Flashback: The Crags of the Cathars

One of the chief sightseeing delights of southern France is visting the Cathar castles.

The Cathars, also called Albigensians, were a renegade branch of the Christian church in Europe early in the second millenium CE. Though at one time they could be found in many places, including Italy and eastern Europe, the fullest flowering of Cathar religious and architectural expression came in the 13th century in the mountain fastnesses of what is now the French region of Occitanie.

Visiting a Cathar castle always makes for a good cardio workout. Because their faith was more or less constantly under siege from the mainstream church, wealthy Cathar lords built their strongholds high atop the most unapproachable crags they could command. It’s a testament to human will and ingenuity that these fortifications could be built at all. Whether you’re a medieval soldier in chainmail or a tourist lugging a backpack and camera, you’re wheezing by the time you make the outer gates.

During our months living in Reynes, Carol and I explored three extensive castle ruins associated with the Cathars — Queribus, Peyrepertuse, and Montsegur.

Famous among the Cathar castles, Montsegur, seat of the Albigensian faith, is most remembered for the manner of its downfall. After a nine month seige beginning in the spring of 1243, the garrison surrendered to Catholic crusaders dispatched by French religious and civil authorities to crush the heretical movement. Roughly 500 Cathar knights, dependents, servants, and other believers were caught in the crusaders’ net. More than 200 of them refused to renounce their faith and were burned to death in a field at the foot of the mountain, beneath the walls of their erstwhile stronghold.

In the aftermath of the seige, the Cathar fortress was pulled down and few traces of it remain. Later medieval fortifications were built on the site, and it is those ruins that you see when you climb the hill of Montsegur. They are impressive in their own right; but it is also still possible to see foundations and other traces of Cathar dwellings that clustered on the slopes skirting the original castle.

Wander the ruins of Montsegur with Carol and Pip »

When Montsegur fell, many of the survivors fled to the castle of Queribus. Originally constructed in the 10th or 11th century as a Spanish possession, by 1244 it was held by a knight with Cathar sympathies. Ultimately, Queribus in turn fell 11 years later when the residents abandoned it ahead of an attack by the crusaders. It is regarded as the last bastion of the Cathars in France.

Queribus is the smallest of the three castles we visited, and my favorite. Its white bones bleaching atop a lonely eminence, the ruin provides glimpses of a citadel that must have been lovely in its heyday. Because of the confined space on the hilltop, the castle is piled up vertically upon itself; after climbing from the parking lot to the front gate, you continue to ascend the various levels of the site until you reach the top of the keep, earning a spectacular view far down to the valley floor.

Our friend Sherry joins us for an assault on Queribus »

Just visible from Queribus on a clear day, the castle of Peyrepertuse is the most extensive of the Cathar fortresses we explored. It was built in the 11th century by the kings of Aragon, and was never attacked by the crusaders. Instead, it was surrendered voluntarily multiple times between French and Albigensian forces as local allegiences shifted.

Tapering to a point on its narrow ridge, the castle’s curtain wall looks for all the world like a tall ship, cresting the heights like a prow carving the ocean swell. Perhaps because it was spared the deadly strife that afflicted other Cathar strongholds, there is a spirit of peace that infuses Peyrepertuse. You feel it in the warm hue of the stone, the wide-open space of the yard, and the contemplative quiet within the chapel walls.

Tamsyn helps us investigate Peyrepertuse »

Remarkably, the afternoon we visited Peyrepertuse, we ran into our friends Mari and Greg and their son Ayden, who had hosted us months earlier in Toulouse. (In fact, in one of the last pictures in the photo gallery, you can see Greg [light green jacket] and Ayden in the background, seconds before Carol and Tamsyn recognized them.) Together, they numbered about half the people we knew in France at the time.

France. It’s a small place, really.


The Ghost of Christmas Past

Today I visited Williamsburg, Virginia, to enjoy the colonial Christmas splendor and visit my Alma Mater. Nothing unusual in that, of course: Williamsburg is a magnet for visitors this time of year, especially beginning with Grand Illumination day. And who doesn’t enjoy going back to visit their old college from time to time?

For me, though, visits back to the Colonial Capital have been rare, and usually undertaken with reluctance. Since graduation, my relationship with my old school has always been a bit fraught.

It was the sort of crisp, gorgeous late autumn day you often get in Virginia: sunny, with immaculate blue skies and temperatures in the 40s. Duke of Gloucester Street, the main street running from Merchant Square to the old capitol building, was bedecked in its traditional livery of Christmas wreaths and decorations — featuring red and green apples, evergreen boughs, magnolia leaves, cranberry sprays, and a host of natural accents including even cotton boles and oyster shells.

The vast indoor/outdoor museum that is Colonial Williamsburg pulsed with life in afternoon sunshine. Eighteenth century servants greeted ticket holders to attractions like the Governor’s Palace and the powder magazine, while horse-drawn carriages plied the streets, and drink stands did a brisk business in coffee and hot cider. (Incongruously, signs throughout the area pointed the way to “cold drinks” — a reminder that for much of the year, the Tidewater region of Virginia bakes in blistering heat and marinates in humidity.) Near the junction of DoG Street and Merchant Square, skaters glided around an ice rink.

Visit our Williamsburg and W&M gallery »

As I passed through Merchant Square, I recognized many of the same retailers and restaurants that were there four decades ago: The Scotland House. The Trellis. The Christmas Shop. Binn’s Fashions. All the years fell away, or at least fell back, and past their edges I could glimpse the sights and sounds of my life as a young man.

A moment later, I was across Jamestown Road and standing before Lord Botetourt on the William and Mary campus.

I stopped by the statue, and swept my gaze around the triangular yard at the President’s House, the Brafferton (long ago a school for Native American children), and the broad backside of the Wren Building. Named for the renowned English architect Sir Christopher Wren, the Wren Building is the oldest college building in America. As an English major I had many classes there.

Statue of Lord Botetourt with Wren Building in the background

Although it’s the nearest precinct of the College to Merchant Square and Colonial Williamsburg, that triangle of lawn is usually deserted and nearly always quiet. It seems designed as a place for reflection; and as I paused there I found that the lightheartedness I had felt earlier, walking up Duke of Gloucester Street, was now alloyed with melancholy. In a few weeks I’ll be leaving the country again for Europe, and while I expect to return to Virginia from time to time, when or whether I’ll get back to this place is anyone’s guess.

I realized then that I hadn’t come up here just to see the place. After nearly 40 years, I had come to make peace.

When I entered W&M as a freshman in 1975, I felt with some justification that I was a young man with promise. I had excelled in one of the country’s best school systems, performed with distinction in nearly every academic discipline I’d concentrated on, and scored highly in my college board tests. I was ready to make a mark.

By the time I left four years later, life was a lot more complicated.

I’d married a William and Mary girl in our sophomore year, and through her school friends we became involved with a rural, evangelical church that had largely turned its back on the world. The church subsumed our lives for two years after graduation. After we finally struggled free, I drifted from one job to another, never really catching fire anywhere. I took a shot at graduate school, but fell short of my doctorate when my first marriage fell apart.

I finally managed to eke out a career in computing at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; but it never felt like I came close to fulfilling my potential. With a buyout from UVa, I retired early with Carol to pursue our dream of traveling. But I was followed by a lingering sense of bitterness that I’d never stretched myself. I had failed through an uninterrupted string of paltry successes. I’d never risked the heights.

And in my heart, I heaped much of the blame for that failure on the place that had once seemed to promise so much, but where instead my life started unraveling: William and Mary. Whenever I thought back upon my years there, it was the bad things I remembered. Feeling awkward at social events. Constantly getting sick in drippy Williamsburg winters. Getting mocked for my faith by a snarky Writer in Residence. Working dismal jobs to stay afloat in the early years of my marriage.

On the occasions when someone would ask my opinion of the College, I would airily reply that it was the sort of school that took big people and made them into small ones. From time to time when, as an alumnus, I would get solicitations to donate to the W&M endowment, my dormant hostility toward the school was sharpened by my embarrassment at feeling that I wasn’t successful enough to afford a donation. Finally I responded back angrily — in words that would probably shame me, if I could recall them now — that I had no intention of ever giving them a dime, and they may as well stop trying. I haven’t gotten a solicitation since.

These past few months, with less traveling to do I’ve had more time to reflect on my life, more opportunity to examine the long train of missed opportunities, early exits, unpressed advantages and ill-considered decisions that have marked the turning points of my passage so far. More and more I’ve been entertaining the suspicion that William and Mary was never to blame for my inability to live the life I had envisioned.

Today as I walked from the triangle, around the Wren Building and into the wide-open space of the Sunken Garden, I remembered my first impressions of the place as a new student. Over the years, When I’ve thought back on my W&M experience, my recollection has been that I was mostly detached from the world around me — more of an outsider and an onlooker than a participant. But my walkabout this afternoon brought back unbidden memories of the many ways I participated in the vibrant life of the school.

I was a cheerleader. A JV cheerleader, but still. The captain, Linda Bresee, was my partner. She was a dreamboat, and way out of my league.

I danced in an original theater production commissioned by the College to celebrate the US Bicentennial. Which will no doubt come as a great surprise to anyone who has tried to dance with me since then.

I worked for the campus police on the student security patrol. It was usually a sleepy job, though occasionally things got weird — like the time when some genius scheduled a Grateful Dead concert at W&M Hall during Parents’ Weekend. I remember packs of dangerous-looking but very happy (and completely baked) concertgoers weaving their way past alarmed parents back to their Harleys. Later that night, in the pitch dark of the Wren triangle, I found two completely perfect cream pies sitting abandoned on a bench. I took them back to the police station and we debated whether to dare eating them. Were they left by the Dead fans? Who knew? Finally a passing sergeant who didn’t know the backstory noticed the pies. “Okay if I have a slice?” Absolutely, we assured him. When he didn’t immediately have a psychotic episode, the rest of us grabbed forks.

I got married (the first time) in the Wren Chapel, one of the two wings of the Wren building. A couple weeks before the wedding, male members of the wedding party and some of my other student friends kidnapped me and carried me to Crim Dell, the lovely body of water with the fairy tale bridge near Landrum Hall, and threw me in. It was late February, and patches of ice were still floating on the water; but the dunking of engaged bachelors in Crim Dell is an ancient practice at the school, and mere mortals don’t flout the Old Ways at William and Mary (unofficial motto: “Three hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress”). Fortunately my groomsmen had taken the precaution of sounding the Dell first, to find a spot where I wouldn’t be splashing down onto a submerged bicycle or dorm fridge.

Revisiting the scenes of my student life today, and seeing in a host of beautiful new buildings how the College has gone from strength to strength, I was overwhelmed with the realization: this is a great school. It wasn’t the comfortable epiphany you might imagine. The taste of failure is never quite so bitter as the moment you realize you have wrought it upon yourself. It would be easier if I could lay my shortcomings at the feet of my Alma Mater; but like any other great school — indeed, like life itself — William and Mary can only offer distinction, not confer it. The rest is up to the pupil.

Self awareness comes, if it comes at all, for different people in different stages of their lives. For many of us, the best we can hope is that we finish growing up before we grow old. I’m 59 and the bulk of my life is behind me. Much of what I might once have accomplished with my life is now just a regret. But tonight as I write this, I feel a sense of lightness at having shrugged off an old, debilitating grievance.

William and Mary, I apologize to you both.

Hark upon the gale.

Flashback: Arles

After leaving Freiburg in August of ’16, and dropping Randall off in Geneva to fly back to the US, Carol and I continued on to France, to stay with our very kind and excellent friends Greg and Mari (and their cool little boy, Ayden) in Toulouse. On the way, we spent an afternoon in Arles, a sun-drenched city in the Camargue area of Provence. Even feeling as low as I did in the wake of Randall’s sudden departure, I was still beguiled by this beautiful old Provençal gem.

Sited on the Rhone River, Arles is the largest city in France by area. It was an important commercial and cultural center in the western Roman Empire, and already an established Christian bishopric in the 1st Century CE. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Arles features a well-preserved Roman theatre and arena, tightly enmeshed within a network of narrow, bustling streets. Their deep shadows and cool stone provide some refuge from the summer’s heat.

A little more recent in origin is the twelfth century Cathedral of Saint-Trophime. I was eager to see the church, featuring prominently as it did in my Art History studies. Saint-Trophime’s deep, handsomely adorned portal adumbrates many features found in later Romanesque and Gothic churches; and a casket on display inside offers one of the best-preserved examples of late Roman figure carving. The church faces onto the Place de la Republique, the city’s governmental hub, which is organized around a soaring obelisk salvaged from the ancient Roman circus.

Arles is also famous for its association with Vincent Van Gogh, who lived and worked there in 1888-89. He featured one of the town’s many night spots in his famous Terrace of a Cafe at Night, now in the Kroller Muller Museum. The cafe is still open, by the way, in the Place du Forum. You can see it, dressed up in yellow paint and awnings, in one of our street photos.

Visit our Arles gallery »


When Carol and I decided to move to Europe, we knew we would need a car right away — so we made the unconventional (and possibly mad) decision to buy one in advance, online. Since we didn’t want to spend any more money than necessary, we decided to get a used car.

And since we were going to be using it for the first couple months in the UK, but thereafter on the continent, we decided to buy a left-hand drive car from a British dealer (i.e., in a place where right-hand drive cars rule), thus limiting our selection of both cars and dealers.

Oh, and the brands that we were most interested in are generally not sold in the US, so we had had no direct experience with them.

What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?

Improbably, as it turned out, nothing.

The car we settled on was a 2013 Skoda Yeti. From a couple previous European trips I had seen a lot of Skodas on the road, and they looked attractive and well-built. Researching them a bit, we found out that although Skoda is made in the Czech Republic, it is part of the Volkswagen Auto Group. Most of the internals come straight from VW (the Yeti is basically a Volkswagen Tiguan underneath). While Skodas are priced quite reasonably, they are well crafted, and indeed are often better-reviewed than their VW-logoed cousins.

More Yeti photos, please!

When Carol found out that the UK’s Top Gear guys loved the Yeti in particular, I was there.

After about 15000 kilometers or so, I’m hugely impressed with our little brown beast. It gets good fuel mileage, has nice acceleration and handling, and despite the many ways we have tried to break it — such as exceeding the max load by a few hundred pounds and, in an early blunder, fueling it with gas instead of diesel — it has performed brilliantly without a complaint.

Given my last car, the Ford POS that nearly ruined me in the US, I couldn’t be happier. A couple hours ago, as Carol and I passed the car on our way in from a walk, I hugged my Yeti.

Have you hugged your car today?

Jet Noise

Yesterday (Wednesday the 31st) we said goodbye to Freiburg, the sunniest city in Germany. Randall’s first Deutsch language class was over at the Goethe-Institut.

See a gallery of photos from our month in Freiburg

When we left, Randall came out with us.

This was not the original plan. Initially the idea was that he would stay on in the city, learn German for a year, then go to college in Germany — probably in Munich. Carol and I, meanwhile, would wander around other parts of Europe looking for some place to put down roots — but always close enough to Germany that we could respond quickly if Randall had an emergency.

While all of us, especially Randall, threw ourselves into the plan wholeheartedly, we knew that it was an experiment with a great many unknowns.

Over his weeks at the Goethe-Institut, Randall did a magnificent job of linguistic learning and adapting as quickly as possible to his new foreign environment. But as the time wore on, far from his friends, his mom, his girlfriend, and the town he grew up in — surrounded by an unfamiliar culture and a (still mostly) foreign language — he began to feel unbearably isolated and homesick. With the day looming when Carol and I would leave as well, it became increasingly clear that it was time for Randall to go back home to Charlottesville and the good care of his mom and his buds.

He is still enthusiastic about the idea of learning German — at home — and then attending a German university when he has the linguistic tools in place to make a realistic go of it. Alternatively, he may decide to go to college in the US after taking the rest of this fall as a gap semester.

But either way he will be based in Charlottesville for the foreseeable future.

photo of Randall

I love all my children awful, and whatever time we can spend together is precious to me. Randall is a little different from the others, though, in the amount of his growing up that he and I have been joined at the hip.

When he was a toddler and he would wake up in the night, he would run to my futon and jump in (often on my head). As he grew up, we explored train museums, went to autumn festivals, watched Power Ranger movies, and read aloud a veritable library of child and young adult books together. We saw so many movies with each other we can have whole conversations in film quotes. Wherever I’ve been he’s been there too, all these last 18 years.

About 48 hours elapsed between the time we realized Randall needed to go home and the time I sent him through airport security this morning to climb on the big silver bird. 48 hours to get used to the idea that, instead of being a few hours drive from one another, we’ll be on opposite sides of an ocean until circumstances once again bring us together.

As I write this, he is hopefully enjoying the last leg of his air trip. I know after his three months in Europe — two in the UK and the last, difficult one in Freiburg — he can’t wait to get back home and rejoin all those folks he’s been missing. And I have been genuinely joyful myself to see him so excited at the prospect of going back.

But the space he occupied in my life just this morning feels awfully empty tonight as I watch the sun go down in France.

I took the photo above of Randall outside a little French bakery, right before we took him to the airport. Next time I see him it will be on a blurry Skype connection.

There are a lot of melancholy things in this world, but this much I know for sure: jet noise is the saddest sound.

Germany don’t make pancakes.

Remember those cooking skills you had in the US? Don’t count on them surviving a trip across the ocean.

A couple weeks ago, I served my family hockey pucks for dinner. Not that I used that description when I touted the meal I planned to make. What I said was words to the effect of “I’m gonna cook up some pork loins tonight, with maybe some lemon green beans.”

But what they got was hockey pucks. Actually, I guess they were more like rubber drink coasters. With a side of rattan sticks.

There was a time not too long ago when I was sufficiently competent to prepare a dish of juicy, appealingly-spiced boneless pork loins, and accompany it with crunchy green beans lightly pan fried in olive oil with lemon and sea salt. But now, not so much.

Once you’ve been cooking a while, you come to depend unconsciously on your local milieu. In the US, when I bought pork loins, they were always a certain thickness. The Germans apparently like theirs cut thinner. So they cook a lot faster. And turn to leather a lot sooner.

Also, it’s surprising how disorienting it can be to use a different system of measures. Your favorite recipe requires a cup of flour and a half pint of buttermilk? Buwahahahaha! Say hello to Mr. Millilitre! And that carton of butter that used to come helpfully packaged in 8-tbsp sticks is now a featureless hexahedron. Which helps explain why my Alfredo sauce from Wednesday night resembles a yellow slag pond.

Of course, that’s all assuming the store even has the ingredients your recipe calls for. We are currently staying a couple blocks away from a massive supermarket that sells maybe a dozen different types of muesli. Want some oatmeal instead? Then you better be prepared to pick it out of the muesli by hand, ’cause otherwise you’re not finding any.

And pancake mix. (Yeah, I make pancakes from a mix. Sue me.) After combing the store seemingly for hours one day, I finally came across the one miserable little plastic bottle of pancake mix in the store. It’s the kind you add milk to, shake, and pour out to make sad, vinyl pancakes. It paired perfectly with the ampule of industrial maple syrup I winkled out from its hiding place in the pickle aisle.

When you cook, do you have a set of favorite “go-to” spices you depend on? Of course you do!  When you come over here, you’ll be unusually lucky if you find them under the same names in German (or French or Polish).  Ever try to tell the difference between Oregano, Basil, and Marjoram just by eyeballing piles of dun-colored leaves in different glass bottles?  I didn’t think so.

Finally, there’s the equipment. For some reason, I can’t seem to master a stove (or “hob”) on this side of the Atlantic. The burner knobs are demarcated with ascending numbers — from 1 to 6, or 1 to 10, or 4.73 to the square root of 59, or whatever. The higher you go the hotter it gets, right? Except it never seems to work quite right. On the hob I was using tonight, pretty much every setting from 3 to 9 had the same heat, which was roughly the equivalent of the fusion-powered inferno at the heart of the sun.

Anyway. I’m hopeful that before too long I’ll get comfortable with my new culinary environment and begin once again to produce edible meals.

Meantime, want to join me for some Chewing Gum Casserole with Patent Leather Pie?

The Mystery of the Crucifixes


Walking and driving the area around Freiburg, including the adjacent area of the French Alsace, we have come across quite a number of monumental crucifixes in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them — at the corner of a vineyard, in someone’s front yard, jammed uncomfortably up against a modern multi-family dwelling, and so forth.

Where did they come from? What are they for? (Aside from the obvious devotional aspect.) At first I thought they were war memorials — among the many, many that commemorate the unimaginable slaughter of the First World War. But it turns out they’re too old; the ones with dates all come from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And insofar as I can tell with my anemic German, they don’t seem to mention war.

Take a look at some more of the crucifixes »

And while there’s a great similarity in style from one to the next, they’re all subtly different in detail. Before coming here, I’d never heard of these monuments. Google seems oddly silent on them as well; I haven’t been able to find any reference to them despite a number of differently-worded searches.

Ah well. They’re handsomely made, and a useful reminder of one’s own mortality if one is inclined to accept the reminder. And like the stone churches, the medieval town halls, and the cobblestoned streets, they speak across the years of a world very far removed from this one.