Of all the surprises blithely thrown in my path in le Cantal, one of the most profound is le Monastère Orthodoxe Znaménié. The mountains and plateau Cézallier are France at her deepest and most hidden. These days entirely agricultural, lightly peppered with tiny villages and the odd slumbering ghost town clinging vainly to a long forgotten once-upon-a-past prosperity, the hills sweep rather than peak up to around 1400 metres (around 4,600 feet). Not the highest and not the alpiest, pretty, school-child picturey of mountains, they are nevertheless uncompromising and can quickly turn from humble to harsh. Open to the elements, the snows stick around many a year into May. Fog and mist swirl and swathe often and disorientate rapidly. And it boasts some of the stormiest and most petulant weather in Western Europe with a positively rude statistic for lightning. It takes a particular sort of personality to thrive in the elements that are randomly chucked about here.
Into this landscape in 1988 wandered a murmur of Nuns desperately seeking solitude and a place that nurtured their meditational, peaceful lifestyle. They set about converting a barn into a Monastery. Yes, I too would say convent but they insist it is a Monastery and I have never knowingly tangled with a Nun and shan’t change that habit now. Monastery then. They spent 6 years converting the barn into their vision. With their own hands and with the help of benificent neighbours. Most of the work, I am assured by the locals was done by the nuns and to be frank it takes my breath away. They based their vision on the Monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece. I have seen those gleaming immense edifices from a bobbing boat on an azure sea. I am a woman and am not allowed to set foot on the Athos Peninsular. Neither, despite their pious status, would these nuns. Men who are not of the specific cloth worn by the Russian or Greek Orthodox Churches have to request a formal invitation and it typically takes many years presumably in the vague hope that the aforementioned non-sacred men will get bored and go about their secular business and not further bother the mysterious monkdoms. I have been fascinated and a little obsessed with the notion of what actually goes on there for years. Ever since I visited the trident shaped headlands on my big fat Greek holidays several years ago. As a result my delight at finding a tiny replica on my doorstep was practically fizz-banging like my own private lightning storm. What I learned about these women (whom I literally stumbled upon one fine Spring day about two years ago) was that they do everything that they can, themselves. That they ask for the most minimal of help. That they grow most of what they eat themselves which is by no means easy at 1200 metres altitude, that they keep bees and that they sell small amounts of bee products, jams and other produce to raise the necessary cash to pay for the things they absolutely can’t do themselves. A fellow from whom we considered buying a house, widowed and wanting to move away from the place he had shared with his true love, told me that the dentist in the local town treats the nuns free of charge and that the state of their teeth is quite deplorable. They don’t run to colgate and dental floss on their tiny budget. Solitary they are. Solitary and selfish to the extent that they have dropped out of society in order to spend their days in contemplation, meditation and prayer. But harmless. Not effecting anyone bady. If you would like to visit, you can on certain days. Free of charge.
Here in Grenoble there is a problem with homelessness (les sans abris). It is a problem replicated across France and beyond, certainly to my own country of birth. It is a cause close to my heart. I have been within the most uncomfortably close sight of my own prospective homelessness with three small children and a baby in my life. I believe it is a fundemental human right to know where you are going to lay your head at night and that the place should not be under a cardboard quilt and the cold blanket of starlight. In this city we have an excellent charitable network that tries to ensure the right help is delivered to the people who need it. I have put my name on the list to volunteer to help but so far I have not been needed. There are many willing supporters who go out with food, blankets, clothing and a compassionate ear. The aim is to get all those suffering on the streets into accommodation. We have an extremely liberal mayor. It is high on his agenda.
Enter the dragon. The dragon in this case has foul breath and speaks with forked tongue. Les faux abris, I have taken to calling them. The network of drop-outs (often not French but rather from other countries in Europe) who congregate, doss around and beg. You can recognise them from the signature can of beer and dogs and glossy mobile phone. Because dogs make people more willing to give money. The dogs are passed around one motley hive to another, the beers are clutched proprietorially and not shared with anyone. This causes my highly charged social conscience and, I would argue, innate sence of decency to short-circuit. I want to help everyone. I want everyone to have a home. But these people do. They are, of course squatters. Twenty year old me would have said ‘so what?’ but fifty-something year old me is peturbed. You see, unlike the nuns high up in the unforgiving landscape of Cantal, unlike the genuine fallen on hard times not of their own making homeless, these people have chosen to drop out and scavenge. And it urks me greatly. I see people abused when they walk past and refuse to put money in the cups thrust unrelentingly and indeed agressively in their faces. I see people dropping money to avoid being threatened. I see the dogs that are the bait for their hook left to lie alone on traffic islands in the hope that someone will take pity and give money to feed them. Puppies included.
Recently, I staggered onto the tram laden with heavy shopping from the supermarket. Behind me teetered a lady of extremely advanced years. I would suggest certainly north of her mid 80s and possibly more. Wearing a shabby tailored coat that she had visibly worn these past many decades, carrying a once decent now decaying vinyl handbag and with her shoes reminiscent of those my mother wore when I was a child long ago and far away, her hair neatly pinned and a slick of vivid geranium lipstick setting off her freshly powdered cheeks, she was clearly chary of walking past the vast Mastive held on a chain by a youngish woman wearing the uniform of her tribe. A tribe that perports to be anachistic and yet is recognisable by it’s hermogenous clothing. The outcasts are infact their own incasts. With her, a man brandishing his upmarket handheld device. It was the arrogance and smugness that made me want to smack them both in the teeth. The old lady, complete with stick I should add, was ignored. They did not offer to give up the seat that the young woman was fatly occupying, they did not move out of the way, they did not offer to help her to an empty seat which meant traversing the impressively muscular dog who I am sure was beautifully mannered but was overwhelming in his bulk and would surely present an alarming prospect to a tiny trim person slowly desiccating with age. She was stoic. Uncomplaining. As are, I have noticed all the elderly who are passively bullied by those that prefer not to offer a seat to one whose need is greater. I found her a seat and she thanked me in a whisper. I did not need thanks. It was a simple act of decency.
Later that same day, I met the same disparate group on a different tram. I pondered why a young woman should need such a large dog. Indeed when one is living the simple life in a city why one would want to be encumbered by a canine at all. The answer did not need to blow in the wind, the answer was screaming in my ears. She peddles stuff, nasty chemical mind bending stuff …. I’m beedy eyed and not, as my children will vouch from bitter experience, naïve to the goings on that they as youngsters thought their generation had copyright on. Of course, we ourselves invented it all a generation before, it having been invented by our parents generation, and so on ad tedium backwards.
And this is my conundrum. I am all for people living as they choose to. I am no preacher but I do exhort freedom as a fundemental of human rights and choice must surely be at the root of that tree. I’m a bit of a hermit, I may well be on the strange end of odd in many ways, but I am innocuous. I like to help where I can but if I want to opt out completely then I will do so and not get in anyone’s way. The Nuns high up in the Cézallier are all but self-sufficient and what little money they need they earn by their own toil. The real homeless, in this city, not in all as I am painfully mindful, are helped. Their stories will penetrate all but the most frigid of hearts. Many are addicts. Addiction is not and never should be considered a crime. Helping people into that dark place IS and always should be.
PS: The quote is of course Greta Garbo. She said it in ‘Grand Hotel’ and the line came to define her. In fact, much later, she would protest that she had never said it outside of the movie and that what she had actually said was ‘I want to be let alone’ … splitting hairs one might observe but I can sympathise with the irritation at being eternally defined by one tiny soundbite. And I can empathise with the need to be alone, the desire for me-time and the idea of being a recluse. Nonetheless, I will not be taking Holy Orders in pursuit of that particular happiness.
Here is Greta as your bonus. The young and extraordinarily talented woman providing the soundtrack to the montage fell prey to addiction ….