aloud document after document after document. Do we understand that there can be no changes to the outside of the house, not even to the paint on the blue voleurs (shutters)? And here, this is very important, you see where the back of the house goes under the one on the street above? The well is in your house, but a shaft goes up into the house above…

Periodically a young assistant in short shorts, long legs, and assorted tattoos brought more documents, or copies for us all the sign. M. DuMartin’s wife, gray hair in braids circling her head, appeared behind him from time to time, ghostlike.

It was stiflingly hot in the room. I struggled to follow, using all the skills I’ve acquired from years of hearing loss: catching enough words to get the gist, applying what I know from similar situations, and watching everyone else’s responses very carefully. Still. French legalese!

We signed the papers at last and went to the house with the agent and the sellers for a few lessons in house’s quirks.

And now we are here!

We woke to a gentle breeze coming through the wide open window.

Such a view! Come see us!

Two Suitcases and One Pallet

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The current state of the pallet.

We’re experimenting with what to take and what to leave behind, and piling up various configurations of it on the driveway. Pretty soon we’ll have a good enough idea of how and what will fit and the pile will move indoors.

Since my project is called Two Suitcases, I took the idea of moving to France with two suitcases pretty seriously. Well, with two suitcases apiece. Eventually it came to me that, though it would offer me to opportunity to partially replicate my parents’ arrival in the same part of the world in 1940, it was a thoroughly romantic – and therefore impractical – notion. We shifted our thinking to shipping one pallet of boxes.

Right now the boxes making the cut contain: the library I’ve collected to use as background material for Two Suitcases, a few boxes of my papers and other books, some of Tom’s papers and books, framed photos of the family, art, kitchen things, winter clothes, and some items to make our new home feel like our old one. Carpets, my computer, Tom’s keyboard, and more art will be shipped separately.

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Most of my days are filled with sorting and packing. This box has our favorite mugs at the bottom, some delicate pieces of art and glass in the middle, and at the top, some of the birds that lived in our houseplants or flew around the ceilings in our home here.

At its center, packed very carefully, is the crystal bell my father bought my mother with his first paycheck in 1943, less than a year after they arrived in Philadelphia. He always said he bought it to remind her of what is important.

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A thoroughly romantic notion.

 

 

 

 

 

Cordes-sur-ciel

Our journey to Cordes-sur-Ciel began as an open-ended exploration about a year ago when I realized I could get dual Austrian-American citizenship, EU citizenship, opening the possibility of living anywhere in the European Union.

 

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The European Union

At first Tom and I imagined we would go to Luçon, the small city on the Atlantic coast of France, near to my guru family at  Centre Tripoura. We’ve been going to visit them since the 80’s. But when I heard the mayor of Luçon say that his main vision for the town was to keep it French, I began looking elsewhere.

 

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We considered Montauban next. My parents were there for a few months in 1940, after the exodus from Paris. Through the collaborative efforts the Austrian Social Democratic Party, the Philadelphia Quakers, and the French Resistance, they went into hiding nearby for two and a half years. Then, sponsored by the Quakers, they came to Philadelphia where I was born. I thought we would take a furnished apartment in Montauban for a few months, do some research on that very interesting collaboration, and then move on. We found a lovely apartment in Montauban right away, but it was only available for a full year, September to September, longer than we wanted to spend there. In the end, Montauban didn’t call us.


Over the next few days we visited four medieval villages. The third of them was Cordes.
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It was a crazy busy holiday that day, no parking anywhere in the lower village – except at Le Jardin des Paradis, where they probably want you gone after your tour of the gardens. Tom suggested we use one of the many empty 30-minute spaces and pay the fine. A good idea, I thought. When he deposited the euros in the machine, out popped a ticket telling us there were no fines that day. Free parking.
We ate, and climbed the cobblestone road up the hill to the old village. The first building we noticed at the top turned out to house a most unusual shrine to Anandamayi Ma, my guru Ganesh Baba’s teacher. It was a complete surprise – my friends in Vendée didn’t know it was there.
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I’ve had Anandamayi Ma picture on my altar for forty years.
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Then, also at the top of the hill, we discovered Yves Thuriés’ chocolate museum. One of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, Thuriés has been Tom’s favorite for the same forty years. He lives in Cordes.
We felt at home immediately.

The next day, I found the house on Leboncoin, the French Craigslist. We put in an offer late that afternoon.

IMG_2057.jpegAs luck would have it, we had one night with no place to sleep scheduled, so we stayed at Le Secret du Chat, on the same street as the house. The proprietors there were able to answer so many questions!

The following day, we discovered that Cordes is only twenty minutes from Verfeil-sur-Seye, where my parents were in hiding for two and a half years.
It’s the right place.