As previously noted, we drive a lot, little dog and I a motley pair and better still a trio completed by the husband with two brains. One day not so long ago we set off for Grenoble at around 5 a.m. We go to Grenoble reasonably frequently since HB2 has associations with IRAM (Institut de Radioastronomie Milliemetrique) and indeed worked there for 9 years throughout the 1980s. He had a house in the Belledonne mountains until recently and still has a bank account at Caisse D’Epargne in the village of Uriage les Bains. That we had to go TO the bank to reset his PIN will tell you that this particular bank is a teeny bit perochial – this is a 5-6 hour drive and we can’t use the nearer branches in Cantal because Caisse d’Epargne is entirely localised. Hey ho.
We made it in time for His Brainship to get whatever it was sorted and for The Bean and I to have a stagger up to the chateau (now in flats which I rather covert the idea of living in) and back down again.
Back to the University campus for lunch and a quick meeting with the glorious and waspishly effete Philippe (him) and a speedy spin around Castorama in search of another garden chair (The Bean and me). In case you are concerned, they didn’t have the right chair in the right colour … silly me – its almost time for Christmas, why would a shop have garden furniture in Summer!
Choices, choices – 3 p.m on a sunny Tuesday what should we do next. We could walk in the mountains … appealing. We could go shopping … I can always talk myself out of that one. Or we can go to Vienne. The Brains have been before and I have wanted to go here ever since I drove through it the very first time I came down to Grenoble on my own and decided, with no time constraints to go entirely non peage. That Leonard Cohen played in the Roman theatre in 2009 is a further lure. I love him. I wasn’t there but I wish I had been. He used to be accused of writing music to slit your wrists by when I was at school and proud of the fact that my dad looked like him according to the very beautiful Sarah Chant. I was not very beautiful so having a father who resembled an icon was a way of attaining that popular girl status we all craved if only to protect ourselves from the less lovely bullies who would make your life miserable at the drop of your school beret. I still bathe in his exquisite lyrics and though he has never really been able to sing and I am told his voice such as it was is fading, I would still have loved to sit and listen and marvel at the agility of the true poet.
Of course Vienne won. You know that. And we arrived in the late afternoon of a particularly warm day, parked and strolled. This place is lovely. The second largest city in Isere (the largest is Grenoble) which in turn sits in Rhone Alpes. The Rhone strolls leisurely through it. Large and languid it needs make no extraneous effort to impress. It just is. The town was first settled by the Romans and wears those remains well. Here the semi circular Ancien Theatre, there the Temple d’Auguste et de Livie, the ruins of the medieval castle on the hill that was built on Roman footings, the pyramid (otherwise known as le Plan de l’Aiguille) which rests on a four arched portico this is a place that knows what it is.
It shimmys you through its history easily and the town moves around its monuments fluidly – al fresco bars and cafes abound and clearly it is thriving. A huge new tourist office is being built looking over the river on which you can take a boat the size of a small principality to cruise and dine. We made a note that we will. It is a place we will return to and explore over and over again. We whistle-stopped around it seeing the stunning cathedral of St Maurice, the elegant city hall and all the above except the needle. I noted the casual layabout roman carved blocks by the Temple with some glee … one of the things I love about Rome is the way the ancient has just been squished in with the modern over the centuries and the bits that drop off just stay where they lay. It has the beauty of an overstuffed boudoir whose owner can’t bear to part with a single thing, even if its broken.
I should note at this point that I have an overwhelming and admittedly, to the casual observer, quite possibly strange obsession with the departements and regions of France. When we first drove the long drive from Oxfordshire to Cantal late last summer, we bought a book in one of the Aires on the way called ‘Les 101 departements de France’. It is aimed at children …. probably quite young children if I’m honest but I love it. Slowly, slowly I am making sense of the geography of this huge country and slowly, slowly I am learning all the departments, their numbers (they are numbered alphabetically) and I can idly note where the cars that punctuate my drives long and short come from. And its not entirely pointless to know where they are from – for instance, there are lots and lots of Paris plates in Cantal and I know why …. if you want to learn you will have to stick with me because I am being discursive enough in this post already. But I will, I promise, write about what I have learned the historic connection between the two is, before very long at all. My pledge is that if you hold you breath, you won’t turn blue … I don’t want asphyxiated readers on my conscience so that will be spur enough to write it. Back on piste …. I live in Auvergne (in Cantal – number 15 to be precise) and to the west of me is Limousin and number 87 is Haute Vienne. Which means there must be a Vienne. And indeed there is (number 86 naturally) – I’ve been there … it’s in Poitou-Charente and its capital is the lovely Poitiers which I will always think of as Sidney. If you are as old as I you will know what I mean. But Vienne is not in Vienne. It’s in Isere. And that it was historically called Vienna makes it even more confusing. But one thing I was sure of that Viennoisserie, the wonder of French patisserie must certainly come from Vienne. I pressed my nose against several pastry shop windows … I am often to be found in this postion lured by the sweet wonderlands they always are. And I went home secure in the knowledge that I had been in the home of the croissant. Only to find that they come from Vienna. But then again … maybe it was this Vienna. Before it was Vienne. Surely. Surely the French can’t be eating Austrian pastries … can they?
On the long drive home I told my husband a story of a trip a little while ago … stay with me now, settle and I will share it with you.
In April we travelled to Russia. For Russia you need a visa. The two venerable institutions (that which he works for and that which he was visiting) communicated, many people filled in many forms for him and we travelled to Lyon to drop our passports, pay a fee and settle back for their return in a week or so. Two Brains went back to the US a few days later (that our daughters are convinced that he is one of The Men in Black may go a way to explain how the passport was in Paris via Lyon and he still managed to board a flight from Europe and enter the US without a murmour) and I woke the following day to an ominous email telling me that something was wrong in the process and I needed to contact him urgently. Actually, my paperwork (which I had filled out myself) was perfect but unfortunately the enormous combined brains of the two venerable institutions had made a mistake with his. Frantic calls to Paris, more paperwork and eventually, after nearly two weeks, a call to tell me that the passports were ready for collection in Lyon. That I was due to travel to London on the Monday left me with no alternative but to drive down before the Consulate closed at midday on the Saturday. Which I did. And a lovely drive it was – sunrise over the volcanos of the Puy de Dome can never fail to captivate. The Bean, unimpressed by the display slept and we made Lyon by 11. I ran in and out bearing the treasured passports complete with visas and skipped back to the car to take tiny dog for a walk and grab a coffee before the journey home. The consulate is in a pretty area of what is a lovely city and one that I fully intend to explore but enough of buildings and rivers and city ambience, the point of this story is a person.
Pretty it is, but mostly closed on a Saturday morning, in this area that is mainly devoted to businesses. Vainly looking about for a likely pit-stop I nearly fell over a tiny little lady pulling a shopping trolley prettily adorned with macaroons. She was trying to catch the attention of The Bean so I stopped in politeness and truthfully complimented her cake-garnished pull-along. In my opinion there can never be too many macaroons in a life, preferably to devour but if that isn’t an option then images adorning pretty much anything are an acceptable reminder of their delight. The lady was truly like a sparrow – tiny, black eyed and spry. She coaxed and cajoled The Bean who dutifully danced on her hind legs and the lady rewarded me with the tinkling laughter of so many fairies ringing tiny bells in the tree lined square. She told me she had a dog indoors who is so old that he can only make it to the bottom of the steps twice a day to perform his necessary functions and that aged and slow as she is the dog can’t keep up at all. She asked if I was from Lyon and I told her no, English but living in Cantal. She was interested. Did my husband work there … no – America. She hoovered up every morcel of information I could give her and pointed in turn to the only cafe open on a Saturday morning in this district. She wanted to know if I had children. I told her about the girls and about the son I gained with marriage. She laughed at my eye-rolling descriptions of them and asked if they visit often. I told her they would in summer I hoped. We chatted away and she asked if I had grandchildren. Not yet I said. And then all of a sudden her face creased in the wrong way. The sad way. Her dark beaded eyes clouded and tears pricked them. I touched her arm and asked stoutly (I am English in a crisis) if I could help. She composed herself and told me that she had lost a grand-daughter. To start with I thought this must have just happened but in fact it was over 20 years ago. Aged barely 19, killed in a road accident. A fool drove his car into hers. He survived, she died. She said not a day passes that she doesn’t think of the girl, a promising ballerina so full of life then brutally stamped out. The girl was her youngest grand-daughter. She said the dancing stopped with her passing. I couldn’t leave her in her sadness so I suggested we take coffee together. We walked the square and sat in front of the cafe for maybe a half hour. I would estimate that this little bird was at least 85 and probably ten or even more years older than that. Her clothes, immaculate, her tiny frame that would fit in her own shopping trolley, her lovely lilty slightly growly voice, her directness affected me then and I will always think of her. Not as often as she thinks of her dancing grand-daughter but nonetheless I will think of her often. The grief still so raw after decades and the root of it the fact that she still walks and her grand-child is motionless. Dance me to the end of love ….
PS: Familiarity breeds contempt – unfortunately 2 weeks later I got a rather official letter rather officially telling me that somewhere between Brioude and le Puy en Velay I had been doing a whopping 97 in a 90 zone – 1 penalty point, 45 euros and a note to self that nearly a year here has made me rather too blasé. To note: Here there is no 10% cushion … in fact at 90 kmh the allowable excess is 2 kmh – that’s less than 1 mile per hour at nearly 60.