This year my husband and I agreed to spend Christmas apart. Fear not, this is no dramatic announcement of impending divorce, but rather a reflection on the bloated airfares during the season of goodwill. In due time, I will tell of why we presently live one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, but for now I will keep my council. It was my very own idea and I feel that it was a worthy protest, though I imagine it was inconsequential to the point of silence to those responsible for pumping up the prices with such unfettered glee.
Unwilling to risk being peeved by my own decision, I settled on a different solution to the celebrations than sitting in solitary splendour brooding over a meal for one all the while being eyed meaningfully by The Beady Greedy Bean.
In France, as in many other countries, la veille de Noël (Christmas Eve) is traditionally the biggest celebration. A large and lengthy meal with your loved ones culminates in the stealthy arrival of Père Noël (insert your own word for the snowy bearded wonder with grandeose paunch and snazzy white fur-trimmed scarlet suit) who soundlessly leaves gifts around midnight. It is a time of great joy and festivity for most but for others, to many others, it is a sad, solitary night, a time to dwell on past pleasures and the knowledge that there is little solace in the idea that the sun will rise again on the morrow. I speak of the old and alone. Those whom, for whatever reason, have no-one to care for them, those that subsist on tiny incomes and those that tend to be invisible to the masses. So I signed up to assist the Big Christmas Eve dinner laid on by a wondrous charity called Les Petits Frères des Pauvres. Translated as ‘Little Brothers of The Poor’ you may recognise the international federation it belongs to. If you don’t, I urge you to check it out for yourself. If you feel so inclined.
Donning the compulsary Bonnet dePère Noël, but fortunately no beard nor plumping suit, I had three seniors to collect from their homes, because I had also volunteered my car named Franck. I had one gregarious gentleman (aged a twinkling 98 if you please) and two lovely ladies (87 and 89 respectively). I delivered them to the venue, parked Franck and then joined the, incidentally mostly millennial, gang to serve dinner, play games, sing songs and greet Père Noël bearing gifts at midnight. Before we started and after we had seated our table after table of venerable guests there was a silence to remember those who fell serving in the Résistance. Grenoble is one of three cities and two villages awarded the Ordre de La Libération at the end of The Second World War and it is hard to describe how moving it was, that moment of respect standing head bowed amongst those who were directly touched by the indescribable bravery of those who refused to be cowed.
It was 2 a.m when I finally took my exhuberant and energetic charges home to their still silent dwellings. We had sung songs I knew and others I didn’t, played games that had to be explained to me and others that were comfortingly familiar and danced polkas they foot-perfect, I flat-footed. I feel tremendously priviliged to have been allowed to join in and to give beaming cheer where otherwise there would have been the bitter chill of loneliness in a world that too often scurries past rather than observing, for a moment, and perhaps acknowledging that, if we are deserving of conviviality and gaety and levity and simple companionship, then they surely are too. The waning years of human life should not label the bearer untouchable and past your sell-by date and fit to be cast into a metaphoric bin as though your odour is no longer tolerable.
I was motivated to share this moment by the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge labelled ‘Silence’ and as ever you can view, if you feel disposed to, the far more meritorious entries to the gallery here.
The picture was taken in Massachusetts in February 2016. Of course the United States has seen far more than it’s share of snow this winter season and the fat lady is not ready for the final song yet. I imagine, amongst all the chaos and hardship such weather induces, there has been that sense of muffled stillness that snow produces. That softly muted quiet that I love. Because silence can certainly be golden. It can also be heartbreakingly heavy.
PS: The title is taken from C S Lewis that wisest, gentlest most considered of scolars. He said ‘I have learned now that while those that speak out about their misery usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more’ … I recommend to everyone that, apart from the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, you should read his work more widely and that his letters, published in several volumes to the many he corresponded with contain much wisdom, whatever your beliefs or views on faith and spirituality. That aside, I did, of course that morning in the woods, feel that I had stepped into the kingdom of Narnia.
There is a second part to my Christmas which I will chronicle separately in due course
And your bonus: The Tremeloes singing ‘Silence is Golden’. Although Frankie Valley and his Four Seasons recorded it first, this is the version as an English girl that I remember best.
I have a theory that we are each of us born an age which is our default real age our whole lives through. For example, I have known babies and toddlers like tiny old men and women and equally I have known consenting adults of several decades who are consistent in their infancy. My age, I am sure you are fascinated to know, is six.
At six years old I was taken on my first skiing holiday. We travelled on what used to be called ‘The Boat Train’ from London Victoria leaving at night, to Dover whence we boarded a ferry and then another train to take us across Europe.
I don’t remember much about the first train, I do remember my mother getting increasingly taut when my father refused to stop and ask directions despite having no clue where on earth he was going in a vast after dark London. I now know this is a cliché of male-female behavior but at six years old I merely thought it hugely entertaining that my mother was making hissing noises like a deflating bike tyre and gradually turning purple under her (entirely natural if you please) platinum blonde coiffeur, my father seemingly oblivious (which remained his constant default) to the combustable woman beside him. I suppose he must have found the station and parked the car and we must have taken the train to Dover but I don’t remember it at all. I remember a dead dog floating in the dock at Calais the following morning which instilled an unfair prejudice to the place that lasted over thirty years until I visited on a whim and found it to be not unpleasant at all.
We were greeted by our ‘courier‘ who was Austrian and called Ernst, had blonde hair, was very kind and thoughtful and whom I liked tremendously – in fact, if I close my eyes, I can still see him in his bright blue turtle neck which matched his eyes and jeans a shade or three darker. I imagine he was in his just-crowned twenties and so, to a six year old with an array of older male cousins, he fit nicely into a niche that I was comfortable with. For reasons I cannot discern I remained convinced that he was Norwegian for many years until, in my forties trotting out a memory or asking a vital and, til then dorment question or idly wondering if Ernst would still be waiting for me, I included this erroneous fact in my chatter and Mother corrected me. I admit to feeling momentarily crushed. I haven’t any idea why I thought he was Norwegian – I’m not even sure I really knew where Norway is. But he was so nice and smiling and friendly and he wore a large shiny badge loudly declaring the firm he worked for, all beguiling features to a six year old girl positively beyond effervescent with excitement. He ushered us onto the train and into our compartment which had, joy of joys, ‘couchettes’. This meant that at night we could turn the deep leather bench seats into bunk beds. Imagine the absolute heaven of that! I fancy we must also have slept on the ferry but sadly the shocking incident of the deceased dog at dawn eclipsed all else and I have no recollection at all of a cabin. After some while there was a mighty wheezing and blowing and the noise of metal being tapped upon metal and a scrunch and a lurch and off we groaned gradually, gradually gaining momentum. I can still remember the sound – not so much the rhythmic slide and clatter of the wheels on the rails but the chuff-puffing-puff-chuffing. Because we were being pulled by none other than a steam train.
I had only ever been conscious of one steam locomotive before (this was 1967) and that time we had been standing still and chill on the platform of our village railway station, my father, older brother, granny and I, solemly waiting with a crowd of others for Winston Churchill to pass on his final journey to burial after his funeral in London. He had died the day before my younger brother was born. I was four and even at that age I understood that this was momentous and I remember peeping through the steam and knowing the train was carrying a most important cargo and that it was extremely sad. Of course in my reality I was a very grown up six rather than the four any notional calender assumed me to be, which may account for this mature attitude to treating things with respectful gravity and deference.
This steam train, though had my now two year old brother aboard and he was extremely over-excited and equally over-tired. We were subjected to him repetitiously singing ‘I Did It My Way’ (not the whole song, just that line) having been so moved by Frank Sinatra, with whom my mother was smitten, singing on the television, at yet another final concert that wasn’t, when we were waiting in the night to get in the car and set off on our tremendous adventure. Bedtime at that age was six o’clock, except on Tuesday’s when I was allowed to watch ‘Bewitched’ meaning I retired at seven, so the fact that we were catching a night train in London meant we were up giddyingly late.
The journey passed as journeys do with cards and colouring and playing games that involved looking out of the window and spotting things to fit whatever theme my mother had invented in her desperation to keep us amused. Far too often, the bumptious brat would chime up with another chirpy chorus of ‘I Did It My Way’. At regular intervals, possibly to try and stem this vocal flow, Ernst would appear with refreshments in boxes or on trays depending on whether it was a cold or a hot repast. Having never eaten anything from a box before it was beyond exotic and things like cold chicken and salad took on a whole new allure that was positively glamourous to a six-year old. And those little packets of salt and pepper? Thrilling! I didn’t actually use them, you understand and I think I may have been thirty-five before I finally conceded that my little collection of identical squares was serving no useful purpose in my life. When they gave us warm croissants and other viennoisserie for breakfast a life-long and unquenchable obsession with pâtisserie was born.
Whenever the train stopped we were allowed to get off and walk around. I have no idea now where we stopped but it was quite often and it was quite fascinating … up until then I really had no notion that the French Miss Scrivener taught us at school was actually relevant, that people really spoke it. I had no idea that grown men might wear berets just like the one I had to wear to school. And all the while there was Ernst elegantly and seamlessly looking after us, making sure my nine-year old big brother who preferred not to be seen anywhere near his siblings didn’t wander off too far and that we were all back safely on the train in good time for the whistle to blow. I was certainly in love with him and convinced we would get married when I grew up by the time we got to what I imagine may have been Strasbourg. When it was night we slept, or tried to, with the increasingly bawdy toddler still shouting ‘I did it my way’ every time morpheous silently, smoothly snuck in with her soft arms ready for the fall. I decided that I positively did hate him and made a mental note to ask Daddy if it honestly was too late to send him back.
Eventually after what seemed like a month but was probably a day and a half, we reached Innsbruck where we had a break of some while before boarding our onward train. Looking back from the lofty position of having mothered several children, I imagine our mama must have been sleep-deprived and virtually desiccated by this point. Therefore, when she rattled into the cafeteria to extricate my father and I, he in the process of buying my first ever bar of Ritter Chocolate, a hallowed moment to be savoured, not interrupted, it is fair to say that brittle would be the word that described her mood best. She was shrill in her insistence that we were about to miss the train and dragging my older brother and carrying the tot she advanced purposefully towards it and, in fairness, it did indeed appear to be revving up for an imminent departure. My father didn’t question her (he knew his place) and we all boarded and sat neatly in rows. Even the blessèd bellowing boy was decorously calm and still. As the platform official raised his flag and puffed his whistle-blowing cheeks in readiness for the off, all hell let loose and suddenly there was the heroic Ernst banging on the window with one hand and yanking at the carriage door with the other. My mother stared at him glassily as though she had never seen him before in her life and my father didn’t notice at all. But I did notice. I noticed because, be reminded, this was my husband-to-be. I tugged coats and bounced and squeaked and eventually my parents collectively engaged their brains and peered at the apperition now almost glued to the window. He was mouthing something urgently. Father stood and pulled down the little openy bit of the window through which, if tall enough, or lifted by someone who was, you could wave to your adoring public on the platform as you departed. The now near hysterical Ernst managed to emit the word ‘Budapest’ before collapsing. My father gathered us all and shoved us through the door that had dangled Ernst, calling on all his skill as a one-time rugby player of some talent, before it slammed shut behind us, the platform official looked at this disgraceful tangle of gaping fools in disgust and blew his whistle, dropped his flag and the train departed for Hungary.
The actual train was barely a train. It was tiny and the seats were wooden slats but I was certain it had taken us to heaven. So high above the world, so clear the air, so blue the sky, so diamond sparkling the snow. Actually it took us up into the Tyrolienne Alps with which I fell in love as instantly and as deeply as I had with Ernst. The difference was that Ernst, I am ashamed to say, would be replaced many times over as my one object of undying love, but the mountains never will be. And neither will Ritter chocolate which remains a guilty pleasure to this day.
The picture was taken at Les Lacs Robert in the Alpes Belledonne, one of the three mountain ranges, two of them Alps, that surround Grenoble, where I live. We enjoy walking up there. The shot was taken in June. Today being January it is thick with snow and peppered with skiers. The Alps are relatively young mountains as you can tell from their sharp silouette, older mountains have been eroded more and are less craggy, more buxom in appearance. It was the Weekly Photo Challenge labelled ‘Weathered’ that prompted me to post the picture. The gallery is brimming with admirable entries, should you be minded to take a browse.
PS: The title comes from Jerome K Jerome, he who is best known for his wonderful ‘Three Men In A Boat’. This is taken from a short story, ‘The Passing Of The Third Floor Back’, a slightly strange and whimsy tale told with his usual acute eye for characterisation and wry humour. I recommend it if you have an idle half hour – it isn’t arduous nor long. In it, the main character, referred to throughout as ‘The Stranger’ says ‘Nothing, so it seems to me, is more beautiful than the love that has weathered the storms of life, the sweet tender blossom that flowers in the hearts of the young, that too is beautiful. The love of the young for the young, that is the beginning of life. But the love of the old for the old, that is the beginning of – of things longer’. Miss Devine responds ‘‘But are not all things beautiful?’ I find the observation of the stranger quite lovely and something one can only hope one is fortunate enough to attain.
To square the circle, when I saw that very first steam train taking the greatest of men to his final rest, I was on the station platform of the same village in which Jerome’s Three Men noted that ‘the reaches woo one for a sunny sail or for a moonlight row, and the country round about is full of beauty’. And there, I shall always be six.
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the restoration of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
It is Monday and the observant among you will note that I have missed two Monday’s in my quest to populate each start of the week day with posts about Marcolès. The gloaters will be congratulating themselves that I had entirely misjudged the calendar. In my world there are no excuses but I do allow reasons. Simply put, the first of the missed Mondays was Christmas Day and, to be entirely frank, I rather thought that you might be otherwise occupied in your own frenzy of something or other. It happens I was engaged with my own Christmas thing and if you behave reasonably decorously, I might even share the detail. I fully intended, however, to start the year with a zip bang boom and publish Part Nine on New Year’s Day. Things, however, reasons indeed can occur with quite breathtaking force and this year, last year as it is now, that is exactly what happened.
My friend John let me know. Our mutual friend, who some of you will have known as ‘Pan’ was found dead on 30th December where she had been lying for two full days with her faithful dog Stewie next to her in a motel room in Maine. I broke down in selfish, desperate, angry tears. I cannot do better than John’s tribute to her, nor the words later written by my friend Embeecee so I am not going to write a tribute to one of the smartest, sweetest, kindest, most genuine, faithful, loyal friends I will ever have. I was humbled by her lifestyle. She drove a huge truck wherein her company had modified the tractor so that she had a tiny weeny kitchen in which she created real food and she lived, when not in the cab of her lorry off-grid in the farthest reaches of Maine and was building what she dubbed her ‘She Shed’ with her own bare hands. She was nothing short of inspirational and should have been a mascot for the millennial trendies who, rightly tout all sorts of ways that we can improve the impact we have on this increasingly throttled and tattered planet of ours. The fact that her footprint or at least her tyre-tracks were mighty was a result of delivering all the stuff that those same entitled, possibly deluded but at least affecting responsible folks needed, wanted, in all weathers, in all conditions and mostly not kind, spoke volumes to me of whom she was. We can and should have feminist icons but the real heroines are just quietly getting on with what is needed and topping it off with a smile. That was Linda. So I will not write a tribute, no. Instead I dedicate not just this episode but every single one in the series past and future to the memory of a woman gone wholly too soon, who had no idea just how rare a mind she was, who was generous to beyond a fault, who was modest and self-depracating who was wise and who gently councelled me as the big sister I never had. Ridiculously and genuinely modest, she was far more concerned with the welfare of those she cared for than for herself. We met over a blackberry cream scone that she had invented. Blackberry will always be my go-to taste of all that is good in humankind hereafter. She had set herself to help with another project I have upcoming. Her reason for offering was so that my husband and I would have more time together. Selfless? She defined it. We fully intended to surpise her with a visit to Marcolès when it is finished. Her life finished too soon … sometimes I get pretty damned fed up and find it ridiculously difficult if not impossible to find the purpose in the way things are.
One of the last comments she left on this series (Part Seven actually) contained the words ‘you know your photos are art, right?’ They actually aren’t – I come from the little lauded myopic point and shoot school of photography. But. She had an idea that I could produce a book of my pictures and words which the tourist industry of Cantal could use to promote the area. There she was again – always thinking of the other person, people, never considering herself. So I think that a walk round the village and it’s surrounds is the best homage I could pay to her memory.
Here is Linda’s Marcolèsian walk crafted with great love and an aching heart. There are no pictures of our house and there is no commentary – you can make it up yourself as she would have, rather let’s just stroll the place that she would have seen when she graced Marcolès with her extraordinarily unassuming presence.
PS – because there is always a PS and Linda would be disappinted if I omitted it …. the title is from a song. A song that was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for their œuvre ‘Carousel’. But the relevance is that Gerry and The Pacemakers recorded ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in the early sixties. Gerry and his P’s were from Liverpool, the song became the anthem of Liverpool through thick and thin – it is sung jubilantly at football matches and desperately in times of strife. HB² (my husband) is Scouse (from Liverpool) and Linda, a woman who researched and upturned every fact that she could about just about anything, was delighted that he came from the land of the Merseybeat. She got to know what he does for a living through our friendship and her own independent research and was questioning of articles she found in the press as a result. That was the way she was. Intelligent and inquiring, she instinctively researched and in fact held many theories that my husband adheres to. She would tell you she was not particularly bright. I would argue she was among the most brilliant stars that have graced my galaxy. And that of my fêted husband. And, here’s the thing, he agrees. This song, written to illustrate the moment of moving on from this earth to another place seems highly appropriate. Walk on, Linda, walk on, with hope in your heart – I know I will never walk alone because you were, and are my friend, my true true friend.
The featured image for this post, was her favourite of all I ever posted about this place that would have adored her and I wish she was here to make it so.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
When you walk through a storm Hold your head up high And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm Is a golden sky And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind Walk on through the rain Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on walk on with hope in your heart And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Walk on walk on with hope in your heart And you’ll never walk alone