Mr Clarke had the unenviable task of being my ‘Form Tutor’ in my last two years at senior school. Mr Clarke, an undeniably smart man, only taught the top two years. Those that ostensibly really wanted to learn his subject. English Literature. We, being witty as well as bright called him ‘Forsooth Verily’ by dint of his superbly Shakespearian air made more acute by the fashions at the time … softest suede desert boots that made no sound, not even a whisper, as he glid across the high-polished wood floors, velvet jacket fitted to his slender form and what here in France they would call a ‘foulard’ of embroidered cheesecloth casually draped around his neck. His beard was deliberately bard there is no doubt. He had the delight of teaching me and the double wham bam no thank you mammy of being in charge of what would these days be called my ‘Pastoral Care’. It is fair and truthful to own up at this point in my too rapidly ageing life, that I was a handful. Twice a day, at it’s start and finish, the group of us that formed Tutor Group 6SB congregated in the library, for this was his domain. This was his exhalted place. This was his book-lined empire. We did our prep, we swatted for exams, sometimes he led a discussion, sometimes we rehearsed an assembly. I say ‘we’ but I might reasonably admit that I had a habit of being less than engaged with the process. One fine afternoon he asked me to please, for goodness sakes please, concentrate on the work in hand and added that I was ‘vacuous’. This provoked an inevitable barrage of ‘what does that mean, sirs’ from the tiresome object that was me. He suggested, quite reasonably that I might look it up in the dictionary. These vast volumes lined the bottom shelf of his cave and I remember sitting cross legged finding the correct tome. Quite askance I read the all too obvious definition. He of course implied that I was ‘as a vacuum’ …. absolutely bugger all going on in my head. Mr Clarke was a very smart man. So acutely embarrassed and humiliated was I that my reset button was pressed toute de suite. Later that summer I would open the envelope with my all-important A-Level exam results and be really proud of what I had achieved rather than quietly ashamed of wasting what ability I had. Thank you Mr Clarke. You sealed my future with your withering remark. You made me face the fact that given the gift of something of an intellect, it is honestly the height of fatuous rudeness not to at least try to use it wisely.
I give you this little story as my offering for the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge ‘Dense’ of which you can find all the suitably solid entries here. My picture, taken on Sunday on la Crête de la Molière, seemed rather apt – the dense cloud trying it’s hardest to mask the snow covered Massif de Belledonne, the tree who has seen it all before, now old and weathered, battered and broken but stripped though it is, it still stands sentinel surveying it’s realm.
PS: I remember in my salvo of protests asking Mr Clarke if he was actually and really telling me I was dense. He replied that he most certainly was not. For density implies that there is a good deal of matter in the cranial caverty and he rather prefered to leave me in no doubt that there was nothing between my ears whatsoever. Stinging. Really it was stinging.
The quote is from Molière’s ‘Les Femmes Savantes’: ‘a learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one.’ I would postulate that this is inarguable and that if we are to be learnèd we would do well to use our learning wisely throughout our days. Even those jolly days of miscreant behavior before we step blinking into the light and have to be vaguely growed-up.
Some time ago, when we were fledgling lovers, existing in the protective bubble reserved for the newly amorous, Two Brains brought me to a place called Vassieux-en-Vercors. The drive up from Grenoble is littered with sombre reminders of a time, only decades ago when the spectacular landscape played backdrop for the most merciless realities of a world at war – we stopped at various places, never idly. Here it is impossible to forget how cruel and cold humanity can be. Here no bubble is sufficient to protect you from nauseating emotions wrought from the darkest, starkest of realites.
Vassieux sits on the Drôme side of le Vercors. The Vercors is nicknamed ‘the flat iron’ for a reason … it is a high plateau with higher peaks frilling it, thrilling visitors and chilling those that know the secrets that it keeps. Mountains tend to do that. They look, are, so magnificent but they are unyielding, unforgiving places by default without being privy and council to the Résistance called le maquis in a brutal global war. Huge harsh lumps they are – they don’t actually ask for delicate humans to impinge on them but sometimes flimsy mortals have no choice.
The war, that war of 1939-45 invited such necessity. Men whose country was overtaken by a callous regime they did not invite nor condone, who wanted it freed and reverted to the values it held dear, who did not want the uneasy treaty of Vichy but rather actual and total freedom, those men, those women for can we just agree that men and women are equally people, those people formed the Résistance. And the ones who under that same treaty were told they had to go and do work in Germany. STO it was called (Service de Travail Obligatoire … I don’t honestly think you need my translation) – those young men, they said non and they joined the Résistance.
What happened in 1944 was disgraceful. Not simply by dint of the deeds of the enemy (German in this case) but actually and tragically because of the behavior of the high fallutin’ tootin’ allied commanders. Another time. Really another time I will feel fully equipped to tell the story. In the meantime all you need take to heart is that this village, and all the others barborously besieged, is a defenseless duck sitting pretty on a flat plane. That it can’t have been difficult to overpower it, however hard les maquis tried to fend off the merciless assault is painfully, graphically clear. And there are references to the places they fought and fell all around and not just here, throughout this great monolith known as le Vercors. Villages burned, Villagers slain. Men rounded up and annihilated standing proud against cold walls in the place they called home because it was. Their home. It is not pretty. Not at all. It is tough beyond the bounds of that pathetically soft word. And then you visit the Nécropole and you walk, sapped of strength, sorrow wrenching bile from your throat among the bare little crosses, pure white standing proud in pristine gravel and you pathetically collapse as though a razor has slashed your heart because you are facing a family – a grandmother, her two daughters and all the children of one of them including a baby lying side by side, their lives extinguished mercilessly. Every single one of them. See it, feel it and tell me, tell me not to weep.
My husband had the immense privilige of spending time some years ago, with Robert Favier (known as Mattres) who was created Chevalier de Légion d’Honneur having been a high ranking leader in the Maquis. Monsieur Favier, died in 2010 aged 96. HB2 also met Joseph la Picirella who founded the original museum in Vassieux. He made it because he could and because no-one should forget what happened. Really no-one should. He also died in 2010 aged 85, he was little more than a boy, therefore, when he joined the Maquis. His museum is still there where he built it, just behind the church. The French Government built another museum, the official museum, which sits perched 400 metres above the village and is of deliberately austere design.
To walk the walk I walked, in the footsteps of those braver than brave maquis was humbling. A privilege beyond privilege. And here are some photos. Because my words are meagre and poor. I will leave you to imagine it for yourself or simply to enjoy the beauty of the place. The choice is yours. Mine is not to tell people what to do, simply to bring you to a place that savages my senses and of which, when I am confident that my thoughts and facts are accurate and well-founded, I will write in greater depth.
PS: When you have digested the place, when you have taken it all in your sturdy stride, you might answer me a simple question. What did we learn? Because from where I am standing, sitting, lying down on a bed of flowers, nothing has changed. When will we learn to leave well alone? When will greed release it’s toxic grip on humanity? When? Can I have it now please? Because little girls picking flowers should NOT be perpetuating a scenario that ends in their husbands pushing up daisies for the sake of yet another bloody war. When will we ever learn?
In the interests of keeping things lighthearted, particularly when the going has been a little less polished and serene than I might have liked, I have often wise-cracked that there has clearly been a dreadful mistake and that I am in fact supposed to be living a different life. Usually the whimsy life referred to contains a palatial home and whatever accoutrements the unfortunate recipient of my frolicking wit cares to embellish it with. In fact it is not at all uncommon for me to help myself to a counterfeit life just for the helluvit and to make fictional daydreaming sugar whatever the reality of the bitter medicinal pill of the moment is. It is fair to comment that in my own make-believe there is much detail in the sketch. Details like tall columns and ornate plaster-work and rooms big enough to dance in. It’s a trifling and inoffensive affectation. Harmless, I am. Occasionally deluded but entirely inoccuous.
Now imagine this, if you will. When I knew for certain sure that we would be spending the first six months of this year in Grenoble, a city we visit often and of which I am fond as one is fond of a rather nice passing acquaintance – that person who always seems so cordial and kind and whom you don’t really know at all but with whom you are certain you could be the bosomest of buddies given the chance. That was Grenoble for me …. a hint of something possible and tantalising. So once I knew we would be here, my reverie started in earnest.
The rapidly gilded fantasy had some concrete and real decisions attached. We wanted to live right in the middle of town to get under the skin of the city at it’s heart, not at it’s suburban fingertips and we wanted to live in an old building. Around this time, as my frenzy of searching for flats heltered and skeltered hither and thither bouncing round the internet like a manic squashball I came across a place which prompted me to forward the detail to the long-suffering Husband with Two Brains with the covering note ‘Please can we have this one? If you let us have this one I will live with no furniture and will exist on a diet of dust and air for the whole six months. I actually will. So please please please say we can’. The Brains responded with the email equivalent of a non-commital smile and nod.
When we arrived in Grenoble just before Christmas to arrange viewings through the Institute that HB2 is working with, The Director (a fellow I have always liked) made a cool and frankly rather too razor-sharp exit saying that renting places in Grenoble is like extracting well-rooted teeth with no anaesthetic and sweetly wishing us well as he fled for the hills. The unfortunate and delightfully stoic young assistant assigned to us, started to work through our list of properties. She arranged two viewings that afternoon and two the next morning The first place, the top floor of an historic monument facing l’ancien Palais du Parliament, was love at first sight, albeit unfinished. The second would certainly do with a lovely double aspect salon and excellent location. I should explain two things at this point. The first is that we are experienced at renting in France. Here, you will normally sign a lease for three years after which you can extend for a further three or six years. The rights remain with the tenant – the landlord can’t kick you out but you can terminate with notice at any time. That is hugely over-simplified but you get the gist. So apartment number two was shown to us by a young estate agent who seemed incapable of standing up straight but favoured leaning provocatively on any available solid object of sufficient height, facial expression impassively composed somewhere between nonchalant and fashionably bored. The deep inpenetrably dark eyes of this glacially chic individual flickered with contempt when we explained that we only wanted the place for six months (something that in the UK a landlord would be generally delighted to bite your hand off for, particularly when the agreement will be with an institute of standing in the city meaning no risk at all on the landlord) …. six months? No. That absolute, resolute ‘non’ beloved of the French when there is positively no wiggle room, no negotiation and it’s been a pleasure, bonne journée. Never mind. We still have number one and that was our favourite. Or do we? The assistant called the agent who escalated her to the manager and the manager called the landlord to confirm that it would be ready mid-January and with the lovely early Christmas present that they had secured good tenants through a venerable institute for six months thereby neatly bypassing the winter months when rentals are lean in the city and dropping them into prime renter-reaping territory in mid-summer. And there was that word again ‘non’ … not because they didn’t want us for 6 months but because they were unsure that they could get the tiny amount of work required to complete the flat done before …. March.
The following morning we had number three, a sprawling loft inhabited by a seemingly endless cascade of student girls and filled, predictably with all the necessary and un-necessary detritus of girlie-ness which took me ricocheting back to the years and seemingly endless years of four daughters and one bathroom and no-one ever in a matching pair of socks. I put my bravest mummy face on, Two Brains walked round with a visible and clearly disgusting smell under his fine Gaelic nose. I was stoically convinced that it could work, that once the girls had erradicated the landfill and revealed the space that I could get a certain urban edgy vibe going in this place and release my thinly veiled inner bohemian on the unsuspecting Grenoblois population. And I might have continued in this vein were it not for the casual statement by head girl that the broken door to the building had been like it for months but the landlord was tired of fixing it so he’d decided not to repair it ever again. Now don’t get me wrong, I can fantasise about a bit of gritty living, indeed I was at that very moment inventing a bit of latterday Beatnicking but the idea of absolutely random anyone being able to walk into the place uninvited at absolutely random any time was not appetising in the slightest. Really, not at all. Oddly enough. Number four was in a good location, a good building (Haussmannian) with high ceilings and lovely floors. But compact. Very very compact. Particularly the shower with resplendent puce toilet squished next to it – the colour enhancing the fact that it was clearly extremely uncomfortable with it’s situation. The cubicle was so small I am confident that I would have got wedged whilst washing and warbling and had to be prized out with grease-guns and crowbars by a team of jolly pompiers (firemen) thus making the wrong sort of headlines in le Dauphiné. Or worse, le Monde and picked up and flashed round the world by Reuters. I felt quite faint at this inevitable prospect and the place did not make the list. Which left us with precisely no list and no choice but to drive to England for Christmas knowing that instead of planning removals we would be living out of a suitcase in a hotel at the start of January.
And so it was that at the dawn of 2017 we arrived back in Grenoble filled with the resolution that New Year’s inevitably ingender and fixing our determined chins, set about finding our perfect nest. The valiant assistant made more phone calls working her way through the new list we had drawn up. She netted three visits from six possible roosts and off we set to visit the first one. I was filled with zealous hope for this one. In the Quartier des Antiquaires the dossier showed a beautifully presented place with high ceilings and lovely floors and oozing appeal and charm. We arrived on the nose of the appointed time and a waxy rather sallow skinned fellow opened the door. He reeked, positively seeped from his every pore, of smoke and clearly not just cigarette smoke. If you catch the fetid drift. I am fairly certain that he never ventures outside and if he does it is certainly not in daylight. His eyes were hollow and red rimmed and I am quietly confident that he had not seen this hour of the day in many a decade. This was not an advertisement for spritzy healthy living. The flat, as it turned out was quite hard to see being entirely rammed solid with his enormous volume of possessions. In fact the place had the air that if you moved too quickly and caused the tiniest zephyr it would simply burst. He told me happily that he and his wife were performance artists. I wondered idly if this place were actually a set for one of their plays because it was like wandering through a hellish series of tableaux – you know those performances in several parts where you walk from set to set and are treated to seemingly disconnected installments that somehow in the minds of the creator make sense. And you adopt that air of serene interest whilst all the while looking for an escape route. That. There are no doors you see, just a series of depositories for some of the most seriously cluttered clutter I have ever seen. None of which has ever been cleaned. I enquired politely if the kitchen furniture would be staying. Which it wouldn’t. This (and it is not at all uncommon in France) meant that the kitchen would consist of a space with a tap in it. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or dismayed as my addled mind tried to find a way of making this Danté-on-dope-interior work for us. I failed. Had I succeeded and decided this was the one, I would now be going through the rigours of divorce – HB2’s expression was granite-set and distinctly unpretty. As we left, the fellow invited us to his wife’s next performance. I smiled and nodded and remembered that I have not the teensiest smidge of space in my schedule for the next many aeons.
Which left us with two places to visit. One of my favourite parts of Grenoble are les quais and the second place was on Quai de France which is historic and convenient albeit the other side of the river. The call of water, a view of water has me every time so my hope-ometer was registering off the scale for this baby when we arrived early the following morning. Do you see a pattern forming? You are correct. The pictures of this apartment must have been at least a decade old when, un-lived in, the owner had restored it and dressed it for the Estate Agents to lure people like us in. Or not people like us actually …. this had been a co-location (flatshare) for years. The young people were delightful but let’s be brutally frank with self …. I have children who are older than these bambini. I am no longer content with student digs in fact I might venture that at my lofty age it could be construed as a teeny bit infra-dig. That and the off-hand remark by the young man showing us around that despite having two bathrooms they only ever use one because the other one is dangerous. The pompiers flashed through my mind again. Will I ever find a place where I can make my ablutions without fear of torrid headlines or death or both in this city?
The final place on Cours Jean Jaurès which is the main artery of Grenoble was lovely. Honestly. No catch. It was delightful. Good Belle-Epoque building (not Haussmannian but with views over those that make up the bold and bustling corners of the streets facing the river); high ceilings; shower that would not risk entombment every time I entered it, nor, the slightly bewildered agent assured me in that ‘humour her, she can’t help it, she’s foreign’ way when asked, any other lurking dangers in the bathroom; fitted kitchen to include white goods (we have them but preferred not to have to move them if possible) and all in all a jolly good fit. But of course we still had to traverse the, apparantly insurmountable, six months issue so we wanted another as back-up.
Except there were no more choices. Don’t get me wrong, the little hotel-appart was very comfortable but living in a space where swinging a cat even if we had one and thought that was the reasonable pastime of a sane person, was not in the plan for six months. What to do? The poor assistant was developing an unbecoming facial tic and I really didn’t want the guilt associated with this developing further into a full-blown twitch. At this point, I suggested in the faintest of whispers that I actually knew that the place I had suggested we live in with no food nor furniture for six months was still available. I let my sentence trail ephemerally into sweet silence and waited for the inevitable pounce of desperation. One. Two. Three … Two Brains and The Assistant politely, and to my possible shame, predictably, obliged and later that afternoon, I walked through vast coaching doors into my own dream. The ceilings are at least 13′ high with panelling and moulding and ceiling roses that would grace any fine born abode, pillars and a 65 foot hallway with lovely tiling, parquet floors and a kitchen sporting a piano. No honestly a piano. Un piano de cuisine is a range cooker. This one is vintage if you take vintage to include sometime in, at a guess the early seventies. I’m a sucker for a good cooker and this one has me smitten. You can opt to take the gorgeous old elevator complete with pull-down highly polished wood seat on brass fittings, or glide up the lovely gently winding stone staircase. The double front doors to the apartment are high, heavy, adorned with beautiful brasswork and so finely balanced that they seemingly float open and shut with the merest whisper of pressure. The windows are floor to ceiling and open onto plant balconies, the internal doors mostly double have glazed panels to let the light flood the place. But did I mention pillars? Pillars! It has beauteous ornate columns supporting it’s dizzingly high ceilings. The views from the front are of la Banque de France, itself a gorgeous, unmistakeably French, almost Chateauesque building. The ground floor of the building also houses a bank so if I get bored with living my go-to daydream I can press reset and imagine myself Bonnie plotting with Clyde to pull off the heist of the century. I could happily sport that beret ….
I wafted around the place with a look of the contented Tigger when he had tried the haycorns and the thistles and the hunny and discovered that Roo’s strengthening medicine was actually what Tiggers are meant to eat. In the same vein, Osyths are meant to live in this place for this six months. Of this I am thoroughly certain. In fact, I may chain myself to the fine vintage radiators on move-out day and go on hunger strike. It is love. In 1822 Stendhal noted in ‘On Love’ that ‘there are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.’ Welcome to my vision of happiness ….
PS: There is learning in most everything if one is open to learning. Some years ago and not of choice I lost most of what I owned. All the things that I had moved and moved and moved with and which had enabled me to make each place that my daughters and I arrived in, a home in a jiffy. What I now have is very little. And it is not of any significant value. Were it to be auctioned I imagine it might buy a bag of soggy chips but that is the sum of it. There are some pretty things, there are my father’s plants, and of course there are books but what were always referred to as our ‘things’ are gone. Most of what I have is second hand Ikea. And here is the lesson. I worried and worried that my skimpy collection would be ridiculous in this space. I had japed about living with no furniture but I had serious misgivings that we would simply look ludicrous. As it transpires, when you have bones as beautiful as this place has you can artfully arrange a very few things (and I speak as a magpie who may finally be embracing her suffocated inner minimalist going forward) and hey presto bongo … house beautiful. Rather like the notion that Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren could wear a bin-bag and be elegantly alluring. It turns out that it’s not a notion at all but rather it is a solid, unassailable truth.
And if you are wondering … the place that stole our hearts at the very start? Is still under construction. And the place that wouldn’t have us for six months? Still to let.
Up in le massif de la Chartreuse where the boozy monks make their famed green elixir, we happened on these perfect primevères perkily posing on the muddy, rocky, thorny path up to Mont Rachais. I love Primrose and can never see them without being reminded of the supposedly curmudgeonly Queen Victoria. When Benjamin Disraeli died, amongst all the extravagant floral tributes was a simple wreath of Primrose with the message ‘His favourite flowers’ written in the Queen’s hand. An unlikely pairing – she the Monarch, he a Jewish novelist, and we are not talking heavyweight tomes here but rather the Victorian precursor to a celebrity memoir with a heavy emphasis on the gossipy, with not an aristocratic bone in his body they nonetheless shared a true and deep friendship that had nothing to do with his being her first minister though I am sure it helped the process immensely. He loved primroses, and wrote to her ‘I like them so much better for their being wild’ a fact with which I am wholly as one with him. The untamed, the untarnished, the unfettered have always called loud to me. There is something remarkable about flora and fauna that survive and thrive with no interference from human(un)kind … a reminder that often the best way is to leave well alone.
I have no particular reason for sharing my simpletons philosophy except that the picture was taken on my road travelled, not the one less travelled by, which is my preferred route but the one I am choicelessly taking with every breath, every heartbeat, every step of this one little life I am living through and in which I try to be as tolerant and uninhibiting as possible for the rather dull and untrumpetworthy reason that I actually do not believe I am any more important than anything on this earth we call home. Certainly no better than the brave primevère blooming in February at 1,100 metres altitude. In fact put like that, I’m rather feeble in comparison, I would aver.
PS: The title is plucked from Hamlet. Ophelia genially berates her brother Laertes, reminding him that he should refrain from pontificating whilst he himself blithely flies in the face of his own wisdom.
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, And recks not his own rede.
If the cap fits, wear it but it’s probably better to tighten your hatband and admit that casting those boulders in fragile huts of glass does nothing whatsoever to enhance one’s credibility.
PPS: If you ever get the chance, do visit Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire (Disraeli’s home) and if you can make it in early spring you will be treated to a carpet of primrose that will melt your heart. I promise. The promises of nature, you see are only broken when she is tampered with.