Originally written and posted 18 months ago, this is a story that simply haunted me at the time and still does. The place remains for sale, the Sword of Damocles still hanging by a thread …. count your blessings well
On a beautiful day nearly two years ago, The Brains, The Bean and I set off for a walk that starts in the wonderfully named St Poncy (if you are English this will make you smile – my American is not good enough to know if Ponce means the same in your vernacular). Along the way three became four and this is the piece I wrote at the time – I hope you will enjoy it.
Built by an enlightened reformist …. sorry? Say that again! You can’t seriously be saying that this place was built by an enlightened reformist? Yup! It is part of the Peterhof – Peter the Great’s Summer Palace which in modern terms is about an hour from the centre of St Petersburg (as the architect of its conception, birth and building modestly called it and it remained until being renamed Leningrad and abruptly returned to its original name after Glasnost in the late 1980s). St Petersburg was the icing on the bun of Peter’s vision. He felled forests and built it as ‘The Venice of The North’ as a celebration of his victory in the war against Sweden. I have noted before that you would if you could. I’m honest enough to admit that I might ….
When I was raising my daughters I used to challenge them regularly when they asked for something they ‘needed’. I used to ask them what they really and actually did need? Mean wicked mother that I was, I started to gently confront them when they were about 3 years old. Because from where I’m sitting what I really NEED is little. I need enough food to fill my belly and no more. I need shelter. It can be as simple as you like but would ideally keep me warm in winter and cool in summer and would clearly vary according the climate I live in. My body is my greatest gift and to have it functioning fully is preferable. At the moment I have a rickety leg as a result of a foolish fall 4 weeks ago and I am learning how frustrating it is to NOT be able to move fluidly if at all. Clothes on my back, shoes on my feet are probably a need. And enough money to buy what I can’t grow or make myself. Those are needs. The rest – the car, the travel, the extensive wardrobe, the TV, the wireless, the CDs, the phone, the IT paraphenalia etcetera etcetera ad tedium – those are wants. And I think it is extremely important to do an audit from time to time and remember what the difference is. Call it a sanity check – call it a ticket to self-righteousness but I do believe it’s important. Peter, THAT Great Peter, you see thought that this extraordinarily extravagent building (which is just a tiny wing of one of his Palaces) was needed … I’d say it’s the icing on the cake, le cerise sur le gateau, the cherry on top which is why I’m having this little moment of pondering cherries because it happens to be the weekly photo challenge this week ‘The Cherry On Top’ and here you can see the rest of the entries, all wonderfully creative and worthy.
PS: The title – Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (I would, wouldn’t I?) – one young intellectual (Pishtchik) to another (Trophimof) when talking of borrowing money notes that just as all he can think of are bank balances and interest rates a hungry dog thinks of nothing but meat, a metaphor for single mindedness born of discontent … in this epoch the Chekhov generation of intellectuals were exchanging earnest views which led to the discontent that in turn gave birth to the Revolution of 1917 … I think we might do well to learn from that – after all that revolution led to a system of government that most in the ‘modern’ world believe to be unworkable. It is also perhaps worth noting, given that the Cherry on the top of the photo for me is the modern Russian flag a-fluttering in front of the ludicrous affectation of the supposedly enlightened Peter, that the US, the UK and France all seem to be craving strong Government whilst simultaneously being afeared of the strong arm of Putin …. perhaps a return to understanding what we need as opposed to what we want is required. Perhaps.
I’m in Europe until mid-August and although I will write some new things I hope you won’t mind me trawling the archives for some posts that you might have missed from much earlier in the life of this blog. I’m starting with a particular favourite of my Two Brained husband and hope you will like it too …. silver linings abound if you let them
My home is in France. I will reside in the USA until mid-October. My heart breaks for this place. Of course my heart breaks for France. It’s my status quo. That my heart is breaking is hardly surprising. Here, numerous lives wasted by guns. In France, just about to lift it’s highest possible security alert after the abominable attacks last year, 84 literally mown down and numerous others injured many left in a life-threatening condition which you can seamlessly translate to ‘if they live they will have a steep slope to climb if they are ever to live a full life again’ in Nice on 14 July. A bloodbath on 14 July in France, by the way, is akin to a massacre on 4 July in the USA..
And then there are those others. The copious blood spilled in numerous locations which cannot have escaped your attention, lives exterminated, bagsfull maimed in other places. None of it is justifiable to a reasonable person let alone a pacifist. None of it is right to a rationalist let alone an idealist. All of it bids to erode my inate and possibly foolish optimism. But I will not let awful un-lawful acts rule my life. I will strive to find a way through.
How so? How on earth? First I must comment that what happened in Nice is in all likelihood not a terrorist attack. You can play with the semantics, of course and you can tell me that most nutters root back to religion, politics or any combination therein that feeds their sick souls but I don’t count that. An organisation has taken the most half-hearted responsibility for the 19-tonne truck deliberately barrelling down le Promenade des Anglais just when it was bound to be full of revellers gathered for le Fête Nationale. They were clearly going to. Fear bolsters up their macho resolve, so to claim responsibility is almost inevitable. Some sort of tenous connection makes us all feel even more scared. When I was growing up in England it was the IRA – any mention had us quivering in our boots, soiling our knickers and feeling very very insecure. The world moves on. Though I must say that I fear that the IRA never really went away. And the recent British Brexit vote that narrowly resolved to leave the EU (or UE if you are French) will add fuel to that nicely weakening fire. So claims are made and responsibility often falsely attributed and we all quake and shake and wonder if we can really really go out of our front door safely and if our babies and their babies and their babies not even thought of are ever EVER going to be safe.
I put two notions to you.
The first is this. We have become an increasingly tiny planet. By this I do not mean that the world has physically shrunk from a big fat fully inflated and energetic basketball to a teeny weeny, possibly depressed ping-pong ball but rather that we know what goes on in every crevice and we feel a part of it where once we did not. Media and especially social media shout and scream at us even when we sleep – buzzing and bleeping and flashing that something is happening. I remember Gerry Anderson’s ‘Thunderbirds’ – I remember those puppets being woken by the bleep-bleep of a catastrophe. And they went out and resolved it. Solved it. Made it all right again. Kept us safe. Now we all bleep and buzz and ring and weep. It is not healthy. We cannot absorb it all. Leeloo in the 1990s sci-fi film, ‘The Fifth Element’ starring Bruce Willis, of all people, could not absorb it without breaking down with the sheer emotion of it, and she was manufactured to be the savior of humankind – it’s too bluddy much for one person, one creation, to take in:
The second notion is born of my idealistic nature. I think that if we can, and do spread love and decency and kindness and tolerance eventually (not in my short life-time), eventually the world will see sense. I will leave the notion of spilling blood to others. But I will give you this thought. This weekend I had a situation that should have ruined my relationship with my husband. This weekend I was told I was hated by his son, by one of his son’s closest friends. This weekend I could easily have told my husband I wanted to terminate our relationship because of his closest kin, his spawn. But I didn’t. I squawked and I cried and I shouted and I threatened but I stayed. Out of love, I stayed. I am imperfect. If I can reach into my vat of love, we all can. I say this because I am absolutely unperfect. Blemished and scarred and not at all pure. So it stands to reason in this tiny brain of mine that we CAN all tolerate if we firstly want to and secondly put a little thought into the process. Here’s the thing, we can all be decent just because we want to be decent. It is absolutely in all our hands and minds and hearts to want to change and to stop being selfishly driven by our own needs and to accept that we are all particular and that none of us is a better particular, a more worthy particular than any other.
The picture is in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge ‘Detail’ – my title is a bastardisation of the known (‘The devil is in the detail’) and the less known but proper (‘le bon dieu est dans le détails – ‘The Good of God is in the details‘). With my mish-mush belief system I can take from both and manipulate you as all good terrorists do. What I will bring to you is the detail of harmony, peace and tolerance – not things that just magically happen but things that require work. My picture illustrates this through the idea of a diversity of lichens co-existing on a rock.
If this is my rock then let it be known that every religion,whatever colour, LGBT, men, women, straight and yet to be determined, able bodied, disabled, are welcome, Don’t rock me and I won’t rock you. Fact.
PS: I find it interesting that ‘The Devil is in the detail’, most notably attributed to 20th Century German Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is the accepted venacular over the original le bon dieu est dans les détails which is attributed to Gustav Flaubert (author of my beloved Madame Bovary) who died twenty years before the turn of that century. God-Devil. Good-Bad … personally I think we are better placed attempting to be good ourselves rather than bathing in books and falling back on them when their language will surely fail us so long after they were supposedly penned.
The first time I saw this place, I was on honeymoon three years ago (or thereabouts). The place my husband had chosen for this special moment is owned by the most delightful of men.
A self-proclaimed Royalist, he is married to a psychiatrist who practices her head shrinking in Marseilles some 5 hours south-east of his bijou chateau in Aurillac. They speak every day, and lovingly, by phone and sometimes he goes to see her and sometimes she comes to see him. At the time we had no concept that the next 2 ½ years would see us in the same tub. The mere notion would have seemed absurd.
A man of short stature and with magnificent, almost Dali-esque, waxed moustachios he is quite clearly Hercules Poirot’s long-lost, should be discovered twin, separated at birth. He is positively a mine of information, a historian and a trawler of knowledge with that sponge-like ability to soak up every last teeny drop. Rather like a human hoover, he vacuums up all the specks of material in his path, then assimilates them, files them according to relevance in the boggling laberynth that is a mind and brings them forth at the precise moment of crowning relevance. And with quiet aplomb. Like nurturing a perfect fruit to pluck and present it at it’s precise moment of optimum ripeness. His great joy, therefore, apart from providing an impeccable interlude for his guests, cooking delicious local recipes from local ingredients and sharing, free of charge the contents of his not insignificant cellar, is to impart tips and advice and to guide his guests to even greater enjoyment of what is already a perfect break. Never to debate or undermine, he coaxes your holiday spirit out of hiding, assesses it with the expert eye of the head of a great household assessing the crystal and silver and porcelain laid for a banquet and only then makes suggestions which are as carefully and thoughtfully shared as a glorious vintage from a gleaming decanter and your breath baits as you wait for the treasure to be revealed. For treasure it will surely be. He is quite one of the finest souls I have ever encountered in a lifetime studded with fine souls. The most absurd thing, or perhaps the most sensible, is that he does not advertise his wares at all on the interweb … like the wild mushrooms he served to us in a perfectly executed sauce, you have to know where to seek him and sometimes I wonder if we dreamed him into being in our collective-romantic.
On our second morning he suggested we visit Rocamadour. It is just over the border in the Lot departement. Although it attracts tourists like a swarm of bees to a pollen filled flower-garden I would recommend anyone in the faintest locale to go. It quite literally is built onto the rock and cleaves and clings to it with majestic defiance. That it is medieval and that they managed to believe and then achieve this is beyond my puny imagination ….
Since that entrancing start to our married life, I have been back to Rocamadour just once with my eldest daughter on a blistering hot July day when even the rocks seemed to be clammy with salt perspiration rather than the usual cooling dampness of vast stones. I took this picture that day and it seems to fit the weekly photo challenge this week titled ‘Look Up’ and as ever you will find all the other laudable entries here.
The staircase screams to me of Escher and so I snipped him for my title:
‘Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible. I think it’s in my basement – I’ll go upstairs and check’ – M.C Escher
PS: Last year we revisited the chateau we had stayed in for those first enchanted days of our marriage, armed with a book. It was a copy of my late and always lamented father-in-laws opus‘The French Cheese Book’ because our host had lit up at the unimagined absurdity of an Englishman taking the time to journey throughout France discovering well in excess of 700 cheeses, but more than that to have spoken to multitudes of makers, farmers, dairy owners, researched the history of the terroirs, their people and their production and produced a work of such magnitude about FRENCH cheese one of which, by the way is a delectable little chêvre disc made in Rocamadour. These two men come in many ways of a common mold and it seemed entirely reasonable to give him a copy of the book, inscribed with our thanks for making the first days of our married journey so magical. He regarded it with the exact same reverence with which I look upon him.
In the words of Cyril Raymond to Celia Johnson at the end of ‘Brief Encounter’ ‘you’ve been a long, long way away’ – I won’t flatter myself with his next line ‘thank you for coming back to me’ but I have been a long way away and I’m very much afraid that I HAVE come back to you ….
It’s been a bit of a saga so here is a précis before I dive back into stories of house hunts and refurbishments and hikes (though one does figure here) and generally half-baked meanderings.
- June 17th The Two Brained one is diagnosed with Lyme Disease after breaking out in purple patches all over his normally unblemished body.
- June 19th He whisks me by circuitous route, lest I guess the ultimate destination, to France. Grenoble to be precise. You may remember I have a particular affection for Grenoble
- June 21st To the courthouse …. I’m not in the dock and neither is he but I do have another installment for my book ‘The Lying Cheating Lives of Others’ and there will be more of that in later blog posts – a road yet to be trodden but one that I think y’all might enjoy
- June 22nd – home to our little nest in Northern Cantal for our Wedding Anniversary. There is nothing nicer than to be in the village we were married in three years ago drinking a toast ‘à la notre’ in jolly nice French champagne
- June 23rd – up early and on the road to Marcolès to find out what progress on the house. There is progress but it would be wrong of me to spoil the surprise so I will leave you in suspenders til the next installment
- June 25th – back to Lyon to drop off car and take a flight. HB² is confident that a) I love surprises so will not look at my ticket b) I can’t actually see it without my glasses and c) I’m so excited that I will miss the only announcement for our flight. Therefore I board a plane not knowing where I am bound
- June 26th – I wake up in Edinburgh, a city I know quite well, where my grandmother was married in 1918 and where I hounded my elder brother when he was doing his PhD because I could and mainly because he had a ready supply of male friends for the 18 year old me to make cow-eyes at.
- June 27th – I pick up a call from my vet who is boarding The Bean. The words ‘there is nothing to worry about, but ….’ instantly make me worried. A lot worried. Because it turns out that The Small But Feisty one has also got Lyme. Be still my pounding heart. At least she is in the right place and they say she is responding well to treatment.
- June 29th – We decide to walk up Arthur’s Seat. This is an extinct volcano within the city. My aforementioned and extremely long-suffering brother lived in a very pretty district at it’s foot and we walked up often. Actually he used to run it. At his wedding his best man’s speech began ‘I first suspected that my flatmate might be mad when he asked the way to Arthur’s Seat for a run on a bitterly cold, wet and windy day…. I showed him and some time later I realised it wasn’t a case of might be mad, he clearly was mad as he set off down the lane in a storm with a rucksack full of boulders on his back’. He is still that same animal. In those days there were a few walkers some with dogs and that was about it. Today it teems with tourists making their way up, taking selfies and mostly wearing entirely unsuitable footwear (flip flops, fashion sandals, even the odd pair of heels) for what is a moderate hike up hill-paths rather than pavements. We took the road less travelled and benefited from stunning views unencumbered by the masses. The German girls hogging the peak did move over when I utilised my famed loud and I don’t care who knows it, voice and we duly stood for a moment or two before setting off down again. All was well and I was lost in thought (mostly quite bitchy thoughts about the unsuitable nature of other people’s footwear) until almost at the bottom, not on a remotely steep bit, I slipped on shail and heard an audible crack. The crack was nothing to my blood-curdling bellows and the air took on a blue hue as I cursed my way thorugh the early moments of what is actually a severe high ankle sprain coupled with 90% tear to the anterior calf muscle. I must thank the lovely man from Canada who stopped to help The Brains wrestle me to my feet, the equally lovely café who served delectable lime and coconut cake (I was in shock – I needed sugar) and the wonderful nurse in Minor Injuries at the Western General Hospital. Later as I limped into a taxi my husband asked how I felt about the last bit of his surprise – did I think I could manage it. Could I? I would walk through the fires of a spewing live volcano to do what he had in mind.
- June 30th – Two trains to Liverpool for lunch with youngest daughter and two more to Oxford to stay two nights with my mother who had one last surprise – my younger brother flown in from Bahrain to spend an evening with his big sister. In life, the real luxuries are the little things. The thoughtfulness of my husband, the opportunity to see some of my family. Secrets and lies can be quite beautiful – four of the most precious people in my world kept them and there is no sin in that.
- July 2nd – we collect the delighted but subdued tiny dog from her Boarding Vet. She has anti-biotics and is making some progress. Lyme Disease is a nasty nasty thing – sometimes, it isn’t easy being Bean.
So there you have it Two Lymes and a Lemon. Here are some nice pictures from the Scottish leg of my odyssey and afterwards I will treat you to a PS:
The promised and entirely necessary PS: Yesterday, I visited my lovely Cambridge doctor for a formal verdict on my leg. He sympathised with Two Brains having to live with with a caged and beligerent tigress with cabin fever and asked how he is doing (he is a specialist in infectious diseases so had been asked for his opinion when The Brains presented with what appeared to be Lyme). He commented that it was remarkable that HB² had been running the morning of his diagnosis with Lyme. I explained that our daughters and others are convinced he is, in fact, one of The Men in Black. The doctor seemed spookily content to agree ….
And for those unfamiliar with the achingly heartrending last scene of ‘Brief Encounter’ – here it is: