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Who’s that knocking at my door ….

It could be said that mine is a curious existence, living here in one of the least populated areas of Europe on my own.  I came here 5 months ago with horribly rusty French.  I came here with few possessions – so much either sold or abandoned along the way as I moved and moved and moved again.  I came here for love.  But my husband, my love, lives in Boston.  Yes, its a curious life.  One day I’ll explain.

The last week, though, has been punctuated with knocks on the door.  I inevitably feel a mild panic when this happens because it means I will HAVE to listen, understand and respond.  I am fluent in shopping as previously acknowledged but a knock on the door could herald anything at all.  Particularly an unexpected one.  Like the time when the post-lady brought a letter each for signature for Two Brains and I.  I managed to explain that he wasn’t arriving from the US til the weekend but I was so flustered I couldn’t find my passport as ID for her – she became equally alarmed as she thought I had permanently mislaid it and explained very patiently to me that I can’t travel out of France without a passport.  It was only afterwards that I began to wonder if she was alarmed at the prospect that they might not be able to get rid of me …..

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March 23rd is polling day in France.  Les Elections Municipales.  They happen every 6 years and will result in new Conseils Municipales and new Maires across France – some will be returned, some overturned.  In essence, we vote for the governing body for our Commune and they in turn will vote amongst their triumphant team for their leader and deputies.  We are fortunate in Champs – our Maire, his adjunct and the Conseil are proactive and hard-working.  I see the Maire tearing around the place at a rate of knots on foot and in his car.  He is very hands-on and has the most fantastic gaelic shrug to ice the bun.  I know him reasonably well as a person (he married us last year and graciously accepted our invitation to attend our wedding breakfast and is tireless in his support of the lightning lab.) and I know he has the interests of his, geographically very large, commune and its relatively small and scattered population genuinely at centre stage in his life.   As the ruling party, as it were, his get the opening crack at canvassing.  So the first knock was from ‘Dialogue et  Action’ and I was treated to two smiling faces, an acknowledgement that I know Monsieur le Maire and was left with lists, biographies, an overview of achievements and their manifesto for the next 6 years.

A few days later, the oppostion are allowed out.  A further knock and I am greeted with another pair of smiling faces, a further list of names, biographies and their manifesto for the next 6 years.  Of course on closer scrutiny they are critical of the old guard and it is not a surprise that their collective name is ‘Champs Avance’ with a strapline declaring an intention to donner un nouveau souffle a Champs (invigorate or quite literally give fresh breath).  That the opposition are highly critical of the old guard is hardly newsworthy.  This is politics.

I will not reveal my hand – both manifestos are interesting, my opinion is not.  Both highlight the issues facing this pays perdu.  I am priviliged to be allowed to vote.  I am European and I pay taxe foncière and taxe d’habitation so I am eligible.  I take the responsibiity seriously and have reflected hard.

In doing so I walked from Montboudif, a little over 10 miles from here, this little village is the birthplace of Georges Pompidou DSCF5458and the people of Cantal are justly proud of the fact.  Pompidou was France’s longest serving prime-minister under the fifth republic.  As a little girl, I loved his name – it was one to be uttered and repeated annoyingly to my mother (mummy, mummy, mummy – I can say POMPIDOOOOO) and I remember him as President and his death in 1974 whilst in office.  I also remember visiting Le Centre Pompidou in Paris first in 1977, shortly after it was opened, as a 17 year old and again on honeymoon with my first husband when he took a picture of me with my mouth wide open next to a huge funnel to demonstrate the size of my gob.  Let’s face it – the marriage was doomed from the start!

That Pompidou was a diplomat and chose peaceful means to resolve issues such as the angry student uprising in the late 60’s, is no surprise to me given his heritage.  It is also no surprise that he came back to the region often.  I imagine he breathed the fresh, fresh air and felt the beautiful fertile earth under his feet and returned to the frey invigorated as Two Brains does these decades later.  Along the way I chatted to two elderly men – one splitting logs with all the vigour of a man half his age, pointed out that his little tiny tangle of houses looks at the Monts Dor in one direction and Monts du Cantal in the other – he asked why he would ever want to live anywhere else?  I could only agree.

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The other, thrilled to find I live here definitivement told me to come look him up if I need a steer on houses to buy in Montboudif … don’t use an Immobilier, he said – they are all crooks!  I hastened not to comment, feeling that virtually in front of Mr Pompidou’s maison natal I should adopt the line of least contention.  But having local ears to the ground will certainly prove invaluable when we come to the search for Le Manoir ….

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The third knock came and I assumed there must be a third list.  I should have remembered my youngest daughter’s apharism that ‘assume makes an ass out of you and me’, but instead I opened the door onto the dark landing (I will tell you all about the unique nature of the electrical system here another time but suffice to say that the lights in the communal area were having a bad hair day).  There stood a slight elderly man on his own.  He did have a leather bag under his arm which I assumed (there’s that word again) as I hastily said entree s’il vous plait to get him out of the gloom, contained the list of names, biographies, and manifesto plus critique of the old guard.  Then I heard the words that strike terror into the hearts of most …. je suis le temoin de Jehovah.  Panic coursed through me – I had allowed a Jehovah’s Witness into the appartment and I needed above all to get to the boulangerie before it shut at 12.  It was now 10:30 – this could be difficult.  I smiled and told him I am Buddhist.  This has always worked in England.  It isn’t strictly true but I was married to a Buddhist for several years  and I do still live by some of the rules as part of my own gobbledegook belief system.  He smiled gently and asked how I explain the creation.

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Remember this is all in French.  Remember too that I was slated to read Philosophy at Cambridge when whatever God you attune to was still in nappies so I am hard-wired to theological debate.  Yet it was not combat but his gentle spirit that captivated me and I was away – all fear of spoken French disappeared and I passed what I can genuinely tell you was a lovely 30 minutes.  He told me his son in law (not a JW) spent 2 years in England and he would happily introduce me if I need any help with understanding documents and so forth, he listened as I told him that Two Brains is a scientist of some note – he was particularly interested in the Trous Noirs and hopes that the presentation will be repeated – gave me his number so I can let him know when/if.  He told me about a lovely Indian fellow who lives in Bort who has done some notable research into the workings of the mind.  I told him that my life is about learning, learning and learning.  I also apologised for speaking French comme une vache espagnole.  He said he liked my modesty.  It actually was not modest just simple truth but the comment was kindly meant.  He left after 30 minutes, did not give me a copy of Watchtower and I hope I run into him again.  Whatever his beliefs, you see, he is a kind and lovely fellow.

The two men on my walk were kind and lovely fellows.

A friend of mine mentioned a film called ‘Field of Dreams’ on FaceBook the other day.  If you build it they will come, says the voice.  I am fortunate to be in a place steeped in history with the most fantastic natural landscape (volcano?  Two a penny here mate!) and a population of genuinely content people.  The pity is that they are leaving, the young seeking employment in the cities because they have no choice.  I would like to breathe life back into this place. So that this place will breathe vibrantly for all the years to come.  I have started and little by little I will achieve what I can – how can I resist when I am surrounded by such simple charm?

  If I build it, will you come?

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PS: I have broken most of my rules in this post – don’t talk about politics, avoid talking about religion, step away from the too-personal but the one I would urge you all to adhere to is this:
Never, ever, EVER eat anything with surprise in its title, in a restaurant …..

A Frozen Bean

I am a dog.  My needs are simple.  Food (not necessarily dog-specific food), a bed (actually three beds – one up, one down and one in the car) and exercise.  In return I give total devotion and protection from the evil cat next door.  Serious  … it might look harmless but it’s actually extremely dangerous which is why I must attack it.

Today I want to tell you about snow.  I did not ask to come to this place (which took what felt like my whole life to get to and, even though I am small, I was squishelled in the car so tightly that to move risked the whole thing bursting on the peage) but I really do like it here.  I get to run around loads, I have discovered that I don’t mind getting wet and I rather like the snow.

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Snow is white and it is very very sneaky.  I never know that it’s occuring because I can’t see much from down here when I am in my house or in the car unless I stand on my back legs which I can do very well but I reserve the skill for getting attention and treats.   Snow makes the world look completely different and is strangely inviting.   Don’t be fooled though – it might look like a nice warm blanket but it’s actually very cold and when it blows across exposed places I have to close my eyes into slits which makes it tricky to see and also possibly makes even me quite unpretty.

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The best sort of snow is crusty and I can walk on top of it.  The worst sort is soggy and I can’t.  Then I have to walk in the footsteps of my humans.  His are best because his footprints are bigger and just the right size for me to jump in and out of. He’s quite often not here though so then I have to compact myself into hers.

DSCF4907Things smell different when it has snowed (they smell different when it has rained too – unfortunately you are only a human with a weak nose so you wouldn’t understand) and I find myself irresistibly compelled to dig in it – luckily my snout is quite gimlet-like and my paws are nice and pokey and nimble (which is why I can type) so I can make short work of digging a fine hole.  It’s what I do.  I am a dog.

and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree

Last Tuesday was Mardi Gras – the last day of eating fatly before the Lenton fast.  It’s an important day in the calender here, as it is in all Catholic countries – the children dress up and in many towns there is a carnival atmosphere with costumes and fire-works aplenty as well as a healthy dollop of unhealthy gluttony.  Mercredi des Cendres (Ash Wednesday) follows and it too is well marked.  People attend Church and the Priest marks foreheads or forearms with crosses of blessed ash that come from burning the palms left over from Palm Sunday. The ashen marks should be left to fade naturally rather than washed off.  The bells in all the churches ring peels and peels and peels all day long.  This is a reminder that they are being ‘cleaned’ in readiness for their journey to Rome to be blessed.IMG_2512  The bells (yup every single bell in France) fly on Good Friday night taking with them the grief of those mourning the death of Christ and the following night these Cloche Volant will fly back laden with treats which they will drop into the houses of the good people.  No bells will be heard during this period because, quite simply, they are not there and the joy that the people feel when Les Cloches de Paques sing out on Easter morning will prompt many to embrace in the streets.  Now before you go where Two Brains went – this is myth … the stuff that I taught my children is a story that is so old that no-one can remember if its true or not.   But I hope the cloche in the village remembers that I am partial to a chocolate egg if there happens to be one spare on the night.

It’s fair to say that I am not a Catholic (though as the mother of four daughters, I do know what it is to be riddled with Catholic guilt) and that my relationship to Easter began and ended with the Bunny.  Ash Wednesday of course I had a passing nod to, but in reality it was just the day that followed Pancake Day.  This year, though,  it felt significant.  If you will indulge me, I can explain.

In France, schools are divided into three zones (A, B and C).  Here in Auvergne we are Zone A.  Winter and Spring holidays are staggered so that ski and beach resorts are not all descended on at once.  Here in Zone A we were last this time which meant that school broke up on March 1st and will return on March 17th.  The significance of this for me is that the Ecole Maternelle, above which I live is silent.  The 12 little children whose voices normally provide the sound-track to my day from 9-12 and 1:30-4.30 are absent.

The silence coincided with my husband going away for a month.  This is quite normal for us but normal does not necessarily equal easy.  DSCF4886So the week started a little melancholy.   Mardi Gras passed me by except to note that there was a wake in the Salle de Fete, which you may recall is at the bottom of my drive, within ‘our’ park.  About 10 cars bore the mourners.  Carrefour supermarket bags bore the food.  Black-clad adults chaperoned children-off-school trying visibly to behave with decorum.  There was that huddled feeling that tends to accompany a funeral.  Mardi-Gras was no-where to be seen. Later that evening, on the phone to Two Brains, he tells me that his assistant (you will meet) had the news that his wife’s only surviving uncle, a fit, healthy man of no great age,  had succumbed to a hospital born infection in Florida and they would be flying out to attend the funeral once arrangements had been made.  The heaviness was not abating.

On Wednesday, sitting exactly and precisely where I am now, up popped a message from one of my oldest friends.  She apologised for being out of touch and explained that her beloved older sister had died quite suddenly on February 3rd.    Anna was an actress, vibrant, warm and loving.  Her loss,  is felt acutely by many and the pain of her sister is absolutely raw and tangible.  I had been reading a blog I follow called ‘Wife After Death’ and a post on a different blog about the death of a dog called Dobby – doing that thing that I do when I am sad … making myself even sadder.  It rather felt as though death was surrounding my every move and I sat feeling stunned and numb as though I was the bereaved.  Which of course I was not.

I messaged back to my friend.  And I have written a proper letter because I feel from experience how important those things that you can physically touch as you read, re-read, you can put away in a special place or rip up into tiny pieces and fling in despair and anger, then drench yourself in Catholic guilt and remorse because you haven’t maintained the decorum that the children at the wake mustered.  How important something physcial and tangible can be.

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So as the sun gathered strength this week (we are basking in an early Spring with temperatures hovering around the 70 and holding our collective breath in the hope that this is not just a flash in the winter pan) I decided that the only decent thing to do is to LIVE this life.  To relish this place and to be considerate of those who are grieving by being positive and glad of everything that I have.  So I am.  Instead of skulking at home I am out and smiling.  Because I can, you see.  And one day I won’t be able to.  That’s the only sure fire certainty in this life.  That one day it will end.  And given that life is a lottery, I don’t actually have much, if any,  control over when that moment will come.  And for me, it seems that the most appropriate way of respecting the dead is to be content.  So I am.

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PS:  The title is a line from the very beautiful ‘Only Death’ sometimes called ‘Nothing but Death’ by Pablo Neruda here translated by Robert Bly:

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
throat.
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.