The Langue D’Oc is an ancient, ancient land. Many cultures have left their mark on it from the prehistory of humans to the present. It’s this fact that makes the Langue D’Oc so fascinating. It is full of quirky customs with ancient roots that are entirely unique. In a few Occitan villages and towns of the Hereault (pronounced ear-oh) region of the Langue D’Oc, you will find one of these completely unique customs; Animeaux Totémique (Animal Totems). The tradition of Animal Totems dates at least to the 16th century with a few undoubtedly being older. These include the Camel of Béziers, the Bull of Meze and the Wolf of Loupian. The totems, which are made of cloth and canvas are paraded to the accompaniment of drums through the streets by men in customary dress Last August, I attended carnival in Florensac, Hereault. When i arrived in the early afternoon, moules (mussels) were being prepared and given out for free in the village square. Moules have been an important part of the local culture for thousands of years. The Florensac totem, Lo Chivalet in Occitan, is a horse. The villagers responsible for Lo Chivalet, wearing matching shirts, scarves and sashes, were partying at the corner bar. When I returned in the early evening after exploring the area, they were all still there, partying whilst awaiting the festivities! A stage was in place for the evening’s entertainment, and long tables under the oak trees set with chairs quickly filled. Everyone eagerly anticipated and then cheered the entrance of Lo Chivalet and his Master! Who had a whip!
The crowd was particularly appreciative when Lo Chivalet reared up, spun around or was lifted overhead. The Lo Chivalet association has local sponsors. I loved the juxtaposition of the John Cash poster on his side, the result of a tribute band sponsor. Animaux Totémique are traditionally carried by men, but in Florensac they also have a smaller Lo Chevelet carried by village women. I think this must be a more recent development. The women approached and butted heads with the men before also rearing several times. Judging by the LOUD encouragement of the audience, the women are a popular addition to the custom!
Lo Chivalet and his female counterpart departed to enthusiastic applause. It was time to eat and drink (drink more!) prior to the evening’s entertainment. The young men of Lo Chivalet were certainly enjoying themselves!As I was the lone outsider, they even serenaded me with a boisterous rendition of the Lo Chivalet song!
The evening’s entertainment began. Everyone settled down to watch a great show. I felt privileged and grateful to that the welcoming residents of Florensac allowed me to be a part of their carnival and ancient traditions.
I recently visited the Oise-Aisne American Cemetary, the final resting place 6,012 men and women with an additional 241 missing in action memorialized there. Like all American cemetaries abroad, it is meticulously maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. I have visited many American cemetaries abroad. All are somber but beautiful places, but I have never visited one as beautiful as this. Set in the gently rolling farmland and woodlots of the Aisne, it is a place of peace and quietly stunning beauty. With WWI 100 years in the past, very few individuals remain who even knew someone who personally was acquainted with someone interred here. As individuals, in that sense, those here are now forgotten. Somehow, this fact enhances the peace of this place, overlooked as it is by a graceful monument at the top of a gentle rise.It’s as if in resting half a world away and no longer being known, they are finally free of the horrors of WWI. Unlike today, the grave markers give not just name and rank but also specifics as to what sort of division the individual served in and the work they did. This provides poignant insight into who the person was. We can easily picture them going about their duties.Many WWI dead could not be identified. There were no dog tags, and the absolute horror of trench warfare meant there were often no identifiable remains. This soldier must have had something in his possession to indicate his Jewish faith.
The majority here died in the Second Battle of the Marne, especially in the Second Offensive, July 17 – August 18, 1918. Here are just a few of the markers I read and just a fraction of those interred at this cemetary. We can wonder who they were, who they loved and who grieved for them, but we can never know them. They are beyond anyone’s reach now. LaFayette, they came.
This morning, I engaged in one of my favorite activities in France…shopping at a village flea market dans la compagne. The French as a rule love flea markets and love a good find. There are several different types of markets. Yesterday, I visited Le-Ferté-sous-Jouarre and shopped Vide Greniér.The word Greniér means an attic or small storage space where one puts things they don’t use, etc. There’s a bit of everything for sale, but you can find treasures if you look. I noticed a few suspected pickers. Buyers from the Paris flea markets often come to country markets looking for items to resell. To compete with them, you’ve got to get there when the market opens, usually 7-8 am. I was NOT competitive on this day!A Vide Grenier is often sponsored by a local organization as a fundraiser. Sometimes it’s sponsored by the village or town. There’s usually amusement for the children. Of course, there’s food! Rosé and frites with mayo works for me!Although this Vide Greniér was small, I still found a few treasures! An early 20th century chauferette (portable bed warmer for travel). A fitted stone was heated in the fire and then placed in the mesh cylinder. It’s about half the size of a lunch box. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I love its Art Deco design. Very Metropolis. Prints by Steinlein and Cheret (not original more’s the pity!) which I will reframe. Both are prints one doesn’t see as often. I own a signed Cheret lithograph in a carnival theme. Come EatWith me and you can see it! A Quimper 12×6″ platter in perfect condition. Beautiful colors and glaze. And my favorite find! A heavy brass plaque 14×3″ which I think must’ve been affixed to a large piece of machinery. I’m guessing it’s early 20th century. It will look great on a wall! I’m surprised a picker hadn’t already snatched it up. The grand total for all my purchases? $44! And you have to factor in the fun I had hunting. I could sell these items (especially the sign) for a nice profit back in the States, but I want them all for myself. The next time you are in France, visit brocabrac to see if there’s a sale near you. You can search by city/village or region. Then go!
The Minervois, a region of the Haute Langue D’Oc famous for its wine, is so rich in beauty, history, wine and gastronomy that it is impossible to cover it one short, sweet post (or 100 posts). Instead, I will share one dazzling day I spent there last month. The day began with a one hour drive, gradually climbing from seaside Agde to the lively market village of Olonzac with its particularly poignant WWI era war memorial.This was one of the most beautiful French drives I’ve ever taken, and I’ve taken many beautiful drives throughout France. It stunned me, truly. With the vendage (the annual grape harvest) underway, I often found myself behind harvest machinery and trucks laden with just-picked grapes. Given the incredible scenery all around me, I didn’t mind the delays. I stopped to admire vines set in a landscape of gently rolling vineyards interspersed with warm brown villages and church steeples for as far as one can see. At the time of vendage, the vines are so heavily laden with grapes that seem ready to burst!Lunch was in Olenzac, a salad of fresh anchovies and tapenade accompanied by a chilled rosé. The vendage machinery rumbled through the town and the smell of the harvest filled the air. The vendage is the most important time of year, and you can feel the excitement. After lunch, I drove upward to the ancient Cathar village of Minerve, in 1207 the site of one of the last Cathar sieges and massacres. Cathars were a threat to the power of the one Church and thus were pronounced heretics. Set high on a natural rock outcropping amongst sheer, deep ravines in a gorge carved by the river Cesse, one can easily see its fortress attributes. The drive to Minerve and the walk across the stone bridge spanning a deep ravine to the village (no cars allowed) is dramatic and beautiful. Leaving Minerve, I climbed higher, entering the Park Natural du Haute Languedoc. The landscape becomes more austere. Here and there lie the ruins of communal farms abandoned long, long ago. Fencing and the occasional sight of horses or cows shows that this land is still being utilized.
The Parc has many well-marked trails, and I spotted a few hikers . As I drove back down to the sea, I passed many lovely and graceful châteaux. Most were built in the 18th century by vintners who grew rich on the wines of the Minervois. The downhill perspective of my return was equally enchanting. This is one drive I could never tire of!