EDC – Every Day Carry

Pretty much every trip out of the apartment I have my Every Day Carry (EDC) bag, my essentials for every day in our new home of Carcassonne.

This carry bag is a bit different from my current and former law enforcement colleagues, with their EDC gear including their department or LEOSA authorized essentials for making an arrest or resolving a self-defense situation, but the principles of being self-sufficient are the same.

1.  5.11 Tactical P.U.S.H. (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack

I like a carry bag that I can organize my gear and use winter or summer.  A carry bag can be carried over a heavy jacket or a shirt.  There is no forgetting a piece of gear being left in the pocket of my other jacket or left on a nightstand, it is all in one place.  I like the 5.11 brand for its low-key practicality and toughness.  The pockets are secure so there are fewer worries about a pickpocket lifting my wallet or camera and the bag’s ballistic nylon deters access by cutting into the bag.  The P.U.S.H. pack doesn’t scream “expensive camera bag,” “military bag,” or “cop bag” and it isn’t an oversized messenger/computer bag.

Alan wearing 5.11 P.U.S.H. pack
Alan wearing 5.11 P.U.S.H. pack

There is a “man bag” culture in France and the Mediterranean areas with many local men wearing a shoulder bag “cross chest carry,” a sacs en bandoulière,  so my carry bag, while a bit larger than average here, blends well into everyday life without making me looking like a tourist.  (Think, “Fanny pack.”)

The P.U.S.H. pack has two side expanding pockets that I make use of for a water bottle and sunglasses case.

5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack
5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack
5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack with Sunglasses and water bottle
5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack with Sunglasses and water bottle

2.  Kleen Kanteen Classic 18 ounces water bottle

I carry Kleen Kanteen stainless steel water bottle with 18 ounce capacity.  With us walking more in our new home, we never have to scramble for something to drink.  Carrying a water bottle eliminates the cost of buying water and the impact of all those empty plastic bottles.  The Kleen Kanteen is free of BPAs and has no plastic or epoxy linings that can crack like in aluminum water bottles.

Kleen Kanteen 18oz Classic
Kleen Kanteen 18oz Classic

3 & 4.  Ray Ban Prescription Original Wayfarers Sunglasses and Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case

With making the decision to be pedestrians most of the time, I end up wearing my sunglasses nearly all the time when I’m outdoors in the daytime.  I opted for the darkest polarized lenses available and a nearly “crush-proof” Hazard 4 sunglasses case.  I trade out my standard eyeglasses and sunglasses in the case so I always have both with me.

Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case
Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case
Ray Ban Prescription Original Wayfarers Sunglasses and Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case
Ray Ban Prescription Original Wayfarers Sunglasses and Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case

5.  BLU Samba Jr Cellphone

Tracy and I needed phone communication in France immediately upon arrival. We purchased an unlocked cellphone and SIM card with a French telephone number from Cellular Abroad, a National Geographic affiliated company. It’s a “pay-as-you-go” system where you can add time through an English-speaking operator.  We wanted to “unplug” for a while from always having smart phones, but wanted a basic phone for emergency “112” calls (French “911”), calls from home, and a local phone number for French government agencies and businesses.  After our French bank account is established we will consider whether or not to reactivate our unlocked iPhones with a French provider.

BLU Samba Jr Cellphone
BLU Samba Jr Cellphone

6 & 7.  Business Cards and Dog Waste Bags

We have business/calling cards printed with our e-mail for use with new friends and local businesses.  The dog waste bags are so we can be good neighbors cleaning up after Kiara (although it seems that, regardless of signs everywhere, few French dog owners follow suit).

Business Cards and Dog Waste Bags
Business Cards and Dog Waste Bags

8, 9, 10 & 11.  Bellroy Travel Wallet, Currency, Identification, Miscellaneous Cards

There is a Bellroy travel wallet in carry bag’s zippered inner pocket. I wanted to stop wearing my wallet in my back pocket where it is more accessible to pickpockets.  It now takes a very concerted effort to obtain my wallet from its location in my carry bag.  My travel wallet holds my passport (France wants you to have your Carte d’Identité or passport with you.), currency, driver’s license, credit cards, SNCF and TER (national and regional train systems) discount cards, and French supermarket loyalty cards.

Bellroy Travel Wallet
Bellroy Travel Wallet

12 & 13.  Moleskine Notebook and Pen

My second most used tools in the bag.  I am constantly writing notes to myself, making lists, listing directions, translating French phrases to request assistance, and writing down personal observations.  One of those old police habits of always having paper and pen available and making frequent notes.

Moleskine Notebook and Pen
Moleskine Notebook and Pen

14 & 15.  Folding Nylon Shopping Bags and Spare Reading Glasses for Tracy

“Paper or plastic?” is not usually an option here.  If you want a bag for your groceries you need to bring one (or several) yourself. Being primarily pedestrians, running back to the apartment to get shopping bags when we suddenly remember that we needed some things for the kitchen is awkward and time-consuming.  The thin, folding nylon bags take little space and are always helpful.  I also carry an extra spare of Tracy’s reading glasses in my carry bag since she often doesn’t carry a purse or camera bag..

Shopping bags and Tracy's reading glasses
Shopping bags and Tracy’s reading glasses

16.  Olympus E-PL2 Mirrorless Digital Camera and Electronic Viewfinder with an Olympus M.Zuiko 14-150 mm Zoom Lens with lens hood and an Olympus M.Zuiko 17 mm “pancake lens” or a Olympus Tough TG820 Waterproof/Shockproof Digital Compact Camera 

My most used tools since arriving in France have been my cameras. I alternate between carrying the compact Olympus TG820 when I want something lightweight in my bag all the time or in adverse weather and the Olympus Pen Camera with interchangeable lenses when I want more professional shooting options.  When we decided to minimize one area was my photography.  I had a larger prosumer Canon DSLR with multiple lenses which I really enjoyed.  But two years ago when I carried my Canon outfit to the top of Florence’s cathedral dome, up  all 463 steps, I realized that:  1.) I wasn’t getting any younger (that was a “killer” climb even without the heavy gear) and  2.) I wasn’t shooting photos professionally anymore.  Today I shoot photos to share events and travels with family and friends.  I decided to explore the new smaller and lighter “mirrorless” digital camera systems and return to a more classic “Robert Capa” photojournalism style of shooting images.

The carry bag allows me to “stash” the cameras out of sight in a low-key bag to avoid being targeted for camera theft and to avoid the perception of the stereotypical tourist.  I always have at least the compact camera and extra batteries in my carry bag so I hope to never lose a “photo op” because I didn’t want to carry a DSLR camera with me.

Olympus Tough TG820 Waterproof/Shockproof Digital Compact Camera
Olympus Tough TG820 Waterproof/Shockproof Digital Compact Camera
Olympus E-PL2 Mirrorless Digital Camera and Electronic Viewfinder with an Olympus M.Zuiko 14-150 mm Zoom Lens with lens hood and an Olympus M.Zuiko 17 mm "pancake lens"
Olympus E-PL2 Mirrorless Digital Camera and Electronic Viewfinder with an Olympus M.Zuiko 14-150 mm Zoom Lens with lens hood and an Olympus M.Zuiko 17 mm “pancake lens”

17.  Carabiner

I carry a carabiner on my bag to quickly secure my carry bag if I remove it while eating or having an espresso at an outdoor cafe. Anytime I take my carry bag off, the shoulder strap is looped around a chair or the table (or in a pinch, my leg) and secured with the carabiner.  Anyone attempting to “grab and run” is going have to be able to outrun me while dragging along a large piece of the restaurant’s furniture attached to my bag.

Carabiner
Carabiner

18, 19, 20, & 21.  Change, Money Clip, Leatherman Juice Tool, and Apartment Keys

The final parts of my EDC gear is actually located on my person, rather than in my carry bag.  I carry loose change is in my pockets.  Europe uses one and two Euro coins which have proven very convenient.  The lowest paper denomination for Euros is a five Euro note. I carry a money clip with currency in my pocket to avoid having to reach into my bag and displaying my wallet for every purchase.  I don’t want a prospective thief to constantly see where my wallet is coming and going to.

A Leatherman Juice C2 multi-tool takes care of most tool needs with needle-nose pliers, a knife blade, screwdrivers, and the very necessary corkscrew. I’ve carried this versatile pocket tool for years.

I still wear a wristwatch, another “cop habit,” although cellphones have nearly eliminated the need for one. I rotate wearing a Seiko Black Monster dive watch, a Victorinox Swiss Army Maverick II Dual Time Zone watch, a Longines dress watch that was a college graduation gift from my parents, a Citizen Eco-Drive watch that was a gift from Tracy, and a Seiko custom TMCC retirement watch, a personalized gift from Tim Dees.

My  final essential is the apartment’s keys.  After years of having the “school custodian’s” size rings of home, cars, and office keys, I now carry only a building key and apartment door key.

Leatherman Juice C2 muliti-tool, Euro coins and currency, and money clip
Leatherman Juice C2 muliti-tool, Euro coins and currency, and money clip
Watches
Watches
Keys
Keys

Even with the above items, There is still room in my EDC carry bag for whatever else the day’s activities might require:  an umbrella, map, shopping list, Kindle, camera flash, dog’s medical records, camera tripod, flashlight, or something for Tracy.

The Eagle Scout in me has a difficult time leaving for the day without remembering to “Be Prepared” which has been serving us both well in our daily exploits here in Carcassonne.

Kiara’s People

Mom and Dad have been after me to write a blog post. Until now, I didn’t know what I should write about. But today I was thinking about all the nice people I’ve met in France.

THE VET | Dr. Broy, he’s very nice man, speaks a little English but knows his stuff about dogs. He was the doctor who made me feel so much better when I got sick. He is a neurologist and Mom really likes him as my primary doctor, so we’ll probably be seeing more of him. And he has a nice accent too! Plus, he loves me — major points for Dr. Broy.

THE AUSSIES | Last night I met a couple from Australia. At first Dad thought they were from Great Britain, but only because we rarely hear English and usually when we do they are from Great Britain. [Most of the local people in Carcassonne think we’re from Great Britain too — right, because I look like I come from a rainy climate, duh!] The lady couldn’t wait to meet me and liked that I was wearing my pink sparkly necklace, she smelled nice. The man couldn’t believe that I only weigh one kilo and told my parents that I was beautiful. They loved me! Australians must be very smart people.

THE CANADIANS | A couple of days ago we were walking across the Pont Vieux and I was not on my leash [Mom lets me walk without it if I’m very good, don’t get in anybody’s way and come when I’m called — which I always do]. About two-thirds of the way across I saw three people sitting on the side of bridge and taking pictures of each other. Two ladies and a man. I wanted to meet the lady with the short brown hair, so I wiggled my tail at Mommy and she said I could “go say hi” — it’s her code words to let me know that it’s alright if I approach strangers. The lady with the short hair and the lady with the grey hair did that squeal that some ladies do that really makes my ears happy. The man was talking with Daddy about stuff and I got cuddles from the lady with the short hair. Canadians must really be dog people, both of the ladies from Canada made happy, happy noises — which I like. When we were saying goodbye and telling them to have a nice trip, the lady with the short hair said “Oh she’s just SO cute” and I could tell that the nice people from Canada loved me!

THE JAPANESE | Our second week in France Mom and I ran into a group of tourists from Japan, about 12 people. It was rainy that day and they all had such bright colored umbrellas it looked like a carnival. They were waiting to cross the street at the light, but when I approached the corner from the grassy area one of the ladies spotted me and squealed. (I just love that!) She knelt down and Mom said “go say hi” so I ran over and put my paws on her knee, she looked at Mom with the biggest smile in the whole world. She asked Mom if she could take my picture and Mom said sure! So I got my picture taken with the nice lady from Japan, then with her and her boyfriend, then with two more of her friends! She was talking to me in a sing-songy language that I really liked, it sounded very pretty. I could tell that her and her friends, they  definitely loved me! Very nice people must live in Japan.

THE FRENCH | Ever since my first walk in Gambetta Square French people have stopped to talk to Mom and Dad and to touch my head or scratch under my chin. Some have just scooped me right out of Mom’s hands and asked in French (which Mommy doesn’t really know) if they could show me to their friends. Mom and Dad usually say yes, except for when it’s a child — they worry that I’ll get loved on too hard and get hurt. I really like the people in France though — all the sounds they make are happy, happy sounds. Did you know that in France dogs are welcome to come into restaurants, stores and events like market day, people from France are real dog lovers, they treat their dogs like people — we have not seen one dog that was sick or injured or even a stray dog. And the French people are curious about me, they always want to know what kind of dog I am, how much I weight, how old I am and . . . they kiss! I know the French people really love me, because the ladies, the little girls and even the little boys always kiss me and all French people make the happy, happy noises that I like. I think that French people are very, very nice and they are good dog people.

Dad says I’m in International Diva, I don’t really know what that means, but I really do like meeting people from all over the world. It’s kinda cool and really fun, but so far everybody loves me! Maybe Dad should start carrying a guest book so that people can sign it and say where they are from, kinda like a scrapbook.

Growing Stuff

I have never been much of a plant person. I love fresh herbs for cooking and can arrange flowers, both real and not, but growing something myself has never, ever been something I’m good at. But we live in an apartment so gardening is out of the question anyway.

However, I couldn’t resist the mini herb garden kit at IKEA on our last visit. Basil, coriander and thyme seeds with the dirt and containers to put them in, all for €3,00.

I had the kit for about a week before I got brave enough to open it. It took me a while to figure out that the little brown discs were actually potting soil that had been compressed. But once I figured out how to un-compress the potting soil, the rest was pretty simple. That was two weeks ago.

This week there has been some amazing progress and I have little baby sprouts of basil, coriander and thyme. I’ve been so excited about my baby plants and have even started to rotate the pots so that they grow straight instead of leaning one direction toward the window.

I’ve watered them a bit every third day and am surprised by how fast the little sprouts grow. I was giddy with excitement when I realized this morning that in addition to the baby sprouts I already have there are even more getting ready to break through the dirt any day now.

Alan says I haven’t been so excited about growing things since I quit playing Farmville on Facebook! He’s right, of course, but I’m still pretty happy with my baby plants!

Enjoying the Open Air Market

One of our goals with our new retired life is to eat healthier.

In the past it was always faster and often more convenient to swing by a “drive-up window” and pick up a quick meal.  Even though I knew better about nutrition, it was quick and satisfying to grab Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a Baconator, or Extreme Sausage Sandwich.  I love a good cheeseburger, et. al, but “everything in moderation” and sometimes I wasn’t moderate in my dining habits. (You would think that after documentaries like “Super Size Me” I would have long ago been avoiding fast foods.)  Please don’t think Tracy and I raised the kids on fast food and that we didn’t use healthy foods to prepare meals, but we also took our fair share of “short-cuts” to the “drive-up.”

With a major change in environment and limited access to fast food, Tracy and I wanted to create new eating habits that actually follow the USDA Food Pyramid recommendations we previous ignored if it wasn’t convenient.  (But still enjoy an occasional, emphasis on “occasional,” indulgence.)

Tracy and I both love to cook and try new recipes. Now we have a lot of brand new ingredients to explore with our cooking.  We want to minimize meat and emphasize vegetables, fruits, and grains. We also wanted to use farm fresh, local foods as much as possible and avoid frozen, canned, and pre-packaged foods.  There are no excuses as we now have the time with retirement to enjoy making our meals completely from scratch.

One pleasure has been shopping at the open air market in Place Carnot.  Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday is market day in Carcassonne.  The town square in Place Carnot is full of tables with vegetables, fruits, honey, breads, meats, and flowers.  We are now shopping for seasonal and fresh foods, usually directly from and sold by the farmers themselves.  (There are also some imports from Spain, Italy, and North Africa also available.  The country of origins on all foods are clearly identified.)  Colors are often vivid with some shocking differences in foods’ colors that we only used to see in heirloom and heritage produce in the U.S.

I realize I am stating the obvious regarding the local food being is raised for its taste, rather than its ability to be trucked long distances and to last longer on store shelves.  There are many new and different flavors to experience.  (And new names for old favorites:  mushroom are des champignons, potatoes are des pommes de terre, and strawberries as des fraises.)  Yes, I already knew about the improved quality of local foods but it’s an evolution for me to experience it on a continuous basis.  I never had or took the time to shop farmer’s markets or to garden at home.  (I have a “black thumb” when plants are involved.  There were only silk plants in my old office.) Previously tt was always a matter of running by the supermarket’s vegetable section or stocking frozen vegetables in the freezer.

The experience of shopping at the open air market is a theater upon itself:  all different kinds of people coming and going, the various interactions between buyers and sellers, people looking for the best quality at the best value, friendly “bonjours” and “au revoirs,” and us standing in the middle of it.  We are already choosing our favorite vendors.  We have our farmer with the freshest and best tasting tomatoes.  There is our “Melon Man” who insists we taste a slice of his cantaloupes first before he hand-picks the ripest melons for us.  There are the vendors who are exceedingly patient with my limited French when they ask for, “Trois euros cinquante-cinq centimes” (3 euros 55 cents) and make a point to write the amount out on a pad of paper or show me the amount on the calculator.

And the best part is, of course,  cooking and eating our bounty then returning to the market do it all again.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Wow, One Month Already

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been here a month already. Time has sure passed quickly as we worked on settling in to our new community.

So far in the last 30 days, we’ve made two train trips to Montpellier; had a sick computer and a sick puppy; rode the bus – mostly successfully; shopped at the open-air market, found a grocery store we like; selected a favorite coffee bar; visited a medieval citadel; taken lots of long walks along the river; have been to the tourist office, the post office, the bank, the veterinary office, the butcher, the pharmacy, the train station and one of the museums.

We’ve talked to people from France, Germany and England, taken hundreds of photos and studied zero French.

We’ve been able to keep in touch with the kids, our family and friends through social media sites and e-mail. Major plus as we miss the kids quite a bit.

We read from others that dealing with OFII would be time-consuming and difficult process but haven’t found that to be true. Within our first 30 days, we mailed our documents to them with the requested copies of our passport, visa and visa stamp. We received our notification that the materials were received within 10 days of our arrival. Ten days later we received our letters from OFII with the time and date of our meeting for our medical exam and general interviews. Definitely not the nail-biting situation we had expected.

Now that we are settled into our Carcassonne home and have completed our first month abroad we are creating a schedule for travel, adding French lessons into our daily routine and making plans for our OFII trip in May.

Living in Carcassonne is wonderful, but it still feels a little like being on vacation and Alan and I keep reminding each other that we don’t need to rush around trying to see everything possible each day. We have 11 more months to wander and explore, learn some French, do some out-of-town travel, visit a friend or two also living abroad and drink more wine.

So far, life is great. Alan and I are so grateful for the opportunity we’ve been given and the love and support of our kids, family and friends.

Our Carcassonne Home

This post is mostly for my mom, so she can see where we are living!

Our apartment here in Carcassonne is approximately 550 square feet, maybe a little bigger. So as I sit here listening to “Good Life” by One Republic I thought I would post a few photos of our home here in Carcassonne, France.

This first image is not to scale, just a general layout of the apartment that I threw together in Photoshop.

apartment layput

The apartment is roughly a square and there isn’t a ton of insulation so you do hear the neighbors from time to time, but after living with eight kids noises don’t really bother us anymore! However, you can also hear the church bells from St. Nazaire in Le Cite and from St. Michael’s down the street. It’s a happy sound and one that I fell in love with while we were in Italy, although the bells in Italy are much, much louder!

In addition to the church bells, we had the added treat of someone playing the sax with gusto late last night. But these are comfort noises and we had no trouble sleeping.

Most buildings in our area date from the late 15th to early 16th Century but we do not have an exact date on when our building was built. We do know that the interior was nearly completely gutted and remodeled about 5 years ago. The new owner, our landlord Jason Carr, did a fantastic job keeping as many of the original details as he could salvage. The handrail on the staircase is original to the building and was handcrafted to fit the narrow space a long time ago.

staircase

In addition to the handrail, nearly half of the ceiling in our apartment as well as the two big beams are also original to the building. They were repainted in the original whitewash color (which has a slightly blueish tint). One section also has three of the original nails, hand hammered and looking a bit like large horseshoe nails.

nails

There is a city council group that deals with renovating old buildings and they check that anything that can be seen from the street is restored or as near to period as is possible to achieve when someone renovates an old building in the Ville Basse. We are lucky to be in the front apartment and therefore have some of the original ceiling and beams in our apartment.

DSCN7772 DSCN7773

In the living room the furniture is mostly from IKEA, but it’s solid and comfortable, a lot of blue which Alan loves and the minimalist approach to filling the apartment works well for me as I have an issue with clutter. There is a flat-screen tv with both French and UK satellite channels, but we rarely turn it on. The couch converts into a double bed for guests which will be useful in the near future. The windows in both the living room and bedroom have small window seats and large shutters than can be fully open to allow passive solar, closed part way for privacy or even closed fully to keep out the hot summer sun. We love that the shutters here are practical and not just a design feature.

DSCN7770 DSCN7761

We did set up Kiara’s stuff in front of the heater. Our poor little girl hardly has any hair and is not a real fan of tile floors, so keeping her from shivering is a constant battle. But she loves, loves, loves the rug, even though it’s practically magenta in color, so much for her taste in decor.

DSCN7760

She also has her own little espresso cup for water and a travel container for her dry food – which she rarely eats.

DSCN7759

The dresser is in the living room, which we both thought odd at first. I added some of the pillows from the couch to break up the white on white color, a couple of photos I brought with me (the small one on the left of the pillow is my Mom and Dad, on the right is our Max), a knick knack that my mom got me before we left about daughters, and we use the vase to store wine bottle corks!

DSCN7758

However, since the dresser serves as a place to store camera/photo equipment cords and backup drives (first full width drawer), our bath stuff (top left), Kiara’s closet (top right), the “overflow” drawer (bottom) as well as a dresser for socks and stuff, it’s becoming less of an oddity than it was on day one.

DSCN7756 DSCN7754 DSCN7755

DSCN7757

There is a bookcase that we use to house our laptops and camera stuff next to the dining room table and next to the dresser.

DSCN7751

DSCN7750

The bathroom shares the wall in the dining room and is surprisingly spacious for a European bath. The corner shower allows more space than we anticipated. Our hotel in Florence in 2011 made taking a shower an epic event, it was just wide enough for me to stand in without turning and I had to duck to get my hair wet. Alan’s relief when he saw the shower in this apartment was practically comical. The one feature I really like is the towel heater. Not only does it warm your towel while you shower it radiates just enough heat to be comfy while doing your hair too.

DSCN7744 DSCN7747

The kitchen is actually larger than the one we had in our apartment in Sparks. The fridge looks like a pantry as well as the cabinet that houses the microwave. The crisper drawers in the fridge are each about 7″ x 7″ x 6″ they are “cute.” The kitchen already had dishes, cookware, flatware, glasses, and cooking utensils. But we still picked up a few things which we felt were a big necessity like a corkscrew, mortar and pestle (which weighs about 10 pounds), bottles for olive oil. We also picked up drawer organizers for the dresser in the living room (I dislike clutter in drawers too). Probably the oddest thing in the kitchen is the washer/dryer combo unit. The barrel inside is only about 9″ deep and it takes approximately 4 hours to do a small load of laundry, but it gets the clothes clean and doesn’t make a lot of noise.

DSCN7738 DSCN7737

DSCN7734DSCN7735

DSCN7736

The bedroom is on small side but when the door is closed and the heater is on, it’s super cozy. We had really minimized our possessions before moving, so even the small armoire is more than enough room for all our clothing, though we did pick up additional hangers from IKEA so that everything had a hanger of its own. Another weird issue of mine. The pink thing in the bottom of the closet is Kiara’s travel playpen, it’s like a mini pop-up tent with tons of room for her and her stuff.

DSCN7729 DSCN7731

We feel like we’re getting a handle on the European apartment and small space lifestyle. We still find challenges once in a while, but all in all, it’s a nice space in a historic area. Alan and I have heard that tourist season is a little crazy in our neighborhood, but we are not expecting it to be any different than Hot August Nights or the Rib Cook-off events we’ve attended for years.

We know that small and minimalist spaces and apartment living may not work for everyone, but did we mention that there is a freakin’ CASTLE in the backyard??

castle

Where In The World Are . . .

“Where in the world are . . . Tracy, Alan, and Kiara the micro-dog?”

“Where the heck is Carcassonne?  I know France . . . a little.  Paris . . . and the Normandy Beaches from WWII . . . and Provence from all those photos of fields of lavender . . . the French Riviera  . . . the Canne Film Festival . . . and those wine places:  Burgundy, Champaign, and Bordeaux. Alright, I really don’t know anything about France and never, ever heard of Carcassonne before.”

So, what about France?

France, the République Française, is the largest country in western Europe and the third largest in Europe overall. The “Hexagon” — the approximate shape of France — is a little smaller in area than Texas and basically located in the center of western Europe. To the north is the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel and to the south is the Mediterranean Sea, France is bordered by Spain, Andorra, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. France has overseas regions including French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion and Mayotte and additional territories like French Polynesia. This is similar to Alaska and Hawaii being U.S. states although not part of the contiguous United States and  U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. France has about 1/5 the total population of the U.S. with 65 million citizens, compared to 316 million in the U.S. France has been the number one tourist destination in the world for the last 20 years. Geographically diverse with three major mountain ranges, major beaches, and scenic valleys, France is also ethnically diverse.  France’s colonial past and tolerant culture has made it as much of a “melting pot” of peoples and cultures as the United States. Paris is the capitol to France’s semi-presidential constitutional republic that shares many aspects with the U.S. system of government. France is the fifth largest economy in the world and the second largest economy in Europe. And yes, the language in France is French.

France in the dark green (Wikipedia Commons)
France in the dark green (Wikipedia Commons)

So, exactly where in France are we?

There are 22 regions in Metropolitan France and 5 regions overseas. The regions are roughly the same as states in the U.S. but with less autonomy. Each region has a capital (think state capital). We live in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and our regional capital is in Montpellier. It is the eighth largest city in France and its fastest growing for over 25 years — it’s also the size of Reno, Nevada with approximately 255,000 residents. The immigration office we work with is headquartered there.  We live in the city of Carcassonne, about 90 miles from Montpellier.

Languedoc-Roussillon Region in red. (Wikipedia Commons)
Languedoc-Roussillon Region in red.
(Wikipedia Commons)

Within the region of Languedoc-Roussillon there are five departments (think of the departments like a county):  Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère, and Pyrénées-Orientales.  Carcassonne is located within the Department of Aude and is its Prefecture (the “county seat”). With Languedoc-Roussillon being adjacent to Spain and the Pyrenees there is a Spanish Catalonian influence to food and culture here. There is also the local regional dialect of Occitan (a mix of French, Spanish and Italian) still spoken in the region although French is the official language.

Carcassonne (Wikipedia Commons)
Carcassonne
(Wikipedia Commons)

Carcassonne’s history as a settlement dates back to about 3500 BCE. There was the Roman colony Carsac on the same site in 100 BCE. Carcassonne has been occupied by Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Crusaders. The beginning of what was to become the largest existing walled city in Europe started in the 3rd Century with the Romans fortifying their outpost with walls. Through the centuries the fortifications continued to grow and expanded to today’s huge citadel with two massive outer walls three kilometers in length with 52 towers and barbicans. One of these towers housed the Inquisition in the 13th Century and is still known as ‘Inquisition Tower’.  There are drawbridges, portcullis, arrow slits, and machicolations (murder holes – basically holes in the ceilings to drop rocks on people’s heads) to defend the fortress. Portions of the film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991) with Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman were shot in and around Carcassonne. In 1997, le Cité de Carcassonne was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.

Tracy, Alan, and Kiara in front of le Cité de Carcassonne
Tracy, Alan, and Kiara in front of le Cité de Carcassonne

Carcassonne has a current population of  about 48,000 residents (somewhat smaller than Carson City’s 55,000) and consists of three distinct areas.

1.)  Le Cité de Carcassonne, the historic fortified citadel located at the top of the hill on the right bank of the River Aude. Le Cité is home to museums, restaurants, shops, and hotels. 

2.) The Ville Basse (the lower town) or le Bastide de Saint-Louis is located on the left bank of the River Aude. The Ville Basse, our current home, is an irregular hexagram with narrow streets in the typical grid layout of the 13th Century. The Ville Basse has historic reminders of it’s former walls with three of the town’s four original bastions at the town’s corners and the impressive medieval Jacobin Gate (Porte des Jacobin).

3.) The new town. The modern city and suburbs that has grown around the original medieval city .

Tracy in front of one of Carcassonne's Ville Basse's remaining bastions
Tracy in front of one of Carcassonne’s Ville Basse’s remaining bastions

We are enjoying our new home in the Ville Basse.  At the end of our block is Pont Vieux (the old bridge), the stone bridge built with its twelve semi-circular arches in the early 1300s.  This pedestrian bridge crosses the River Aude and leads up to le Cité de Carcassonne. The parks on both the left and right banks of the Aude are Kiara’s favorite places to walk and play.

Du Pont Vieux
Du Pont Vieux

In Carcassonne’s Ville Basse we have been finding many new favorite spots, one of which is La Petit Moka with its outdoor seating and great coffee. Near our apartment is Square Gambetta, host to a rotating variety of special events including open air markets, new car shows, and flea markets.  The Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) is at the west end of Square Gambetta inside an 18th century hôtel.

Carcassonne Map
Carcassonne Map

The town square, Place Carnot, is home to the open air market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, where we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables  The square has a fountain of Neptune at the center and a grandstand at one end. Its perimeter is lined with cafes and shops. Place Carnot is a perfect location for people watching and a morning café creme, an afternoon café, or an evening pichet de vin (carafe of wine). Interesting historical note: during the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, four people were guillotined in the Place Carnot. Nowadays, our favorite coffee place La Petit Moka is there.

Place Carnot
Place Carnot

At the north end of the Ville Basse is the Gare de Carcassonne (train station) and the section of the Canal du Midi that flows through Carcassonne. The Canal du Midi, like  Le Cité de Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Hertiage Site, it is a 225 mile long network of navigable waterways linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through 328 structures (locks, aqueducts, bridges, and tunnels.)  Built between 1667 and 1694 ,the Canal du Midi paved the way for the Industrial Revolution in France. There are now recreational barge cruises on the canal.

Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi

To the south of the Ville Basse, is the Jacobins’ Gate, Porte des Jacobins, a remaining example of the four former gates when the Ville Basse was still surrounded by a wall. The Jacobins’ Gate is registered as a historical monument. Outside the gate are fountains and gardens.

Jacobins Gate
Jacobins Gate

Our apartment is located one block west of Square Gambetta, approximately six blocks from Place Carnot and 1/2 block from Pont Vieux. A 20-minute walk from our front door will find you at either the train station (Gare de Carcassonne) or Le Cite (the citadel) depending on whether you head north or south. The Jacobins’ Gate is less than 5 minutes from our apartment.

When Pigs Fly

How Carcassonne originally got its name is lost in antiquity.

However, there is a favorite local folk tale about how le Cité de Carcassonne got its name in the legend of Madam Carcas.

According to one version of the legend, in the 800’s Emperor Charlemagne’s troops surrounded le Cité in an attempt for the Frankish king to seize the city for his own.  Knowing the fortress of  le Cité was impenetrable, Charlemagne’s troops laid siege to starve the occupants out of le Cité.  The siege continued for years and years with food stores in le Cité eventually running desperately low.  Just when food supplies were nearly exhausted and it looked like a surrender of le Cité was the only option, Madam Carcas had the very last of the city’s grain force-fed into one of the remaining pigs.  The pig was then thrown over the battlement down at the troops below.  The pig hit the ground and burst open from being so over-stuffed with grain.  Charlemagne’s troops despaired that even le Cité’s livestock was still being fed grain and the occupants had enough food that they could waste it by throwing surplus food at the troops.  If after years of siege le Cité still had those kinds of food reserves, there was no hope of starving the city’s occupants out of the fortress.  Charlemagne withdrew his troops and Madam Carcas taunted the troops by yelling, “Carcas te sonne!” or “Carcas is calling you!” In appreciation for saving le Cité, the town people changed the name of the town to “le Cité de Carcassonne.”

None of this story is historically true, but never let the truth get in the way of a great tale.  Around 100 BCE le Cité was a Roman colony already known as Carcasum.

But the legend of Madam Carcas is a great story and maybe the origin of the phrase, “When pigs fly?”

Regardless of facts, today there is a sculpture of Madam Carcas welcoming visitors at the entrance of le Cité de Carcassonne.

Flavor Hell

A few weeks ago I posted an article titled “Funny French Foods” where I had found some cute and/or funny foods in the grocery store. Today’s article is dedicated solely to potato chips. Some of you who know me well will know that I love potato chips and believe that chip/sandwich pairing is a real art. I cannot even enjoy a sandwich unless there are potato chips on the plate, and of course, I have my own favorite combinations: tuna sandwich with crunchy cheetos, roast beef and provolone sandwich with sour cream and onion potato chips, etc.

Image the horror of walking into the “Walmart of France” Geant Casino and finding the following assortment of chip flavors.

cream-blackpepper and light

Cream and Black Pepper (the ones on the right are Light chips)

olive

Collection of Tapas Olives – I like olives, but in a potato chip?

mustard-pickle

Mustard and Pickle [raised eyebrows] hmmmm

roast chicken and thyme

Roasted Chicken with Thyme (not quite chicken ‘n waffles)

sea salt from the Camargue

Sea salt from the Camargue (located south of Arles, France between the Mediterranean Sea and the two arms of the Rhone River Delta – I looked it up on Wikipedia)

provence

The Herbs of Provence — we keep seeing this everywhere, but haven’t yet figured out just exactly what the herbs are — my guess, lavender.

truffle and wasabi

For the refined palate — truffle and wasabi

paprika

Paprika — in a potato chip, this is just wrong, wrong, wrong

bbq-ribs

For your dining pleasure — BBQ Rib flavored potatoes — mmm, mmm good

old-summergrill

These basically translate as Old Chips with grilled summer flavor — probably not making it into the shopping cart

chorizo

Chorizo flavored chips — ack!

marinatedchicken

Then of course, more chicken, this time Marinated Chicken flavored chips — I am beginning to notice the French love chicken flavored things, not sure why

bacon

Bacon — potato chips even the dog will love!

chewableblondes-sourcream-herb

According to Google Translate this is a bag of “Chewable Blondes” with sour cream and herb flavors. I had to translate it twice because I was having trouble believing the first translation.

There are other types of chips and Alan even found my “comfort food” chips when I was ill during our second week here. But these really are the ones filling up the shelves and not just the oddity that we find on occasion. I must say that I do miss my Nacho Cheese Doritos, they were my “go to” chip whenever Alan made sandwiches!

We have a joke between us, Alan makes a sandwich and we get two slices of bread, a slice of cheese, a slice of meat and if he’s feeling like a chef, a slice of lettuce.

I make a sandwich and we get two slices of 12 grain bread with hummus, feta cheese, slices of sun-dried tomato flavored turkey, shredded romaine, clover sprouts, mini sweet pepper slices and chips that are perfectly chosen to enhance the flavor of the sandwich.

I miss my chips, but there may be some adventurous flavors awaiting me . . . however, I will not lower myself to the Paprika flavored chips, never, never.