Everyone likes Thanksgiving – especially turkey farmers – and what’s not to like. Food, friends, family, all get together without religion or the need for presents: everyone’s welcome. It’s basically a harvest festival, usually said to have been held first in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts when Pilgrim immigrants and Native Americans sat down to celebrate a good harvest after a very difficult first year. This led to a long, peaceful co-existence, which, if true, is probably the only example of a genuinely cooperative and peaceful relationship between natives and colonists.

The church soon became involved and preachers and politicians issued sermons and proclamations thanking God for his gifts. Today, of course, the church has been displaced by the television and the holy game of football dominates the day.

There are many harvest celebrations in France but Thanksgiving traditions are unknown, so when Carrie Sumner and I planned our dinner, we were unable to find a whole turkey and settled on pintade, a scrawny looking bird not much bigger than a chicken, but with darker, more flavorful meat. I brined one bird and cooked it on our faux Weber before finishing it in the oven. Carrie cooked the second one and noticing the lack of fat, stuffed the space between skin and meat with duck fat, brilliant. Both turned out well, add the onions agrodolce (no cippollini available), Brussels sprouts, dressing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and pinots from Australia, Oregon and France and we had ourselves a real Thanksgiving and an international one at that with Marcel, who is Swiss, Bartek is Polish and Muriel is French. We even had a Skype visit from Carrie’s parents in Oregon.

The Birds ©2012 Carrie Sumner

There are, of course, numerous Thanksgiving traditions: the president pardons a turkey, Macy’s has a parade, the NFL plays football, and families, most of whom no longer resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, create their own traditions. Over-eating and falling asleep in front of the TV are staples and in many homes, everyone says what he is thankful for. Vegetarians may replace the bird with a nut loaf or similar and many in Northern California will eschew turkey and celebrate the opening of crab season. The Friday after has become the monster-shopping day, but my friends will instead head up the California coast for an oyster picnic.

But Carrie’s family has the weirdest tradition of all: they watch the movie White Christmas, which is strange, but they also sing along with the music. Now, they explain watching the movie because they see Thanksgiving as beginning the Christmas holiday season, but nothing can explain the sing-along. This is a kind of Crosby/Clooney Karaoke that goes on for two hours until all the old soldiers come marching in, very strange. In a way, it harkens back to the Rockwell era and gathering around the piano in the parlor. In another way, it makes you think that maybe football isn’t such a bad idea after all.


The Café

“Grand Hotel…always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”


In Maury, everyone comes to the café Friday nights. When I arrive Richard and Bob are sitting with Bardot who’s on his semi-hourly pastis break from painting my house. I go to buy him another and gather hugs from the kids on my way to the bar. Bob and I discuss an apartment for rent next door to his house that he had arranged for me to see, but it’s not for me. I need more, a comfortable place where I can feel at home. Meanwhile, Richard is fielding a call from the US and Bardot lets himself into Ben’s house and emerges with a flat of tomato plants. The next day Bardot shows me his garden and where he’s planting Ben’s tomatoes.


Jean-Roger and the rain arrive at about the same time, but when the rain turns to hail, JR dashes off to the vineyards to check the vines. The fruit is just beginning to form and is extremely vulnerable to hail. He returns with a report of not much damage and everyone smiles and another round appears.


He also mentions a house that will be available soon and promises to find out more. I’ll need to follow up.


The children love the rain and I become the adult designated to lift the kids up to push the rain off the awning. Did I forget to mention that we are outside? Smokers.


Aimee has a small encounter with a very small dog, many tears but not much damage. The dog’s owner then gets a bit of a talking to from Pierre, the proprietor, who follows it up by buying him a drink.


Sarah appears and tells me how much she loved meeting my sister. She talks for a bit about how important siblings are, how they ground us, connect us to the past and most of all to family. I say little, thinking instead of other connections. Sarah mentions that her brother is coming for a visit and she’s sure I’ll like him.


Jean-Roger leaves and Manu arrives with young Clarice. The rain stops, starts again, and then the sky clears.


Marcel stops in for a beer followed by Taieb the hunter and Jean Pla, who is now a negociant, buying wine from coops and selling it under his own labels. He has an “End of the World” cuvé from Bugarach that’s a big seller. Taieb is a hunter of wild boar but he doesn’t eat pork so I asked him if the pleasure for him was in the hunt. He responded by inviting me to go with him, just to shoot cameras, not guns. I agreed and we made a tentative plan subject to weather, etc.

Taieb ©2012 Ron Scherl


Pizza appears and the pizza kid has not taken my advice. He needs to put the chorizo on top of the cheese and put the pizza on the floor of the oven, not on a tray so the crust can bake. Having established myself as a photographer I now need to turn some of my attention to pizza. So much work, so little time.


Fragments of conversation roll around the tables until overwhelmed by a political rant clearly anti-government, but otherwise unintelligible to me and most everyone else. I understand very little but it really doesn’t seem to matter. I nod, shrug, pet the dog, make the pff sound and non, non, say beh, shake my head, order a drink. It resembles a conversation until I head for home.


I really like Perpignan. There’s life in the streets, in the plazas and the bars, which are half in the streets anyway. It’s truly a Catalan city, much smaller than Barcelona and I think, more easily accessible. There’s a vibrant cultural scene with a new theatre and a special interest in photography due to the presence of Visa Pour l’Image. When people find out I’m a photographer, they always ask if I know about Visa, an indication of the extent to which this festival of photojournalism has become part of the city that hosts it. I also need a regular hit of city life.

Saturday, Marcel, Carrie and I went into Perpignan and started the day with lunch at a place we’ve come to call “the ham man.” Marcel and Carrie are the only people I know who eat more pork than me. L’homme de Jambon is a storefront in the central part of the city with three or four tables outside and some great pork. A nice mixed platter with jamon, lomo, some sausage, manchego and pan con tomate goes very well with a cheap rose. It’s nice being so close to Spain. It’s also nice sitting in the sun across from a florist and the lovely woman who works there, who I wanted to invite to the exhibition opening. Alas, she wasn’t working this week.

Salsa Dancing in Perpignan ©2012 Ron Scherl

Around the corner to the café-encircled Place de la Republique for a coffee and the unexpected diversion of a salsa dancing class. Spanish ham, Latin dancing, French cafes, this is a very cool city.

By now the shops had reopened after lunch and we set about bringing exhibition posters and post cards to the wine stores, finding most everyone receptive although Michele was non-committal about coming to the opening.

Michele ©2012 Ron Scherl

Getting on to time for an apero, which means the wine and tapas bars are opening and more places to bring posters and stop for a glass. There are a number of great little bars in the central city and it’s a pleasure to be hanging there. We also discovered there’s a Cava festival in town next weekend, a perfect time to bring more posters and cards.

Perpignan ©2012 Ron Scherl

Having spent the day eating and drinking, it was now time for dinner and we found ourselves eating Asian food and drinking Spanish wine in the Havana Club. This was multicultural overload. The Cuban/Chinese connection shows up in a number of restaurants but Thai noodles at the Havana Club in Perpignan? Seemed a stretch to me. It was. Not bad, but definitely not Thai. The Havana Club is known more for it’s lively bar scene but tonight was quiet. Marcel suggested a nightcap, but I was done.


I’ve been thinking about art again. I know, I know, but take it as a warning like when Jon Carroll announces up front that it’s going to be another cat column. Cats, art, it’s all the same.


So here’s the deal, it’s been cold and gray outside and in, for the last month and I haven’t been shooting very much. I also haven’t been writing all that much and experiencing frequent days of funkiness: nothing major, just the usual free-floating anxiety mixed with a bit of regret, a touch of homesickness and a soupcon of anger (I always wanted to use that word).


Then a few days ago, Marcel called to say the horses had arrived and plowing would begin this week. Photo-op.

Photo of plowing
Plowing Vineyards: Marcel and Nina ©2012 Ron Scherl

Plowing is necessary to turn the weeds under, adding organic material to the soil, to fertilize and to loosen the soil allowing it to capture the rain. Plowing with a horse or mule is no longer an every day thing but in some of the older and steeper vineyards there may be no other way. Vines that were planted before the use of tractors became widespread are now too close together for a tractor to get through the rows. Of course this is also part of Marcel’s organic process, his desire to work close to nature and perhaps a part of his own need to test himself. The vineyards need plowing and if the terrain will not accommodate a tractor, he’ll get some horses and learn how to do it himself.

Photo of shoeing horse
New Shoes ©2012 Ron Scherl

I photographed the process from shoeing to grooming to plowing. I can’t be sure of the horses but I felt better and of course, when I got home and poured a glass of wine I had to wonder why.


I used to spend a lot of time thinking about what makes something art (, but I was cured of that by going to work at SFMOMA where I learned that art happens when an academic finds something to write about and a rich person finds something to buy. And now that I’m preparing an exhibit, I just figure that anything I choose to put on the walls is art. But I still had to deal with the persistent image of the obsessed, alcoholic or drug ridden unhappy artist and how to reconcile this with the realization that making my art made me happy.


Researching the connection between artists and depression turned up a number of theories including an excess of spirituality, social isolation and the lack of a life plan, plus long lists of famous depressed people and countless pharmaceutical ads. So we have diagnoses coming from all angles, the hypothetical psychoanalysis of the long dead and the current fashion among the famous to admit that you’re not just bummed out, you’re really sick.


A couple of interesting notes on artistic productivity:

  • Vermeer made only about 50-60 paintings and had 15 children with his only wife. He died at the age of 43, poor and depressed because he could not support his family. Imagine how she felt.


  • Picasso made an estimated 50,000 works of art, had numerous mistresses, four children by three women and died a wealthy man at the age of 91. His “blue period” is now thought to be the result of depression.


But the internet can also be a dangerous place. Here are a couple of favorites from sites that purport to be sources of information on mental illness:

  • “Who are some famous people with manic depression or bipolar disorder? Disclaimer – the list of people mentioned on this page have been compiled from other sources, and we are not able to verify its accuracy.”
  • I think you’ll agree that you can be mentally ill and fabulously talented at the same time.”


There is some serious research work being done but no one has yet been able to establish the link between creativity and depression or to determine which is the cause and which the effect if there is a link. In the meantime I’ll make pictures and hang them on the wall.


Today is warm, sunny and windless. That makes me happy.

Photo of Horse's mane
Nina ©2012 Ron Scherl



Being Organic

Spent the day cleaning the house and studying French until about 3:30 when I had to get out for a walk. Took one of my favorite routes through the village, passing five wineries, then out the road to Cucugnan, which takes me past several vineyards and a farm housing a few donkeys. Take a left at the municipal swimming pool to a small road through more vineyards.

Photo of road
Near the Swimming Pool ©2011 Ron Scherl


I walked up to a vineyard owned by Marcel Buhler that I have been photographing periodically since I got here. It’s a beautiful place, alive, organic.


Vineyard Photo
Maury Vineyard ©2011 Ron Scherl

After shooting for a while, I walked on. The next plot was clearly not being farmed organically and the difference was striking: everything looked dead. The vines, of course are alive, just entering the dormant winter months, but there’s nothing else. The insecticides and herbicides used to prevent vine diseases have destroyed everything else.

Comparing 2 vineyards

Look at the vineyard on the left, all the vegetation is thriving; there are multiple kinds of grasses, weeds and moss. The place is teeming with insects, flying around and biting my neck. The vineyard is farmed organically adhering to many biodynamic principles and is certified organic by Ecocert.  Biodynamism holds that the vineyard is a complete environment and the insects, animals, weeds, grasses, soil, rocks and vines are all part of the environment and necessary for its health. It is a philosophy based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner and is much more in use in Europe than the United States.


There is a clear connection here to “terroir” a concept that goes beyond the soil to encompass the entire environment of the vineyard and includes the effects of the intervention of human animals as well. Today’s Holy Grail of winemaking is a wine that expresses the terroir or has a sense of place. Here in the Roussillon it is often expressed in minerality that should come from the extreme rockiness of the soil. David Darlington in his book: An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection quotes winemaker Randall Grahm “To put it simply, if your soils are alive, you get minerals from them.”


It‘s difficult to come to any conclusion other than those farmers not using organic methods are poisoning the soil they depend on for their livelihood. This is where the influx of new winemakers like Marcel can make a difference; a healthy interchange of ideas, learning from each other is exactly what Charles Chivilo, the mayor of Maury spoke about as one of the benefits of foreign investments in the vineyards. So the old residents can learn organic farming methods and perhaps teach the newcomers to hunt wild boar. Because for everyone, it always comes back to the land.


Photo of Woman Mending Fences
Mending Fences ©2011 Ron Scherl