The number of coincidences, through people I’ve met, books I’ve read, the information that has come to me unbidden—or only bidden in thought— as I’ve been doing the research for Two Suitcases was already extraordinary when we met Monique Lagard a few days ago, courtesy of Montalbanais friends, Ian and Janet Milligan.
In 1993-1994, Monique and her lycée students made a short film about Adèle Kurzweil, a young Austrian refugee who came to Montauban at the same time as my parents, in 1940. Surely Adèle’s parents knew mine. They were active Austrian Social Democrats. Adèle’s mother worked for Ernst Papanek at Montmorency, outside of Paris, between 1938 and 1940, at the same time that my mother did. Her father was interned with mine. And the film project began with the discovery of three suitcases (not two) filled with the family’s memorabilia.
Now that I am writing about this, vague memories of hearing my parents talking about Adèle and her family are returning.
Thank you so much, Ian and Janet. Thank you so much, Monique.
The film, which is only thirteen minutes long, is subtitled in English.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.