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!
It would take a lifetime to see all there is to see in Paris. Paris is to France what New York or Los Angeles is to the United States. It’s a place and culture unto itself. If you are fortunate enough to have four or five full days in Paris, consider taking part of one to visit a small town. There are many beautiful, interesting places easily accessible by train that can give you a taste of the rest of France. Today, I want to share Coullomiers with you. A welcoming town, Coullomiers was a Gallo-Roman settlement in the fifth century but is almost certainly older. Having survived both World Wars without suffering great physical damage, Coullomiers is traditional, pretty and rich in medieval architecture.
Located in the Seine-et-Marne region, Coullomiers is most famous for its cheese and rightly so. A soft-ripened, artisanal cows milk cheese, Coullomiers cheese is a lesser-known cousin of Brie although it has been produced for much longer. True Coullomiers cheese is made with unpasteurized milk and cannot be exported to the United States. Those that are available in the US lack the depth and creaminess of French Coullomiers.
One of the best reasons to visit Coullomiers is its lively twice weekly market, one of my very favorites. Beginning at 8 am on Wednesday and Saturday and lasting until around 1 pm, this market is the real thing. It’s a gastronomic destination for Parisians who want to shop at a country market for “les produits de la terroir”, literally “the products of the land.” The market stretches down several side streets from the two market squares and features two “marches couvert” (covered markets). Spend an hour or two wandering through the market and listening to the vendors calling out their products. You will find everything from cheeses, the freshest produce, fish, charcuterie and meat to sewing machines, clothes, linens and more. Try to arrive by 10 AM to get the full effect. It’s noisy, colorful and smells divine. After your wandering is done, enjoy a coffee or a glass of wine in one of the many cafés or purchase all the makings for a picnic. Enjoy it in the beautiful gardens of Parc des Capucins where you will see the ruins of the tanneries that were once a major industry in Coullomiers and supplied the highest quality leather for French Royalty. There is also a small museum inside a 14th century Roman church that boasts a breathtaking grotto. During the summer months, you can rent a paddle boat and travel the gentle old mill stream through the ancient town.
Not to be missed is the Commanderie des Templiers. Constructed in 1173, it is one of the best preserved Knights Templar sites in all of France. It is a bit of a hike but truly amazing to see. Learn more about the Knights Templar here.
There is an RER (nonstop) train to/from Paris Est to Coullomiers several times a day. The trip takes approximately one hour. You can find out more about the Coullomiers train station and the schedule here. It is not necessary to purchase your tickets in advance. There are plenty of kiosks with an English option in Gare Est and the ticket agents there speak English. Click here for a navigable map of Coullomiers from the Coullomiers Office of Tourism. The Market Squares and the Office of Tourism (which is worth a visit) are both only a 10 minute walk from the train station.
As always, feel free to contact me with any questions.