Smile, boys, that’s the style
What is it that elevates a place from somewhere you lay your weary bones and nourish yourself to being allowed to be home? I have yet to work out the why and the what and, in truth, though it is a notion that captivates me, I probably never will find a finite answer. For four years until this September, my home was a village in the North West of le Cantal. This was hugely significant for me since, for reasons honestly too dull to share, I had moved house eleven times in the previous fifteen years. Suffice to ingest that only one of these moves was by choice. 2016 saw me seldom in this really real home as I was allowed by the Government of the mighty United States of America to reside in Massachusetts with my two-brained husband and, believe me, I mean truly believe me, I was and remain grateful. This year we spent the first half in Grenoble together languishing in a vast apartment complete with corinthian columns courtesy of the institute for whom he was doing a tranche of work.
During all this time, I stoically avoided the entirely socially graceless elephant in the room. This elephant was the elephant of good sense which clumsily, due to it’s enormous size and laudibly serious regard for it’s purpose, reminded me constantly that I needed to give up the place in Cantal that I clung to as home with it’s lino floors and terrible light-fittings BUT beautiful high ceilings, exquisite front door, lovely park and outlook beyond and the, to me, deliciously enchanting sound of tiny children taking their first steps on the long road of compulsary education in the classrooms and playground below – the house, you see was built in the 1870s as the village school and still functions on the lower floor as the école maternelle (nursery school). Eventually I crumpled and admitted defeat just before we closed up our grandiose Grenoble apartment and my husband flitted back to his day job in Cambridge MA and said in a Winnie the Pooh’s stoic friend Piglet-like decidedly small voice ‘we need to let go of the flat and I will stay on in Grenoble’. And thus and instantly it was decided. I moved into the flat in which I now live in the heart of ‘The Capital of the Alps’ …. of that more soon, which I did promise you two months ago – I honestly do keep my promises though deadlines can be a fluid concept chez moi.
So you see, the thing is this, as modest as my original French place was, it was home – the flat and the local people wrapped themselves round me like a gentle hug, let me be the odd English bird even though most of them had no real idea nor particularly care where England even is and never demurred nor murmured to my knowledge behind my back (humour me here, if you will) and to move from it was very very very hard. It left me feeling deeply sad and it is only now that I feel the bleak and hollow-making mist lifting and life beckoning it’s enticing finger again. The day we left, our friend Mathilde, the village pâtissière, she of the most swoon worthy madeleines ever to grace le goûter and whom we thought two years ago we were going to lose to cancer, tried every way she could to persuade us that we really CAN stay, that we will find our home in the commune. It broke my heart. Because we can’t. For now we can’t. It is a foolish notion and doesn’t make economic sense and even a half-baked mind like mine, occasionally has to bow to the elephant that trumpets good sense.
The men who moved us were truly, beautifully, wonderful. They had moved all our things to Grenoble and then back again (my present home is rented furnished) and made raucous jokes at my expense about women not being able to make up their minds and men being forced to lock step even though they have logic on their side – politically entirely beyond the pail of correctness and exactly and precisely what I needed that rather wan day. They appeared, outrageously early on parade, that moving morning and it was frankly fortunate that I was not still languishing sanguine in bed and drinking in one last moment of that room that had been my chamber and my comfort when my husband was far away, my delight when I could steer him upstairs when he crossed the Atlantic for a stolen moment or two with me and the sniggering snorting first thing in the morning snuggling place when a daughter stayed with me for a while. They were tasked with taking our things to Marcolès where eventually, when we have finished the house, they will be unpacked. Their good humour took me through the day, their understanding that moving is not always easy however much you might love the place you are going, a lesson to all. We rather felt we had got to know them over the course of the three moves they executed for us. The household name honestly eponymous international firm who originally moved me from England to France should take note. The attitude, the efficiency, the spirit of understanding that they showed (and that included a young lad of less than 16 years old) should certainly shame the British firm who ended up paying me quite a lot of compensation for losing precious things and duping me with a shared lorry that was supposed to be a single dedicated van for my things. The fact that the pantechnicon that arrived precisely at the time we had told them not to on account of the school managed to decapitate multiple branches on the avenue of plain trees that lined the drive and that the oafish driver came from the school of shout loudly aand slowly and then more loudly and more slowly to make yourself understood to Johnny Foreigner did not attract compensation but it took me months to recover from what felt like a particularly brutal form of removals abuse. You can read the name and address of the French firm on the pictures of their lorry and I would not hesitate to recommend them – they work France-wide and internationally. We are not done with our moves, we will use them again.
Marcolès was eerily foggy when we arrived and the lady opposite, widowed last Christmas spent a happy 40 minutes watching them unload my life, gleefully and rather beadily eyeing the contents of the see-through boxes full of soft furnishings and the lovely Georgian table named ‘Gerry’s Aunt’ for it’s provenance, my sleigh bed and the washing machine which is not white but black and consequently befuddled her, before the bone-intrusive damp cold got too much for her and she hastened into her parlour from whence she twitched her lace curtains for a further many several minutes. She was convinced they could not, should not, would not get their lorry between the hairdresser and the post office … looking at the picture, it is unsurprising but they managed it by the skin of the skinniest of teeth and when the postman arrived to empty the letter box, he too entered into the spirit of the occasion leaving his van running and hooting humerous insults at the men from the next department over. Not many move into our village, too many are moving out – it was a day for celebration and I know I am fortunate.
Now all my life lies in boxes on the ground floor. It is time for me to take up the story which I dropped when I moved to the US last year and I will now promise you a Marcolès Monday every week for the next several to bring you up to speed with the work that we have done in the last two years and particularly the work we did in the 6 months that my husband was living on the same continent as me for once, earlier this year. We have much still to do and we have now put the house in semi-mothballs …. I will go once every couple of months and carry on, but on a dust and air budget progress is very slow. But the real thing is that we are doing it – no ritzy contractors, no contractors at all just sweat, occasional blood and epic tears. One day they will be tears of joy when we finally manage to say ‘our work here is done’ … that will be a day for champagne and dancing. And I, the optimist, look forward to it.
And there you have it. The why I have been a little absent. My heart felt the leaden wieght of sorrow because my safe-place, my home, my warm hug, my protective cloak, call it what you will has gone. But the future is ahead – it always is, we have no choice in that and it is for me to take up the drum and beat out the rhythm of life again, live it to the full appreciating all that I have and not (as I caution others but on this occasion have fallen foul of myself) getting stuck in the pesky rear view mirror. The mantra I brought my children up with is planted to seed and bloom in my own heart once more … everything changes, nothing stays the same.
PS: The title comes from World War One Marching song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ written the brothers George and Felix Powell. If you have a mind you might read about the ultimately tragic story of the song here. Whilst I would in no way compare my recent mood to the ill-fated Felix, the melancholy of his story somehow seemed to fit the mood of this piece.
Your bonus: ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ which never ceases to remind me that I have absolutely no right to any blues whatsoever:
Pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile
while you’ve a lucifer
to light your fag
smile, boys, that’s the style
What’s the use of worrying
it never was worthwhile
so, pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile
Pack up Your Troubles